THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“How I Found My Voice.”
Today is March 14th, 2019. My name is Rebecca Lubetkin and I am here with Dr. Margarita West, a very close friend of mine for 44 years. I’m asking her, we call her Guida, to interrupt me anytime she wants to. I’ll tell my story. I’ll try to tell it from the beginning. Feel free then to ask me to expand or shorten. I’d like to tell you my story. I’d like to start from the beginning and think about the challenge of trying to understand how I became a feminist activist, that I chose certain issues and that I got my voice, because I didn’t automatically have my voice.
Let’s Start with Going Back to the Very Beginning.
Ours was an uprooted family. My parents were brought up in the same small town, it was actually a part of New York City. It was a very remote part of New York City especially when they were born. My father, Abraham Levin who was called “Bud” was born in 1904 and my mother Jessica Denenholz Levin was born in 1912. They lived at the beach in Far Rockaway, New York. It was just a very small beach town and it had limited access to New York’s urban centers. Their story as a couple, and my story, began a distance away in rural New Jersey far removed in those days from their roots.
Both of my parents were children of lawyers and each was suddenly orphaned as teenagers in the 1920s. Their mothers had no income source. That’s what it was like for women in those days. In the absence of government relief programs, they had to make their way for themselves and their families without material and moral support.
My father’s father died at 48, leaving his son Bud, in college, as well as a daughter who had just graduated from Barnard in 1922 and was in her first year of medical school. To support his family and to make possible his sister’s dream of becoming a doctor, my father left college. Though he was still in his teens, he was able to establish a light manufacturing business in Kenilworth, New Jersey, which was a tiny town of about 900, far removed from home. In doing so he enabled his sister to complete medical school at Columbia University in 1926.
My mother, Jessica was the fourth of 10 children and was 18 and a Cornell freshman when her father died in 1930, leaving an ailing widow with 3 children in college and 5 younger children. The younger children were 9, 10, 12, 14 and 15. She was a graduate of Hunter College High School, which was a girls school, and she was able to stay in college graduating from Cornell in 1933, at the height of the depression when jobs were impossible to get, and when there was no safety net for survivors. Again, a commentary on our relationship to women.
She had five siblings still at home to help support. The following year when Jessica was 22, her mother died. There she was with the older kids trying to support and house the five younger kids. When Jessica and Bud married in 1936, Jessica worked in the family business and also gave birth to six children. The first five of whom were born within four and a half years. So, if you can picture that, I was number three when I was in high school. One of us was a senior, two of us juniors and one was a sophomore and one was a freshman. You really couldn’t do anything without it getting back to your parents.
As though that wasn’t enough, both of my parents maintained heavy commitments to their families back home because they were one of the main sources of support for all of the young siblings, helping to raise them and to get them through college. So, while our parents were always present in our lives, they were often distracted by their enormous responsibilities. So, our day to day care was provided by a housekeeper who lived with our family until I was 10. Today they call her a “nanny”, but she did a lot more than nannies do.
All of this took place from 1939 to 1949 accompanied by the anxieties of World War II, the Holocaust and the early years of the Cold War, but our isolation was more than geographic. We were a mismatch with the tiny homogeneous community. We were different in religion, socioeconomic status and parental education and expectation. We were one of three Jewish families in town, we felt distanced from our peers, not only due to overt anti-Semitism. Remember this was during the Holocaust and during World War II, but also to cultural differences. As observant Jews we could not engage with our friends on Saturdays due to the Sabbath. We could not eat at their parties due to dietary laws. We just did not fit in.
Also, our parents’ expectations of us reflected their own educational backgrounds in contrast to that of most of our peers’ parents who were recently-arrived immigrants, farmers and factory workers, whose formal education often ended long before high school. So that was the context in which I was born at the end of 1938. I was 80 a few months ago and I was born with a twin brother and older sister and three younger sisters. My brother was the only boy as I said, he had five sisters. Our father was a conservative with traditional and rigid values in most things. He was a very difficult man to have as a father. He was domineering. He was opinionated and he was punitive. He was also volatile and explosive.
But one thing about my father – he did not privilege my brother over his daughters. He did not privilege his son over his daughters, which was unusual in those days. Standards and expectations were the same. He was very intimidating. He was determined to limit his wife’s and children’s access to outside influences in order to maintain the centrality of his values and to keep us within the fold. And that was onerous. I would say that my predominant mode of response within the family was just to try to not disappear. Try not to be there, because if you were there you got in trouble.
And the trouble that attended my siblings was terrifying to me. So that even though I wasn’t the one who was punished. What’s the word – actually beaten – just to be present in an environment like that was very frightening but there was an upside and that was that having such a strong self-contained family life with so many siblings proved a benefit in a community in which we didn’t fit in. So there was a lot of a lot of strength at home.
Fortunately, when I was 11 we moved to Millburn, New Jersey, which was a suburban community that was a much better match in educational aspirations and support. Achievement in school was more valued there, but we still had a feeling of not quite belonging. We were still a distinct minority. Our feeling was grounded in a climate of real, but unacknowledged, biases based on religion. In addition to that, many of our classmates who were not Jewish felt marginalized as well. Based on other social distinctions which included ethnicity and income. One’s section of town, one’s Elementary School perceptions of who was smart and who was not.
None of this [I] was really aware of when I was in middle school or high school. I became aware of it when I was in college and looked back on what life as a child in Millburn was like. Though Milburn had a small Jewish community, we still felt the effects of religious prejudice. This was manifested not in school but in limited social acceptance and community programs and country clubs that were out right discriminatory. A major portion of town was restricted. Residential deeds were restricted to prevent Jews from owning homes there.
Few students were unkind but did try their best to mask their disinterest and or distaste for peers who were different. They didn’t believe that they couldn’t harass you. We were simply irrelevant to their lives outside of the classroom. It seemed we were violating some social norm just by being there and we should be grateful. That was the feeling that I had in high school. It’s not so surprising. So, all of these dimensions of life, religion, culture, expectations or all of those were distinctions that were made in my life in elementary school and in high school.
I wasn’t really aware of differences in attitudes toward gender, towards sex. I guess it wasn’t so surprising, but I was not aware of it because in my family females seemed privileged. My brother did not have a better deal than his sisters. My mother was well educated – more so than my father. My father was willing to leave college to put his sister through medical school. With that background, I didn’t notice the many gender inequities that the world doled out.
I’m also sure that my early experiences sensitized me to issues of injustice and thus played a part in preparing me for my future activism. Up until this point though, I was very quiet. I had learned early at home not to be then. Now that’s up because it gets hammered down. I had learned that my best move is to just kind of fall into the background. I suppose looking at that I would want to deal with what it was that engaged me to become a spokesperson and an activist. One of the [things] was the women’s college.
I graduated in 1960 from Barnard, which was the women’s division of Columbia University and it was a women’s college where women’s education and futures were taken seriously and where no pursuit was seen as inappropriate for women. In fact, when I got to graduate school and it was in political science, I remember being shocked. It was at a regular university; at Rutgers University I remember being shocked that there were so few women there. This was seen to be a pursuit for men. Where at Barnard everything was available to women, so it was totally a different experience. I later worked as an instructor of public policy at Rutgers when Rutgers College was still all male. So, it was very different very different environment.
I met my husband, Daniel when he was a member of the State Legislature. I was part of a team of Rutgers academics that had been requested by the Legislature to conduct an analysis of its procedures with the idea of kind of streamlining them and making them make more sense and we were to propose recommendations to improve the legislative process. Daniel, a lawyer, was one of the legislators that I interviewed for this study. We married in 1963 and gave birth to two daughters in 1967 and 1968.
One of the greatest influences on me was that in my early years I had been raised by paid household help. I determined early that when I gave birth, no activity outside of the home would be more important or have higher stakes or be more worthy of my devotion than the rearing of our future children. The president of Barnard would constantly say – ok, you can marry, you can have children, but you’re also meant for bigger things. And I thought – well you didn’t have my childhood where hired help was responsible for our growing up. So, Dan and I embarked on a very traditional marriage. He was the sole earner and I was the caregiver and I don’t think many people who went to college with me would have acknowledged that that was a good way to go. But it was based upon my experience.
The Book That Changed My Life – Black Like Me
By the late 60s, when our daughters were 2 and 1, I had begun to hear the murmurings, the beginnings of the women’s liberation movement. I discounted it because I thought that women’s lib, which is what they called it in the 60s – maybe that’s needed by some especially those who personally suffered from big bad fathers or big bad husbands. But I didn’t fit into that category, so I didn’t need it. I thought that women’s lib was what was needed for people who had personal kinds of bad experiences, but I didn’t need it.
Then one day in 1970 I was reading; I was still a homemaker. I’m home, I have young kids and I was reading my Barnard Alumni magazine and they had an article about women’s liberation, and they had recommended readings at the end of the article. I decided to go to the library and get one of the books that they recommended. It was called Black Like Me, and it was a book that changed my life. Literally changed my life. The author, a man named John Howard Griffin, you probably know his work. He was a white Texan, and he had traveled by bus through the racially segregated South as a Black man. He made himself up as a black man, pretended he was black, and he took the bus and went from town to town in Texas.
He described the differential treatment he received when he was black versus when he was white. Even from people who knew him but didn’t know that he was he. This was based only on skin color, so I read this book and it was dramatic. I likened sexism to racism for the first time. I saw that sexism is not just personal. It is also social, cultural, political – transcending one’s individual circumstances.
One of the lines that was popular at the time was that the personal is political. But I became aware from reading this book and then thinking about the situation that you didn’t have to have a bad personal situation to acknowledge that gender was a very serious issue and that women were very seriously neglected, abused, oppressed. Whatever you wanted to call it. But that it transcended your personal circumstances because mine were good and certainly much better than they had been when I had grown up.
After that after I became aware. Things changed very quickly. I was still a homemaker. I was still a full time child care for the next five years, but I joined a consciousness-raising group. Some sponsored by NOW and it had diverse members and it was a group that was supposed to end after 10 sessions, but it actually continued it for 30 years with more or less the same people. I joined NOW in 1971 and began to see limitations based on gender around every corner.
Just very interesting considering that a few months before I didn’t see it at all. I would – I noticed what was going on in our daughter’s preschool, in their elementary school, in their organized recreational activities, in athletics – a girl couldn’t be captain of the safety patrol in our elementary school. She was not allowed to ride a bike to school, but boys were. She could not play recreational soccer or basketball. She could not play kickball with the boys at lunch but had to remain on the blacktop playing things like Foursquare.
Books had mostly boys as main characters and there were almost no biographies of women in the school library. In classrooms teachers focused on the boys. They stood where the boys were saying that they needed to do that in order to get the boys to behave. They called on them more often. They asked them more probing questions. There were lots more. And I suddenly became aware of it. So, while I worked on many issues, feminist issues, my main focus was on schools.
Inequities in Education
My kids were still in preschool at the time, but I became the chair of NOW New Jersey’s Task Force on Education. When we filed hundreds of separate formal complaints in every middle school – they were called junior high schools at the time – we filed these complaints with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights and we were contesting the practice in which girls had to take Home Economics; cooking, sewing and boys had to take shop. For the most part they weren’t allowed to cross-gender enroll.
Not only that the girls had to take these, but they also couldn’t take shop, then they couldn’t take the mechanical drawing and some of the other pre-career kinds of skills. But we won in this quasi-judicial proceeding and seemingly overnight the schools opened all courses to both sexes. It became more common for girls to take physics. Computer science was just beginning at the time and so there were important areas which girls and boys were able to move into the arts in a way that they hadn’t before.
There Were Many Struggles and Triumphs.
There were local, state and national. Most of these changes are taken for granted now and I mean that really sounds like ancient history when I talk about it. But in the 70s these proposed changes generated strong opposition and even mockery. For instance, when I went on a campaign to persuade schools to allow children to stay for lunch. This was a time when there were neighborhood schools and you were expected to go home for lunch. So, working to allow children to stay for lunch rather than requiring them to go home from noon to 1 would thereby free mothers for other pursuits. But I was attacked as being a communist who wanted the government to take over the rearing of my children. That sounds crazy now.
Advancing the passage and implementation of Title IX. We increased dramatically the number of girls’ sports and teams. At that time, girls did not have any interscholastic teams. They had what was called Girls Athletic Association. They were kind of intramural things. If they didn’t play other schools and they wouldn’t have been given the school then to go to other schools to play. A little later in the 70s, girls had basketball. They had three sports; field hockey, basketball and softball but they didn’t have appropriate facilities. Press covered coaches tournaments, they didn’t have cheerleaders, their parents couldn’t come because they weren’t allowed to play at night.
All of the lights on kinds of activities were for boys and I was accused of trying to turn our daughters and other people’s daughters into muscle-bound lesbians. Before Title IX was promulgated I joined with a friend to found a consulting firm to help schools make the changes we felt were needed. But there was no legislative mandate. There was no law. And so, schools if they didn’t see the advantage of change and most of them did not – there were few takers. So much for our consulting firm but through NOW we continued to advocate for State Legislation assuring equal educational opportunity.
When we succeeded in getting a new state law and regulation passed, I was invited by New Jersey’s new Office of Equal Educational Opportunity to design and direct professional development for all educators in the new mandates. The state was now requiring that all educators take a certain amount of professional development to understand the values the benefits and the need to advance equal opportunity. Most people in most schools did not buy that at all. They thought that things were fine the way they were.
The Consortium for Educational Equity at Rutgers
And then in 1975, when the Title IX regulation was finally a reality, Dr. Margarida West, who’s here now – I refer to her as Guida West. She asked me to write a grant proposal to support training for educators and how to achieve equal opportunity. That proposal was funded and resulted in the creation ultimately of the Consortium for Educational Equity at Rutgers and I was hired as executive director at the rank of assistant professor.
For the next 25 years, the Consortium provided leadership to schools in making the changes needed to transform educational practices and programs to provide equitable educational opportunities. The original range for services was New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. It was only gender bias, but the work was later expanded through successful competitive bidding applications, to reach much of the country as well as to include policies and practices that limited students based on race and national origin.
I also served as Associate Director for Equity of the Rutgers Center for Mathematics, Science, and Computer Education. So that by the year 1990 I had advanced to full professor and finally with my retirement in 2000 to Emerita Professor.
I’m also the author, editor and publisher of numerous books and articles and videos. Among them were the earliest policy and practices manuals for structuring educational programs to provide equal opportunity. These included pioneering guidelines. This was 1976 to 1979 guidelines to develop equitable opportunities in athletics as well as curriculum guides in social studies, language arts, and the STEM fields. (STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.) We also designed conferences for girls at local colleges. We call them Futures Unlimited to interest girls in pursuing careers in STEM fields. And we assembled in our library at Rutgers the largest collection in the country of multimedia resources in educational equity.
I Was Inspired by the Feminist Movement
It sounds as though it was all very smooth, but actually what made it all possible – remember I still had the mentality that I had to be a full-time mother to my children and that I didn’t like the idea of depending upon anybody else. But what made it all possible, was my husband Dan’s extraordinary support as I moved into employment. Clearly, I was inspired by the feminist movement to apply for that assistant professorship that was offered to me at Rutgers in a field that did not exist. I would have the good fortune to define it myself. I was changing the rules that heads – that had structured our married lives.
Remember, I said that we were very traditional couple where I was the caregiver and he was the earner. So, it was an opportunity afforded to few to be able to pursue my feminist passion and to be paid for it. But we knew that I could not accept without substantial changes at home. I had to give up my determination to avoid paid childcare. After school care in those days was available only in poor neighborhoods. You didn’t have after school care in suburban neighborhoods at all. In fact, it was stigmatized. But we would need a housekeeper because the children were then eight and seven.
Dan would have to do many of the tasks only a parent can do. The inconvenience and radical intrusions on his time would in no way be compensated by my very low academic salary. So, it wasn’t as if we were getting something for this. He sacrificed many of his own professional and personal goals to accommodate our family’s new needs. He made it possible for me to take a job 35 miles away that required my absenting myself from home from 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. daily with very young children. I know that’s commonplace today but if it wasn’t then.
We’ve been married for 55 years. Our daughters are grown, each married with two children. Both have worked full time since graduation. Marriage, children and neither ever aspired to be a full-time homemaker or child. Julie Lubetkin lives in San Carlos, California and Dr. Erica Lubetkin lives in Manhattan. I have been retired for 18 years although I continue to work part time as a consultant at Rutgers. Since retirement I’ve been an activist. Primarily in international women’s rights.
My causes have been genocide, rape as a weapon of war, sex slavery, honor killing, female genital mutilation and child marriage. These activities include writing, demonstrating, political organizing, lobbying, canvassing. I was also involved in the anti-war movement as an active member of the Raging Granny Brigade. We protested the Iraqi war in various places including the Times Square Armed Forces Recruiting Station where some of us were arrested. And I have to say that I think that my finding my voice in contrast to my quiet absence as a child was largely related to the benefits of a women’s college and to my fortunate marriage to my husband who encouraged that, even though it was not really in his interest.
In addition, I’ve been a member of the Holocaust Council of Greater Metro West. We conduct and support oral histories of our local Holocaust survivors. It’s a population similar in age to second wave feminists. In both cases the stories need to be told before the generation is gone. I’m a member of the Veteran Feminists of America National Board.
The Purpose of the Veteran Feminists of America
Dr. West: Could you tell a little bit about that organization?
Yes, I will because one of the things that we’re doing as an organization are these oral histories. Trying to make sure that the story of the second wave is told. We call it the second wave because the first wave was suffrage – getting the vote. Then there was a kind of a quiet period. Went through the depression, World War II. The second wave became the time when we became aware of the many ways in which the world, the society needed to be transformed and the revolution was amazing. So much so that people don’t recognize what happened then and they kind of think that was ancient history. But for us who lived through it – it was life.
So, what we’re trying to do now is to tell that story so that years from now when historians and sociologists are looking at and talking about this period of time, they’re going to be hearing our voices rather than perhaps not quite being accurate or adequate in terms of their understanding of what this period meant. The period of time we’re talking about is essentially the middle of the 60s. From about 1966 when NOW was founded to about 1982. And we just picked that date because that was the date that the ERA failed to meet its deadline. So, we still didn’t have the ERA. We still don’t, but we’re working on it.
Dr. West: What is the ERA?
It’s an amendment that to the Constitution that would guarantee that women have equal rights. We still don’t have it. Women still don’t have equal rights in the Constitution.
Dr. West: Is there any effort now being made?
Yes, we had 35 states and we needed ratification from 38 states. So, we were three states short in 1982. Things were quiet but in the last few years from about 2010 and now it’s 2019, there’s been a lot of activity and we have two more states. So now we have 37. We need one more state but we also have to deal with the fact that originally when the Congress voted for the ERA to be then ratified by the states they gave us a deadline of 1982 and we’re going to have to deal with the fact that we’re beyond the deadline but we’re very close to having the 38 states that we need.
So, our hope is that somehow that deadline will be extended, and it will be allowed. The other thing that I’ve been doing in retirement and even before retirement is that since 1993 I’ve been part of the production team for a TV program called New Directions for Women. It went from 1993 to 2018. It’s produced by the Morris County Chapter of NOW, through CableVision which is Optimum and aired in many outlets of the country. I became host of the show in 2007. Almost 300 shows have been produced and all are archived in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College. Most shows are available on YouTube. And you can get access to them at wwww.YouTube.com/MCNOWNJ.com which is Morris County NOW, New Jersey.
I’m going to stop here unless, Guida you have additional questions. I hope that I’ve answered the question that concern me, which was – how did I get my voice. And what was it that induced me to become active as a feminist activist and I do believe that a lot of what I saw, the discrimination and the disparate treatment of groups in my childhood had an important impact on me, which I did not connect with gender until I read that book and started to engage in consciousness raising and started to really think about what the society looked like at that time. So, I’m finished unless anybody wants to ask questions.
Dr. Guida: As I said, I was influenced by Betty Friedan’s, The Feminine Mystique. Did you read The Feminine Mystique?
The question had to do with Betty Friedan and Feminist Mystique. That book came out in 1963, and I married in 1963 and I thought I had it all. I mean I had this greatest husband in the world, and we were embarking on a life together and I couldn’t really relate to the issues. When she talked about all the ways in which women’s lives were skewed, deprived, neglected, I couldn’t relate to it at all. I wasn’t there. It was after I had the kids. And when I started to read and understand that it’s not what’s happened to you personally you have to get beyond your personal experience and observe what’s going on in the world. It was a very important book; it just didn’t hit me at the right time.
Dr. West: Thank you Becky. Absolutely fascinating, what a contribution.