My Path towards Feminism, by Leslie Gersicoff

23 Sep

Leslie Gersicoff is involved in the movement for single payer health care for all Californians. She is Executive Director at the Jewish Labor Committee Western Region, which works with labor and the community on issues affecting workers, including human trafficking. Her home is in Los Angeles.

Leslie GersicoffIn the early ‘60s I was still in high school in Rochester, N.Y. and was very “repressed.” What I mean by that is that I didn’t speak out about anything. My brother and I lived with my grandfather. He emigrated around 1914 from Minsk [Note: formerly part of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and now the capital of the independent Republic of Belarus]. A tailor and dry cleaner by trade, he was also a Democrat, interested in electoral politics, and a faithful reader of the Rochester Times Union and the Democrat and Chronicle. I remember that his heart broke over JFK’s assassination.

After my grandmother died, when I was ten, our house continued to be a “gendered” one. I was expected to do all the cooking, cleaning, and laundry. I was lousy at housework. I burned the meat and frozen French fries and broke the washer by stuffing it with 17 sheets at once. After that, because I could drive, I used the Laundromat. There I encountered many creepy guys “on the make.” I had no feminist awareness but at 16 years of age I felt that creepiness to my bones.

I had finally learned to drive and I got my license because my grandfather needed help to get around. This delighted me because for the first time I acquired a measure of freedom and independence beyond my capacity to walk and take public transportation. The first car I drove was a light blue Plymouth Valiant with a push-button transmission. It was one of the first compacts. (Cars were still configured to male dimensions in the sixties.)

In 1965 I attended Alfred University, a small private school 80 miles south of Rochester inLeslie.Alfred.New York
the middle of nowhere, hills and fields all around, and no street signals. (I had wanted to attend Santa Cruz, but my grandfather said reluctantly that he would never see me, it was so far away.) Alfred was popular for its ceramic design school. The town of Alfred was filled with Seventh Day Adventists. Women weren’t allowed to be seen on the streets in hair rollers. In the dorms there was a curfew (something I had never known) for the women.

Alfred is where I gradually began to get the idea of “social sexism.” The Sexual Revolution was just starting. Men were starting to look better with longer, fuller hair and tighter jeans. In my junior year, while looking for a doctor who would perform an abortion, a woman in my dorm found a country doctor who was willing to write prescriptions for birth control pills called Enovid E.  At that time, it was socially unacceptable for unmarried (and even married) women to use birth control, so when mLeslie.EnovidEy friends and I visited his office, we wore rings turned around to appear like plain wedding bands. I had the impression that this doctor was a kindly man who was onto our tricks but wanted to help us anyway. He’d probably seen young women die from complications of illegal abortions and suffer from the social stigma surrounding their pregnancies. The pills were high-estrogen, but I was relieved to have them and would never admit they were the cause of leg cramps or weight gain.

At that time the first steps toward my becoming an independent woman were a driver’s license, birth control, and an education. Most women I met at the time were not going to college to become independent but were pursuing an education to get a degree so they could either find a professional man to marry and take care of them financially or teach until they met “Mr. Right.” Settling for security broke up many potentially better matches. Perhaps that contributed to women not being taken seriously in any field in higher education. Or perhaps that was why we were not taking our own abilities seriously enough.

I transferred to the State University of New York in Buffalo and lived with my boyfriend in a large politically radicalized building called the Fenton Arms. Our railroad-flat style apartment, a fourth-floor walk-up, had three parlors, gas fixtures, and tin ceilings.  Many students and hippies lived in the building, as well as a pair of brother and sister tenants who didn’t want to move out of their apartment because the sister believed their deceased Mother wouldn’t know where to find them. While she worked at the university, he listened to religious radio programs most of the day.  (As a point of interest, Paul Krehbiel, contributor of a previous blog here, knew many of the same people I did, and we met again 43 years later through Labor United for Universal Healthcare, which advocates for single-payer healthcare in California.) Downstairs were storefronts (the original mixed-use buildings), one of which was occupied by a draft resisters’ organization. My boyfriend hung out there. Off of Main Street a half block up from us at West Ferry St. was a bar. The American Nazi Party had held meetings in the back room there during World War II.  The air smelled raunchy with cigarette smoke. I suspect that ghosts goosed the evil ones in the neighborhood.

The Fenton Arms was in police district number 6 or 8, I can’t remember which. It was notorious as a tough, brutal station. One night the police beat up the guys in the draft-resisters’ office. They had been verbally taunting the cops, who then attacked them viciously. My boyfriend was in the hospital for several days. On his buttocks was a boot heel mark where a policeman had kicked him.  Many of us later held a demonstration outside that police station, led by a woman named Judy Goldsmith, who later served as President of NOW from 1982 to 1985. We were not arrested, although we were prepared to be beaten. My stomach was churning but we went on with the demonstration without being hurt. We heard later that the attorney for the police warned them he was through defending them for brutality so they should behave better. They may have—that is until political unrest broke out on campus. Then batons and tear gas replaced classes and student union beers.

One demonstration that took place against the war in Vietnam occurred on campus. As we were marching around in a large circle, someone introduced a chant that went something like Death to the Vietcong or to the USA or somebody. I was horrified. I didn’t want anybody to be killed. I couldn’t chant. I stayed silent, but I kept marching. Something definitive shifted in me that day. I started to pay closer attention to what people were saying and to what I was thinking.

All of these events helped politicize me, although slowly. Even more slowly, I moved to embrace feminism. It seems women were still fighting for men’s causes. I wasn’t only a little aware of women’s issues at that time. (I was not yet hearing the term “feminist.”) I was first aware that abortion rights were legalized in New York State in 1973. Leslie.Abortions'Some women in my building tried to organize me to go to a meeting on women’s rights. We became more aware of the grunt work that women were expected to do at meetings – typing, copying, coffee-making, hand-holding. I think that one reason Vietnam vets had a harder time than prior vets is that they no longer had women waiting at home for them who were willing to take care of them and do this traditional women’s work.  We had started taking care of ourselves instead.

In 1970 I moved to Coconut Grove, a beautiful “cityburb” in Miami, Florida. I lived in Florida for two years with no awareness except personal awareness – getting that experiential knowledge. For a while I worked in the Child and Family Services Department of the state welfare system, which was listed as 47th to the bottom of all states in providing social services benefits. Most of the young people I met were involved heavily with drugs. I myself was an overeater. It was the time of heavy drug culture, beyond smoke and hallucinogens, for white youth. Women were becoming more involved in drugs. I think this tipped the balance of power that had previously been dominated by males in many bizarre ways. There was dependence and there was independence.  Women could sell as well as buy their own drugs. There was a monetary avenue that was risky, dangerous. For some, satisfying; for others, deadly. Mother’s Little Helpers were causing many women to become addicts. There was a breakdown in the roles males and females were supposed to be playing. If a woman was stoned, she didn’t really care as much about cooking dinner as she may have prior to the cocktail hour. And girdles were definitely dead!

With my new job, I had opportunities to go into the field to visit families, mostly African-American mothers. I saw the projects in Northwest Miami. They were like cells, with few windows and with dark, ominous outdoor walkways. I remember one interview with a woman who told me, I’ll never remarry because I have daughters and their stepfather might molest them. I was shocked. It was a moment I can’t forget. My naiveté had kept me from realizing that such things went on.  Her comment illuminated a huge need to investigate the world of human behavior and find out why I was so ignorant. And that light shed an eerie glow over tears shed for others I considered so less fortunate for the knowledge they already had suffered.

Yet another experience in stupidity, or to be kind, naiveté, involved my innocently quitting the welfare department to take a job as a waitress in a bar called (I’m not kidding!) The Trojan. The waitresses’ uniforms were leopard-skin mini-skirts. I found out too late that we were supposed to climb up onto the bar and dance, with all these slobbery old men looking up at part of us. I was outraged by that demand. I couldn’t figure out why another waitress looked as if she enjoyed dancing up there. I refused and got fired. While searching for these plum jobs, the manager of another bar assessed me accurately. He said, You don’t know what you’re getting into. You don’t want this job. From his tone, I concluded he was a basically decent man in an indecent business.  I don’t know what his real business was. I think this was an intersection in my life where my fate was mysteriously protected and I was able to get on down the road.

In 1972 I went back to school in Buffalo. The Women’s Center had opened. I got involved in women’s communities. We had lots of democratic discussions—quite different from the top-down process in male-dominated groups Women working together—we experienced ownership of a project, and we could take credit for it. Women’s issues were artistically, culturally, and politically related. Attending meetings there was an amazing experience.

Another step toward my feminist consciousness was that one day, after returning to school in Buffalo, I was walking behind a couple on the sidewalk. The man said to the woman, Good idea! You keep having the ideas. I’ll make it happen. I was shocked and disheartened that it was so automatic for men to expect women to be passive while the men actively made changes founded on women’s thoughts.  Hearing that suggestion that women were not able to bring their ideas to productivity pissed me off a lot and brought a lot of anger to the surface.

At the Women’s Center there were, of course, personality conflicts. We had moved from a larger site to a much smaller one. At one point there was a territorial fight in which the majority of us were forced to move into the store-front basement because a more aggressive woman wanted to take over the bigger space and teach martial arts. I learned how damaging it could be to exploit each other. Those wounds cut deep. I’ve worked hard to keep such divisions out of feminism. I had to develop astuteness.

At one of our marches for women’s rights, some men joined us, to be supportive, I believe. The press was there, and my close friend and mentor Roberta said, Don’t talk to the press about the men here because it’ll be all about them. But someone did talk, and sure enough, the press interviewed the men only and ignored the women. I am so thankful for changing times and for Wendy Davis.

By the time I graduated in 1973, some working and student nurses had started a Feminist Health Collective. Our Bodies, Ourselves had just been published. Leslie.Our Bodies Ourselves I will never forget one of the activities in the book that about 20 of us participated in at the Women’s Center. The “teacher” explained to us that everyone’s sexual organs were unique. The idea was to explore the part near our cervixes called the os and to see others’ os to realize how different and beautiful they were and how they looked during different phases of the menstrual cycle.  We all used plastic speculums (which we had to fight a pharmacy supply house to purchase) and mirrors and lay on the floor in a circle. We observed our own os, and then got to go around and view others’. It was amazing. Never before had I felt such pride in being a woman—it was a combination of realization, choice, and healthcare. We were also seeing our own mysterious beauty, part of that “miracle of life” that then defined us socially as women. Nobody else had shown interest in revealing this to us. Seeing really was believing. I can picture us all in that circle even today, 40 years later. That belief system grew beyond the Land of Os.

[Ed. note: The os. The part of the cervix that can be seen from inside the vagina during a gynecologic examination is known as the ectocervix. An opening in the center of the ectocervix, known as the external os, opens to allow passage between the uterus and vagina. The endocervix, or endocervical canal, is a tunnel through the cervix, from the external os into the uterus. Source: http://women.webmd.com/picture-of-the-cervix%5D 

There was also a feminist therapy group. I recall one woman saying, I wish I’d been born a man. I felt stabbed through the heart. It seemed to me that no matter what we did, it wasn’t good enough: we were the weaker sex and as we all know, survival of the fittest is the way things work.

In 1974 I worked with a program called Bridge that matched citizen sponsors to prisoners who had impending paroles. There I met ex-Attica prisoners. One of them Dewitt Lee, Jr., became the director of the organization. He’d served 17 years for driving the get-away car in an armed robbery in which a man had been killed. The two men who had committed the robbery and murder were the last two prisoners to be executed before a moratorium was put into place on executions in New York State.  DeWitt told us stories about life inside prisons that made us laugh hysterically and cry for the sadness and misery which no one can escape, especially in prison. This was my introduction into social justice.  Social justice and feminism cannot be separated.

Today I like to believe I’m much more aware. Over the years I had a number of unhealthy relationships and pursued therapy for a long time. I needed to deal with my anger. I realized how personal experiences affect social/political behavior more than political experiences affect personal behavior. I became very comfortable with being a feminist who is finally free to pursue fairness and justice for all because I don’t put up with any crap anymore. Thank you, Sisters.  And thank you, too, to those good men who truly have embraced feminism.

But mostly, thank you, Sisters.

Advertisements

3 Responses to “My Path towards Feminism, by Leslie Gersicoff”

  1. Roselva September 25, 2013 at 9:28 am #

    Wonderful story and so honest!

  2. Mike Martin April 27, 2017 at 8:30 am #

    I was the boyfriend in Buffalo. Leslie was my first live-in love. We lived a ardcore psychedelic life and embraced the New Morality with religious fervor. On my part, too much. It eventually drove us apart. Many years later we contacted and forgave each other. I’m sure that I contributed to her staunch feminism. Through her, I became more aware of women’s issues. I remember those times vividly and am very Greatful for her presence in my life. Rest in Eternal Peace Leslie. I now you live on in the hearts and minds of those you touched.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. In Memory: Leslie Gersicoff, Labor Leader and Feminist Activist - WEHOvilleWEHOville - April 27, 2017

    […] Ruth Williams, a long time member of West Hollywood’s Public Safety Commission, was a friend of Leslie Gersicoff. An essay by Gersicoff about her journey to become a feminist is available on the Voices of the Sixties and Seventies website. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: