Feminist icon tells of unfinished business

Feminist icon tells of unfinished business

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, seated, is joined by, from left, Women’s Philanthropy cochair Louisa Liechtung and national Women’s Philanthropy and Heart of NJ federation board members Sheryl Grutman and Linda Block.     
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, seated, is joined by, from left, Women’s Philanthropy cochair Louisa Liechtung and national Women’s Philanthropy and Heart of NJ federation board members Sheryl Grutman and Linda Block.     

Even after becoming a publishing executive at a time when women were still often relegated to traditional roles, Letty Cottin Pogrebin said she felt compelled to prove herself domestically and not “shortchange” her husband — she even baked her own bread; it was the late 1960s, after all.

Then one day she pointed out to her husband, a Harvard-educated lawyer to whom she has been married for more than 50 years, the inequity of their roles.

“He said, ‘You’re right,” and we converted to feminism,” said Pogrebin.

Pogrebin went on to write the 1970 book How To Make It in a Man’s World, cofound Ms. magazine, and become a leader of a movement that set out to change how females are viewed in the workplace and home and to open doors in the corporate and political arena.

Pogrebin spoke at the annual book and author event of Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, held June 3 at Baker’s Farm in East Brunswick. Women’s Philanthropy cochairs are Iris Acker, Ruth Bash, Debbie Friedman, and Louisa Liechtung.

In a wide-ranging program conducted by East Brunswick resident and Princeton University writer Jennifer Greenstein Altmann, Pogrebin — who sits on UJA-Federation of New York’s Task Force on Women — discussed her latest Jewish-themed book, her trailblazing life as a feminist, the joys and realizations that come with age, her relationship with Judaism, and the “second wave” women’s movement.

She admitted she missed her troublemaking days with other noted feminists like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, lamenting that young women don’t seem to have the same “collective passion” needed to change the status quo and fight for their rights as did many women of her generation.

Stylishly dressed in leggings and boots, Pogrebin said she would be celebrating her 76th birthday the following week and was warmly thanked by many in attendance for her efforts that benefitted their daughters and granddaughters.

She recalled how Ms. tackled such formerly off-limits issues as abuse and discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace. “What was different about Ms. is that it told the truth about women’s lives, which was not making lampshades out of potholders,” Pogrebin said. “It was really a very multi-layered approach to women’s lives in the workplace, home, and society.”

When the editors asked readers to contribute stories about their own issues, they were taken aback by accounts of incest and abuse. “It was just so amazing to us to see how many women had been abused by relatives,” said Pogrebin.

Yet, for all the strides women have made in shattering the glass ceiling in the workforce, Pogrebin said, full equality remains elusive.

“Women still make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes,” she said, adding that every piece of legislation or court decision limiting reproductive rights “is a step backward for women.”

One of the initiatives pushed by the women’s movement, federally funded child-care centers, was vetoed by President Richard Nixon in 1971. To this day, she said, working women with young children “are left to figure it out on their own.”

Pogrebin herself began a journey few Jewish girls of her era took when her father insisted she go to yeshiva and have a bat mitzva. Her latest book, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate, is about the son of Holocaust survivors who falls for an African-American radio host. It comes out of her own experience when her own daughter fell in love with a religious Catholic, and Pogrebin, who lost a third of her family on both sides in the Holocaust, was faced with the possibility of having Catholic grandchildren.

Describing herself as “liberal and open,” Pogrebin said her reaction was “visceral” and “blindsiding.” It led to a nine-month estrangement from her daughter, who eventfully married a Jewish man.

“I realized I carried that awareness,” said Pogrebin, who wrote the 1991 Jewish feminist classic Deborah, Golda, and Me. “We haven’t even replaced the numbers lost in the Shoa.” 

As she ages, Pogrebin said, she has learned that “the closer you are to death the more you appreciate life and recognize the grace notes of age with gratitude.”

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