SHEILA TOBIAS - AUTHOR, CONSULTANT, SPEAKER ON MATHEMATICS, CO PRESIDENT OF VETERAN FEMINISTS OF AMERICA
Forty years,12 books, myriad memberships, scores of good feminist friends, later, I have no regrets.
It was great to be alive in the 1960s and 1970s (to paraphrase Wordsworth) and to be a young feminist was very heaven!
Sheila Tobias August 2010
I never write about my childhood, or my family. As far as I am concerned nothing significant happened to a well-adjusted and school-successful little girl until I went to college with two exceptions but they were only important in retrospect.
1) my mother dragged me to hear Eleanor Roosevelt making a train stop in our home town during the 1944 reelection campaign for FDR. 2) a volunteer Christmas children's present wrapping project brought me to an historic "Women's Institute" in my home town, no longer much used, but harboring smells, and secrets of an earlier time. "Who worked here? What did they do? Why is there no remnant of what was here?" I wondered and never did find out but the time in the Women's Institute (I was about 12) set me up to study women's history much later.
As a teenager, I was blessed by late physical (sexual) development, so I could be a child longer and enjoy a bunch of likeminded nerdy males in my classes with whom I could interact without dating or "going steady." I was a serious student of pretty much all subjects, a lover of languages, and dreamed of living abroad. (Much influenced by WW II movies and novels and even more the memoirs of the expats of the WW I generation.)
I had a great time in college; and much adventure during 4 and half years in low level journalism jobs in Europe. Home to a graduate program I didn't like in European history, and which I left in 1965, never to return to get a PhD.
I liked women, but I liked the company of intellectually stimulating men, too, a lot. I just didn't want to limit myself to one partner, one life style, one career, or one country. Having children seemed to me like doing childhood all over again.
A big part of my emotional life (what engages other women when they have home and hearth) was taken up with men - lots of them and great relationships bringing no regrets even when they ended. That's certainly not "meat" for a feminist biography. Having decided early on NOT to marry and be a HouseWife/Mother, I was freer than most of the women of my generation (b. 1935) to explore myself, try out different men and different lives and avoid commitment of either kind: personal or professional. I married when I was 35 to someone who agreed to my conditions: no children. (That marriage lasted 10 years; my subsequent marriage is still going on after 23.)
Now, if I wasn't a freak, I was certainly an outlier. But remember: all those WWII movies placed family off stage.
I did flounder in my 20s but only partly I thought then (and still think now) because of discrimination though I have observed (since then) that the women mentors who might have guided me (women 15 years my senior, born in 1920) were just not there. They had lost their professional jobs during the Depression and never really recovered the momentum one needs in one's twenties to succeed in one's forties. Needless to say, there were NO women professors at Harvard-Radcliffe where I went to school.
But I never blamed anyone or any misogynist system for my not getting ahead. I figured it was because I was not able to commit: I shuttled between journalism and academe: too journalistic for my graduate program, too academic (and too scared to go to a war zone) to be a journalist. Of course there were barriers, but Frances Fitzgerald - 7 years my junior - got herself to Vietnam in the mid sixties from which she wrote a great book "Fire in the Lake." And my classmate, David Halberstam, made himself a lifelong career in the same era with "The Best and the Brightest." So I couldn't blame anyone but myself.
photo by David Shankbone
What made me ripe for feminism as the 1960s wound to an end was a growing respect for other women especially those I met in the course of civil rights summers in the South and anti-Vietnam war work in New York and Ithaca. I was most impressed with Southern white women whom (I wrote at the time) couldn't be part-time civil rights activists. Once they crossed the line, their churches and their families turned them out. Inspired by southern women of the recent past, like Lilian Smith ("Killers of the Dream") and other southern women writers, they seemed braver and more authentic than the women and girls I had grown up with; even than the WWII survivors I had met in Germany.
In the South I worked for a Black woman who exuded a comfort with authority my women age mates were not even aiming for. She was Lucille Whipper, the wife of a Black minister in my Upward Bound project. In selecting me to be her assistant director, Mrs. Whipper gave me my first experience working for a woman and I was nearly 30 at the time.
As my age mates and younger women emerged from anti-war and civil rights to form women's liberation cells in 1968-1970, I connected - even though I had not the litany of complaints that drove the others. The IDEAS drew me, especially the analysis of Kate Millett, whom I met and got to come to Cornell, early on, and the (I thought) interesting and contrasting leadership styles of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. (I got to know both.)
I joined them not because I needed the Movement, but because they drew me in. And once in, I discovered what I had been prevented from learning how to do and to be at Harvard and beyond, namely something of a leader, and altogether committed to something other than my career. And of course, once I stopped trying to figure out what I wanted to do, there it was waiting for me to take up.
At the time I joined the feminist movement (1968-69) I had given up my PhD but not yet Academe where I felt much at home. I was a junior Administrator at Cornell where the most recent boyfriend (later husband) was pursuing a cutting-edge PhD in environmental policy (1968!! before Earth Day). My boss, the vice president, was a physicist (I would be drawn to physicists ever after) and he gave me wide berth to do and invent programs. One of these was a "Conference on Women" in 1969, encouraged by Kate Millett and the New York radical women. The Conference (which I audiotaped and wrote up in a short book, still in the Cornell archives) changed my life and that of scores of Cornell/Ithaca women. A Women's Studies course (one of the first) and a Women's Studies Program (definitely one of the first) followed in the next two years and I was suddenly on the right side of history! Being a writer, I was notating all that happened, collecting syllabi of new "feminist" course materials, and meeting dozens of like minded academic and not so academic women around the country.
I collected the first women's studies syllabi into a booklet I wrongly named "Female Studies" but anticipating a continuing series of volumes, denoted it "No. I." I attended meetings of various women's groups in the East and began to be invited to talk about "sex role socialization" "women's studies" and eventually "Math Anxiety", "Know your Weapons" and the many other subject areas I found myself and others opening up. I made tremendous friends, far fewer enemies than one would have anticipated. I had "arrived" at a place I felt was going to be mine for a very long time.
Forty years, 12 books, myriad memberships, scores of good feminist friends, later, I have no regrets. It was great to be alive in the 1960s and 1970s (to paraphrase Wordsworth) and to be a young feminist was very heaven! Sheila Tobias August 2010
From the Editor:
For the past 25 years, Sheila Tobias has been studying, writing, and lecturing on "neglected issues in science and mathematics education," supported by the Ford, Rockefeller, and Sloan Foundations and by the Research Corporation of Tucson, Arizona. Among her best known books are Overcoming Math Anxiety; Succeed with Math; Breaking the Science Barrier; They're not Dumb, They're Different; Revitalizing Undergraduate Science: Why Some Things Work and Most Don't; and Rethinking Science as a Career.
In adddition to her books on science/math anxiety and avoidance, Sheila published her own political retrospective on the Second Wave entitled Faces of Feminism: An Activist's Reflections on the Women's Movement (1997) reviewed in the N.Y. Times by Wendy Kaminer, and with Jean Bethke Elstain Women, Militarism, and War: Essays in History and Social Theory (1990).
Her demystification of weapons, war policy, and defense spending, What Kinds of Guns are they Buying for Your Butter? brought her to Tucson Arizona to collaborate with defense specialist Peter Goudinoff in 1981. The book was published in 1982. But Sheila stayed on in Tucson for the rest of her career. Other co-authors of that book were Bella Abzug's one-time assistant, Shelah Leader, and Shelah's husband Stefan. That is the only one of Sheila's books out of print.
For more information on Sheila Tobias visit her Web site: http://sheilatobias.com
For more information, contact:
Post Office Box 43758
Tucson AZ 85733-3758
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