A Q&A with Dan Rottenberg, author of THE OUTSIDER

This week, in North Philly Notes, a Q&A with Dan Rottenberg, author of The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment.

How and why did you come to study Albert M. Greenfield?
Like most authors, I’ve always had several books on the back burner. One, for years, was a book about how Jews have changed business in America and vice versa. Another was a book about the decline of the Protestant establishment in America. I came across Albert M. Greenfield, and I realized this man ties into both of those themes, and that’s what I was really interested in. He was the quintessential Russian immigrant hustler who terrified the Protestant establishment in Philadelphia. They tried to shut him down in 1930. They thought they had. He came back and shut many of them down.

What surprised you in researching and telling Greenfield’s story?
What surprised me was that I couldn’t quite get a handle on him: Do I like this man or don’t I like him? There were a lot of things about Greenfield that I really liked and that I found I had in common with him—he was a tremendous optimist, and had no use for people who whined and complained—I’m pretty much the same way. He had very little empathy for people who had problems. He said take your problems somewhere else. On the other hand, he did a lot of things that were not quite ethical. He had his own narrative of his life, a lot of it was total nonsense. What I had to do as the writer was sift out the myth from the facts.

The Outsider_smHow do you think Greenfield used his Jewishness, or broke away from the stereotype in his business affairs?
Greenfield was Jewish, but he really broke all boundaries, and all rules. His basic mantra was, I can define myself as whatever I want. Sometimes he defined himself as Jewish, sometimes he thought he was the second coming of Benjamin Franklin. He was all over the place.

Do you find that his business savvy was his sheer love of business, versus fear of financial failure?
When you come right down to it, he was not really that concerned with making money or power, he really just loved to play the game. He lost a fortune twice in his life, and came back and each time, he really got the sense that he enjoyed the comeback. It was much more fun. He once said, “I’d rather fall off the highest rung than never climb the ladder.”

Greenfield was active in real estate, banking, retail, and politics, among other things. What do you think was his greatest accomplishment?
In business, he built up a huge empire, including department store chains up and down the east coast. He built some of the major building that still stand to this day, including the Ben Franklin Hotel and the Philadelphia Building, which for years was called the Bankers’ Security Building, named for his company.  But really his business empire collapsed shortly after he died. It was largely a one-man band. His legacy really lies elsewhere.

What was his greatest disaster?
Probably the failure of the Banker’s Trust Company in 1930—his venture into banking. He just assumed he was smarter than everybody else and he could succeed at anything he put his hand to. Banking turned out to be something very different than real estate. In real estate, the biggest asset is your optimism, your ability to inspire confidence in your investors or tenants. In a banker, your biggest asset is your reputation for prudence, caution, and reliability. Totally different things.

What do you think Greenfield’s legacy in Philadelphia is today?
I would say his greatest legacy is the message that his life transmits to people, that you, as a private, ordinary citizen, can really exert tremendous influence on your community, your country—if you really want to. The idea that we ought to be a little more optimistic about the future—that we ought to be a little more accepting of change. You can make your own identity, whatever you want it to be, and collectively, we can make this community and this world a better place if we want. I also think his legacy is the importance of immigrants in our society. Every generation there is a fear of immigrants and a feeling that immigrants don’t really know what America is about. Greenfield had the opposite idea. He said immigrants really appreciate America more than anybody else does.

About the author
Dan Rottenberg is the author of eleven books, including The Man Who Made Wall Street: Anthony J. Drexel and the Rise of Modern Finance, and the founding editor of the Broad Street Review, an arts and culture website.

 

Harvey Milk’s lasting influence in the labor history of queer America

In this blog entry, Miriam Frank, author of Out in the Union, explores Harvey Milk’s political vision of union involvement and LGBT progress.

article-stamp-0404Two months ago the United States Postal Service issued a new “Forever” postage stamp to honor Harvey Milk. I remember when Harvey Milk won his seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977. He was California’s first openly gay elected official.

A year later Milk was still campaigning, but not for himself. A new amendment to California’s state constitution was on the ballot for the November election. If Proposition 6 passed, it would require local boards of education to fire school employees for public or private declarations of their queer identities, as well as any school worker, straight or gay, who affirmed or advocated gay existence.

In June 1978, Milk spoke out against the menace of Proposition 6 to hundreds of thousands of gay people at San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day rally. He challenged supporters to defy the threat by making their gayness more open than ever. “Come out to your friends, if they indeed are your friends,” he said. “Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop.”

Milk organized hard against the amendment. Throughout the summer, he was on TV for interviews, or for debates with state Senator John Briggs, Proposition 6’s author. Milk’s prominence and charisma kept the battle in the news, but central to the fight were California’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens: city dwellers, suburbanites, rural folks. Many so feared how the amendment would affect their lives that they did come out. Sons, daughters, friends and co-workers told the people in their lives the truth about what the amendment would mean for their futures. One by one they asked their families and neighbors to vote “no on 6.” And one by one, they broke through the secrecy and fear that had held them back from living open, authentic lives as equals in civil society.

The decision to come out had to be an individual one, but LGBT people who were fighting Proposition 6 were not alone. Harvey Milk was not only dedicated to the gay community of the Castro but had also supported the municipal workers’ unions and a successful Teamster-led boycott of Coors beer in the neighborhood’s gay bars. Unionists were familiar with Senator Briggs’ record of hostility to labor’s issues and opposed the amendment because it would undermine collective bargaining and legalize workplace discrimination. Three days after the Gay Freedom Day rally, the San Francisco’s Labor Council announced its unanimous opposition to Proposition 6.

Out in the Union_smUnion endorsements and donations enabled wide canvassing and publicity. By mid-summer, liberal religious groups and civil liberties organizations were also involved in the expanding grassroots campaign. Squads of queer activists knocked on doors in city and suburban neighborhoods and visited community meetings at union halls and country churches. In September, an endorsement of “No on 6” by former Governor Ronald Reagan, a right-wing rival of Senator Briggs, swung many more voters. Unions released the power of their political machine in late October with phone banks, a front- page editorial in the AFL-CIO newsletter and 2.3 million palm cards at the polls. On election day, Proposition 6 was rejected by 58 percent of California voters.

California’s successful defeat of Proposition 6 in 1978 was the first major political coalition to connect the fresh and angry power of gay liberation with labor’s long-haul commitment to fairness and equality. Many other great LGBT labor collaborations have flowed forth since then.

In my book, Out in the Union, I interviewed people who participated in those coalitions. My research began in 1995 and my search for stories continued for another several years. To explore the lives and achievements of primary activists, I conducted interviews in New York City, Boston, Detroit, Washington DC, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, Seattle, Tacoma, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and many places in between.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender union members who have told me their stories have been newspaper workers, nurses and health technicians, bus drivers, telephone installers, construction tradespeople, store clerks, hotel and restaurant employees, factory workers, social service workers and employees of AIDS clinics. Their queer lives have taken them through extraordinary adventures and long phases of everyday routine; and their everyday jobs are as various and their unions as diverse as the labor movement itself. Some have founded new union locals; others have negotiated innovative contracts; and still others have fought to save jobs when their plants were being closed. They are the people of Out in the Union.

Harvey Milk did not live to see the great changes that his activism started.  But  I like to think that he would have been proud of all that the labor and LGBT movements have accomplished.

 

Appreciating Philadelphia’s Mural Arts @ 30

In this blog entry, David Updike, co-editor of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts @ 30, offers his thoughts on the book and what he learned about Mural Arts along the way.

I think it’s safe to say that over the last thirty years, Philadelphia has become a city of murals. As you crisscross the city, you find them in just about every neighborhood, often where you’d least expect them. They’ve become a part of our landscape, and something that people here and elsewhere associate with Philadelphia. A lot of the credit for that goes to Jane Golden, because it wouldn’t have happened without her energy and her vision, but it also wouldn’t have been possible if the city itself hadn’t embraced the idea that public art matters. And it matters, not just because it improves our aesthetic environment, but more importantly, because it has a lasting impact on the people who participate in the process.

The Mural Arts offices are a buzzing hive of activity. In the hallways you pass a steady stream of people coming and going, to and from mural sites, or classes, or canvassing neighborhoods. And these are people who, to borrow an old phrase from Bill Clinton, look like Philadelphia. They’re young and old, they’re black, white, Asian, Hispanic. And they all carry themselves with a sense of purpose. In the gallery downstairs you’ll see exhibitions of art—some of it quite remarkable—made by everyone from elementary school students to inmates serving life sentences at Graterford. And then there’s the room upstairs with the very skylight under which Thomas Eakins painted The Gross Clinic. And I suspect that our city’s greatest painter, were he alive today, would approve of this populist endeavor, which seeks to embrace the city he loved in all of its aspects.

I’m very fortunate to work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of our city’s other great cultural institutions. And it occurred to me as I started working on this book that, in a way, the Art Museum and the Mural Arts Program have opposite but entirely complementary missions. At the Museum we work very hard to get people to come to us and experience great art. But Mural Arts brings art to the people in the places where they live and work. And what Mural Arts brings to these communities is not a particular product or aesthetic. Rather, it’s a process of engagement and dialogue and co-creation that takes place over months and years, and whose effects remain long after the paint on the walls has dried.

Phila Mural Arts 30_smThis book seeks, above all else, to document what takes place off the walls. And really, this gets to the heart and soul of what Mural Arts does. Yes, it’s about transforming places, but mostly it’s about transforming people. We wanted to look at that process and its effects through many lenses, so we brought together a diverse group of authors from different disciplines—social sciences, public health, art education, restorative justice—to paint as broad a picture as possible of what a socially engaged art practice looks like, and what it can do, especially when it works in tandem with other organizations to address big issues like homelessness, youth violence, or urban blight.

In the book, Jeremy Nowack aptly refers to what happens in the course of creating a mural as a kind of “social contract” that arises between all of the stakeholders involved in a project—neighbors, business owners, community leaders, schools, artists. And the key word here is “stakeholders.” People feel a sense of investment and ownership in the murals. They take pride in them. They show them off to visitors. New stories and rituals grow up around them. People now ride the Market-Frankford El in West Philly just to see Steve Powers’ 50 Love Letters unfold. Inspired by the murals, couples have gotten engaged and even married on that 20-block stretch along Market Street.

Other stories around the murals are more painful, more challenging, but also rewarding in ways that aren’t necessarily visible to someone looking only at the end result. A particularly poignant example is James Burns’s Finding the Light Within, which took on the issue of youth suicide, not just with a very powerful and personal mural, but also with community meetings, writing workshops, collage workshops, and a participatory blog, all of which provided safe, supportive spaces in which survivors could share their stories. More than 800 people participated in those activities, and hopefully found some measure of healing in the process.

Elizabeth Thomas begins her essay with a provocative question: “Who makes culture?” In other words, Who decides what messages we see and read and hear? Whose stories count? Every day we’re bombarded by images and messages that tell us what we should wear, eat, drink, watch, listen to. But how often do we see our own struggles and achievements reflected in our environment, or our own stories projected into the public discourse? Socially engaged art practice has begun to address this problem of who gets represented—and who does the representing—in public culture. It’s happening in different ways in different cities around the country, but in Philadelphia its most visible proponent is the Mural Arts Program.

Much of the work that Mural Arts has done in recent years has sought to expand the definition of what a mural is and what it can do. For the mural project called Peace Is a Haiku Song, the poet Sonia Sanchez initiated what became, in essence, a citywide collaborative poem cycle. She began with a mental image of haiku by children hanging like cherry blossoms from the trees in Philadelphia. This evolved into an invitation to people of all ages to contribute poems in a series of community workshops and through a dedicated website. The poems didn’t end up hanging from the trees, but many of them ended up on posters around the city that were created by youth working with graphic designer Tony Smyrski.

The experience of seeing your own words and your own images projected into the world is an empowering one, especially for young people. As Cynthia Weiss points out, kids participating in mural projects often gain practical, real-world skills, like photography and graphic design. But they also gain a sense of agency that may be hard to come by elsewhere in their lives. And that type of experience can have a lasting impact on a person’s life in ways that we’re really only beginning to understand.

This is the essence of what Mural Arts does. It’s about creating situations in which people are drawn out of their everyday selves and both challenged and empowered to reach for something more. So while this book marks a milestone in the history of the Mural Arts Program, our hope is that it also points the way forward for others who want to use the power of art to change things for the better.

To listen to a podcast of David Updike and Jane Golden’s presentation at the Free Library of Philadelphia from March 26, click here: http://libwww.freelibrary.org/authorevents/podcast.cfm?podcastID=1216

Remembering and Honoring the Late Adrienne Asch

Adrienne Asch, co-editor with Michelle Fine, of Women with Disabilitiesrecently lost her battle against cancer. In this blog entry, friends and colleagues remember  and honor the late Temple University Press author and disability activist.

“Adrienne Asch was brilliant, funny, and provocative. In the early 1970s, just after abortion rights were secured, she would turn to me and say, ‘We need to write on disability justice and abortion rights.’ When the families of babies with spina bifida were denying them treatment at birth, she would say to me, ‘We need to write on the autonomy and human rights of these babies.’ With wisdom and reflection, Adrienne dared to enter intellectual and political territory that others (including me) feared. Gifted with an outstanding mind and a compassionate heart, she was patient with my stumbling responses: But what about the consequences of such writings? And might these efforts be used against women’s rights? Or against families’ rights?  Together we navigated politically and ethically treacherous territory, gently carving a space for dialogue and debate, honoring sacred rights to reproductive freedom and to disability justice.  She held my hand as we wandered with pen and paper into territory where varied social justice movements sat in silent tension. This is perhaps just one instance of the myriad ways in which Adrienne transformed my life. women with disabilitiesShe was a friend and a colleague who taught me about music, food, the depths of loyalty, the significance of thinking deeply and dangerously about what is and what could be. We would walk across the street, and strangers would grab her arm and escort her in another direction—all in the name of ‘care.’ She was outraged; for years I would secretly apologize to these strangers after her brusque response.  Soon I too took offense, stopped apologizing, and appreciated the incredible patience she exercised with those of us who are temporarily able bodied, deluded by our own sense of ‘innocence’ and ‘care.’ I miss her much, owe her much, love her always.”—Michelle Fine, coeditor of Women with Disabilities 

“Adrienne was a brilliant thinker on so many topics; women and disability, the area in which I worked most closely with her, was just the tip of the iceberg. But aside from her many professional accomplishments—her resume was 33 pages—she had an extraordinarily large, diverse network of friends, who stayed in close touch with her virtually as well as literally—some traveling from across the country and around the world—during the last months of her life. In the last few weeks, her bedside was crowded with people from all walks of life who shared stories and remembrances, read aloud some of her many writings, organized early music concerts, participated in Shabbat services, and were just there for her.  There are enough Friends of Adrienne, as we were called, to form a small town and definitely a community. Her death is an irreparable loss to all of us who knew her and to so many fields to which she made major contributions—disability rights/studies, women and disability, reproductive rights, bioethics, and numerous others.”—Harilyn Rousso, author of Don’t Call me Inspirational

“I have known Adrienne since I was seventeen, and she a year older.  My relationship to her was a personal, and not a professional one.  She came to my wedding, knew all my children from birth, and developed her own independent relationship with them over the years.  Despite our never living in the same city, and often not the same country, we always stayed in touch with telephone calls and visits, and of course since the advent of email, in that way as well.  I may be one of the few people who did not develop that personal relationship out of a professional one.  She dated my brother in high school, and I think we both assumed she might be my sister-in-law one day.  Instead, we became sisterly without the assistance of my brother, and shared over the many years we have known each other the ups and downs of relationships, and the happinesses and setbacks of life.  We shared a deep love of Judaism, and of Jewish liturgical music.  We went to syngogogue together during our visits, and attended our first Havurah Institute together in 2000, and then continued to attend together over the next few years.  She went on to become a board member of the Institute.  Adrienne never did things half-way.  Of course I have read Adrienne’s books, and some of her many articles, and attended the “famous” Peter Singer debate at Darmouth.  And of course we have talked about the issues for which Adrienne is so well known—prenatal testing, abortion, surrogate motherhood, disability.  But mostly, we lived into some of those issues together in our real lives.   Adrienne also shared in my life as well—she never forgot  single important date in my life, and came to every single important event she could.  She was as rigorous in maintaining the work of our friendship as she was about her professional work.  That we never lost touch, even when I lived in Canada and Israel, is to her credit.  She came to visit me wherever I, and my family, was.  I will miss our long telephone calls, her taking my arm when we walked as a concession to me and my fear of tripping over her cane. I will even miss her despair and anger when she was treated like a child during our travels together.  Her anger, though sometimes uncomfortably sharp, was well-placed.  I attended  the National Federation of the Blind convention this year for the first time, and came to understand why this organization was so important to her.  I had a wonderful time, and learned to dodge hundreds of canes, and laugh about it.  I know Adrienne’s death is a big loss to many professional communities, but for me, I will simply miss her presence, her indominable spirit, her stubbornness, her deep capacity for love.”—Randi Stein, dance/movement therapist, M.A., DMT

 Adrienne Asch’s obituary appeared in the New York Times on November 23, 2013.

Philly’s Hoop History Commemorated

This week, Larry Needle, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Sports Congress and author of Homecourt: The True Story of the Best Basketball Team You’ve Never Heard Of, a new children’s book about Red Klotz and the SPHAS, writes about hoop dreams and memories.

With the unveiling of a historic marker commemorating the legendary SPHAS basketball team at the site of the old Broadwood Hotel April 14, the hoop memories run deep.

Memories of the SPHAS (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association) teams of the first half of the 20th century, who made the Broadwood their home and helped to show the world that an all-Jewish basketball team could compete with the very best in the land.

MOGUL comp smallMemories of “the Mogul,” Eddie Gottlieb, who founded the team in 1917 and coached them to multiple championships in the Eastern League and American Basketball League over three decades (including seven titles in 13 years from 1933-1946), before going on to be one of the founders of the NBA and owner of the Philadelphia Warriors NBA franchise.

Memories of the SPHAS winning in the toughest of environments, against nasty, often anti-Semitic crowds, in gyms from Cleveland to Brooklyn, and Harlem to Trenton.

Of course, there was the scene at the Broadwood every Saturday night in the 1930s and ‘40s, fans dressed to the nines for the game and the dance that followed on the court immediately afterwards, with SPHAS player turned bandleader Gil Fitch often playing both roles.

Men paid 65 cents for their tickets and women 35 cents.  Hot dogs were a dime.  During games, another legend in the making, PA announcer Dave Zinkoff, would give away a salami and a $20 suit to Gerson’s department store.

And there were, of course, the SPHAS players. Names like Lou Forman, Shikey Gotthofer, Cy Kaselman, Inky Lautman, and Temple legend Harry Litwack.  And of course there was Red Klotz.

Growing up in South Philly, Red’s legendary set shot would help lead him on a career from South Philadelphia High School to Villanova University, and championships with the SPHAS in 1942 and the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets in 1948.

At 5-7, he was usually the shortest player on the team, but that didn’t begin to measure his heart or his passion for the sport of basketball.  Because that NBA championship wasn’t the end of his basketball career, it was merely the beginning.

Homecourt CoverRed would go on the become the founder and owner (as well as player and coach) of the Washington Generals, the team that would play foil to the Harlem Globetrotters over the next 60 years.  He became one of the sport’s great ambassadors, bringing basketball and smiles to millions of people around the globe, as well as lessons of sportsmanship and tolerance.

Of course, his legacy of winning would turn to one of losing; more than ten thousand games of losing in fact, but always with dignity and grace.  Of course, there was the exception, that one night in Martin, Tennessee, when Red hit the jumper to seal the Generals last recorded win against the Globetrotters in 1971.

Globetrotters legend Curly Neal recently said this about Red: “He may have been on the losing end of the scoreboard many nights, but the laughs and thrills that we brought to audiences all over the world is what makes Red a winner every single day. “  He called Red “the little giant with the timeless two-handed set shot and game-winning smile.”

Despite Red’s phenomenal career and contributions to the sport of basketball, he has yet to be honored by the Basketball Hall of Fame.  Just this week, the 2013 inductee class was announced, and Red was again sadly denied his rightful spot in the Hall.

Red is now 92, and lives with his wife Gloria in Margate, surrounded by family, friends and rooms full of basketball memories that he helped to create.

Of course, there is still room on the shelf for the one missing piece; what should be the crowning achievement to a career dedicated to playing the game the right way, and teaching those lessons to countless players, coaches and fans over the decades.

Red’s story is one of many in an incredible legacy created by the SPHAS, a legacy that will forever be honored with the new historic marker.

Call Harilyn Rousso anything but “Inspirational”

In this blog entry, Harilyn Rousso explains why she titled her memoir  Don’t Call Me Inspirational

Rousso.HarilynWhen I was thirteen years old, in junior high school, I found myself standing next to my gym teacher during a fire drill. When she saw me, she put her arm around my shoulder and said, “I want you to know how inspirational you are.” I was perplexed since in gym, as a girl with a discombobulated walk and poor coordination in my arms and hands, the result of cerebral palsy, my performance was mediocre at best. Then she went on: “I understand that you wash and dress yourself. That is truly amazing.” What was she talking about? I had been washing and dressing myself since I was four years old. In my confusion and embarrassment, I could only respond “Thank you.” But I was wondering why she expected so little of me that even my most modest achievements could inspire her.

Since that incident many years ago, I have repeatedly encountered people who call me inspirational, usually people who barely know me. They stop me on the street, in the supermarket, or at some event where I am scheduled to give a talk or run a workshop. They know nothing about me other than how I look, with my disabled body, or how I speak, with my disability accent. From those clues alone, they declare me inspirational. The most disconcerting are the “inspirational” comments from those who have just heard me speak or conduct a training session. In the past, I’ve told myself that perhaps they were inspired by my words or my ability, through the training process, to change attitudes toward disability. But when I inquire why they find me inspirational, I hear: “If I were you, I’d never leave my house, much less speak in public. You are so brave, truly amazing.” I get this reaction even when I have just given the most hostile, confrontational speech, challenging people’s stereotypes of me and other people with disabilities as sick, helpless, dependent, or, in more pseudo-positive language, brave, courageous and inspirational. In some of those speeches, I insist, demand, cajole or even beg that they don’t call me inspirational. But my words don’t matter. They have only responded to the seeming imperfections of my voice and body.  Why do so many nondisabled people expect me to retreat to my home and hide? Why do they harbor such limiting assumptions about the potential and quality of my life?

Those of us in the disability rights movement joke about our “inspirational” status. We go to events featuring writers, painters or other artists with disabilities and wait for the inspirational comments, knowingly looking at each other and rolling our eyes when we hear them, which inevitably we will.

Don't Call Me_smWhat compels nondisabled people to repeatedly engage in such misguided, oppressive labeling?   What I experience most profoundly when nondisabled people call me inspirational is a sense of distance, a barrier they have created between them and me. It is as though they are afraid to really get to know who I am and then run the risk of relating to or identifying with me as a peer. To do so would render them vulnerable, since they perceive me, a disabled person, as vulnerable. They cannot allow themselves to imagine a disabled person as strong, competent and at ease with herself, disability and all. Of course all of us, disabled or not, are vulnerable in one way or another. But in our “can do, must do” culture, vulnerability, imperfection, the possible inability to do ordinary tasks is a secret fear that most people try to keep from themselves. People with disabilities appear to embody that fear. We are a threat to others’ sense of wholeness and invincibility. I think they imagine that if they were vulnerable like they perceive me—or any visibly disabled person they see—they would have to abandon an active life and possibly even end their life. What a sad assessment, particularly given that most people, if they live long enough, are likely to acquire a disability. What can be done to change their vision of their own future? And, damn it, what can I do to stop people from instinctively calling me inspirational without knowing who I am?

I attempt to do that in Don’t Call Me Inspirational: A Disabled Feminist Talks Back. Will I succeed? I am not sure. The “inspirational” myth is tenacious; people hold onto it as though their lives depended on it. In fact, their lives would be enhanced if they could give up the myth and see me and my disabled sisters and brothers for who we really are. Then the reality of aging and possible disability would become less terrifying.  Occasionally, when I develop programs or engage in activities such as writing or painting that hopefully transform how people think and feel, I am proud to accept the “inspirational” label. But most of the time, my life is fairly mundane—going to the grocery store, paying the rent, spending quality time with my life partner and close friends, eating more chocolate than I should, and so forth. Sound familiar? That is the point.

 

Mourning the loss of a pioneer of women’s history

Temple University Press is saddened to learn of the passing of women’s historian Gerda Lerner. In honor of Dr. Lerner, we are re-posting this interview from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Political Engagement as Therapy for the Intellect

By Danny Postel for The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 May 2002

The writing of one’s life can offer an “explanatory myth” at worst and an “entertaining tale” at best, says Gerda Lerner, a professor emerita of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Fireweed PBIn Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (Temple University Press), she recounts the prehistory of her career in what she calls the “intellectual revolution” of women’s history, a field on which she left a pioneering mark with such works as The Woman in American History (1971), The Creation of Patriarchy (1986), and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993).

Q: You grew up in Austria in the 1920s and ’30s. How did that experience influence the development of your political consciousness?
A: From an early age, I experienced revolution, counterrevolution, military occupation, and fascism. I was imprisoned, I was a hostage—I lived in great danger. I was essentially struggling for my life. Living through this makes you very much aware of politics as a force in life and of the need to struggle for human rights.

Q: After the war, in America, you were active in the Communist Party for a time and then left. You write that it took you some years “to think [your] way out, not of one political movement only, but out of Marxism, the theory.”
A: There was a period when, though I was disillusioned with the Communist Party, I was still a Marxist. Then, after 1958, when I began to study academically, I began to have serious problems with the doctrine in regard to women. It was my feminism that made me realize that Marxism was wrong.

Q: You went many decades without publicly discussing this chapter in your life, the Communist years. Why now?
A: Well, I’m 81 years old—when am I going to do it if not now? I felt uneasy about evading the issue based on fear. I felt that I owed it to myself and to the people who have learned from me and respect me to tell them the whole story. And I feel that there is something to be learned from my story.

Q: What, exactly, would you say that is?
A: That active political engagement is good for thinking. If you are engaged in the world, you have a way of testing your thinking. I tested Marxist thought. It didn’t work.

Q: At the very end of the book, you say that for many years you felt that you had nothing to apologize for, but you go on to say that you feel differently about this now. Why the change?
A: We learned things that we did not know at the time. I defended the Hitler-Stalin pact [over which thousands of Communists left the party] at the time, and I’m sorry I did. The decisions I made in my life seemed to have a good logic then, even if 60 years later, that logic may not stand up.

 

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