MARY ANN ROSSI
I was born on January 25, 1931, in Torrington, Connecticut, to Virginia Negri Rossi and George J. Rossi, son of Caesar A. Rossi, an immigrant from Lake Como in northern Italy. After founding a construction company, my grandfather sent for his fiancée, Maria Mascetti Rossi, whose family was in the silk industry. For many years, my father, George Rossi, was Superintendent of Streets in Torrington, and later a state highway inspector.
My mother, well known as a New York buyer and saleswoman for a local department store, became interested in politics and was elected to the CT State Legislature for three terms in the 1940’s, the first woman from Torrington to serve in the House of Representatives. My father was a loyal supporter of my mother’s career. My only sibling, Norma Virginia Rossi, 18 months my senior, and I were introduced to the State Capitol in Hartford at an early age. Norma was later supervisor in the City Department of Social Services until her retirement.
In high school I was inspired by a wonderful Latin teacher, Mary A. Barrett, who was gifted with the talent of instilling in her students the desire to live up to their highest potential. She became my lifelong friend. I received my B.A. in Classics from Connecticut College for Women in New London and my M.A. in Classics from Brown University, Providence, RI, where I met my future husband, J. Bruce Brackenridge, a doctoral student in physics and an Isaac Newton scholar. We were married in 1954 and had four children, one of whom died of cancer in 1995.
Bruce died of prostrate cancer in 2003 after a battle of eleven years. He continued to teach after his retirement in 1996, and his last article on Newton was published the month of his death. His book, The Key to Newton’s Dynamics (U of CA Press) is still appreciated by Newton scholars.
Bruce and I taught at Muskingum College in Ohio, and later moved to Lawrence College (later University) in Appleton, Wisconsin. Bruce taught Physics and the History of Science, and I translated parts of the Principia for his Newtonian research and articles. I taught Latin, Classical Literature in translation, and Freshman Studies. I also chaired the Art Exhibition Committee, founded the Lawrence Chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America and introduced the Latin Carol Service, after the one at Brown, which was broadcast each year on the local radio station. Confident that I was contributing to the academic and social life of Lawrence, in 1971 I learned otherwise.
After teaching there for eleven years, I was fired from my position in the Classics Department. Five other women professors had also been fired. The reason? A budget cut! We did not need the jobs, we were told, since our husbands were on the faculty. Up to this point in life I had not been aware of discrimination against women. It hit me like a rock! I was instantly aware of every subtle and blatant comment, criticism, and insult to women.
I became a sponge, soaking up the affronts, insults, and crimes against all women. I was transformed, and my life changed utterly and completely. There was no going back to ignorance. It became my obsession, my compulsion, to uncover and discover this insidious plot against women, so pervasive that it was the air we breathed. And it was poisoning us.
Hence my life took on substance and purpose, and I found inspiration from many amazing women, among whom were Gloria Steinem, *Kathryn Clarenbach, and *Gene Boyer.
After leaving Lawrence, I taught at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay; Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana; and the City Literary Institute of London, England, where I received my Ph.D. in Classics from Birkbeck College, University of London. I received a scholarship to study at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece in the summer of 1953, and was inspired by the ancient sites to continue the study of the classical civilizations of the Mediterranean.
As a recipient of summer grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities I studied at Princeton and Stanford Universities, and at the American Academy in Rome. After receiving my doctorate, I was appointed Assistant Professor of Classics at Ball State, until 1986 teaching Classical languages and literature, etymology, and women’s studies. While at Ball State, I helped organize the first Women’s Week and was a principal speaker. Betty Friedan drew crowds for her later visit to the University.
I was Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck (1986-88), from 1989-1992 and 1994-1995 a Research Fellow at the Women's Studies Research Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I studied women in ancient religion and society, as well as in the current movement of Church women working for full equality in church ministry and government throughout the world.
While at the Women's Studies Research Center, I received a grant to organize a tour of six cities for the Italian scholar Giorgio Otranto, who had published evidence of women priests in the early Church. I had translated his work into English and in 1991 it was published in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Otranto’s tour received national coverage.
Otranto was astonished by the interest shown everywhere. In three weeks, he was made aware of the movement for women’s equality in the Church, and perhaps this “click” was made more urgent by the coverage of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings then being televised. The BBC film crew later traveled to Bari to interview Otranto, and his testimony was significant in the production of The Hidden Tradition. When he left for Italy, he carried with him an article by a feminist theologian and published this article in his journal, Vetera Christianorum.
Our small group of concerned women began to gather weekly and the first Appleton Chapter of NOW was born. Wherever we saw injustice, we took action: Dolly Byrne was paid half as much as her male co-worker at City Hall. After two years, this injustice was corrected. We organized an Alice Doesn’t Day and marched down the streets of Appleton. An official of the Governor’s Commission for Women heard my talk and invited me to be a member of the Commission. As chair of the task force on Battered Women I gave testimony that helped make wife battering a felony in Wisconsin. I convinced the head of a bank not to discriminate in making loans to creditworthy women. A law was passed making it mandatory: the fee for negligence was $2,000. Viola got her loan, even though her husband was unemployed because of an injury. And through DIAL, the Directory Identity Action League, we worked for two years to convince the telephone company to include the wife’s first name with no additional fee. Wisconsin was the first state to realize this economic necessity of being visible in the telephone book. There are still states that have not achieved this elemental need.
We noted sex role stereotyping in school texts and complained to the principals about such discrimination. Usually the books were removed. The Appleton women of NOW tried to inspire other women to be activists for women. We started a Womencenter and kept in touch with City Hall on the progress of ERA legislation. Can you believe that has not passed yet?
During a sojourn in London, I was invited to present a paper on the Green Paper on Women’s Rights. It was a conference held by the Women’s International NOW of London. I criticized the Paper for not facing the problem of discrimination against women, and explained Titles IX, VII, and V, amendments to the Higher Education Act, and the Equal Economic Opportunity Act. I referred to the 65,000 cases backlogged in our EEOC offices, and urged the necessity for women facing discrimination to litigate against discriminatory practices in places of employment.
In 1976 Governor Lucey appointed me to the Wisconsin Governor's Commission on the Status of Women As Legislative Coordinator of this Commission I chaired a task force on Battered Women. In 1978 I was elected to the Executive Board of the National Association of Commissions for Women. Later I was interviewed at the American Consulate in Florence and the American Embassy in Rome, Italy. My interview on battered women (a term then new to the Italian consciousness) was included in a television program on women shown throughout Italy. My Italian relatives viewed this series in their homes. One cousin in Varese invited me to address her women’s organization on the topic and later they viewed the film. I spoke in Italian.
My translation of Otranto's evidence of women priests in the early centuries of the Church was presented in 1991 at Hunter College, New York, at the Fourth International Interdisciplinary Conference on Women. My translation was published in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (May 1991); it is cited in Megatrends for Women (1992), and in newspapers and magazines. I read my translations of the lectures of Otranto and accompanied him on a tour of six USA cities (1991). Ari Goldman of the New York Times mentioned Otranto’s pathbreaking work (October 19, 1991). The Hidden Tradition aired three days before the Anglican Synod voted in favor of ordaining women (November 11, 1992). The producer of the film Angela Tilby emailed me: “The film was seen by nearly two million people, which was a good figure for our late night Everyman spot...I have letters from women deacons and others who were encouraged by the evidence of the film.” I was interviewed by USA Today, the National Catholic Reporter, and by many Wisconsin newspapers and public radio stations. News of women priests traveled abroad, and I was interviewed in London by the Catholic Herald, BBC Radio 4, and the London Broadcasting Corporation.
The UW-Madison Press Office referred the media to me for a reaction to the synod vote on women’s ordination in London on November 11, and published my comments in a front-page article in USA Today. Interviews over public radio in Wisconsin increased the attention to the argument over women’s ordination.
The Catholic Women’s Network invited me to do a lecture circuit in the UK in 1993. Various departments of theology have sponsored my appearances in England, Scotland, and Wales. The Annual General Meeting of the National Board of Catholic Women chose domestic violence for their annual study project. The report was sent to the Bishops’ Conference in April 1994, and then to every parish priest in the UK. At the end of May the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) convened in Rome, and the NACW report was sent to this conference as well as to Vatican officials to protest the exclusion of women from this conference. The New York Times and Washington Post covered the action by the coalition of American Nuns in St. Peter’s Square on October 22, 1994.
In April 2008 I spoke at a symposium at Molloy College (Long Island) on “Women in Early Christian Priesthood”; in October 2009 I taught a course on Women in Early Christianity at Lawrence University, Bjorklunden campus; In April 2010 I was on a Trailblazers’ Panel at UW-Oshkosh Women’s Center.
On April 21, 2010 I spoke on Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party at the Noonhour Philosophers’ Club, Appleton, WI, and gave an introduction to this trailblazing feminist work to the memory of the lost women of history. I later gave another presentation with Estella Lauter (one of the participants in the making of The Dinner Party) at the Lawrence University Emeriti Retreat in Door County, Wisconsin. We showed the poster “From Now On,” a collaboration by Judy Chicago and Adrienne Rich, signed to me by Judy Chicago.
I have emphasized the awakening of women to their second-class citizenship in this formative period. I believe the recovery of women’s past achievements will transform the expectations of our younger generations today.
My four offspring echoed my concern for equal rights; one young son, Rob, wrote a paper on the unequal treatment of girls in school textbooks. Lynn, my elder daughter, wrote a paper on the Equal Rights Amendment for her college course in political science. Today my family continues to thrive. Lynn, is a non-profit executive; Rob has entertained our troops in Afghanistan and comedy audiences throughout the U.S.A. Scot teaches Asian religions at Alfred University in New York; he and his wife, Maggie Chen Brackenridge, and children, Bruce and Sandy, are settling in after three years in China. My younger daughter, Sandy, who died in 1995, was a member of NOW Seattle and a staunch supporter of my struggle for women’s equality. Sandy Rossi was Quality Control Officer on foreign fishing vessels on the Bering Sea. I try to live up to her expectations always.
The Second Wave was punctuated in northeastern Wisconsin by the proliferation of consciousness-raising groups, chapters of the Women’s Political Caucus, Wisconsin Women in the Arts, and courses in women’s studies, like the ones I developed at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay: Women: Crisis in Society, and Sex Role Stereotyping in northeastern Wisconsin. It is encouraging to see the strides made in Appleton to rescue victims of domestic violence. I am a founding member of Harbor House, our Appleton refuge for battered women and their children and am listed as a founding member of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. I fervently hope that the recovery of women’s past achievements will transform the expectations of our younger generations today.
* Kathryn Clarenbach and Gene Boyer were founders of NOW. Both were NOW officers for several years.
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