Vassar Quarterly - Spring/Summer 2017 - 96
Once more unto
By Selby Fleming McPhee '65
ith college friends in from Pittsburgh, Omaha, Tucson, and Palm
Beach, along with at least a dozen other friends from the class of
1965 who participated in the Women's March on Washington on
January 21, I joined the ocean of women, men, and children,
singing, chanting, carrying signs in an exhilarating crush of humanity. It was an
astonishing sight, that sea of pink hats stretching as far as the eye could see across
the Mall, pushing out to Independence and Constitution Avenues and up the
numbered streets toward the center of the city.
It occurred to me, looking out at the scene, that "Here we are, a bunch of women
in our 70s who, fresh out of Taylor Gate in 1965, had cut our young adult teeth on the
civil rights, women's, anti-war, environmental, and free-speech movements. Now
we're out for one more trip to the barricades."
And what a trip! Among the estimated three to five million people across the
country and around the world who participated in this massive demonstration were
classmates from 1965 marching in Philadelphia, New York, Hartford, Boston, Los
Angeles, Boise, London, and Oxford, England.
It's interesting to remember that we were '50s girls, raised in the oddly repressive
post-World War II era. Numerous studies, including Betty Friedan's The Feminine
Mystique, published in our sophomore year at Vassar, have documented the ways in
which the decade of the 1950s was a retrogressive period for women.
Shortly before the members of the class of 1965 arrived for our freshman year, the
Mellon Foundation published the final report of a 10-year study of Vassar students
that confirmed the effect of the postwar years on women. The study found that
Vassar students were overwhelmingly interested in one thing-getting married and
having families, and had, according to the research, little interest in independent
achievement outside the definition of wife and mother. Psychologist Nevitt Sanford
reports in his 1962 book The American College that
"Vassar girls, by and large, do not expect to achieve
fame, make an enduring contribution ... or otherwise
create ripples in the placid order of things."
All of that changed with the social revolutions
emerging during the four years the class of 1965 was
at Vassar. So those of us who marched have a long view
of women's issues and women's rights, civil rights,
abortion rights, environmental issues, and generally
creating "ripples." Like Shakespeare's Henry V, we have
our own St. Crispin's Day battles to remember. Some
of us, like Mattie Brody Banzhaf, leader of an activist
women's singing group, and Caroline Morris,
a lawyer, also marched on Washington in 1963 with
Martin Luther King Jr. Martha Burke-Hennessy, a
movie executive, Ruth Eller, an Episcopal priest, and
Susan Perry Ferguson, an artist and photographer,
marched for civil rights and women's issues, as did
Enid Rubenstein, a lawyer, for health care and fair
employment practices for women. Debbie Michaelson
Kolb, a college professor, and Helen Trowbridge
Hoffman, a psychotherapist, participated in anti-war
marches in the '60s.
We have, in one way or another, been at this for
a while. Mattie Banzhaf's favorite sign at the Hartford
march said, "I can't believe we're still fighting for
Classmates, including Marsha Asofsky Mountain,
who shared their stories of the day, used words like
joyous, inebriating, uplifting, sisterly, cheerful,
exhilarating, inspiring, and hopeful to describe the
shared camaraderie on display at the marches. They
were more inclusive and less angry than a lot of those
earlier demonstrations. We women weren't alone. We
were with our husbands, daughters, sons, grandchildren,
and a host of others who were aiming to make the
world fairer, kinder, better through common purpose.
"This is what democracy looks like!" we thought.
But as Nancy Gayley Kenny, who works on behalf
of refugees, says, "Marches alone do not make change.
Sitting in the front of the bus does." And as Nancy
Winkler Naftulin, a teacher, adds, "We need consistent, practical follow up." Many of us are signing
petitions, calling congressional representatives, and
going to town meetings. We are engaged in political
activity at a level that for some of us is new.
We're older now, and less intimidated. Perhaps at
this age we have less to lose, which gives us a clarity of
purpose we didn't have in our 20s. And we're Vassar
girls! Is this our last trip to the barricades? Not likely.
Selby Fleming McPhee '65, author of Love Crazy, is at work
on a portrait of the Vassar Class of 1965 on the cusp of the
Courtesy of Selby McPhee '65