Interviewees: Christine Nestrase & Laura Polla Scanlon
IWY 352 & 451
Interviewer: Charlotte Kinch
Date: November 18-21, 1977
In this joint interview, Christine Nestrase and Laura Polla Scanlon of New York discuss their activism around working class women’s needs and concerns. At the time of the interview, Scanlon served as the president of the National Congress of Neighborhood Women, an organization representing working class women’s issues. Interview includes discussion of: how working class women can become more visible as part of the women’s movement; the intersection of working class identity, ethnic identities, and feminist consciousness; the diverse roles of working class women as wage earners, homemakers, and community activists; and Nestrase and Scanlon’s plan to issue a resolution of concern stating that working class women should be given special consideration at the conference to make sure the proposed programs also serve their needs.
Charlotte Kinch: … from New York. And Christine Nestrase, also from New York. Would you like to tell me, (unintelligible at 0:13) Laura?
Laura Polla Scanlon: Yes.
CK: Laura, what do you hope to accomplish at this conference?
LPS: I am the president of an organization called the National Congress of Neighborhood Women. And we represent working class women’s issues. We are here hoping to accomplish two things. One, setting before the public the issues that concern, primarily, working class neighborhood women. And, two, hopefully to provide models for other women across the country, so that they can see that working class women are part of the women’s movement.
CK: Christine, are you active in this group, too?
Christine Nestrase: Yes, I am. I would like very much . . . . One of the things I feel — I’m the director of the group — one of the things I feel is that there’s a special emphasis, and that working class women, and community women, and ethnic women had to contribute to the woman’s movement. And I think that idea has the quality of life, and I think all women have to contribute to that, too, actually. And I think one of the things that Laura and I were talking about before is how do we maintain our roots, and our identities, and values, and traditions as women, and as working classes, and as ethnic women, yet change the consciousness of the people around us. And how do we do that and not alienate ourselves from our cultural group.
CK: I was talking to a young woman the other day, and she was talking about the need for this woman’s conference to find a leadership that would appeal to what she called the average American housewife. And I said, “There is no average American housewife.” That’s a stereotype left over from the fifties, and it’s not relevant anymore. In your work with working class women, do you think that that’s true, or do you think something else has happened that I’m not aware of?
CN: I don’t. I think that there is no average working class American housewife. I think that that is a myth. I think that there are similarities in cultural traditions that we can talk about, and I think there are similarities in women who life in communities, whether they are in a city communities, or rural communities, or suburban communities that have a tight-knit planned suburban communities, usually. But I think that there are certain similarities that people that are different than sometimes a single woman, or the woman who chooses not to live in a community, not to remain with her family, and close contact, and not choose to have a family, and not to be a homemaker. I think that that might be . . . I think that there are similarities between homemakers and women concerned about PTA, girl scouts, daycare, their local block, the tree on the block, the sewage system. I think that there are similarities between women nationally on those issues that might be very different, the concerns might be very different than a woman who chooses a different lifestyle.
LPS: Yeah, I want to add something to that. I think the myth that whoever you were talking to is referring to is no longer with us. That was the picture of the woman who stayed at home, and took care of her children, worked herself to the bone perhaps, but was still called a non-working mother. Many of our women are like women all over the country, who are experimenting to the degree that they are assuming great responsibilities outside the home, whether these be on a volunteer basis, or community activist, community organizing working. Most of our women fulfill about four or five roles: they are mothers, they are community activists, they are employees, they are students now, because we’ve started a college program in our neighborhood for working class women. So, I think that stereotype is gone, and what we have to do now, what the women’s movement has to do, is address itself to the question of how do women all over the country, who are going through this period of transition and change, adjust and find ways to be comfortable with themselves, their families, or their communities, whatever these may be, whoever they may be in this period.
CK: Laura, how did you get interested? How did you get started in this working with neighborhood women?
LPS: Well, my field is education, so I came into working with neighborhood women from the perspective of my interest in working class women’s educational needs. I also got involved in the organization from my own need to find out, as a person who came from a working class home, how could I be comfortable with the values of the women’s movement? How can I be a feminist woman? How can I be part of this movement and yet still find a way to hold onto the family values and the traditions that were part of my upbringing? So, working with this organization, with the National Congress of Neighborhood Women, has helped me to define my own feelings about my background, my traditions, and my role in the women’s movement, which I think is important.
CK: How about you, Christine? How did you get into this?
CN: I guess I got into it in a, not through education, but through more interest, and being a part of the women’s movement, and being a part of social action, and social change, and I saw I was always involved in the civil rights movement, the peace movement, in different aspects of what I guess we could call the progressive movement in this country. And I remember when I became a part of the women’s movement, I felt that there was something missing, I felt that my roots, my identity, and my background, which is Italian working class, and I grew up in Brooklyn, was not being . . . something was not . . . I didn’t feel like I fit in. I became involved in the women’s movement in 1968, and yet I did feel oppressed as a woman, and I did feel concerned about my role. I didn’t feel comfortable with the women’s movement, ‘cause I didn’t see that many women like myself, who had similar concerns and similar issues. And I became involved in the neighborhood women’s movement. Basically from . . . as a sign of social concern, I saw that neighborhood women were taking the leadership in their communities, they were involved in preserving the quality of life that they wanted at preserving, and they were very active, and we had certain stereotypes about neighborhood women who had taken leadership roles, and that they were passionate and articulate, and, in reality, they were not.
They were very much a part of what women were doing all around the country, only their issues might have been seen as slightly different. They were concerned with highways being put through their neighborhoods, trees being planted on their block, their PTA, their local school community planning board, local school boards, the libraries in their community. And they were the ones fighting. I mean, I saw very active demonstrations of women stopping traffic, women that had never considered doing stuff like this before, were involved in these kind of positions. And, at the same time, they did not have a support group that we were establishing in the women’s movements. And that was one of the things that I was really concerned about, was establishing, that there was no linkage between women supporting each other to bring about social change for themselves. And that, I thought was what the National Congress of Neighborhood Women was about. It was about women giving each other support, and establishing a network so women could identify with other women who were working on issues like themselves and find a loving and warm, comfortable space in the women’s movement to have their voices heard, and to be able to keep on doing their work, because nobody can do work without a support system.
CK: Is what you’re saying that neighborhood women frequently are very highly involved in very practical day-to-day problems, and perhaps don’t have a great deal of energy left over for the more theoretical and higher-level activities? I mean, higher in the sense of going from practical to theoretical.
(Unintelligible at 09:33 as LPS and CN crosstalk.)
CN: I do, I think there is certain issues of survival. I think that, if you speak to most women, who are community leaders and neighborhood women, their basic concerns have always revolved around themselves and their families. I think that, but I think it’s inaccurate to say that they’re not concerned with their social role in society, that they have not been involved in questioning their role and relationship to their husband and family and their children, and their role, and seeing their role clearly, as being oppressed as women in a society. But I think that they do not see their oppression necessarily as an oppression coming from men but as an oppression coming from economic situations. And, I mean, as one woman said, that her issue was not whether her husband took care of the kids, but she had to go to work, and she needed a daycare center that would deal with her children, and her issue was with the government, and with corporations that were not paying for these daycare centers, not with her husband. And I think that that’s very, very real.
CK: How about Laura?
LPS: I’m going speak to the theoretical question, actually. We started a college in the neighborhood, and our thinking behind this was that working class women, as a group, are generally not assimilated into higher educational institutions. They don’t go to these schools in large numbers. And the reason seems to be two-fold: one, they’re culturally alienating. And to go to college means you go away from your community, away from your group, your environment. And then you become another kind of person who no longer, quote, fits in. Another thing is that, economically, it’s a hardship for working class women to attend college, since the financial guidelines that presently exist exclude them from any tuition assistance programs, and so on. They’re not poor enough to get help, they’re not affluent enough to attend. So they’re out of the picture. Now, what we’ve found with creating the college program was a destruction of this myth about whether they were more interested in the concrete or the abstract. We found that creating a college program in the neighborhood with the immediate issues of concern as the focus of the curriculum, which was then placed in a larger, theoretical context, which is really just plain old good education, did open minds, did create new ways of thinking, and did teach everybody, all of us, to think together in a new way.
Also, I’d like to speak to the question of education in terms of the creative energy. You know, it’s another area that we found. Well, you’re an oral historian. We ran, as part of our program, as part of our college program, an oral history program in the neighborhood. Our women did a presentation of their research. They read some of their material for the public, for the community in the local library. Another group of women worked did creative writing. They read their poems, and their stories. And another group did video tapes. We found that, not only is there all this energy capable of being used for higher-level, so to speak, called theoretical study, but also creative work that this particular group of women we would simply not have access to.
CK: In other words, your organization has served as a route through which these neighborhood women can move from the constant, day-to-day practical affairs to a theoretical development that enables them to place this in perspective, and this again is aroused.
LPS: Express themselves.
CK: To expressivity, expressing themselves, to creativity. And into the kind of abstract thinking that enables people to put their own lives in a general context. So this…
LPS: So, I see it also as, rather than an upward movement, a circular, an outreaching, kind of a fountain effect, that while, when people get too concerned with the abstract, they lose their humanism. I firmly believe that. And I think one of the beautiful things about our experience together is that it has always been important, and we always remind each other, that abstractions and theory are only meaningful insofar as they somehow come back around to the human level, and how we treat each other as human beings, how much are we willing and able to help each other survive, A). grow and B). nurture each other. I think we feel very strongly about our role as a support system for each other’s, not only survival, but growth.
CK: This is the old philosophical idea that true growth and development takes place when a praxis and theory are unified. And that’s, you know, Aristotle, Marx.
LPS: How did we get so far away from it?
CK: We’ll never know. (Laughs) Tell me a little more about your college. How is it funded? Is it affiliated with any university? What is it?
LPS: Well, we began with seed money from private foundations. And we are affiliated and accredited by LaGuardia Community College, which is a unit of the City University of New York. That’s our program in Brooklyn. Now, an affiliate group in Philadelphia has started another college program, so we are attempting to set up a network of such colleges, because we find they do work for women. It’s a two-year Associate in Arts degree program, which attempts to use the community as a laboratory for curriculum materials of all the courses, if you want to call them that, are quite traditional. Our students take all of the actual courses that they would take in an A.A. program any place. They fulfill degree requirements that set down wide by the city university. The difference is that our focus in the course materials is the community and issues that are of concern. And on the arts, we attempt to find materials that are ethnically and culturally sensitive, so that working class women don’t have to feel alienated. So, there’s difference in form and content of our program. We also always emphasize the synthesis of the practical and the theoretical.
CK: That’s good.
LPS: Yeah. And, you know, and the action part of it is important, too, so that the outgrowth of, say, social science course or political science course might well be considered lobbying for daycare, guideline changes. We have a very pragmatic approach, also.
CK: I understand that you have a motion that you want to enter at the conference. Can you tell me anything about that? And, also, your hopes for getting it the…
LPS: Yeah. Ok. I just, and then we’ve got to go. Briefly, what we want to do is enter a resolution of concern Monday morning that deals with the fact that we feel that working class women must be given special consideration in all of the programs that are being called for in this conference, once again, primarily because for economic reasons they’re excluded from many federally-funded projects, programs, and so on. That’s our basic concern in that resolution. But these have implications for childcare, for employment, training programs, for education programs, and so on.
CK: You expect to get this accepted?
LPS: Yes we do.
CK: All right. Thank you very much, Laura. Thank you, Christine.
LPS: You’re welcome.
End of Interview