Dr. Judith S. Weis 

I Didn’t Think I Needed The Women’s Movement”

Interviewed by Kathy Rand, July 2018


KR: Hi Judith – welcome. Thank you for participating with us in the VFA Pioneer Histories Project. Can you start just by giving us your full name?

JW: My full name is Judith – Shulman is my maiden name and last name – Weis.

KR: Thank you. And when and where were you born?

JW:  I was born in New York City on May 29,1941.

KR: And what is your family background – ethnic background. What kind of family situation were you born into?

JW:  A secular Jewish family. Very highly assimilated but not observant.   Ethnic Jewish – not religious.

KS: Totally understand. And then tell me a little about what your life was like before you got involved in the women’s movement and then what got you involved.

I Was Extremely Lucky

JW: OK I was always interested in science and continued to pursue that interest despite what lots of other people had experienced in those days of discouraging girls to do such things. I never ran into that. I think I was extremely lucky. My parents were very supportive. High school counselors at Bronx High School of Science were very supportive. And I just went right through with a bachelor’s degree – master’s degree – doctoral degree.

I got a job as an assistant professor at Rutgers University and also acquired a terrific husband, a couple of kids and he did his share in raising. And I was living what I would have described as a pretty “liberated life” and felt for a while that I really didn’t need the women’s movement because I had it all. Then an incident happened at school. I was a junior faculty member and I was talking to another junior faculty member at Rutgers – at the campus at Rutgers.

And at that point our department, the biology department had been sort of foisting the freshmen biology class on to whoever was pretty new. There was never any person who kind of undertook this as their major role in the department.  And we felt there ought to be someone hired specifically who was interested in doing this class.

This Is a Very Important Large Class

And so he said I’ll draft a letter to send to the department chair about this. Then I saw the letter and he wrote the rationale why there ought to be a faculty member specifically to run general bio, someone who really wanted to. And then he also said the person should be a man and blah blah blah blah blah. So that’s kind of a shock. And I said why should the person be a man? And he said running this course requires doing a lot of administrative work and women can’t do that. And I said, some women could. Some women couldn’t. Some men could. Some men couldn’t.

And then he said, running this course requires getting the respect and cooperation of all the graduate students who are the teaching assistants in the lab. And I said, some women could and some couldn’t. And some men could and some men couldn’t. And during this conversation I think my consciousness was going up at a very rapid rate.

KR: What year was this Judy?

The Aha Moment 

JW: This was 1970. And I said I’m not going to sign your letter if you keep that sentence in there. And that was the end of that conversation. I think that was a Friday or Thursday or a Friday. And I noticed in the newspaper that there was going to be a conference in New York City. We were living in suburban New Jersey. It was going to be a NOW conference in New York City that weekend. And I got myself into that conference and it was like the big light bulb went off.  And I came home with the pile of information. And that was sort of the beginning. I guess they call it the aha moment or something. And that was it.

KR: Wow. That’s a great story. I know you’ve done a lot of things but I want to hear about what you did with the Little League. I think it’s a great story. Can you tell that story?

Thanks to the Unsung Hero

JW: I’d gotten pretty familiar with the civil rights laws in New Jersey and in the U.S. because we had been involved in some Title IX complaints and some employment complaints. And so I was fairly familiar with the New Jersey civil rights law. Including the fact that in New Jersey at that time there was prohibition against sex discrimination in public accommodations. Then comes a story in the newspaper about this little girl named Maria Pepe, who had been the star player on the Hoboken Little League team and was forced to – was kicked out basically. The team supported her and wanted her there.

 The National Little League Said – No You Can’t Have Girls Playing and We Will Revoke Your Charter if You Keep Her on the Team

So the team very reluctantly told her she couldn’t play anymore. And this made the newspaper and it’s thanks to the coach on that little league team that it ever got in the newspaper at all. Because the coach was strongly supportive of her and felt – he called in the press about this. If he had not done that we would never have known about it. So he’s an unsung hero of this whole thing.

Anyway, so I read this and I realize that the Little League doesn’t own the land on which they play. They play in public parks and that’s the public accommodations. So this is violating New Jersey’s civil rights law. So we gathered our stuff and went to the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights and filed a complaint against the little league for violating that law. And it went through a process in the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights. Which is kind of like a legal process. It’s a courtroom kind of thing. And people speak up on one side and the other. It’s not an official courtroom. It’s the hearing for the agency.

KR: Was it the NOW chapter that did this?

JW: Yes, it was our NOW chapter that filed the complaint.

KR: Was it was Essex County?

Baseball and Apple Pie 

JW: It was Essex County NOW. Hoboken is not in Essex County but there was not a NOW chapter in Hudson County which is where Hoboken is located.

And before we did that, one of the members of the chapter called Maria’s parents. Because we didn’t want – this was a working class family in Hoboken and we were not sure how the parents would respond to the women’s movement getting involved on behalf of their daughter. And the mother said OK. Which was a relief because if her parents had been opposed we wouldn’t have done it.

So anyway the Little League came in with the most absurd arguments about bone strength for example. That girls shouldn’t play because their bones are weaker. And the evidence about bones being weaker was a study of old people. And we know old people – women can have weaker bones but that doesn’t apply to kids. So this was a ridiculous argument that they had that was totally blown out of the water. NOW didn’t have to hire a lawyer because the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights is taking the arguments for us. And the Little League is the defendant and they put forth such absurd unbelievable arguments and they lost.

And the Hearing Examiner, which is the equivalent of the Judge – the Hearing Examiner in making the decision had said – this was a quote that became the quote of the day in the New York Times – he said, and I’m not quoting it exactly but I’ll paraphrase it: “Little League is as American as apple pie and there is no valid reason to deprive little girls of this.”

KR: That is awesome.

JW: It’s not an exact quote but it’s close. And so that was the quote of the day in the Times. And then that wasn’t the end of it though because Little League appealed and then was in to the courts – into the regular court system and it went through the whole thing again. And again they lost. And there was pushback from local New Jersey Little Leagues.

There was a day where there were all these people – parents of boys who were very upset about this and they went to lobby the legislature in Trenton to try to pass a law to undo this. They were feeling so threatened by the possibility of girls coming into Little League. And so there was a big mess in Trenton and it was pretty ugly. And Maria was in the middle of this thing. A 12 year old kid and having kids in her neighborhood – in her school saying nasty things about her. She’s a quiet kid – she just liked to play baseball.

She Didn’t Feel Like Being a Hero – Just Wanted to Play Baseball

It was a hard time on her. But anyway – so then it was over. And that’s the basic story. I have been in touch with Maria since then as an adult. She’s still very athletic and Little League eventually – I guess maybe 10 years ago or so – apologized to her and invited her to come and throw out the first baseball on opening day for Little League. So they saw the error of their ways. And this is – it was very nice for her. And the Hoboken Little League has honored her by naming the batting cage after her.  It’s the Maria Pepe batting cage. So she’s gotten some nice, appropriate – good stuff out of this. But at the time she had a very rough time of it.

KR:  That’s a fabulous story though. And it’s a story that not everybody knows. So we’re excited to have it as part of this project. That’s great.

JW: Yes. I’m happy we made a difference. And it’s also a thing in Cooperstown in the history of baseball museum in Cooperstown – it has something about this.

KR: It made a huge difference. Tell me a little bit more about some of the other things that you did during the second wave. I know you were involved with the Essex County NOW chapter and with other kinds of projects. What other things did you do?

There Was Much to Do 

JW: I was very interested in employment discrimination and that back in the day when there was the sex segregated want ads. We filed a lot of charges about that. And then finally the newspapers did away with them. That was like a campaign around the country that NOW was having. And then we also filed some of the earliest Title IX cases against the public schools in all of the school districts in Essex County all of which had [been] automatically tracking girls into home ec[onomics] classes and boys into shop classes.

That’s clearly a violation of Title IX. And before any of these things could go through the whole process of Title IX all those schools changed and they all did it well. I was afraid what they would do is make it an elective so kids could decide. So you’d have one or two boys in the home ec[onomics] class and one or two girls in shop. But they didn’t do it that way. They required every kid to take both shop and home ec[onomics] which I think was the best way. And that’s how the school district did it. So we considered this ideal.

And we were of course involved in the pro-choice movement then and other issues. There was someone in the chapter who was very active on credit, the issue of women and credit cards. Not having to get her husband’s signature and stuff like that. That’s some of the other stuff that was going on back then.

KR: And how long did you stay involved with NOW?

The East End Women’s Alliance 

JW: I stayed involved with NOW actively in the 70s and 80s. And the Equal Rights Amendment – of course we were very involved with that.  70s and 80s and since then I continue to be a member and pay my dues and sign on letters and that sort of thing. But there is another group that I have been involved in that I would like to mention. At our summer place where I am right now in East Hampton, New York we had a women’s group called the East End Women’s Alliance. And we came together primarily in the summertime and produced an event for National Women’s Day, August 26. So we would meet throughout the summer to plan an event.

Sometimes the event was with speakers or a panel discussion. Sometimes it was a march, sometimes it was a rally. It varied from summer to summer. But being here we had some of the major folks in the feminist movement locally. Like Betty Friedan who came and spoke at one or two and Bella Abzug came. And then in 1984 someone had the idea – very early in the summer – at that time Walter Mondale was the Democratic candidate and Geraldine Ferraro was the V.P. candidate.

And they thought – this was before it was decided who was the V.P. candidate. They said why don’t we invite Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro to come out. So we said sure. And so an invitation went out to Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro who subsequently became V.P. candidate Geraldine Ferraro. And we said she’ll never come now and she did. We had the largest meeting imaginable. Filling up the auditorium in a big school. And so a lot more publicity of having her out here was quite a coup. So that was one of the highlights of that.

KR: How has your involvement in the women’s movement affected your life or has it both personally and professionally? 

My Eyes Were Open

JW: Personally it’s hard to say because I already was on the career I wanted to be on. I think it certainly opened my eyes to more kinds of discrimination going on that were more subtle that I probably wasn’t aware of before. I did become active in the Association for Women in Science and spent a couple of years on the board of that organization. Also Rutgers had a grant – called an Advance Grant from the National Science Foundation for improving the situation of women in science.

And I was not one of the people that applied for this grant. But once the grant was obtained I was a co-coordinator for the Newark campus of Rutgers. We had coordinators at different campuses of the university. So I was a co-coordinator at the Newark campus for this grant and our main point of our grant was giving support to untenured assistant professors to help them in their career to get tenure. So we would give them funds for travel to conferences, some funds for publication costs for their papers and stuff like that. So that was – did that for about six years. We had that grant about six years. So that was good. And what else?

KR: I know you’re currently involved as an activist in some areas. What are you doing now?

JW: More coincidental with my professional work is working as an activist for the environment. I am a Marine Ecologist.

KR: It’s a tough time for that.

JW: It’s a tough time. And so I became active in the environmental organizations in the Sierra Club. And in local groups on the issue of plastic pollution and things like that. And a very local group around our summer place. Taking care of our local estuary right nearby. And so that’s where my passion for something and my profession are kind of together.

My work in the women’s movement – I know of people who for example are historians or literature scholars where the feminism in their professional work goes together with the feminism in their activist work. With mine, the professional and the feminist activism were really two separate things. And they didn’t work together the way the environmental work does.

KR:  And the start of it for you was the coming together of the two things your conversation about why does it have to be a man.

JW: Right. That’s where it actually happened. Overall environmentalism and being ecologists fit together somewhat more cohesively.

KR: It sounds like you’ve done a ton of really awesome things. Is there anything else important or relevant you think we haven’t covered that you want to make sure historians know about your role?

It’s Generational

JW: Let me say that I have two kids that both were raised in the women’s movement and both are feminists. And our son married a woman who was a women’s studies major so it will go on to the next generation. And my husband is the reason I’m able to do all that I’ve done. Because he was totally supportive all the time and did his share in the home, and with the kids, and our son had a very good role model for doing likewise. And my mother in law, my late mother in law who raised my husband – was a NOW member before I was. So there’s a family history there. And we have three granddaughters all of whom are feminists.

KR: That’s great. It’s an important thing. One of our reasons for wanting to do this project was to make sure that the young women and men growing up today understand that a lot of the rights we have today are only there because people like you fought for them and we have to keep fighting.

JW: And it’s nice to have other younger generations and not to feel a burden on us anymore. 

Keep Moving Forward 

It’s nice to have – the Women’s marches and so forth to see how many young people are there. Both women and men.  Not that these women’s marches have done a whole lot of good regarding the current administration I might add.

KR: We’ve got to keep doing it.

JW: I’ve been on more marches in the last year and a half since I’ve had since the 70s.

Climate marches – march for the ocean – women’s march.  March for science. All this stuff and you wonder is it doing any good or not – but just do it.

KR: You’ve got to keep resisting.

JW: You got to on keep on plugging away.