THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Dr. Shelah Leader
“I Hope to Continue the Battle.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Board, May 2019
SL: I’m Shelah Gilbert Leader.
MJC: Tell us when and where you were born.
SL: I was born December 26, 1943 in Brooklyn, New York.
MJC: You want to talk a little bit about your family and what kind of family you grew up in?
SL: I was fortunate to grow up in a nuclear family. I am the oldest of three girls and I come from a fairly long line of scholars on both sides of my family. I think I picked up very early that there was a huge amount of respect for learning, for scholarship, and that those who had doctorates were particularly esteemed. I was always being told by relatives, particularly an adoring grandmother and great aunt, that I was smart and that I had an inquiring mind. That was unusual for a very young child. I think that formed my early identity and I loved reading. I don’t remember playing with dolls. I just remember loving school and loving learning.
MJC: You had a good beginning and a lot of confidence from other women in your family.
SL: Yes. I think I was fortunate to have very strong, very loving; a-typical older generation of women and I think from a very young age I always knew I wanted a career. I was unconsciously always trying to find what could I do besides be a secretary, a nurse, a librarian or an elementary school teacher. Those were the only role models that I saw, and I knew I wanted to do something different, but I didn’t know what.
MJC: At what point did you become aware of the women’s movement or get involved?
SL: It really began when I was enrolled as a graduate student at SUNY at Buffalo, which was a rapidly growing and very well-funded project of Governor Rockefeller. I transferred there at the suggestion of my then boyfriend, from Hebrew University where I was pursuing graduate work. I got a free ride and as soon as I arrived I was waylaid in the ladies room by the only two women junior faculty in the political science department.
They said to me that the department was hopelessly prejudiced against women, that they were being denied money to present research at professional meetings, that they intended to both leave the university and they urged me to leave too. I was stunned. I had just arrived. I had a full fellowship and needed money to pursue my studies and I thought – What am I going to do? Their judgment was rapidly proved to be correct. It was a very unwelcoming environment on the part of the faculty who were all male.
One day when I walked into the student union there was a banner suspended from the ceiling and it announced the formation of something called the Women’s Liberation Movement. I had no idea what that was, but I knew I was going to go. I did go to meetings, which were very informal, anybody could drop in.
We were all on a first name basis and it was basically a study group. We were reading the canon of women’s liberation literature starting with John Stuart Mill and Frederick Engels and going on down. I don’t know how I learned about it, but I also joined a consciousness raising group which was electrifying. We had never talked about such things before.
MJC: Was that in the community or at the campus?
SL: That was off campus. But I suspect almost everybody there one way or another was affiliated with the university. And one day when I was at the women’s liberation movement meeting somebody said that something called NOW was having an organizing meeting and that we should all go and find out what it was about. I had no idea, but I was curious, so I went.
MJC: Can you tell me what year this took place?
SL: I’m not sure if it was 1967 or 68. Of course it was the height of the anti-war movement. Campuses were aboil with ferment. It was a very exciting time to be on campus. The NOW meeting, as best I remember took place in a classroom one evening. The organizers who greeted those who arrived were older than I. They seemed to be mostly junior faculty women. There were some men. There were some husband / wife couples as well as wives of faculty members and they talked about the purpose of NOW and said we should elect officers and to my surprise I was elected president of NOW.
MJC: That was a little more than you bargained for.
SL: I think everybody was surprised. But that really became the focus of my activism during that period of my graduate student work in Buffalo until about 1970–71. We really accomplished a huge amount. Among the things we did was we persuaded the editors of the two major newspapers to de-sex the help wanted ads. For those who don’t know, all the better paying jobs were under the Help Wanted Male column. We also lobbied our state legislators to try to persuade them to vote in favor of decriminalizing abortion, because it was a crime at that point in New York State.
We also found out from women in the community who came to some of our meetings that an illegal abortion in the area cost twelve hundred dollars which was a year’s income to us. We started an illegal telephone hotline to refer women to safe and affordable abortions over the border in Canada. We also found out and decided to act on the fact that the student health service on campus would not provide any gynecologic services to female students. They were told they had to go find a doctor in the community and get there on their own dime. But the health service had a full suite of orthopedic services for the athletes. We confronted them and said this will not do, we demand parity and we got it.
Ann Scott who was one of the founding members of our chapter found out that the campus received federal funds and by law needed to have an affirmative action plan which it did not have. She wrote one and presented it to the university authorities and said either improve on it or this is the plan. She then went on later to the National NOW and became a very effective head of policy work. She was dynamo. We tried to get a daycare center established. This was an eye-opening experience. We reached out to the early childhood education department and asked if they would consider organizing a daycare center for students and faculty. They said come talk to us.
I went as the representative of NOW. Some other women I had never met before went too, and they said it’s our way or no way. We have to run it and have final say on everything having to do with the day care center or it’s no go. And the faculty with whom we were meeting said the only reason we can support this is as a training ground for students who are training in early childhood education. Otherwise there’s no educational component and we can’t back it. The extremists said forget it. I thought – wow – watch out for ideologues who would rather jeopardize the broader interests of women rather than compromise.
MJC: So, there was a political education for Shelah.
SL: Oh yes. I was horrified that they would do that.
MJC: So, all of it broke down and it didn’t happen.
SL: Yes, that was the end of the meeting. Also one of the things that I learned that I wasn’t able to work on then but I did later, is one of the faculty wives who was working on her doctorate in English literature at what was then considered to be one of the foremost departments of English literature at the time, said there’s never been a woman who got tenure in this department. The vast majority of students are female. And you can get a doctorate in English literature without ever reading a work by a female author. We need to do something about making sure that women’s perspectives and women’s research get integrated into the curriculum here. And that was an aha moment for me. When I finished my doctoral work at Buffalo I moved to Ithaca, New York.
MJC: What was your field of study?
SL: Political science, and I got a PhD in political science in 1971. And I could not get a tenure track job as a political scientist. I was able to teach a course here and there but no tenure track jobs. When I was in Ithaca, I met with an ongoing group of women who like me had advanced degrees and were plotting how could we get a Woman Studies Program, a formal one, established at Cornell. We met and discussed it for a while as we thought about what such a program would look like ideally and I was designated by the group to go meet with the dean of the school of arts and sciences at Cornell. I think his name was Fred Kahn. He was really quite a nice guy. He agreed to meet with us, and we presented the idea and he said sounds like a good idea to me I’m willing to sign off on it.
MJC: Were you there as a NOW person or just an individual?
SL: Just an individual with a PhD who had some ideas about the things that could be taught, and the program was formally established. Jenny Farley was the first coordinator. I think that was her title. I went to the Cornell political science department and proposed two courses that I designed. I asked if they would give it credit in political science as a cross listed course with the women’s studies program. I taught the two courses and served on the advisory committee for the program. It was really a joy.
In 1972, I taught a course on women in the Chinese revolution and published one of the first articles on the subject in World Politics, which is available online. I also taught a course on American women in policy or politics. I can’t remember the exact title. In 1973 I learned that there was an opening to go to the Center for the American Woman and Politics at the Eagleton Institute. Ruth Mandel brought me there. I moved for a year to Eagleton.
It happened to be an election year, so I designed a study to interview all of the women who are running for election to the New Jersey state legislature. I designed a questionnaire and I interviewed them as well as their male competitors. It was really an interesting experience for me. I found that the women’s motives and the way they ran their campaigns was dramatically different from that of the men. That study was also published. In 1974 I moved to Washington D.C. and got a job in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department on the strength of my work in civil rights.
I really wanted to work on women’s issues. As soon as I got to D.C. I started making the rounds of all the women’s organizations introducing myself and putting the word out that my passion was women’s issues. I asked them to think of me if any openings would come along. After I started work at the Justice Department, I was invited to be part of a lunchtime panel talk. I don’t even remember what the subject was – probably about my research and my work and at the end of the panel Bella Abzug’s administrative assistant came up to me and thanked me for the talk. I said I really want to go back and work on women’s issues, if you hear anything please let me know.
It was just a few weeks later she called me and said Bella wants to meet you. She has a job for you. I had no idea what it was, and I was heavily pregnant with my first child at the time. After work I went up to the Hill to meet with Bella who I’d never met before. I didn’t know what the job was, and she said how soon can you start? I said my due date is September 20th and I’m taking six weeks of maternity leave. There was no maternity leave in those days. I had spent a year saving up all my vacation and sick leave. And she screamed at me – six weeks! What do you need six weeks for?
I had to [have a] caesarean section and was in court a week later. I timidly said I’m sorry, but I really think I need the time. I thought – oh there goes the job. And she said all right. I said where’s the job? And she jerked her finger over her shoulder and said – there. Lee, my administrative assistant will tell you about it. The job was with the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year. Six weeks to the day after I gave birth, I presented myself to the State Department where they had initially had offices and that began I think the most exciting and fun job I’ve ever had.
And it entailed working with Catherine East, of blessed memory in the policy and plans department. Initially I staffed a committee of the four members of Congress. Bella Abzug and Peggy Heckler were the two members from the House of Representatives and Senators Birch Bayh and Chuck Percy. They were all lovely people. Bella was chair of the committee and she wanted to get the commission to support her proposal for a Cabinet level department on women’s affairs. At her direction, I had to write a proposed bill which she introduced in Congress, but it never really went anywhere.
So while we worked on the first report to the President, “… To Form a More Perfect Union…,” Bella at the same time got a bill passed calling for public meetings in every state and territory leading up to the Houston conference in 1977 which I was thrilled to work on. Pat Hyatt, who was one of my colleagues on the Commission, and I wrote American Women on the Move, our insider’s story about those state and national meetings. We were worried that it would be lost to history, but I think people are learning about it now. This was our effort to make sure that this story would be told.
After the Commission expired, I started doing consulting work with Ellie Smeal then still president of NOW. I also taught a course at the Women’s Studies program at George Washington University. When I was in Ithaca, I was the national treasurer of the Women’s Caucus of the American Political Science Association, because we wanted to make sure there were opportunities for women scholars to present their research at national and regional political science meetings, because the men would never give us a chance to talk about our research.
While I was in Washington, I also was the chairwoman of the Montgomery County Chapter of NOW’s Task Force on Insurance Discrimination. We really tried very hard to persuade the Maryland legislature to forbid insurance policies that were permitted in the state to use gender as a basis for setting rates. That was a tough nut to go up against the insurance industry. I continued to do research on women mostly on health-related issues. I also joined with my then husband and Sheila Tobias to write a book trying to demystify strategic doctrine and weapons in order to empower women to feel confident that they could have a say on important issues in national defense.
MJC: What was the name of that book?
SL: What Kinds of Guns are They Buying for Your Butter? And it came out in hardback and in paperback.
When I went to work for AARP, national health insurance was once again being discussed. It was in the early 1980s. I wrote a book supported by AARP that talked about various proposals to reform our health insurance system including national health insurance as one option. I continued to write an awful lot of both popular and peer reviewed scientific articles on health and women’s health culminating two years ago in the book American Women on the Move.
I think certainly NOW in Buffalo was really pathbreaking. I forgot to say that as president I was able to do a lot of TV and radio interviews to get the word out within the community about what is the women’s movement about. I invited the leaders of every woman’s organization in Buffalo to come to a meeting, which I think we held at the YMCA. I told them about the goals of NOW. I asked them whether or not there were any issues that they thought their organization and NOW could collaborate on. There was thundering silence. I thought – oh we’ve got a lot of work to do. There’s a lot of education to be done. I think about that experience, which was probably around 1970, and what happened when we held the meetings in every state and territory in 1977.
MJC: Talk more about the IWY idea and how it worked.
SL: It was just life altering and a thrilling experience because by 1977, all the public opinion polls showed that the vast majority of women and men supported most of the top line goals of the women’s movement including the Equal Rights Amendment, Roe v. Wade, equal pay for equal work, Title IX and equal credit. So, when the word got out that there was going to be a meeting open to every resident in every state and territory, we were overwhelmed by the numbers of people who came. It was just more than we expected and often bigger than the space that we rented could allow.
In New York State, I think 14,000 women came on a broiling hot day. I was the Federal representative for the New Jersey meeting, which was held on the campus at Princeton. I was there to make sure that the meeting was run in accordance to the rules, because this was a federally funded event. I was shocked that women who were opposed to the goals of the meeting came with whistles which they blew nonstop to try and make it impossible for debate to take place. I thought they were so undemocratic.
They have an opportunity to state their case, but they don’t want to engage in debate. They don’t believe in democratic processes. They must know that they are in the minority and they’ll do anything to keep us from having our say and voting openly. We didn’t realize it then, but it was a foretaste of what we’re living with now, of anti-democratic forces that don’t believe in majority rule. But it was thrilling. And while I’m certainly disheartened by much of what’s happening politically now, I think that for young women, the #MeToo movement for sure, got the attention of many young women who were beneficiaries of all the hard work women of my generation did.
[They] took those rights for granted and would say things like “I’m not a feminist… but”. We don’t hear that now and that makes me happy. And among the things that I’m enjoying doing now as a volunteer for the League of Women Voters is registering high school students to vote, especially since Parkland. The kids understand the importance of participating in the levers of democracy and they don’t have to be persuaded. And suddenly high schools are starting to talk about the importance of civics education and as a political scientist that makes me very happy. It’s time to come back to the basics.
MJC: I think you answered this, but I’ll ask it explicitly. The women’s movement had a tremendous impact apparently on your professional development as well as you personally. You want to talk about that?
SL: It gave me confidence to understand that the unfairness, the discrimination that I experienced professionally was not my fault. That it was because of institutionalized sexism and the way to deal with it is by joining forces with other women and taking action and calling it out when we experienced it. And that when one door closes, another opens and that while my career wasn’t what I thought I was setting out to have, I’ve had an extraordinarily rewarding career. I’ve seen enormous and gratifying changes. Every generation of women will have to fight different battles.
The things that I fought for are not the issues that engage my daughter, who is a proud feminist and started her own organization and is an author too. I see the next generation moving forward proudly as a feminist. And she’s now passing those lessons on to my young grandchildren who get to see her campaigning for election and public speaking and doing me proud. She is a candidate for election to her town council in Westchester. She’s also the co-founder and CEO of an organization called All In Together, which is a nonpartisan organization aiming to give women the tools for empowerment – using the levers of power. I see the next generation moving forward in fighting the battles again. It’s very satisfying to me.
MJC: So, the personal is political and the political is personal.
SL: Absolutely. My daughter was raised listening to Proud To Be You and Me. And she’s giving those lessons over to the next generation. I’m delighted that Veteran Feminists of America exists and that you are doing this video history. The last thing I’ll say is that my NOW and other feminist papers are archived at the Radcliffe Schlesinger Library and that a lot of my research papers and peer reviewed articles are available on the Internet, and that I hope to continue the battle.