«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Bella Abzug, and Cora Weiss. That morning, I got a message that Bella had succumbed to Montezuma’s revenge, and was not able to get out of bed. And I panicked. It’s something I remember. That is one memory that comes back. How could I be the only American on the same platform with a bunch of Soviet women? How would they ever let me back in my country? I was panicked about coming back through customs. I don’t remember what happened next. I spoke.
Whether I found somebody else to join me—is possible, but I can’t remember who it was. But I was so angry with Bella! [laughter] Q: What was she like to travel with?
Q: Well, I think she was a difficult person in general.
Weiss: But she never yelled at me, and all of my friends got yelled at. I don’t know why. We managed to survive together. She was brilliant, and she was important, and she did things that other people never dared to do. She was a brilliant lawyer, and she looked at resolutions in the Congress for their loopholes, where she could come in and propose new legislation despite whatever was already on the table. We went to Geneva together when I was with Women for a Meaningful Summit and SANE—well, by then it was SANE/FREEZE, I guess—and David Cortright, and I, and Jesse Jackson were on a plane, and she was on the same plane, or a different
Gorbachev and [Ronald] Reagan were going to meet at one of their summits, which is why we created Women for a Meaningful Summit.
So we had an empty airport. Everything was empty, and we could move around very easily.
Bella was furious that Jesse Jackson was there, because he was going to get the press, and not Bella. One could say that a man would get the press and not women, and that’s part of it too, of course. I was sort of in the fulcrum. [laughter] Trying to make the seesaw balance. Anyway, Jesse did get the front page of the New York Times, because—remind me the name of the foreign editor of the New York Times in 1980—whatever that was.
Q: [Leslie] Gelb?
Weiss: Who? No, not Gelb. His father was a rabbi from Cleveland, and he became the editor.
Q: Oh, [Joseph] Lelyveld?
Weiss: Hooray! He was wonderful. But he was quite young then. I don’t know what his title was yet. He noticed that I knew [Sergei M.] Plekhanov, who was the Soviet—I guess he was very,
Studies], and I had known him from previous trips to Russia, to Moscow. So I sort of had an in with our ability to meet with Gorbachev. Joe Lelyveld. He decided that I was the one to attach to, to get attached to. Joe never left my shoulder. [laughter] We were shoulder to shoulder for the whole time, and we met with Gorbachev. He had a personal interaction with Jesse Jackson, which Lelyveld put on the front page of the Times the next day.
Q: So she was right. Bella was right.
Weiss: Yes. But it wasn’t my fault. [laughter] You had to love Bella. It was impossible to be a woman leader from the left liberal side, and she did it. She ran for mayor; she ran for Senate.
Q: By all reports, she was a wonderful congressperson.
Weiss: Fantastic. And she knew every— Q: Tip [Thomas P.] O’Neill said she was wonderful.
Weiss: Of course. She knew everybody in the building, all the workers. I once was in a car with her years after she had been a member of Congress, and the police recognized—we were at some demonstration in Washington, and the cops called her “Your Honorable Member,” or whatever you call a member of—“Representative.” And the guards in the buildings. I mean, she was
Q: When you look back on that whole disarmament program, what would you say was your major success?
Weiss: Of the ten years at Riverside?
Q: Yes. If you were called upon to evaluate it.
Weiss: I think we put disarmament on the agenda after the Vietnam War. We couldn’t continue doing post-war work. We had to go back to disarmament. Back, because I had started there with Women Strike for Peace, in the early ’60s, and the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. We not only put disarmament back on the agenda, but we gave it legitimacy and cred, as they say today. Credibility. We did it from one of the most important churches in America. We internationalized the platform. We internationalized the chancel of the church, the platform. We created programs that could be replicated around the country. I think it was an amazing ten years.
It was one of the best ten years of my life. I met people I never would have met before, and because I could say, “Cora Weiss, Riverside Church,” people would come. They didn’t come for me. They came for The Riverside Church. Bill Coffin and I became, probably, best friends.
Q: Did you decide to leave when you—
Q: —found out he was going to leave?
Weiss: Yes, we had to leave together. We came together; we left together.
Q: That was the understanding?
Weiss: No. It was the reality. We never made an understanding. And I spoke at his funeral.
Q: You obviously stayed in touch with him afterwards.
Weiss: Oh, yes. He came to New York, and participated in a fast during the small arms conference, and they slept at our house. Oh, they slept at our house a lot. But he had congestive heart failure. So he used to sleep in that brown lounger chair, because it— Q: Looked like [unclear] chair.
Weiss: I don’t know what that is. But anyway, the back would go back, and he would sleep in the living room. Randy [Virginia Randolph Wilson] and sometimes her daughter would sleep upstairs in the guest room. Oh, Bill was—Bill and Randy were part of our lives. You don’t go to a war zone together and get whisked into a bomb shelter together with your country’s planes dropping bombs overhead and not get bonded for life.
Weiss: Three hours. [laughs] Q: —that point. But I want to start there next time.
Q: And then to talk about Women and Peace, and then the international peace organizations, and kind of bring you up to date.
Weiss: That’s nice. IPB [International Peace Bureau], and then Hague Appeal for Peace.
Q: The Hague, and bring you up to date.
Weiss: And how about the Security Council Resolution 1325?
Weiss: I’m very proud of that, I must say. I was trying to think of the ten things I’m most proud of, but there are too many. I’m very happy. I have no regrets.
Weiss: I’m not very happy that things have gone backwards so quickly. That is terribly distress—I mean, it’s just— Q: Play that out for me.
Weiss: Well, you wake up in the morning, and see Hamas rocketing Israel and Israel bombing the Palestinians, and you’ve been working on Israel-Palestine peace for years, and played a role in the Geneva Initiative. It’s the most horrible, horrible feeling. I can’t bear it. I can’t bear the fact that today children are targets in war. It’s unbearable. That war is still a method of international relations when it’s a failed institution. And I’m not a pacifist.
Q: Did you feel at a certain point—I’m trying to grasp with this, there was a certain point when it seemed like civil society was going to have a real renewal. You know, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the creation of states abroad, the overthrow of dictatorial regimes in Latin America, [Nelson] Mandela, the new South Africa, et cetera. There was a moment, prior—I guess prior to Bosnia, almost—there was a period when it seemed like civil society would renew itself in very vital ways.
Weiss: That’s a very interesting listing of good history from you. I appreciated that. There was a cascade of movements, starting with the Civil Rights Movement, the antiwar movement, the women’s movement, the gay movement. There were huge successes for all of them. We’re celebrating Freedom Summer right now, even though we lost three remarkable young men,
And then came the Internet age, and everybody with their face in an iPhone, an iPad, a telephone, a cellphone, a tablet. I don’t even know the names of all these things. And yet they were the instruments that brought people together for the Arab Spring. They were mobilized by the Internet. But it didn’t last. Now there is still civil society. We have community-based organizations now. We just had a terrific success in Florida. I can’t remember how to pronounce the name of the Indians—Immokalee. I-M-O-O-something. The tomato workers won a huge success, and that was a civil society success. The fact that gay people can marry in most of the states of the United States is a huge success. Now you can get insurance and benefits if you’re a gay employee of the federal government. Huge success. The price? Hugely high. Ridiculously high.
I don’t give up on civil society. I love civil society. It’s a great power. But we haven’t had the fierce power of money before, like the [Charles G. and David H.] Koch brothers. We haven’t had the Supreme Court with decisions like the Hobby Lobby, or the Lobby Hobby [Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.], or Citizens United [Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission]. And the five to four decisions, the four being three women. So the times have changed. I hope that we are going to see a reversal, because when the Supreme Court votes against women’s right to birth control, women are going to mobilize. And when a Tea Party candidate gets rejected by the public in favor of a less conservative Republican, maybe that’s an indication. We’re not giving
Q: I had a conversation with my older grandchildren, who kind of are just spirited, et cetera. But looking back, it’s quite remarkable where one came from in the ’50s and the rapidity of the change. That will always stay in my imagination, that things change remarkably fast once social forces are in motion. You know, my grandchildren don’t see that, because they don’t see— Weiss: That’s not happening now.
Q: —the forces in motion in their lives. But it will happen. That’s what I tell them.
Weiss: I think so. I met a young man yesterday whom I knew during the Occupy movement in New York. He has a Hebrew name. He’s an American, born in the Bronx. I said to him, “So, what did you do when the Occupy fell apart?” He said, “We met and talked about the lessons learned. And one of the lessons learned was that we had no infrastructure,” which was of course the criticism of it while it was happening. “So now what are you doing?” “Now, we are organizing locally, and we’re organizing along justice social issues.” It’s remarkable what they’re doing. They have funding from the Ford Foundation, and the Park Foundation, and all of the totally wonderful foundations. There’s light in his eyes. There’s sparkle. And he’s going to marry a woman who also is organizing in the food and justice field.
Q: Now, you were just telling me about a peace trip to Ireland. While that's on your mind, let's get that story down, and then we'll begin the regular interview.
Weiss: Okie dokie. So, it's the '70s, early '70s, can't remember what year, exactly, because all of those documents are in my office. We decided that it was time for a peace process tour of Northern Ireland, where we might be able to assess what the situation was with respect to The Troubles.
Q: When you say "we," you mean— Weiss: Well, it was an ad hoc group of people who were interested in peace. There were ten or eleven of us, and we flew into Dublin, we got off the plane, met with Mary Robinson, who was president at the time. Now, she's the Secretary-General's special envoy for climate change. She walked us around her presidential house, enough times so that she could talk to each member of the delegation. That set us up for going to the north. We landed in Derry, with a marvelous young woman whose name was Caitriona Ruane.
She had arranged a spectacular tour, to meet with Catholics and Protestants, sleep in their homes,
horrible. The one thing we came away with was that the women desperately wanted to meet with each other, Catholic and Protestant, but had no safe place to do it in the north. So, when we came out, after going to the horrifying cemetery in Derry of the teenage boys who were slaughtered on—what was the day for it—Bloody Sunday, we went to see the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, who is Jean— Q: [Jean Kennedy] Smith.
Weiss: —Smith, thank you.
Q: Jean Kennedy Smith, yes.
Weiss: She was President Kennedy's sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, and the other most important woman, Mary Robinson, who was president. We said to both of them, we've been to the north, we've talked to both Catholics and Protestants, we've spent a lot of time with women, and they have one request. We ask you to help implement it. They want a safe space to meet. And Jean and Mary arranged for a place for them to go. Then, from there— Q: In Derry? Or Belfast? Or—?
Weiss: I don't remember where it was. But from there, they formed the women's political party, because they wanted seats at the table, and George Mitchell, who was the facilitator of the peace
men. They formed the political party, and they got two seats at the table. The Irish peace agreement, which is also called the Good Friday peace agreement, which resolved The Troubles as well as you could resolve a conflict, has been an iconic example for subsequent peace agreements and peace processes.
People from South Africa went to Ireland to study their agreement, to talk to them about how they got people together. And it was those two women who sat at the table with all the guys, who wouldn't let the conversation move on until the human rights issue was finalized. They institutionalized human rights institutions, so that the issues that brought The Troubles to bear in Northern Ireland wouldn't happen again. Those institutions are still in existence, and the Irish peace agreement, I think, is a role model; it's a role model and a good example of why women have to be at the table.