Interviewee: Joan Neuwirth
Interviewer: Ann J. Lane
Date: November 18-21, 1977
Joan Neuwirth, 47, attended the IWY Conference as an elected delegate from New Jersey. Neuwirth was a civil servant for the State of New Jersey and worked as a field coordinator for daycare centers. Neuwirth was pleased with the outcomes of the conference thus far and had great interest in the childcare resolutions. Interview includes discussion of: Neuwirth’s experience at the New Jersey state IWY conference and minority women’s caucuses; the animosity between some union feminists and more liberal feminists; Neuwirth’s involvement with NOW and the League of Women Voters; and Neuwirth’s family’s mixed reactions to her feminist activism.
Joan Neuwirth: –New Jersey, 26 Gulf Road, East Brunswick. I’m forty-seven years old, and I’m a civil servant. I work for the State of New Jersey as a field coordinator for daycare. That means that I contract, monitor, and evaluate daycare centers under Title XX, so I have great interest, great self interest in getting some of this federal funding moving on childcare today particularly.
Ann J. Lane: And you’re here in what capacity?
JN: I’m an elected delegate, part of the New Jersey delegation.
AL: What to give general impressions of how you think things are going, what you expect to come out of the conference, how happy you are or what criticisms you have?
JN: I find myself very, very happy. I became involved with the whole IWY sometime ago when I volunteered to help set up the caucus and workshop on childcare. At that time I was really very disillusioned, disappointed; I just felt that we had to get involved with it. I’m an active feminist and I felt I had to get involved in it because I had so much to lose. I thought the possibility of anti women delegates taking charge of this was so great that I had to waste a lot of my energy to get myself here, or to get people thinking like myself here.
We in New Jersey, I think were able to do some fantastic things, and once I got here I found out that a lot of other people were able to do some very good things. I found myself going from real deep depression because we fought horrendously at home. At home I felt that the committee did not do its outreach. I worked very hard to increase the outreach through various channels that I work with in my job and things of that sort. I made a particular effort to get black and Hispanic and poor women to come, and the conference I think turned out to be reasonably well balanced. It never really reached everyone, and no one felt totally represented, and I think that turned out – as an afterthought, I think that seemed to be a feeling that a lot of people had that it was just absolutely impossible no matter how great a turnout you did get.
Now, we were figuring on about 1,500 women and something like 3,600 did come to New Jersey. There were attempts to stack it, there were bus loads of people who were brought in who sat out on the grass. It was a very nice, lovely day in New Jersey and they sat out on the grass, came in just to go at different times. There were many, many attempts to interrupt the business of the workshops. We had visions and we did have older women wearing white hats, blowing whistles, breaking up – it was a very exciting conference.
My particular workshop was a reasonably quiet one and we were able to pass core agendas and begin to talk about other sorts of things, and we began to develop a coalition within the workshop so that there were a number of childcare advocates and advocates of parent-controlled childcare able to get themselves together. Most of us had known each peripherally, had known one another’s names, but at this point we came together.
One of the further things we were able to do just prior to the conference, enough women who had been active in a variety of other women’s issues, say Majority Day. We had a Majority Day coalition growing since about 1970, which meant that we tried to get all the major women’s organizations, those professed feminists and those who called themselves just women’s organizations, and other civil rights organizations to go down and meet with the legislature and try and present a women’s agenda. And out of this coalition that had already formed and developed all the entities and things of that sort. We were able to forge a very, very strong slate and what we did was decide that we had three priorities in New Jersey, and there were forty-five of us who ran on a slate and out slate was the passage of the ERA, passage of some strong resolutions on reproduction freedom, and also a human civil rights plank which we defined to be particular attention and sensitivity to the rights of all minorities, and we extended it to our lesbian sisters, we made very, very clear.
The Hispanic women felt particularly left out because of the language barriers and at each and every workshop there wasn’t a Hispanic person, so they created an excellent document and New Jersey did in fact adopt the document that the Hispanic women created. There was another resolution created by a black caucus asking for a set number of black women, or for the black caucus to begin to develop an issue paper for black women. They didn’t come as far in the development, but they were recognized too.
As a result, we elected all forty-five people. Unfortunately, one of the delegates died within five days. And we had some interesting political fights within the delegation because the chair of the commission then, without consulting the elected delegates – she did consult the other appointed commission members – but she automatically empowered the next person who happened to be the first right-to-lifer to have made it on, to become the fifth alternate. We’re entitled to forty delegates and five alternates, and there was a very strong feeling against her that we didn’t have to take, or that we should have at least discussed it. As a result, I think that – and this woman, Clara Allen, is an excellent, excellent, odd, good union woman, but there was enough animosity because of her union approach to things, and here she was dealing basically with forty-five women who all saw themselves as leaders and who had all had leadership roles who would not stand for this. So, she is not the leader of the delegation here.
Fortunately, at the last moment she did not run for it. Someone else did, and we come here with a really well-developed picture of where we’re going. New Jersey, before we came, decided that we would be a pro-plan caucus, and that we would also – we adopted some resolutions before we left New Jersey saying, number one we were going to push the plan un-amended, that would be our first priority; our second priority would be to try and get some recommendations of implementation of both the continuation of the IWY committee and also adequate funding for that office or the cabinet level division; and thirdly we would look to our specific agendas, that we would try and keep our specific agendas as add-ons, and we were very careful in the use of the word add on feeling we really didn’t want to open the plan up.
No one was totally happy with the plan, but back to my original contention, after seeing the plan the distillation of everything that went on in all the states, I felt elated because I really felt all we were doing was fighting a delaying action. And here, that plan really spoke to just about every issue. Not well enough, but it did speak to every issue that I was concerned with.
AL: What do you think will be the impact of the convention in general and the passage of the resolutions?
JN: You’re catching me in an up moment. As I said, I came here feeling this was just an exercise in futility. It’s been just a very inspiring and exciting conference, seeing those three first ladies together and the broad spectrum of politicos that have come and addressed us, and the unanimity of what they’ve been saying.
I haven’t found Houston as hostile. I’ve been here before. I was here for a NOW convention and I assure you, there were more hostile than they are today. Just everywhere we go, buses, cab drivers, hotels, people just start talking to us and have made an effort to say welcome, not knowing where we stand, or it’s obvious where we stand, and just people in the street. You walk up to the counter and someone says hello.
AL: You described yourself as a feminist. Would you tell me how that happened, and a little bit about when you can first remember coming into feminist consciousness?
JN: I think I was always a feminist. A long time ago I came to the conclusion that many of my women friends were far more interesting than the men that they were living with, and I thought that was very peculiar on my part. I think about the same time that Betty Friedan’s book came out a lot of us were recognizing the frustration that we were feeling.
I had opted for a very traditional lifestyle. I completed my degree and continued to go to school, raising two children and was a model corporate wife. My husband was the bread winner, he did very well at that, and I was an outstanding adjunct. I did community service and I served on the Board of Education, a whole variety of political activities.
I think the thing that really was the most painful consciousness raiser was at the point that I needed to go and earn money. I had been at home, was a very active community person; I had in the interim completed a master’s. I’m an educator, and I just couldn’t get a job. It took me a year and a half, with marvelous contacts, and finally I got a job just through the Civil Service route because they couldn’t deny me. I was at the top of the list even after veterans’ preference and things of that sort. So I think that really brought it home to me that I had to start doing something about this. I have two daughters and I had to start setting a role model and getting them involved.
AL: What was the transition? How did that happen? How did you go from active community corporate wife to economically independent feminist activist?
JN: I think it was the political action in the more traditional women and secular groups. I had always been somewhat interested in legislation and things of that sort; moving from that and recognizing that I came to a certain point, and then the men took over, or moving back into the situation, I’m a graduate of an old women’s high school and college and moving back into the situation where women were designing and implementing and administrate.
I had already had charter membership in League of Women Voters, and I found that was a very useful place. I learned a lot there. That sort of was the coordinating organization for all my other activities, and then very shortly thereafter we decided that we had to start a NOW chapter, and I think that was the beginning of it. From now I’ve been – 1969/1970, which is the second or third chapter in New Jersey.
AL: How old are your daughters?
JN: I have one daughter who’s twenty-four and another who’s twenty-one.
AL: They’re happy with your activities?
JN: One is overwhelmed. (Laughs) And the other one is somewhat embarrassed by me. (Laughs)
AL: Listen, they’re all embarrassed. I have two daughters. Younger than that, but I have a feeling mine are going to go that way, too. One support, and one embarrassed.
JN: My older one is always delighted to introduce me to her friends. She says this is really my mother, and she’s a much more active feminist than I am, and my younger one says, well.
AL: How about your husband, how has he felt about all your activities?
JN: He’s insecure. He’s very insecure. I think he has very mixed feelings. He goes around talking about the things that I do in house. I get all kinds of knives. It depends upon the situation. I think he really is genuinely proud, but his own needs interfere with his really being as supportive as he could be.
AL: Is he embarrassed in terms of his corporate position? Is that a problem? Or in your community is it?
JN: No. His corporate position has dissolved completely. I had to go to work because of the depression and what happened to him and his age and things of that sort, so he has reasons. He’s moved from being an outstanding bread winner to barely making it, and at the same time I’ve become the bread winner.
AL: Is the convention not saying things you would like it to say? Are there things here that you wish were not, or things that are not here that you wish were?
JN: Thus far no. Again, since I’ve sort of taken the position that the plan is fine, and given that it is only a conceptual document, I don’t feel the need that many of the younger women who are somewhat newer to activism who came here directly from their state caucuses being hot on one specific issue. I understand, I think, what we have to do to move the childcare legislation. What I’m doing is spending my time building bridges and networks and not worrying about dotting each “i” and crossing “ts” and recognizing that what we say here, it’s important that we get the concept of course. The large concepts are the only thing that anyone’s going to listen to when it comes into some legislative action. Someone else is going to do it. Now what we have to do is start working on those people.
AL: What do you think is going to happen in, let’s say, the next ten years? How’s that for a hard one at 8 o’clock in the morning?
JN: Well, today I’m high. I think it’s going to get better. I think there has been an improvement. I really do believe that the economic situation is such today that it’s become an overriding issue. The issues that women are concerned with tend to continually be overshadowed. My daughter is in Israel and today I’m just as interested in what’s happening in Israel as what’s happening here. Some of my dearest feminist sisters are furious, absolutely furious that we’re being overshadowed, and I have some ambivalence about this because I think peace in Israel and peace in the world is an important topic.
AL: Have you been involved in activities in last twenty years in addition to women’s issues? Have you been involved, for example, the peace movement or other kinds of activities?
JN: We moved into East Brunswick in 1963. It was a sprawling community outside of New Brunswick, sort of adjacent to the Rutgers community. We had lived in Franklintown, took in the first integrated, deliberately integrated housing, a coop. When I moved into East Brunswick I felt that East Brunswick lacked a certain amount of color and immediately we formed a human relations committee that still exists.
When my children were little I felt the need for their having a preschool, nursery school experience, we formed cooperative nursery schools. I carried that into East Brunswick, again, seeing the need for political action for any of these things that I was interested in having the lead, so I’ve been involved in civil rights movement, civil rights into women’s rights.
It’s interesting, years and years and years ago I used to say to friends in the civil rights movement that the important thing that we have to do is get people to recognize where their own self interests lie. I was involved in the civil rights movement in the sixties because what happened to the black child in New Brunswick was going to affect my child in East Brunswick, and it wasn’t until the seventies that I recognized, hey, I’m me, and it’s okay to work for me. That my self-interest, working towards my self-interest and not stepping on someone else’s is perfectly fine, and much more appropriate because then I’m finally doing what I’ve been saying we all have to do.
AL: I was in the elevator yesterday with a woman I had just interviewed whose husband died, leaving her with four very small children and her first child was born when she was forty and she had no skills. She ended up having a fairly successful career now, many years later, and she has a slogan hand written on refrigerator which reads as follows – Order of priorities: mommy’s sanity, mommy’s health; you guys; the rest of the world.
JN: I think I would have to agree with it totally.
AL: Any other general comments about things, the kinds of women you’ve met, are they different from what you expected or are accustomed to? I’ve been struck by the enormous variation of women here.
JN: I have found it just – I guess I have to keep saying exhilarating. I’ve enjoyed people watching. I was caught up in the horrendous room delays and everything of that sort, and the one thing that took the edge off waiting five and six hours for a room was the opportunity to sit and women watch. It’s been just fantastic; and just seeing the dynamic as people begin to talk to each other.
As I said, I’ve been to NOW conventions and even NOW conventions have not been as friendly and as open with people trying to find out about other people as they have here. It’s just been very exciting.
AL: Actually, in many ways the most exciting thing are the women who are here rather than anything that comes out in terms of resolutions. It really is a big moment in history.
JN: I’m so pleased to be a part of it. I want to come peripherally but I really didn’t care, and now that I’m here I’m so delighted to be here and I find myself rushing to do this sort of thing, and I’m going to be looking for that document because I want my signature on the document that they’re circulating. And I just feel I want every sort of record of this. I’ve taken some horrendously bad pictures, and normally when I take bad pictures I tear them up and I won’t even tear up these bad pictures because I feel they’re so important to maintain some sort of record of this meeting.
AL: Thank you very much.
End of Interview