Veteran Feminists of America



I was born in 1941 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the first child of Dorothy and Loren Hackett. [My mother's family name was Grealish, but she called herself Dorothy Hackett] My parents had both worked for the company that made Windex and other household products—she in marketing, he as a chemist. She made more money than he did, but had to quit her job when they married.

We soon moved to Houston after my father began working for Goodyear as a chemist working on synthetic rubber, a critical wartime priority. Houston was much smaller back then, in part because air conditioning was still rare. We lived in a working/lower-middle- class area until I was 11. I’m grateful that this was a time and place when kids could pretty much run around outside on their own, often barefoot. I was a tomboy, played cowboys and Indians (very politically incorrect), caught tadpoles in ditches, and most of all wanted the horse I never got. Most of the kids on the block were boys, who were my usual playmates. I also spent a lot of time reading and did well in school, though hated it that girls couldn’t wear jeans.

We moved to a close-in suburb of Houston just before I started junior high. By then I had a much younger brother, whose birth in 1950 ended my existence as an only child when I was 9. My father had gotten a better job, and Bellaire—though within the Houston school system—had better schools than my old neighborhood. After junior high, I moved into a brand new high school, which was first-class academically. Debate and speech were my main extracurricular activities; as perks there were trips to tournaments around Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. The debaters were a political lot, and I was part of a liberal Democratic caucus, working to elect candidates like Ralph Yarborough.

My parents were moderate Midwestern Taft/Eisenhower Republicans. (My mother came from St. Louis and my father from a small town in northwest Missouri.) Despite my Texas childhood and youth and having lived in New York City most of my life, I’m in many ways a Midwesterner in temperament. My mother remained a housewife, although she was a frustrated writer. For a while she had a column in a neighborhood newspaper, but most of her writing remained unpublished—including several unpublished children’s books, a study of a Korean Methodist bishop and many, many long letters to uncounted people she met along the way. She became far more liberal as she grew older and certainly was sympathetic to feminism, in part I’m sure because of her own life.

I did well enough in high school and SAT scores to aspire to one of the “Seven Sister” colleges, in particular Barnard. Two of the three schools to which I applied accepted me, but offered no student aid and were relatively expensive; moreover, my parents weren’t keen on my going so far. A scholarship from Southern Methodist University in Dallas settled the matter. My mother hoped that I would become more social there, learn to play bridge (which my parents enjoyed) and join a sorority. One of the less social sororities accepted me, but I never learned bridge and rarely dated.

Polish/German Socialist Rosa Luxemburg, was a Marxist theorist, philosopher, economist and activist of Polish Jewish descent who became a naturalized German citizen

In 1963, SMU was a pretty conservative place (although regularly targeted for Communist tendencies by the John Birch Society). Female students could be “grounded,” i.e., confined to your dorm on a weekend, for getting caught wearing jeans in the Student Center, as once happened to me. Nonetheless, SMU had some inspiring professors and I acquired an interest in history. There was no hint of feminist ferment on campus, but I discovered De Beauvoir’s
Second Sex, wrote a paper for a psychology course on the stupidity of tests that allegedly measured “femininity” and “masculinity,” in part based on breadth of knowledge. As a history major with a particular interest in Germany, I was especially offended by a question regarding the date of the Franco-Prussian War. Looking for a woman as a subject in a European history course, I wrote a term paper on Polish/German Socialist Rosa Luxemburg.

After graduation and a year in Hamburg, Germany, on a Fulbright, in 1964 I headed to Columbia for graduate school in history, intending to write a dissertation on 19th century German political history. Along the way, inspired in part by a history of early 19th century England that put the suffrage battle on level with other political movements, such as labor unrest and the Irish rebellion, I decided to find out whether Germany had experienced its own women’s movement. (If so, it had been omitted from all of the German histories I’d read.) It turned out that the German women’s movement was numerically the largest in Europe and quite active in international women’s organizations.

In 1967, I set out for a year of dissertation research in Germany, which involved many days in libraries and dusty and uncataloged archives trying to uncover something about the German women whom historians had so long ignored. Thus I missed the student uprising at Columbia, though I was present for similar events in Germany. In both cases, the dismissive behavior of male students toward women activists furthered an incipient rebirth of feminism.

Back at Columbia in the aftermath of the ’68 student uprising, I worked on my dissertation, graded papers, eventually taught as a lecturer, and was active with Columbia Women’s Liberation (CWL) as well as with the campus active antiwar movement. This was still a time when the Ivy League undergrad colleges were still all-male and women professors were few and far between. Tellingly, the restrooms were marked: Male, Female and Faculty. The history department contained no female professors; indeed, one elderly historian openly asserted that there would be one only over his dead body. Not surprisingly, affirmative action in faculty hiring was a leading cause. CWL collected statistics, promoted affirmative action procedures, as well as agitated for pay equity between male and female janitorial staffs. CWL activists included Kate Millett, Sidney Abbott, Ann Sutherland Harris, Barbara Buonchristiano, and Harriet Zellner. In addition to CWL, I was part of a consciousness-raising group, lobbied and demonstrated for abortion rights, and was present at events that included the 1970 March for Equality and the notorious Congress to Unite Women. I also attended an early women’s studies conference organized by Sheila Tobias at Cornell.

Starting during my graduate school years, and continuing through the years when I taught, I was active in women’s organizations and caucuses within the historical profession, working for both affirmative action policies for women historians. the inclusion of women in history and the acceptance of women’s history as a legitimate subject. I also gave conference papers and commented and served on program committees for several of the Berkshire Conferences on Women’s History. While at Columbia, I taught the first European women’s history seminar in the School of General Studies, and thereafter taught a variety of women’s history in addition to more traditional courses. While at Columbia, I also assisted Ann Calderwood, who recognized the need for a feminist academic journal and on her own published Feminist Studies until the University of Maryland took over its publication in the late 1970s.

Working on Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign in 1968 I met the man I married, in 1972, Stoney McMurray, an engineer and another former Texan. In 1973 we set out for St. Louis, where I’d been offered a position at Washington University. What seemed like a good opportunity for both of us turned out to be a disappointment. I finished my dissertation but the teaching job ended after a year; and the economic downturn, which hit St. Louis hard, made jobs scarce for him. When he got an offer from his former employer two years later, we moved back east, initially to New Jersey, and then New York. Our first child, Eugene was born in 1977. (Gene—who recently married—is now a partner in a computer consulting company.) Two years later we moved to Brooklyn, where our daughter Louisa was born in 1980. (She’s now finishing a master’s degree in library science.) We’ve now been in Brooklyn, in the same house in Flatbush, for over 30 years, the longest by far that I’ve lived anywhere. My husband has been an active partner in caring for the children. He’s also a gourmet cook.

pictured: Amy's Daughter Louisa, Aileen Hernandez, Amy Hackett

After returning east, I taught off and on in short-term assignments. My major advocacy commitment from the early 1980s to the mid-‘90s was in public education, for my own children’s schools and beyond. I also worked as a freelance editor and translator. The realities of publishing are such that a historian with a background on Germany is likely to end up working on Nazis, World War II and the Holocaust, not women’s history. Thus I was primary editor and one translator of an encyclopedia of the Third Reich and worked with Robert Lifton on his study of Nazi doctors. With a need for more than freelance income and children approaching college age, I turned to nonprofit fundraising. I ended this chapter of my career as director of institutional relations at Legal Momentum (formerly NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund), thus returning to feminist issues.

I first learned about VFA through Jo Freeman, whom I’d known earlier through academic connections. I encountered her again through local Brooklyn politics. I think I attended my first of many VFA events in 1994 and then volunteered to be VFA treasurer in 2001. Aside from keeping track of VFA funds, I work as a freelance editor, primarily in history. I also belong to a small study group of women historians, mainly in German history and interested in gender issues, who have met regularly for social and intellectual exchanges in New York since the 1970s—very much another expression of the feminist movement.

Contact Amy Hackett:

Comments to Jacqui Ceballos:

Back to VFA Fabulous Feminists Table of Contents