ELLIE MILLER GREENBERG - CIVIL RIGHTS AND FEMINIST LEADER, HIGHER EDUCATION INNOVATOR, CO-AUTHOR OF "A TIME OF OUR OWN: IN CELEBRATION OF WOMEN OVER SIXTY"
When is one old enough to write a memoir or an autobiography? Is it at age 50, 60, 70, 80, or?? When do we know enough about our own lives to present ourselves to others??
We produce resumes continuously throughout our professional lives and add items as the years roll on. But, a resume is different from an autobiography. It is less personal and more factual.
Perhaps, now that I am 80 years old, it is time to tell my life’s story. I’ll use my resume as a guide to remind me of details, but I will attempt, here, to be more personal.
Many of the stories in the FVA archives are stories of hardship, poor economic beginnings, barriers to achievement, lack of parental support, or realizing one’s “feminism” in the young adult years. Not so for me.
I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression. My parents, as well as my aunt and uncle and my male first cousin, were living with my grandparents in their two story attached home, since independent housing was expensive. The house was on New Jersey Avenue in the New Lots section of Brooklyn, a Jewish neighborhood where many of our relatives lived.
My father had grown up poor on the East Side of New York, with a stint in a Hebrew orphanage, along with his brother and sister. His mother became a widow when he was about three, and as a single mom, she had to place her kids in an orphanage so she could go to work. She worked in the garment industry and was a labor leader in the early 20th century. My memories of my paternal grandmother are of a strong, independent woman. She smoked cigarettes in a cigarette holder and wore slacks. In her photographs, she is often holding a large purse and wearing a hat. My father’s parents came from Russia via London in the great wave of immigration in 1903.
My mother’s grandparents arrived here with their young children in the late 19th Century, having walked from Odessa in Ukraine to Turkey, as they fled both the Czar’s army and the Turkish army. My maternal great grandmother, bubbe, was the oldest person I ever knew. She was in her nineties, had long white braids, and spoke only Yiddish. She had had a stroke and sat in a rocking chair coloring children’s coloring books.
Although my mother was a stay-at-home mom, she had been a rather independent woman before she was married. She “went to business” as a secretary, attended CCNY at night, had a large collection of poetry books, and studied dance with Martha Graham. There are many photographs of her in various costumes; and I have photographs of my parents spending weekends in the country with a group of friends, even before they were married. Rather avante garde, I’d say. Maybe even feminist.
We lived in two different apartments in Brooklyn before we moved to a two family house in New Jersey, where my sister was born and I started school. Each time we moved, our economic situation was improved. Throughout my elementary school years, my mother took me into New York on Saturdays to attend Dalcroze School of Music, go shopping and visit museums.
By the time we owned our own home on a beautiful street in Newark, World War II had begun. My recollections of the war years are vivid. I wore a navy blue “pee” coat, a replica of a WAVE hat, and had a pilot’s helmet like the one Amelia Earhart wore. Between 1941 and 1945, when I graduated from elementary school, we sang patriotic songs, saw movies about brave Dutch children escaping the Nazis, smashed tin cans, and bought War Bonds for $18.75. If it is so that “you are what you were when”, and, “when” is age 10, my values were formed during the war years. My early feminism was shaped by the WACS and I often imagined myself in difficult war-related situations and bombings.
One of the childhood experiences that strongly influenced my life was summer camp, which I attended for almost two months beginning when I was only seven years old. Later, at Raquette Lake Girls Camp in the Adirondaks, I excelled in sports, swimming, canoeing and song leading. I became a color war team captain and began to view myself as a leader. I won the camp’s most prestigious award, the Character Cup, and was inducted into the very special Magic Circle. There were powerful role models at camp: the tennis playing –lawyer head counselor, the equality-focused camp owner, and the brilliant pianist-composer. Those strong and talented women were feminists long before the political movement of the 1960s.
During high school, I became a twirler and then a majorette. I marched in front of the twirling squad in my white uniform and was considered a leader. I was a good student and a popular person. I always had a boyfriend and many girlfriends. I recall being conscious of trying to balance my independence with my group belongingness.
My father, who may not have even graduated from high school, was the most widely-read person I ever knew. He was brilliant at mathematics and self-taught in a myriad of subjects. He did the New York Times crossword puzzles in ink, and read dozens of books each week. After learning the plumbing supply business as an employee, he later became a partner and then went out on his own into a resistant materials business that prospered during the war. He solved complex engineering and construction problems without formal schooling. He believed that I could do anything I chose to do, and he was the most feminist person in my life.
When it came to college, my parents focused my attention on the “seven sisters” and my goal became to get into Mount Holyoke, the first women’s college in the country. We knew one family with a Mount Holyoke daughter and we thought that she was both brilliant and beautiful. I wanted to be just like her. Fortunately, I was accepted and I consider my four years at Mount Holyoke College to have been the most transformative experience of my life. It was there that I was taken seriously as a student and surrounded by competent professional female scholars, who were both supportive and challenging. I also took the founder, Mary Lyon, quite seriously and adopted her motto: ”Go where no one else will go; do what no one else will do”. Those words have become a lifetime guideline for me.
My parents’ surprising divorce during my freshman year, became another life-shaping event. Seeing my mother struggle to become independent after eighteen years of marriage convinced me that it was necessary for women to have a significant career and be able to be financially independent. As a result, after I graduated from Mount Holyoke, I went to the University of Wisconsin and got a Masters in Speech Pathology and developed a specialty of working with brain-injured children and adults. My first job was at a new school for children with cerebral palsy in Denver. There was certainly no point in returning to the east, where my father had re-married and had two more children. He now had four daughters and two adopted children from his second wife. Life had become harder for my mother and more complex for everyone.
Soon after I moved to Denver, I met my husband-to-be on a blind date. By the early 1950s, I had become convinced that it would be necessary for women to have a career, as well as to become wives and mothers. That’s the goal I set out for myself. I believed that I was capable of those multiple roles, and if I could not do it, no one could. That was the proposition I offered my husband, and he agreed. It was on that premise that we were married. By the time Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, I had three children, a career, and an active life in the Civil Rights Movement . I was already living the “have-it-all” life, while my friends had set aside their work to become stay-at-home moms and were beginning to attend consciousness raising groups. While my husband and I worked hard to accommodate my increasing responsibilities outside the home, I watched other marriages founder on the rocks of role differentiation.
By the 1970s, I had changed careers and had the opportunity to develop and administer new programs in higher education. The majority of my students were adult women returning to school to finish the degrees that they had abandoned when they married and had children a decade before. First in University Without Walls, then in US WEST’s Pathways to the Future, and later in the Mountain and Plains Partnership (MAPP), I designed individualized programs that allowed and supported women, and some men, to shape their own lives and careers, just as I had the privilege of doing at Mount Holyoke. We brought higher education into the Colorado prisons, the Navajo Reservation, the rural communities in fourteen western states.
As my work became well-known, I was invited to write and edit books and newspaper columns. I completed my own doctorate and did my course work in the law school and the business school. I became a frequent public speaker and consultant and traveled throughout the country and the world. During the 1980s and 1990s, I co-founded many women’s organizations and became involved in politics, boards and commissions. I have been recognized with honorary degrees and numerous awards and was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010.
My three children are now grown, have achieved in their educations and careers, and I have four terrific grandchildren. I lost my wonderful and supportive husband in 2009 when we were traveling in China and I am learning how to live alone. My daughters and my son are, of course, feminists and have grown up knowing what it is like to have a mother who has “had it all”. .….extensive education, a successful marriage, satisfying careers, and an active community life, along with many friends, children, and grandchildren.
Way back in the 1940s and 1950s, I somehow knew what women’s lives would have to be like in the 21st Century, and I set out quite purposefully to become that kind of woman. I have been fortunate to have had feminist men in my life who have supported me all the way.
In many ways, I have led a privileged life, for which I feel fortunate and do not apologize. I was brought up to believe that I could and should be a pacesetter in this regard, and I did not disappoint. For me, feminism has never been only a political movement, it has been a way of life. I grew up with supportive parents who believed in me and taught me to believe in myself. I had a totally supportive husband who took pride in my achievements. I have tried to do the same for my children and, in turn, for my grandchildren. For these opportunities, I am forever grateful.
Now, at 80, I can report that it is not only possible, but it is necessary, for women to become wives, mothers, career women, and community activists…..throughout their changing lives. Our complex world requires that of us. That is the nature of things. So it has been, and so it shall ever be.
Elinor Miller Greenberg, Ed.D
President/CEO, EMG and Associates
phone 303 771 3560; fax 303 771 2235
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