Interviewee: Barbara Bornstein
Interviewer: Ann Lane
Date: November 18-21, 1977
Barbara Bornstein, a social worker from Maplewood, New Jersey, worked at Overlook Hospital in Summit, New Jersey. Interview includes discussion of: her feelings on isolation as a young mother and wife before joining the women’s movement; Bornstein’s joining the movement after hearing Gloria Steinem give a talk; her positive impressions of the conference organization and speakers. Borstein also discussed raising her sons to support women’s rights. Issues important to Bornstein include women’s health, abortion counseling, and working with domestic and sexual assault victims.
Ann Lane: From Houston, Texas, after the convention. I am interviewing Barbara Bornstein, who is going to tell me her name and spell her last name, her address, her age and her occupation.
Barbara Bornstein: It’s Barbara Bornstein, B-o-r-n-s-t-e-i-n, and my address is 22 Rynda, R-y-n-d-a, Road in Maplewood, New Jersey, and I am a social worker at Overlook Hospital in Summit, New Jersey; I’m thirty-four years old.
AL: I come from New Jersey, too.
BB: Where do you come from?
AL: Leonia, but I just moved to Massachusetts for two years but I’ll be back in Leonia in two years hence. Tell me, Barbara, why did you go to the convention, and give me a couple of general recollections about it?
BB: I came to the convention because it was something I just didn’t want to miss. I think it’s going to be a very historical event and I wanted to be part of it.
AL: Where did you spend most of your time during the last two-and-a-half days?
BB: I spent most of my time in two places. I went to most of the plenary sessions and spent many hours there. I also came down with Fern Williams who was selling her products and I was helping her at her booth.
AL: Tell me something about the booth, and the kinds of people who came, and the kinds of responses. Did you get a better cross section of what was going on there than at the plenary sessions?
BB: I got a cross section because not only did I help with the booth but I also went around to the booths myself. I did get to shake Dr. Benjamin Spock’s hand, which was very exciting for me. He was there this morning with a peace group. We had a woman from the Eagle Forum come over this morning and buy several buttons relating to gay rights, probably to be used as political propaganda against the conference. But we did meet all kinds of wonderful people who were interested in all kinds of products. Got to do a lot of educating, there were symbols on buttons that they didn’t understand and they asked about it so we got to talk about abortion and lesbian rights and other issues like that.
AL: What did you expect the conference to be like before you came and how much of the conference lived up to that expectation or was different from it?
BB: The conference differed totally from my expectations, which was pretty fortunate so I was pretty happy about that. There was a lot of publicity beforehand about how people would not be able to get into the sessions, they’d be too crowded, you had to have special passes and you wouldn’t be able to get them; there would be Ku Klux Klan people down there, there were going to be a lot of demonstrations; it was going to get pretty messy. And it wasn’t like that at all; anybody could get into the sessions without any trouble. After the first line of the first day, which wasn’t a problem either because there were still empty seats, no one was panicked anymore and there was no longer a problem. You could go in at any time.
AL: How about the kinds of resolutions that passed and the issues that were addressed? Did it turn out to be pretty much what you expected?
BB: I expected it to turn out that way but some of the things that got argued I found very interesting. There was a lot of debate on issues protecting older women which I didn’t expect. And I never considered the problems of Alaskan women. That was something new for me. That was also a very interesting part of the conference because I got to meet people in ways that I had never thought of them before.
AL: Were you generally happy with the way things turned out?
BB: I was very happy with the way things turned out. I had a wonderful time personally. I felt that I got to learn a lot. I was thrilled with some of the people who spoke, particularly Midge Costanza, who I found to be an absolutely delightful lady. I found the knowledge of women particularly exciting, the experiences they’d had and the way the sessions were run. They were really very good.
AL: Now let’s talk a little bit about how you got here. Why did you feel that this was an historic event that you couldn’t miss? Had you been involved in women’s activities before?
BB: Well, I’ve been involved with the women’s movement for about nine, ten years now. I first became aware of it when I attended a lecture given by Gloria Steinem. I went into that lecture as one person and walked out at the end totally different.
AL: Where was the lecture?
BB: It was at Seton Hall University, and I don’t remember the year, but I sure remember the time and sitting there. And I became involved with the Essex County –
AL: What did she say that did that to you? Or what happened to you, if you can recapture that moment?
BB: What I remember is that I was going through a very unhappy period but I really didn’t know why, and when she spoke everything just became clear to me. I was a full-time housewife at the time with young children. Until she talked about it I didn’t realize how I felt boxed in, how much I resented that and how normal it was for me to be feeling that way.
AL: And you at that point had not been trained as a social worker?
BB: No, I had been a teacher but I had these five-year plans and three-year plans and two-year plans to teach which is exactly what I did. I guess it wasn’t working out the way I thought it was going to.
AL: You have two children?
BB: Yes, I have two boys, aged nine and eleven.
AL: And then you walked out of that lecture and what happened to the rest of your life?
BB: I walked out of the lecture and got home and said to my husband, guess what? And he was pretty shocked, and we began a very long struggle together, which we have come through which is particularly satisfying to me. At one point he said, “Could you please give this up?” And I told him that he please should not make me make that choice. Because if I had to give it up –
AL: What is that that he meant, the career or the women’s movement?
BB: That I go back to being the happy housewife. And I told him that if I had to make that choice I would probably kill myself. I really do feel that strongly, that I would not have been able to survive. It was like Helen Reddy’s song. I knew too much to go back and pretend. And I just could not pretend.
AL: Why do you even throw out as a possibility that you would kill yourself? Why not as a possibility that you would say no and you would simply have to continue doing it?
BB: Well, that was the choice. But the choice if I had said no and he couldn’t accept that was to be losing him, and I really did not want to do that either. Fortunately he understood that this really meant something very important to me and he began very hard to try to understand it.
AL: Had you ever discussed this general kind of thing before you were married? Had you laid out those two- and five-year plans together?
BB: I don’t remember whether we had discussed them very specifically, but they were kind of laid out. The problem didn’t come with him, really, it came with me. I thought that I was going to be very happy with those plans. And it was only after living them for a while that I realized they were not what I wanted out of life.
AL: How old were the children when this dissatisfaction began to gel?
BB: Well, my older son was about a year old when I started to feel dissatisfied and it was a very vague kind of thing so I didn’t really know what was going on. It was when my younger son was about a year old that I realized exactly what it was that was going on.
AL: And you at that time were living in a suburb in New Jersey.
BB: Yes, I was living in a one-family home. It was the first time in my life that I had ever lived in a one-family home. I had always lived either in an apartment house or a garden apartment. I suddenly was more isolated than I ever had been which made it even worse. I can remember standing at the front window in the winter-time looking outside to see if I could see another human being. It was really just tremendous isolation that I was experiencing.
AL: And then what did you do? What specific form did this change in your life take?
BB: Well, after this meeting that Gloria Steinem spoke at I joined the Essex County chapter for the National Organization for Women, which was kind of forming at the time. And it felt so good just to be with other people who understood what I was going through and were experiencing similar kinds of things. I joined a consciousness-raising group and went through that for about a year.
AL: Was that hard for your husband to live with?
BB: It was hard at the beginning. As we started to go through it and he realized that life was continuing although changes were being made he was less threatened as time went on. He’s really a pretty good feminist now. He’s a school principal and he’s even aware for his teachers that if they are more feminist they are better teachers. So he’s really come a long way.
AL: That’s very nice to hear. What form did the changes take? You said there were changes that were made. In terms of your being out a lot and needing babysitters and him needing to pitch in with children and the dishes and that sort of thing?
BB: That was the fairly easy part, the part of him sharing responsibilities in the house. But I think part of it was my own mental need to allow myself to make those changes. I still felt if I was home I was responsible, and at that time I was home. I needed to start finding other things to do in the world that really gave me satisfaction because home wasn’t satisfying enough.
When my younger son was about three I started going back to school part time, which was so satisfying. Even the ride down to college was satisfying because I felt I was getting back into living again, back into being in an adult world which I had missed for several years. When my younger son was in first grade I went back to school full time and after sixteen months completed my master’s in social work. I knew that I did not want to go back to teaching elementary school.
AL: Why not, just more of the same?
BB: Well, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I didn’t think I’d want to be with twenty-some-odd children all day and then come home to my own two. Also, I really didn’t want to work with children any more. I wanted to work with adults. I felt more grown up myself and ready for the challenge of working with adults. I went to EVE, which is a program at Kean College in Union to help women find opportunities in education, volunteerism and employment. I left the interview with information, addresses, and phone numbers to call for information regarding social work programs that I could get into.
AL: Is that still in operation?
BB: It’s still in operation and it’s a marvelous service for women.
AL: Is that a business?
BB: It is not a business. It is a service of the college. So it’s really a very good thing for women. They even called a couple of weeks later to find out what I had accomplished, which was very good because women starting this are very insecure. This constant support is very important.
AL: And you did take a job?
BB: I found a job a couple of months after I graduated. I did take a little time off just to relax after the grind of school. I’ve been working now for about a year and a half. I work with women. I have a very interesting job. I was hired as a medical social worker to do some work in the obstetric clinic. We have clinics for women – for all people – who cannot afford private medical care.
AL: Who is we?
BB: We is Overlook Hospital. The hospital has the clinic. I now work in the obstetrics clinic providing education, support and counseling for pregnant women who are going to need any kind of assistance, not only financial. I also do family planning, abortion counseling, work with battered women, rape crisis, and some other general work with women in addition to occasionally counseling cancer patients and families.
AL: Do you work with other state, local and national agencies in reference to things like abortion and rape?
BB: Well, mostly at the hospital I’m really working within the hospital. But I do connect myself with other agencies to get more information and to learn better ways of counseling. Actually, the hospital had not been doing very much of this before I got there. I’ve kind of initiated the counseling aspect of all these programs and the educational aspect of these programs. It’s very helpful to me to meet with other groups such as Planned Parenthood or battered women’s groups now so that I can get more information.
AL: Are you still a member of NOW? Are you an active member?
BB: I’m a semi-active member. I find that I really don’t have enough time to do everything I’d like to do and still have some time just to have fun once in a while. So I try to actually use my work for most of my activities.
AL: Well, it certainly connects. What about your children? How do they feel about your being a working mother? Are you an anomaly in your neighborhood or are lots of women now working?
BB: I live in a lower- to lower-middle-class neighborhood and many of the women work because they need to, they need the money. I work more for choice, although I love having the money. It’s nice to get your husband a birthday present without getting the money from him first.
But my children are extremely independent and really manage very well. They’re very used to my working. They’re used to my not being available all the time. They know that I am there when needed and they know that I can make arrangements when needed. I don’t think that they’ve suffered at all because of my working. I think that they’ve really benefitted from it. When my son was in first grade I was going on a class trip with him and his teacher wrote the names of the mothers who were going on the blackboard. She wrote Mrs. Bornstein and he raised his hand and said, “It’s Ms. Bornstein.” And she asked if he could explain that, and he did. So they really are aware of what I’m about and what’s going on in my life.
AL: I have two daughters and one of the things that has always interested me is how feminist parents raise feminist sons. I really think I can figure it out easily for girls, it’s not so hard. What do you do with boys?
BB: That’s interesting because I was more afraid of having a daughter who would grow up to be a cheerleader and I wouldn’t be able to manage that.
AL: I think the form of rebellion my daughters may take is to go in that direction, but at least I know what kind of model I want to be for them. I can’t imagine – it must not be easy with boys and all the peer pressure on boys. It’s to the advantage of girls to be feminists, they get more out of school and out of a lot of things. With boys it must be kind of a difficult position to be in.
BB: That’s true, and I don’t know if I’m raising feminist boys. I know I’m raising human boys. I know that they’re aware of my values and of the things that are important to me. And they’re aware of my husband’s values and what’s important to him. And they know by the things that we do in our life what really matters to us and I’m sure that’s something they pick up. We’ve exposed them to all kinds of experiences. We were in Washington, D.C. last weekend. I wanted to go to a modern dance performance, so we all went. My eleven year-old said, “Hey this is pretty good.” He complained a lot before we went, but once we were there he was really enjoying it.
I think it’s just a question of living your life the way you feel comfortable, as though there’s nothing unusual about it. Then it becomes part of the children’s lives. They do have peer pressure and I’m sure there are times that one or more would like me to shut up. I’m also aware that there might be times that I might be more careful about what I say in front of their friends, because I think that I have to consider their feelings too.
But as they get older and become more comfortable and get out of that – probably the hardest time is adolescence – but that’s a hard time no matter what your views are. I think that’s just got to be a period of rebellion and maybe rejection and sometimes liking and sometimes not liking. Who knows? We’ll see what it’s like when they’re twenty-five.
AL: Let’s move back a little earlier in your life to where you grew up, about your parents, your brothers and sisters and so on.
BB: I have a brother who’s eight years younger than I am. I have realized in the last couple of years how extremely jealous I have been of him. I went to a local teachers’ college because my parents did not have the money to send me elsewhere. I didn’t have the self-thrust to push to go to another kind of college. But when it was my brother’s turn he went to a very good liberal arts college to the tune of $3,000 a year. So I do kind of resent that I didn’t have –
AL: Was that because the financial situation of your parents changed, or because they felt the priority –
BB: Well, the financial situation partly changed, but not nearly to that extent. It was quite important to my father that my brother become a lawyer. He did not, incidentally. He did not make it through law school and he’s now in business administration in Oregon State.
AL: Are your parents still alive?
BB: My parents are still alive. My mother was the perfect mother. She was home every single day when I got home from school. She never left me. She worked in the home as a housewife, of course, but also as a dress-maker, only when I was in junior high school, not before then. She’s now a bridge instructor teaching contract bridge cards.
AL: Did she play that seriously when you were a child?
BB: She didn’t play that seriously when I was very young. At some point she became very interested in it and did get very involved. She loved going out during the day when I was not home. She probably resented very much the fact that she had to be home at 3:15. But she was there. And in some ways that made it very difficult for me. First of all, I had no sense of my own independence, or how to be independent. I never had a chance to develop that. Also, when I started leaving my own children and doing some things for myself I felt very guilty about it. I always thought of my mother as a good mother and therefore if I was not emulating her I had to be a bad mother.
AL: How do your parents feel about your activities now?
BB: My mother is probably jealous and extremely proud. My father is awed, absolutely in awe of me and what I do. I’m sure he’s proud of it. In fact, he drove me to the airport at 5:30 in the morning to come here, so he’s a good guy. But I think at sometimes it’s a little overwhelming. When I got my master’s degree from college last year he was very proud but still considered that the most important part of my life is the fact that I’m a wife and mother.
AL: Have you got any final words before the tape runs out?
BB: As the tape runs out? Houston was fantastic.
AL: Thank you.
End of Interview