A committed feminist, Brooklyn College Professor Barbara Winslow teaches in the School of Education and the Women’s Studies Program. She is also the founder and director of the Shirley Chisholm Project of Brooklyn Women’s Activism (1945-present).
Sandi: Welcome to another addition of The 51%, Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandi Klein. Women play an important role in Professor Barbara Winslow’s life, actually, feminism transformed her, academically, personally, and politically. After graduating from Antioch College, Barbara moved to Seattle to attend graduate school at the University of Washington, where in her words, she found her own political voice with the start of the women’s movement there. She received her PhD and helped started the Women’s Studies Department at the University. An historian, Barbara Winslow was the first Professor of Women’s Studies at Seattle Community College where she taught from 1971 to 73. She was also an adjunct at Barnard, NYU, and several other schools in New York and she’s also taught the first Women’s Studies at New York City’s infamous Rikers Island Prison. Barbara has been on the Brooklyn College faculty since 1997, three years later, she was appointed Head of the Women’s Studies Program; a position she held until 2004. Professor Winslow is the founder and director of the Shirley Chisholm Project of Brooklyn Women’s Activism 1945 to the present, which began during her tenure as Coordinator of the school’s Women Studies Program. Winslow has written a book about the life of Shirley Chisholm and Brooklyn Women’s Activism. Now, for those who don’t know about Shirley Chisholm, a little background. A teacher, her passion for progress got her into politics. In 1968, she became the first African Woman American elected to Congress, representing Brooklyn’s twelfth congressional district. In 1972, Chisholm launched a historic bid for the White House, becoming the first black and first woman to seek the Democratic Presidential Nomination. In the 2004 documentary, Unbought and Unbossed, that traced her historic presidential bid; Chisholm, who didn’t win a single primary, said “She ran for office in spite of the hopeless odds, to demonstrate sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.”
Barbara, I’m guessing that that’s the philosophy you share as well.
Barbara: Yes. I, in many respects, I do. Her description of herself as a catalyst for change is not only something I try to live by, but I try to inspire my students at Brooklyn College, my two daughters, and their friends, that these are also words to live by. To see yourself as a change agent and to involve other people in changing society for the better.
Sandi: And how do you think you’ve changed the society?
Barbara: Well, one, I was part of what I believe, and I’m writing about it.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Barbara: The most important social protest movement of the 20th-21st Century; that is the Women’s Liberation Movement. It is one of the largest and most long lasting movements in U.S. History and actually globally as well. In the United States today, there isn’t as large a women’s movement, but there’s a huge women’s movement in India, for example.
Barbara: In Africa there are really large women’s movements.
Sandi: All outgrowths from what happened here?
Barbara: I don’t think it’s necessarily outgrowths from what happened here, but clearly what happened in the United States, and then in England and France and Italy and Germany, inspired countries shall we say in the global south. I’ve attended conferences in Africa, for example, where some of the debates that took place among three thousand African Women sounded like many of the debates we had twenty or thirty years ago but they’ve taken their own identity and their own, the issues that are important for them because their countries are different from the United States.
Barbara: And the social relationships are different.
Sandi: So, when you were growing up, when you were at school in Washington State, was it just being at the right place at the right time? Just being primed for this? Had you much thought about women and opportunity?
Barbara: In the summer of 1963 I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and that’s one of the books that changed my life. It was not about me, it was about my mother who was upper middle class, white woman, graduate of Wellesley and married a corporate executive and she became “a corporate wife”. She had to stifle her ambitions; she wanted to go into the Foreign Service. She wanted to run for political office, and instead, she did all her civic activism as a volunteer.
Sandi: A volunteer. Mm Hmm
Barbara: She was a totally, and when I say she was a civic activist, she was at one point, the Mayor of my town.
Sandi: Was that a volunteer job?
Barbara: Yes it was. It was an affluent town, so you know, probably if it was a paid job no one would take it. But she was, for example, the president of Wellesley in Westchester, she was president of the Westchester League of Women Voters. In 1955 she was one of the instrumental figures in a campaign called Personal Permanent Registration, and there’re probably only about twenty people on this planet who’ve ever heard of PPR and they’re all members of the League of Women Voters who are over seventy, but this was a campaign to enable people to register and then once you registered you didn’t have to go back every year to register. In fact, she worked so tirelessly on this that the New Yorker profiled her in an article called They Darn near Killed Luelia.
Barbara: I didn’t find this out until I was in my fifties and I looked up and to read a magazine article about the mother who you really did not know, I mean, I was so young.
Sandi: That’s crazy. Oh my God.
Barbara: It was so interesting. But, she was, a really tireless civic activist, but it was all volunteer.
Sandi: Did you ever get a sense from her that that didn’t sit well with her? Was she resentful?
Barbara: She was an alcoholic and I think that she channeled her resentment in a destructive way.
Barbara: No, she never would discuss it. She always said my role models were my father and my grandfather, but to me, my role model, good and bad, was my mother.
Sandi: And, she had your father’s blessing to do all this work.
Barbara: Absolutely. But she had to be home at seven o’clock for dinner. I think that she wanted to go to meetings, she wanted to be able to use her extraordinary talents, as befits a Wellesley graduate she would say.
Barbara: She was stifled.
Sandi: So here you are, you’re reading Betty Friedan’s book, and you’re thinking, oh my God, this is my mother.
Barbara: And it helped me understand my mother better.
Sandi: Did she read that book?
Barbara: I don’t know.
Sandi: Okay. But you didn’t encourage her to read that book.
Barbara: We had a contentious relationship until many years later.
Barbara: I think, my guess is, because she had a very close friend who also, who wrote for the New Yorker, not the article about my mother, who didn’t like the book and was critical of her and so forth. I don’t think my mother was ready to read Friedan.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Barbara: Until probably, she was in her 70s.
Sandi: Okay. So, you read this book, then what happens to you?
Barbara: I go away to college and I remember, it was my junior year abroad, and I went to a college in Leeds England and all the professors were Marxists and you learned about the woman question. I was engaged to be married and I wrote my finance, I said, what is this woman question? He was very sympathetic and he gave me things to read, so that got me interested. But what happened, really, to me was along with sort of like my mother’s influences which I never really thought about, two events changed, really did begin to change my life. One was right after I got married in 1967, my husband and I noticed a lump on my right breast and we went to the doctor and he, you know, explained what they did; and he said, what we do is we, we’ll do a
Sandi: A lumpectomy? A biopsy.
Barbara: A biopsy. Then he said, if it’s benign we sew you up, and in those days, you got to spend two nights in the hospital.
Sandi: As opposed to twenty minutes.
Barbara: Exactly. And he said, but if it’s malignant, he more or less said we have to rip out your whole right side and so, remember, I’m twenty years old, what do I know about anything? You’re told to trust doctors, they know everything, they’re God, so we said, makes sense. I’m a real sort of, I’ve got a problem, you solve it and you move on. Scary thing. Then he handed the permission paper to my husband and we both sort of went, what? He said, and these were his exact words, he said because women are too irrationally and emotionally tied to their breasts, fathers or husbands make the decision.
Sandi: Oh my God.
Barbara: Not that men aren’t irrationally or emotionally attached to certain parts of their organs, which wives don’t have to, but I mean, that really was transformative for me and then, also at the same; and it was benign, thank goodness.
Sandi: That almost takes a backseat. You know, to that experience of being with that Dr. I mean, I forgot to ask you.
Barbara: The law changed two years later as result of the women’s movement. The idea that your father or you husband, regardless of what they think of you, can sign over, and it’s the only medical procedure they could sign over. So, I mean, it’s not like you had to have your husband’s permission to have
Sandi: An appendectomy
Barbara: A nose job, or a, that sort of thing.
Barbara: So, at the same time, I decided to apply to graduate school in history. I knew I wanted to be a history professor and I went into the graduate office and I wanted to apply for, what was called then, a National Defense Education Authorization Grant. My husband had one. For your listeners who are younger than me, and I hope there are millions of them, in the 50s and 60s, especially after Sputnik, the Defense Department paid for education and gave, was extremely generous. There was a real belief that graduate education was important and my former husband, for example, had what was called NDEA Grant. It was not a loan and it lasted four years. It paid tuition, books. The first year he got $5,000 the next year he got $7,000, the next year he got $9,000, the next year he got $11,000. That was in 1968, so you could probably triple or quadruple what it was and it was very prestigious. It was as prestigious as a full ride for example.
Sandi: Mm Hmm. Mm Hmm
Barbara: So, or a Woodrow Wilson, and I don’t know if they give those anymore. So, I go into the graduate office to apply, and they said, Barbara we’re not supporting any women for NDEAs this year and I go, why not. She said because the war in Vietnam. We want to keep men from having
Sandi: Drafted. Right.
Barbara: So here I am, I’m against the war, I don’t think men should be drafted, I don’t think anybody should be drafted, but I am not more or less eligible for a very prestigious and financially generous scholarship or grant,
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Barbara: Just because I’m a woman. Those two things took place, and then that fall, the SDS chapter, Students for Democratic Society chapter had a forum called The Woman Question and a woman named Clara Fraser spoke and she was speaking about Betty Friedan and I went and that was sort of it for me. Now, take a little step back, what made Seattle different from other cities, and I’m writing a book about this, was that the origins of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Seattle or the original organizers came mainly from what we call the old left meaning people who had been involved in communist party Trotskyist organizations prior to 1945 and Clara Fraser was a member of a very little tiny Trotskyist group, but one which was very committed to feminism and they called a meeting and half the women who were at the meeting were from this Trotskyist group and the other half were women like myself.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Barbara: You might, you know, non-
Barbara: Or people whose parents were not involved in old left organizations.
Sandi: Right. Right.
Barbara: So these two different groups formed one of the first women’s liberation groups in the country called Seattle Radical Women. Then, as what happens whenever you have a lot of Trotskyites in a group or members of the Communist party or you name it, I’m not blaming Trotskyites, is that there was a split in the group and then a group of mainly left, new left women, formed Women’s Liberation Seattle.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Barbara: But, both those groups were extremely important in the first three years of the women’s movement in Seattle. What also made Seattle different is the National Organization for Women is not founded in Seattle until August 1970. So, already, sort of like certain foundations had been laid,
Sandi: Before them.
Sandi: So you were very involved.
Sandi: Was it at that point also, that you said, this is what I want to get involved with professionally?
Barbara: Well, two things happened. One, I was a history major.
Barbara: And I get involved in the Women’s movement; and I had an English professor
Sandi: And there’s no history. [Laughing]
Barbara: Actually, there was. You just had to find it. I took a course on 20th Century England and I had a wonderful professor. I adored him. We had a book called The Strange Death of Liberal England, and it’s all about the upheavals in England prior to the First World War and a third of the book is about the English Suffragettes.
Barbara: I read that book and I fell in love with them. I mean, these were women who broke every window in the West End of London to get the vote. They chained themselves to Parliament. They, one suffragette debutant, when she met the king and curtsied, she said votes for women and to try to echo Maggie Smith, it’s sort of My dear, that is just not done.
Sandi: Uh Huh.
Barbara: I just loved these women.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Barbara: What happened was both my activism and my interest in the academy sort of came around to look at the struggles of women.
Sandi: Because you, in this time, you helped start the Women’s Studies Department at your school.
Barbara: Well, right. There weren’t courses on women and in fact, I was in a graduate seminar about the progressive era, which is a period in U.S. History in, let’s say 1900 to the when the United States gets involved in the First World War, where a lot of reforms take place; and if any era in the United States is one in which women and gender were in the forefront, it was this period. It’s the height of the struggle for women’s suffrage, it’s also the period of the work of Jane Adams, Hull House,
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Barbara: Women are organizing into unions, protective legislation, and in fact, a great deal of progressive era, the progressives called it social housekeeping.
Barbara: That is using the government to clean up dirty streets and provide sanitation and decent housing and parks and daycare and so forth. I remember in the seminar, this one pompous jerk was going on and on about how, what a great democracy America was, and remember, I looked up and I said, how can you say that? Women couldn’t vote, and black men in the South couldn’t vote. He literally looked, and he goes, what does that have to do with anything?
Sandi: Then did you hit him?
Barbara: No, I couldn’t.
Barbara: My professor just kind of puffed on his pipe. I wasn’t alone. Any of the students who were involved in the women’s movement, what we went through was, this was mild. A friend of mine, Naomi Wystein, who was at Radcliff, was not allowed to study in the Harvard Library and the reason was, women would be a distraction. So Naomi and her women friends, who had a rock and roll band, played their music
Barbara: Outside the library.
Barbara: They said, this is a distraction.
Sandi: That’s fabulous.
Barbara: So, I mean, that’s the kind of things we did.
Sandi: Did you ever think about going into politics?
Barbara: No. I mean, not electoral democratic and republican politics.
Sandi: I mean to,
Barbara: No. No. Never. Never.
Sandi: You would rather effect change academically.
Barbara: No. And also, in terms of political organizing.
Barbara: At a grass roots level. I mean, I was involved in Washington State’s struggle for abortion reform, Washington State was the first state to liberalize its abortion laws through a referendum and our women’s liberation group’s very much involved.
Sandi: Right. I didn’t mean to infer that there was no activism, I just meant did you ever think that you could effect change in another way.
Sandi: Let’s get us to Brooklyn. You joined the faculty in 1997.
Barbara: Mm Hmm
Sandi: That was a goal of yours, wasn’t it, to get involved with the Women’s Studies Program? Correct? I mean, in addition to just teaching history.
Barbara: Well, I had been teaching Women’s Studies since 1971.
Barbara: I also was very committed to teaching at public institutions and especially for underserved communities. I taught ten years at Cuyahoga Community College, and I’m still a Cleveland Indians fan, but as opposed to teaching at an Oberlin or a,
Sandi: Harvard where you can’t go to the library.
Barbara: Right. Well I would never get hired at Harvard. So, when I moved to New York, I spent the first ten years adjuncting at all sorts of different places.
Barbara: Then I taught for three and a half years at Medgar Evers College and then I was asked to join the Brooklyn College Faculty. Originally, I was asked to join specifically to save the Women’s Studies Program, which was in a lot of trouble.
Sandi: Did you?
Barbara: Well, I didn’t save it by myself, but I
Sandi: Was it resurrected?
Barbara: In a sense; we were able to get a lot of money from donors and from grants and the program is very; it’s probably one of the most visible programs on the Brooklyn College Campus, and it has involved a whole new generation of faculty. So, it’s a very thriving program and I played a role in doing that.
Sandi: Mm Hmm. So, let’s move to Shirley Chisholm. One the one hand this project seems like a no brainer because Shirley Chisholm when to Brooklyn College, she lived in Brooklyn, she represented the twelfth congressional district, she’s a symbol of liberal politics, an education, and on and on and on. Having said all that, how did the two of you coalesce? The project and you?
Barbara: Well, I was on a sabbatical in 2005, and I was trying to think of what I was going to do with myself, because I didn’t just want to write academic books that maybe four or five people would read.
Sandi: Would read. Right.
Barbara: My mother had died, so she wouldn’t even read them.
Barbara: And then I have a colleague and friend named Julie Gallagher who was writing a book about African American women in New York City Politics and she taught at Antioch College. We became friends and one time, she was telling me about her work, and it hit me, Shirley Chisholm went to Brooklyn College, oh my gosh. I was asking Julie where she went to find the resources and she said, they’re really hard to find, and then I came up with this scheme, this idea. Why don’t I interview people who knew Shirley Chisholm?
Sandi: Right. 2005 is when, if I may interrupt, is when Shirley Chisholm died.
Barbara: That’s right. What had happened is we had created this Shirley Chisholm Center for Research in part of the Women’s Studies Program and I actually got a chance to speak to her, even though it was right before she died, and I promised her that this center would be more than worthy of her name. She was going to come up to Brooklyn and be there for the inauguration of the center, but she was too ill.
Sandi: At that point, she lived in Florida, right?
Barbara: Yes. She lived outside of Orlando.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Barbara: I’d come up with the idea of the project even when she was alive but at first the idea of the project was to find other manuscripts, documents, artifacts to put in the library and then to interview people who knew her. Then, it sort of took a life of its own and I started working with people and having public events about Shirley Chisholm and then right after she died, Nick Perry, who’s a Senator in Albany, was able to get Pataki to make November 30th,
Sandi: Former Governor of New York
Barbara: November 30th, which is Shirley Chisholm’s birthday, Shirley Chisholm day. So the project then, would host a big event. So, for example, in ’08 Gloria Steinem came and spoke. This was right after the Obama election, we were just so glad he won, we said, it would have been
Barbara: Such a bummer.
Sandi: It would have been very awkward.
Barbara: We’ve had Donna Brazile speak, we’ve had Anita Hill, we’ve had Loretta Ross, who was a very important activist in the reproductive rights movement in women of color and Shirley Chisholm got Loretta Ross involved. We always have elected officials come, it’s a big event that we host.
Sandi: You draw from your student body.
Barbara: The student body comes and the community comes, so it’s a way to bring; to have our students meet the community, the community get to know Brooklyn College better.
Sandi: You also said that you’re writing a biography. You met her.
Barbara: I met her; when I say met her, I met her really briefly when she campaigned in ’72 in New York.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Barbara: But I mean, it was sort of like, hello.
Barbara: That’s all.
Sandi: What’s the focus of this biography?
Barbara: My book was originally titled, and then I had to change it, Shirley Chisholm: Urban Liberalism, Feminism, and the Black Freedom Struggle.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Barbara: This book basically talks about Chisholm and Urban Liberalisms and Feminism. So, it really discusses her life in sort of like, why she became such a, why she was so radical, why she stayed in the Democratic Party as opposed to doing what other people did. To point out that she, in order for her to be the kind of political activist she was, she felt she had to stay in the Democratic Party, which meant making compromises or not making compromises. The other interesting thing is, she has another very famous quote which goes about, she talks about how of the two sort of challenges she faced – Race and gender- the most difficult was being a woman. A lot of people have sort of, especially African American academics, don’t like that concept; sort of like it should be more intertwined, but if you follow her story of the people who disappointed her the most, were basically African American men. Every one of the men who worked for Chisholm, who I’ve interviewed, have said the same thing. I mean, she was treated terribly by black men, so I raise that in the book as well.
Sandi: So, do you teach about her in your courses?
Barbara: My students all laugh at me because they think every other sentence that comes out of my mouth
Sandi: Has her name in it.
Barbara: Is about Shirley Chisholm.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Barbara: In a course I teach on the history of feminism, they read the speech she gives when she’s announcing her presidential run, and they read her piece on why she supports abortion; because as an African American woman, she was, in the 70s, one of the leading spokespersons for a woman’s right to abortion and contraception and she challenged the black nationalists who were all against it. Yes, she’s part of the cirriculam. She’s part of the cirriculam, now, in all our intro courses and the one thing I will say is I think I’ve brought at least name recognition back about Shirley Chisholm to our students. When I first suggested we name our research center after Shirley Chisholm, half the faculty did not know who she was.
Sandi: Even in Brooklyn.
Barbara: Even in Brooklyn because if you’re under 55 or sixty, she was out of Brooklyn for twenty years.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Barbara: Thirty years and she’s not written into the history books. She’s just being sort of written about now.
Sandi: So then, the point is, that women and women of color are not in today’s society attributing anything to her?
Barbara: No. It’s not that black women aren’t attributing anything to her, it’s, there’s now a new generation of women who are writing about black women in the black freedom struggle. Another colleague of mine at Brooklyn College, Jeanne Theoharis wrote this wonderful book about Rosa Parks.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Barbara: Another one
Sandi: But everybody knows her.
Barbara: Except they only know her as the tired seamstress who
Sandi: Who sat on the bus.
Barbara: Right. They don’t know that she was an activist her entire life and in fact, this book is so important, Charles Blow wrote a whole New York Times Editorial about it; and she’s, Jeanne has been all over the country speaking about it. It’s a very important story because there are two women who are very important. One is, of course, Rosa Parks, who was the tired seamstress, and then the other is Coretta Scott King who is just the grieving widow, and she was an activist all her life.
Sandi: Widow, right.
Barbara: Then Chisholm was more or less, just written out of; not written out, she just was ignored.
Sandi: Never included.
Barbara: Because, and I think it’s much more, the African American male politicians who just wouldn’t have anything to do with her; and it still continues. When Barack Obama was running in ’08 in the primary against Hillary Clinton I tried to write editorials about, op ed pieces about Chisholm, to point out that no, it’s not white women versus black men, it’s far more complicated but the press wanted the narrative of white women against black men.
Sandi: Mm Hmm. Mm Hmm
Barbara: And then the historic first of a black man and just couldn’t get it done.
Sandi: Wasn’t sexy enough was it?
Barbara: And even Jesse Jackson. He would get interviewed and he would talk about how he was the first person to run and how he paved the way for Barack Obama and the last time I heard him being interviewed, he actually said, I see myself as a catalyst for change, and he used Chisholm’s
Sandi: Exact words.
Barbara: Exact words, and didn’t cite her.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Barbara: So, there’s been a deliberate erasure.
Sandi: Yeah. An exclusion. Let’s switch gears just slightly. What do you think of the state of feminism today versus politics? Do you feel buoyed by your female students? Are you encouraged?
Barbara: The fact that I get to teach these working class immigrant students in a women’s studies class, for me, is they bring their personal stories to the class I teach. I’m now older than many of their grandmothers, so
Sandi: But you look good.
Barbara: Well. And there’s no Botox. It is really great because they then take sort of a basic text they have to read and translate it into their lives. Now, the students in the Women’s Studies Program, I would say 95% of them tend to continue whether it’s academic activism or political activism. A number of my students end up working for the project. We’re actually setting up the Shirley Chisholm Leadership Internship Program. We’re going to raise money to involve 15 women students a year in an internship program where they will work with community groups, political activist groups and so forth. So, we take our role as training the next generation of feminists. They’re going to define the feminism as it effects their lives and how they see the world.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Barbara: The best example I can give is, when I was a student at the University of Washington and I was very interested in the Women’s Suffrage movement, and I actually met and interviewed women who had been suffragists in Washington State and they would sort of say to me, you just don’t appreciate what we did for you. They were right.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Barbara: Because, for my generation, the issue of the vote was not the most important issue because in one sense, we saw the world change as a result of mass demonstrations and activism and not necessarily voting. I think for my generation, much of the life and death issue for us was control of our bodies – reproductive freedom.
Barbara: So, I hear a lot of women of my generation saying, about the next generation, they just don’t appreciate what we’ve done for them, and I look at them, and I go, you’re right and they’re not going to because, at least in New York State, abortion is legal, you can get contraception. That’s not the most
Sandi: We have to move on.
Barbara: Right. The cutting edge for them may be violence, you know, gendered violence. It may be LGBTQ equality or it maybe workplace issues that we
Sandi: Like pay equality.
Barbara: Pay equality, sexual harassment on the job, access and so forth.
Sandi: No opportunity, lack of opportunity.
Barbara: And the issue of race and ethnicity is far more in front in their minds than it was for a lot of the white women.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Barbara: But that’s very important, so I love being a Brooklyn College and I’m really very proud of our Women’s Studies Program because the courses we teach deal with the reality of our students lives. I’ve seen some of the Women’s Studies Programs in other places and it’s so theoretical, it just, to me it’s like what is the point of even studying this.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Barbara: I don’t particularly care. It has no relationship to women in the world of work, women who are having to deal with both work and motherhood, even women like myself. Older women who have to deal with the political implications of aging and so forth. So, we have a, I mean, I’m very proud of it and most of the Women’s Studies Programs at the City University of New York are very much like that as well.
Sandi: Barbara, it was a real pleasure to meet you.
Barbara: Well, this was really fun and I really am pleased that you invited me. I’m very flattered.
Sandi: Join us for another edition of The 51% Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandi Klein and if you’d like to reach the 51%, contact us at advertisingat51%conversations.com
Narrator: Thanks for listening to The 51% Conversations with Creative Women. For show comments and suggestions please follow us on Twitter at #sandikleinshow. You can also find us on Facebook at The 51% Conversations. The show is produced and recorded by Chad Dougatz at the Hangar Studios in New York City. Sandi Klein is our executive producer.