Veteran Feminisrs of America



Lois's mother, great grandmother,
sister and Lois

I was born in Los Angeles County General Hospital on July 26, 1939, and raised by Christian fundamentalist parents (Missouri Synod Lutheran Church), in Inglewood, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles. My family came from German farm backgrounds in Milwaukee and Spokane. In good German fashion (my parents spoke German before learning English), they managed to buy a large house and to bring all the aging relatives to live with them: grandmothers and grandfathers; even my maternal great grandmother, who lived to be ninety-five.


Large houses were cheap in Los Angeles during the Depression of the 1930s. In our house there were plenty of people to clean, cook, and care for my two brothers and sister and me. But in the 1950s ageism was rampant, and my relatives internalized society’s scorn of the elderly and blamed themselves for it. Seriously depressed, they complained about their health. At one point there were twelve people living in our house and my mother’s brother, a beautiful, dashing musician, moved in and out between marriages. My great-grandmother had no affection for the younger generation, but she told me stories about Indians and adventurers she had encountered in the late nineteenth century, which perhaps inspired me to become a historian.


How did a 1970s radical feminist like me emerge out of such a family? My parents were racist and anti-Semitic, but even as a child I found those attitudes wrong. Jesus Christ taught us to love all humanity and to be charitable and non-materialistic—that’s the message I picked up from Lutheranism. God the father was a terrifying being who would send us to hell if we didn’t believe, and I was frightened of him. God the Holy Ghost, the third part of the triune god, made no sense to me, until I learned as an adult that the “ghost” was probably female, the “mother” written out of the historical record. My maternal grandparents were Franklin Roosevelt Democrats. My grandmother constantly talked about the Depression and how Roosevelt got the nation out of it.


My mother had a B.A. from the University of Southern California and was a virtuoso pianist. I grew up admiring women who worked, and was taught that I needed an education to support my family if my husband was out of work. My maternal grandparents were good caregivers, and we had special times with my mother. I was a singer then, and had my mother lived (she died when I was thirteen), I would probably have been a musician. I adored my mother; and I was proud of her working. My father, a Victorian sort, worked in advertising agencies. He was devoted to the church and should have been a minister.

The house Lois grew up in

Are we born with characters already formed? I am so different from my two brothers and my that I sometimes think I was sneaked into the hospital where I was born. They are conventional homebodies (although my brothers have had brilliant careers, one as a scientist; the other as a businessman.) But I was rebellious, always wanting to be different, determined to achieve the Ph.D. my mother failed to attain. I was also very shy; I never spoke in any of my classes at UCLA , but somehow I knew I would be a professor.


At that point in my life, I didn’t notice that there weren’t any women professors at UCLA and had no understanding of discrimination against women. I was regularly denied fellowships, scholarships, and jobs with the statement: “Why does a pretty girl like you want to do anything but get married?” I internalized my failures and told no one about them. Luckily, my three best friends in my sorority were all bent on achievement, and we bonded together to get ahead. I worked hard, got good grades, and dated a lot, although my major boyfriend ,a philosophy major, was a sometime hippie who took me to rent parties in Venice. I also dated fraternity boys and dreamed of being “pinned” -- wearing a fraternity pin on my sweater close to my heart. Thank goodness that fantasy was never fulfilled.


In the end my sense of adventure won out I moved to New York City to fulfill the fantasies I had constructed from movies and books. Los Angeles was very provincial in the 1950s, and I dreamed of the special cultural delights that New York had to offer. I was accepted for graduate school in the history department at Columbia, though I later learned they were accepting almost anyone with good enough grades, because they needed money.

New York didn’t disappoint me. I studied hard, although I didn’t understand much of what I was being taught . At least I was good at parroting what they said. I managed to stay afloat, and spent Saturdays visiting museums and shopping on Fifth Avenue.



I had three offers of marriage within three months of arriving at Columbia. (Columbia had a male-female ratio of five to one, and most everyone in the 1950s before feminism happened was married by age twenty-one.) But I couldn’t compete with students from the Ivy League schools; it turned out I hadn’t learned much at UCLA. In 1962 I married the best student in my class and got a job as a teacher at Rosemary Hall in Greenwich, Connecticut, an elite private girls high school. In the context of teaching, married to a man who had been to Yale before Columbia, I made up my deficiencies and was admitted back to Columbia for a Ph.D. , now with the smarts to hold my own.


I never expected to actually become a professor. High school or junior college teaching was my goal. My husband got a job at Princeton; I got a part-time job at Douglass College (then the women’s college of Rutgers), teaching sections of the required Western Civilization course. Feminism was aborning, and Douglass turned out to be one of the first academic centers. My introduction to the movement came through Elaine Showalter, then also married to a Princeton professor. We lived a block away from one another and commuted to Douglass together. She told me about the movement, inspiring the “click” that went off in my head, as I realized the oppression that had always been visited against me . I was physically beautiful, but that was hardly an asset, and though I did well academically in high school I was often called a “dumb blonde.”


Lois 1946

It was the 1960s , and I was teaching and getting my Ph.D. I had my first child, Olivia, in 1968, and finished my dissertation on the Protestant ministry in early America. (Don’t scratch your head at such a topic; I found a cache of minister’s sermons in the eighteenth century at the Princeton Theological Seminary.) I began teaching women’s history in 1969 because the students at Douglass were demanding it and none of the senior professors in the history department wanted to teach it.


We women at Douglass and some of the faculty wives at Princeton were rebels of sorts; we started a women’s studies program and pressured Princeton into setting up a daycare center on the campus. I was more a follower than a leader; my endemic shyness kept taking over, butt I found my forte as a writer, and I began the career of teaching and publication that has sustained me to this day. I wrote a history of women in modern America , a biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and a history of physical appearance in the United States, while teaching and having my second child, Gideon. I was raised by child tenders, and had no issues with putting my children in day care.


Predictably, the men in history at Rutgers (who controlled the Douglass department) refused me tenure, largely because I didn’t publish my dissertation on Protestant ministers as a book. The truth is that after I published four scholarly articles from that topic, I was bored with it. Women’s history was more interesting. When I was turned down for tenure gossip was that I was terrible teacher and scholar; I was little more than the wife of a Princeton professor; that, because of my “good looks”, I could never be successful in a university setting. I wasn’t tough and assertive until I was thirty –five, when I became less shy and a lot smarter.


So I began what I jokingly call my hegira, as I taught at seven separate universities, always taking my children with me, always publishing—sometimes articles, sometimes books. The universities and colleges where I taught ranged from private to state institutions and included Princeton; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; George Washington University; the University of Scranton; Stanford; and UCLA. Individuals I knew in the history profession were kind to me. They watched for openings and recommended me as a visiting professor . It was difficult at the time, but it was the making of me, and, by the end, no one knew more about the academic world than I.


Throughout my career I was enmeshed in feminist politics, usually through the academy. My Douglass colleague, Mary Hartman, and I, became involved in founding the field of women’s history. We created the first Berkshire Conference in Women’s History in 1972, now the major national gathering in the field. I organized panels at history conventions, became involved in the American Studies Association, and was the first woman president. When I published American Beauty in 1983 with Alfred Knopf , I had reached the top. The University of Southern California extended me an offer at full professor level, where I would remain for thirty years.


Lois at 20 years


My husband and I divorced when I and my children moved to Los Angeles in 1983. I joined colleagues in women’s studies at USC: Carol Jacklin, Barrie Thorne, Judith Stiehm, Gloria Orenstein, Harry Brod, and many more. We shook up the university. I chaired departments and programs, served on university committees; won prizes for teaching, service, and scholarship. Between 1983 and 2003 I published many articles and three books: In Full Flower: Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality (Knopf: 1989); Finding Fran: History and Memory in the Lives of Two Women (Columbia University, 1989); and Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle (Knopf: 2003).


During those years at USC I refined my feminism. Gloria Orenstein, an art critic involved in goddess worship, introduced me to the subject. I was intrigued by its premise that god had been a woman and now realized how that tyrannical Lutheran god of my childhood had scarred me, and felt empowered. I also realized that many feminists have a strong spiritual bent, and need to have it nurtured in order to engage in the rough and tumble of political action. I wrote about goddess worship in my book In Full Flower, a celebration of the potential of aging woman over time and space.


Finding Fran included my own biography and that of my best friend from high school, Fran. Fran had participated in founding one of the major communes in the 1960s in Taos, New Mexico: The Lama Foundation, a spiritual commune, grounded in an ecumenical sect, called the Sufi Order in the West. From Sufi ecumenicism, Fran’s faith had evolved into a more traditional set of Muslim beliefs, although she still followed the mystical path. Soon after, she converted to Islam and wore traditional Islamic garb, completely covering her body. Through that dress, she told me, she found freedom. I had difficulties with the argument, but I could see that rejecting the West, its materialism, and its objectification of women and devoting her life to the Sufi path had liberated her. When she converted to Islam she changed her name to Noura. She does the traditional prayer ritual five times a day, bowing her head to the ground in honor of Allah; she; eats traditional Middle Eastern food and observes Ramadan. A talented artist, she now does only calligraphy—and illustrates children’s books. She supports equal rights for women, and contends that in the original Arabic Allah is a being beyond gender.


Once again a book I was writing took over my life. To understand what Fran had done I followed her path. I spent time at the Lama Foundation, joined a Sufi group in Los Angeles and came close to converting to Islam, In the end I couldn’t cede all power to Allah, even rhetorically, and that is the basis of even leftist Sufi sects. But it became apparent to me at this point that my writing was taking over my life. I integrated every book I was writing into the courses I was teaching, which proved to be a very effective teaching technique. My students loved being part of a book in progress.


In 2003 I took on the most daunting topic : a biography of Marilyn Monroe. After writing about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict, I wanted to write about an individual from the world of entertainment, and an icon like Monroe seemed perfect. I live in Los Angeles, the historic center of the movie industry; I teach at USC, which has the best film school in the nation. I joined the Marilyn Monroe fan club and began on a journey that took me across the nation and to Europe, as I interviewed about one hundred people who had known Marilyn, gained access to about four hundred interviews that previous biographers had done, and scoured archives and artifacts at collections throughout the nation.


I soon realized that writing about Marilyn was going to be challenging. Aside from what Gloria Steinem wrote about Marilyn, I trusted none of the biographies of her . For example, none of the previous biographers had read Arthur Miller’s autobiography, Timebends, which documents Marilyn’s influence on him. These biographers (mostly male) assumed that the “great intellectual” had been her mentor. But that was only part of the story of their relationship.


It took me ten years to write the book, and sometimes my research had a cloak-and-dagger element to it. I interviewed Mafia figures: I had a four hour interview with Phyllis Maguire, Sam Giancana’s girlfriend, in Las Vegas. I interviewed a private detective who had been at Marilyn’s house the night she died. I spent five months going through Marilyn’s private file cabinets. I gained access to that hidden source as the result of an unexpected telephone call to me from their owner. I was on the periphery of most of the many lawsuits filed about the rights to Marilyn’s image. Thank goodness, no one ever sued me. I had to sort through the many liars who approached me, thinking my university status might promote their case.


My publisher, Bloomsbury Books, wanted a definitive biography, and that’s what I gave them. I figured out Marilyn’s eleven foster families and when she was with each of them. I documented three episodes of childhood abuse, and tracked down the full dimensions of her career. I determined the inaccuracy of shibboleths about her—such as that she had no women friends and that she never had an orgasm. I proved that she was bisexual, and I documented her affair with her first drama coach, Natasha Lytess.



Above all, I discussed her life as a feminist, pointing out that there wasn’t much feminism in Los Angeles in the 1950s and thus she had no framework from which to view her obvious oppression as a woman in the masculinized Hollywood film industry, one of the most patriarchal institutions in the history of the United States. I concluded that she gained power through self-objectification, making herself into a sex goddess for men, and argued that in the end it was that stance that destroyed her.


I’m now over seventy years of age. I’ve been in the classroom for fifty years. I’ve had a rich and satisfying career, and am proud of the generations of students I’ve taught and converted to feminism. I teach courses in gay and lesbian studies, and eased the “coming out” transition for many students,

Lois Banner

as they learn to take pride in their heritage and saw that even a heterosexual woman like me supports them and their cause. Last year I realized that I’m not happy if I’m not writing a book in my head, and so I’m turning my freelance career into a full time occupation. I’ve been married for nearly twenty years to another academic devoted to writing and studying, and that works best for me.



I’m very proud of my children. My son, a successful actor, stars in the Blue Man Group in New York and sometimes acts on Broadway. My daughter, with a Ph.D. from UCLA and five years as managing editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, is a lecturer in literature, film, and science studies at Rice University in Houston. The University of Michigan Press is publishing her first book. After years of resisting it, she follows in my footsteps, although she doesn’t like me to say that.


Feminism has given me a rich and fulfilling life. I’m proud to have been part of one of the major movements of our times, one that changed the opportunities for and status of women in the United States and throughout the world.




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Comments: Jacqui Ceballos

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