THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I’ve Always Been Supportive of Women in Trouble”
Interviewed by Laura Petrella
Delray Beach, FL, 2009
I came down kind of out of curiosity and listened to Betty Friedan as a matter of fact who was standing in front of what looked to me like a classroom. And in the room sitting on folding chairs were all these women. And some of them were middle-class women from Long Island.
And some of them were very brilliant and unusual and original women. And you know – Kate Millett among them – Kate Stimson was there. And a number of others – I mean some of the most incredible people that I ever met in my life came through those early days. But it was a free-for-all and most of the women were very original people and they were kind of…
Kate Would Say That We Were All Gangsters
And that we were anarchists and that we ran against the tide. And that was certainly true of Kate. I think I was a little bit different and it took me a while to really catch on to what feminism was. Even though I lived unconsciously as a feminist all my life and was always supportive of women who were in trouble. But back then in ’66 and then maybe into ’67 I was sort of an observer and I looked from the backbenches of what was going on and unfolding in front of me.
At that time I was a member of the administration at the City University of New York. I was in management and for a woman who belonged to the faculty at City University – and in fact for that matter anywhere in the university world – there were only in our system 1% of those full professors who were female. And none were administrators or college presidents or vice presidents or Provosts or even deans of any kind. Maybe a couple of scattered Deans of students here and there.
But Somehow I Had Risen Very Quickly Within the Academic System
And as I was exposed to the women at NOW and to the thinking of those women – began to apply it to my own situation. And I saw so many inequities going on in the university. And one by one I began to address them. I need to backtrack for a second and talk about the fact that we – in those days at NOW, if there was a problem, we had an immediate response to it. We called it zapping. And we organized ourselves into different committees because the whole world was open to us in terms of issues to address. It was incredible.
There Were So Many Things Wrong With The World
And with our country and with our particular workplaces and in our domestic situations – that people were free to identify those areas that they were most interested in dealing with. And since I was an academic, I dealt with education – at least initially. And Kate and I formed the first Education Committee of NOW. And of course you know today everybody you know – knows that women should go to professional schools and go to college and excel.
And we began to look at shop versus home economics and you know the differential and the expectations of women and how the curriculum was structured with the boys for success. And for the women in order to be married. And there were very limited occupational opportunities. You know today there are more women than men – and in fact in the law schools and medical schools and the colleges.
And It’s Okay For A Woman To Be Academically Successful
But in our day none of that was true. And so I began to look at the University. And City University was a very large university. It’s comprised of a number of colleges all over the five boroughs and now it has a medical school and a professional school and a graduate school and a number of schools. But in those days it also had quite – it was a large system. And the women weren’t getting any kind of a fair deal. Either there or anywhere else. You know in terms of promotions – hiring – tenure – reappointment. And in fact I myself participated in that system of gender inequity. And as a Dean – I was Dean of the college of one of the unit’s – I was hiring women at a lower [pay] rate than I was hiring men. And I thought that was okay because I was being responsive and responsible for the budget. And I could get a better deal hiring women. And it was just understood that the woman got hired at one or two ranks lower than the man.
So I Began First To Look At My Own Behavior
And that was very instructive and I was horrified that I myself had this internalized bias. Even though I was being practical and patriotic for the school and getting more bang for the buck. It was actually on the backs of women. And once I identified my own behavior it was much easier for me then to look at how others in the system were discriminating.
And so I joined an organization, which we had just formed, called the CUNY Women’s Coalition. We instituted a class action first of its kind – very large one – against the City University on behalf of women with respect to twelve causes of action which we settled very favorably for women and transformed the university. And many of the other colleges throughout the country used it as a model for their own litigation and so on.
A Way To Use My Influence
One of the first things that I did in using my management background and my influence within administration was to convince the president of the college that I was working at to buy a house, which we used as a Woman’s Resource Center. Not only for the college, but for the community. And people could come in – and women could come in and get counseling for jobs or if they had some problems domestically or whatever gender specific issues that they had.
And this was such a unique thing. It was actually a private house right off the campus. That we had visitations from people in Congress and it ended up being written in the Congressional report. The idea of a Woman’s Research and Resource Center was very different. And that really sort of focused the university on this issue since it got so much attention and interest.
I went beyond that and I became interested not within the university – although later – and I’ll tell you in a minute how. The issue of violence against women was troubling to me. Because I grew up in a slum neighborhood and surrounded by violence. And in my own personal life I experienced some of it. So one of the things that I did was to bring the feminist sensibility to the university with respect to that issue.
And so the first thing was to write a policy against sexual harassment. And that policy was very important because we had many professors who were taking advantage of students. Many administrators – male administrators taking advantage of people who worked for them. Many male faculty members who outranked the female faculty members, which they routinely did – who took advantage of them. And the entire system was a cesspool it seemed to me of sexual harassment and something needed to be done.
And so I helped write that and then I became the implementer of that policy by being one of the judges whenever a case was brought against somebody who was participating in sexual harassment. And I helped adjudicate, you know, those issues. And we did a very good job going from college to college and even attack[ed] the central office and the people who were very much in power. Even in the chancellor’s office who ran the system. So that was one of the issues.
And a second one was domestic violence. And the area of domestic violence – I formed the first domestic violence center which was a Research and a Resource Center. And there wrote a policy for that as well. And tried to address that system. And there was at the time one woman who had been murdered at CUNY by her husband and that brought it home – brought it right into the university. And so I did a lot of work on that. And that center was formed at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which is where I was working at the time.
And I also then worked with the FBI at the same time in a couple of think tanks to address the issue of police who participated in domestic violence. And we wrote some policies and so on. So I was able to kind of broaden out both from where I was working to other areas.
And also Mayor Giuliani then put me on his commission to combat family violence. And I served on that for about eight years. And between that pulpit from the mayor’s office and from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice pulpit I was able to have a kind of national reach. And did a lot of media work on that.
Women Were Not Just Victims of Violence
And then it became apparent to me that women were not just the victims of violence – but they also participated on the other side of it. Meaning that they were incarcerated for violence. And I became involved in prison issues, Women’s prison issues, and dealt with lots of high-profile women who were accused in my view – unjustly of mainly homicides. And a number of them are quite famous.
Even if they were guilty, they were not as guilty as their male partners who had instigated them into committing these crimes. Or I dealt with the issue of excessive sentencing or disparate sentencing between males convicted and incarcerated for the same crimes as the women, but who got a better deal.
So I became very very involved in the issue of women’s prisons and women prisoners. And I found that that was one of the last frontiers of feminism that had been unaddressed. And thought that that needed some attention. And I’ve given that a lot of attention over the last 20 years or so. And again – done a lot of media. And right now in fact putting together a documentary on one of those high-profile inmates.
[From the Oprah Winfrey Show 2010 – a big problem was that the public was so morally outraged by the relationship she had – that they focused on the sin and not the crime and I think she was punished for the sin and not the crime.]
If woman is imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit, then it seems to me a better use of my time to help her get out of prison and reclaim her life. But that’s my own perspective. That’s always been my perspective – you know. I mean I agree that you have to do certain things generically and I did. You know – we had a class action and I did write and implement policies and all of that.
Women In Trouble Need Help
Well, but I think that you also need to remember always that women in trouble because of their gender – women who are raped – women who are sex trafficked – women who have burka’s put over their heads. Women – women in trouble period need help. And the only way to do that is to get down and dirty, which is what the early feminists did. And we were all volunteers by the way. I mean today being a feminist can be a profession.
And the Women’s Studies programs you know which I participated in – in helping to form in many places and I always supported have become a business and an industry. And I can remember talking to Kate Millett and Robin Morgan – this is many years ago – and they were remarking about – and this was maybe thirty years ago so you can imagine what it’s like today. They looked at the curriculum of the Women’s Studies programs and they couldn’t recognize any of the original people who wrote books about feminist issues. Including themselves.
What they saw in the curriculum were people who wrote books about them and then other people who wrote books about the people who wrote books about them. And you know – I’ve gone to lots of Women’s Studies conferences and so on and I feel like I’m in a foreign land sometimes. And you know they talk about something called praxis – and I’m thinking that’s just a fancy word for activism. And we didn’t have words for any of that.
We Simply Did It
And I don’t mean to sound smug you know or any of that – but we didn’t have the organizational trappings that I think are traps in fact. And we didn’t get very far from the object of our help. You know there was a direct one-on-one relationship between the thing we wanted to do and us. So nobody would direct us as to what we had to do or should do – we simply saw something and acted. It was very simple for us and nobody got paid.
And if there was a sign that needed to be made – we made it. If there was xeroxing which we called rexographing in those days to do – we not only turned and cranked the rexograph machine – but we bought the ink – we bought the paper. There was no budget for anything. We had no supervisors. We had nobody really that we needed to report to.
We were simply a group of women who were inherently creative and energetic who wanted to jump in and be interventionist and change the environment so that a better result would come out. A more just – a more fair result would come out for women. NOW – the NOW that I see today is so different from the NOW at the beginning in the beginning years that it’s almost for me unrecognizable. In those days the formal structure really was fairly non-existent.
We Behaved Very Spontaneously
Nobody had to give us an assignment or tell us that – this and this was a problem. And then you know we would then – you know – have a meeting and have committees and you know none of that. It was – we would see an issue – it would be unjust and as a matter of informal moral conscience we would grab a couple of people – sometimes we’d have some discussions on the phone. And we’d go down directly to the center of the injustice.
Whether it was in a judge who had done something improper or a newscaster who had talked about a woman. Actually a child who was raped who should have enjoyed it – there were any number of issues that just kept popping up over and over again. And we would just grab some other women and we would go down and we would either picket or intervene or bring pressure or make a noise or make a fuss and make trouble.
And that was what we did -basically did. We were troublemakers. And every issue needed to be spotlighted and needed to be highlighted and it needed to be exposed. And of course that exposed us. And it exposed us to a lot of public ridicule and a lot of public insult and a lot of public misperception. And it was very easy to dismiss what we were – who we were – and what we were doing by calling us man-haters or bra burners or other diminishing insulting kinds of Appalachians that were regularly hurled at us.
And you know – even women and maybe even especially women – were embarrassed by us. And they were afraid that any that we did would reflect on them and on their loyalty to their spouses – to their employers and so on. And so there was a lot of disowning by the public and by the women in the public. Especially of much of our behavior which was misbehavior and acting out.
We Were A Very Noisy Bunch
And a very raucous bunch. But there was a method to the madness. There was a focus to say hey look at that – that’s bad – that’s a bad thing that’s happening. Everybody take a look and we’ll make as much noise and make as much fuss as we have to until you all look at that and do something about it.
So we were really in the business of identifying injustices – gender injustices for the most part. That we also felt ended up being to the disadvantage of the males and the male gender. But in the very early days – you know we were argumentative. I mean it was an argumentative bunch by definition and by nature. And we argued with each other of course. And everybody had different perceptions and we were just learning feminism.
We Didn’t Inherit Feminism – We Invented It
The way today’s females are given that legacy and the benefits of that legacy. We were inventing it. And the only foremothers that we had were the first wave people, which were the suffragettes. And they had very specific issues – mainly the vote – you know and some other issues. But we were looking at 20th century America primarily. And we were New York-based for the most part although there were feminists who were all over the country doing their own thing.
The Faces of Feminism
But the strongest groups – the most cohesive group – were the feminists in New York. And they were a brilliant bunch. Really a brilliant bunch. And it’s also a mistake to say that we were basically white middle-class people. There were wonderful African-American women and others who participated in those early days. Audre Lorde for example comes immediately to mind. Certainly Flo Kennedy and so on.
But there was a class issue that was developing in terms of Betty Friedan who was of course the face of feminism in the earliest days. Gloria (Steinem) later became the face of feminism and because her face was so beautiful both men and women embraced that face. And it really helped the movement a lot. But the first real face was Betty, who was a brilliant woman and a very tempestuous woman and an argumentative woman. And she had very specific views about how she wanted this to go and what she wanted us to be.
And initially her view was that the organization should be a national like the NAACP but for women. That was her initial view. And she started that around – you know some women in DC – with Catherine (Shipe) East. Who was at the time at the Department of Labor and Catherine East in that occupation began to notice statistics in her office about the difference between men and women and how much salary they were making and how women were first – last hired – first fired.
And she began to sneak these statistics out to Betty Friedan. And they began to look at that. And from those kind of subversive discussions they then talked about forming an organization. And that became of course NOW.
Betty Was A Gift As Well As A Scourge
And she was single-handedly – I think in my view – both responsible for beginning the feminist movement and beginning the gay movement. With the gay rights movement. One in a negative way and the other in a positive way. And her view was that she wanted us to be and to look respectable. And when you looked at it the women who in the pioneer bunch – some of those women didn’t look respectable and weren’t respectable.
And she was looking to recruit basically mainstream American women. And she wanted them to be attracted to this movement. And she felt that some of the lesbian women in the movement who were among the most vociferous and the most active and the most brilliant and the most creative and the most argumentative – were a problem. And identified that problem famously as the “lavender menace.”
So a civil war broke out very early on between those who shared Betty Friedan’s perception of what now should be – which is an outreach movement to mainstream America. Which would then you know appeal to women across the country. And to get rid of or minimize those elements that would turn them off. And some of the gay women who were very much committed to feminism. And so because she was discriminatory and dismissive and derisive towards those women – that caused them to splinter off and to form their own groups.
So I say that Betty was – yes responsible for the beginning of feminism. But also responsible for the lesbian movements and all of the splinter groups that fled NOW. Because they couldn’t bear the idea that an organization formed on behalf of women who were discriminated against was itself discriminatory toward a whole cohort of women. And they thought that that was just counterintuitive. Unacceptable. And they were not going to accept it. So that was a troubling beginning and it took an energized group and it diverted the energy to a second issue. Not specifically feminists but gay.
The Extraordinary Contributions Can’t Be Underestimated
And to this day of course and it became a global movement as well. And obviously it’s spread all over the world. From my view we still have a long way to go. And some of the unfinished business of feminism from my perspective are things like sex trafficking – honor killings – the issue of Muslim discrimination and oppressive oppression against their females in the Muslim societies. Things like that. Those are issues that I think we still have to address.
But what bothers me about the bureaucratic organization of NOW as it is in this form – in this day – is the lack – to me – of constituent services. The approach is really more policy – lobbying – Washington DC -based – political –influencing. All of those kind of – to me – issues that are further and further away from helping directly a woman who is in trouble. Now, I understand that those issues have greater reach or whatever you want to call it.
Always Helping Women
But to be feminism always was about helping women. And helping specific women. And if there were groups of women – then you help the groups of women. But I really never thought that as an organization we should get too far away from that direct help for females who are in trouble by virtue of their gender.
And that has been always the burden of my own work and my own perspective. Which is – yes it’s good to write policies -yes it’s all these other things are good things to do but not to spend your money on who’s getting elected to which office in the central bureaucracy. Money for contributions to political campaigns – all of that. I always wanted to see a much more immediate connection to people in distress.
And the further you get into a bureaucratic structure, the more the money is spent on the bureaucratic structure and on keeping people in power. And on leveraging that power and the dangers of that which becomes self-interest and the self-aggrandizement and status and all of that. And I’m not accusing anybody of anything; I’m just saying that’s not for me – my taste.
When I first entered NOW, I didn’t get what feminism was immediately. But once I got it – it never left me. And I do not understand feminism that doesn’t help women. That only helps an organization or organizations.
Feminism Wreaked Havoc On Relationships Between Men And Women
Also in terms of the way they had proceeded on the dating level. Where women used to be silent and only talk about the male interest – and suddenly there was a sense – a growing sense that I’m a person too. And at first the men balked at all of this. But you know the ones that were married – many of the feminists then began to assert themselves sexually and discover their sexuality whether they were gay or straight. And also demand a different economic arrangement – financial arrangement with the guys and a lot of the marriages did break up.
My Fondest Memory
But what I – my fondest memory in feminism was the march down Fifth Avenue I think. And that was 1970. August 26th. And we had – we surprised ourselves. I mean in early feminism was constantly surprising ourselves. Because we didn’t have a sense of how far and deep it had reached the hearts and minds and souls of women. And we got our first reality check then. We had no idea.
We originally were supposed to – we got a permit only to march – and a reluctant permit at that by the city, to march on the sidewalks. And the size and the energy of the women who poured into the streets that day – there was no marching on the sidewalks. There was no containing those women. And the energy and it was the most extraordinary experience to see how many people there were.
And we were looking at each other in amazement. And I remember the women hanging out the window as we marched down the street and looking out and abandoning wherever it was that they were -and just swelling our ranks and flowing into the march and becoming a part of the march. And that didn’t happen as a conversion on the spot. Those women were ready. Those women were inspired by what they saw and they wanted to be a part of that history. And we never turned back and we never looked back after that.
We Knew We Had A Movement
We knew we had an army. We knew that we had actually captured the imagination and the soul of women in this country and probably the men as well or many men as well. Because you can’t have a revolution unless you have the other groups that become believers or at least supporters. And we did begin especially with Gloria’s advent. We did begin to have men join us and to see the wisdom of their self-interest.
But one anecdote that I remember very well was again in 1970 when Gloria was just forming with Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Ms. Magazine. And you know everything about them as I said before was volunteerism. And today it’s a kind of dirty word and in those days it was a dirty word only in the sense that well – that was the occupation of women which was to volunteer for PTA and charity and so on.
But this was volunteerism on behalf of women on behalf of oneself, which was a little bit different. Anyway, Gloria didn’t have, when she started Ms. Magazine – enough people who did clerical things and just the general stuff. I mean she had a major beautiful magazine that had wonderful writers and editors but she didn’t have a staff and she needed a staff.
And so she came down to my college at my invitation and I asked the president if he would join us. And I identified some of the interesting female faculties to come as well. And we sat in the president’s office with Gloria and another woman that she brought along named Margaret. And she asked – she talked about feminism and she talked about Ms. Magazine and before she knew it she had all these women who were raising their hands eager to participate in the Ms. Magazine thing.
And they wanted to help file. They wanted to do all the scut work and all of the stuff that – you know they were educating women – they had PhDs. But there was nothing at that point – you know especially if you listen to Gloria Steinem then you’re totally changed forever – and Gloria is one of my very favorite people in the world and I love her dearly. And I’ll talk about Gloria in a minute but those women signed on 100%.
And I swear to God this president himself would have signed on. I mean she was so unbelievable and they did not think it was beneath them. And none of us thought it was beneath us. And some of these women became very very famous women themselves. And very important women themselves. But nobody felt that it was beneath us to do what needed to be done. Whether it was the smallest drudge detail or the most lofty interview in front of a network television.
So it was just great to see how democratic everybody was and how down home they were and simple they were in many ways. And that was really one of the things we talked about doing. Which was no stars in feminism. That everybody was equal and that everybody pitched in.And that’s what we had.
You know – how can I talk about Gloria Steinem? The most modest – decent – probably the person – certainly the woman I admired most in the world. She never knew how beautiful she was or how influential she was or even how brilliant she was. And she told me that she would wear – in those days she wore aviator glasses and she had long blonde hair – and it was a disguise because she didn’t want people to see her face. You know that beautiful face. And that always kind of shocked me.
And I remember sitting in my car one day with her. She always – if I would offer her a ride home she would always say yes. And I was always flattered that she would say yes. And you know to this day I still have that car and that’s got to be a 40-year-old car. I can’t bear – you know I have such memories – to get rid of it.
But anyway, I’m sitting in the front seat of this car and I was telling Gloria how much she meant to me and she was shocked. I could see the shock on her face and it was like a surprise that anybody would think of her that way. Although she’s got to hear that day and night from the whole world. And impulsively she just you know gave me this quick kiss of gratitude and I thought she’s grateful – my God – you know what an amazing woman. And she always puts things into perspective and she always is educating and smart and decent. It’s the decency and the modesty that always got me about her.
The Casualties of Feminism
I want to talk a little bit about the casualties of feminism and that’s not as well known. And you know I just touched briefly on marriages that broke up. But it was much more severe than marriages. Many of those early pioneers had nervous breakdowns as a result of the pressures and stresses that went on. And I’m not even telling you about the pressures and stresses that were extraordinary in those days.
You’ve got to remember we were beating back against an entire culture that had been there for hundreds and hundreds of years. We were beating back against males who were very dear to us – husbands and brothers and fathers and sons. You know we were fighting a world. And we were fighting to change a world. And that’s a heavy burden in anybody’s book. And there were women in that fight and in that struggle who fell.
And some of them went mad or got sick – mentally. And some were institutionalized. Many of them were very poor and never again were able to sustain living or continue their education or keep their jobs and ended up in poverty. And I remember going to a rent party for Ti-Grace Atkinson who was one of the presidents of NOW and who was a brilliant beautiful and rising star in the early movement.
And we had to get together and have a rent party to pay her rent. So a lot of the women ended up in great poverty. And many of them ended up as well with physical disabilities of all kinds. And many of them died and some of them regretfully even suicide. So that early cohort – you know which now are beginning to go one by one. And some are still around and some are even in relatively decent shape.
But those women did an incredibly heroic courageous thing – which was take on their loved ones and to take on the world and to put themselves at physical risk – at mental risk – certainly a career risk with no expectation of success whatever. With just one burning issue – which was to improve the lot of women and to address whatever injustice came a female’s way because of her gender. And for that experience I was honored – thrilled – to be a part of it. And to know these women. And I honor them and always will forever.
I See Everything From a Feminist Point of View Now
You know – everything. Well not so naturally. At first I saw everything from an administrative – I started my career from an administrative point of view. And then earlier from a Jewish point of view. I mean you know one has all of that. But I mean I still see everything from a Jewish point of view but certainly I mean I came out of a family.
My father was very left wing and he saw everything from Marx’s point of view. He was born in Russia but he grew up in an ultra ultra Orthodox family. And he rebelled against that. The rest of the family is still very ultra-orthodox. Everybody’s a rabbi in the family. But he was a communist and he all his life so everything from a Marxist point of view. And when I ended up as a feminist I used to have – you know these discussions with him.
He was supportive. He was still an old-fashioned man – you know – he had a very he liked Hillary Clinton’s loyalty to Bill Clinton. That she looked the other way when he was unfaithful. I mean he still had very old-fashioned views. But he was supportive of my being an outlaw. That he understood. Not my mother. My mother hated it all you know. But I mean – I do have children and that they’re great. They’re supportive of everything that I do.
It’s just injustice – it’s very simple. You know it’s the repair of the universe. Tikkun Olam (Hebrew for “world repair”) A lot of those women were Jews. I mean look at – I mean you Betty Friedan was Jewish – Bella was Jewish – Gloria was Jewish. I mean a lot of that front line group. The original feminists – the pioneers – many of them came out of the civil rights movement. They were people who were working against the oppression of blacks.
And what was going on was that they were being treated by the male counterparts who were in these civil rights movements as gophers to get coffee and to run errands and as sexual partners. And at a certain point once the feminist thing began to take hold they were saying – wait a minute – wait a minute – we’re in exactly the same kind of unequal relationship with our comrades in these other areas of fights against oppression.
As all of these housewives across America are and all of these women in the professions are with their colleagues. We too are being treated like sex objects and like gophers and like less than equals. And here we are in the struggle for equality on behalf of other constituencies. Something wrong with this picture and they fled in droves from the civil rights movement. And absolutely rebelled once they got the ahha of insight. And one of the things that kept that ahha of insight going within feminism – at least in early feminism – was a lot of the CR movements.
The CR Movements
The Consciousness-Raising movements where they did get together and talk about various issues and they found that they were not alone. That there was in fact a pattern and they supported and helped each other to change behavior and change their own behavior in perceptions. And feminism you know – has left an indelible mark on me. I see everything through a feminist sensibility. There isn’t anything with whether I’m reading in the newspaper or meeting somebody or any kind of situation that I that I observe that I don’t – not in a conscious way or a self conscious way – and I’m not an ideologue and I’m not a zealot and I’m not a fanatic or any of that. I just see a situation and if there’s a somatic – generic theme of feminism in it I catch it – I see it – I perceive it and I act on it. And you know that that experience in early feminism has marked me forever.
My Friendship With Kate Millett
I’d like to talk a little bit about my friend Kate. Kate Millett. Who was really – I mean she didn’t know she was teaching me. And as I said we all learned feminism together. Anyway and we really learned it everyday as well. There isn’t a day that goes by that there isn’t you know some way to reinforce that in terms of our own perceptions and understandings and improve on it.
But Kate did things differently than anybody I knew. And she was a very original and unique person. She lived in the Bowery so that was the first thing. I mean nobody I knew lived in the Bowery. And she was a female – young – attractive in her early 20’s with a master’s degree and then eventually a PhD. And she lived among these winos and these bums and in the worst kind of condition.
I mean she had a coal-burning furnace that was her heating system and there would be a sack of coal at the bottom of these rickety stairs, which had holes and gaps in them and very dangerous. And anybody that came up to see her would bring up some coal on their way up and throw it into the furnace. And she had no money whatever – none. And she always looked very pale to me is if she never got out into the Sun.
So at the time I was – a when I first met her – I was a kid also. She’s a year and a half older than me. I was earning $4,000 a year as a teacher and I had a convertible car and I’d come and I would say, “Kate get into the car you look like you need some sun.” And I would take her out to Rockaway Beach and we’d go swimming and we lie on the sand and I would make sure to buy her food. She liked Chinese food and sort of prop her up and feed her and nurture her and take care of her.
She Opened Up A Whole World For Me
And you know in an exchange she really opened up a whole world for me. I mean she introduced me to all the artists who were then not famous either. You know I thought of Kate actually as a loser. She had nothing. She had none and no prospects no future no profession and she was an artist and sort of a writer. And I didn’t care for her art particularly and but brilliant and wonderful to be with.
And we would go down to the cedar bar and in would walk Rauschenberg and de Kooning and Larry Rivers and Pollock, Jackson Pollock. And you know – and we would say hi and you know it was – that was her neighborhood bar. And it was always fun to be around her. And she would take me off to these pacifist organizations as well and I wasn’t a pacifist because as a Jew I never could get over what happened to the Jewish population in World War two so I couldn’t be a pacifist ever in my wildest imaginations but she was.
And it was fun to meet these women who I felt were all very strange. And so when she brought me to NOW, you know that wasn’t a big stretch it was just another bunch of quirky people that she knew. And I was open to it because she was open to it and it was another adventure.
But anyway one of the things Kate did that sort of blew me away was at some point she went off to Japan and she went to an artist’s colony. And I didn’t hear from her for a little while and when she came home she came home with a husband. A Japanese man. And because she was a gay woman that kind of surprised me. But Fumio was a very diminutive man – he kind of looked like a woman in some ways but she didn’t behave like any other married woman I had ever met. And one of the things she didn’t do was take his name. And so when you went to her Bowery apartment and rang the bell – Kate Millett was the name on the doorbell.
Now that to me – and I know it sounds like a small thing today because people keep their professional names, their maiden names, whatever or even hyphenate their names. But I had never seen anybody who had the boldness not to take the husband’s name. And this was I don’t know what – late 50s maybe?
And so Kate remained Kate Millett and she had this relationship with this guy who was himself an artist and he came along with some friends. And who were his friends that Kate had met when she was in this art colony in Japan? Yoko Ono was one of her friends and of course at some point John Lennon joined the group. And so Kate had this you know a bunch of very strange people. I always felt a little bit – I don’t know – not awkward around her. But alien. Like I was – either she was the alien or I was the alien. I was never sure.
But when she wrote Sexual Politics, which was the Bible of the feminist movement. Was the ideological underpinning of the feminist movement. One of the early early early books, they had a publication party. And the publication party was held at a place called CBGB’s on the Bowery, which was a dive. Nobody holds a public – you know it just isn’t done in a dive on the Bowery.
And the publisher had sent the photographer down to photograph the event. I think it was Doubleday. And I saw this bewildered guy walking around looking at the invited guests and puzzled who in the world can he photograph in this mob of crazy people. One woman was dressed like an Indian. You know somebody else was wearing tattered shorts. I mean I can’t even describe – bangles and spangles and feathers and nobody looked normal.
And he finally you know flopped down at a table next to me and my husband and said I don’t know who to photograph. I can’t go back to the publisher with no photos. There’s nobody that looks normal to me. And that was quintessential Kate Millett. You know.
And of course – well I have to laugh – you know today when I think you know Kate was so – such a loser in my mind and then the next time I turned around she was the most famous woman in America. And she was on the cover of Time magazine and on all the network programs.
And the men were angry at her as if she represented some heresy. And Norman Mailer wrote a whole book against her, a diatribe against her. And they were having town meetings and it was if she had somehow confused the whole world and there was this turmoil going on around her.
And this is a woman who didn’t even have money to buy herself lunch or to you know get through a day. And I always had to laugh that Kate became this famous personage. And you know I’m her oldest friend – living friend I guess. We go back to 1950 – I think 7 – 1957 right.
We Just Didn’t Know
Rape – you needed to have an eyewitness to penetration in order to get a conviction on rape. Imagine that. I mean nobody ever got convicted. If you wanted to know whether you were pregnant the doctor had to tell the husband first. I mean it was so retrograde. All of it was so unbelievable. All of it. I mean we didn’t even know where to start.
There were so many things. But we didn’t know that things were what were wrong – that was the first thing. We didn’t know what was wrong. And it was only after talking to each other and sharing our stories that we began to see this was wrong that was wrong – that was wrong. And suddenly it was all-wrong – all of it.
That a woman had to be dumb in order to get a man. And a woman was entitled to have an orgasm as equally as a man was. And you know had a right to have him try to satisfy her and foreplay. And then we did this whole thing – there was something called – Sex For One. That masturbation was okay. That being a lesbian was okay. That having a child out of wedlock was okay. That having an orgasm was okay – didn’t make you a slut. That even prostitutes were okay. Because marriage after all was prostitution.
And there was this woman – trying to remember her name now – she would hold the workshop classes. And the women would strip and she’d give them a mirror and a speculum and they would look at themselves for the first time. They’d never seen what they look like and would explain to them what the clitoris was and that it was a source of pleasure. And then she would teach them how to masturbate. I mean the whole technology of sex was extraordinary.
And we also were about what wasn’t okay. You know – marital rape wasn’t okay. Although men thought that they were entitled to it. That wasn’t okay to rape a prostitute. That that’s not an oxymoron that’s not a contradiction. I mean there were a lot of things – the whole world was open in terms of – and every day was a revelation.
You know as I said I was in an academic setting and what I learned by my own work environment and tried to change. And did a lot to change that environment. You know when I finally left CUNY it was not the same place as it was when I came. And women were college presidents now and there were the department chairs and they had – I mean I even made the Union change its policies. Because they were defending any male who was brought up on charges.
You know I mean there was a lot of sexual slavery that went on in the university where a professor would take a student and say I’m going to give you an F unless you sleep with me. And then she would, and then he would give her an incomplete so he could have her again the following semester. I mean there were so many things going on in so many areas I didn’t even know where to look.
Because I was the highest female administrator I had access to people. I had access to what the bylaws said. I could change the bylaws. I had the influence to make different policy things and to get on committee heads I mean all of that. And it was a totally different place than when I came in. As I said only 1% of women were full professors. 1%. 99% were guys. You know it was crazy. So I’m going to use my position on behalf of women.
And I also did what Catherine East did. I would sneak them information out to my feminist colleagues and I made sure women got promoted. I mean that was horrible. And they didn’t get tenured and they didn’t get hired – I mean I knew what was wrong there. And then when I got into the wider environment – it’s all the same you know – the university was a kind of microcosm of society itself. And everywhere I looked there was a problem.
To this day, to this moment – my neighbor just got carried taken away in handcuffs by three squad cars of cops that came. And I know that her husband beat her up and she got the blame for it and they arrested her. And I’m in the middle of trying to deal with that. And I mean there’s not a day that doesn’t go by where there isn’t something I see. You know I try to intervene. So you know it feminism all the time every day.
It’s About Helping Women In Trouble
That was one of my big things. I got into a lot of trouble with the mayor because I was on the front page of the New York Times accusing the New York Police Department. And I worked at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which taught police. 25% of police families are involved in domestic violence.
So that means that the guy who comes – gets called is going to side with the man not with the woman if he’s himself a batterer. Or his sergeant or supervisor is a batterer. And that’s why I got involved with the FBI. To try and change that but anyway three times I was on the front page of the New York Times talking and criticizing the New York Police Department.
Also worked to change the – created an anti-stalking law in New York. Worked with that. You know women were stalked and then murdered. All the time and we didn’t even have an anti-stalking law in New York. And I mean – just so many things. So I’m looking over my lifetime you know like – it’s not about lobbying Washington and getting close to the senators. And you know the White House inviting you to a reception. I hate all that. It’s about helping women in trouble. You know women who something is bad happening to them. And if you open your eyes and you look around that’s happening everywhere all the time.
Veteran Feminists of America
The idea of VFA came about really through Jacqui Ceballos who’s its current president. She looked around and she saw that men were forever honoring each other. She was always going to these receptions and dinners and men were always getting these awards and she said women – where are the awards for women.
And she thought you know what these veteran feminists – these pioneers that have done so much to change the world – they really need to be archived. Their contributions need to be archived and their history documented and beyond all that we should have an organization before we all drift off into our separate lives. And we can socialize certainly, but we also should maintain this feminist spine. And so she created Veteran Feminists of America.
And those first – those first get-togethers that we had were incredible. We would go to the Armory in New York City, which is humongous place. And if there is said to be the royalty of the feminist movement – they were there. And it was so incredible. And a lot of Hollywood and a lot of journalists also were part of the movement. Some of them came on of course later. Marlene Sanders was the first journalist and she was part of the early feminists.
But anyway, we would have these dinners and we would give out – you know – medals. And we’d have a lot of speeches – a lot of speeches. But they were just fun and those were the special occasions. But generally – I mean we had an organization where we kept in touch with each other. And it is important we document as much as we can. And we now have an archive at Duke where the women have their contributions and the VFA itself. All of those are put into the archive.
And we try to now get together and reach out to lots of people in groups that were not part of the New York as well which is what happened here in Florida. But the VFA is something that I always make sure – you know – and we all make sure that we came to because it was a way of keeping our memories alive. And I don’t know if any of us had a better time – to be honest.
When we were in early feminism and it was just fun and hard. Definitely dangerous. Certainly demeaning in some ways, yes. We all did it out of the fullness of our heart and spirit and soul. But it was – I mean we all had to earn a living of course. And we had families as we all did but what a time that was. What a time that was.
And VFA is a way to rekindle that and capture it and remember it and see friends and colleagues and comrades and arms and so on. So I support the organization you know as much as I can and we all do. We all have great great feelings for it.