Colette Roberts

Still Trying to Open Doors

Interviewed by Rosemary Trowbridge, August, 2019

CR:  My name is Colette Roberts and I live in Ellicott City, Maryland.

RT:  What was your maiden name?

CR:  Nanton. It’s a French name. My dad was part French.

RT:  I never knew that. When and where were you born?

CR:  I was born in New York City. I think in Queens, I’m not sure. We lived in Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. I think I was born in Manhattan and I was born in 1939.

RT:  Thank you. What is your family background including your ethnic background?

CR:  I’m mixed racially. I have many, many different ethnic groups in me. My mother, East Indian, and her father, we’re not sure what he was. I didn’t know him well. My dad was born in St. Lucia, which is a French island, and his dad we think was British, but his mom was St. Lucian, which was a mixture of French, Spanish, Black – everything, and so I’m a little bit of everything.

RT:  What was your life like before you got involved in the women’s movement?

CR:  I grew up in a family of five: four brothers. We moved a lot because every time my mother felt like the schools were changing or not as good, we’d pick up. My mother loved to move and loved to redecorate and so we moved throughout New York City. And my life was good. I went to the High School of Music and Art because I was an art major and I thought I would do something with my art. Of course my brothers all were encouraged to go to college. I was told “no, you could have art as a hobby. You need to get married.” That’s what I ended up doing out of high school – I got married.

RT:  And where were you in the five children?

CR:  I was the oldest and my husband was the youngest of five. I liked to boss him around. 

RT:  So how did you get involved in the movement?

CR:  Well we moved a lot because my husband was in the shopping center business. Every time they’d have a new shopping center, they needed managers who were experienced and so we would move and he’d get it going. We were living outside Philadelphia and I signed my four kids up for basketball through the community center. My three girls came home and said, “We have nothing, we have no gym, we don’t have use of the coach” and I had paid the same amount for my son. I got really upset because I knew nothing about the inequalities of women.

The only political activity I had was the Vietnam War, which I had gone to DC a number of times to protest, but I knew nothing about women, men, relationships and equity issues. I saw an ad in the local newspaper for the NOW group and I thought “sounds interesting. I’m going to go to a meeting and maybe they can advise me on what to do with this basketball problem.” I went to a meeting and talked to them. They were very upset and said we can sue or we can picket. We can do all kinds of things that embarrass them so that they will make things more fair and more equitable for the girls.

I said let’s not do anything yet. I went to the coach and let him know this is what we’re going to do. You’re going to have a lot of women outside picketing and the press is going to be here. They’ll have a field day. He had a fit because he hadn’t really given it any thought either. And he said let’s see what we can do. The next thing I know my kids came home and said, “Yes, we have the gym and we have a coach and we’re going to get uniforms.” The boys had less time on the court because they had to give the girls some, but everybody was very happy in the end. And that’s when my eyes opened because I hadn’t given this any consideration before. I went to some NOW meetings and really learned a lot.

RT:  That was your first political action.

CR:  Yes, that’s right.

RT:  Fabulous. Where and when were you active in the women’s movement? This is a big question because there’s lots of where’s and lots of whens.

CR:  We moved a lot. I was active in Pennsylvania and in Massachusetts. When I went to Texas, I was active there and in Maryland. So many different places, many different chapters, got to meet some wonderful women. And each of the chapters was so interesting to me because they all operated so differently. In Texas, I found the women were very willing to kowtow to the politicians. They played this game of being a lady and they kept telling me you have to be a lady and speak softly and gently and be nice to these men even though they’re awful.

That shocked me because I thought you went in and you gave your demands and you said what you needed and wanted and why and that would have been it. But they said no, we have to do this, we have to be ladies. That’s when I realized that yeah, all over this whole country it’s run very differently. We have to listen to that and look at that and see how to appeal to people on that level. That was an eye opener.

RT:  What was your experience in Springfield or Massachusetts or East Longmeadow?

CR:  My experiences were good there. I was president of the chapter and enjoyed the women there very,  very much. We did a lot in the community. We did one fun thing. We did a birthday party for Margaret Sanger. We had press on that. We went into the school system, talked to people there, talked to the young people. I think we opened a lot of eyes. I had letters to the editor constantly in the paper because I found the paper very misogynistic and it was the biggest paper in the area. That was the Times Republican News. I was constantly writing them, and they published my letters. And that was fun.

RT:  I know you were also published in Time and Newsweek.

CR:  Also the New York Times.

RT:  You were also involved in National NOW. Tell us about that.

CR:  Ellie Smeal was looking for people who could take time out of their schedules and come volunteer in the national office and work for the Equal Rights Amendment. She came and visited me and asked me would I be willing to take a year? I was not working outside the home at that time. My husband was very excited about it – he thought it’d be a great idea. I picked up, left home, and flew into D.C. and lived with Rosemary [Trowbridge] and Molly Yard and really learned a lot. It was a good experience for me.

RT:  Now that was the summer of ‘81. You were also elected to the national board in 1980. So you were on the board at the time. You were on the board from Massachusetts and then later you moved and you’re also on the board from Texas. And then when you moved to Houston, I believe you’re also on the board from Texas.

CR:  Yes, it was an interesting perspective. It really was.

RT:  Is there anything special you remember from your work on the national board?

CR:  It was mostly the Equal Rights Amendment, which I learned a lot about and how people voted. I learned about some of these politicians and what it would take to get them to believe in it and pass it. And it was very difficult.

RT:  What were the issues of greatest concern to you?

CR:  Education was a big one, because having children and having children in the schools was my primary concern. Also, I think health care for women was a big one. And equal pay, because I had always worked outside the home in part time jobs, mostly advertising agencies, and I know I wasn’t getting paid fairly. I had a boss tell me one day, “I can’t pay you the same as the guys in here because they have families.” And that was a shock. 

RT:  What would you say your major accomplishment personally and that you’re involved with, would be when you were in NOW but also outside of NOW?

CR:  When I moved to Maryland, I learned that my second daughter was a lesbian. It was fine with me and fine with my husband. But when we asked her why she hadn’t come out to us, she said that she had met some people in college who had been thrown out by their parents. Which shocked me, because I thought why would you do that? These are your loving children.

I wanted to find a place that would help parents to understand. I was told about PFLAG, and I went to the Baltimore chapter meeting and there were all these parents sitting there crying and crying and crying and I thought, I don’t like this because I don’t feel this is a sad subject. I think we need to learn to love our kids. The woman who was the president at that time encouraged me to start a chapter in Columbia, MD which I did. The very first meeting we had 30 people, which really shocked me because I thought maybe a few people would come in and 30 people came.

Within that chapter I started up a separate group for parents. And then we had a lot of kids show up eventually at some of the meetings, and started a separate group, the Rainbow Youth Alliance, for the students. The parents group, I finally said to them one day, because I was chairing that, we’re not going to sit here and cry. We’re going to take that anger, and that energy, and we’re going to go lobby in Annapolis. Most of them said, “Oh no, can’t do that, can’t do that, I’ve never done that. I’m afraid.” And I said, OK come with me. I’ll do all the talking. You’ll just be there with me.

We got lists of who the legislators were that we needed to see, we went into Annapolis. The very first time we knocked on doors I’d say the majority of them were welcoming and they listened to our stories. As I was talking, some of the other parents started to realize that it wasn’t that difficult. But we did have a few from the western part of the state who were super, super conservative and actually locked their doors and wouldn’t let us in. I thought, ah ha, that’s an eye opener. I’m very surprised to see that. I thought they were serving all the people and it turns out they were not. The parents were shocked when they saw that and they decided they were determined.

Many of the parents decided they were going to write letters, make phone calls, and go back. We went back quite a few times to visit them until they decided that yes, we had to have some laws in this state. And things were changed, and I got to know our local politicians very closely and I liked them a lot and we would go have coffee. And I would talk to them. Because you have got to put a face on this issue.

They’re reading about gay. They don’t know what gay means. Gay or lesbian. That’s nothing to them. But if I said that’s my daughter, you’re talking about my child. Or if you say that’s me, they suddenly realize there is a human behind this. They were able to really realize that yes, I’m dealing with people – not just names and numbers on a piece of paper. So that was very important. And that worked.

RT:  What were your most memorable and important experiences? Now you just described one; do you have another as well?

CR:  I was sitting in on the youth meeting at PFLAG and a couple of the kids said, “We can’t go to our prom.” And that upset me because I thought why not? It’s your school, you know, go. They said, “No, we’re embarrassed, we can’t go. Can’t bring a same sex partner.” I decided that the chapter should throw them a prom. We hired the Sheraton Hotel downtown. We had it setup, we had photographers so the kids could pose with their dates. We had all kinds of wonderful things including great food.

CNN showed up, which shocked me. I did not expect them to show up. They wanted to interview the students and I said no, you cannot interview unless they give permission, they may not want to be out on TV. And some of them were fine. They said oh my mother’s accepting it’s OK. They did interview some of them. That was exciting because never in the whole state of Maryland had that happened. Nobody had done a prom for gay students. And so that was wonderful.

RT:  Tell us a little bit more about the event where you were honored by the whole state of Maryland.

CR:  That was wonderful. It was state wide and they were honoring various people. They honored Julian Bond, and me. I didn’t know that my children were coming. They had invited my kids to come. And that was very exciting because I didn’t know they were coming, and I was thrilled to see them all there because I was going to talk about them. And I did. I talked about them and their support and how marvelous they were. That was a real honor.

I’ve had other honors, the government of Howard County also honored me. I’ve got my picture and a story in the courthouse down here. And that was nice. I got to know so many wonderful people.  I’ve had good opportunities and it’s been fun.

RT:  I do want to say that I went to the event where you were honored along with Julian Bond and you gave the best speech. It was funny, but just went to the heart of the matter.

CR:  Thank you.

RT:  It was a thrill to be there. How has your involvement in the movement affected your later life personally and professionally?

RT:  I think it opened my eyes to what kind of discrimination occurs against women, not only in this country but in other countries. Like I said, I was not even cognizant of what was going on. And this made me so aware to the point where my son one day said to me “Ma, can we talk” and I said “Yeah.” I said” what’s up?” and he said, “I know you’re supporting women but don’t forget you have a son.” Okay. That was good. I was glad he felt confident enough to talk to me and I realized I would always talk about women, but I never talked about the men and how supportive my husband was, and my son was and various other men in my life and my brothers. It was good that he was able to speak up and voice his complaint and his concern.

But how has it changed? I just view things very, very differently. I look at young women today and I’m just so proud of how they are willing to speak up and not put up with any kind of nonsense or sexism from their teachers or from the students, it’s just been a very good experience.

RT:  Have you been involved as an activist in the women’s movement or other areas since your second wave experience? You talked about PFLAG, do you want to tell me more about PFLAG?

CR:  I had tried to encourage people in PFLAG. I had to drop out of PFLAG when my husband got sick, which was almost 10 years ago. I was able to keep up with what people were doing but I wasn’t able to attend the meetings and really be involved. So, I dropped out. But while I was there I tried to encourage people to do something public. I wanted a parade down the middle of Columbia. I wanted a festival, I wanted something to say to people we exist. We’re here. We’re wonderful people, we’re your neighbors.

People were afraid. Even after getting them to talk to the legislators, even still getting them involved in the chapter, they were afraid to be out in public. And so recently, about a week ago I went to the PFLAG Pride Festival and I was thrilled because there were ten thousand people there and there were booths representing everyone in Columbia. Every organization, from the police and the fire department and the hospital and everybody, all the merchants were there.

And what I liked best of all was to see the young people that were out and proud. Because when they came to our PFLAG youth meetings, a lot of them were cutting themselves, attempting suicide, had been thrown out of their homes. It was pretty awful. I felt really sad for them. And here was a chance to see them being themselves and happy. That was the best thing.

RT:  Are you currently involved as an activist?

CR:  Not really because my husband passed away a couple of years ago and I’m still dealing with that. I had to sell my house and move and it’s been a struggle. And none of my kids live near me so it’s been kind of a lonely time for me. I have attended a few things, but I’m not as active as I’d like to be and I will someday. But right now, I’m really keeping things in my heart.

RT:  And are you still working?

CR:  I’m still working.

RT:  Tell me, where do you work?

CR:  I work at the local community college, Howard Community College. I work 25 hours a week and that’s a very supportive school. Every teacher has a sign up on their door saying that they support LGBT rights. They have a gay group there, an LGBT support group.

RT:  Is there any activity around women’s issues?

CR:  Well this past thing that I did recently where they asked for strong women to come and speak, I said I would be Jeannie Manford who started PFLAG national. I had pictures of her but I also made believe I was her and I talked about why I got out and protested and marched with my son. It was wonderful, everybody loved it. I got a great round of applause for it. It was terrific.

RT:  Was there anything you say was the hardest challenge you had when you were in the women’s movement? Something that was the hardest thing you did personally or politically?

CR:  I think politically I didn’t find anything super hard because it was a group of us. It was always enough women who were doing things. Personally, it was hard because there were very few or not enough women of color in the chapter in the National NOW. And that was difficult because I didn’t know who I could trust and who supported me and how much I could talk about and that was difficult. I was glad I found you.

RT:  Looking back now, what are some of the things you say you learned from all your political experience and now and PFLAG?

CR:  Speak out. Speak up, if you can’t be public, write a letter. It’s so critical that they see our faces, it’s so important that they know that we exist, that we’re not going away. That if you don’t pass something now, we’ll be back. I’m living in an apartment house with primarily women and trying to talk to some of them, some of them are very open to feminist issues and gay/lesbian issues. One woman whispered that she had a gay son. She said I have a homosexual grandson. And she whispered it. I said, “Oh that’s wonderful.” Very loud. I said I’d love to meet him! And we talked about my involvement and so that was interesting. Still trying to open doors.