Veteran Feminists of America
Betty Schlein FEMINIST AND POLITICAL ACTIVIST
I was born in Brooklyn on April Fools Day, but in 1931, there was no time for foolishness. It was the bottom of the Depression. My father had lost his job as a distributor for Paramount Pictures, and with it, his self-confidence and most of his dignity. Soon, we had to move into my grandparents' modest home, where tight quarters and too many adults in charge left no room for a little girl growing up to be anything but “very good.” (For further details of my family life, read about the Jack and Sylvia Portnoy Debating Society in Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint.) Ours was a house wracked with poverty and pain, and the effects were long-lasting.
My mother was determined to move out and make us a self-supporting family. In 1939, she and my father opened a summer day camp in Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach, but it was not to be. With war looming, the beach was closed to the public and became a United States Coast Guard station. Fortunately for our family, this did not stop my mother. She started a nursery school, which she ran successfully for all the years of my childhood and for the rest of her life.
She had been the only girl in a family of high-achieving brothers: A dentist, a lawyer, a doctor, and a businessman who went into the family textile business her father helped found on the Lower East Side. Though she was extremely intelligent, she was the only one of her siblings without a college education. She resented it all her life.
For my mother, education was the key to the future, and no matter what she had to sacrifice (and she reminded me repeatedly of those sacrifices), her daughter was going to go to college. I matriculated at Smith College, and later transferred to Cornell University.
I graduated in 1952, armed with a degree and the vague idea of actually using it. So I went to Washington, DC to look for a job. There, I discovered that the only available jobs for women were for secretaries – and I don’t mean Secretary of State or Defense. I had been Secretary of the Student Council at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, NY. But the only jobs in DC required typing and getting coffee. I couldn't type! And I didn’t want to fetch coffee.
Instead, I moved back to New York and earned a Masters degree in Early Childhood Education at Columbia Teacher's College, the appropriate option that a young girl of my education and background did in those days. Ironically, my parents – who were so eager for me to receive a college education – were much more skeptical about my Washington career ambitions. So they were greatly relieved that I had “gotten that out of my system" – “that” being any aspiration to a more high-profile profession … all the while encouraging my brother to do so.
As a measure of my own acceptance of the societal norms of the day, I remember feeling grateful that I didn't have any “real talent to write, paint, or dance,” because that would have created a difficult conflict: How could I do what was expected of me – get married and have children – while pursuing a challenging career?
At that stage, the answer eluded me. I fell in love, got married, had three children by the time I was thirty … and then, like so many women of my generation, developed the “disease that had no name.” It was a classic syndrome, with typical symptoms: I had a loving husband, a lovely home, loveable children … and a pervasive sense of something missing.
When trauma struck – in close succession, I lost my mother and my father-in-law, almost lost one of my children, and experienced post-partum depression after the birth of my youngest child – the emotional ambush was crushing. Five years of psychoanalysis later, I was ready to re-engage with the wider world… And, lucky for me, the world was ready too.
The times, they were a-changing, as Bob Dylan famously sang. And I wanted to change with them. After working against the Vietnam War and for civil rights, I went to a meeting at my local synagogue in Merrick, Long Island, where I heard Jacqui Ceballos speak on a panel with a radical feminist. The animosity from the audience was palpable: They asked, "Where are your children?" But I remember asking how they could find jobs for women in a bad economy.
Soon after, I went to an organizing meeting for a new chapter of the National Organization for Women. There were about 20 women attending, and we went around the room answering the question, "Why are you here?” I had no ready answer. But as one of the women told us the story of how her father would not let her attend Radcliffe College after she was accepted because the boys in the family came first, I felt that intense jolt of recognition so many experienced in “consciousness raising groups.” It clicked. I knew why I was there. When I applied to Cornell Liberal Arts College and they accepted only one woman out of five applicants, we did not know to call it discrimination. When my parents had far higher expectations for my brother than for me, I did not know to call it bias.
It clicked, and kept clicking. I had begun to find my calling. From a girl who had been grateful to have no ‘real talent,’ I discovered that I had been wrong. I had plenty of talent, and it was political – the gift of organizing. I think I was born with a latent political gene in my DNA, but it took the women’s movement to wake that dormant drive.
Not long after joining the local NOW chapter, which had about 70 members at the time, I was elected President (not Secretary). It was the event that changed my life. Within two years the Long Island chapter became a powerful force of over 500 members, the third largest chapter in the country at the time. We helped organize the New York State NOW and the Women's Political Caucus. The Coalition Against Domestic Violence started in my basement, where our board meetings were held, when one woman said we ought to do something about “battered women.” We weren’t sure what that meant, but it didn’t take long to find out. We also started a Divorce Information Center and many other issue-oriented organizations.
My life took off in the most unanticipated directions. I was elected as a member of the New York State Democratic Committee and soon was chosen as Vice-Chairwoman. That combination of NOW and Democratic Party politics put me at the cutting edge of the dynamic changes that were occurring and gave me the opportunity to help bring women into positions of leadership in the community, the party and government. I embraced it full force.
After nominating Mary Ann Krupsack the first woman to run for and win the office of Lt. Governor, I was chosen to head the Women's Division of the New York State Democratic Committee founded by Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1920s. I also sat on the Board of Directors of the group working to restore Eleanor Roosevelt's home at Val-Kill. We made the Women's Division into a feminist training ground, where women could gain the experience of organizing, speaking, and lobbying for our issues. It was a soaring moment and we were ready to fly.
In 1978, I was appointed Assistant to the Governor of New York State, and with the leadership of Governor Hugh Carey’s Appointments Secretary, Judith Hope, we helped furnish that office with an abundant supply of talented women. In fact, through Judith, Governor Carey appointed more women than any prior governor in New York State.
In both 1976 and1980, New York State was host to the Democratic National Conventions, and I was honored to play a key role in winning the fight for the equal division of delegates. And of course, in 1984 Gerry Ferraro made her historic run for Vice President. At the time, it felt like we had finally made it. But history has shown that we still have much to do, and many battles remain. My three children, then teenagers, shared my enthusiasm and activities and have become successful activists in their own right.
We went on to institutionalize our gains through the Long Island Women's Network, and then the Women's Fund of Long Island and we worked closely to help develop Emily's List and the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy, both created to encourage women to run for public office by training them and supporting their candidacies.
Professionally, I developed a firm that provided consulting services to non-profit organizations and served on many boards including the Long Island Community Foundation. I have continued to work to support candidates for public office who champion women’s rights and issues improving the lives of women and girls.
Just as the women’s movement made the personal, political and the political, personal, I have found that sometimes, simply by networking -- joining together in informal groups, from ad hoc meetings to address single cause issues, to luncheon groups to discuss common interests – women can change their communities, their country, and most important, their own lives.
To this day, I continue to support the ongoing fight for equal rights for all. I am proud to be a veteran of the women’s movement and a Veteran Feminist. Most recently, I had the honor to contribute to the remarkable documentary film, Makers, and it is one of my life’s greatest pleasures to continue providing support and encouragement to young activists and the causes we care about.
And as I look back over a rich, long, and fortunate life, I am enormously grateful to have been born and lived my life as a Jewish woman in America in the second half of the twentieth century. I can think of no better time or place in history.
Contact Betty: firstname.lastname@example.org
COMMENTS: Jacqui Ceballos email@example.com
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