THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“If I wanted to do something, I would just go and do it.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, September 2020
AN: My name is Annette Niemtzow and I was born in West Hudson, New Jersey, on January 12, 1945.
JW: Can you tell us briefly what your life was like before you got involved in the women’s movement?
AN: It’s hard to imagine I was not the women’s movement, even the women’s movement had not announced that it existed in a big way. I always was an achieving kid and was always aware of issues connected to discrimination, whether involving women or people of color. A telling instance was my family had a woman who cooked for us. She was a woman of color from the deep south. She was paid $36 a week, which struck me as a crazy salary.
I once asked her, “Mary, why don’t you go visit your family?” She said, “Because I can’t go to the bathroom. The trains are segregated, and we’re not allowed to use restrooms.” That became kind of my rallying cry in my head for this naive child. I remember when we became young Democrats – and I don’t consider myself a super active Democrat, but to see the Democratic Party as part of the movement toward social justice.
My classmates and I tried to help John Kennedy be elected, and part of the reason was I felt he was going to change the rules on those trains Mary had talked about. I told Mary when he was elected, “You can go now: the trains will no longer say that.” And Mary came back and told me that I was right, that the trains had been changed.
JW: Just a little about your ethnic background and family size, siblings, et cetera.
AN: I was raised in the family of Russian, Polish Jewish background. They were not political at all. I was born in New Jersey, as I said. My parents eventually moved to the Bronx, but I didn’t live with them very long in the Bronx, because my mother got sick when I was five and died by the time I was seven. She may have been sick earlier, but I just know that she went to the hospital sooner.
At age five, the family moved me to my mother’s twin sister’s house under the precept that a man couldn’t raise a child by himself. I had very little and often painful communications with my father, who wanted terribly to be in touch with me, but the family situation didn’t allow that. Until I was old enough to do something about it myself, when I would see him then on a regular basis, it was very hard to negotiate the family situation with regard to my father.
JW: So, when did you become aware of what we’ll call the women’s movement?
AN: I’m not sure I can actually answer that. I wound up going to a women’s college, which to me struck me as a very odd idea that I would go to a single sex institution, but I knew that academically it was probably the best institution in the New York area. I was accepted at Bronx science, but left soon after. It is a very competitive situation to get into and I left after probably three weeks. Instead, I went to a school that was kind of a mass market school.
To try to stop me from staying at that school the administration did not put me into an honors class, and that meant I developed a much broader group of friends. It included kids who were not academic at all. If I had entered that school from the start, I would have been in completely silent classes. I was actually with regard to my classes, silent, but not with regard to school activities. My gym class, my cafeteria, my homeroom were with regular kids and it was a very good thing for my mental and social growth.
JW: So, at Barnard and after that, where did your career go? Were you involved in any women’s organizations?
AN: Barnard was one piece of the conversation. My faculty’s aspirations were totally centered on me, where my classmates were, all of us. They protected us in a great many ways from understanding how discriminatory the world was. They encouraged us to think that the world was totally available to us. However, when I said I wanted to go to law school, my faculty literally gathered together and then set out to persuade me that I should not go.
They did not tell me that, for example, Columbia, which was our brother school, was probably the only place that might take me. That Harvard hadn’t taken a woman in 20 years from Barnard, that Yale didn’t take women from Barnard. They all knew that you had no chance being a lawyer. I thought that being a lawyer sounded like a very good thing for a number of reasons. Number one, was family.
There was a story that a member of my family had been the first woman to pass the bar in New York State. I always thought of the field of law as a way to change laws. In other words, I didn’t think about politics. I had been stopped by my family, which was very fearful. It was not unusual for a family that was essentially an immigrant family, first generation, to be fearful. And my aunt was always terrified that I was going to sign some petition and get into trouble.
I had classmates and close friends who went to Selma. There was no chance that my family would allow me to do something like that, but I remember thinking that if it had, I know other places did, too. Its sister school was Spelman College and every year daughters of Spelman would arrive and since I was such a good student, I’m not sure how much people knew how passionately I felt about all of these issues.
There were almost no Black kids in our school, there had been no Black kids in my elementary school. But in my high school, in that general class, I suddenly had Black friends. I had people who were part of my ordinary world. My family was totally disapproving. I once had a Democrat meeting in my house and my uncle almost went ballistic because there had been Black kids.
JW: You said you went into academia?
AN: I did, partly because I had no notion of what else I could do. I didn’t know anything about the world. It’s not to say I didn’t have summer jobs, I had summer jobs.
JW: Tell me about your women related incidences as you got through academia.
AN: I go to Harvard and the first thing that’s ever said to me is by Jerome Buckley, my adviser. I walked into the room and Buckley looked at me and asked, “Annette, why don’t you go get married? You’re a good-looking woman. What are you doing here?”
JW: This is at graduate school?
AN: At graduate school, first day walking in. He’s a very distinguished 19th century professor. I was very interested in the 19th century novels. There’s Jerome Buckley, who says to me, “What are you doing here?” And I thought, these people are crazy. I suddenly went from a place where every picture on the wall was a picture of a woman of achievement to a place where all I saw were these dumb looking white men. I was astonished by it, completely astonished by how parochial it was.
I remember some months later meeting a fellow graduate student. He said, “Oh, I know who you are. You’re the one in the red pants.” It turned out that these pants that I wore had become the subject of conversation among my fellow graduate students, so the whole thing was just awful. Academically it wasn’t awful, I had some really remarkable faculty. The student revolution took place. During my first year at Harvard I discovered the nonsense with limitations for women was kind of the given for everything that was taking place.
I think that my career was changed by something that connected to my Harvard life. By this time, I was doing American literature and it’s surprising that I didn’t find something like this, the 1619 information, sooner. I was looking at the discrimination against women and issues connected to race in American literature. I’d done quite a lot of work on human enslavement narratives and about the difference between how enslaved men and women wrote about themselves and what their experience has been. But what I was interested in was how people told their stories.
How do you learn to tell a story? How do you learn that you exist? And I recognized the history of American literature, which shows that you learn you exist by telling about your parents and family. If you’re enslaved, you may not know about your parents and family – you’ve been cut off from knowing. How do you form a self? How do you know who “I” is?
I eventually wrote an essay that I continued all the way through about Frederick Douglass and Linda Gant, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”. And about how females found themselves in novels because they wanted to write about “a romantic liaison” which may have in fact been a rape. And that’s how they were able to translate it. It may have been romantic, or it may not have been, but they would certainly write it as if it were romantic, because that would guarantee that they would be seen as good women, not bad women involved in something dirty and horrible.
As for Douglass, reading his work was watching somebody trying to cope with how to be a Black person. How can I be a Black person with no history? He says, I have a great history. You should see my family. It’s quite shocking when you start thinking of it in this context. My thesis was called “The Marital Whip”. It was about the structures of literature and life – we’re trying to get rid of feminism, and to push women into a marital circumstance where they would live harmoniously in society. That marriage was the harmony and anything and the women’s actions hardly matters.
As part of my thesis, I wrote an essay where I declared that Huckleberry Finn was not about male bonding and it wasn’t women hating which is what people like Leslie Pfieffer would have had to say. In Huckleberry Finn he complains about Miss Watson and the widow Douglass who were the people raising him and how women were negatives.
There’s a huge tradition of American literature that tries to say that male bonding was what these men really wanted and saw them as rebelling against the gentility that women represented. And I argued the opposite: I said Huckleberry Finn’s father was an alcoholic who beat up his son and terrified Huck. When Huck runs away, it’s to escape his father.
When I eventually become an academic, an essay is read at American Literature. James Cox was the head of the committee that read that stuff and he had written extensively about male bonding and Huckleberry Finn etc., and he said that if we accept this article, it will change the way everyone looks at Huckleberry Finn. And I am not willing to do that.
Maybe people should look at Huckleberry Finn differently. It’s actually very important, because I think that it tells us a great deal about how different men felt about the issue of the growing demand for female equality.
JW: So, you became an academic. And I assume your views about women and women’s role was part of your thinking and teaching when you were an academic?
AN: Absolutely. The way I actually got a job – and I don’t attribute it to the brilliance of mine – was one of my advisers at Harvard had come from Bryn Mawr College. He had been the emeritus at Bryn Mawr, and when he left, they never hired anybody to teach American literature. I’ve always been so strangely naive; I had no idea that meant they thought that nobody should study American literature. Which as it turns out, is what they said when I eventually didn’t get tenure.
This man, whose name was Warner Berthoff, saw that I went to Barnard and asked who were my favorite teachers. And one teacher I mentioned was my professor, Barbara Cross. She had killed herself. And he looked at me and said, “Barbara was the best of us.” He’d met Bob Cross himself. And this is the man who eventually became the head of American studies at Harvard – I can’t think of his name right now. Those three were all roommates as Harvard undergraduates and Bob Cross had married Barbara and Barbara had gone to Smith.
The boys kept moving forward. Bob Cross eventually was the president of Hunter College, then of Swarthmore, a major figure. Barbara was assistant professor at Barnard, they didn’t even advance her there. Barnard’s promotions were determined by Columbia, they had to agree. This was completely nuts.
Warner decided he was going to help me and protect me. But he didn’t know that he was putting me in an institution where anti-Semitism thrived and where somebody being an out lesbian was certainly not welcome. They’re just shocked by me all the time, but Bryn Mawr College hired me. Other members of the faculty told me Lawrence Stapleton, who was a senior faculty member, didn’t want me there. They said he wrote a letter which I eventually saw during the fight about my tenure, in which he said, “We have enough Jews.”
I loved being at Bryn Mawr, I had wonderful students, I taught feminist stuff all the time. That’s what I did. And right – the most powerful man in the department because he was the only one with any academic credentials wrote that I was talking junk about junk in reference to my enslavement narratives. That same essay on enslavement narratives was eventually republished both by Harold Bloom and Skip Gates at Harvard, who remains a big fan of mine.
JW: Obviously, you were interested in promoting the feminist point of view. And when you left academia, where do you go next?
AN: Let me just say something. I wasn’t promoting the feminist point of view; I was promoting truth. There was no issue – it wasn’t feminist point of view. If you go and look at this stuff, with James Fenimore Cooper and see that he’s injected into Americans, going and wiping out the Mohegans or whether or not he’s objecting to the wiping out of the buffalo. All of these conversations about the nature of the earth, these are deeply embedded in American literature almost from the start.
If you look at the writings of the Puritans, which I did at length, what they did to Anne Hutchinson because she was accused of telling women to behave more like men and to not listen to their husbands. And then, of course, they blamed it on, “ the Indians” killed her, when in fact, they made it impossible for her to live where she had been living. It’s just dreadful when I think about a constitution that includes a definition of human beings as three fifths human beings. This is a country that sits on very bad foundations. We have aspirations, but we don’t meet them, and we haven’t met them from the very first.
JW: Let’s talk about where you’ve gone and carried your thoughts and views with you.
AN: So, I moved on. I went to the Wharton School. I decided I didn’t know anything about the world. I’d always been in a world where academics and academic achievement mattered. Wharton had a program at that time for those of us who were PhDs. It was about a four or five month program and we did the equivalent of what MBAs did in two years. It was very stressful, because I had not done any math since high school and suddenly I was doing accounting.
I am the only person who ever thought accounting was absolutely fascinating. It didn’t mean I wanted to sit there and do it. But it was fascinating. If a company can take a drug to market – until they have taken it to market. How much do they spend on it? They can’t write it off until it comes to market and it stops the flow of drug development. That’s what accounting was about.
It was about learning these rules that were set in our country that we know nothing about that determine whether or not we have proper health care. You sit there and you think, holy shit, who did this? Who set this up? The FASSB board. And they set these rules, they are appointee’s. They’re not elected officials and they determine what happens in our country in such a way that we are completely blind to them. Wharton was very strange, except that it wasn’t strange at all. I was surrounded by all these academics who were getting trained in this.
JW: Were there a lot of women in that group?
AN: I think there were. I barely remember anybody from it. I got offered a job selling coal mines and it was a learning experience. I wasn’t interested in selling coal mines. There had been one mine sold. Everybody had already determined that coal was dirty fuel, so the coal mines were no longer financially viable in the United States, and yet this man had sold a coal mine.
He was very sweet and moving. He wanted me to come and do all the back-office work, all the finances and everything else. And he and I would split the coal mine sales. The one he had sold, he made $6,000,000 in 1973 or 1972. I don’t know anybody who has that much money, except I have some friends who have that much money, because their families had it, but my social circle doesn’t have that much money.
Would I stop hanging out with everybody I know because I’m now going to be very rich? And I’m not trying to be very rich but if I did my job properly, we would sell the mines. He would sell the mines to other countries who transported the coal to those other countries. He was a hero in Appalachia because he had sent the men back working in a mine.
Eventually I became a theater producer and the first play was called the Kentucky Psycho, which was about the stealing of the land and then the destruction of the land through coal mining. It was about the history of America and it’s a play that won the Pulitzer Prize. It was too long a play; Robert wrote that in two parts. When I say it was too long, I just mean that a commercial audience won’t watch a two-hour, two-part play. Even Angels in America is usually done as one, then the other. We were showing both parts and it made it completely impossible. But again, I was such a newbie producer.
JW: As a woman was it difficult to get into that?
AN: If you’re able to raise money, you can join the club. You might not be treated with the same respect by various people, but you can at least join the club. I never paused to do something because I thought a woman would not be well treated. If I wanted to do something, I would go and do it. There are times that I just knew that you can’t go and do this. Being a lawyer is the big example – that I didn’t become a lawyer. I feel that I could have done so much good, my commitments would have enabled me to do so much good.
JW: Do you think through your producing then that you were able to promote issues that are of concern to women?
AN: I’ve always said that what I wanted my plays to show is human being’s capacity to love. They don’t do that. I think that the new play I’m doing, which is called “The Elephant Whisperer”, will do that. And we will engage in a very large conversation about who owns the land in Africa and what happens to these wild animals who live in Africa and what happens to the different people? Who is going to make those decisions? I think it’s going to be an extraordinary play on so many levels. “The Elephant Whisperer” will happen in 2022 in England.
The other play that I’ve been really working on is a play based on the story of marriage equality and how that happened. That’s connected to my doctoral dissertation which was accepted by Oxford University Press to be a book. In ’81 we were in recession and Oxford could not publish the book and the book never got published. That affected my tenure, because they probably couldn’t have gotten away with it if I had had the book accepted. But I had a letter from Oxford showing that under normal circumstances we would have published this book because they had already written and said they were publishing it.
The marriage equality play has been very difficult to develop, because it turns out that a great many writers continue to see marriage as not the essence of what being gay is. Even though they themselves are now married, they have hesitations about whether or not they would write a play that would recognize what Evan Wolfson of the Freedom to Marry would tell us, which is that love is love and that without validation of our relationships by legal and social rules we would never have a chance of achieving equality.
I’ve had push back by prominent writers and getting involved with writing a play on this subject, though, there’s no rules that they had to write it. Shakespeare was known to have preachers who stayed outside the marital circle as well. There’s no shortage of good writing that includes that. It’s been very frustrating for me and I have been working with major people from the Freedom to Marry movement who have tried to call in favors on prominent gay writers. They all just freak out.
JW: Men or women?
AN: Both. But there are very few prominent women. The problem is the way our theater is financed, the way we find money for it, it’s self-fulfilling. If you have someone who already has a reputation, people are more inclined to give you money and then the critics are more likely to be interested in your play. And the audiences are more receptive. I’ve had support in this project from New York Theater Workshop which developed Tony Kushner’s works, which developed Paula Vogel’s work. All these people would like to see this happen. We’re all staring at ourselves.
“The Elephant Whisperer” has a strong female team at the center of this, both in general management and in our rider, and we may have another key female person involved in it. We are also very mindful that we need people both from Africa and of color. I’m working with Handspring, the people who did work for the big puppets in War Horse. We have elephant puppets and while those are largely created by these two white men, the workshops are completely run by people of color. But they’re not as visible and we’re working on this issue of how to make more visibility for the people of color who will be responsible for this play.
JW: Well, let me ask you one final question. Where do you think the change in views about women has helped in your life?
AN: It’s a change for everybody’s life. In the ’60s we used to be afraid to get into an elevator with a man. You were aware that rape was there and all the stuff going on all the time. The streets were more violent. You were aware that there were rules stopping him. And I think what really has happened is that women have taken charge of ourselves. On the other hand, I will say I think the discrimination against lesbians remains, and that remains on a very personal level. People are really not as accepting as they pretend to be. They’re just not comfortable.
The most important thing is that girls wake up in the morning and they think they can be anything and can do anything. And I think that that is extraordinary. I had it myself, but I didn’t know other people didn’t have it and that other people were planning their lives based on that. I remember having a friend in grade school. Her mother just kept sitting us down and saying, you need to find and marry a very wealthy man. I have seen her on Facebook, and I feel so bad for her.
There hasn’t been enough analysis of what happened to get Trump into office besides the Russians, besides about the tension between male and female. And the ongoing hatred for Hillary Clinton for even existing because of the possibility that she would be the president of the United States. I’m talking about how that affected men and women, women who have to live their lives subservient to their husbands. And even if they don’t think they do, they do. When they were pressed to the cause they couldn’t rise to it. They didn’t know how to. We have a long way to travel on that.
JW: Any other last comments?
AN: We didn’t discuss at all how I was involved with feminism when I went and lived with the woman I was involved with who was teaching at Yale. I went to the Women’s Center and during that time, the big thing was never to say the word lesbian out loud, that would have been ’69-’70. It was when the Yale Women’s Center was founded – I was one of the founders of the Yale Women’s Center. I also knew that I had to be, at a certain level, very quiet. And that was not good. I think in a better society I would have been able to do more good.