Interviewee: Claudia Cole
IWY TX 116
Interviewer: Laurel Shackelford
Date: November 18-21, 1977
Claudia Cole, of Roselle Park, New Jersey, worked in the document reproduction and printing office of Kean College in Union, New Jersey. Cole became a feminist in the late 1960s when a doctor refused to perform a tubal litigation on her. Interview includes discussion of how she became a feminist organizer, how she reached out to her community through the newspaper to organize consciousness-raising programs in New Jersey, and the feminist meetings she ran through her home. She was a single parent of seven children. Cole served as the president of NOW chapter in Union county, New Jersey. She attended the IWY conference as a representative of her NOW chapter. Interview also includes discussion of how Cole observed right-wing women disrupting workshops on the Equal Rights Amendment.
Laurel Shackelford: Claudia Cole. And where in Roselle Park, New Jersey do you live, Claudia?
Claudia Cole: I live at 511 Seton Avenue in Roselle Park.
LS: What do you do for a living?
CC: I work at Kean College in the business services in the reproduction department.
LS: Specifically what do you do? I don’t understand.
CC: Reproduction has to do with all of the test papers, pamphlets, we produce those.
LS: And does that make you a computer scientist?
CC: No, that doesn’t make me anything but a supervisor of documents I guess, central files and things like that.
LS: How did you get interested in the women’s movement?
CC: I have always been interested in women, and I think it was when I started going to work and I realized the inequities that women face all the time on the job. And also, I separated from my husband and I was in a position where I wanted to remain sexually active and I went to my gynecologist and I asked him to have my tubes tied. I at that time had had seven children, and he told me the law at the time being that a woman, no matter in what situation she was, could not elect to have her own tubes tied. I think that made me a feminist right then and there.
LS: That’s incredible. What happened since? Tell me the end of the story. Did you find someone who would do it?
CC: Well, my first experience with organizing a feminist group, I had gone to one of the marches, I believe it was in ’69 in New York, and I had come back all filled with enthusiasm to organize but there was no feminist group, or even a group of women that I knew that were interested in feminist principles.
LS: What year was that?
CC: This would have been 1969 or ’70. So I put an ad in the paper, and it was incredible the difficulty I had even doing that. I went down to the local newspaper. They would not take the ad over the telephone. I went down to the local newspaper and they told me that I had to see the managing editor because what I wanted to put in was just a little article that said feminist liberation, if interested call, and then I gave my phone number.
LS: And this would be a paid classified ad?
CC: Paid classified ad, and they did not want to take it. They said it was a political ad. I said it was in no way a political ad, and they said that I would have to see the managing editor, which I did and I finally convinced him that it was not going to do anything, any damage at all to the newspaper or to the family or to the community or anything else, that I was interested in getting a group of women together, consciousness raising. So I did. I put an ad in the paper finally.
LS: What newspaper was this?
CC: It was the, at the time, Elizabeth Daily Journal. It’s now since changed hands and it’s just called the The Journal.
LS: So you got the ad in.
CC: So I got the ad in the paper, and I had an overwhelming response. It was just incredible. I thought I was the only feminist in the entire state of New Jersey. Well, it turned out that in my own area I gathered a group of between twenty-five and thirty women who called me as a result of that ad. We’re talking about a small ad that ran two days in the classified section, and I got twenty-five to thirty responses. I also got a lot of very strange phone calls, obscene phone calls, and of course just some that were not very nice. People told me I was crazy and things like that, but I did get a group of women together and we started meeting on a fairly regular basis at my house. And from there I guess – I didn’t form a NOW chapter, there was one already in existence in the area, but I eventually did join up with that and now I’m president of that chapter.
LS: And what is the chapter called?
CC: Union County NOW.
LS: What was it that led you from the initial experience of being turned down for a tubal ligation, and you hinted that there were other experiences, isolated in themselves, that probably occurred about the same time to you. Perhaps the divorce had something to do with it.
CC: That had a lot to do with it. I knew that I was going to be faced with the support of my children, and I was getting a lot of very, very bad feelings from my family who were very, very anti-divorce. And I began to feel more and more like a woman has no right, or at the time had no right to make those kinds of choices for herself and I just absolutely could not believe that I was a grown woman and a thinking woman, how I could be made to feel as though I was a child all the time. And I just felt that there was something wrong with that whole societal attitude.
LS: What led from these experiences that you had to taking a collective action? What led you to take the ad in the newspaper?
CC: Well, I had a friend who always tried to translate feelings into action and she and I discussed this a lot of times together, that one woman alone could do nothing but maybe a group of women together could force some change. What were only interested in doing was a modest amount of change, perhaps just in women’s attitudes about themselves. But of course, once you become involved in the women’s movement you see that there are so many issues that need working on, and so much societal attitude that needs changing that you just can’t stop. It’s not a question of dropping out or finding another interest. It’s not a hobby any longer. It becomes a vital part of your life.
LS: And it’s become a vital part of your life.
CC: Yes it has; a very large portion of my life.
LS: What did you hope to get when you came here to the conference?
CC: I came as a support for my sisters. I’m not a delegate. I’m not even really an observer. I just can attend the sessions because there are a number of openings available for that. I came not even knowing whether I would be able to see any of the sessions, but feeling that even if that was not possible, that it was necessary for women to come to show their support for the delegates and for their positions. My chapter sent me. I had two personal donations from chapter members who could not attend but who were willing to subsidize my trip.
LS: Is there anything specific that you plan to take home with you from the conference, something that you will do when you go home, a specific outgrowth of this conference?
CC: Well, I have been asked to speak at the college. We have a women’s center there and they have a program called “Women Talk” and they have asked me to come and be a speaker and to talk about the conference, so that’s one thing I plan on doing. I plan on taking back to my chapter all of the things that transpired and explaining to them how vital it is that we continue to push for the Equal Rights Amendment, and particularly for the right to choose, because we can’t afford to have our rights whittled away little by little; I think a new commitment to feminism.
LS: What were some of the issues that were hotly debated within your delegation?
CC: Since I’m not a delegate I really could not answer that question.
LS: What about before the delegates were elected, did you attend any of those meetings?
CC: I attended the state IWY conference. I was in the ERA rally in the morning. I had planned to go to another – not a rally, the ERA workshop in the morning. I had planned to go to another workshop in the afternoon, but the feeling was so high that the opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment was so strong that I felt that I better stay and make sure that other voices were heard. That really is the most important issue for women right now is the Equal Rights Amendment, and that I had just better stay in that workshop again in the afternoon and make sure that every point would be heard. As it turned out, that was impossible. We had a group of radical right women who came to our delegation with whistles and destroyed the whole workshop, so we were unable to have any business at all transpire in the afternoon; very frustrating.
LS: But the ERA issue was passed.
CC: In the general session it was passed overwhelmingly. Our whole delegation thought as one on that issue. I presume on the issue of abortion there may be mixed feelings. People have some very personal feelings about abortion, and that is their right. However, we also all have rights and it is not the right of any one person to trample on the rights of others.
LS: Getting back to where we first started out, were you ever able to get a tubal ligation?
CC: No, no, I was never able to. I didn’t pursue it after that, after the point was moot, and I just wasn’t interested in it after that. But I was still very furious because I just felt no one had any right to that decision but me.
LS: Have you gone on to have more children?
LS: So you have your seven. And have you supported them all these – when did you get your divorce?
CC: I have four children that are out of the house and on their own. I still have three children at home.
LS: That you support.
CC: Yes, with very minimal support from my ex husband.
LS: Either in terms of emotional support or financial?
CC: Both. He’s remarried and he has another child, and my children see him perhaps three or four times a year and that’s it.
LS: Thank you.
End of Interview