THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Nancy Ann Hewitt
“I went to college in fall of 1969 and within the first six weeks, I had converted to feminism and anti-war activism.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, March 2022
NH: My name is Nancy Ann Hewitt. I was born in Rochester, New York, on February 12, 1951. Thanks so much for including me in this incredible project.
JW: Tell us about your childhood and what kinds of influences led you to become the person you are.
NH: It’s been interesting thinking about this since we talked about doing this interview. It makes you think of all kinds of things that might have influenced you. I grew up in really small towns west of Rochester and attended public school in Spencerport, a town of 3000 people west of the city. My mother’s parents had immigrated from Hungary in the early 1900’s and met and married in Rochester and then bought a farm in Middleport, New York, about 45 minutes away from where my family lived.
My Hungarian grandparents were very committed to education. My grandfather was a cabinet maker, and my grandmother ran the farm while he worked at various companies doing cabinet making and then on the farm doing the heavy work. My grandparents assumed that their one son would join in the business and the farm, and that their three daughters, including my mother, would all go to college to get teacher certification. The idea was that they’d be able to support themselves should they need to do so, which was surprising for the time. I discovered later in life that that was not the usual pattern, for immigrant families or many long-settled families.
My father’s family were downwardly mobile landowners. My father came from English and German ancestry; all of his relatives were in the US by the 1840’s. His great grandfather had been a Lutheran minister, but that was the last time his family owned any property. And by the time he was born, his father was a tenant farmer moving from farm to farm around Western New York.
My father lived in twelve places during his twelve years in public school, and sometimes he went to more than one school in the same year. They lived in tenant houses without indoor toilets and sometimes with only a pump outside for water. By the time I was a child, my paternal grandparents were living in an apartment in Lockport, New York, where my grandfather worked in a factory that pulped paper. My father didn’t go to college. There was never any expectation that he would. He and my mother met when they were in high school and never dated anyone else after that. But my mother went away to college for four years, and they wrote to each other every day.
There’s this incredible trove of their letters in boxes in my parents’ basement, most of which I’ve never read. But as a good historian, I’m hoping my mother won’t burn them. She’s 95 and still going strong, but despite their very different upbringings and backgrounds, they had an oddly similar commitment to raising their own family. First of all, they moved away from both families, not far away, just 45 minutes to an hour. But everybody else lived literally next door to each other in either Lockport or Middleport, New York.
I had two older brothers, one a year older and one two years older. By then, my dad was working at Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, so we lived right outside the city. And he went to night school to get his degree and graduated with a BA in business administration when I was 13. Most of the time, while we were growing up, he was at night school. He worked full time and went to night school two days a week.
When I was in second grade, my mother went back to teaching. We spent a lot of time with Mom even then because my dad was at night school or studying for exams and then catching up on home repairs, yard work, etc when each semester ended. My mother obviously was doing double duty even more than normal because of that. But my parents were dedicated to sending all three of us to college. They also told us to choose whatever college we wanted to go to, to study whatever we wanted to study.
Also—and this seems kind of unique to me–my parents required chores of my two brothers and me but they weren’t particularly gender specific. For instance, all three of us were responsible from the time we were about 9, 10 and 11 to clean up after dinner. One would wash dishes, one would dry dishes, and one would put away everything and clean the table and that sort of thing, and we rotated those jobs every week. And we all did lawn work as well and worked in a big garden that my parents planted with corn, beans, pumpkins, raspberries, etc.
This experience was unlike that of my female cousins and girlfriends, who helped their mothers make dinner, set the table, and clean up afterwards while the men in the family watched TV or read the newspaper. That wasn’t the case with us, but I have no idea why.
My high school was really small, and it didn’t offer any Advanced Placement classes. Still, I got a good education. However, when I went to college, I realized how many courses other schools had available to them that we didn’t have in Spencerport Public School. I was always good at standardized tests, whether it was in grade school or high school or college entry exams, SATs, I always did incredibly well on those for some reason. I was a good student, but my testing capabilities were even greater than my scholarly abilities.
When I applied to college from Spencerport, I had a totally different view of the world than I would have after six weeks away from home. This was in part because, by the time I was in high school, a lot of students from Spencerport –like in many small towns–were drafted or volunteered for the Army and several were sent to Vietnam. When was a senior, I had friends who were serving in Vietnam, and they would come home half way through their tour. Some didn’t want to talk about Vietnam and all, others spoke about the war at school assemblies.
Those who just visited informally with friends discussed friends they had made among the men in their unit and the heat and humidity in Vietnam, but little about the fighting. It became clear when I was in college that they weren’t telling us much about what was really happening. Assemblies tended to provide feel-good stories about how our soldiers were helping children in Vietnam and setting up soup kitchens and delivering books and things like that, and not much about the war itself.
I went to college in fall of 1969. I was accepted by Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and decided I wanted to go there. I arrived Labor Day weekend, 1969, and within the first six weeks, I had converted to feminism and anti-war activism. So that question about “When did you become a feminist?” is easily answered for me.
JW: Obviously, Smith is a women’s college, but what was it about that experience that affected you so much?
NH: Part of it was, I’d never been in an all-female environment before. I’d also never been around so many rich urban and urbane people in my life. So many students my age had already traveled the world or had been raised in very politically-minded and politically-active families, either liberal or conservative. It was really a sophomore student, Carolee Colter, who influenced me the most. She and a couple of other Smithies who lived in the house to which I was randomly assigned were involved in anti-war and draft resistance.
There were about six of us in the house who were freshmen, and then there were sophomores, juniors, and seniors. I think it that made it a much different experience than if I’d gone someplace and lived in a freshman dorm. A few of the older students immediately invited some first-year students to go to a protest, attend a meeting, and get involved in things on campus.
They saw the Vietnam War and feminism as movements that were deeply connected. They also taught me about the history of the Vietnam War and US imperialism in an extracurricular way. But I was also taking a US history survey course at the time, taught by Professor Allen Weinstein, who was then a very progressive historian. (He later became a neoconservative.)
I loved his history course, and I thought I knew the subject well. But of course, what I had learned about slavery in public school was completely different than what I learned about in Allen Weinstein’s course. This was true for early American wars, Native American lives, immigrant experiences, Abraham Lincoln–there wasn’t a topic in American history that wasn’t completely transformed for me by his obviously more critical version of American history. I took the second half in the spring, which, of course, dealt with even more current events from the same critical perspective.
By the time I returned home to Spencerport for fall break, which was a four-day weekend in mid-October, a lot of the changes I was going through were intellectual and political, but they also were very visible on my body because—with the support of my new sophomore feminist friends–I had stopped curling my hair, stopped shaving my legs, only wore blue jeans and T shirts, mostly without a bra. My parents sent me off as a high school honors student and cheerleader, who had only been involved in high school politics. I came home six weeks later, a totally transformed person, and someone very sure of my new perspective on the past and the present.
They were pretty shocked, but not completely so because my brothers had gone to college one year and two years ahead of me. Although they had gotten involved tangentially in the anti-war movement and came home with beards and long hair, it didn’t transform them in the same way or as quickly. And activism didn’t become the main focus of their lives.
My brother, Tom, who was at Bucknell, was in a fraternity and was active in a lot of things on campus. But the draft was looming when he graduated so, of course, he thought about the war and opposed it. And my brother Will, who was just a year ahead of me, wouldn’t get involved in the anti-war movement until he dropped out of the engineering college he went to first and transferred to the University of Buffalo. So he and I were getting introduced to these radical movements at about the same time.
Over the rest of that academic year and through 1970-71, I took more history courses and attended workshops on draft counseling at a Northampton Church. I attended rallies in New Haven during the trial of the Black Panthers there. There was a huge protest at Smith in the spring of 1971 when President Nixon visited to see his daughter Julie, who was a senior when I was a freshman at Smith. And that brought protesters from all five-area colleges.
The only organization I belonged to at the time was UNDO, which if remember right stood for United National Draft Opposition, or something like that. The local group I joined attracted mainly feminist anti-war activists and we traveled to various campuses, including men’s colleges around New England, doing draft counseling and going to protests.
JW: What made your feminist group different from others?
NH: I’m not sure how different it was from others, except in the sense that it was very Smith focused. It was the radical feminist students at Smith. We did a few things with the other five colleges, but it really was this tight knit group of about 20 young women who were freshmen, sophomores, and juniors at Smith. And we linked up with other groups at protests or to go to New Haven for the Black Panthers trial or other events in New England.
But it wasn’t like there was a Smith radical feminist coalition. It was more amorphous. The group held together because of these tight friendships among the activists who were a year or two ahead of me, who I then met and became part of that group. But we never belonged to a feminist organization. Instead there were small, usually tight community groups in Western Massachusetts, especially the Five College area, that aligned with other groups for particular issues or events. But we didn’t have a structure. There wasn’t a chair.
JW: But you identified yourselves as the radical feminist group?
NH: Yes, as a feminist group on campus and definitely a radical feminist group. When I went back to Spencerport for the summer, of course, there was no such group. I stayed in touch with my Smith friends by writing letters and making phone calls. It wasn’t like now where you could have Zoom meetings or communicate on Face Time.
In the fall of 1970, when I returned to Smith, anti-war political candidate Allard Lowenstein came to speak to the Five Colleges. After that, a couple of busloads of students from the area went to campaign for his re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives from Nassau County, NY (on Long Island). I went door to door with another white student handing out literature and answering questions. I was terrible at it. I’m sure I didn’t gain him a single vote.
The other student was from Holyoke, I think, and we just met on the bus and were then sent off to this mostly black neighborhood to campaign for Allard Lowenstein. I knew nothing about what Blacks in New York City were concerned about politically. I knew about Blacks being overrepresented in the army in Vietnam. And of course, I knew about the civil rights movement. But I had no idea how to talk to strangers who were African American, 20, 30, 40 years older than I was, and explain to them why they should vote for Allard Lowenstein.
I learned far more from the experience than I contributed to the campaign. I did get to meet Bella Abzug, at a Democratic Party event that they held for the college volunteers, so that was interesting. Of course, she just shook our hands and then gave a short speech at some point. In 1972, I went door to door for George McGovern back in Western New York, but that was also pretty much a disaster. After his resounding defeat, I didn’t vote and I didn’t participate in electoral politics for another 20 years.
Those early experiences of such high hopes and then such terrible outcomes, to my mind, was horrifying. Allard Lowenstein’s district had been redistricted by the state legislature. George McGovern obviously wasn’t likely to win, but I thought he’d win more States. I didn’t think it’d be a landslide, the kind of crushing defeat that it was.
JW: He did win Massachusetts, though.
NH: Yes, exactly. Unfortunately, I was no longer living there. By that time, I had dropped out of Smith. I dropped out after the end of my sophomore year. Part of it was that the tight political group we had started breaking apart. Some people graduated, some people, including Carolee Colter, who was the mainstay, at least in my mind, of the group, left to go to University of Michigan. Other people were just taking a year off.
As important as Smith had been to me in generate my interest in activism and especially feminist activism, it didn’t seem like a place I could stay for my education. I had less idea what I wanted to do with my life by the end of my sophomore year than I did when I went there thinking I’d become a lawyer or something. My parents, of course, were absolutely shocked, and I’m sure outraged–although they didn’t voice it at the moment–because I’d given up a scholarship. I’d given up this great education. They were paying for everything beyond the scholarship.
Given their concerns and my uncertainties, I decided to apply to the University of Toronto. Smith had an exchange program with them. I thought being in Toronto would be great. There was lots of anti-war activity, lots of draft issues, and a big feminist community. So people told me. I got into University of Toronto and then realized within a week or two what a huge mistake it was because suddenly, as a transfer student, I was the last to register, and I could only get into these 500 student lecture courses.
I was thinking about being a history major at that point and the only history course I could register for, which was required for the degree, was Canadian history. It was the first half of Canadian history. Of course, I knew absolutely nothing about it and it was taught by a very dry, elderly male professor in this huge auditorium with hundreds of students. After a couple of weeks, I just never went to class, but I stayed in Toronto. I was renting an apartment with two friends, one from Smith and one from Spencerport. and had a wonderful time. We went to some protests and heard lots of wonderful folk music.
JW: I want to get to more of the feminist stuff. When did you get more active on that issue?
NH: When I had to leave Canada. My visa expired when they discovered I wasn’t going to classes, so I went back to Rochester. I started working nights at Dunkin’ Donuts. My parents threw me out of the house having paid for my education twice, and both times I threw away the opportunity. I was on my own. I moved in with a guy I was dating. I thought, okay, now I can really get involved in activism. Except, of course, I had to support myself, and I did not completely understand the implications. I had about $200 in a savings account, and that was it.
The first job I could get was a job working nights at a Dunkin’ Donuts. Of course, here I was thinking I was this radical feminist but at night in my little pink uniform, I was serving coffee to policemen and firemen and truckers. After about eight months of that, I finally got a job at Scrantom’s Book and Stationery Store, which was the biggest book and stationery store in the city. There I reconnected with the Rochester feminist movement through another store clerk, Debbie Drechsler, who was an art student who had also dropped out of college.
Debbie was involved with the group that founded the New Women’s Times, which was one of dozens of local community feminist newspapers in the 1970s. I got involved just after the first issue came out. The people who actually organized it were mostly radical feminists, including several lesbians and were deeply concerned about issues of sexual rights, reproductive rights, and some economic and educational issues.
That was my entrée back into feminism. Also, – within a month or two after being hired at Scrantom’s and joining the New Women’s Times, I also decided to take a college course. It was offered by an extension service that State University of New York at Brockport had developed. The course being taught that semester—in a church basement near Scrantom’s–was Histories, Outcasts, Women, Children and Criminals. It was a terrific course. Robert Smith, who taught the course, was a French historian, and he helped me get my Regents’ scholarship back and helped me get into Brockport full time. That was my first women’s history course, taught by a man, and it put me on a whole new trajectory.
Of course, at the time, I had little time or energy for activism. I was going to school full time at Brockport, mostly nights, and working full time in the day and writing articles and reviews now and then for New Women’s Times. And I thought, maybe I can still juggle activism and education and somehow find a way to support myself. Luckily for me, SUNY Brockport had just started a women’s studies program and had two history faculty—Robert Smith and Susan Stuard–studying and teaching about women.
So I shifted gears and decided, okay, I was going to put my efforts into getting a degree in history with a minor in women’s studies. I didn’t know where that would take me, but I assumed it would take me to some feminist career, so that I wouldn’t be making money doing one thing and trying to do politics on the side.
JW: What were the main feminist issues you were concerned about at the time?
NH: What was interesting is that I never had a single issue that was uppermost in my mind or that would lead me to join this group instead of that group. I certainly was involved in protests for abortion rights, and I went to abortion clinics and stood outside helping to make sure that people could get in safely and things like that. I thought that was important, but for some reason it didn’t make me want to devote all my time to that one issue. At the same time, I wasn’t a big fan of the Equal Rights Amendment, which was increasingly the focus of many national feminist groups.
JW: Why is that?
NH: I didn’t think this way initially about the ERA, but as the effort to get it ratified expanded and as the National Organization for Women devoted more and more of their time and effort to that cause, I felt like an incredible amount of time and money and political energy was getting sucked out of more local issues and more community-based movements to focus on this amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And having studied US history, I knew that many amendments took years to get ratified and many then took more years to have a practical effect on individuals’ lives. So we would put aside local issues and grassroots efforts to focus on a long-term goal that might or might not make a significant impact on the lives of working-class or poor women.
Also, my disaffection from mainstream politics meant that I didn’t trust either the Democratic or the Republican Party, even though at that point they were both supportive of the ERA to some extent. I just didn’t see anything that came through the mainstream political system as being able to break the barriers that were holding women back, which seemed to me to be about economic issues, sexual abuse, the inability to control one’s reproductive choices, especially if you were poor or from a community of color.
Although I didn’t think that deeply about race at the time and hadn’t been introduced that much to racial issues, except the successes but also the splits in the civil rights and Black Power movements. But I had almost no personal relationships with Black women or Black feminists. I felt left out in terms of organizations I could join that would focus on a range of issues, but not the ERA. So in summer 1974, I graduated with a history degree and the first women’s studies certificate from SUNY Brockport and then headed west to work as an intern at the Women’s Herstory Archives in Berkeley, California, under Laura X.
That was my next big adventure in feminism. I have to say I learned many lessons that late summer and fall, but none of them had to do with what we were supposedly going there to learn, which was about creating women’s archives and community centers. Because the real work of the interns at the Women’s Herstory Archives was to microfilm feminist newspapers, literally.
We spent long days cutting out pages from feminist newspapers, putting them on white sheets of paper, and then they would be sent off to get microfilmed. I met amazing feminists in Berkeley in that project. But we were all frustrated because we weren’t actually learning anything effective in terms of feminist organizing and we weren’t getting paid.
JW: That was going to be my next question.
NH: We were supposed to get some minimal salary. That never happened. There was some big NEH grant. We were all coming from undergraduate institutions, mostly from the East Coast. We had no idea what the National Endowment for the Humanities was or that maybe we should call someone and tell them that housing stipends and minimum wages were not being paid, and we weren’t really doing what the grant said we were going to be doing. But we didn’t do that. Instead, we tried to organize ourselves into a little union and make demands.
Of course, it turned out none of us were very astute about how to actually do this, given the power differentials and the fact that most of us were from the East Coast and didn’t have any base of support. We barely knew people in Berkeley outside our circle. We told Laura X we wanted to meet with her, and she said she would meet with a representative from the group. We drew straws and I got the short straw so was sent in to explain our demands.
Of course, afterwards, it was clear that was a huge mistake. But I explained our concerns and what we wanted, including some kind of wage and some housing stipend. And Laura X fired me. It turns out you can be fired from a job that pays nothing. She also trespassed me from the building and then gave the other interns a dollar an hour wage, no housing stipend, but a dollar an hour wage.
So, of course, that night there was this emergency meeting at one of our apartments. Some said they should all quit and not accept the offer because obviously this was not what we wanted. But I and a couple of others said that was crazy because the work was important and most could live with the compromise. I’d certainly learned a valuable lesson about organizing. But it also taught me that, probably in all social movements, including the feminist movement, somebody can say they are a feminist or an antiwar activist, etc but that didn’t mean they shared your values.
Laura X’s priority was getting this women’s herstory project done and whatever it took to get it done was worth it. She thought we were all benefiting just by being there and being involved in the project and if we didn’t appreciate it, she’d find other young women, other young feminists, to come and work.
Fortunately, at that point I found another job, at a book and stationary store that paid a great salary for the time. So I stayed in Berkeley and stayed engaged in feminist activities and protests in the Bay area, which could be a full time job in itself. But of course, then I had a full-time job again and feminism was still a side line.
At that point, I decided to take the GREs at Berkeley and apply to graduate school. My undergraduate advisors had suggested I do this, but I didn’t know anything about being a professor, how you became one, whatever. But I thought, okay, my skills as an grassroots organizer are not great. I’m disaffected with mainstream politics and with the mainstream feminist organizations. So maybe I should try to study and teach women’s history.
I took the GREs in Berkeley in fall 1974. I figured my only hope of getting accepted into a into a PhD program, given that I had a BA from SUNY Brockport, was acing the GREs. I applied in Women’s History to Berkeley, to a new American Studies program at Harvard that had a women’s historian heading it, and to Penn, because one of the people at the Women’s Herstory project with me was Valerie Jaworski, who was taking a year off from Penn to work at the Women’s Herstory Archives. She had taken a women’s history course with Carol Smith Rosenberg and said, “Oh, you should apply to Penn because they have this woman’s historian.” So, I did.
The only place that accepted me was Penn, and they gave me a half scholarship. I decided that was just fine. I took it. I moved to Philadelphia. I can’t say that moving to Philadelphia provided me any more time for feminist activism or activism of any kind. But the Vietnam War was finally winding down, and I was once again part of a very progressive community, this time of grad students. And surprisingly there were several in my year and the next year that got into Penn from mid-level state universities.
I’m not sure what the committee was thinking when they accepted this cohort of students. There still weren’t many women in history grad programs, even in a place that had a women’s historian, but there were just enough at Penn to feel comfortable, and the number was growing. There were also a handful of tenured or almost-tenured women faculty, which was great and unusual, I think, for Ivy League schools at the time.
I started at Penn in fall 1975 and got my PhD in summer of 1981. At that point, 12% of PhDs in history were going to women. Of course, only a small portion of those were women’s historians. So the profession was largely male, and conferences and other events made that clear. The majority of grad students were still men, at least three quarters at Penn.
But in my community of grad students– mostly in history, but a few from other departments on campus—everyone had been involved in anti-war, labor, and/or feminist movements. We all came from different places, but we were all interested in leftist politics and reimagining of American history, believing that if we wrote and taught American history the way we understood it, we could change people’s lives. Some of our cohort and some of our best students went on to make documentary films and work in public history or national parks while most of us went on to jobs in colleges and universities.
The group that brought progressive scholars together in the Philadelphia/ NJ/NYC region was the Mid-Atlantic Radical Historians Organization, or MARHO. The group hosted speakers and conferences; notified us of events in the area; and staffed information tables at the major history conferences.
One of the biggest political issues in Philadelphia specifically was police violence and corruption in the 1970s and 1980s. That’s where I first encountered issues of racism in a shocking and transformative way. I lived just a few blocks from the MOVE house that was bulldozed by the police. After I left in summer 1981 to take my first job at University of South Florida, another MOVE house in the West Philly neighborhood where I lived was bombed while families with children were still in the home. There were many more pedestrian forms of police brutality that occurred every day in Philly.
Doing graduate work at Penn created this oddly fractured life. I loved the research and writing and teaching I did in American and women’s history. It was exciting to be part of a group of feminist grad students and a small number of feminist faculty who were engaged with a range of issues in Philadelphia. But beyond my courses, research and teaching, I gained a powerful education around issues of race and policing because I lived in Philadelphia.
I had never done any activism alongside or allied with African American activists despite attending a Black Power protest in New Haven, Connecticut years before. This was a whole new world that was deeply troubling but also fascinating in the ways it reshaped the ways I thought about political issues more generally. But I was in the background on these issues. When I spoke up at MARHO or among graduate students or in departmental meetings, it was almost always about women’s issues, which I still often treated as generic to all women.
Although most of the male graduate students I befriended as well as those in MARHO were progressive when it came to women’s issues, the gender dynamics did not always change significantly. Indeed, with rare exceptions, the most politically active men were most likely to speak first and longest and to assume that the women involved were experts on women’s issues but not necessarily on other topics.
JW: Like what? Do you have one example?
NH: I remember in MARHO, there was definitely this kind of male leftist posturing around Marxism and who had the right interpretation of some male political text. Even if the discussions was around leftist historians like EP Thompson or Christopher Hill, race was likely to be raised as an issue central to understanding class relations in the U.S., but gender was rarely given the same status. Susan Porter Benson, who I met through MARHO, was one of the few members who regularly raised these issues and gave me the courage to speak up more often as well. And there were a few good men—Roy Rosenzweig and Andrew Feffer among them—who also addressed gender issues without being prompted.
And every now and then the women in MARHO or in the graduate community would have to have our own little meeting, come up with a strategy and then go back to the group. MARHO members were talking about writing collectively a popular history book, similar to Howard Zinn’s popular history of the US but more academic. We knew we wouldn’t reach the vast popular audience that Zinn did, but we wanted a book we could use in a U.S. history survey course, one that would thereby reach lots of people and which those of us who were Americanist historians could all teach eventually.
It took several years, but eventually Who Built America was published as an American history textbook developed and written by MARHO members. Susan Porter Benson worked on the first edition and did her best to incorporate women into the narrative. Most of the male authors were supportive of her integrating women’s history into the text, but few changed their own male-dominant narratives.
One author wrote long sections on labor unions and labor organizing without ever including the early women’s unions. So there was this sense then that unless women’s historians did the work of integrating information and arguments from our field into Who Built America, it wouldn’t get done. It felt like one of those cases where women’s issues and gender issues were simply not granted the significance that class and race received.
Sometimes, it made me crazy to be involved in leftist history or activist projects in the 1970s and early 1980s because you had to keep making the same point over and over again about integrating women and gender into larger narratives or into political priorities. At the same time, women’s history was taking off as a field.
By the mid-1980s, it was exploding. There were all these exciting conferences, like the one on women’s history sponsored by the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. I went to my first one in summer 1978 when I was just starting my dissertation. It was held at Bryn Mawr College so a lot of us went out from Penn.
It was a life-shaping experience. I was introduced to this whole world of people, the vast majority of whom I agreed with on at least some issues, and you didn’t have to argue for the significance of your field and the importance of what you were writing. It was also a place where I could make and meet friends who were in other graduate programs or teaching at places scattered across the country.
We all went to the Berkshire Conference, which met every 2 years in those years. I met people like Leila Rupp and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and other historians whose work would influence mine. I also got to see different ways of being an activist scholar and of making your voice heard even if you weren’t the most outspoken person normally. That was really crucial because my advisor at Penn, Carroll Smith- Rosenberg, was on leave the first three and a half years (out of six) that I was at Penn.
I took one summer course with her. She was away from Philadelphia when she was on leave. She and Charles Rosenberg had gotten divorced the month that I arrived at Penn, and I think Penn was hoping she would be hired away while on leave. Charles was a major medical historian, and Penn wanted him so hired her as well. But the majority of the faculty seemed to assume that when they got divorced, she would leave. So, I come in. I’m her student. She’s not there. It’s like this huge issue in the Department, but no one really talked about it to the graduate students. And because women’s history was a growing field, more women’s history graduate students arrived each year.
Prof. Smith-Rosenberg had her own issues as well. She wasn’t really that supportive of me as a grad student. I didn’t understand that at the time, and I felt abandoned. But then I met all these other women’s historians and feminist historians through MARHA or at conferences, and I felt like, okay, I can make my way through this. Other historians in the Department were also very supportive. They realized that I had somehow gotten stuck in this weird moment and tried to be supportive, especially the department chair Richard Dunn and the British/European women’s historian Lynn Lees, and I did manage to get through.
I decided to write about the history of women’s activism in the 19th century because of the issues I saw in my own experience as a feminist. The histories of women’s activism that had been written at that point focused mostly on women creating charitable societies to care for orphans and the poor and then into movements for moral reform and temperance.
Although far fewer women joined movements for abolition and women’s rights, the development of those movements was seen as part of a linear progression from charitable societies to women’s rights. My experience in the women’s movement suggested that feminists were often at odds with more moderate women activists as well as divided among themselves. And obviously, there were also anti-feminists in both the nineteenth century and later. That was a whole different story.
There were so many differences and fractures and debates and explosions and crises within the contemporary feminist movement and between feminists and non-feminists that it seemed unlikely there were not similar divisions in earlier periods. It didn’t seem possible that all the female abolitionists and women’s rights advocates got along in the 19th century and also emerged out of movements with such different politics as charitable work and moral reform. So, I researched women’s activism in nineteenth-century Rochester, New York; and I found competing networks of activists with diverse views and priorities that led periodically to confrontations over the best means to improve women’s lives.
I felt that my strongest contribution to contemporary feminist movements was to do this kind of work—exploring conflicts among women activists and feminist activists as well as those moments when women made common cause around a particular issue. Other women’s history and women’s studies scholars were also beginning to focus on differences among women, particularly in terms of race, class, and ethnicity.
I continued to analyze these issues via community-based studies because I felt like there were already lots of people thinking about doing histories of national figures and national organizations and national movements, such as suffrage. I wanted to look at what was going on underneath that national layer to see how women activists emerged in local communities, shaped as much by class, race and religion as by gender, and then how those local movements helped shape national movements and leaders. As Ella Baker said, “Martin Luther King didn’t make the movement. The movement made Martin Luther King.”
That is what I want to uncover for the feminist and other women’s movements in the 19th and early 20th century. Who was it that created the possibility that you could have a nation-wide suffrage movement with national leaders? I spent much of my career working on and in Rochester, New York, where I’d grown up, because it was the home of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas. It seemed like there must be stories there to tell about “local people,” as John Dittmer called them in his marvelous study of civil rights activism in Mississippi.
Fortunately, when I got my first job at the University of South Florida(USF) in Tampa, I became intrigued by the complicated history of a city in which Anglo-Americans settled alongside African Americans in an area that soon attracted Italian, Cuban and Spanish immigrants. Thus, my second book focused on Anglo, Black and Latin (Cuban and Italian) women’s organizing in Tampa from the 1880’s to the 1920’s.
At USF, I also became increasingly involved in feminist issues at the college and university level. Even before I was tenured (in 1985), I served on a university-wide committee that wrote the first sexual harassment guidelines at USF. I also worked with other committee members to publicize the guidelines to every department in the university and to organize assemblies for students to inform them about sexual harassment and how to fight it.
I was also part of a group, called The Coalition, whose members—faculty from various departments and programs with progressive political views—organized on campus lectures, movies, outside speakers, and theatre productions that addressed critical contemporary issues. Each year we had one major event—related to nuclear war, US policies in Latin America, South African apartheid—that always included speakers, films or theater productions that engaged issues of gender as well as race, politics, etc. The Coalition was also active in campus protests, against the first Iraq war and divestment from South Africa, in which we worked alongside student groups to create change on campus.
Of course, as an untenured faculty member, I also had to focus on turning my dissertation into a book and starting my research on Tampa, I published a couple of articles on the history of women’s history and the transformations that were occurring race and class were incorporated into the field alongside race and class gender. A few early women’s historians, most notably Gerda Lerner and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, were pushing historians in this direction.
By the 1980s, those pioneers and larger developments in the field created dramatic shifts that were fueled in part by the fact that younger cohorts of women’s historians included a growing (if still small) number of Black and Latina scholars, who more often highlighted conflict and contention among women as well as the distinct ways that women from different racial, ethnic and class backgrounds envisioned and enacted their activism.
It was in this environment that I published an article, “Beyond the Search for Sisterhood: American Women’s History in the 1980s,” for the British journal Social History. I have been invited to write the piece by the journal’s editors, and it was one of the hardest pieces I ever wrote, and rewrote and rewrote. But it was also one of the most important because it—along with other critical articles in the mid-to late-1980s—highlighted and helped to solidify the shift in focus among women’s historians toward a vision of the field that demanded attention to the ways that race, class, ethnicity, religion, and region shaped the experiences of women and ideas about gender in every place and period of history.
In the 2000s, similar concerns related to the history of feminism led me to edit a volume, No Permanent Waves, and write an article for Feminist Studies critiquing the oceanic wave metaphor. That metaphor had long used by activists and scholars to categorize distinct generations of feminists. I argued that despite this image, the so-called first, second and third waves were incredibly complex phenomenon with activists disagreeing about major issues, including priorities, tactics and strategies. It was also clear by 2000 that feminism continued to thrive in between the “recognized” waves. I argued that the concept of radio waves, which were multiple and overlapping, offered a more powerful analogy than oceanic waves, which suggested that one iteration of feminism wiped out the previous iteration.
It is funny when I think about the question you asked regarding what happened after the second wave because most of my important contributions were inspired by but came after the second wave. It was really my first year at USF in 1981-1982 where there was a real break between earlier forms of activism in which I engaged and my struggle to find a way to be a feminist activist that fit with my skills and my personality. I found that way through being a women’s history. Once I got to USF and started my professional career, I made my most important contributions through teaching, through scholarship and through university service.
In the 1980s and 1990s, I participated in dozens of workshops on curriculum integration, first for college teachers in various parts of the country, and then for high school and middle school teachers. I offered teaching workshops pretty much my entire career. At USF from 1981 to 1992, at Duke for the next six years, and after moving to Rutgers from 1998-2013, I continued to be active in workshops for teachers as well as working periodically with public history sites.
I also continued to work on sexual harassment issues, chairing Duke’s university committee that dealt with sexual harassment cases. Those cases were almost always complex and often messy, and I often felt that people on all sides ended up at best partially satisfied with the outcome. Still, it was worth the effort since the only alternative for most complainants was hiring a lawyer and dealing with the issue in court. And that option was not open to many students or clerical or other staff at the university who did not have enough money to take that route.
Fortunately, there were other more enjoyable tasks in my career. You asked earlier about memorable moments, one of the first and most unexpected invitations arrived my first spring at the University of South Florida. I got a call from the National Park Service asking me to be the assistant historian for the opening of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls that summer. The head historian was Judy Wellman, who I knew from our common interest in women’s activism in western and central New York.
The two of us spent the summer of 1982 developing the first tours, creating the first exhibits, and writing the scripts for people who would be giving tours after that summer, not all of whom would be historians. The NPS should have really hired one museum person and one historian, but it forced Judy and me to think deeply and strategically about how to present historical scholarship to the general public. That summer got me interested in public history work.
I had the chance to work on a few other projects while I was still teaching but it was really in retirement, after I joined the National Collaborative for Women’s History sites in 2016, I think, that I engaged with other historians, including those whose career focused on historic sites and national parks as well as academic historians. The NCWHS developed a range of projects, two of which I was deeply involved with for several years.
The first is a Toolkit for staff at historical sites seeking to integrate the diverse stories of women and girls into their exhibits and tours. The second is National Votes for Women Trail project. It provided 5-14 historical markers for suffrage sites in each state and included working-class and immigrant women and women of color as well as more affluent white women. I was involved with the NVWT in Florida, where I had moved in 2018. I worked with the Florida director for the project, Killian O’Donnell, and once again with Judy Wellman, who was one of the NCWHS leaders for the project, to highlight the work of Black and white suffragists across the state.
My work for the NCWHS and every aspect of my scholarship and teaching was transformed late in my career by my participation in a Ford Foundation funded project on women of color and work. Professor Sharon Harley at the University of Maryland was the project director, and she invited me to join the group. I was researching Tampa women activists at the time, including Italian and Cuban women cigar workers as well as African American and Anglo women activists from the 1880s to the 1930s.
When I attended the first meeting at the University of Maryland, it turned out I was the only colorless woman in the project. The other participants included Asian American, Native American, African American, Chicano, and Latina scholars. It was an amazing group of women from a variety of disciplines, fields and specialties; and we met 2 or 3 times a year to discuss various aspects of the project and develop scholarly articles that would capture the themes we discussed. Prof. Harley also organized several public events at which we talked about our research and its relation to contemporary issues.
Having been fortunate to become friends with a number of African American and Chicana historians early in my career and then serving on dissertation committees in African American and Latin American as well as women’s history, I had learned a lot about engaging these issues in my own work. The experience of being part of the Women of Color and Work group ensured my engagement in even more intense discussions and debates about race, ethnicity, gender and labor as well as the informal conversations that took place over meals and in the evenings.
From 2000 to 2004, we met two or three times a year for long weekends. At the end, we all went to the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy, for a week, which was also an amazing experience intellectually and great fun as well. Throughout my career, I had thought and written about race, class and gender among women activists, but my views and perspectives were expanded and deepened by my time with the Women of Color and Work project.
There were plenty of debates and arguments among the women of color in the group. Initially I was nervous about joining in because who was I to state an opinion about issues that I studied but did not experience as the same way as the other women in the group? But eventually, the other members of the project seemed to ignore the fact that I wasn’t a woman of color and engaged issues in ways that would not have happened in a predominantly white group of scholars. I also got to understand a bit more about what it was like to be the outsider, the lone or rare voice of a minority. But I was in that situation in a group that was incredibly welcoming. So, of course, it wasn’t really the same.
That experience made me even more insistent that any white graduate student who wanted to write on issues of race, and there were many by the 2000s, needed to include scholars of color on their committee. It also changed the last books and articles that I wrote and edited. They were deeply informed by the new ways I thought about race and allowed me to explore more fully issues that I had once shied away from for fear of getting an interpretation wrong or missing some important perspective.
Now I realized that I had as much responsibility as anyone to address issues of race in my scholarship as I had long done in my teaching. The effects on my second monograph, Southern Discomfort: Women’s Activism in Tampa, Florida (2001) and my final book, Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and Her Activist Worlds (2018), were profound.
JW: At one point, when you left Smith or your job at Dunkin’ Donuts and so forth, you were on your own. Obviously, there was somewhat of a break with your parents. Did you come back around to each other?
NH: The crazy thing was that to solve the immediate problem, which was them disowning me, Jack Pease and I decided to get married in April 1972. I also realized as I struggled to understand why my parents had thrown me out that, for my mother in particular, a lot of her anxiety, was her fear that I was going to move in with this guy, get pregnant, never finish college, never use my potential. etc. I had told her and Dad that I was on the pill, but that only made her more upset at the time. They didn’t know because I went to Planned Parenthood, not to my family doctor who lived across the street from my parents.
All these changes in my life seemed to occurring at once because I hadn’t been totally honest with them about what was going on in my life. It definitely overwhelmed them. My father was angry about the money they’d spent on college, and which he now considered wasted. But it was clear to me from my brothers that if Jack and I got married, I would be re-accepted into the family. So we did get married. And it was, of course, a very poor reason to get married. We had a good marriage for a few years, but then when I finished my undergrad degree at SUNY Brockport and decided to go to graduate school, our paths diverged too much to bridge.
He didn’t want to move to Philly. He had all his friends and family in Rochester. I said commuting back and forth from Philly to Rochester was never going to work. We ended up getting divorced during my second year in graduate school. I think my parents then felt guilty to some extent because they had pushed me into marrying this guy that I otherwise would have probably have lived with for a couple of years and then broken up and moved on with my life.
So slowly we reconnected. And then my dad got Alzheimer’s in his mid to late 60s. He died in 2005. But my mother’s still alive and we’re on great terms. We see each other a lot. We talk on the phone every week.
JW: I assume she’s very proud of you.
NH: Yes, exactly. It helped enormously when I not only went back to school, got my PhD, became a historian, and got a real job. And then I started publishing articles and a book on Rochester where my family had many connections. So, yes, it did all work out, but it was a tough road. My husband Steven is amazed that my parents and I never really had one of those sit-down discussions like, why did this happen? And how can we just start acting as though we were a family again? Eventually it just worked itself out.
JW: As we conclude, is there anything you’d like to add?
NH: I meant to respond earlier to your question about what I’m doing now that I’ve have retired. Beginning around 2010, my husband and I began writing an American history textbook so we could integrate the kind of work we did—Steven on civil rights and black politics and me on women’s activism and issues of race, class and gender–into a textbook that would hopefully be read by thousands of undergraduates. We just finished the fourth edition of Exploring American Histories, which appeared in 2021. I’ve also been involved with the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites, which I discussed earlier.
I also wanted to mention one other aspect of my career that rarely gets much attention in one’s scholarly career, but for me was directly related to my efforts to make women’s history, women’s studies and women’s activism integral to higher education. I served on numerous editorial boards over my career as well as on dozens of master’s thesis and dissertation committees. One of the earliest and most important of those experiences was on the editorial board of Feminist Studies. The groundbreaking journal appeared in the early 1970s and published critical articles on wide-ranging issues from scholars, writers, and artists across disciplines and regions of the world. I was invited to join the collective in 1996 and served until 2004.
Claire Moses, the founding editor, led the board, which was organized as a collective. Articles were read by more than one editor, the entire board met at Claire’s home in Maryland twice a year to discuss the scholarly articles and decide which should be accepted, revised, or rejected, and to decide what books to review, what artists and writers to include in each issue. The board was interdisciplinary and also diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, gender identities, and scholarly fields.
There were also several editors from western colleges and universities when I was in the collective, which really shaped the conversations around race and ethnicity in new and exciting ways. One of my last edited collections, No Permanent Waves, included several articles from Feminist Studies as well as original pieces written for the Institute for Research on Women that I directed in the early 2000s. I had been fortunate to publish both my first peer reviewed article in Feminist Studies in 1986 and one of my last in 2012.
I served as well on the editorial boards of the Journal of American History, Gender & History, the University of Illinois Press, Duke University Press, and Rutgers University Press, all with the aim of expanding attention to women’s and gender history and women’s and gender studies. I read dozens and dozens of article and book manuscripts over the course of my career, for these editorial boards and for other journals and university presses that requested my help. It is time-consuming work that is done most often without payment or only a small honorarium. But it is enormously rewarding in helping junior scholars in particular get their early work published, and it is wonderful to get a sneak preview of some of the best work that is forthcoming on women and gender.
From 1987, when I helped to found Gender & History, until this year, I spent a good deal of time evaluating such manuscripts. It is apparently a task that fewer and fewer scholars want to do since I am still being asked to review work that normally would be reviewed by someone still teaching. I have turned down more manuscripts the last couple of years because I don’t keep up with as many fields as I used to do. To me, this work was a crucial part of being a feminist academic. It ensured that work in the field was taken seriously, that new journals devoted to women’s and gender studies could thrive, and that the growing racial and gender diversity of the academy would be represented in scholarly books and articles.
JW: This has been fabulous, Nancy.
NH: Judy, thank you so much.