THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“If You Have a Passion for Justice, Get Involved and You Can Make a Difference”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins
MJC: Good morning Rosemary.
RT: Good morning Mary Jean.
MJC: For the sake of history, would you please say your name?
RT: Rosemary Trowbridge
MJC: We will go through these questions and record you for history. Where were you active in the women’s movement?
RT: I was active in the Boston, later was elected to the National Board of NOW and subsequently was elected Northeast Regional Director. But before I was active in the women’s movement I was active in the civil rights movement. In 1964 at the Dominican college, Albertus Magnus, Nancy Wynn, and I founded a civil rights group called Markings. We named it after UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjold’s book, Markings because there was a phrase in it that he wished to be a “bridge for others” and we thought that’s what we were doing. Looking back, I think it’s significant that both Nancy and I were day students, from working class families. Also, I was a European History major, and wanted to know how and why the world was the way it was.
We Would Be a Bridge For Others.
And so Markings sponsored various speakers about the civil rights movement in the United States plus African students from Yale who spoke about apartheid in South Africa. And one of the priests who taught moral theology, Father Clement Brown, a Dominican priest, was very active going down south participating in various demonstrations and sit-ins. He had been thrown out of the diocese of Philadelphia by the conservative Cardinal John Krol because of his civil rights activities. Father Brown was our moral theology teacher, our inspiration and also our faculty adviser for Markings. He’s was a marvelous person.
I choke up thinking about him – he was very spiritual – wonderful. He began his Moral Theology class by teaching us about the role of the Catholic Church in during the Spanish Inquisition. It was an example of the Catholic Church’s failed morality. Markings ran a summer project. We ran a program in New Haven Connecticut at the Saint Martin De Porres Elementary School, along with the nuns who taught there. We tutored in the morning and had camp activities in the afternoon. Most of us had graduated in June so Markings was continued by the rising seniors the following year.
Albertus Magnus College had given us a small dorm – a little house to live in which was great. We had eight women doing it with us. It was a wonderful experience. On Friday’s at the school we would have a hootenanny. One of the students from Yale who had joined our summer project played the guitar and ran it. We would end the afternoon singing We Shall Overcome. The song would make me cry because I felt for these young children. It would be a hard and long road ahead. My parents joined us one Friday afternoon. It was wonderful to have them there. They were so supportive.
MJC: So you mentioned it and I assume you are – can you talk about how that experience might have lead you to the woman’s movement?
Always a Sense of Justice and Injustice
RT: Well, I think there is in my family – there is always a sense of justice and injustice. My paternal grandmother at 16 came from Ireland, and my maternal great grandmother came from Ireland too. So the Irish experience of the starvation, and the ongoing brutal treatment by the British Government was well known. And we always talked about politics, Franklin Roosevelt, the Civil Rights Movement and later the Vietnam War.
My father had started a union at his workplace. The Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Into the 1950’s they were working at depression wages. Once World War II started, certain essential workers were frozen in their jobs. In my father’s case the town’s electric company produced the electricity to run the factories for the war effort.
These factories were offering much higher pay, so men would of course leave lower paying jobs. Thus the job freeze. One result of the job freeze is that as my family grew from two children to four children we had to move to public housing. And so talking about justice and injustice was very much whom we were.
I lived at home while in college. I didn’t live at school, since I didn’t have the money. From 1954, when we first got a TV, we watched the news every night while eating dinner. While in high school and college my brother Jim had subscriptions to The Progressive, The New Republic, and the Congressional Record. My bother lived at home while in college, and he was a government major, so we were always well informed.
The family was always watching the news when we were eating. We’d watch everything that was going on in the south and the civil rights movement, and Vietnam. You know because we had better media then. What was going on was terrible. Plus my parents subscribed to two newspapers a day, morning and evening. In fact from age 10-13 I shared a paper route with my older brother Jim. Of course the paper route was in his name, since girls could not deliver papers.
Money for Guns or Butter
Well, after I graduated from college – just to fill it in – I went to live in New York City and wanted to work for the welfare department to see really what was happening to people in the inner city which is a critical experience to really see – you learn how things work and don’t work. I worked in Bensonhurst and Bedford Stuyvesant. I think there was an employment program for women with only 30 slots to become hairdressers for all of NYC.
It was a time of Money For Guns Or Butter. President Johnson was in the impossible situation of funding the New Society and the War on Poverty and the Vietnam War. The war won the money. You know for the unemployed, which is nothing. Never mind that that’s not something where you make a lot of money. And I think for men it was bus drivers.
Marched With MLK
I took a year off and worked in Switzerland for a year at International School because I wanted to travel. So I was away in 1968 when both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated.
Although I did walk in, I marched with Martin Luther King and many other people in New York City when he did his antiwar Civil Rights March – spring of 67. People in Switzerland said why would you want to go back to the United States? Because the war in Vietnam, the assassinations, and violent treatment of Black Americans. You know everything that was going on there – that’s a terrible place – why would you go back? Which was interesting.
My school was in the ski resort of Crans-Montana, and the restaurant at the top of the mountain flew the American flag upside down, which is a recognized symbol of distress. I moved to San Francisco and taught in the public schools. I was very active in the antiwar movement in terms of just participating in anti-war marches. There were a lot of wounded coming back from Vietnam to San Francisco to the hospital there at the Presidio, so the war was very real.
Then I Moved Back to Massachusetts.
I moved to Cambridge, MA and was hired by the change agent superintendent of the Watertown Schools. There I met a physics teacher, Julia Wan and we became friends. Julia was also president of Boston chapter of NOW which she never told me until much later. Julia recruited me to join her on the Women’s Commission on the Status of Women on the Education Task Force.
In 1971 Boston NOW along with some prominent women lawyers had got a bill passed through the Massachusetts Legislature that forbid discrimination K through 12 based on race, sex, color, and national origin, everything but sexual orientation. And that law was amended in 1993 to add sexual orientation. So our job was to work on the implementation of that bill with the recommendations for regulations by testifying about the conditions in the schools.
So I did that for a year and then I joined NOW. Julia said well – you are ready for NOW, and you should join NOW. And Julia finally told me she’d been the president. Julia Wan is a marvelous person who got involved in the late 60s in Boston Chapter of NOW, which was then called Eastern Mass NOW. Julia stayed active in NOW and is probably still a member. She served on the national board later when she moved to the state of Washington. She was my mentor when I served as President of Boston NOW.
MJC: Talk about your interest in education.
It Was Very Clear What Advantages Were Open to Women vs. Men
RT: Because I was a teacher, because I lived my life as a woman with three brothers, it was very clear what advantages were open to women and men. I had wanted to go to law school and grad school and I had an uncle who would pay for my brothers to go to law school but wasn’t interested in supporting me in grad school or helping me out.
But just my own mother’s life – I mean she had to quit school when she was 16 to help support the family during the depression so her brother could go on and you know get an education. But you know that never benefited her. Except years later when my uncle helped my brother with Georgetown Law School, so that was great.
MJC: So talk about Julia and how she has allowed you to get active in NOW.
RT: Julia encouraged me. She’s very direct. I was active in a CR group. And she said, well don’t do that more than a year. Get active. Because it’s all about action. And so I joined NOW and became active in the Education Task Force. First we focused on testifying for the regulations to implement the K-12 state antidiscrimination law, Chapter 622. The law which curriculum, which is fabulous. Later we focused on working with school systems to implement the law. Once Title IX the federal law outlawing sex discrimination in education passed, we testified on the regulations too.
My Interest Was Voc Tech Schools to Change the Curriculum
And also there was a lot of sexual harassment and physical harassment with girls being soldered in the vocational technical schools. Opening up all the majors to girls was key. Curriculum was a big interest of mine. In 1975 my school librarian encouraged me to write a federal library grant. My grant proposal, Women In Society, was funded. I purchased books, films, filmstrips and other materials for grades K-12.
Later another teacher and I wrote a curriculum on how to use the material and ran an in service course for teachers. I had girls who wanted to play ice hockey and they couldn’t get on the public school teams. And so it was all of that. Members of our NOW Education Task Force also ran trainings for superintendents and principals. At one point we were used by the state to monitor schools systems to see how they were implementing Chapter 622. So there was a lot there – a lot to do in education.
Killing Us Softly
MJC: So what were the years of your involvement in NOW?
RT: Well in Boston NOW, I was involved from 1972. I was always involved in the Chapter through 1986 when my term on the National Board, 1980-1986 ended. I just had enough. In 1976 I became involved in the campaign to ratify the state ERA. Massachusetts had ratified the federal ERA very early on but we also have needed a state ERA to change state laws, which was very important. So that was 76.
In 1977 I became membership chair and I had some new ideas to run programs to attract members. The two that I remember that were most exciting – Jean Kilbourne presented her slide show Killing Us Softly. It demonstrated how women were portrayed in advertising as sexual objects and how that affected self-esteem and confidence in women and young girls – that attracted a lot of people.
Riding The Nightmare: Woman and Witchcraft
Selma Williams, a historian, became very interested in wanting to know more about what happened to the women in Salem, Massachusetts. After publishing a book on colonial history she wrote this wonderful book called Riding the Nightmare, about the persecution of women as witches in Salem. Selma created a wonderful slide show and talk, which she presented in a pubic program to our Chapter. It was terrific. So we did those kinds of things to educate people and bring in more people.
On a side note, my friends and I were reading all the incredible books that were being published about women in the 1970’s. It was such an exciting time. There were about 11 book stores in Cambridge, including a Women’s bookstore. And then the following year, 1978 I ran for president of the Boston chapter of NOW.
I Was a Real Activist
It was the first time Boston NOW had a contested election. I really had to recruit people to come and vote for me, and some people criticized me for that. However, I was pretty determined that I wanted that job because I was real activist. You know in terms of going out there and doing things. I just felt I had a lot of energy and would be the best person. I was elected. And 1978 was going to be a big year because the ERA Extension. Boston had an important congressional district the 8th Congressional District, since our U.S. Representative was Tip O’Neil, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
It Was A Big Year – ‘78
Fortunately in my work on the state ERA – I connected with a woman called Mary Murphy who had worked for Tip O’Neill, and who was like a member of his family. So with past presidents of Boston NOW and other organizations that worked on the state ERA, we put together a coalition and held an ERA Extension Gala at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. US Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill gave a great speech about women and feminism and equal rights and his support for the ERA Extension. He was wonderful.
That summer we had a big delegation to the ERA Extension March in Washington. We also held a walkathon to raise money for the ERA. And there was lots going on and also in ‘77 the year before, a lot of us had gone out to Illinois on the ERA train. We also lobbied in Washington for the ERA extension visiting our US Senators and the Boston Area US Representatives, including the Speaker, Tip O’Neil. And were present for the vote in the House and the Senate.
MJC: How long did you serve as President?
RT: Only one year. The chapter by-laws only allowed one year. The idea was that it’s important for lots of women to have leadership experience then go on in your profession or whatever you do and use those skills to make a difference. So that was the way the chapter worked. We were training women to be leaders.
MJC: So what did you do after that?
RT: I became chair of the Reproductive Rights Task Force. Massachusetts had a law was passed in 1978, the Flynn-Doyle Bill, which prevented the state from paying for abortions for state employees, and- for Medicaid recipients. The task force also started providing escort services, walking with women into the abortion clinics.
The abortion scene got really hot. There was a murder during those years at one of their clinics. Anti-abortion supporters were harassing the women. They would get right up close to them so I always active in the reproductive rights because it was just so basic to women’s lives.
Many years later there was a young man who was a member of the state legislature who got a bill passed that required the demonstrators stayed 16 feet away. But we didn’t have that back then. The law was ultimately overturned by the US Supreme Court. And in 1980 I ran as a Kennedy delegate to the Democrat National Convention in Tip O’Neill’s district. It was hotly contested.
Fortunately for me one of the women who had helped us so much in the State ERA, Mary Murphy, who had worked with Tip O’Neill, knew how to run a floor campaign. She volunteered to run mine at the 8th Congressional Democratic Caucus. We had done lots of phone banking to NOW members and members at large to get them out to the election. It was held at a big auditorium at MIT.
It was the first time that the National Democratic Party Rules required that half the elected delegates to the convention had to be women. Three women were elected. And what was so interesting about that – because there were lots of women running – is that the microphone was very short, and people came up to me afterwards and they liked what I said. But they also liked that I picked up the microphone and held it to my mouth. I was the only woman who could figure that out.
The 1980 Democratic National Convention in New York City Was Exciting
NOW ran a floor operation along with women in other pro-choice women’s organizations to support the passage of the minority report on Medicaid Funding for abortion to be added to the Democratic Party Platform. A Roll Call Vote was required. Every delegate had to publically declare their support or opposition. It was the most dramatic moment of the convention.
In the Massachusetts delegation it grew quiet as State Senator Sharon Pollard called the name of each delegate, male and female, and asked how they voted. Yes or No on Medicaid funding for abortion. It passed overwhelmingly!!!! This was the first time that women were half of the elected delegates. There were also votes on an ERA minority plank that prohibited party money for candidates who opposed the ERA and a Lesbian and Gay Rights minority plank. Both passed.
That Was Quite a Convention
And that’s the last time the Democratic National Convention had floor voting on the minority planks. The party wanted control of the convention floor, of the platform. I went to the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco, as a Mondale delegate from the 8th Congressional District. The National NOW PAC had endorsed Walter Mondale. He was responsible for getting the 1972 National Child Care Bill passed through the Senate, which was vetoed by Nixon in 1972. There were many reasons to be energized by the prospect of his presidency. The issues that were important to him were the issues that were important to women and their families.
It Was Time for a Female VP
NOW had lobbied Mondale to pick a female vice-presidential candidate. It was a thrilling convention. Mondale chose U.S Representative Geraldine Ferraro to be his vice-president. Her speech to the convention was thrilling. Afterwards a woman delegate in her 60’s was crying and she confided to me that she didn’t think it would make any difference to her if there was a female vice-president. Yet she realized, seeing and hearing Geraldine Ferraro address the convention as our vice presidential candidate, how terribly left out she had been all these years, as a woman.
From 1980-1986 I served on the National NOW board from the Northeast Region. The summer of 1981 I spent volunteering at the National NOW office in Washington, D.C. along with my dear friend Colette Roberts, who was also on the national board. In 1983 I was reelected to the NOW board as Regional Director for New England and New York.
My focus was starting chapters in New Hampshire, since it holds one of the first presidential primaries in the nation. I started driving up to New Hampshire after work. There were many women who wanted to make a difference in the 1984 Presidential primary and who wanted to start chapters. I would give a presentation and then the local people would take over.
Driving home from New Hampshire at night, in the dark, with no GPS – just maps, and in the woods was challenging. Somehow I managed to get back to Cambridge. Three chapters were founded and active.
The Florida Campaign for the ERA
In 1982 I took a leave of absence from my job and volunteered in the Florida Campaign for Equal Rights Amendment. I helped organize an event in Fort Lauderdale that featured former First Lady Betty Ford at an event in Palm Beach featuring Mrs. Romney, who was wife of the former governor of Michigan, George W. Romney. The Florida Senate Republicans were a problem in passing the ERA. In April I moved to the headquarters of the Campaign in Tallahassee, where the pressure was building for a vote before the June 30 deadline of the ERA Extension.
MJC: Were you put up by local people?
RT: Yes. So in both places we lived with local people – in Fort Lauderdale, we lived with a teacher and whose home was air-conditioned. In Tallahassee someone donated their un-air-conditioned home. The women who had been there all year said when they went into the closet to take their suitcases to leave there was mold on them from all the humidity. When the Florida Senate defeated the Equal Rights Amendment the halls of the state house echoed with the chant, “We’ll Remember in November”. It was deafening.
I continued being active in NOW until 1986. When my term was over I was angry, disappointed and discouraged with the internal battles in NOW. So I never renewed my membership after 1986 when I left the national board.
Working for Justice
MJC: Do you want to talk – I think you did some work in the lesbian rights, gay rights movement?
The Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus
RT: Yes. After I left NOW the push for the Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights bill was heating up in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Caucus had been building support for the bill and filing it since 1973. I got involved and became a board member. I supported the lobbying effort, collected signatures at various events and collected letters of support from liberal religious denominations for the bill.
I was an elementary school teacher and my principal would let me leave the school during the day when the bill came up for a vote so I could support the lobbying effort. He’d have other teachers cover my class. He’d say, just don’t get on television – parents think you’re in your classroom. So I’d drive into Boston – to the statehouse. I’d join the lobbying effort to get the senators or representatives out on the floor to vote.
The bill finally passed in 1989. Massachusetts was the second state to pass a gay and lesbian civil rights bill. The first was in Wisconsin in 1989. The main sponsor of that bill, Rep. David Clarenbach was the son of one of the founders of the National Organization for Women, Kathryn Clarenbach.
From 1993 through ‘96 I was a trainer for the State Department of Education’s Safe Schools Program for Gay and Lesbian Students. My principal would get me a substitute so during the day I could participate in regional trainings for teachers, guidance counselors, principals and superintendents. We would also be invited into school systems to train the entire faculty, and into high schools to train the students. It was exciting work. I did that for three years. And also I did special training for guidance counselors.
The Need for Change in Education and Curriculum
MJC: So looking over the whole period of this dynamic leadership what issues were greatest concern to you?
RT: Creating a better life for girls and women. I was inspired by my mother’s life, and the crushing limits imposed on her. First she had leave high school at 16 to work to support her brother’s post high school education. Then she had to quit her job when she got married in 1939 because women did not have the right to work. Her isolation and lack of opportunity to be all that she could be was so wrong.
Growing up in the 1950’s and watching the civil rights movement on the TV news showed black Americans were fighting for justice. I started out working for civil rights of black Americans in college. While living in San Francisco in the late 1960’s a male friend of mine gave me a copy of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. In her introduction she wrote about “questioning the culture”. Her book just opened my mind and I was changed. It was an awakening, an epiphany.
As a teacher I saw just the huge need to open up education both in terms of curriculum and expectations. My principal had told me back in the 70s that his daughters couldn’t get in the advanced math classes. It was boys only. Getting all sorts of teams for girls, and funding and changing the curriculum were huge issues. Getting women’s history and issues in the curriculum was the hardest issue.
The Abortion Issue is Really Important to Me
Without the ability to decide whether or not to have children, and how many, is critical to a woman’s life.
In 1996, at the age of 53 I began raising my two nieces, age 3 and 8. I became their Mom #2. It was a choice I made in split second. There was nothing that I wanted and hoped to do more than give them a wonderful life.
Massachusetts had a referendum on abortion for Medicaid funding in 1986 and the pro-choice vote won. Massachusetts is the second most Catholic state in the nation. Rhode Island is the first most Catholic state in the nation and Michigan is the third. All three states saw the pro-choice vote prevail in referendums that year. Catholics are pro-choice. Let’s not forget that.
MJC: So What Would You Count as Your Major Accomplishment?
RT: I saw myself as an organizer, and someone who could inspire others to act. Whether it was education issues, membership, abortion rights, or gay and lesbian rights, or organizing Chapters – I felt really good at pulling people in and motivating people to get involved and active. When I was on the national board I always sent out long reports about what happened at the national board. I wanted the chapter presidents to have the latest information about what issues and programs were up and to be excited about working on them.
MJC: What would you count as your most memorable and important experiences?
RT: That’s a hard one. I think the year that I was president of Boston NOW and our work on the ERA Extension was exhilarating. The ERA Extension Gala with Speaker Tip O’Neil, The Era Extension March in Washington, DC, lobbying our Congressional Delegation in Washington, and being there for the vote in the House and the Senate on the ERA Extension were all memorable. Boston NOW had a great group of women working together, and the support of past Boston NOW presidents.
Also being a delegate to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, the first where half the elected delegates were women was historic. Medicaid funding for abortion passed on a role call vote on the floor of the convention. Of course the 1984 Democratic National Convention was thrilling with the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro for Vice-President. The most precious gift that I received from my work in NOW was the friends that I made, on the local and national level that have enriched my life ever since.
One Final Question
MJC: That kind of leads right into the final question that I have. How has your involvement in the movement affected your later life personally and professionally?
RT: Well I’d say I came out to myself as a lesbian in 1977. Suddenly as a teacher I was concerned that people would see me as someone who going to seduce or be a bad influence on my female 5th and 6th grade students, and be fired. No one of course accused me of accosting my 6th grade male students when they thought I was straight.
I had a lived a closeted life at work. Once the Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights Bill became law in Massachusetts in 1989 I began planning how to come out at my job. I learned how I could build my own sense of safety and support among people in my school system. There was a wonderful group in California called Equity Institute that ran trainings for teachers on how to build allies. I went to training in New York City at the Union Theological Seminary and to another in California.
I Had So Much Support
I thought carefully about how to come out to my 5th grade class, so they would not be concerned about me. It was important that I was honest with them, and that I be a good role model. In June of 1993 I came out in my elementary class. Their response was applause! I think their reaction was the result of appreciation for my honesty, the genuineness of our relationship, and the safe climate of our classroom. I had a lot of support among the faculty for I worked there for a long time so it was hard, to demonize me.
Several years later a student from the Harvard Graduate School of Education spent a lot of time observing in my class. She was writing about feminist teachers. As a result I’m featured in an article that she wrote in the Harvard Ed School Journal that’s devoted to gay and lesbian teachers, and in her thesis, which was published as a book.
So in My Own Little Way I Made My Mark
I know I had a positive effect on the children in my class over the years, by creating a safe place with lots of laughter. The year that I came out to my class, there was the usual “Moving Up to the Middle School Ceremony” for the students and their parents. Traditionally one person from each class reads a poem or something they wrote. However, the boys in my class – think about this – the boys, decided they wanted to dance, in front of their peers, parents and teachers. The boys they picked out the music and choreographed it. The song that had drumrolls. The whole class dressed in flowery Hawaiian shirts, and wore sunglasses. They got all props – palm trees from a second grade teacher who was running a circus with her class.
During the drumroll the students would stop dancing and in unison they shouted out the name of a teacher that they had over the years. It was just fabulous. I think they were just so free to express themselves because I created so much safety in our class. And of course we celebrated every holiday in my class with for a party! So they “Moved On”, dancing and thanking their teachers! Several years later, after I retired early to raise my nieces, the school system hired a gay principal for my school so you know; I was part of opening doors for others.
A Passion for Justice
MJC: So do you have any closing remarks you’d like to make?
RT: Yes, if you have a passion for justice, if you care about people, know that love in the world is justice. Get involved. It’s hard sometimes because people don’t always agree, especially when there is a lot of passion. There will always be people who love power more than the issues, and that will be the challenge. Just hang in there as long as you are fed by your experience. Know when to leave. Part of being a good leader is knowing when to leave. You’ll be richly rewarded with friendships. You’ll make a difference. You’ll leave the world a better place.