Alice Tetelman

“I Hope the Next Generation Will Continue to Hold Up the Banner in Whatever Way They Can.”

Interviewed by Judith Waxman, February 2021

AT:  My name is Alice Fran Tetelman. I was born in New York City in Manhattan in April 1941.

JW:  Tell me a little about what your life was like before the women’s movement.

AT:  I was raised in what I would call a middle class or upper middle-class home. I had one older brother and I was living in Manhattan the whole time. I went to a private school outside the city in the Bronx, in Riverdale. My father owned a business and my mother didn’t work, but she did a lot of volunteer work, she was very interested in doing that. Growing up in New York City offers you a lot of opportunities and a lot of interests that I still have today in the arts and theater, museums, et cetera. I had a pretty full childhood growing up where I did. My mother was very interested in the arts and that started me on my path, as it were.

I left New York for college. I went to a women’s college in Massachusetts, Mount Holyoke, and I studied political science there. I have always been interested in politics. When I was in high school, I said that I wanted to study current history – I didn’t have a name for it. When I got to Mount Holyoke, I started to study political science and that’s when I found out what it was. Between my junior and senior year in college, I came to Washington on an internship program. Mount Holyoke had the first internship program in the country for women started by one of the poli sci professors.

I just fell in love with the city – it was all of my interests so I vowed that I would get back here to live and to work. It was something I always knew I wanted to do. After college, though, I did go back to New York for five years and I worked for a nonprofit educational organization. I started out as a good college graduate as a secretary/receptionist and then worked my way up – it was 1962 – into a research position of more authority. But that’s what women did in those eras; you didn’t have a lot of opportunity. But the people in this organization, many of whom had worked for foundations, really gave a lot of us an opportunity. That’s where I really got my start.

The other thing I’d say is that when I moved back to New York, I joined the local Republican club on 83rd Street. My family was all Democrats, but I had an older brother who was a Republican – he got me interested in this. It was a Republican club where the three big pictures were John Lindsay, Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits – that’s what welcomed you when you came into the hall. In the beginning, I was called a liberal Republican and then called a progressive Republican, a moderate Republican. Now I’m a committed Democrat, but that’s how I started my career. When we talk about the National Women’s Political Caucus, I think that’s one of the things that makes me a little different than some of the other women I know that are participating in this oral history project, because my political career was working for liberal, moderate Republicans.

JW:  Was it the women’s movement or was it the National Women’s Political Caucus that you first got involved in?

AT:   I’ll take a step back and say that when I came to Washington in 1968, I did a lot of volunteer work for a group called the Ripon Society, which was a liberal think tank for people like me. We wrote position papers, we had a magazine, we wrote articles and came up with ideas to try to broaden the scope of the Republican Party. When I started in the Ripon Society in Washington, that’s when I started to meet a lot of other women who were also involved as liberal Republicans in the Ripon Society.

In 1968 I got a job with the then Republican Congressman Charles Goodell from upstate New York. He was appointed by Nelson Rockefeller to become the successor to Robert Kennedy in the Senate. I moved over from the House to the Senate as one of Charlie’s legislative assistants, a job I had for almost three years, and in the process Charlie was the subcommittee head of a platform committee for the 1968 convention. I mention this because I’ve done four Republican conventions and that fed into my work with the Caucus. So, I went to Miami in ’68 and worked on the platform for Nelson Rockefeller, who lost the nomination to Richard Nixon. That was the first of my convention experiences.

I continued to do work with Ripon, I was vaguely aware of the Caucus per se. Although it was bipartisan, it was primarily a democrat institution, that’s how I saw it. In 1975 a friend of mine, another liberal Republican, Pat Goldman, called me up and said, “We are forming an organization called the Republican Women’s Task Force, which would be the Republican arm of the National Women’s Political Caucus, would you like to get involved? Would you like to be on the board?” I said, “Sure.” I can’t remember how many of us there were, not a phenomenal number of us, and we started this organization and we had people from around the country who were other Republicans who were interested in issues that the Caucus supported and that we supported, primarily the Equal Rights Amendment and the abortion issue, as well as day care, a lot of the other women’s issues, women’s health concerns, that I  think everybody was interested in.

We decided that we would go to Kansas City to help or try to keep the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1976 platform. As I look at it today, I sometimes say to myself what an audacious thing to do, but we started organizing to do this. The ERA had been in the platform since 1940 and we saw no reason why it should be taken out. But there were lots of threats at that time as the party was turning more and more to the right. We organized ourselves and started this major database of all of the delegates. Once we found out who the delegates were going to be, we started making contacts in the various states and getting information about who was going to support the ERA and who wasn’t.

And the most important thing was who was going to be on the platform committee, because each state and territory would send one man and one woman on the platform committee and those were the people we had to convince. We put together this large briefing book with as much information as we could about all of the delegates. A group of us went out to Kansas City in the summer of ’76 to try to lobby for the ERA. That was the first project that I did with the Caucus, so to speak, because it was the Republican Women’s Task Force of the Caucus. Two people from the Caucus, Jane Pierson and Lael Stegall, came out to be with us while we were doing this work. We just organized a lobbying campaign.

We zeroed in first on the subcommittee that was considering this, and we lost eight to seven. We had a lot of help from members of Congress that we knew, particularly Millicent Fenwick from New Jersey, who was a major spokesperson for our group. Jill Ruckelshaus was there, Elly Peterson of Michigan, the committeewoman from Michigan, who was very important in developing women’s programs within the party structure. She at one point had been the deputy chairman of the party and was a supporter of all of us and our group. Then we had to lobby for the full committee vote and we did that. We buttonholed people, we figured out who could move them and sent other people to them.

In the end we were successful, and we kept the ERA in the platform 51 to 47. It was a tremendous victory for us, for the party, and then we got the attention of the President Ford campaign people who started offering us walkie talkies and any kind of help we needed because they were concerned there would be a floor fight. The ERA was the major issue that was dividing Reagan and Ford in that battle. After Reagan lost in the platform committee, he didn’t take it to the floor and try to win it there, although we had to get organized to make sure that wouldn’t take place.

We left Kansas City feeling really good. I can still remember the exhilaration I felt that night when we got the final vote. It was a really big deal. That was the first thing I did. And then in 1977, the next year was the year of the International Women’s Year National Convention in Houston with Bella Abzug heading the IWY program. Because we had convention experience, the Republican Women’s Task Force were asked by people in the Caucus leadership if we would organize the floor strategy for the Houston convention. There were about 2,000 delegates there and about 20% of them were not in favor of the Pro Plan, which had come out of all these state and local meetings. The Caucus set up something called the Pro Plan, meaning we want to pass the plan that all these IWY committees and all these states developed.

There were 26 planks and some of them were controversial, others were on the ERA, on abortion, on sexual orientation. There was concern that this 20% would start to organize floor fights and offer amendments because the process allowed for floor amendments to amend the plan in a negative way to the Pro Plan plan. A group of us, there weren’t many of us, figured out, with a late friend of mine named Pam Curtis, a way that by picking people in each section of the floor, we could pass the information on to them and they would then reach out to others. We came up with a pretty simple method of doing this, and on occasion we had to use that system because there were anti-amendments that came up and people had to know how to vote.

We succeeded in heading off any kind of problems, I’m happy to say. That was a lot of fun and it was something that we, as a group of Republican women were really proud to do and happy to do. That was my role in Houston. I came back to D.C. and I had left my consulting firm I’d been working at. I had a year sort of looking for work, doing some odd jobs. I started lobbying with people from the Caucus against the Hyde Amendment, which was 1977, didn’t win that one, unfortunately. That’s how I spent my time with a Caucus connection.

In 1980, we went back to the Republican convention, there were fewer of us then. This was my third convention and the party was moving ever rightward, Reagan was going to be the nominee. We didn’t have much anticipation of winning and keeping the ERA plank in the platform the way we had in ’76. We decided on a press strategy and for 13 days we did all sorts of press stuff to keep the ERA in the newspapers, television, radio, whatever. Some people went to big marches that were organized, not by us necessarily, but by others. We gave interviews to reporters, we talked to delegates that were in support of this and we managed for all that time to just keep hammering away at the importance of the ERA, and Reagan made it clear he didn’t want it in the platform.

We felt that we had had an impact because towards the end of this press barrage, somebody from the Reagan camp came to myself and to Pam Curtis and said the governor would like to have a meeting of women. We said terrific, we can talk about these issues, so we said fine. The meeting was scheduled for after the platform committee vote. At the full platform committee, a delegate from Hawaii, John Leopold, offered the ERA plank and it was defeated 90-9, in contrast to our winning 51-47 four years before. That tells you where things were. That was also the year there were other platform planks put in about judges having to be anti-abortion and other things, it was not a great scene.

But we got the meeting and among the people that were there was Representative Margaret Heckler of Massachusetts and she asked Reagan whether or not he would appoint a woman to the Supreme Court. He said yes. This was the first time that anybody had ever asked him as far as we knew, and it was astounding. He said, yes, that he would consider doing that. The interesting thing was that he said it at that summer meeting, and then he gave a speech later on in December in which he said it again and it made big news. But this was the first time that he said that he would do that. And he appointed Sandra Day O’Connor as the first choice.

And then someone else in the group asked him whether or not if a candidate for vice president was pro-choice, if this would make a difference in their being chosen and he said no. Now at that time, George Herbert Walker Bush – I would regard him as being a pro-choice candidate at that time. That sort of gave a signal that Bush was in the running and wouldn’t be left out because of that. So, Peggy Heckler and I think Carla Hills and a few others had a press conference after and reported on all of this. So, it wasn’t a win in any way, but we felt we had made our point. And all those days of press coverage, I think really did make a difference in pushing things along. That was the summer of 1980.

My other involvements with the National Women’s Political Caucus: on two different occasions, I was involved in campaigns for one of our members to run and to win, actually as the vice chair of the Caucus. There was a Democratic chair and a vice chair was Republican. And then in December 1980 I got married to a foreign service officer, so I went off to Czechoslovakia for two years. That was the end of my extracurricular Republican Women’s Task Force activities. When I got back, I continued to work in politics, but I didn’t necessarily work outside of my jobs on women’s issues, although because I worked on the Hill or I was lobbying the Hill, those issues did come up. That was sort of my story, except, yes. I retired in 1998.

JW:  Before you retired,  you said those issues did come up. So, can you tell me a little about how you continued your efforts or what your experience from the 1970s meant to you to continue caring about ERA, abortion, whatever else it was that you cared about?

AT:  I would like to say something that I jokingly tell people, which is that I think that I was born a feminist. So those issues are always important to me. The ERA – and actually in 1978, after I worked in the Houston conference, I went to work for a New York City congressman who was very much pro women’s issues. And that was the year of the vote to have the ERA extended for three years and of course it died in ’82. I ran his congressional office and that was one time. 

In each of the jobs that I had after that, I worked first for the House Select Committee on Hunger, where I was the Republican staff director and worked for Marge Roukema of New Jersey. Hunger issues and women’s issues are obviously tied, so that was a job I was obviously committed to. And then I ran the lobbying office for the state of New Jersey for Governor Tom Kean, another wonderful moderate Republican. Then I ran a think tank for Governors’ Policy Advisors. Then I was the Chief Lobbyist for New York City.

In each of those cases, whenever women’s issues would come up, I would try my best to make sure that we had a hand in trying to further either the money side on the appropriations or on the authorization. When I retired in 1998 from the political world, I went on the board of The Wish List. The Wish List doesn’t exist anymore, but it was considered at the time to be the Republican answer to EMILY’s List, although it never, ever achieved the level of funding that EMILY’s List has. We tried to support pro-choice Republican women. I went on the board for three years and as my continued contribution, as it were. But in 2001, I left the Republican Party and I am now a committed Democrat, so I got off the board of The Wish List.

JW:  Did any of your feminist activities contribute to you leaving the Republican Party?

AT:  Certainly, the party was nowhere near where I was, it had gone so far to the right. I couldn’t imagine any young woman who was thoughtful about issues wanting to join the Republican Party because it was so anti-choice, anti-equal rights, really against so much of what is necessary today in terms of federal assistance and programs to help women. I finally decided that for me it was time that I formally left the party. I wasn’t working in it anymore and I was volunteering for the Wish List but I just could not support the party’s policies and their attitudes towards women were part of that, yes.

JW:  What would you say the impact of the National Women’s Political Caucus meant really to American women?

AT:  I think the Caucus was the first, largest, the most organized political entity to focus on women’s issues in the ’70s. I think it made a tremendous contribution to furthering goals for women, not only in electing women and there it would be mostly on the Democratic side, and also getting bills passed. The more women you elect, the better you’ll be in terms of being able to get women’s issues to the fore and to pass through Congress. And that’s certainly been the case. The more women we’ve had in office, the better the situation definitely has been.

The Caucus allowed women to come into their own in terms of running for office, all the way up to Shirley Chisholm, who was the first woman and an African-American woman to run for president. If you didn’t have an organization like that, I don’t think that all of this would have happened. And I think on our Republican side, we made our contribution. We certainly fought for the Equal Rights Amendment in a way that was successful at least for one round. And made it clear what some Republicans thought about the issue. There are many Republicans who did support the ERA, but the leadership that got in, did not.

JW:  What do you think the prospects are for getting the ERA passed or I should say ratified and part of the Constitution any time soon? 

AT:  I don’t see it happening, I’m sorry to say. Because even if you got the remaining votes you needed, then there would be arguments about whether or not the states have passed it before, whether or not their votes would still stand. I think it’s a long shot and I think there are other issues that we should be working on besides that.

JW:  I think about some of the arguments back in the day – like women in combat and coed bathrooms – [that] did it! So, we’re whittling away. I still obviously would support the ERA, but it’s taking longer and harder. But we are chipping away at what the issues were or are.

AT:  Although those words with capital letters, the Republicans were always happy to change the plank to put them in lowercase, that’s what 1980 was all about. Over whether or not it would be capital E R and A. But I think that still scares people because they think it’s just going to open up the floodgates, although as you point out, so many of the things people were afraid of, we have already.

JW:  Anything else you’d like to add as we finish up?

AT:  I guess the only other thing – I was thinking about this earlier – that I’d like to say is that by participating in the women’s movement, I made incredible, wonderful friendships. And that’s enriched my life as a human being. I’ve known many of these people since the ’70s and they’re still good friends. That’s a great thing personally as well as given what we all went through and did together, because that’s on the human scale. I’m proud of what I did and I’m proud of what everybody did to move this issue forward, move all of our issues forward. I hope the next generation will continue to hold up the banner in whatever way they can.