«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Weiss: In '72. That was later.
Weiss: But I think you could not find maybe more than one or two other women on the radio then.
Weiss: I didn't care what you talked about when you came on the air with me, as long as you were a woman! So it was the only station that had a voice for women only. It was called Cora Weiss Comments. I did it, I think, for about three years.
Q: What were you doing in Riverdale? Were you active in the community? PTA [Parent Teacher Association]? What did one do at that point in time? You've had this very active life, yes?
Weiss: Well, I was active— Q: You're now raising children. Do you continue that activism in different kinds of ways, or, is
Weiss: I was very active with the Riverdale Neighborhood House. But I was also very active with the local chapter of Women Strike for Peace.
Weiss: I was active helping the African representatives to the U.N. to find housing, because there was terrible racism.
Q: Well, how did that come about?
Weiss: Well, the people from Guinea, for instance, needed a house for their mission. So, I went to our real estate agent, who had sold us our house— Q: Now, how did you find out that they needed a house?
Weiss: Well, because through the American Committee on Africa, and through our work, we knew the Africans.
Weiss: So, I went to her, and I said, "We need a house for the Guinean mission." She found a
happened. Then at one point, she said to me, "You know, Cora, they don't want them to all live in the same community." That got my goat! All this is in the Riverdale Press, their stories about all of these incidents, and me. So then we had an incident with the Nigerian couple who tried to rent an apartment, not a house, and that became an issue, and I had to intervene there. I think two other African missions, delegations got homes in Riverdale. The other people left to go to live in New Rochelle, where there was an African American community.
Weiss: It wasn't pretty. We had a housing issue. There was a spit of land where—I can't remember the man's name, Farmer? I don't know. Somebody was building multi-racial and multi-class housing projects, and wanted to put up one of his housing projects. He has a famous one in Maryland, somewhere I'll find his name. But in any event, so, there was a big hue and cry, "We don't want blacks in our communities," said the whites. Not all of them. So, I remember a picket line, I think it was on Fieldston Road, at the top of Fieldston Road, because the Russians came in with a counteroffer. And the right-wingers had signs that said, "Better red than black."
That blew us away! I mean, these are people who were all doing red baiting just a few years before! [laughing] Now, we knew which color came to the top. It's a good thing you can laugh at history, yes?
Weiss: Anyway, I was busy. I used to speak a lot at the Riverdale Neighborhood House, and panel discussions on international relations. I traveled for Women Strike for Peace to England and Belgium, and Lord knows where else. I would come back and report, and always give reports. Idle has never been a working word, an operative phrase.
Q: Yes. That's what I was trying to get at, because it's— Weiss: Never been idle.
Q: Right. I think that's true for a lot of people, that the Feminist Mystique has to be amended a bit. That people don't just retire in life.
Weiss: No. I don't have time to retire.
Q: I wanted to save Women Strike for Peace for next time, so that we can do a whole thing on women.
Weiss: That was huge.
Q: So I was wondering if we can just move for a while onto the Gandhi Society.
Weiss: The Gandhi Society for Human Rights was started so that Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] could have a tax-deductible fund-raising arm to support SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Committee, or Conference.
Weiss: Conference. And his other activities. It was started by his lawyer in New York, name to be supplied. Harry Wachtel, right? That makes sense. And Ted Kheel. Ted lived in Riverdale, Frank Montero lived in Riverdale. We were all in Riverdale. Clarence Jones lived in Riverdale.
He's just written two books about King. He was a lawyer, too. So, we all sat around again. And bing bing bing bing bing, "You be president," he said to Ted Kheel, and, "You be secretary, and you be executive director."
Q: Were you?
Weiss: No, "You be treasurer." I was the Treasurer. I can't give you the exact years, but I can look them up. I can find them. In any event, I was the Treasurer. We raised money and gave tax deductible acknowledgements to donors that helped to keep SCLC alive, and Dr. King. But I never signed a check. I never looked at a book of accounts. I'm sure it was all kosher, because these were very reputable people. But I didn't stay more than two or three years, and then I
remember a wonderful conversation. We had children of the same age, we used to stay home at night and do the homework with the kids. We had a lot in common.
Q: Had you met Martin Luther King, Jr. by that time?
Weiss: Her husband?
Weiss: Yes. One day, I was on the phone with Coretta, and apparently the door of their house opened and Dr. King walked in, and she said, "Martin, Cora's on the phone! Come say, 'Hello.'" That was the kind of relationship that we had. I admired them both a lot. Coretta and I did a lot of things together. She went to Geneva to a conference with women. She was at the Pacem in Terris conference with us, with Peter and me, in Geneva. She spoke in New York, she spoke in Washington. She was an outspoken civil rights and peace activist. There weren't that many. But she spoke on peace platforms a lot. I'll do this later when you want to do the Women Strike for Peace thing, but when we made a split in Women Strike to create the Jeannette Rankin brigade, it was to create a group of women who would merge poverty and racism at home with the war in Vietnam. That was a very important statement that we were making. We brought in a lot of
Q: Can we move back to the point in time when you think—looking back on it now, where you were at that point in time—what did you think of the forces' arrayed against you? What were the forces you were moving against, throughout that period from Wisconsin all the way through?
Weiss: Well, they're the same as they are today! [laughs] Q: Oh, no! [laughs] There have been no victories?
Weiss: Sure! We're still here! And the U.N. is still alive. They were people who opposed the United Nations. It was the Ku Klux Klan who opposed blacks, equality, racial equality. It was the men in power who opposed having women come into power too, because they felt threatened. That still exists. Three women were fired on the same day—just last week? Two weeks ago? The editor of the New York Times, the editor of Le Monde, and the director of the Picasso Museum. They were all replaced by conservative men. Of course we've come a long way, but we sometimes tend to go back a bit.
Q: No. Did you, at that point in time, see the Democratic Party as a vehicle for change? Or the labor movement as a vehicle for change, or, who?
Weiss: I think we've always seen civil society as the vehicle for change. That if there wasn't organized public opinion, there could never be social change. Lyndon [B.] Johnson did his civil rights activity because of the civil rights movement. We fought against the Vietnam War, and it
had to be turned off. I am a great believer in organized civil society. I think it's the best kind of society there is.
Q: Spin that out for me, a little.
Weiss: Well, it's very powerful. You know? When mere mortal citizens get together and say they think something is wrong, and if they stick with it—we've won lots! We got the Test Ban Treaty against atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. I think we contributed to ending the war in Vietnam, it could have gone on and on. We prevented an invasion of Angola after the Vietnam War. The list is long. We ended landmines, we got a ban on landmines, on cluster bombs. We got an Arms Trade Treaty, it's not very good, but it's better than having no Arms Trade Treaty.
There are lots of things we've accomplished through strategic planning and organizing, whether it's women or women and others.
Q: I've come to the end of my questions. It's a little early to break, but I think it's because we're feeling each other out, and I didn't know how expansive you were going to be, or what. But anyway, what the question for next time is, is the special role of women in all the things you've talked about in terms of civil society.
Weiss: OK. I can give you a good answer right now while I'm— Q: What would be our theme for running through your life, the special role of women, in civil
Q: I want to ask you, first of all, to go back to your teenage years in Croton-on-Hudson, and then at Fieldston. What did you do for entertainment?
Weiss: I remember listening to the radio, to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Q: You were a Brooklyn fan?
Weiss: I was a Brooklyn Dodger fan, and Jackie Robinson was a player.
Q: Forty-six— Weiss: I said that hesitantly. When did he start?
Q: Forty-six, forty-seven.
Weiss: Oh, so that was later.
Weiss: That was Fieldston. But nonetheless, we listened to him, too. But radio was the one social technology in the house.
Q: Did you— Weiss: We learned to play tennis.
Q: Did you listen to the serials?
Weiss: I doubt it. I read a lot. But if you asked me what did I read, that's not easy.
Q: I'm going to ask you, what did you read? What—let's go by genre.
Weiss: I read a lot of biographies for children. I can't remember whose. Madame Curie, I read about her. Or, I read her biography. Who else? Honestly, I can't remember who else. But I do remember that I was reading children's biographies. As I got a little bit older, I read When Christ Stopped at Eboli, by Carlo Levi. That was important, because when I was a child, my mother took us to Southern Italy, and we went south of Italy—of Eboli.
Q: Right. What other genres can you remember? Mysteries, or current events?
Weiss: I am not the novel reader in the house. I read non-fiction. I read a lot of newsletters. And the computer—well, you don't want me to skip ahead, so I won't.
Q: No, right. Did you read a newspaper?
Weiss: Undoubtedly. I can't remember if it was P.M., or The Compass, one of those that came to the house.
Q: Do you remember, when you were younger, following the war?
Weiss: The Second World War, of course, because my mother worked with the Red Cross in Croton, and we used to roll bandages. She took me down to the train to give the guys going off to war, and at that time it was only guys, coffee and donuts. I think that probably was an influence on the rest of my life in terms of war, and trying to abolish it. Even though I thought the Second World War was a just war.
Q: Did you go to the movies? Wait, see what's happening now? You could not have asked that question, then, about a just war and an unjust war.
Q: Unless you came from a certain family, that had a certain politics, and a certain ideology.
Q: That was not a question that one would ask then. It's a question – it became a question later.
Q: So, what was the question then about the Second World War? Were you patriotic?
Weiss: We were very patriotic. We supported the war. We hated Nazi Germany, we hated Hitler.
And I used to knit. We knitted head coverings, not helmets, but knitted helmets.
Q: Caps, yes.
Weiss: And gloves and socks and scarves for British war relief, Russian war relief, whatever organization was asking for knitted garments, so that I remember knitting.
Q: And these would be local organizations?
Weiss: No, they were international organizations.
Weiss: Because they would have a representative, or a chapter, or somehow— Q: And where would you meet them? You didn't— Weiss: I don't think we met.
Q: You didn't go to chapel.
Weiss: I think we just knitted and mailed.
Q: Oh, OK. Did you go to the movies?
Weiss: I don't remember. I don't even think there was a movie house, necessarily. We had a movie camera, and my father used to take movie pictures of us. Oh, we went ice skating in the winter, for a social activity. We learned to play tennis. But I don't remember movies.
Q: Now, when you say we, who is this we?
Weiss: Well, I have a younger brother, so there were four of us. Mother, father, brother and—
Q: How would you describe your friends?
Weiss: We had friends who were neighbors.
Q: I mean your friends.
Weiss: My friends, right. Well— Q: The girls you hung around with, the boys you hung around with. The people you went to school with?
Weiss: They were mostly boys in the neighborhood, who also went to public school. We were in the same grade, or the same school. So we walked to school together. I had some girlfriends in school. I remember one in particular, because we had a reunion many years later at our house, and she came with two or three of the other boys. When I was a very young child, I was a friend of the daughter of the superintendent of the school, who was African American. After that, I was the friend of a girl named Judy, I can't remember what her last name was, who was from the middle section of this three-tiered community. But I think they were mostly boys, and I think we played baseball.
Weiss: You have to ask— Q: In those terms! [laughs] [unclear] Weiss: You'd have to ask the other players! I have no idea.