Blanche Wiesen Cook

“Now there are Student Movements and Civil Rights Movements of Young People Who are Organizing, and We Will Follow Them.”

Interviewed by Rebecca Lubetkin, VFA Legacy, January 2021

BWC:   Hi, I’m Blanche Wiesen Cook, born in Manhattan, lived in the Bronx and Flushing and Manhattan most of my life, except for the years I lived in Baltimore going to Johns Hopkins.

RL:  Briefly talk a little bit about what your life was like before you were involved as a feminist.

BWC:  I always say never go anywhere without your gang, because in the Bronx, I was part of some wonderful gangs. I had friends who went with me to Hebrew school where folks threw stones and I had a book bag filled with books to hit people with, and those were tough times. I was the only girl in Hebrew school surrounded by a weird culture that made me a feminist, a survivor. You have to fight your way out and into reality.

RL:  Why do you think that parents weren’t sending their daughters to Hebrew school?

BWC:  They were probably conservative or thought girls didn’t belong in school; there was a whole culture that thought girls didn’t belong in school. But my father was very progressive, and I was his little “boy”. He wanted me to learn everything and do everything. We went on long hikes and we went fishing and hiking and I went to Hebrew school.

RL:  Were there no brothers?

BWC:  No. I had a little sister, Marjorie, who became a teacher for challenged students.

RL:  Did she become a feminist as well?

BWC:  Oh, yes.

RL:  So, where and when did you become active or involved in the feminist movement?

BWC:  There wasn’t really a feminist movement as such until the 1970s, but before that in the 1950s, in various sports areas, there were movements of athletes who were really challenging the limitations of girls in sports. I was on the basketball team and I was a gymnast and we were protesting, and we succeeded ultimately in what became Title IX, but that was many years later, so that girls could have kind of equality in the sports arena. I was very active in high school at Flushing High School and at Hunter College in various movements for civil rights and women’s rights.

RL:   Did going to a women’s college have an impact?

BWC:  I think Hunter College as a women’s college is fabulous because we had the best teachers – we had feminist teachers. We had the sense that this was the route to power. And I worked for two great women: Mina Rees, who became the founder and president of the Graduate Center; and Ruth Weintraub, who was a wonderful lobbyist for good causes; she was chair of the political science department. I was a student aid and I worked for them both. They really taught me everything I needed to know about how you lobby, how you negotiate for power and how you build your gang. We need to build our gang for change and education is the route to it, and women’s education and women’s sports are the route to it.

RL:  So, you were really an activist long before the more organized aspect of what we call women’s liberation. Did it resonate to you in 1966 when they were organizing the National Organization for Women?

BWC:  It did resonate, but at first we thought NOW was conservative. There was a big lesbian and gay movement with women in the bars in the ’50s. I became a mentee of some of the great women in the lesbian movement in various bars in the village. There was women’s rights, then it was lesbian rights: are you going to stay in the closet, are you going to come out? All of this was happening in the ’50s and the ’60s and was part of the civil rights movement. Finally, the women’s movement grew. Audre Lorde was one of my best friends, lifelong. Lifelong friend and lover early on, and I met her in 1958.

RL:  That’s a long time. What about at Johns Hopkins? Did you find the same?

BWC:  Johns Hopkins was really interesting. I was one of only about three women in the graduate program in the history department. And Johns Hopkins was still segregated by race and really it was an all-boys school with very, very few women. Willie Lee Rose, who was a great mentor for so many of us, was the first woman who got a PhD and the first woman who taught at Johns Hopkins. There was a moment when all three of us were all going to leave, and Willie Lee Rose persuaded me to stay. So, I did.

But Johns Hopkins, as limited and segregated as it was, the history department had a bail fund for those of us who got arrested sitting in in Baltimore – the restaurants were segregated. We’d go sit in and sometimes we’d get arrested and then we’d call the History department and they would bail us out: send some students with money. The history department was wonderful. Those are wonderful people. Owen Lattimore, who left for Leeds in my second year; the great Renaissance scholar Frederick Chapin Lane; and then Charles Barker – and these were the progressive visionaries.

RL:  You got your PhD then at Johns Hopkins?

BWC:  I got my master’s there in ’64 and my PhD in ’70. It took me a long time to finish my dissertation.

RL:  But by that time, you were back in New York?

BWC:   Yes.

RL:  And were you teaching?

BWC:  Yes. My first teaching job was at Hampton Institute, which is now Hampton University, a historically Black college. When I came back to Baltimore after my summer at Hampton, the southern historian of the Civil War, David Donald, actually said at a seminar “Now Blanche, tell us as a New York Jew, what was it like?” That was one of the most defining moments for me, because I realized this man is a racist pig and ultimately I was very happy that he left and we didn’t have him anymore, but that was the spirit.

And then in ’64 a lot of my friends knew I was coming back to New York and I had some friends who called every single college in search of a job for me. They got all the way down to Stern College, which was the women’s branch of Yeshiva University and that’s where I got my first job in New York. I stayed there until I got this fabulous job at the new John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where I have been since 1968. That was really the best luck thanks to Sandi Cooper, whose husband was made dean of faculty. He was the only member of the history department and needed someone to replace him and Sandi mentioned me and that’s how I got my job.

RL:  So, you’ve been the chair of the history department at John Jay?

BWC:  No, I’ve never been chair, because I’ve wanted to write. I didn’t want to do administration work, but I’ve been an activist at the university and I’m very happy that I’m there.

RL:  What were your most memorable experiences as an activist, either at the university or in the greater community?

BWC:  During the war in Vietnam, I was very active with Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and I became legislative director of WILPF at one point. I met the most fabulous people, but at one WILPF meeting I met Clare Coss and it was love at first sight. At this meeting I just fell in love and she ran out the door down the stairs of this church where we were meeting. And I ran after her and didn’t catch her.

Finally, I found out from somebody who had invited this most beautiful woman, who she was. Since I was a big shot at WILPF, I said I have to have a meeting because they’re going to close the libraries and limit the hours of libraries, The New York Public Library was going to do this. We protested and stopped them, but I had to have a meeting about it and the meeting was with me and Clare and this other person who knew her. That was 1966 and ultimately we left our husbands for each other and we’ve been together for over 50 years.

RL:  And you’re still glowing when you talk about it.

BWC:  That was the most exciting moment of public activism and there were others: one great march in Washington, Audre Lorde was asked to speak as the featured speaker and that was really great. Audre was at City for the opening of the first really radical student movement at City, and then I got her to John Jay and then she got stolen away by Hunter, but we had a lot of fun both teaching and being activists.

RL:  But when you were at John Jay, wasn’t that largely male?

BWC:  It was largely male, initially it was police officers and firefighters and we didn’t begin to have civilian students until open enrollment. That was in the ’70s. Yes, it was mostly male. It’s still largely male, but now it’s very diverse. About 80% of our students are from all over the world. It’s really a wonderful experience. I always learn more from my students than I could possibly teach them. 

RL:  Looking back on it now and you’re still involved, you’re still teaching, what do you see as your major accomplishments specifically with regard to feminism?

BWC:   I’ve been very lucky with my students. My women students have gone on to law school and have made great careers for themselves. They credit me very often with changing their lives. I’ve been very, very lucky. I have had some of the best students, both at John Jay and the Graduate Center and at Hunter. I’m still friends with many of my students who are activists and visionaries and great heroes.

RL:  Would you talk also a little bit about your writing of the authoritative biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, since it must have occurred over a long period of time?

BWC:  Over 30 years. I always say my life was an accident because I had an accident when I was a gymnast and I couldn’t major in phys ed. So, I had to major in history and anthropology and political science, and that’s what I did. It was an accident while I was working on my book The Declassified Eisenhower, in Abilene, Kansas. Then I founded the Fund for Open Information and Accountability (FOIA) so we would have the Freedom of Information Act and in Abilene, Kansas, for a very long time.

Kate Stimpson was then the editor of Signs, and she would send me books to review. One of the books she sent me was this really stupid book about Lorena Hickok by a woman who said these letters couldn’t possibly mean what they seem to mean because Eleanor Roosevelt was a saint and a mermaid. I wrote a vicious review essentially saying, “Freud, excuse me, a cigar may not always be a cigar, but the northeast corner of your mouth upon my lips is always the northeast corner.”

This review got a lot of attention and people asked me to write about Eleanor Roosevelt. I said, “I do international relations, hard history, Goddess forgive me.” Joe Lash was my friend, because he blurbed my Crystal Eastman book wonderfully. He said, “This is a book that should stay in print forever.” My Crystal Eastman book has just been reprinted by Oxford and she’s the founder of the ACLU. It’s such a timely, incredible book and it’s available now.

It had been out of print for a while. I called up Joe and I said, “What’s up with you never writing about Hick at all?” He said, “Actually, I hated her, but let’s have dinner.” So, we had dinner and he said, “I have to do it.” Joe took me up to Hyde Park to the papers, and I realized there was a story here. Joe was Eleanor Roosevelt’s, good friend. He was very honorable in terms of what he would write about her –  anything she wanted him to write about he wrote about; anything she didn’t want him to write about he didn’t.

She said, “I don’t care about power” and Joe wrote that and then I knew I had a story. That was how I got to write about Eleanor Roosevelt, because of this review. And Joe hated Hick, as he said to me, for good reason. She was a bigot and an anti-Semite and treated Joe quite meanly, which was interesting. She was jealous of anybody who took any of Eleanor Roosevelt’s time.

RL:  Did you know that it was going to be a 30-year process?

BWC:  No, absolutely not. When I was working on the Freedom of Information, I discovered her State Department papers when she was at the United Nations. Her UN papers and all of her official papers were in the State Department and I was working to get things declassified and there they were. Plus, I got her FBI file, which I am now working on because I didn’t use her FBI file. The Freedom of Information Fund for Open Information and Accountability had a case: the American Friends Service Committee versus Webster in 1988. We got all of these incredible FBI files declassified and I got Eleanor Roosevelt’s file and at the time I wasn’t going to use it. When I finished volume three and I was cleaning up, I opened the drawer and I found the file.

RL:  When did you finish volume three? When did that come out?

BWC:  It came out in 2016.

RL:  Now you’re doing the FBI file?

BWC:  Yes, it’s really interesting. J. Edgar Hoover hated her and 80% of her file is what she said about race and her anti lynching activities, her anti bigotry and segregation activities. That’s 80% of her file. It’s really interesting.

RL:  Connecting up with what he did to Martin Luther King.

BWC:   Martin Luther King and Pauli Murray. There is a new film which everybody should take a look at. “Pauli Murray Speaks”, it’s going to be at Sundance Film Festival. It was on Democracy Now. There’s a wonderful hour on this new film on Pauli Murray, not only her feminism, but her transgender visions, it’s a powerful, powerful film. Today, the 29th of January it was live.

RL:  All this time you were writing the Eleanor Roosevelt biography. But you’ve also continued to be active in feminist activities.

BWC:   I’m very proud to be active with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and I’m on the board of Peace Action, New York State. And I think we’re really trying to demilitarize the future. If we can have a moratorium on atomic weapons, if we can demilitarize both the budget and the weapon hoarding, that would be fabulous. There are groups of people who are really working to do that and I’m very honored to be in the middle of the efforts.

The civil rights movement is still a most necessary reality, as we all know. And I’m very happy about that. Recently, I’ve been asked to write about Bella Abzug for different publications, including the anniversary for Hunter College, 1870-2020. I did a wonderful chapter on the class of 1942, Bella Abzug’s class, which includes some of our best friends and the women who founded Women Strike for Peace, which we worked with and marched with. It’s Bella Abzug, Mim Kelber, Amy Swerdlow, Judy Lerner, great people. That was all the class at Hunter, 1942.

RL:  So, we both came of age during the Second World War. Looking back now, I know there’s a lot that needs to be done, but what’s on your front burner in terms of changes that need to be made either in your institution or in the community or the country or the world?

BWC:   Those of us who take the environment seriously are very worried about the future. We have to have a Green New Deal. The issue is how do we have jobs for everybody, dignity for everybody, health for everybody, housing for everybody, and a Green New Deal so we won’t blow the world up and we won’t destroy the world by agricultural poisons and the overuse of what we have in limited supply. That’s really the issue for all of us, and I think we were all very happy that the fascist goon has left Washington and is somewhere in cyberspace and we have Kamala Harris and Joe Biden in the White House. And it’s a hopeful new day.

What makes me really happy is that there are student movements and civil rights movements of young people who are organizing, and we will follow them. But they have our efforts to build on. And I’m very grateful to them. Let me just say one more thing. One of the things that we’re fighting for at the City University is a return to free tuition. When I went to Hunter, not only was there free tuition, but we got our books free. I think we need to return to that, and the students want to return to that, faculty want to return to that and there’s a movement. The student movement is fabulous, and the civil rights movement is fabulous and there are movements and there’s hope. And as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Courage can be as contagious as fear, high hope!” And that’s the future.