Veteran Feminists of America
VICKI MOSS - Writer, Professor, Women’s Advocate
I was born in New York City at 6:30 a.m., September 8th 1936, a scrawny baby resembling a tiny monkey, as my mother sometimes reminded me. I turned into one of those New York kids who liked to be right. The kind who, after much sturm und drang, grows up to be a writer.
My parents, Max Dresner and Minnie Weissman, said I’d brought them good luck: the end of my father’s year-long struggle with unemployment; the end of the Great Depression. My brother came along five years later, 1941, in time for World War II.
At nineteen, I marched down an aisle, my hands shakily holding a lily-and-rose bouquet, my eyes teary behind a white veil. My young husband lifted it to kiss me after stomping on a glass, predictably smashing it. I hadn’t been looking forward to this day the way I thought I should. I worried I was plunging into something I had little enthusiasm for and less understanding of. But, in any case, my part in the event was nearly over.
After the brief ceremony, everyone applauded as my new husband and I made our entrance and took our seats. , separated for the time being until after the traditional blessings, first over wine, then over challah.
It wasn’t an orthodox Jewish service in which men and women sit separately – it was supposed to be more modern – yet only men stood around the table presided over by my patriarchal, white-bearded grandfather, my Zeyde Shulim, as my cousins and I all called him. [“Zeyde” means Grandpa in Yiddish.] He blessed the wine in Hebrew, holding up a silver cup from which he then took a sip, indicating that everyone was to do the same.
I sat at a table with women, forgotten for the time being, my only function, according to ancient tradition, to be fulfilled later when I’d produce a son.
In fact I produced two sons. The marriage lasted only 15 years – but it led to what later became the best part of my life: my five grandchildren.
It was 1972, the weekend of the first meeting in Amherst of SWIP, the Society of Women In Philosophy. I had gone back to college and was now the proud possessor of a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. I was enrolled in the doctoral program in philosophy at the brand new Graduate Center on 42nd Street in Manhattan. I was the Philosophy Department’s first representative at SWIP.
My husband and I had recently separated.
I left that Saturday morning and drove the four hours to Amherst, the first time I would be leaving my children, twelve and fifteen, with neighbors for a whole weekend.
It was SWIP’s first meeting on the east coast. November 4th and 5th 1972. Some of the suggested topics included such issues as: the maternal instinct; moral dimensions of reverse sexism; feminist studies – which hardly sound revolutionary now. But then!
When I walked into the meeting room of the hotel in Amherst and began mingling with the women, when I took a look at the agenda and then attended not only speeches, but also small communal workshops – unlike the way men in the western philosophy establishment discussed philosophical issues; they instead excelled in one-upmanship and fierce competition – my mind began to expand as minds were doing in the seventies, though not all of them from ideas.
With these women declaring themselves to be philosophers, not waiting for men to dub them so, philosophy would change the world—and I, a fledgling philosopher among them, would have a role in that change. We wouldn’t sit and wait to be told by our male professors what kinds of things philosophers should wonder about; we could wonder our own wonders, seek our own answers, even devise our own new methods for our investigations.
It was the most exciting weekend of my life.
But before I would have a chance to tackle the philosophical establishment, I returned home to chaos. Papers, ashtrays, beer cans, empty record album sleeves strewn all over the living room. The note on the kitchen table explained what was going on. My fifteen-year-old son had gone off to start what he was calling his “life.”
Many phone calls later filled in some of the details. He and two friends from summer camp had gone on a hitch-hiking adventure. Their ultimate aim was to reach the Haight: Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, though they’d started by hitch-hiking north-east first to a commune in New England. In the exact opposite direction of The Haight. My ex-husband and I found our son, finally, two weeks later in Las Vegas at a runaway shelter after we tried in vain to follow in his tracks.
Meanwhile, somehow I managed to teach my classes. But doing work for the courses I was taking at the Graduate Center was impossible. I barely managed to keep my home running. I kept imagining my son dead in a ditch, or alive somewhere, someone’s sex slave. My younger son and I ate Big Macs every night and soothed ourselves by watching episodes of Star Trek, sitting side by side on the couch in the den, the telephone nearby. That’s when we became Trekkies and friends, comforting each other during the crisis.
My ex-husband and I ultimately traveled to Las Vegas to pick up our son after the Las Vegas police called and told us they had him in a jail cell. He and his two friends had headed south first, having heard that they could get free nickels at the casinos.
“He can wait there for you to come and get him,” the cop told me, “Or we can have him stay at the local runaway shelter. He’d be free to leave the shelter any time he wanted,” the officer added.
Until the 1970s, running away from home was considered a crime, a “status offense.” The 1970s marked a change and kids were seen more in need of protection and care. Now they could get temporary shelter, counseling, and some after care.
This was when our family entered the picture and how our boy got to stay in one of the shelters designed specifically for kids like him.
The officer put him on the phone, and he promised not to go anywhere else. “I’m ready to come home, mom. I won’t leave.”
We flew out to Vegas to get him.
But my career as a philosopher was over.
Picture this. It’s 6:30, a Tuesday night. I’m outside on the sidewalk on West 48th Street in Manhattan, glaring at the chartreuse banner in the bank’s window with my name on it in big black letters. That sign, with its message: “Welcome New York Business Women” was Jerry’s idea, not mine. Jerry was my new boss. [Jerry isn’t his real name.]
Just a couple of months before, I’d been out of work – and wondering what marketable talents I had. Now I was running business management seminars for women. And these classes, my seminars, brought the bank—otherwise exposed only to bad press it had gotten in recent Village Voice articles for dealings it had with “connected” politicians and business types—my classes brought this small commercial bank a sudden unfamiliar eruption of good press: stories in all the city’s papers; news features on major tv channels; me giving talks at conferences all over the city. Women calling every day to sign up, though we could take on only thirty at a time for every four-week sequence. We had cycles planned far into the following year.
How did this happen?
My across-the-street neighbor in Englewood, N.J. , Jerry, the new president of Central State Bank, appointed by the Federal Reserve to clean up the bank’s shady board and its questionable business practices—revealed as such in the recent series of Village Voice articles—had spotted me one day moping on my front steps. My three-year teaching fellowship had ended; I’d dropped out of graduate school.
He strolled over. When I told him about my frustrating job hunt, he offered me a job. He happened to be, he told me, just then looking for someone to sell the bank’s services. He told me to find a group other banks weren’t good to. My mind leaped to women.
Now on the air and in printed media, they started calling me “the feminist banker.”
* It was a heady time. I was swept up into the most extraordinary time in women’s history since Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Now I was consorting with such amazing women as Jacqui Ceballos, Midge Kovacs, Ava Stern, Elaine Snyder, Donna Ferrante; I spoke on platforms with Betty Friedan, Mary Anne Krupsak, Bernice Malamud, Carol Bellamy. How could my life not be changed?
A poster, designed by me, hung over my desk with a picture of a fist and a dollar sign: “Liberation is Economic Power.” How could I not want to change the world?
But here’s another scene from the same period.
I’m in the president’s office, asking Jerry to consider a customer’s loan application. The customer is a documentary film-maker with two successes under her belt and the award of a big government contract for a new project. The actual funds won’t come through for another six months, and she needs money to start filming now.
I think it’s a slam-dunk.
“Does she have a house?” Jerry asks, looking at the forms I place on his desk. I’m standing in front of the desk, lacing and unlacing my fingers behind my back.
“Why?” I ask him.
“For collateral.” He nearly sneers as he tosses the words at me. “You don’t think I’m going to just give away a hundred thousand dollars.”
“She’s got it covered by the contracts,” I counter, sure I’m on safe ground.
“Government contracts” Jerry emphasizes the word “government,” but I don’t notice his tone, still confident my client is solid.
“Yeah,” I nod, “government contracts.” After all, I’m thinking, she’s not asking for a million dollars like his male clients do.
At this point, he comes out from behind the desk. As he gets closer to me, he reaches out and puts a hand on each of my shoulders. For a moment, I think he’s about to praise me for landing this solid new customer.
“And you always trust the government,” he sneers again, at the same time sliding his hands down my arms.
His next move is so swift, I can’t figure out even later reflecting on it how it happened. He puts his arms around me, pulls me to him and kisses me.
“What are you doing?!” I shove him away and race out of his office.
Back at my desk, I touch my hair to see if it’s okay, check my suit jacket to make sure it’s still neatly buttoned. I’m in a panic, hoping no one in the bank can see on my face or in my body language what just happened. Lacking the confidence to do what Anita Hill did many years later—speak truth to power—I can’t even recognize what the truth is.
And so, after other such incidents, I fall into a depression. Finally, it overwhelms me; I have to get away from him.
Another career disappears into oblivion. But I am transformed.
My life’s work is clear. I’m a committed feminist.
Since then I’ve marched for abortion rights with members of NOW; been a Marshal in DC at such a march; joined in at events run by WILPF (the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom); some by Code Pink. I’ve run workshops at domestic violence shelters.
When the Anita Hill hearings are on Jerry calls me–by then, I am living in Manhattan. He says: “It was sexual harassment, wasn’t it?” Imagine?! We finally had the words; even he now recognizes that his behavior wasn’t unique, wasn’t even strictly personal; it was political, a power game. It wasn’t exactly an apology, but it was the best he could do, and it was something.
The next phase of my life led to my writing career. Like many writers, I’ve had lots of jobs: college professor, newspaper reporter, cab driver, editor, women’s center director. Currently, I teach writing and literature at SUNY’s Fashion Institute of Technology. My novels include The Amboy Duchess, Solo Flights, and The Lust Chart, available on Amazon’s Kindle.com. I’m currently working on my fourth novel, Saving Lives.
* Around 1972 the feminist movement was no longer involved in around the clock activism. With constant pressure from feminists around the country almost all laws limiting women’s rights had been changed and many women were now working full time and forming new organizations, like the Women’s Bank and New York Women’s Business Owners .
Vicki Moss is author of three novels, The Amboy Duchess, published by Horsetooth Press, as well as Solo Flights and The Lust Chart. Alien On the Road, a poetry memoir, and Blood Memories, a collection of short stories, are also published by Horsetooth Press. All are available at Kindle.com. She also has written five children’s books. Her poems and short fiction are in national literary journals. Her poem, “Minnewaska,” won a prize from Sensations Magazine. Gannett gave her an award for investigative reporting. Solo Flights earned second place in the City College of New York’s Jerome Lowell de Jur’s Writing competition.
BOOK REVIEW of Vicki Moss's The Amboy Duchess by AVA STERN
Vicki Moss has written a book that transcends generations, from the early 1900’s to the early 1970’s. It also transcends literary genres: Part mystery, part historical novel, part crime thriller, part feminist essay, this one is a real page-turner.
With two young sons away at summer camp and then off to Florida with her recently divorced husband, the book’s protagonist “Winnie” is not earning enough as a part-time teacher to pay her household bills. She met Bank President Stu Lewen when he moved into Winnie’s suburban NJ neighborhood. When he offered her a job at the bank, she reluctantly accepted. And when he asked her to find a market niche to develop new customers, she hit on the idea of women business owners. The banker scoffed at first, but Winnie proceeded to arrange business seminars at the bank for women operating their own businesses, which became wildly popular and highly publicized – including a banner the bank hung outside with her name on it.
Such public exposure, amid such deep secrets. From the beginning, when Stu told her he had grown up in Brooklyn, on the same street she had, and that his father had been the only Jewish cop there, she knew, but never told Stu, that his father was the one who had found her father dead in his car, shot and killed by someone who was never caught… until the end of the book, when Winnie realizes who the killer is and manages to entrap him in his own lies. Between that meeting and that ending are stories about the family in Europe during the pogroms, what the ones who made it to America had to do to survive; how one of her cousins had been rescued and hidden by a member of the Polish underground who helped Jews resist the Nazis.
Winnie’s life, and the novel, are multi-layered. Layered by her grandparents’ memories of the Holocaust, her father’s and uncles’ direct involvement with the Mafia in Brooklyn and liquor smuggling from Canada during Prohibition. Layered by memories and emotions from the time she was three.
Fast-forward to the days in New York when Winnie met famous women such as Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and many women business owners. As the new women’s business development manager for the bank, Winnie called each of them and made appointments to see them – from the silkscreen designers in the Village to the financial advisers she met for breakfast in Rockefeller Center. Each meeting is unadorned with verbiage about the place, the weather, the food, or small talk. Each woman has so much to say about her profession, her passion, her connection with other women in business, that they speak in long paragraphs.
“A woman with a flourishing business can go into a bank to apply for a loan with equipment as collateral, or for a line of credit to help with her cash flow, and even if she’s got the greatest P&L statements, the best balance sheet, even if what she wants is to expand because her business is so good, the banker can say no without giving her any explanation at all. All he has to do is say ‘because you’re a woman’, and she hasn’t a leg to stand on. And that applies to any kind of credit, not only business loans. If you want a credit card, no one has to give you one—if you’re a woman. All they have to do is say ‘No,’ no reason offered. Washington is working on the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, but it hasn’t been passed yet.”
Of course it was; but when Winnnie was starting her marketing campaign to women in business and becoming famous for the seminars she ran at the bank, access to credit was still a dream.
And then there are the paradoxes: A smart attractive woman in the days the author worked for the bank kited millions of dollars in business loans between banks, was convicted and spent many years in prison. How could a woman do that? Quite a scandal, but at the time some of us thought to ourselves: “Now we know we’ve made it when a woman can pull off a financial crime as good as any man.” Except it was only $2 million instead of $200 million; and except she got caught. In The Amboy Duchess, Winnie is a true hero, not only paving the way for women’s access to credit, but exposing the secret that catches the killer … and clears her family name.
And so the book runs on these parallel planes: Winnie’s efforts to help women business owners, interspersed with stories from her family history. Clearly the proprietary, possessive attitude her boss assumed toward Winnie after he hired her -- that her body was his to use as long as she wanted to keep her job -- was an obvious case of what we now call sexual harassment. Those actions that were hidden or taken in stride by women then would not be tolerated today.
How this novelist managed to weave the history of European Jewish oppression and family members’ emigration to America with the tentacles of the Mafia, and with the story of New York women gaining their financial independence, is remarkable. It is telling that the dedication of her book is “For all who fight back.” The Jews who fought back against the horrors the world will never forget, the women who stood up for their rights and set the standard for what equality looks like in the workplace and at home today, and the members of the mob who were finally stopped from taking advantage of the vulnerable and brought to justice -- Ms. Moss brought these parallel universes together in this intriguing and memorable novel.
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-- Ava Stern was Publisher of Enterprising Women, Founding President of the NY Association of Women Business Owners, served on the President’s Commission on Women’s Business Enterprise, and has since that time helped 48 companies go public and numerous new ventures get financed. She was also a founding principal of RainbowVision Properties, the developer of the first resort/retirement community welcoming the LGBT population, for which she structured and arranged a $33 million financing.
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