Nancy Rosenstock

“To a new generation of women who are coming forward, I salute you. I can’t wait to have you join the fight.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, April 2023

NR:  My name is Nancy Rosenstock. I currently live in Chicago, but I was born in New York City in April 1949.

JW:  Great. So, tell us a little about your childhood, let’s say maybe your ethnic background, siblings. What do you think are influences that led you to your path in life?

NR:  I was born in New York City, like I said, but I grew up in the suburbs of New York City in Westchester County to an upper middle class Jewish liberal family. My mother was a housewife. My father worked in the textile industry in New York City, commuted every day on the train. I had a very typical upbringing of a liberal Jewish family. The goal my parents had set for me was to get through high school, go to college, graduate, marry, hopefully a nice Jewish doctor, have a couple of kids, live in the suburbs.

That’s not how it worked out, however. I had one sister, she passed away a while ago from cancer, but she led the more traditional life than I did. She got married when she was 19 and never finished college. She was older than me, so there was a little more pressure on me. The things that started to open up my eyes to the world around me were, a couple of things.

One, was when I was in high school. I used to take the train into Manhattan, into Greenwich Village to hang out with my friends, and the train went through Harlem. And I used to think to myself, “Wow, this doesn’t seem right.” Why is there all this poverty when I came from an area that had abundance of wealth and opportunity? So, it just struck me that that wasn’t right. And then in the summer of 1968, I spent the summer in Europe.

I was in Paris following the May/June events of 1968, which was a big student/worker uprising that involved millions of people and had a huge impact on French society; kind of like a pre-revolutionary situation. I would be hanging out in the Left Bank at cafes with young French people my age, and they’d be asking me about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. And I was kind of like, “Good question,” right?

I came back, and by that time I was a sophomore at Boston University, and I started to question things. It was also a time when, this is 1968 going into 1969, we had curfews in the dorms. We had to be back; I don’t remember exactly what time. The girls of course, not the guys. We couldn’t have guys in our room. There were a lot of restrictions on women. And I thought to myself, “Well, this doesn’t seem right either.” And I started to question things.

The U.S. was heavily into Vietnam, so the first thing I did was, a bunch of the young guys were burning their draft cards outside of the chapel at Boston University, and we had what was called a “lie in.” I think that’s what we actually did call it. We laid down in the chapel, hundreds and hundreds of us, to keep them from getting arrested. And it was very, very powerful, and it had a huge impact on me.

Then I joined SDS, Students for Democratic Society, and like I’m sure others have probably told you; the men were making all the decisions. They were doing all the public speaking, and we were doing all the organizational tasks. And I thought to myself, “It doesn’t have to be like this.”

So, I started to look around, and I found the women’s liberation movement. At that time, I was very concerned about abortion. Women were dying in back alleys at the hands of butcher abortionists. Birth control was really hard to get, especially in Massachusetts where I was, and it was very concerning, obviously. So, I got involved in Female Liberation, which prior to the time that I got involved, was also known as Cell 16 and was one of the first radical feminist organizations. What attracted me at the time, was that they were actually doing something. We weren’t just talking about it.

I also helped to form one of the first consciousness raising groups at BU. A friend of mine, Ginny, who was in my class, who’s actually one of the people interviewed in the book that I’ll talk about later. We were part of a class that Howard Zinn, our professor, was the sponsor of. It was called A Radical Critique of the American Political Economy, and we formed a consciousness raising group out of that.

And like others have explained I’m sure, consciousness raising groups were a big deal back then. And it really meant a lot for us to sit around and discover that our problems were not unique to us, but were problems because of our second-class status in society. And so, the consciousness raising group was a big deal. So, when I joined Female Liberation, I was really looking for a group that was doing stuff, not just talking about it. And that’s what attracted me to the organization.

Actually, I kind of became a sort of crazy radical feminist. Two of the other women in Female Liberation and myself got an apartment in Cambridge and we didn’t allow men in our apartment for a while. I wasn’t a lesbian, but it was like we had to step back and just say, “Okay, we can’t take the power that men have over us.” And the fact that they always have to dominate and have to be the ones who are the first ones to speak and so on.

And so, we just kind of separated ourselves from that. And we were looking around for stuff to do. We actually, for a while, subscribed to the theory of the Fourth World Manifesto, which was a document that Barbara Burris wrote out of Baltimore. I think it was ’69 or ’70, that women were the Fourth World and we could make a revolution without men. But then we realized that, well, that was kind of utopian, right? And then we joined Female Liberation, and it was wonderful.

JW:  Now, this was in Boston still?

NR:  Yes. I spent four years in Boston. I graduated college in 1971 from Boston University with a BA in political science.

JW:  And this was while you were in college you were in this group, or it was after?

NR:  Yes. While I was in college. My junior and senior year.

JW:  Okay, so what were the things you did? You said they wanted to do stuff. What did they do?

NR:  Well, we did a lot of things. First of all, we had regular weekly meetings. We had an office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We put out a newsletter every week that reached 1000 people. This was before computers, so, we mimeographed, collated, stapled, put the labels on, the whole nine yards. We helped to organize one of the first conferences that took place.

It was in 1969 at Emmanuel College. It was called, The New England Regional Female Liberation Conference. It was attended by 600 people, and one of the significant things that came out of that was a workshop on women and health. Of which, the group that later became the Boston Women’s Health Collective, and put out Our Bodies, Ourselves, which has been circulated all over the world in many languages, originated.

Later, we got very involved in the abortion fight. At the time, since abortion was illegal, pre-Roe, the demands were repeal of all abortion laws. New York City had liberalized an abortion law in 1970 and we were looking to that as an example of what could possibly be done. So that’s what was raised at the time was repealing all abortion laws. No forced sterilization, because Puerto Rican women in particular were being sterilized and were being used as guinea pigs to test out birth control pills and access to contraception. I remember trying to get the birth control pill in Boston and it was really hard.

JW:  Now, is that because Boston is sort of known as somewhat of a Catholic city?

NR:  Yes. And you had to say you were married.

JW:  Even though it was past Griswold, which was ’65, you still had to be married.

NR:  Or, they tried to enforce that or intimidate you into thinking that. You’re young, and a little bit vulnerable, and the doctors are all men.

JW:  The reasoning was extended to unmarried women in ’72. So, this was right in that period.

NR:  It was a little bit before, actually, so it was more like ’69, ’70.

JW:  Okay.

NR:  I can just picture this doctor in my mind trying to intimidate me. I don’t remember what he said, but I know it was very intimidating. I thought I was strong and could handle it.

Female Liberation became known over time as the group that advocated self-defense. A lot of people took Tae Kwon Do, Korean self-defense, and it was at a time when, I’m sure young women still feel this, but especially then, we felt very vulnerable in the streets. So, to learn self-defense increased your self-confidence and gave you a feeling that you were empowered. So that was a big deal.

We also took up the whole notion of, “beauty” and “femininity”, that in order to be a woman, you had to wear makeup and short skirts, et cetera. And we took that on and said, “No, we’re going to wear whatever we want to wear.” In fact, we’re going to be so crazy that we’re going to wear plaid pants and a striped shirt if we feel like it, because we’re going to defy what people would call gender norms, now. We’re going to defy gender norms, and we’re going to wear what we want to wear, and we’re not going to do it to please a man, which is what my mother used to always tell me, “How are you ever going to get a man if you do these crazy things?”

We also were involved in getting a referendum on the ballot in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1971, for Free Community Controlled 24 Hour Childcare Centers. However, despite the overwhelming number of people who voted for the referendum, it was held up by the Cambridge City Council. The council stalled, and it was never implemented. It was actually only after I saw the movie, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, which I’m sure you’ve seen, that I learned that in 1971, Nixon vetoed a comprehensive childcare act, which I didn’t even realize at the time. That’s how much they try to keep childcare hush hush.

After that, when I graduated college in ’71, I moved to New York and I joined the staff of the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition. WONAAC, which was organizing around those three demands I mentioned earlier. The founding conference of 1000 people that summer of ’71 said, repeal of all abortion laws, no forced sterilizations, and against restrictive contraception laws. And so, I was on that staff in New York for four or five months that summer and fall, actually, probably six months.

JW:  So, you were at that first conference?

NR:  Yes. Correct.

JW:  And what was your impression of what was happening at the conference?

NR:  It was great. I mean, it was 1000 people with an open debate about the different demands. Should it be free abortion on demand?  Should it be repeal of all contraception laws? And it was great because it was women, who were engaging as women and as leaders and as activists, in helping to form the demands of a movement and helping to figure out what needed to be done, which was demonstrations and rallies and lawsuits and testimonials.

That’s one of the things that’s gotten lost over time. I’ve had younger people ask me today, “So how was Roe won?” They have an image in their mind of something that is not quite a complete picture. And one of the things that gets lost in there, is that there were these abortion testimonials. The first one, I believe, was organized in 1969 by Redstockings in New York, where women got up in front of, like, 300 people and talked about their abortions. This had never been done before.

JW:  Unheard of.

NR:  Unheard of, exactly. Unheard of. And Susan Brownmiller wrote a great article about this that it’s in the Village Voice, which you can find online about this Redstockings one in ’69 that sounded like it was amazing. I mean, I wasn’t there, but it sounded amazing.

JW:  And we’re still struggling with that. We need people. It’s normal. You know, a lot of people who’ve done it.

NR:  Now, any minute they could rule that medication abortion is going to not be available. I mean, you could have people get up and talk about how they took these pills and how it helps. It changed their life for the better. We didn’t have that option back then. We didn’t have medication abortion. So, some of that’s gotten lost over time. And that was one of the reasons why I put together this book that I wrote called, Inside the Second Wave of Feminism because I’ve talked to younger women who went through women’s studies classes in their colleges and universities, and they have a distorted or mixed or not a rounded picture of what the second wave was. And I’m not sure that it’s possible to really move forward in history if you don’t know where you came from. For younger women today, to learn this is super important, I think.

JW:  Which is why we’re doing these interviews. So, do you have a copy of your book next to you that you want to hold up?

NR:  Yes. This is the book I wrote. It’s called, Inside the Second Wave of Feminism. The photo is August 26, 1970, and the banner says, “Women of the World Unite.” There were 50,000 people in New York City, marching down Fifth Avenue. The sub-title of the book is “Boston Female Liberation, 1968 to 1972, An Account by Participants.” And what I did was, I tracked down women who had been involved in this group with me, most of whom I hadn’t seen in 40 years or been in touch with, and asked if it was okay if I interviewed them. Some of them I interviewed in person. Some of them I did like this, like zoom, and I put it together.

It’s done chapter by chapter. There’s a chapter on August 26, 1970. There’s a chapter on the activities of the group that I just explained. There’s another chapter which I found that young women are really interested in, called, Female Liberation and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement. So, we organized, along with others, women’s contingents in the anti-war movement. And we would go to anti-Vietnam war demonstrations with our banners and our leaflets, and we would explain that the same government that’s killing people in Southeast Asia is the same government that’s denying us control over our bodies. People would be like, “Wow, of course.”

Young women would ask me today, “Wow, you organized contingents at anti-war demonstrations of just women?” And I’d say, “Yes” and they thought that was really cool. Then, there’s a section on the fight to legalize abortion. There’s some photos and stuff in the middle like, this is the cover of our magazine, The Second Wave.

JW:  I want to hear more about that. Yes, I want to hear about the magazine.

NR:  And then the last section of my book has what I call documents, but they’re really articles or what were called position papers back then. One of them that really has gotten a lot of interest is an article that appeared in the Female Liberation newsletter in May of ‘71 called, Why is Feminism Revolutionary? And it ends by saying, “Until women are free, the human race will wear chains.” And people are just like, “Wow.”

JW:  It’s true. So, tell me about the magazine.

NR:  The magazine was called The Second Wave, and it had a lot of articles about the different issues that were going on at the time. Abortion and childcare, but it also showed the range of women’s interests. It had poetry and graphics, and little short stories or whatever. So, it was a wide-ranging magazine that was quarterly. Issue number one had an article on Black Feminists and another on Lesbians in the Movement. The second one had an article that was a conversation with Anais Nin.

We actually organized a meeting for her. She was a very well-known French Cuban woman who wrote diaries. She was extremely well known at the time. She came, and we sponsored a meeting that 1100 people came to in Cambridge, and she donated all of the proceeds to Female Liberation. It was amazing. The magazine has an article,  “A Conversation with Anais Nin” and then there’s an article called, “On Male and Female Principle,” and “Snails and Spice Sex Stereotyping in Children.” It was kind of a wide ranging bunch of articles.

We also put together a pamphlet called, Knowledge and Control, the Issue of Abortion. This was put out in July of 1970. A couple of members of Female Liberation got together and put this out. They just compiled all the information that was available on abortion at the time, which was not a lot. And they just put this out because they felt like people had to know.

One of the women, she explains in the book, how she had a very oppressive upbringing and her parents didn’t tell her much about her body or anything. So, lo and behold, she’s pregnant and she ends up giving up the child for adoption. And so, she just didn’t want anybody to have to go through everything that she had gone through without knowing what was going on.

This is, No More Fun and Games, which was the journal that came out before The Second Wave. This particular issue, issue number 3, November 1969, has a subhead The Dialectics of Sexism. This was a pretty heavy-duty journal, but it got wide circulation because there wasn’t that much out there.

JW:  Did that come before, Our Bodies, Ourselves?

NR:  Yes, Our Bodies, Ourselves, I believe the first issue came out in 1970. So that would have been the year before.

JW:  You said you left Boston and came to New York. Tell us more about your activities in New York.

NR:  Well, in New York, like I mentioned, I was on the staff of the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition. That was my job.

JW:  Oh, you were actually paid for that?

NR:  I was actually paid for that, yes. But then my being paid didn’t last that long because we didn’t have any money, and there were a bunch of us that were on staff. I can’t remember how many. Six or seven or eight. My first real job after that, I got a job at Columbia University. I got a job as a secretary. I wanted a job with a flexible schedule so I could do stuff that I wanted to do, but I needed to pay my rent. So, I did that for a while, and that was great because Columbia was a hubbub of activity, of all kinds of things going on. I’ve had a lot of different jobs over the years.

I’ve been a political activist and a socialist and have been involved in a lot of different things, not just women’s rights. I’ve helped to organize demonstrations against police brutality and for immigrant rights. But I also attended the founding convention of the Coalition of Labor Union Women in 1974 in Chicago, which was quite an event. And later, I was an airport worker in New York City, and I was a member of the International Association of Machinists. I was very active in participating in the strike at Eastern Airlines that took place in 1989 to 1991.

One of the interesting things that I did during that time; it was a mostly heavily male workforce, and the union leadership was trying to get us to approve a contract that included a lot of concessions, including the beginning of a two-tier wage structure where a new hire would start at a lower wage than those who were already working. I was very much opposed to that. And I got up at a union meeting of about 3000 people, mostly men, and I spoke against it. Afterwards, a lot of my coworkers who were guys, came up to me and they said, “I don’t agree with anything you said, but it took a lot of guts for you to do that in front of all those men.” And they said, “I respect you for that.” And I was like, “Okay, cool.”

JW:  Well, before we go on, I want to go back to the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Tell me a little about the first meeting.

NR:  Well, you know, to be honest with you, I don’t remember that much about it. I remember being there, and I remember thinking, “Wow, this is great that as women we’re coming together as trade unionists.” And Addie Wyatt, who I saw is on the list of people that was interviewed by Veteran Feminists of America, who was in Chicago, she was a leader of that group. And I remember her, and being very impressed with this dynamic Black woman. But I don’t really remember that much about the proceedings that took place there.

JW:  And people came from many different unions?

NR:  Yes, and from all over the country.

JW:  Is that group still viable?

NR:  Well, I don’t know if it’s viable. It still exists, but I don’t know how viable it actually is.

JW:  Okay, well, I had you go back, so let’s go forward again. So, you were with the Machinists.

NR:  But also, during this period of time, I think I attended just about every one of the large women’s rights demonstrations that took place in DC. For example, in ’78, I was there when 100,000 marched for the ERA. I was there in 1992 with 750,000 in the March for Women’s Lives, and again in 1995 when 200,000 demonstrated in the Rally for Women’s Lives. In addition, when Operation Rescue announced that they were going to try to close down the clinics in Wichita, Kansas in 1991, I flew out to Wichita.

I joined with hundreds of other people in defending the clinics, which was quite an experience. We were able to beat back Operation Rescue. In 2017, I went to DC for the Women’s March, which was unbelievable. And the following year I decided to stay in Chicago where I am now, and go to the one here, but the DC one was amazing. I don’t know if you were there.

JW:  I was there.

NR:  It took me 6 hours to find the people I was supposed to meet. I was in that river, and actually it’s a really good analogy because as the river moved along, I bonded with the people that were next to me who I didn’t know beforehand, obviously, and they were like my marching partners the whole day.

JW:  I can see that, because you couldn’t really go far. You just had to keep moving with whoever you were with. You stepped in and were carried along.

NR:  And I don’t know about you, but I kept trying to text and you couldn’t get through because the signals were all jammed. So, 6 hours later, I find my friend, a longtime friend who lives in Minneapolis now. I finally hooked up with her and she had this exact same experience. She was part of a different river, in the same way.

JW:  It was really incredible, really spiritual even. I mean, that you felt like we’re here, we’re together, we’re going to be okay with each of us, together.

NR:  And I think for some of the people who had never done it before, younger women, they never felt that sense of empowerment that you feel when you’re with that many of us. I bumped into somebody I know in the airport on the way home, a young guy, and he was like, “Oh my God, I’ve never experienced anything even close to that.”

JW:  It was pretty amazing. Well, so you have kept up your concern about women’s issues, it sounds like for a very long time.

NR:  And I still do. I’m in a group called Chicago for Abortion Rights. It’s a multigenerational activist organization that has put together many rallies and educational events over the past several years. It started out as a group of people who organized every January protesting the “right to lifers”, or anti abortionists as we come to call them now. They would march in Chicago and they would bus people in from all over the Midwest and have this huge thing and we would counter mobilize with a few hundred of us. So, some of us started to get together, and realized we needed to do more. For example, after I get off the call with you, I’m going downtown and we’re having a picket line to answer whatever may happen today around the medication abortion case.

And during the pandemic, we held many educational zooms about abortion rights, internationally and others. It’s a really good group of people. And it really helped me when I was putting together this book because I realized that that’s who I was really talking to.  My original intention was to get our record down. Just like Veteran Feminists of America is trying to do, to get the record of second wave feminism in print. But then I also realized, wait a minute, this is great, because these young women have a distorted view, or know very little about the second wave. And so, it’s been great. The feedback has been really great.

JW:  Oh, that’s wonderful. That’s wonderful. So, you continue to do your activism, and I assume you will continue to do your activism.

NR:  As long as I can. It might be at a little bit of a lower level, I’m going to turn 74 in two weeks, believe it or not. I do what I can. One of the other things I’ve learned, is to try to impart some of what we learn to a younger generation is really important. But to do it in a way that we do it as equals. Not as me trying to tell you what to do, or me preaching to you, but we do it as equals.

Because the point I had made earlier about speaking at that union meeting, some of these younger women would probably be terrified of something like that. They’ve never done any kind of real public speaking. They tend to speak into their phones or whatever. To be able to get up in front of, and to be able to project your voice into a microphone is a new experience for some people that they need to conquer.

JW:  Yes. They need to learn how, if they haven’t done it already. I work with a lot of young women who I believe will carry on these fights for us.

NR:  Good to hear, Judy. Good to hear.

JW:  Well, tell me, we’re just about to the end of our list of questions then. Is there anything you would like to add?

NR:  No, I don’t think so. Except that I wanted to thank you for the opportunity to be part of this, and to keep the record of second wave feminism alive.

JW:  That’s wonderful. Yes. I’ve just had the best time doing this.

NR:  And to a new generation of women who are coming forward, I salute you. I can’t wait to have you join the fight.

JW:  That’s super. Thank you.