Veteran Feminists of America

GLORIA ORENSTEIN - Professor of Comparative Literature and Gender Studies, FOUNDER OF THE WOMAN'S SALON FOR LITERATURE

I was born on 3/8/38 when my mother was 38 (3 and 8 have always been significant in my life). Delivered six weeks early, I spent my first month-and-a-half in the first incubator installed at Beth-El hospital in Brooklyn.

My childhood home in Queens, NY, was opposite a huge woods. I was warned never to wander off in those woods where terrible things could befall young girls, but I had to walk through the woods to reach my school. Despite my fears, I have continued my wanderings through dark woods to continue my education.

My father spent his later years in the shoe industry; my mother was a Jr. high home economics teacher. I have a younger brother, a lawyer. His wife is also a lawyer.

Young Gloria

I later discovered my birthday is on International Women's Day, but I had no idea that in 1980 and 1985 I would attend conferences on women for the U.N. Mid-Decade and End of Decade gatherings in Copenhagen and Nairobi. But back to the past.

Districting was changed when I was ready for high school and I had to attend a school far from my neighborhood. Some of my friends' parents did what they could to have their children attend a school closer to home, but my parents decided I was to remain there. However, when it came time for my brother to attend high school they claimed he was living in a relative's home so he could qualify for a school in a better district. The first feminist alert had just rung for me--his education was obviously more important--and when he was eligible for a bar mitzvah I was told girls were not allowed to have that ceremony.

I was an excellent student and aspired to attend university and was told to consult with my rabbi about which college would be best for me. There were quotas based on anti-Semitism then. We were advised to visit the recently-founded Brandeis University. I fell in love with Brandeis and applied. My deep desire to pursue an academic career was nurtured there, and I graduated in the 8th graduating class, 1959.

During my junior year in high school I met the man who would become my husband, Steve Orenstein, a Holocaust child-survivor from France. He was studying to become a physicist.

I'd thought about majoring in physics, but the sciences--physics in particular--were inhospitable to women students. I was beginning to see gender inequities in the curriculum and culture of a coed university. This became clearer when I visited the Wellesley College campus. As we came to the Physics Building, I was puzzled about who would be using it. One hardly ever encountered women in physics at Brandeis. I asked the campus guide "Who goes there?" "Why Wellesley physics majors of course," she replied. Another feminist click-one that explained the advantages of attending a woman's college.

I majored in Romance Languages and Literatures (French), spent days in the library reading about Surrealism and wishing I had been born earlier in the century so could have participated in that movement. I went on the Sweetbriar Junior Year in France program. When I returned, Steve had been accepted to graduate school in physics at Brandeis. We were married on 8/3/58 (more 8's and 3's), before my senior year.

After graduation, we went with a group of physicists to live at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where they would do experimental particle research. Today the area is rife with cancer because of the radiation that spewed forth from experiments. I was only 20 and aware that the children I might have could be affected by the overdose registered on the badge my husband had to wear, so I moved back to Cambridge and attended Radcliffe Graduate School to pursue my M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures, leaving my husband at Brookhaven. It was not how I had envisioned marriage.

I soon learned there was a serious explosion of the bubble chamber my husband's group was using. Their experiment had to be closed, which enabled him to join me in Cambridge, Mass. Thank heavens no one was hurt. He switched from experimental to theoretical physics, and I joined a group of radicals protesting the effects of nuclear radiation.

After a year in graduate school I became pregnant. My husband got a job at Northwestern University and we moved to Evanston, IL, where my first daughter, Nadine, was born.

Suddenly I found myself alone without family or friends and without the academic life I had so loved. I lost my bearings and fell into a deep post-partum depression. I applied to the graduate program at the Univ. of Chicago in Comparative Lit, but how could I go to classes, use the library, and take care of my child without any help? My husband would be teaching at the other side of the city and there were no childcare centers in those days.

Gloria as Professor in her office

I ended up taking a position as a Teaching Assistant in French at Northwestern, and it was amazing to me, but also to my therapist, that the day I began teaching my first class, my entire depression vanished. No therapist in 1961 could understand that a woman might feel fulfilled if she exercised her profession, rather than be a full-time homemaker. After a year of teaching I was convinced I must obtain the doctorate I had given up to follow Steve to the Midwest.

Eventually we moved back East, and I taught French at Lexington High School in Massachusetts. Though pregnant with my second child, I wanted to return to graduate school so applied for a Danforth Graduate Fellowship for Women. Fortunately, my husband found a job in physics at Queens College, and that brought us back to NY. This was the first time a grant was created which gave priority to women who had put off graduate studies to raise a family. The fellowship paid for university fees, for child-care and nursery school, and covered all my academic expenses until I earned my Ph.D. from NYU in 1971.

I received my doctorate with a dissertation that later became a book entitled "The Theatre of the Marvelous: Surrealism and the Contemporary Stage" (NYU Press 1971). My second daughter, Claudia, had been born right before we moved to NYC. Today Nadine is a Curator of N. European Prints and Drawings at the Metropolitan Museum in NY, and Claudia is a Professor of Theatre at Hunter College. She is also the mother of my two wonderful grandchildren, Caleb and Sophie.

We spent the academic year 1971-72 in Paris where my husband was doing physics research. I found a teaching position in English at Paris III, a branch of the University of Paris. I visited the women of Surrealism-artists Leonor Fini, Meret Oppenheim, Jane Graverol, and poets Lise de Harme and Joyce Mansour; participated in the Mouvement de Liberation des Femmes, and took my children to feminist protests in the streets of Paris.

None of this sat well with my husband, and our marriage slid on a downhill spiral. The last of the conflicts occurred when the university required me to come in on a Saturday and my husband declared I had weekdays to go to work and belonged to him on Saturdays. Of course I went in to perform the required task, and after many arguments we decided to separate for the summer. The children went to camp, he stayed in Paris and I visited Leonora Carrington, the Surrealist artist I had met just before leaving for France. She lived in Mexico, and had invited me to spend the summer with her.

The previous summer I had been finishing my dissertation and was looking for Surrealists from Latin America. Someone suggested I write to Leonora, and we corresponded almost daily. Nothing had been written about her in the early 70's so she sent me reproductions of her visual art. I was astounded by the beauty of her art and decided to include her in my dissertation. I would have to go to Mexico to speak with her in person, but had no money for travel. I decided to purchase a Mexican dress, hoping the vibes would enter my brain and enlighten me about the meaning of her cryptic, but absolutely incredible imagery. One day, just as I had asked the cosmos to send me an answer, the telephone rang and a most distinctive English accent spoke: "This is Leonora Carrington. I have just arrived in New York and I would like to meet you." I was elated.

We met that night and remained dear friends for the rest of her life (she died in April, 2012 at 94). In New York I took her to a meeting of OWL (Older Women's Liberation) and we met with Betty Friedan, Jacqui Ceballos and Irma Diamond. Leonora wanted to start a branch of NOW in Mexico City. She was sailing for France in a few days and wanted me to go with her. Thanks to my brother I was able to make the trip by plane.

The time I spent with Leonora opened my eyes to the Celtic roots of her literary and artistic vision. I was able to spend six weeks as her guest in Mexico the following summer. It was a most extraordinary entrée to her world. She saw the traces of the ancestors at the archeological sites we visited. It was the dream trip of a lifetime.

Leonora at her painting easel with the chequered vest

After I returned to the States I began the long search for a permanent teaching position. We were the first generation of feminist scholars in every field. Eventually I was hired as Assistant Professor of English at Douglass College of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. Before this I had published the earliest articles on The Women of Surrealism and on Frida Kahlo in The Feminist Art Journal (1973), and in 2012 the seed I planted long ago came to fruition. The exhibition "In Wonderland" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is about the women of Surrealism who after WWII settled in New York City and Mexico City, where their work flourished.

In the early 70's, feminist art historians began to think about why women had been omitted from the canon of the greats in art history. Today we are revising our pedagogy and methodologies to fill in the blanks, and transform our history into a feminist legacy to be proud of.

One day, on my visit to Mexico a year later, I was sitting at a table in the plaza, and an American man introduced himself to me: He was Robert Lima, now retired, and his field of specialization was Surrealism."I have just come from a meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association," he said, "and I thought I'd stop in Oaxaca before returning to Penn. State University where I am a professor." He asked if I knew it was to be the 50th anniversary of the "Manifestos of Surrealism" by André Breton. I told him I was working with a magazine, Shantih, on a Surrealism issue. He asked if I could I present this at the conference the next year. I had original information on the women of Surrealism, I told him. He invited me to give a paper with a slideshow at his conference.

On my return to New York, I told my husband I would be going to the conference for one weekend. He was furious. "If you go I will not be here when you return. I am not your baby sitter." Of course I had to go, and my presentation was extremely successful. It never occurred to me that Steve would actually leave the children alone, but that's what I came home to--another dark woods I had to traverse. My girls and I managed to hold up during this critical turn of events.

I had no idea how I would ever find a permanent university position or a social life. Inspired by the Left Bank women who had created a lively literary culture in Paris at the beginning of the century, I began doing research on Salon Women. I wanted a life of Letters, but I was born in the wrong century and without the fortune I'd need. Then it occurred to me that we could have a salon with many women working together and contributing to the funding. Two years later, when I attended an all-woman poetry reading, I got up the courage to ask if anyone would like to form a salon. The response was overwhelming.

Collage for Woman's Salon

And so began The Woman's Salon for Literature in New York that lasted from 1975 to beyond 1985. We met one Saturday night each month, eventually in Erika Duncan's loft in Westbeth. A website has been posted with photos and writings from that salon at In time we created a special program that we took to the 1977 Houston Women's Conference. Kate Millett and Olga Broumas came with a group of us, and we gave readings from our works. I spoke about women's salons from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

In 1982 I was forced to return to the job market as I did not get tenure at Douglass. I was in the English Department, but had been publishing in Comparative Lit, and Douglass had no such department. However, during my seven years there, I had become Chair of their Women's Studies Program and directed the Rutgers Junior Year in France. It did not take long to get my next job at the University of Southern California. I was happy to have the opportunity to move to a warm climate with an excellent university. Nadine stayed in NY to finish college at Barnard, and Claudie moved with me to attend USC, blessedly tuition free.

When the time came for tenure in Comparative Literature, I needed recommendations from famous feminists in France. I'd been a friend of Helene de Beauvoir, Simone de Beauvoir's sister, so I requested my department send my dossier to Simone. One day I heard stamping above my office. My feminist colleagues had received Simone's letter of recommendation and were dancing. I was in complete shock! The letter certainly helped getting me tenure, and I am so grateful to Simone, whom I had never met. Later I learned from Helene that Simone had never done this for anyone else.

During my 30 years at USC, I have team-taught with feminist male professors. I loved awakening students to new ideas. I would send them on quests for lost pieces of women's art and literary history--things they might find in their grandmothers' trunks in the attic--to fill in the missing parts of our social history. Later I would teach smaller seminars on the Dada, Surrealism, and avant-garde movements, and eventually I founded an archive of feminist artists from Southern CA--video interviews by the students who visited the artists in their studios. Duplicates are also deposited at the Rutgers Feminist Institute.

Kate Millett's Salon

One of my goals was to attend every international feminist conference where I could deliver a paper-either on The Women of Surrealism or on the Re-emergence of The Goddess in Art and Literature by Contemporary Women, which referred to my second book, "The Reflowering of the Goddess." I was fortunate to have traveled to conferences around the world and became involved in creating the first conference in the U.S. on an emerging field known as Ecofeminism.

In 1987 as I was working on the creation of this conference which resulted in the book "Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism" co-edited with Irene Diamond, an event redirected my life again. Berit As, a Sociology professor from Oslo, Norway, phoned to say she was coming to Los Angeles and wanted to know if "they" could stay with me. When she revealed she was traveling with a Shaman from Lapland, my head began to spin. In 1972 I'd asked Leonora Carrington why the protagonist in her novel, "The Hearing Trumpet", a 92-year-old woman, wanted to go to Lapland so badly, she replied: "Gloria, the Shamans of Lapland just happen to be the most magical people on earth!" I never forgot that.

I did not know what a shaman was, nor could I have told you where Lapland was, but eventually I found out. I was stunned that Berit was traveling with a shaman from Lapland, and she had to stay with me! I arranged to meet them in my office, and invited several professors to be there.

The shaman was exquisitely beautiful in her native costume with jangling fringes. She began to sing a yoik, a chant that calls in the spirits of deceased ancestors. As she sang, we were literally transported to the ancient times of humanity's origins. During this meeting the shaman informed me I had to make a trip to Samiland (Lapland is actually called Samiland) because "The Great Spirit has called you, Gloria and you have to come to meet the Great Spirit." I was in shock, but felt it was true. This extraordinary Sami woman, then in her forties, was the next shaman in line after her father, the Great Shaman of the Sami people. I went the next summer, and I did make the trek to climb the three mountains. I never saw the spirit guides who helped me but I did dream of one whose photo was on the wall of the Great Shaman's house. It was his father, also a shaman.

Shaman, Berit As, Irene Diamond and Gloria Orenstein (arrival of Shaman at USC)

I also heard the voices of the ancestors from the Otherworld call me by name in the middle of the night, and I heard them again after I visited the Sami Sacred Site. Thus I learned that the spirits of the deceased are alive in another dimension, are able to observe us, and can often make contact.

All was magical until the shaman's second son was killed. She went into a deep sadness, and refused to go to a hospital because she wanted to die and find her sons in the spirit world. At Christmas time I brought her home to rest in the California sunlight. A few years later she died of what we call cancer, and what she always referred to as a spirit war.

After she died, I became very sick. No doctor could diagnose what I had. Eventually I was sent to a Jewish woman healer, a shamanic clairvoyant, who knew what had happened to me and how to cure me. The healing process went on for years, but I owe my life to her, and to her bringing me back to Judaism after my long journeys with the Goddess religion and with Sami Shamanism. I am grateful to be healed and to be returned to the religion of my birth.

Now I have begun to do research on Jewish women artists. I have written a few pioneering articles on them-one published in Nashim, which comes out of Israel and Brandeis, and is on the web. I began to collaborate with artist Suzanne Benton and a committee of artists on A Salute To Women Artists, for VFA in 2003. We awarded medals to feminist artists of the Second Wave who came from all over the United States.

I plan to retire in January 2013. While my life has had its challenging moments and I have traversed many a dark woods in my quest for knowledge, I am fulfilled by the wondrous journeys I have made to the realms of the Marvelous, the Magical, the Great Goddess and the Shamanic Mysteries, and I will be forever grateful to the teachers who inspired me and to the feminist activists on whose strong shoulders we now stand as we welcome new generations of visionaries expanding our feminist legacy into the new millennium.

Contact Gloria

Comments: Jacqui Ceballos

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