THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Grace Ripa Welch
“You Can’t Be An Activist Without Having Hope In Your Heart”
Interviewed by Penny Stoil, January 2018
PS: Grace Ripa Welch, last month you turned 93 years old. Can you describe growing up in the 1920s and 30s in Queens as one of eight children in a traditional immigrant Italian family – what was life like?
GR: Well it was like bedlam. And I was number six in a field of eight and poverty was the reigning cover. I was born when Calvin Coolidge was president. And it was the roaring 20s and then the depression.
So every one – the defining thing about the family was that everybody had to pitch in. Everybody had to work or do something no matter how small you were – how old you were, even if you had to thread a little spool – you would do it.
So That Was a Defining Thing – Poverty
And it’s when I hear the current story about the immigrant experience I really identified with that because I know the struggle of what people currently going [through]. Not only from the standpoint of economics but also from not being accepted.
PS: When you were young, you had some experiences that made you especially alert to signs of injustice and danger. What was the worst of them?
GW: Well the defining one in my life was the fact that when I was about five years old, five or six, I witnessed my landlord beating his wife mercilessly. I had never seen that before. And I was terrified. I hid under the car and waited. And from that experience I believe I patterned my life to be very very aware of number one, social injustice and the fact that some men could be very very violent. And so that marked me.
I Didn’t Know the Word “Feminist”
You know, I was too young, but I knew that was wrong. Terrified, totally terrified. And that woman to whom he was married took that for 20 years – she didn’t leave him until twenty years had passed. And she just walked away. She just took a bus and walked away. And she was gone. Unbelievable. It’s going on today. In other words, this happened then in the 20s but it happens right now. Right now we have wife beating – [it’s] standard.
PS: You always such a good student. And yet you tracked only for a commercial degree. Why was that?
I Didn’t Have the Luxury of Going for an Academic Degree
GW: Well because I had to contribute. In other words I didn’t have the luxury of going for an academic degree. I had to earn money right away. I had to contribute. And so that’s why that happened. And of course if you went through the city’s school system you were prepared to work in an office – totally. And my grades were very good. My steno and my typing were top drawer and so that’s how I entered the workforce.
PS: I think you entered the workforce by working at Pepsi and PepsiCo.
GW: Yes that was my first, one of my first jobs.
PS: And you stayed for seven years.
GW: Yes I did.
PS: You got married. You had three children and you made some advances in your career at Pepsi. But how did you find your way back to a career in advertising with the background that you had?
GW: Well the point is when I worked at Pepsi, Pepsi was a very progressive company and I was able to transfer. In other words, if you were in Pepsi and you saw an opportunity – of course they would post the job openings and they posted the one to be in the advertising department.
And I was a writer and I took Columbia writing classes. I used to take the subway and go up to – way up – where’s Columbia? And I used to do the program. And that’s how I continued. Also they underwrote – Pepsi was a very progressive company and they underwrote the cost of attending college. And so that’s what I did.
PS: What was the first agency you worked for? Did you go back to Pepsi or did you go back to work for an ad agency?
GW: Well, I started first I started in the purchasing department in the Pepsi-Cola Company and then I transferred to the advertising department. And it was in the advertising department that I stayed for seven years and it was through [that job that] I became very much involved in what was then known as the Pepsi-Cola bottle cap contest – it was huge. And I was very good at what I did. And in fact they offered me a transfer and I declined because I really loved what I was doing.
It Was Unusual to be a Working Mother in those Days
PS: It was unusual to be a working mother in those days. How did your traditional family react to being a working mother? How did your brothers feel about that?
GW: Well they didn’t feel too good. They felt threatened, actually, because they were afraid that their wives would want to do some of the things that I was doing. But I persevered, you know. I just had to do what I had to do.
PS: And how at the ad agency did they treat you as a working mother?
GW: Oh fine, yeah. As I said Pepsi-Cola Company was a very progressive company.
When Did you First Identify as a Feminist?
PS: At what point did you start to identify yourself as a feminist?
GW: Well when I witnessed that wife beating, I didn’t know the word feminist. But the properties of feminism started to accrue when I entered the work field and I began to see things that you don’t even read about. There is a lot about discrimination that is not really written down. It’s a sense of feeling that you’re being displaced or you’re being discounted. And so I just do my – you know do the best I can.
But then as I continued and when I went back to work I started to realize the endemic sexism that was within the working system – especially for women.
PS: In 1970 you joined the Nassau County chapter of NOW. What brought you to that chapter?
GW: Well … the march down Fifth Avenue. I was working in Glen Cove at that time and I couldn’t get to Manhattan, so I called up and I wanted to join NOW on that day and so they said – well you’ll have to – I don’t know what they said. And I took down the number and then they said that it was the Nassau NOW chapter that I would have to join. And so I did.
PS: But you actually lived in Suffolk. And so finally with your husband Frank and eight women, you founded the New South Shore chapter of NOW.
PS: You served as its first two-term president.
There was a Lot of Work to be Done – It Was All Virgin Territory
PS: What do you feel were your most important accomplishments?
GW: Well there were quite a few. Well there was a lot of work to be [done] it was all virgin territory – nobody had done anything like it before.
We went into – we offered the first consciousness-raising group. We did that.
PS: Looking back, if you will look back on your whole life in feminism, what achievements over your lifetime have made you most proud? The things that you’ve accomplished.
GW: Well I’ve helped women into the women’s movement. I helped them realize things that they could not really articulate themselves. You know … a lot of women feel that there’s something wrong, but they don’t know what it is. And then when they see somebody else doing it, then they become more energized and activated. And so with the consciousness raising movement it made a big big difference. So we had a lot of firsts.
PS: Was this harder to do in the suburbs than it would be – I imagine it’s harder to organize that in the suburbs than it would be in the city? Did you find it particularly difficult to organize?
GW: Well I wasn’t really organizing in the city. In the city I was working and in the suburbs it was a very heady – heady – heady time I’ll tell you.
PS: I know your late husband Frank was very involved.
GW: Very active. Yes. He had a very keen sense of social injustice and he was head of the consciousness raising – co-ed consciousness raising group.
PS: I know he was listed in Barbara Love’s great book, The Feminists Who Changed America.
GW: Right. Yes.
PS: How did you feel to see his name and his biography included?
GW: Very very good. And he was very proud. He just loved to be with the women and the other enlightened men. And we used to have so much fun because part of the whole thing of activation and doing things and making things happen is a very liberating experience.
Veteran Feminists of America Continues to Enrich
PS: You know with your role as an active board member of the Veteran Feminists of America, how does that relationship continue to enrich your life?
GW: Well in the early days of the VFA I was instrumental in doing several fundraisers and particularly theater presentations to raise money for the VFA and so that energized me and my immediate circle.
PS: And you are still very active with them I know.
GW: Oh yes – yes.
PS: As a yoga instructor also are you?
GW: Well for the yoga, I was the yoga instructor for the National Organization Women for I think about 14 years. I used to go to the Nationals and then offer free yoga classes. Lot of fun.
PS: After a lifetime of commitment to feminism, what are your hopes and particularly what are your hopes for feminism in this current social climate?
GW: Lots of luck. Oh I think we’re in a very very delicate situation. Really very horrendous. I can’t even watch television anymore. It’s so horrific. How [did we get] in this spot? I don’t know, but it’s setting back the women’s movement quite a bit. But I think the women’s movement is one of the bulwarks that’s you know keeping the floodgates. Horrible – horrible.
PS: But you are hopeful?
You Can’t Be an Activist Without Having Hope in Your Heart
GW: Oh yeah. Well you have to be hopeful. You can’t be an activist without having hope in your heart. Yeah. And of course my children and my grandchildren. You know I have two granddaughters. And it’s for them you know – it’s for the next generation. They have no idea what women in my group went through. To get the job. To hold the job. That sort of thing. They have no idea. Which is just as well. You know hopefully we don’t ever have to go back you know to what we had to go through to get the job, to hold the job. But I must say I had some very good situations.