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An Activist Life: Narrators


Lois Ahrens has been an activist and organizer for social justice for more than forty years. In 2000 she started the Real Cost of Prisons Project which brings together justice activists, artists, justice policy researchers and people directly experiencing the impact of mass incarceration to work together to end the U.S. prison nation. The Real Cost of Prisons Project created workshops, a website which includes sections of writing and comix by prisoners, a daily news blog focused on mass incarceration, and three comic books. She lives in Western Mass with her partner.


Joan M. Ballas (b. 1956) grew up in Missoula, Montana. Raised in a Catholic family, Ballas struggled with her sexual identity throughout high school. Ballas moved to Chicago to pursue access to information and clinics that would offer gender reconstruction surgery, convinced this was the solution to her confusion. While in Chicago, Ballas became involved in feminist newspapers and embraced the collective model the women espoused. Ballas' first experience at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival introduced her to women with a variety of politics and sexual identities, opening her own eyes to her own lesbianism. Identifying herself as a radical, lesbian, feminist, separatist, Ballas immersed herself in organizations and actions that catered to the demands of women's rights. She worked at the Michigan Festival for many years as well as working as an accessibility coordinator for the New England Women's Musical Retreat. Ballas helped organize the first Gay Pride Rally in Hartford, CT and continued working with the Hartford Gay and Lesbian Task Force to offer community outreach and activities for the gay community. Her activism turned to the anti-nuclear movement and she joined forces with other women at the Seneca Women's Peace Encampment to protest the growing militarism of the country. Her acts of peaceful, civil disobedience at the Seneca Army Depot resulted in her arrest. Ballas continued her anti-nuclear work with the Women of Faith organization where they protested the making of Trident Missile Tubes. Convicted of trespassing, Ballas was sentenced to 30 days in a maximum-security prison in Rhode Island where her activism continued.


In this oral history, Joan Ballas describes her exploration of her own sexual identity through various feminist movements. This interview focuses on her work in the feminist, lesbian, and anti-nuclear movements and her experiences with each. Ballas' history details the personal and political struggles for women during her lifetime and demonstrates the concrete changes that have resulted from the work of women in the feminist movement.


Joyce Berkman (b. 1937) grew up in San Jose, California, graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in History in 1958, and subsequently, earned a PhD from Yale University with a dissertation titled: Pacifism in England: 1914- 1939. Berkman's employment history includes a tenured position at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. During her early years there, she developed courses that emphasized women's contributions to history, at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Those efforts culminated in her participation in the establishment of the Women's Studies program at the University in the 1970s. Her commitment to feminism and issues pertaining to women led her and others to create the Five College Women's Research Study Center, which remains devoted to supporting women scholars. Her two books, Olive Schreiner: Feminism on the Frontier and The Healing Imagination of Olive Schreiner: Beyond South African Colonialism, add to our understanding of Schreiner's feminism. Berkman has received numerous awards, the most recent being the Tapestry Health/Margaret Sanger Award in 2006.


In this oral history Joyce Berkman describes her childhood in a middle-class family and community in San Jose, California and her experiences as a tenured professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, from 1965 through the present day (2008). The interview focuses on her entrance into feminism and the feminist movement, through academia in the 1970s, her contributions to the curriculum and students and faculty at the University, the establishment of the Women's Studies program at UMass and her struggles for acceptance in the History department. Berkman's narrative illustrates the countless ways that one woman without the aegis of celebrity can influence and create real changes that affect multiple generations of men and women. The challenges that she faced in order to make feminism and a feminist analysis part of everyday discussion about the human experience helps us to better understand the history of the women's movement on a local level.


Annie Cheatham (b. 1944) grew up in North Carolina, and got both her Bachelor's degree in Religion and her Master's of Teaching and English from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She completed graduate work at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte and at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Cheatham occupied many different roles throughout the course of her professional career. She spent some time in 1966 and 1967 working with Church Women United in New York City, and then began work in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, where she played an active role in the desegregation debates. After two years there, she became an administrator in the Model Cities Program in Charlotte, where she worked on urban development and education. Between 1971 and 1974, she worked as a teacher and counselor at the Taipei American School in Taipei, Taiwan. While living abroad, she traveled in Asia, South Africa, Russia, Greece and Turkey. After returning to the United States, she moved to Washington D.C., where she founded the Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future with Representative Charlie Rose and became its executive director. After nearly seven years in this role, she became the co-director of the Institute for Women and the Future in Northampton, MA. She and her co-director Mary Clare Powell conducted research throughout the United States and Canada for the "Future is Female" project, interviewing over 1,000 women in all professions and eventually compiling the research into a book, This Way Daybreak Comes: Women's Values and the Future, published by New Society Publishers in 1986. After this, she spent several years as a research assistant for the National Association for Mediation in Education (NAME) in Amherst, MA, and then proceeded to found Annie's Garden and Gift Store, which continues to be one of the most successful independent garden centers in the region. Finally, between 2001 and 2008, she worked as the executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, Inc. (CISA), which links farmers and communities to promote and strengthen agriculture in Western Massachusetts.


Frances Crowe (b. 1919) grew up in Carthage, Missouri, and has worked in various places around the country doing anti-war and anti-nuclear work, including New Orleans, New York City, Rochester, and Northampton, Massachusetts. She was instrumental in the draft-resistance movement in Northampton and has done various other anti-war actions in the area.


In her oral history, Frances Crowe describes the ways that her faith has influenced her activism, at first her connections to the teachings of nonviolence within Catholicism, and then throughout her more recent life as a Quaker. She describes her relationship to feminism during the Vietnam War, and discusses the various direct actions she took against the war with other women's groups. She also describes why she feels it was important to bring the radio program Democracy Now! to the Pioneer Valley. She also spends a little bit of time on the second and third tapes talking about her earlier years in Carthage, Missouri.
Frances Crowe's papers are in the Sophia Smith Collection.


Maria Cuerda grew up in Marin County California, moved to Spain when she was 18, got married, had a baby, then moved back to California where she began to see her class position in a different light because she was having to work to support her family and was unable to live where she had previously. She was involved in the solidarity movements with El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 80's, attended Smith College as an Ada Comstock scholar in the late 1980's and early 90's and studied Latin American Literature. She began working with Legal Services in Springfield. She works half the time helping people prove they qualify for welfare benefits and the other time working as an advocate for the North End (a neighborhood in Springfield, MA). This requires her to do a mixture of activism and organizing: serving as a resource, creating bridges, addressing immediate needs. She also works with the Pioneer Valley Project which capacitates the immigrant community and works on a Food Project. She serves as a steward for her union.


In this oral history, Cuerda covers her relationship to her hometown, to her mother, and her experience being a young mother. She speaks about her relationship to feminism and her mother and grandmother's disdain for feminism. She mentions how she came to see the need and importance of focusing her work on what is happening in the United States, rather than what is happening outside of our borders. She speaks of her work building trust among the immigrant community in Springfield, how she perceives solidarity work, charity, and the difference between activism and organizing, and her experiences being a student at Smith while being on welfare.

The interview of Maria Cuerda is not available online. Researchers may contact Special Collections for a copy.


Delight Dodyk (b. 1937) graduated from Smith College with a B.A. in English in 1959, after which she moved to the Appalachian South to work as a recreation social worker for one year. Dodyk then moved back to New Jersey, married, soon had two daughters and worked as a stay-at-home mother. She considered the feminist movement unrelated to her life until her two daughters began school and there she witnessed the sexism which was standard in the public school system. At that point she worked to remove the sexism which infiltrated the entirety of the children's school life. Unfortunately Dodyk and other parents of the students had to threaten a lawsuit before their claims were acknowledged; however they eventually were able to convince the school system to make distinct efforts to remove sexism from the classroom and after which they were consulted by several other school systems to help make the same changes. Dodyk went back to school at Sarah Lawrence and received her M.A. in the first ever Women's History program in 1979. At Sarah Lawrence, she studied under Gerda Lerner, arguably the founder of the study of Women's History. Dodyk then taught Women's History at Drew University for 22 years. During this time, she continued her feminist work through the Women's Project of New Jersey, Inc. serving as a board member from 1984 to 2007. During this time Dodyk again returned to school and received her Doctorate from Rutgers University in American History, with a focus in the Women's Suffrage movement.


In this oral history, Delight Dodyk describes her childhood as a member of an upper-middle class, traditional, American family and then her adult work as an active feminist in a variety of disciplines. The interview focuses on her work with the New Jersey junior high and high school systems in the late 1960's to early 1970's, as she worked to make the schools more egalitarian to both sexes, in terms of school curriculum and classroom materials. Dodyk discusses her participation in the second wave feminist movement and her involvement with the New Jersey chapter of NOW at the time. Dodyk continues the interview by discussing her choice to return to school and work under Gerda Lerner at Sarah Lawrence. The interview progresses chronologically as Dodyk then discusses her work at Drew University and the ever-developing subject of Women's History as it relates to modern feminism. She reflects personally on the development of feminism and how her work in academia fit into that progress.


Merle Feld (b. 1947) grew up in Brooklyn, and graduated from Brooklyn College in 1968. Feld's home growing up was not especially Jewish, but she found herself drawn to Hillel and Jewish Life during her years at Brooklyn College. After marrying Rabbi Edward Feld in 1969, the two worked together on a number of projects involving Jewish life, especially ones demanding egalitarian religious experiences. Feld spent 19 years living in Princeton, NJ while her husband served as the Rabbi for Hillel at Princeton University, and became involved with the Jewish students there while also beginning to write plays. In 1989, during her husband's sabbatical year from Princeton University, Feld and her family lived in Jerusalem. Feld became involved with efforts to facilitate dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian women on the West Bank during the Intifada. In 1999, Feld published her memoir, A Spiritual Life, a Jewish Feminist Journey. In this book Feld shares much of her work that has been important in the Jewish feminist movement, including her poem "We All Stood Together." Most recently, Feld founded the Rabbinic Writing Institute and is involved with Rabbis for Human Rights.


In this oral history Merle Feld describes her desire to achieve something larger than the reality of her poor childhood in Brooklyn. The interview moves from the path through the years immediately following graduation from college that led her to her work organizing dialogues between Israeli and Palestinian women on the West Bank in 1989 through to a long discussion of that year. Feld notes that the courage she needed to facilitate these fraught dialogues came out of her work, as a Jewish feminist, moving towards an egalitarian Jewish tradition while in Boston, Champaign-Urbana and Princeton. The main focus of the interview is the year Feld spent in Israel working with Veronika Cohen to facilitate discussions attempting to break down prejudices held by Israelis and Palestinians, in an attempt to work towards peace.


Barbara Hammer (b.1939) is a largely self-taught filmmaker and since the early 70s has made over eighty films. Hammer's films are closely tied to her activism. She is an out lesbian and a feminist. She is a pioneer in many ways, and has been credited with creating lesbian cinema. Her film Dyketactics (1974) was the first film to depict lesbian sex that was directed by a lesbian. Common themes in her work are reclaiming lesbian history, breaking silence, and "filling empty screens." Hammer is still making films, now in more of a documentary style that differs from her earlier experimental work. She is also working on writing her memoir.


In this oral history, Hammer describes where she got her passion for film and where some of her inspiration has come from. She tells the story of her coming out in the 1970s, and describes the environment of the time, specifically in terms of how it influenced her films. She discusses the themes of lesbian invisibility, recapturing lesbian history, and the politics of naming. She connects her film to her activism and talk a little about what she hopes to see happen in the future.


Sue Hyde (b. 1952) is an activist, author, and community leader. Hyde grew up in the small town of Beardstown, Illinois, and, after graduating from Beardstown High School in 1970, attended several colleges while working toward her Bachelor's degree. In 1974, Hyde co-founded Red Tomato, a production company that for eight years produced cultural events for women and lesbians in St. Louis, Missouri. Hyde relocated to Boston, Massachusetts in 1983 and became the editor of the Gay Community News, a position which she held for the next two years. In 1985, Hyde and others founded the Gay and Lesbian Defense Committee in response to Governor Michael Dukakis' policy on foster care placements that banned same-sex couples from consideration. Hyde was hired by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 1986, and has worked for the organization since that time. Since 1994, Hyde has directed the Task Force's annual Creating Change Conference, which brings together LGBT activists from around the country for collaboration and skill-building workshops. Hyde was a leader during the struggle to secure marriage rights for same-sex couples in Massachusetts, and has worked with several organizations including the Freedom to Marry Coalition and MassEquality. Hyde is the author of the book Come Out and Win: Organizing Yourself, Your Community, and Your World, a handbook for LGBT people and their allies. In 2002, Hyde received the Stonewall Award, which honored her for a lifetime of service to the LGBT political movement. Hyde lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her wife and their two teenage children.


In this oral history, Sue Hyde describes her childhood in the small town of Beardstown, Illinois, and her first experiences with activism as a student at Webster College in the early 1970s. The interview covers Hyde's experiences as a feminist and queer activist in St. Louis, Missouri in the 1970s and early 1980s, and Hyde describes her experience as a participant in the first Gay Olympics (now called the Gay Games) in 1982. The second half of the interview focuses on Hyde's work with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, including her first project which worked to repeal sodomy laws in the states where they existed, her role as director of the Creating Change Conference, and the practical tools with which she and the Task Force work to equip members of the LGBT movement. Hyde describes the direction in which she feels that the LGBT movement needs to go, the efforts that went into the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, and speaks about her experience as a resident of Massachusetts, where she has had the opportunity to marry her wife and enjoy legal protection that LGBT residents of other states do not have. This interview chronicles the several decades of work that Hyde has devoted to the LGBT movement, and illustrates the hope and determination that Hyde brings to the movement for full acceptance and legal protection for LGBT citizens.


Lesléa Newman (b. 1955) is a Jewish, lesbian, Northampton-based poet, author and lecturer. She lived in Brooklyn and Long Island as a child with her parents and grandmother, before attending college at the University of Vermont, and the Naropa Institute where she earned a Certificate of Poetics and served as Allen Ginsberg's apprentice. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Southern Maine, and offers workshops on writing poems and novels. Additionally, Newman offers lectures to colleges and community groups on homophobia and family values, butch/femme identities, and the intersection of lesbian and Jewish identities. Much of Newman's body of work deals with identity: lesbian, Jewish, butch, femme. She has written over 50 books for adults, young adults, and children, including novels, short stories, poetry, and picture books. She is perhaps best known for Heather Has Two Mommies (1989), a children's picture book about a young girl with two mothers. The book caused an outrage in some areas of the US, and was denounced, banned and burned. Some of her other well-known titles include poetry collections My Lover is a Woman and Still Life With Buddy, novels Jailbait and Hachiko Waits, and short story collections A Letter to Harvey Milk and Girls Will Be Girls. Newman is serving as the Northampton Poet Laureate until 2010.


In this oral history, Lesléa Newman describes her childhood in a Jewish, middle-class community in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s, her college years at the University of Vermont and the Naropa Institute in the 1970s, and her adult life as a writer, a lesbian, and a Northampton resident. Newman's sense of identity is explored in depth in the interview, examining her roles as Jewish lesbian and daughter, and what it means to be a childless woman. This interview explores the ways in which Newman's writing operates within a political framework, the impact she's had on women and children, and the personal and professional lessons she's learned.
Lesléa Newman's Papers are in the Sophia Smith Collection [currently closed to research].


Jane Pincus (b.1937) grew up just outside New York City with her parents and two brothers. As a student at Pembroke College, she studied French and spent her junior year abroad in Paris. While in college, Pincus became active in anti-racism work with the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and in anti-war work against the war in Vietnam.

In the late 1960s, her activism took on a more feminist nature when she became involved in the Bread and Roses women's group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At a Boston women's liberation conference sponsored by the group in 1969, she attended a workshop on "women and their bodies." Together with several other women from the conference, Pincus helped found the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, which published the first edition of the revolutionary women's health book, Our Bodies, Ourselves (originally called Women and Their Bodies: A Course) in 1970. The book quickly became one of the most trusted sources of information on women's health issues. Pincus wrote the chapter on pregnancy in 1969, and continued her work with women's health issues after moving to Vermont in the mid-1970s. She contributed to updated versions of the book through 2005.


In this oral history, Jane Pincus describes her childhood and family life growing up in World War II, as well as her education and early encounters with activism, both anti-racist and anti-war activism. Pincus highlights the inter-connection between major rights movements during the 1960s and '70s (civil rights, women's rights, gay rights). The focus of the interview, however, is her contribution to the writing of Our Bodies, Ourselves from the first meetings of women's health groups, to the original version of the book and through all of its successive editions. She considers how the book was received by female readers and by opponents, and discusses her personal experiences with pregnancy and reproductive health issues at the time of her involvement in the women's health movement. Toward the end of the interview, she touches on the legacy of the book, and its effect on the generations since her own youth during such decades of "social ferment."


Letty Cottin Pogrebin (b.1939) is a writer and journalist, born in Jamaica, Queens. She graduated high school early and entered Brandeis University at the age of sixteen. She graduated Cum Laude with a B.A. in English. After she graduated, she worked for the publishing company Bernard Geis Associates for ten years. She was soon promoted as an executive. Her first book, How to Make it in a Man's World, reflected her experience in the company. Because it was extremely well-received, she was able to support herself as a full-time writer, first as a columnist for the Ladies Home Journal. She is one of the co-founders of Ms. Magazine and was a frequent contributor to it. Her articles covered a number of observations on women's places in modern American society, from the idea of motherhood to competition among women to short stories for children.


This oral history covers various aspects of Pogrebin's life but specifically focuses on her experiences at Ms. Magazine and her work on nonsexist childrearing.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin's Papers are in the Sophia Smith Collection [currently closed to research].


Tiik Pollet was born in Washington D.C. to Pierre Pollet Sr., a big band musician, and Helen Juanita Bowen Pollet. She was raised in Silver Springs and Tacoma Park, MD with her brother and sister. With her father as a creative role model and teacher, Pollet learned to play music at an early age. After graduating high school, Pollet traveled around Europe playing music. She came back to the US in 1970 and moved to LA with her mother, brother, and sister. She lived in LA and the Bay Area until 1976, performing rock music with the bands Lizzy Tisch and BeBe K'Roche. She came out as a lesbian in 1973, and participated in lesbian-feminist and women's music scenes. She lived in three collective houses, one in Berkeley, CA, and two in Washington, D.C. She moved back to Washington, D.C. in 1976 and has lived there since. She worked for Food For Thought Restaurant from 1976 until it closed in 1999. In 2000, Pollet went back to school at the Concoran College of Art and Design and studied photography. She was awarded the Martin Chambi Award for Excellence in Photography for Girls Will Be Boys, an ongoing series of portraits of FTM transgender individuals. Living in D.C., Pollet also volunteered with various political organizations having to do with food and farming, women's health, and violence against women. She also has played many benefit concerts and was active in the Take Back the Night rallies. She now works at the Fillmore Arts Center, where she teaches music and digital arts to children.


In this oral history, Tiik Pollet discusses her experiences of class, race, sexuality, and gender, as well as her music career and her work as an activist. The focus of the interview is her experience in lesbian-feminist and women's music communities in the 1970s and 1980s in California and Washington, D.C., as a working-class, mixed race lesbian. Pollet discusses her struggles in the community, in collective living situations, and with her bands, especially surrounding drugs and relationships. She also discusses her issues with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, resulting from violence at the hands of many men, including her father, her own internalized homophobia, and her struggles with alcoholism. Gender is another central point of the interview, as Pollet discusses her gender formation from childhood and into adulthood, as well as her music, photography, and beliefs concerning gender. She also describes her activism and work in Washington, D.C. at Food for Thought Restaurant, Take Back the Night rallies, Jeremy Rifkin's Pure Foods Campaign, and the Fillmore Arts Center, where she teaches music and digital arts to children. She explains why the history of women's rock within the women's music scene is important, and why she works to preserve that history.

The interview of Tiik Pollet is not available online. Researchers may contact Special Collections for a copy.


Christine Shelton (b. 1948) grew up in Maryland, graduated from Madison College in 1970 with a B.S. in Physical Education before becoming active with the Peace Corp in Venezuela. Shelton was then employed at West Springfield High School, in Virginia, where she was involved in filing a Title IX suit. She has a background in gender equity training, and continues to be involved with international organizations that concern women in sport. Shelton is a professor and coach at Smith College, where she also serves as director for the Project on Women and Social Change.


In this oral history Shelton talks about her involvement in sports as child. She talks about her experience of implementing a physical education program in Venezuela with the Peace Corp, her experience as a high school teacher (where she filed a Title IX suit), and her experience as a professor and coach. She describes her role in creating a program to teach gender equity, and in educating physical educators and administrators of its importance. Shelton talks about her international work, and the work she has done within the Smith college community.
Christine Shelton's Papers are in the Sophia Smith Collection