Wednesday, August 26, 2009

This article first appeared in Signature, The Newsletter of the DC Chapter of the Women's National Book Association, and is reprinted with permission of WNBA/Washington."
"The Girl I Left Behind" by Judith Nies,
reviewed by NC Weil
Copyright 2008 Signature newsletter

Know where the phrase "bra-burner" originated? In September 1968, a group of women performance artists went to Atlantic City to stage public events mocking the Miss America Pageant. One day they paraded a sash-wearing sheep up and down the boardwalk. They planned a bonfire of Instruments of Beauty Torture in which they intended to incinerate girdles, hosiery, bras, curlers, etc., but the mayor denied them a fire permit. Ironically, though that bonfire never happened, "bra burner" has been a favorite pejorative of detractors of feminism ever since. However, a direct result of that protest was the transformation of news rooms: the guerilla theater women refused interviews with male reporters – they would only speak to women. So the newspapers scrambled, and sent copy editors and society page writers to talk to these radicals.
This was just one of the many stories Judith Nies told in July, at Politics & Prose to promote her new book THE GIRL I LEFT BEHIND: A Narrative History of the Sixties. It was a homecoming for Nies whose awakening centered on her work in Washington DC. Her personal history parallels American society's changes in a turbulent time – without styling herself a radical or even a feminist, she was nevertheless present at pivotal moments. She came of age when women were "girls", when elegance of dress and presentation were essential and "girls" were supposed to be gracious and helpful, working til they married then dropping out of sight. As a graduate student at Johns Hopkins' SAIS, she was told to use the rear entrance when Dean Acheson invited her class to dinner at the Cosmos Club (the males used the front door). SAIS classmate Madeline Albright counseled her she'd go further if she "didn't make a fuss". Ms. Nies laughed to her audience: "I guess she was right!"
It's not that she looked for trouble – in the course of doing her job she came up against absurd rules, and wouldn't let them stop her. For example, as the lone staffer for ten antiwar Congressmen, she was required to attend a hearing in the Senate, but the doorkeeper wouldn't let her in – he sent her to the Ladies' Gallery. She complained and was informed no woman was ever going to be admitted, so she documented that this violated the Senate's own rules. Later, Tip O'Neill (a fellow member of Weight Watchers), informed her the Ladies Gallery had been closed, based on her challenge.
Adventurous, resourceful and persistent, Judith Nies tells a great story. If you're fifty or older, you'll nod remembering; if you're younger, you'll be astonished – were women that restricted that recently? YES! You owe it to yourself to read this book.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

NY times Letter to Editor

Today the NYTimes devoted much of the Sunday magazine to issues of women. The title article was "Why Women's Rights Are the Cause of OUr Time." I wrote the following letter to the editor.

Dear Editor:
Can we do abroad what we do not know how to do at home? In 2004 George W. Bush spoke to the Republican convention saying: “Young women across the Middle East will hear the message that their day of equality and justice is coming…I believe in the transformational power of liberty.” Alas, he seemed unaware that most of the men in his administration opposed American women’s civil and economic rights as destructive of family values. Two highly placed officials in his administration (Rumsfeld and Cheney), as congressmen in the 70s , voted against every one of the over 200 bills introduced in Congress related to womens rights. The complexity of the effort to get American women into medical schools, law schools, business schools and thus into the mainstream of the American economy is less than forty years old and is either poorly understood or the object of historical amnesia (perhaps both). The Kristof article, while otherwise excellent in describing the importance of women in global development, continues this pattern by describing gender discrimination in America as "unequal pay, underfinanced sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss." In other words, minor inconveniences in comparison with sexual slavery. History shows, however, that the difficulty America has in helping marginalized women in other countries is that the people in government, foundations, and private nonprofits don't know how we made progress on these goals at home. Do they know, for example, how and why Fannie Lou Hamer started a Pig Bank in Mississippi in the 1960s?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Susan C from Pittsburg

August 10
Letter from Susan C. heard about book from Penny owner of Norwich Book Store.
Dear Judith,
Your book was fantastic, not only for the history you write of so well, but the memories it provoked in me. I graduated from college in 1965 and applied and was admitted to SAIS. My father, who was looking at my two brothers who were on their way to Dartmouth, could not see any possibility, much less a reason, to pay to send me off to graduate school. So in the fall of 1965, I was off to Washington for a job with the CIA. I ended up marrying in the summer of 1966, leaving Washington in 1967 and bouncing around while my husband was a naval officer, having just barely escaped the draft the moment he graduated from law school. His draft board had been waiting.
I have two children who periodically have asked why I seemed to have been so boring during the sixties. I tell my daughter that in the summer of 1968, I was pregnant with her and she should be quite thankful I wasn't into sex, drugs and rock 'n roll! We moved to Pittsburgh in 1969 and I did my consciousness-raising through the League of Women Voters and the local NOW. Didn't work until both children were in elementary school and ultimately went to law school, graduated in 1983 when I was 40 and now am an administrative law judge.
Your book offered a wonderful opportunity to look back and remember how everything came to be. I had forgotten that it was a big deal for a woman to have a credit card in her own name and can't remember when that changed. In recent years, until the financial crash, credit card offers were in the mail on a daily basis, even for my cat it seemed. And I remember the one woman in my husband's law school class of 1964 who had a very isolated, unpleasant existence. When I graduated from law school in 1983, women made up one-third of the class and the top three graduates that year were women over thirty -- all without children. One thing I learned that I see women today struggling with is that you really can't have it all, all at the same time unless you are in the Madeline Albright class with the nanny. How to find some balance in life seems to be today's struggle for women. The women's movement, the League of Women Voters and so many community organizations are shadows of what they were in our day because women do have so many opportunities and no time for all the volunteer work we did. Right now I sit at a desk writing you in a room that my grown children still call "the League room" because this is where I was editing newsletters, writing papers, organizing voter registrations, all those activities that kept me going in the 70s.
Thank you so much for bringing this all back and providing the historical context for why things were as they were and how they changed. And you made me rather happy that I couldn't go to SAIS. It didn't sound like an environment I would have liked. Interestingly I have a nephew there now. I must have his Quaker mother read your book to learn more about her son's school.

Best wishes, Susan Cercone from Pittsburg

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Teachable Moment

The July August issue of the Women's Review of Books has an excellent review of THE GIRL I LEFT BEHIND ( p. 28) by historian Suzanne McCormack and particularly notes how useful it is for teaching.

A few excerpts:

"Nies's narrative is invaluable from a teaching perspective. Its strength lies in its relevance for today's young women."

"Nies's narrative is a welcome recent history of where American women have been and how they have transcended, individually and collectively, the restraints of the past. Perhaps even more than the oft-chronicled and discussed radical political movements, the daily challenges that women such as Nies met in education, work, and family life were what led to the real changes that profoundly affect my students' lives every day.

"Distinct among the memoirs that have been published in the last thirty or so years, Nies's should find a broad and grateful audience among both students of the women's movement and anyone interested in understnading how and why gender-based discrimination had to be challenged in the 1960s...