THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Dr. Margarida (Guida) West
“I’m 91 and I’m Not Giving Up Now. I’ll Rust Away, Not Wear Away!”
Interviewed by Rebecca Lubetkin, VFA Board, February 2019
RL: Today is February 21st, 2019. My name is Rebecca Lubetkin, and I have the privilege today of interviewing Dr. Margarida West, mostly known to friends and associates as Guida. Guida was born in 1927 with an identical twin sister in São Paulo, Brazil, and lived most of her adult life in the New Jersey suburbs. And now I’d like to welcome you Guida and ask you if we could start from the beginning: how your family history in Brazil and your coming to the U.S. shaped your life and your interests and your feminism.
GW: Thank you Becky, I’m honored to be here. I just wanted to say that my life in Brazil, my early life and early years had a significant impact on my entire activist life. I was raised in a country that was ruled by a dictator, Getúlio Vargas, and my family on both sides were very political and against the government. I lived in an environment of political activism. My uncle was periodically thrown in jail for trying to overthrow the government. I’ve lived through revolutions in São Paulo. Politics was a theme that my father would always say to me – Don’t talk politics to anybody. Stay out of politics because it’s too dangerous. At the same time, I would hear stories about my American family being very politically active in the War of the States.
RL: The Civil War?
GW: The Civil War.
RL: Your earlier family was from the United States?
GW: They were from Mississippi and Georgia and they were Southern rebels that left the United States after they lost the war. They settled in and created the American village outside of the city of São Paulo. It’s called Americana, American Village. On that side there were a lot of lessons to be learned about political activism. On the other side my mother was a rebel also. Her brother was a rebel, always involved in politics. They were Brazilian. One was American and one was Brazilian. My mother died when I was very young, I was two years old, so I didn’t have much influence from that even though I was very tied to my Brazilian family.
The thing that I observed in my childhood in terms of gender, class and race: let me talk about class first, because we were upper middle class. We were very comfortable. We had a big house. It was situated in an environment where there was a lot of poverty around us. They were building and they would have shacks of poor people around us doing the building. As a child I became very involved with the children and I could never understand why they were barefoot. They had no clothes. They lived in a mud floored hut and I lived in this big house on the hill. That consciousness – I remember asking my father – because I liked playing with them and I asked my father – Why doesn’t Elvita have shoes? Why does she live in a mud floor shack and we have all these rooms in the house? He would say when you grow up you’ll understand. That was not acceptable. I realized it created a contradiction in me that I couldn’t understand.
The second one, in terms of race – we had servants and most of them were black and we had one special servant, his name was Desu who was remarkable. He was a genius, an absolute genius. He taught himself English. He taught himself engineering. He could play the piano. We took lessons on the piano and we could never play at anything. He was a sculptor; he would sculpt things. He was a real genius. He never had a chance to go to school; never had a chance to develop his abilities. I confronted my father again – Why doesn’t Desu go to school? Why didn’t he get an education? We’re getting the best education. We were going to a private school. That racial contradiction of why me as a white person and Desu who was a black person there was such a difference. I was seven, eight, nine, 10 years old at the time.
The last one, in terms of gender: what really was a seed planted at that time was that I was surrounded by women relatives and one of their major conversations was the violence that they endured. My stepmother’s sister would periodically come to our house after being battered by her husband and she would stay with us and then go back to him. My neighbor who was extremely wealthy, one day appeared at our door with her two children and asked to stay with us. Her husband had beaten her up. He was the president of one of the big international corporations and my relatives would sit around and talk about women who were abused. I integrated that idea that when you got married it was the luck of the draw if you got a man that beat you or didn’t beat you. I remember when I was walking up the aisle I thought – Oh thank God I found a man that doesn’t beat me.
Those contradictions shaped me. When I got to Barnard, I took some courses and what I got out of Barnard was tremendous ability to organize. Being able to have the confidence and be encouraged to organize. We organized a math committee, a Spanish committee, a library committee. We did all kinds of things that gave you self-confidence. If you want to do something and get something done – organize. That created a tremendous source of energy for me as I moved on. I went to Columbia for my graduate work for my masters. I took a course in race relations for my masters and it really opened up my eyes, and I understood my relationship in Brazil with blacks. I felt we were very good people who were masters with the slaves. We were very good masters. That’s a way I had been brought up and the way I felt.
I learned how patronizing we had been and that we supported the system and never challenged the system. And that bothered me. My professor Bernhard J. Stern at Columbia was called before the House UnAmerican Activities during the Joe McCarthy era because he had written an appendix to the classic book – The Study: An American Dilemma, which was funded by the Ford Foundation. They enlisted the help of Gunnar Myrdal, a famous sociologist from Denmark, to study the race problem in America. Professor Bernhard Stern was asked to write an appendix on discrimination against women. It’s called Appendix 5. I read that and it was like opening up my realization of how much I had to learn about race relations and gender relations.
I had never seen or felt that I was discriminated [against] because class wise, I had all the resources. When I got married and we moved to Metuchen, NJ in order to have a place where I could meet people that I might like and socialize with, I joined the Presbyterian Church. I was not a religious person, but it was an easy way to meet people that you might be compatible with. As a result, I used the resources of the church to organize the involvement of the church in the civil rights movement that was starting to bloom in the early 60s. In fact, I became one of the original members of the Race Relations Council in Metuchen and Edison.
I was very active in the Fair Housing Committee and the Public Relations Committee and the Education Committee and I was given an award. I was given an award for my work in “brotherhood.” My activism in civil rights really was a base of my beginning to be very much of a public activist. At that time, I was asked to be on the Presbyterian Church Race Committee which was a very big honor. There were only 20 people invited from the country to be on it. I was invited to be on it, and I went to their first meeting. The chair welcomed us; there was one other woman there, a black woman and me. He said – I am going to tell you that you women are welcome, and we urge you to participate in every part of our discussions and issues but when it comes down to the vote the women cannot vote.
The black woman just got up and said I’m sorry I’m leaving, and she left. I was young, I was 30 or something. I didn’t have the courage to walk out. I stayed but it really bothered me because what could I do – I’m a woman. That was it at the beginning of my political consciousness starting to rise. I was very active in my Presbyterian Church. I was on every board, I taught Sunday school, I did everything. My husband did nothing. He was immediately put on the Session – the ruling body of the church. It bothered me. I kept saying you’re just involved in ushering and I’m involved in all of these things and I never get asked to be on the Session.
At one point I finally confronted my minister. What about women on the Session? He said – “Oh Guida no – our church is two hundred and fifty years old. We’ve never had a woman on the Session. That’s impossible.” I said – I’ve been traveling and talking all over the state on the church and race committee and I see women on Session boards. He said our church will never have women. We had a congregational meeting – the way you get on the Session is they present a slate and then they ask, are there any nominations from the floor? The night this was going to happen I got up the courage to call up a woman friend of mine and ask her, would you be willing to participate if I nominate you? And she said – oh I don’t know. I said – Please say yes.
Her name was Mary Webber and she was the wife of the Mayor of Metuchen. On that night when they said – Are there any nominations from the floor? I stood up and I said yes, I nominate Mary Webber. He said – Guida – she is a woman. I said – Yes, I know she’s a woman. And then it was dead silence and then he said – She’s going to be very lonely there. I said – OK so I’ll nominate two – and I nominated another woman and they were both voted in. I cracked the ice. Right after that we moved to Montclair to be near John’s job. We had accomplished a lot.
One of the things that was very difficult for me when I started in the civil rights movement is that we had tremendous conflict between whites and blacks. It was very difficult, and I got accused of being a racist. Some of the blacks wanted me out, even though I got an award later on. At one point the tension was so great that it almost broke up the council and I had to move on to do other things that the blacks would allow me to do as a white person in the movement. Just before we were leaving, I was on the Fair Housing Committee and we had been trying for three years to integrate our street and our town. We got a black couple finally that had the courage and the resources, and they asked to buy our house and we sold it to them.
All hell broke loose in Metuchen on May 1st, 1966. They moved in and just before we’re moving out the woman that had attacked me most of all, and she hadn’t talked to me for four or five years, she knocked on my door. I saw her and said – Mary what are you doing? Do you want to come in? I hadn’t seen her or talked to her in a long time. She said – I came here to thank you for walking the Second Mile. And that was a real closure for me. Unfortunately, that summer I got very ill and I was out of commission for about a year. We moved to Montclair and I was unable to do very much but I joined the Presbyterian Church.
At that time the Vietnam War was going on and our church was becoming involved in the anti-war movement. I became involved with the women that were doing that. At the same time my minister asked me if I would go to Newark with a group to find out what was happening to the poor people in Newark. I’ll be honest: at the beginning I had no interest in going in that direction. I wanted to stay with the civil rights movement. But he asked me to go and he put me together with a minister from Newark called Glen Hatfield. I went to the meeting and Tom Hayden was there, the organizer.
And this group of black women were sitting in a circle and I was told this is a group they’re trying to organize, a group of welfare women to push for their rights. First of all, I didn’t know anything about welfare. I didn’t know what welfare rights was. What rights do people have on welfare. But the one thing that stuck with me that day – as I walked in – there was an enormous poster. It said, Live like a dog – Twenty-nine cents a meal. That was what the welfare program was providing for people on welfare. Out of this meeting they organized, with the help of many other groups in Newark, they organized the Welfare Rights Group. Their first job was to try to bring the women together to write a book Know Your Welfare Rights.
I started to understand what they were talking about. The law had been passed in 1935 and amended several times – to provide aid to families with dependent children and for mothers to provide for their children, because Social Security only provided money if your husband died and he had been working. Then you had Social Security and that was OK. It was not stigmatized. But if your husband deserted you or had not had a job and you were not eligible for Social Security you had no recourse. If you couldn’t find a job, or if you lost your job and you had no income, the government would give you aid. It was eight dollars a month in 1935, so it wasn’t very much.
We organized and I was part of the group that helped organize with other groups The Welfare Rights Group of Newark. I came back to Metuchen and organized a group of welfare mothers in Metuchen and pulled together some of the women that were on welfare. I did an extensive study myself to learn what welfare was all about. How it had been enacted, what the rights were, what the constraints were. The one thing that we had a very bad time with was, we could not get the state rules for welfare. We wanted to know what the rules were so we could abide by them. We tried and tried, and we got a letter saying we don’t give the rules. We don’t inform the public what the rules are.
I said how can you comply with the rules if you don’t know what the rules are? We got the churches in Montclair to request the rules and so they had to send them to us – we got the rules in Newark. Robert Curvin, who became head of the Ford Foundation eventually, was an organizer and he got a copy too. They met every Saturday morning and they translated the rules, so that it would be understandable, to this little booklet – Know Your Welfare Rights. It became adopted eventually by the government because it was so clear. Social workers finally understood what the rules were. So that was very exciting.
And then I organized here, and we had conferences – because by that time the movement had spread nationally. It had become a national movement. Johnnie Tillman was a welfare mother in California who had organized her group in California without any resources at all. Her story is incredible. There were groups all over the country. George Wiley, the professor of chemistry at Syracuse University, became so concerned. He was very much involved in the civil rights movement and he became so concerned about the poverty that he was witnessing and that nothing was being done about it. He decided, when he saw all these groups of welfare mothers organizing, to fold them together into a national movement and hired other organizers to go and help these groups mobilize.
This was in the late ‘70s. He had read an article in The Atlantic magazine called A Strategy to End Poverty by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. The professors at Columbia University who said that if we teach women that need welfare to go and get the money that the government promises them – they’ve never been given this money; they had always been prevented from getting what they needed. There were obstacles after obstacles in the welfare department so they couldn’t get it. If we insist that we have rights to this – that they have rights to this and the money – the whole system will collapse because it doesn’t have enough resources. Their theory was if the welfare system that we had would collapse we could build in a new system that would guarantee a basic income. Guaranteed income for families that needed it to provide for basic housing, food for the children, health care, childcare etc. A minimum guaranteed income. The motto of the movement then became 5500 or Fight. It was a $5,500 guaranteed income, plus jobs and training – jobs with dignity.
Johnnie Tillman was a chair and she became the elected leader of the movement, the National Welfare Rights Organization in 1966. Ms. Magazine, the magazine started by Gloria Steinem, I think it was the first or one of the first articles in the magazine – this radical feminist magazine had an article about Johnnie Tillman. Every Woman is One Man Away from Welfare. It really hit it because if a woman didn’t have a man, if she had to work, if she lost a job or if she got ill where did her income come from? If she had no family where would she get any money? She had to go on welfare. That danger that you were so vulnerable and so dependent on men – that became a very important part of it.
And in fact, one of their first conferences – we had national conferences of the movement and one of the things, the first conference in Philadelphia, I think it was either the first or second conference of the Welfare Rights Movement – the men got up – and the men were all organizers – mostly white, some blacks, but mostly white men. They got up and they said, our goals are to get jobs for men and welfare for women. The head of the Philadelphia group stood up and said – We want jobs and training. If we need money when we need it, we want welfare. But first of all, we want jobs.
That’s the same thing that Johnnie Tillman had requested when she organized it in California. She organized by putting out handwritten posters in every door in Watts, a poor area of California. She put in a little invitation – Would you like a job? Come to this meeting. That’s the way she organized it. The emphasis was on jobs and training and equal justice with the men. And unfortunately, once the movement got going and it was very successful in the first few years, but of course there’s always a counter movement. The counter movement was to destroy the system and tighten it up – prevent the women from getting the money. There were attacks in Washington saying welfare women are lazy, they don’t work, they ride in big Cadillacs – all the stereotypes.
One of the things that we did as Friends of Welfare Rights, and by then we had expanded the Friends of Welfare Rights not only to New Jersey but to the entire country. There was a supportive movement of the Welfare Rights by middle class people. We developed with a group of welfare women Myths and Facts About Welfare. The reality was that most of the people on welfare were women and children and elderly. Most of them were not able to work or they re-cycled. They would get a minor job and if you didn’t have any education there were very few chances of your getting a good job. Maybe it would last three, four, or five months then they’re back on welfare.
The whole thing was that the system needed to be changed and Nixon finally accepted the idea. He accepted the idea that maybe a guaranteed income was OK. He was offering I believe $1,700 a year for a family of four. The Welfare Rights was asking for $5,500 and in between there were about three or four different other proposals and bills proposed. To make a long story short we didn’t get anything. What we got was the opposite. President Carter came in and created another bill called Better Jobs and Income to provide training and more income et cetera but that fell by the wayside too, it didn’t pass.
The tide had turned from an interest in helping the poor. You have to understand that earlier Martin Luther King had started to move from the civil rights movement to helping the sanitation workers in the South; a poor people’s movement emerged in 1968. Unfortunately, he was murdered in April of 68. The movement had been planned for June of 68, incorporating the welfare rights goals and dreams of the welfare rights movement.
RL: Was this about the same time as you were transitioning into an academic environment?
GW: Yes. I was moving into academics. I started working in 1974 at Rutgers. 1974 was Watergate and that was another thing going on at the same time. In 1974 I decided that I was so frustrated that we were losing ground in terms of what I had been fighting for for ten years that I had to go back to school and learn how to bring about social change. I applied for a PhD program and I got into Rutgers because I wanted to study political sociology with Professor Horowitz who was the top political sociologist in the country, and he was at Rutgers. At the same time, I needed to work to earn money so I got a job at Rutgers – a full time job and I was doing my coursework at night and during the days whenever I could.
I got a job as a head of a program called Continuing Education for Women. It was to provide support for women to enhance and encourage them to come back to college and I developed it from my own imagination. It required that I talk to the women who wanted to come back to college but were afraid to. I said – What do you need? They said – a math review, we can’t pass the S.A.T. without a math review. We need child care, we need more assertiveness training, we need support for those of us who have lost husbands or who have been left by their husbands. I created programs to give math review and get them through the S.A.T.s and assertiveness training.
One of the programs I created was to deal with violence and that was an eye opener for me because at that point the issue for me was education. I felt that women needed to get education if we were going to break out of our oppression. At the same time, I became aware of some of the women who had to cope with being abused. I hired a facilitator to have a discussion group and twelve women signed up. The facilitator went around the circle; we were sitting in a semi-circle and she said – I want you to just give me your name and if you know any woman that’s been abused in a relationship.
When she started, I thought to myself I don’t know anybody. As she went around the room and I was the last one to speak, I realized that I knew my stepmother’s sister, my neighbors in Brazil, my next-door neighbor in Metuchen – periodically her husband would break furniture and beat her up and she would come to our house. The head of the civil rights movement at the Metuchen/Edison Race Relations Council. The woman that had organized the group. She was the wife of a president of Exxon. At one time she confided in me and I helped her get away from him and she was an abused woman and had been for 10 years. The woman that I was working with in the church in Montclair. A couple of them confided that they were abused by their husbands who were on the Session.
I mean all of a sudden, I had at least 10 women I knew that were suffering from abuse and had to cope with it and all of their stories are incredible stories. At that point, I think it was in 1975, the government came out with a report called Violence in the Family. I got that report and I read it and it had a section on the violence against women. I contacted the New Jersey Commission on Women and said – do you want to work with me? We want to set up a conference and see if we can get some support for women that had been battered. Shortly before that, I had received a call from a woman in Montclair. I just remember her first name, but I give her credit for starting the battered women movement in New Jersey. She called me and asked if I had any room in my house because she takes the women that are running away from their abusers and needed another room.
I took a woman and her child in overnight and I linked up with Sandy and I started to learn what kind of support they needed. I went to the Commission on Women. I can’t remember her name. And she said yes, I’d love to work with you. We planned a conference to bring it together to see what we could do as women in New Jersey to help women that were being abused. We didn’t have a name for it, so we just called it Violence Against Women. We had set a date for the conference and we developed a program and by chance I saw a tiny little line in the letters to the editor in The New York Times by two women in Texas and it said – We are dealing with the problem of violence against women and we’ve put a video together of their stories.
I picked up the phone and I called them in Texas, and I got right through to them. I said this is what we’re trying to do in New Jersey could we have a copy of the video and they said yes. I spoke to Sonja and I said we should make this the focus of our conference which we did but the video did not arrive. Finally, about 10 minutes before we were supposed to show it the video arrives. We had not seen the video – we didn’t know anything. We had 200 people come to the conference. And we showed the video – the video was absolutely powerful.
We had in our packet at the conference a note that said if you want to work on this issue join us for the meeting in two weeks and we’re going to take action. We got about 60 people at the first meeting that joined after the conference. That was the interest. It was incredible. And they called it battered women. We adopted the name of battered women. We got women lawyers to help us write legislation that we needed child care and transportation, training and shelters in New Jersey. We went to Governor Byrne and within two months we had legislation and money for New Jersey. It was a tremendous success. We repeated the conference in Trenton a couple of months later and we had seven hundred people come out for it.
It was incredible because it wasn’t a class issue. It was across the board this violence against women. Just as a coda to this battered women’s movement, I live here in the Crane’s Mill retirement community. And one day I’m having lunch in the cafe and a friend of mine said come over I want you to meet somebody. There was this very elegant elderly man sitting at the table and my friend said – I’d like you to meet Governor Byrne. I shook his hand and said – Oh thank you Governor. I helped to organize the battered women’s movement and you signed it within two months. And we’re so grateful. You saved the lives of thousands of women. He was so humble, he said – thank you so much for coming and to talk to me. That was really a highlight for me.
When I was working with Continuing Education for Women, we decided that we had to get women into politics. Very few women were going into politics. Betsey Wright, who had worked with Clinton, had started writing about the fact that women needed to be trained to go into politics. I went to Eagleton and talked to Ruth Mandel and suggested we put out a program to teach women how to get going into politics and to hire Betsey Wright. I had read about her and maybe she’ll come and help us, which she did.
We developed workshops and Ruth wanted it held in the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers. They had a very nice room, but it only held 80. We put out a flyer inviting people to come to women in politics conference to get training to go into politics, but it was limited to 80. We had 200 women show up. We had to turn them away. We contacted the press and CBS came and filmed. Lynn Sherr was the moderator. She was the anchor. And it was a huge success. It was continued and repeated and expanded all over in other parts of the country.
RL: Two areas that I would love you to continue with. One of them is your academics. While you were working, and you were getting your PhD.
GW: I was getting my PhD. One day I came home, I was working full time, I was writing my dissertation and I was still involved in the movement. I had a good husband and two children. I came home one day, and I remember thinking I was going to die. I realized all of a sudden, I could not continue to be super mom and I had to give up something. I was not going to give up a good husband who had been very supportive of me and of my work in the civil rights movement and the welfare rights movement. I certainly wanted my children well cared for. I came in and I said – I’m through being super mom. I’m just going to take care of myself.
My children were 14 and 15. I said – You take care of washing your clothes, cleaning and cooking. I don’t have the energy. I have to finish my dissertation and I have to do my job. We divided the roles and they rebelled against it. I insisted that everybody was going to cook, everybody was going to clean, everybody was going to wash clothes. We changed the whole system so I could continue to do the work that I had to do. My son now is a gourmet cook because he learned how to cook. Both my children. They’re the seeds, they fall off the tree, they’ve sprouted.
RL: When did you get your degree?
GW: I was invited to be part of the department of sociology because I was hired by Rutgers for continuing education as assistant professor. They put me on the tenure track in the Sociology Department. I told them at that time I was working with Professor Horowitz. He liked the idea that I was writing on the welfare rights movement because he said you cannot write a PhD unless you really are obsessed with it. I was obsessed with it. How were poor women without any resources able to organize a national movement? What were the things that helped? What were the things that destroyed it and what happened? That was my thesis. I published my thesis as a book – The National Welfare Rights Movement.
I did not get tenure because I didn’t have enough books. I had only published one book and several articles. I had a contract from Oxford University for a book on Women and Social Protest. But that was not enough. I went to work for The Institute for Research on Women at Rutgers for two years. Before I left, while I was in the Department of Sociology, I was told repeatedly that I was too old. I was in a private meeting with the chair of the department. I was told right from the beginning that I was too old, and they were not going to give me tenure. That’s from the first week I was there.
They give you three years to prove that you should continue on a tenure track. In those three years I had published my book, I had gotten rave reviews from William Julius Wilson, a top black sociologist at Harvard. He had praised my book and the work that I was doing. And yet when I went out for review my chair of the Department of Sociology said that he did not have it. Luckily, a woman friend of mine that was on the committee to decide knew that I had the letters of commendation and she knew what the chair of the department had done. He had taken the letters out of my folder so when the committee got it, there was no letters of commendation. She knew the letters existed, so she told the chair of the committee – Guida has been commended for her work and this man took it out. He was chastised. He was told that what he did was a criminal act.
They gave me three more years, but when it came down to the vote, I lost by one vote. I didn’t get tenure. I fought it and I took it to the union. I said it was sex and age discrimination. They gave me two years at the Institute for Research on Women. It was a serendipitous opportunity because I got a call from organizers in Georgia that were organizing a celebration of Rosa Parks fiftieth birthday in Atlanta. They said – We got your name as an activist in the civil rights movement. We want to honor all the women that were involved in the civil rights movement and give them the title of torch bearers. They will be honored as torch bearers of the civil rights movement.
She asked if I knew anybody that I worked with in the civil rights movement that should be honored, and I said Laverne Lints. She organized the Metuchen/Edison Race Relations Council. They said would you get hold of her. I had lost touch but through many incredible ways I was able to finally get her number. I found out she was living in Texas. She was the one that had been abused and yet organized the Metuchen/Edison council. I got her telephone and I called her one day. I said to her – Laverne, this is a voice from your past. Do you have time to talk? It’s Guida West – could you talk to me? I want you to be a torchbearer for the civil rights movement and they want to honor you at the meeting in Atlanta.
I found out in the process of getting her to Atlanta that she had remarried and was very happily married. But the day I called her was the day she was going to the funeral for her second husband. She said she had a wonderful life. So, her story ends in a very good way. She was ill; she could not go to Atlanta. I went to Atlanta. And took another feminist, Gwen Kirk who had been an organizer for the movement in and outside of London to prevent the nuclear missiles to be set up outside of London. Gwen Kirk was one of the leaders and she came to the Institute to do the research and write up her story, so I got to know her. I got to know Charlotte Bunch who became one of the big leaders and feminist leaders in Rutgers.
I stayed there for two years running programs for women. After and during that time I also completed my book Women and Social Protest. When I suggested to my mentor at Rutgers that I would like to do a book on women and social protest he said – Who would be interested in that? I mean nobody is interested. I said – I’m interested in it. He said – everybody knows everything there is to know about it. You know the abolition and all. I said – What about women in the Ku Klux Klan? What do we know about them? What about the women and the welfare rights movement? What do you know about them other than what I’ve written? What about them? Every movement whether it’s liberal or conservative or wherever in the political spectrum, we never hear what the women did.
I worked on the book with Rhoda Lois Blumberg a colleague of mine and we discovered that women were involved in every single movement. In fact, the movement of the Luddites – women started it. We got evidence that women started it. We found evidence in Africa and Mexico and Latin America of the role of women and a social movement – even some evidence that women had been instrumental in starting the Russian Revolution and the French Revolution. This was a very energizing study that I compiled.
RL: Where did you go when you didn’t get tenure? You were given two more years.
GW: After two years I was making some inquiries. By that time, I was 62 years old and I thought well I’m going to retire. Then I thought – No let me see if I can do anything else. I explored a few jobs at Rutgers. I never got any of the ones that I was interested in. And then I thought I’m retiring, and I got a call from a friend of mine, Mimi Abramowitz and she said – I’m writing another book and I need your bibliography. Would you share it with me? I went in to see her and I gave her my bibliography and as she and I were walking to the elevators she said to me – Are you interested in working? I said, I think I’m retiring but if you hear of anything let me know.
About a week later she called me up and said I have the perfect job for you, except you have to apply for it this moment. It was four o’clock. I was about to leave the office at the Institute. She said you have to send them your resume right now because they have two finalists, two men are vying for this position. But she said it’s your job. I applied for it and they gave me an interview. It was at the Federation for Protestant Welfare Agencies for the job of director of policy advocacy and research for the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. There are three agencies in New York City. It’s unique and it’s the only city in the country that has a Protestant, Catholic and Jewish organization to care for the poor.
I was able to represent the Protestants in New York City in order to provide for the poor and needy in New York. The Catholic Charities provided for the Catholics and the Jewish provider for the Jews. I worked with the three leaders of those organizations to develop programs. We lobbied at the City Council with David Dinkins. We lobbied in the state with Governor Mario Cuomo. I was able to go to meet Governor Cuomo and talk to him about the needs of poor women and children and developed programs for them. And then we also were invited to the White House to argue against Clinton’s plan for welfare reform.
Now this is the 1990s and Clinton was running on getting a new welfare reform by cutting out the Aid to Families with Dependent Children. That law had been in place since 1935. And he was going to change it. It was going to be the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. We call it TANF. One of the major reasons we opposed it is that women were going to have to work 20 to 40 hours a week. In addition, in order to get their benefits, and this had never been part of it. They were also – there was very little child care involved in it. There was very little money for transportation. It was a disaster.
In 1989 I quit Rutgers and joined the Federation. I retired in 1995 because of health reasons. Before I retired, I got my boss to give me an office and a computer and I could use any of their resources in the Federation. I continued because we had established a group of people interested in welfare and poverty. I had established when I went to the Federation, I started a program on educating people about welfare reform. The first meeting we called in we had four organizations sent representatives. By the time I left the Federation after six years we had a hundred organizations coming in every first Tuesday of the month. We called it the Welfare Reform Network. The New York Times would refer people that called to find out about welfare to go to the Welfare Reform Network. That went on for many years.
RL: I think that’s a fantastic way to really highlight your career. To be able to be able to finish it with such triumph.
GW: The doctor told me did I want to die for the job? I said – I don’t want to die for the job. And my husband didn’t want me to die. So, I quit. They honored me, and it was the most moving thing. I said I had to go, but I was still with it and will still work with you in any way I can. Liz Krueger was my co-chair at the Welfare Reform Network. She is now senator in the state of New York which is very exciting. She moved from that career as an activist and leader in New York City to become a senator in New York.
RL: The bulk of your career – I’m sure you have memoirs and documents and photos. Where are your papers?
GW: They’re all at the Sophia Smith Collection. They called me and asked me for my papers.
RL: Do you think anybody has been looking at your papers?
GW: Oh absolutely. I just got a letter this week from Maureen Callahan the director who wrote to me and said, your work has undoubtedly enriched the landscape of women’s history and activism. We are honored to store your records at Smith. Since its arrival your collection has been enthusiastically utilized by researchers in their scholarly explorations.
When I was at the Federation, I got calls to go on television. I’d never been on television before. And I didn’t realize that you need some training. I was called by CNN; they were having a program on welfare and they wanted me to be on it. It was called What is Wrong with Welfare? We were on a split screen with four people. I was one of the four. They had one in California and one in Texas. I was in New York and then there was one in Washington and I was debating the conservatives. I almost went into a panic. I thought we were going to sit at a roundtable and discuss the issue. I had no problem with the issue because I knew what I was talking about. But it was sitting in a dark room with a little light and you had to keep your eye on the light in order for your face to come out on television.
As a result of that, apparently I did so well that NBC called and asked me if I’d be on the Jesse Jackson show to debate the Cato Institute on Health Care and Welfare. I went on Jesse Jackson’s show to NBC in Washington, and that was very exciting. I got called by ABC and they asked me to debate a professor at NYU. One of the famous professors who knew everything about welfare. I debated him on air. The highlight for me though was when I got a call from PBS and they said they were doing a special show on The War on Poverty and it was going to be in four sections. And we’d like you to be in the fourth section about the welfare rights movement.
I told them immediately to call Frances Fox Piven because they’re the ones that really started this. They said – No, we’ve read your book and we want you on the show. They flew me to Boston. It was the middle of winter and it was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life. I was sitting next to Henry Hampton, the producer and director who had done the civil rights series Eyes on the Prize, which is the famous series of the civil rights movement. I was sitting next to this director and the head of the journalism school at Columbia University, all of these authors that I had read about and quoted.
I kept thinking – What am I doing here? Maybe they made a mistake. It was a wonderful experience. I think it was in 1992 or 1993, I don’t know the exact date. I was on PBS American Experience. It’s not that long because there were four sections. They ran it four separate weeks or four separate days. The first one was about the beginning of the Depression and how social security developed. There were famous people on these three other sections and then the fourth section was on the welfare rights movement. They filmed me to discuss the Friends of Welfare Rights and how I had been involved. I think at most it was 10 minutes. But if it’s really an honor.
RL: A great culmination of your career.
GW: Although I had so many obstacles and negative reaction to the work that I was doing on this topic for women, yet at the end I became validated by the Smith Collection, I was validated by PBS and I was validated in so many other ways.
RL: Is there anything else that you want to add for us?
GW: Yes. The one thing I forgot to say that is absolutely critical. When I was with Continuing Education for Women, I wrote for a grant with the help of my colleague Rebecca Lubetkin. We wrote a proposal to Washington and won a competitive national award of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to eliminate sexism in the public schools. We established the Institute for Sex Desegregation of the Public Schools. I was involved in it until I left Rutgers. Becky Lubetkin continued it for twenty-five years or more of eliminating sexism and racism and ageism and it was one of the most exciting experiences of my life.
RL: I thank you for that. That was the totality of my career.
GW: This is the way we met. And we continue to be involved all our lives. In conclusion about my life is I’ve been a very privileged woman. I have had opportunities that have opened up after I’ve been knocked down and squashed and felt like a doormat. I have remerged and had so many wonderful opportunities to do something that is my life’s passion. It is to help women move out of poverty and violence. I’ve come to the conclusion that if looking at women’s lives the way I experience my life and the experiences I had is the bottom line is that we’re on a continuum of violence. From wording and language and in ignorance etc. to murder and rape and abuse. A continuum of the extent of violence, political violence and physical violence, economic violence or however you analyze it. It’s a matter of violence that we have to eliminate.
I am thrilled because right now I’ve just been working with a group of women from the New Jersey, Congressional District 11 For Change. We were able as a group here in Crane’s Mill to educate people on the need to get more women in politics. And we succeeded in getting Mikey Sherrill as our congressional representative. We had a representative, Rodney Frelinghuysen, for 30 years and he never responded to our needs. He never came to talk to us, he would not answer our letters, he would not meet with us. He was not representing us, and we were able to organize and work with several groups here educating people on the way to keep our democracy strong and free. We keep free by participating in the process. As one woman says – you’re not going to rust away, you’re going to wear away. And that’s the way I want to be.
RL: Thank you so much. What a fascinating life which is continuing. Your activism is continuing and we’re very lucky for all of the gifts that you’ve given to the women’s movement in the country. Thank you.
GW: I appreciate that I’ve had the opportunity. I have a sign by my door that says crisis in Chinese. Do you know what the two emblems of the word crisis is for in Chinese? Danger and Opportunity. I had the dangers and the opportunity to respond and I carry that always with me. In any crisis there’s danger and opportunity.
RL: Thank you. Excellent.