Alice Cohan

“The Future is Feminist” 

Interviewed by Erin Matson, April 2018

EM: All right. OK. We’re going to start an interview with Alice Cohan for the Veteran Feminists of America oral history project.

EM: First please state your name.

AC: Hi it’s Alice Cohan.

EM: Great. And Alice when and where were you active in the women’s movement?

AC: Well I started  – oh boy …

I Really Came to the Women’s Movement from the Peace Movement

And I was very active in the peace movement, the one against the Vietnam War. And I ended up by chance being an organizer and liaison with the police and military during a whole series of activities.

And at one point it was May Day – was going to be coming up that Monday.  And the day before there were thousands of people who were sleeping in the ellipse and around that area and the police pulled the permit early in the morning and everybody had to clear out. So I was with a couple of guys and we were trying to help clear out the area.

And there was also Supposed to be a Women’s March at that Time

And the women were being chased by police on motor scooters trying to break up their group. Literally running over them. And so these two guys who were with me who are much more experienced than me handed me a bullhorn and said,  “Alice you’re the only one that can do anything here. They’re not going to listen to us – Good luck”.

And so I was trying to figure out who the leaders were and a way to negotiate something.

It’s So Emotional 

AC: Anyway stop me – It’s hard for me to tell the story briefly because it’s so emotional to me. So I’m now part of this crowd and I was very much – my hero was Gandhi – and I was very into non- violence. And these women are marching and they’re shouting “the women of the world are picking up the guns” and …that was their chant over and over and over again. And it was very hard for me. I mean you know it’s just like – so finally I found out there was a cadre of women in charge of this march and I found them. And I asked them what were they going to do you know where they are going to get arrested because they won’t – you know wouldn’t be out of jail then for the next day which was supposed to be the big event.

And so we negotiated that we would find a place and sit down and have a rally and I would lend them my bullhorn on the condition that if the police started to move in to arrest I would take over the bullhorn and give directions for civil disobedience.  So that it was nonviolent.  Anyway, then they agreed to that and then they couldn’t decide where to stop. And we were coming in around the State Department and we decided they decided that that’s where they would sit down. 

“Hey She’s an Organizer Get Her”

And just as we almost got there a whole line of police moved in and one police yelled “Hey she’s an organizer get her”. And they dragged me behind police lines – because where I was it was legal – and arrested me. And I ended up getting put in jail with all of these women who had been part of the march. And they were bandaged because they had been injured and they were all talking about the violent revolution and how it was going to come soon and all this stuff. It was like overwhelming. So a little while – some hours later – a whole ‘nother group of women came into a cell across the way.

…And it turned out they were Quakers

Because if you remember Nixon was quoted…  they called him a “Jack” Quaker because it really wasn’t, you know, didn’t follow. But so Quakers used to go every Sunday or Saturday one day of the week – I think Sunday – to Lafayette Park to have a prayer vigil to Nixon to stop the war. And there’s a little caveat on the permit that says you can’t have more than 300 people in that park unless you have a waiver. I learned a lot of technical stuff about permits over the years. Anyway – so because all these Quakers were in town for the next day they all went to Lafayette Park and the police arrested every one of them. So there was this jail cell across the way of all these Quakers.

I Somehow Convinced the Matron to Shift Me to their Jail Cell

And I told them the story of what had just happened to me and everything. And we all decided in discussion, that we as women who were part of the peace movement had a responsibility to get involved in the feminist movement and make sure it was nonviolent.

So that was My “Click,” so to Speak 

And by chance, just a few months later, I was still living in Washington sort of going to school at American University in between demonstrations. But I went to visit a friend of mine.  She was running a women’s center and she got this call from the Hill from Bella Abzug’s [nicknamed “Battling Bella”, she was an American lawyer, U.S. Representative, social activist and a leader of the Women’s Movement] office that they were having this meeting about convening a National Women’s Political Caucus and they wanted some college students to come up.

So About a Half a Dozen of us Hitchhiked up to the Hill and Walked into this Room  

In the room was every major feminist leader you can imagine. You name it, she was there. And so they were going to form this caucus. And so we students split up and went on different committees. And my friend who I had come with, Karen, she actually drafted the mission for the National Women’s Political Caucus. She never got credit for it – but I have somewhere in my papers her original draft. And I went on the Outreach Committee. And so we all then a couple months later went to the founding of this National Political Caucus and there were going to be elections for the Steering Committee. Well anyway so they formed this older women’s caucus to put forward two candidates.

So We Thought we’d Organize a Youth Caucus

And this friend Karen and I were running for Steering Committee. And then there was this group that formed that they called themselves the “Prime of Life Feminists” and they came to negotiate with us. I can’t remember the deal, but it was something like if we supported them they would support us. All right so we were having this meeting. And by the way in those days I had long hair that I braided [with] ribbons part of the way. And I had on a wonderful floor length caftan dress made out of a sheet of every color that we … had a sink in the woman’s restroom on campus to tie-dye.

So anyway so we were having this Youth Caucus meeting and these two women came in. And one I’ll never forget. She was wearing a navy blue polyester pantsuit when polyester was not in – OK.

And so the Two of them Start to Warn us that We’re Going to Get Screwed by the Prime of Life Caucus

And I guess I asked them how old they were. They were like 31. So we kicked them out, because they were too old for the Youth Caucus. Well it turned out they were right. We got screwed and we didn’t get elected. And the polyester pantsuit woman you know who that was it? It was Ellie Smeal. So that was the first time I met Ellie and I have to say in retrospect I think it was really quite good of her to then a couple of years later when we met again, not to hold it up against me.

So anyway, after the caucus was formed… I went back to New Jersey because I actually had appendicitis, so I had to have that dealt with and I left school – anyway. And from the forming of the caucus then, NOW was also active and they were having what they called a Majority Day and it was to go to the state Legislature on women’s issues. So I got all involved in that and then got active in NOW. And next was elected to the state legislative coordinator. And I was back in school at Rider at that point and I did a thesis on my work.

I Helped Write Legislation that Formed the New Jersey Department of Women

And we got it through the legislature and everything. And that was created so that was fun.  And I got more and more active in NOW. And I ran for national board – I guess I was about 24, something like that – so I was pretty young.  And just got more active and started to get active in the Equal Rights Amendment. And ended up going to Indiana. We did a caravan and organized.

NOW National Birthday Party Celebrates

And the next year we helped to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in Indiana.  And goodness – in going back a little bit  – in all of this stuff that we were organizing, my friend Jane Wells-Schooley found out that Alice Paul, the author of the Equal Rights Amendment was still living and she was in Connecticut at the time.  And then [she] was moved to New Jersey to a Quaker nursing home there. So we used to go and visit her. And the Quaker administrators there were wonderful and they loved it when we came.

They said that Alice was the sharpest when we would visit. And we would try to get her to talk about … how they ratified the women’s right to vote. She was a major leader of that. She didn’t want to talk about history. She wanted to strategize how we were going to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. And she told us we had to go to Indiana because she had it all figured out and that Indiana was the last Midwestern state besides Illinois that [had] the two-thirds requirement [so] she thought Indiana had the best chance.

So that’s how he ended up in Indiana. So it was amazing. And we also – once we discovered Alice, we had a national birthday party. A NOW National Birthday Party and chapters all over the country celebrated Alice’s birthday. And we did that not only to honor her personally but it was an excellent vehicle to raise the issue of the Equal Rights Amendment and that it wasn’t some newfangled thing – that you know it was written so many years earlier. And you know what it was about and we got TV stations in from Philadelphia to come over and interview her.

Another time – NOW New Jersey happened to have a conference right near where her nursing home was. So we organized a march and we marched to the nursing home and the people at the nursing home had wheeled out Alice onto like a patio and we all marched up on this little hill – grass – grassy knoll and had the rally for her and she just loved it. I mean it was just great.

I Have So Many Stories 

For the Equal Rights Amendment for quite some time I was the Field Organizer. The only one.  And I would travel – I’d be gone for like six months and come back for a week and be back again out for six months. I did a lot of work in Nevada and Arizona. And often when I was in between traveling from one to the other I would stop in California. That was sort of my R & R. I would go to California NOW board meetings. And some people thought I lived in California because I was popping up. I mean you know I’d sublet an apartment in Nevada when we were organizing there for an abortion referendum. 

Eating My Way Through Unratified America 

I was going to write a book. It was going to be called Eating My Way Through Unratified America and it was going to be a guide to restaurants. And at one time I was actually interviewed first for some NOW chapter. They were going to do a cookbook. So I did an interview on how to find a good restaurant in a strange town. And you know it’s some – in political science there’s a research tool called the Inside-Dopester Model. And what that is – is that if you ask six people let’s say the same question and three of them say the same thing – that’s your answer.

So if I went into a strange town I would ask the taxi cab driver, and I perfected the question to the point where it was – if I only had one evening to have dinner in this town, where would you recommend that was moderately priced but really reflected the regional or local cuisine. So I’d ask the cab driver – I’d ask the local NOW people – I’d ask you know several different people and if I got the answer – you know that’s where I’d go.  Although, if you then went there and the parking lot was empty – keep going.

It used to be we’d look in the yellow pages of the phonebook and if that restaurant had an ad and it said that it took credit cards you knew that it had to have a good enough business to cover the overhead of the cost of the credit cards. So that was a good sign.

A Great Place to Organize – and Eat 

Now one of my most memorable places that I ever ate at was Oklahoma. And we were recommended to a truck stop. Now this was a very nice truck stop and the food was excellent. And this is of course before cell phones. So we were always searching for phones to organize from. We traveled two, a pair always at least. So the truck stop had a public phone and then we found out that in the back in the truckers lounge there was another phone. So we negotiated with them that if we could use both phones – if a trucker needed a phone we would get off of the truckers lounge phone right away. So we ended up setting up our operation there and we ate every meal at the truck stop.

EM: And what town was this in Oklahoma?

A Great Way to Meet Activists 

AC: I’m not sure. Sallisaw comes to mind but I don’t think [it was] Sallisaw. Sallisaw was where we couldn’t find where to meet activists. So somebody told us that young people played volleyball. So we put on our ERA Yes buttons and we went to this volleyball game and we played volleyball and then we talked to them about the Equal Rights Amendment and invited them to a meeting.

Another time – I don’t know if this is legal OK in retrospect – but we were told that a librarian, the local librarian was a feminist. So we went and met with her. Well she had a little section of books that were feminist books – this is you know pretty early. Nothing was computerized; it was just in the back jacket. You know you pulled out the card and you could see who had taken it out. So we sat there and pulled out the cards and wrote down every name of a person who had checked out a feminist book and then we called them.  Anyway – something about right to privacy or something in there.

EM: Did they support that?

AC: Oh yeah we found support Oh yeah yeah, so you know.

The Peace Movement and Nonviolence 

EM: That’s amazing. Thank you for these many memories. I want to ask – Can you talk about you mentioned how important nonviolence was to you in the peace movement and the Equal Rights Amendment. Are there other issues that were of great concern to you that have been of great concern to your work that you’d like to highlight here?

AC: Sure. Well one thing is – is that I’m a lesbian and I went through quite a process internally in NOW over the years as things changed. I’ll never forget as a matter of fact in Oklahoma, I was traveling with Lana Moresky who’s a wonderful activist still to this day and we were organizing there and we had gotten friendly with the local activists and also a couple of legislators.

And I still can see it – we were in like a diner type of restaurant and talking and this one legislator started doing a whole really heavy negative thing about lesbians and gays. And at that point in my life I wasn’t really strong enough to stand up to her. But there was Lana – happily married with two daughters and she just took her on and was just fantastic about how lesbian and gay rights were part of equality.

And You Know We Were All Together in This 

I mean it went just perfect. And I’ll never forget that because she – you know they knew that she was married – they knew about her children and all that. And she could speak when I wasn’t able to yet. You know – and that and I felt like she spoke for me and for all of us. And on her fiftieth birthday her husband invited Ellie and I to come as a surprise. And I told that story – you know because it’s as if it was yesterday. I just remember her being so passionate and so strong.

I’ve worked sort of from my organizing days of the peace movement – I really have taken on organizing in general. I did a lot of nonviolent training within the women’s movement when we did actions. And organized especially logistics on all the different women’s marches.

And I Also Lent a Hand on the Lesbian and Gay Marches

Both of the major big ones in the same way. And so it’s certainly been an ongoing part of my identity and the issues that I care about. But the thing that is so important about NOW and about the Feminist Majority is that we really are multi-issue and that we see – the word today is inter-sectionality – the interaction between all of the different issues.  And just as I said you can’t be for LGBT issues if you’re you know – you can’t be against them if you’re see yourself as a feminist.

The Feminist Perspective 

And we care about health care and we care about immigrant rights and we care about gun violence. Because it’s all tied in together in the culture and our perspective on what humanity and what this society should be. So it’s hard to say which one among so many [is most important] you know – but would I love to see the Equal Rights Amendment passed in my lifetime?  Of course I would.

EM: So I want to – dovetailing off of what you just said. Can you tell us about your partner Jan (Welch) and specifically her history within NOW?

AC: Sure – sure. Jan was active in NOW in the very early years and she was active in the Philadelphia NOW Chapter. And she ran for chapter president as an out lesbian. It was a contested election. It made the front pages of The Philadelphia Inquirer. I mean it was very hotly contested and looked at and so forth. And Jan won overwhelmingly – but very soon after she won she was called to New York City by Betty Friedan to come to her apartment. And I don’t really think Jan quite knew what to expect – but went.

And she walked into a room full of supporters of Betty and they were all there with the purpose of convincing Jan to step down as Philadelphia NOW chapter president because her being an out lesbian would hurt the women’s movement. And Jan, who was a very determined person but very quiet – I wasn’t there I don’t know exactly what she said  – but whatever she said really turned that room. And people ended up supporting her leadership and it was really quite an incredible you know experience.

We do believe that Jan was the first out lesbian chapter president of a NOW chapter. And this was in the early 70s you can check on the exact dates if you look at that book I mentioned. But anyway – and to also to her credit, Ellie asked her to be on her founding state board officers. So she was an officer with Ellie in the first state organization of Pennsylvania NOW. So and then Jan and I met – we had a TV show – a public TV show that the region of NOW did. And she was working on it from Philadelphia and I was working on it from New Jersey. So that’s when we first met and we were together I guess about 24 years.

Can You Describe How your Involvement in the Women’s Movement has Affected Your Later Life both Personally and Professionally?

AC: I feel like you’re looking for something.

EM: No. It’s an interesting question given that just reflecting on it personally that you’ve never stopped. Right? So if you could just bring us up to today.  You know has your involvement – your lifetime in this movement affected you personally.

AC: Well basically it is my life. You know, the most important part of my life, and I could say that I wasn’t finished my work yet. And for the last several years I’ve really had some health issues. I had some serious heart problems. And in fact ended up getting a heart transplant and I almost died several times. One time I had no pulse at all and luckily my doctor knew what to do. I had gone to the office there and they saved me – they brought me back.

So I feel like – you know I have more work to do.  And my major doctor for my transplant was a 42-year-old woman – strong feminist. Ellie keeps insisting that I got my heart so fast because she was with us. But she really has a reputation of really taking care of her patients. Many people – most people wait one to two years to get a heart. I got my new heart in a month and a half. After I was on the list you know.

So it was amazing and it was incredible. And I’ll tell you they wouldn’t agree to do the transplant because I lived alone – not counting my cats – unless I could guarantee 24/7 coverage for the first – I don’t remember how long it was supposed to be – originally I think a month or something. And a good friend of mine put the word out. 

And Longtime NOW Activists from All Over the Country Came and Stayed with Me  

For ten days, for a week, for a long weekend so that I had constant coverage. And I will tell you there were periods [when] very close friends had real challenges because I really wasn’t too well.

I mean [if] you saw me in that period of time you know it’s sort of it’s amazing, it’s a miracle. And so but you know my family is NOW you know, it’s feminist and they really showed that, you know. Jean Conger came from California. Two friends came from upper New York State – from Atlanta from you know wherever. And it was really amazing.

So I’m Here to Fight On

And I’m now back three quarter time working and it is a very busy year. The exciting thing is that we have an embarrassment of riches. There are so many feminist women running all over the country. And there’s no way really to analyze who has a chance or not because all the old you know mechanisms aren’t working. Because women are winning in places – look at Virginia. You know, for years these districts – these old good old boys weren’t even challenged and women stepped up and ran and they won. And they ran and they won. And they ran and they won. And they ran and they won. To the point where we really have quite a group of strong feminist women in the state and in the House of Delegates.

And it’s Now Been a Model

I mean Texas – that just happened. There were women that ran in districts where there hasn’t been challenging years – you know. And so it really is a reaction building that women are stepping forward and saying it’s our time and you boys haven’t gotten it right you know. And so that’s very exciting.

We’re Not Going to Win them All  

But the goal is – can we flip the Senate and the House so that it’s a more receptive body to women’s issues and needs. And that’s really you know my next goal and mission.

EM: It seems like you’re on a roll if I do say so.

AC: And then of course right even sooner – right now – coming up this weekend we have our National Young Feminist Leadership Conference and we’ll have probably over 400 students from all over the country. And you’re going to come be part of our panel. And I’m very excited working with the American Federation of Teachers – we were able to contact a student at Parkland who’s coming. And she’s going to be speaking. I’ve been talking – just yesterday Ellie and I talked to her mom who’s going to come with her. She’s 17 years old. She was on the second floor when the shooter started. She got out and it’s made her you know a fighter for gun reform. So that’s, you know, the future is feminist.

EM: Well I just have to take a point of personal privilege and state how incredible you’ve been to young women in this movement for decades.

It’s an Incredible Career 

EM: An incredible contribution to the struggle for justice for all people. But especially on a personal note for what Alice has done for younger women in the movement. For the interviewer personally and how I have seen that there is a trail of hundreds of people behind Alice who have learned everything from how to organize a demonstration to sticking at it. There have been very few people that I’ve interfaced with and really take that effort to bring new people into the fold like Alice does.

So it’s fitting that we’ve been interrupted by the telephone a couple times but she was willing to do this right before the Young Feminist Leadership Conference. So I just wanted to thank you Alice for the work and for being my mentor for all of these years. I know I’m not allowed to say how old I am now. This has been amazing. Is there anything else you’d like to share before we close that interview was there anything you want to tell the Veteran Feminists of America?

AC: I get my energy from people like you. And I’m so proud of you – of all that you’ve done and all that you will do. And it’s just great. It’s great. I mean here we are in the office where you used to come as a volunteer when you were in college and try to organize my papers, which clearly could use help again. So it’s been my privilege to work with you.

EM: Thank you. Thank you Alice. Well I’ll just – people are wondering who the heck I am. I’ll just come over here and say hey. So hey – this is Erin Matson, one of many people [who] has been lucky to have Alice touch my life. So anyway.

AC: And this is Alice – so lucky to have her touch my life.

EM: All right well onward.  Thank you Alice.

AC:  Thank you.