An Interview with Vicki Moss2018-08-20T16:15:27+00:00

THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT

Vicki Moss

“Money Equals Economic Power…Women Needed to Have Their Own Money”

Interviewed by Vicki’s granddaughter, Rosalie Moss (RM), student at Barnard College, July 2018

 

RM: Hi Nana Vicki.

VM: Hi Rosie how are you?

RM: I’m good. How are you?

VM: You’re going to interview me for the for the oral history project for the Veteran Feminists of America?

RM: Yes, exactly. Let’s start with your full name.

VM: I’m known as Vicki Moss – my maiden name was Dresner. And I’ll bet you don’t even know that the name I was given when I was born was not Vicki – it was Verna Martha Dresner.

RM: I think I did know that.

VM: But I’m known as Vicki Moss.

RM: When were you active in the women’s movement – what years and what was going on?

VM: Actually the Women’s Movement was – I’m trying to think how to say it. When I got involved I really didn’t think of it as a women’s movement yet. I was in graduate school and studying philosophy. There was an organization called SWIP – The Society for Women in Philosophy and I became the representative for the Philosophy Department. And the very first meeting of that organization was in Boston and I thought it was silly. I couldn’t understand why women and men just didn’t study philosophy together.

I Soon Became Aware That Men Weren’t Letting Women Do What They Wanted To Do.

I went up to that meeting but that was a little taste of the women’s movement for me and I didn’t really become active because I got divorced soon after that. Other family problems interfered and then I wasn’t in school anymore and I got a job working for a commercial bank, Central State Bank. I had left school because of family problems. A neighbor offered me a job – he was the president of a bank. And I couldn’t imagine myself working at a bank. I wasn’t good with my own checking account and I wasn’t a good salesperson as far as I knew but I didn’t have any other options.

I had no other offers so I said okay and I went to work for the bank. And the president was going to train me and he said look for a group that other banks aren’t good to – that they won’t lend money to. And he was thinking of actually gangster type groups – like jukebox manufacturers and things like that.  Which would never have entered my mind.

What Entered My Mind Were Women.

That never entered his mind. But I went to work and found a little newspaper in Greenwich Village called Majority Report that had just started and they were publishing lists of women owned businesses.  Businesses owned by women – started by women. There were very few businesses owned by women. Mostly if a woman owned a business, she had inherited it from her husband or her father.

But these were women businesses that the women had dreamed up themselves. They had these dreams of the business they would’ve liked to have and they started them themselves. This little newspaper had a list of them. So I went down to them and that’s how I got started at a bank. And that’s how I got started in the women’s movement because there was no other bank in the whole city of New York that catered to women who owned their own businesses.

No Credit Card – Just Because You Are A Woman

At that time banks or anyone who loaned money could turn a woman down. Credit cards – you could apply for a credit card they could tell you no. When you asked them why they could just say because you’re a woman. And that was legal. I decided to get in touch with all the women on the list of this newspaper. That was I think 1973. That was the year that I left graduate school. And that was the year I started at the bank and I started having lunch with some of the people that I was meeting and some of them were women who owned their own businesses. And some of them were people like financial consultants, lawyers, and accountants – people who gave advice to women who owned their own businesses.

And one of the women who I met with said these women who own their own businesses don’t know much about managing their businesses – somebody ought to run classes for them. And having been a teacher I thought to myself well why didn’t I do that. Not that I could do that, because I didn’t know anything about money management or business management or even banking for that matter. But the women who I was meeting – the financial consultants, the lawyers, and the accountants they all knew a lot.

Women Are Brilliant

So I got together with them and I said – how would you like to put together classes for women who owned their own businesses and teach them how to manage a business? And they said that’s really a great idea. So I said let me see if the president of the bank will let us do it at the bank. And he said you could do it in the evening – in the basement. And he had no intention of publicizing it or anything – he thought it was a stupid idea because he didn’t think women had any money and he didn’t think it would do the bank any good. But if I want to work extra, after banking hours then he would let me use the basement.

So there was a conference room in the basement with a big beautiful conference table and a lot of chairs. And he did say why don’t you get coffee and Danish and have that for the women who come. So I advertised in Majority Report and I advertised in the local papers and we got so many responses we couldn’t accommodate them all for that one seminar.  We started to have many seminars and we had to sign people up for months ahead and the newspapers came and they wanted to interview me and find out how I got the idea what exactly we were teaching these people.

A First in New York

It was the first time that any bank in the city was running business classes for women who owned their own businesses. And then the women were – there were some really clever and interesting businesses. There was one woman who was running a business, which manufactured sex toys. She was manufacturing the kind of vibrators that would be good for women. They were pretty and they were good for women’s hands.

And there was a woman who was running a business called the Feminist Book Mart. She and her partner were both artists and they put pictures on t-shirts and coffee pots and all kinds of napkins and stuff and it was a mail order business. And they did a lot of advertising and they got a lot of business. It was a very successful business but they needed money to do the advertising – to do the mailing. They needed money for everything and they didn’t know money management either. So they came to the seminars and we had a lot of people like that with really interesting businesses but she didn’t know how to do the money management part.

We Had People With Really Interesting Businesses Who Were Coming To The Seminars.

There was no cable TV at that time – cable television was just starting out. So they called us and they wanted to come to the bank and do a story on us.  So they came and set up and did a story on us. And all the newspapers in the city came and did stories on us – and all the TV shows and news shows came and did stories about us.  We became so popular. And there were hundreds and hundreds of women coming to the bank and people from the women’s movement of course were coming. And that’s how I got involved in the women’s movement. That was my involvement.  And the president of the bank saw how popular this was. He put a sign up in the window of the bank – a chartreuse sign – a huge sign.  It said something about the bank.

We’re Good To Women And Vicki Moss Is Here.

RM: Was that in New York?

VM: It was on 48th street, in Manhattan, between 5th and 6th Avenues facing Rockefeller Center. It was a small bank but the main bank was in the city and three of them in Brooklyn. And of course I guess I can tell the real story that happened. The president of the bank was trying to sexually harass me. He made it look to everybody as if we were having an affair.

Every time I would go into his office for something he would put his hands on my shoulders or run them down my arms. And every time I would say that I didn’t want him to do those things and I didn’t want to go to bed with him he would punish me in some way. One time he banished me for two weeks to a branch – he sent me to one of the Brooklyn branches and I didn’t have any clients there. All my clients were in Manhattan. So my clients couldn’t get to see me when I went to Brooklyn.

We Didn’t Have A Word For Sexual Harassment At That Time. 

We didn’t know that concept even. The loan officer of the bank gave me material to study and I studied and I passed the test. So he made me a loan officer. But the other three loan officers were men and they used to tease me and taunt me and ridicule me and ridicule my clients. And they were never nice to them and if I was busy with someone and one of my clients came in they wouldn’t see them. They wouldn’t take care of them. And it was really a horrible atmosphere for women. Even though they were saying that they were the only bank in New York for women – they were just barely so.

The woman who was running the Feminist Book Mart needed a loan. She was expanding because her business was doing really really really well. And my boss, the president of the bank didn’t want to give her – he had already given her one loan and he didn’t want to give her another loan. So he told her to go to the Small Business Administration, which is a federal organization. So she went to the SBA, the Small Business Administration and they turned her down. And do you want to know why they turned her down? Her name was The Feminist Book Mart.

The Word Feminist They Said Meant She Was Trying To Overthrow The Federal Government.

So that’s why they wouldn’t give her a loan or underwrite a loan or anything for her because she calls herself a feminist. So that meant that she was against the government; “feminist” meant trying to overthrow the government.

RM: That’s crazy.

VM: There are lots of crazy stories. Here’s another one. There was a woman who was in her ninth month of pregnancy – she had been a pediatrician for 10 years. She had a really wonderful practice. She was well established as a physician and she was going to be giving birth right away very soon. And she wanted to buy some equipment so other people could take over and run her practice for the month or two that she was going to be out with her new baby. But she was planning to come back.  You know just be home with the new baby for a month or two. So she wanted to borrow money. She was well established.  She had a big clientele – a lot of people. Word of mouth and other doctors knew of her – recommended her.

My Bank Wouldn’t Give Her Money Because She Was Pregnant.

RM: Oh my God.

VM: There was another woman who was a filmmaker and she had made a bunch of films and she was a well-known filmmaker among filmmakers. And she had a government contract to make the film but they weren’t giving her money until she had gotten the film started. But she needed money to get the film started. She had a contract from the government that they would give her so much money once the film was started – a month or so after the film was started. My bank insisted that she put her house up for collateral. They wouldn’t give her money even though the contract – if it was a man, they would have used the contract as collateral. But they wouldn’t do that with her.

RM: So why did you stay at the bank?

VM: Because my only other skill was teaching philosophy. During that time another bank opened and they called themselves The Women’s Bank. So I went there and got an interview and they saw me as the competition and they wouldn’t hire me because they saw me as the competition. I had been at a dinner – I had been invited to speak at a dinner called – I don’t remember the name – and Betty Friedan was a speaker also at the same dinner. And she spoke after I did. In my speech I said something about at my bank – We are good to women the way a therapist or a gynecologist would be good to you. We’re good to you too – we treat women well. And when Betty Friedan got up she says – we’re not gynecologists – we’re not therapists – we’re hard-nosed businesswomen. And she made fun of me.

Even The Women Wouldn’t Hire Me.

I didn’t know what else I could do. And I was getting very depressed because I thought maybe it was my fault that I was somehow leading him on. I didn’t know what to think and I was getting very depressed. But then finally – finally I did. I said I know what I’m going to do. And I decided I’m going to run an after school program for first graders whose parents work and have no one to watch the kids until they come home for dinner. So I put an ad in the paper and I got actually a lot of kids coming. And so I went to my boss, the president of the bank – and he knew I was really furious at him and I said I want you to fire me so I can collect unemployment.

And first he said no. But then he said OK. So he fired me. So I could collect unemployment. And then I had these kids that I was collecting after school and I ran a little play school in my basement. Then my father got very sick. He had a brain tumor. He was in Florida and I couldn’t take care of these kids when my father was so sick so I stopped that. But then I got a job. There was a program – I became the head of a women’s center in Bergen County.

And it was my job to run all kinds of educating courses for women. Sort of like consciousness raising, because the women’s movement was really still just at the beginning.  And women in the suburbs, which is where I was – I was in Englewood in New Jersey. Most of the women I knew had no clue what the problems were – why was there a women’s movement? They really didn’t know – if they were happily married and doing work they liked, they didn’t have a clue why there was a women’s movement. Betty Friedan’s book [The Feminine Mystique] had come out just a little bit before that time and the people who were reading it resonated with it. You know what her book was about?

RM: I vaguely remember.

The Problem Without A Name

VM: She wrote about the problem that has no name and the reason it had no name was because – I could sort of relate to it because – I had been divorced by that point – 1956 is when I got married. And by this time I knew I was unhappy, but I had no idea why I was unhappy. And if you would ask me now why I was unhappy, I would say because Grandpa Larry was very controlling and he held all the money and he doled it out to me and if I told him I was unhappy he said it’s all in your head and he wouldn’t listen to me.

And if we had arguments he would turn away. He wouldn’t argue with me. He didn’t want to hear what my problems were. We just had no communication really at all. I would have to say we really were not even friends. But that was the case, that’s what Betty Friedan’s book was about – women felt unhappy but they didn’t know why. They didn’t understand what the problem was. And the problem was there was this lack of understanding between their husbands and them. And they had gone to college – and they had trained, as maybe a political scientist, maybe as a teacher, who knows – there’s all kind of things.

But there were no jobs for them – for a lot of them. I mean for some of them – there were teaching jobs. But anything that wasn’t – you know strictly a women’s job – there were no jobs for them. They were home when the kids went to school. There was a lot of alcoholism in the suburbs among women. They just didn’t know what to do with themselves and that’s what Betty Friedan was writing about. The problem that had no name was these women who knew they weren’t happy but they didn’t have a clue as to what their unhappiness was about. And so some of my friends and I started consciousness raising groups.  Do you know what consciousness raising is?

RM: Yes.

VM: What?

RM: Isn’t it raising consciousness??

VM: Yes, but how?

RM:  Spreading awareness?

VM: How do you do that?

RM: There are a lot of ways to do it. Communicating?

VM: The Communist Party had consciousness raising. They would have small groups meet and they would talk about their problems with society. And it would turn out that even though each one thought the problem was his or her very own problem, it turned out that all the people would have similar problems and that’s what was happening.

Women would start meeting in small groups – friends would meet. And the things they thought were their own problems – which they had kept secret – like abuse. Not necessarily physical abuse but husbands who made fun of them or abused them in some way. Ridiculed them in some way or somehow made the environment in the house hostile and painful. They didn’t realize that they were all suffering from very similar things and the same thing in getting jobs.

They Thought There Was Something Wrong With Them – But It Was Society.

So when they said the personal is political. That’s what it meant. It meant that you think it’s only your problem but it’s the whole society. And so they got to be conscious of it by meeting in small groups like 8 – 10 people and talking.  Each one talking about her own problem. And the other women would say – oh I suffered that too. And her consciousness would be raised and everybody else’s too because they all realized they were all suffering the same thing. So that was consciousness raising.  And I had been in a group like that before I went to work at the bank.

So when I got this job after I left the bank, I got a job as a director of a women’s center. So one of my jobs was to start consciousness raising groups or help women find what we called then – nontraditional jobs. And one of the of the women who I met got a job working as a truck driver for UPS which then there were no women who drove trucks for UPS. It was really non-traditional. The fact that she got that job was amazing. So we did things like that.

National Association of Women Business Owners

And then another thing I did when I was working for the bank – one of the things I did – I got lists together of all the women who were coming to our seminars and I wrote to all of them using the bank’s stationery and the bank’s postage. And I wrote all of them that they should use each other’s services. And I sent them lists of each other so that they could use each other’s services and help each other’s businesses. Which they did.

And then we decided we were going to start an organization called the New York Association of Women Business Owners. 10 of us got together and we started the New York Association of Women Business Owners and a couple hundred women came to the first meeting and that association now – grew – it’s now a National Association of Women Business Owners.

RM: Wow.  You started it?

VM: Yes, and they contribute billions of dollars to the U.S. economy.

RM: That’s amazing.

VM: Billions with a B! So I feel like I contributed a little bit to that because I helped start the original organization.

RM: Wow, I didn’t know that.

VM: What else can I tell you? I’m not letting you ask any questions, I’m just talking and talking.

RM: I have a question. Were there one or a few issues in particular that you cared about?  Was it women in business or harassment in the workplace?

It Wasn’t Just One Issue 

VM: Well at that time I was starting to sort it all out and realized that there were so many issues that it wasn’t just that women had issues – but that there were so many issues. And of course I was at the bank. So money became a big issue. And I made up a sign and put it on the wall over my desk – that money equals economic power and that women needed to become independent by having their own money. And so that became a major issue to me at that time.

Also, I was starting to be asked to speak at different places and one place that asked me to speak and then I began to be asked to speak at a number of these – was battered women’s shelters. So the thing that I really became very intensely concerned about was violence against women. And I began to realize that all over the world women are really subject to violence. So much that I spoke at workshops and tried to help battered women leave their homes and develop a plan for themselves so they didn’t have to go back.

Most of them went back to their homes again where they were being beaten up. There was a woman who was married to a cop and he beat her up and actually broke her neck. She came to the shelter with her neck in a brace with three little children and she didn’t know where to go. She had no skills. She didn’t know what work she could do to support her children. And where she could live and the organization that ran the shelter got her an apartment. But it was like a six floor walk up but even though it was a terrible life with her husband, she moved there at first. But then she went back.  At least she had a house and he supported her. So she went back to him even though he beat her up all the time.

There was another woman in one of the shelters that I that I ran workshops in. This woman was sitting – she was wearing a big circle skirt and she was sitting hunched over with the circle skirt like wrapped around her hands. And I wondered why she was sitting like that and then I realized she had a gun. She was sitting with a gun because her ex husband had followed her to five different cities – she couldn’t get away from him and she was afraid to be anywhere without a gun. So violence against women became really important. 

RM: Do you have one memory that you view as most memorable and most important?

VM: You mean more than I already spoke of?

RM: Which of those or one memory do you think is most important to you?

Difficulty Appreciating Success 

VM: Well a bad one was when I left the bank; I was very depressed because I thought I had failed. Even though it was actually a huge success because all those women came and I was written about in all the newspapers and I spoke at so many conferences. And even the president of the bank said that all of the publicity that I brought the bank was worth millions of dollars. But his harassment made me feel so depressed that I couldn’t even appreciate the success that I had.

And once the New York Post came and instead of interviewing me they interviewed him. And you know what he told them – he said the seminars are a failure.  He said the women have no money and they are not bringing any money into the bank. And they are a big failure. So instead of hyping us and giving us good publicity he gave us bad publicity to his own bank. In spite of how successful it was, I couldn’t give myself a pat on the back. I was just depressed from it.

RM: So how do you think your involvement in the movement has affected your later life, both personally and professionally.

VM: Well that’s an interesting question because I thought it was just a fluke that it had nothing to do with any of my own skills. But when I went to work for FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology], I also became very well known. I organized adjuncts. I published a newspaper for adjuncts for ten years. I published this newspaper and I had people organizing because of my newspaper. And I began to see that it was my own skills that really were operating there.

RM: And FIT is Fashion Institute of Technology?

VM:  Yes and it’s a SUNY school – State University of New York.

RM: And were you involved with the women’s movement while you worked there?

Always Try To Make a Difference  

VM: The adjuncts, and most adjunct faculty are women – if I’m remembering my numbers – these are numbers that are not exact – they’re approximate because I don’t remember them exactly.  But there were about 2000 teachers there. 1800 were adjuncts and the other 200 were full time regular faculty. So the adjuncts outnumbered the full time faculty. But we were treated – Anyway the adjuncts didn’t even get half the pay the full timers got.  We got very much inferior benefits. My pension now is way smaller than the pension I would have gotten if I had been a full time faculty member. I wouldn’t have had to move out of my big apartment. I would have been able to stay there if I had been a full time faculty member.

We were treated very badly. They kept moving us around from desks to desk. There were times when I didn’t have a desk but I had to see students from my car. I was treated very badly. And FIT treated adjuncts better than most colleges treat adjuncts. When I got together with a group of other people I really saw that it was my skills that helped organize them. And my skills at publishing a newsletter – because I published for 10 years. And we got people – we got the union to take adjuncts into the union organization and got some benefits that adjuncts didn’t have before.

So I began to see that wherever I am I sort of get myself into the middle of things. When I lived around the corner in the Graystone I got involved there too. I was on the co-op board and I did some things there. Now that I’m retiring, I don’t want to do much of anything for awhile. But wherever I was I just got involved in things and tried to make them better. So I learned that it wasn’t a fluke. I don’t think it was a fluke at the bank.

RM: So is there anything else you want to add about your contributions or your experiences in the women’s movement?

VM: I went around from the bank – we were trying to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed at that time. You do know that there are no equal rights for women in the Constitution? That women are not included in the Constitution. You know that, right?

RM: Yes.

VM: So at that time we thought we were very close. We are still very close. All these years later but we’re still not included in the Constitution. So I went around giving speeches because I was very well known at that time.

RM: What year was that?

VM: That was 1977. I went to women’s centers. I went to community centers. I went to schools. I went to wherever I could get them to agree to have me come in and speak before a group to tell them. People thought that if you have an equal rights amendment, you’re giving up some rights. They thought the most foolish things. They thought for example you’d have to use men’s bathrooms because of the Equal Rights Amendment. They just didn’t understand.

It Was Just A Simple Sentence.

You are entitled to the same rights as any other human being. And so people were against it and would vote against it. It takes two thirds of the state legislature to approve it and two thirds of the states. And I think we just need one or two more states to approve it.

RM: How has your involvement in the movement affected your later life personally and professionally?

VM: It made me a feminist – a dyed in the wool feminist for my entire life – and hoping that all my grandchildren will be feminists.

RM: And I am a feminist.

VM: What do you think? Looking at me – do you think it affected me?

RM: Definitely and me too.

VM: You too! Oh that’s interesting. Oh good. OK. So do you think we changed the world in any way? Because we expected the world to change tremendously. We expected the business community to change just like very very much more dramatically than it did. We didn’t expect it to move as slowly as it did.

Many Amazing Women Paved the Way

By the way, I don’t know if you know this – the woman who started VFA, Jacqui Ceballos, is her name. She was one of the 10 people who started the original New York Association of Women Business Owners. She is in her 90s now. She’s really quite an amazing woman. And she used to run dinners praising – featuring a lot of women who did amazing things. She had Betty Friedan, she had Gloria Steinem, and she had many women who we never heard of honored at some of her dinners. She emailed me the other day.  She published reviews of my books on her site. She was a really really really terrific woman. She is still a really really terrific woman and there was something I was going to say about her and I can’t remember what it was. Well anyway. She’s amazing an amazing amazing woman.

RM: It sounds like it.

VM: I’ve met a lot of amazing women through this that I would never have met if I hadn’t become involved in the women’s movement.  I could talk for hours and hours about some of the experiences I have had. Like conferences that I went to where the women who came – if they were from Utah and they were Mormons they came with men, and it was the men who voted not the women.  Things like that went on.

RM:  It sounds like you were very involved and had a lot of great experiences. We got a really good picture of your involvement.

VM: Thank you Rosie.

RM: Thank you it was very interesting for me.