WOMEN SHAPING HISTORY 2012
Alice Weiss: Teacher, Lawyer, Poet
What inspired you to pursue your current career?
Since I have had at least three of what are usually considered careers, I have had to think through what was consistent throughout the 50 years it took me to make my way through them. Teacher of English and American literature (my last teaching job ending in 1974 was at Colgate University), Louisiana civil rights attorney and public defender, and, poet; I was 10 years at the teaching, 21 years in Louisiana, and 14 years relearning the language so I am able to write poems and not arguments. Does a river run through them? Of course.
Probably two streams meet sometime in my early twenties: independence of mind (then called oppositional defiant disorder) and a strong sense of justice (then called rejecting my role as a woman). Despite the fact that I loved the freedom of the classroom, the institution of the university was not going to hold me, so I went to law school, not to work for a big law firm but because I knew I could set up my own practice, operate, so to speak, outside the establishment (a term we used a lot in those days, you don’t hear it much now, not even at Occupy encampments).
Throughout, I was a social activist. My first gig was teaching in a school in Englewood, N.J., which at the time was a segregated school, called, I think, Liberty. The 60s and 70s were made for me. Civil Rights, Anti-War, Feminism.
What were some of the highlights of your life?
My organizing and directing a little group of my Rutgers students into a Kazoo Brigade to entertain up and down the sides of anti-war marches, establishing a woman’s studies course at Colgate and, as well, working among the students and the women teachers so we could resist the male-dominated institutions at the school (I haven’t used that phrase for years). We even got the Deke fraternity kicked off campus for two years.
And then Louisiana, I went down to work for the ACLU, a job which lasted seven months (remember that authority problem) but which connected me with other attorney activists, thus, two decades challenging conditions in jails as cruel and unusual punishment; voting-rights cases, integrating municipal and county governments, integrating the managerial ranks of Quality Assurance Agency, an agency of the Department of Defense, and representing the beautiful and doomed miscreant children of the city of New Orleans.
Now I write poems. I write about my Louisiana encounters, generation, aging, language and dust. What any poet writes about. On good days I think I might have 20 more years to do it (I am 70) but I am working toward being a really good poet and a recognized poet.
What inspires you?
That would have been the Holocaust. I knew about it when I was very young, and it troubled me. I love being Jewish so it made me feel endangered, of course. After years of mulling (I started very young), I decided the following:
The only way for Jews to feel safe is to make sure everyone feels safe.
The only way for Jews to be safe is to make sure everyone is safe.
Hence my activism, hence my voting rights, employment cases, because the corollary to the first assertion is that everyone needs to feel equally empowered.
And this: When I was about 13, my family had a black woman housekeeper named Inspiration. She was a follower of Father Divine, hence the name. Nonetheless, I was this snotty, narcissistic beginning teenager and I made some kind of remark (thankfully I can’t remember exactly what I said) implying that blacks were not smart, or that they didn’t organize their lives very well or that they were all criminals or some horrible thing and she said, “If you tie a chicken by its foot to a little tree for a long time, when you untie it, it will limp around in circles. It will not be able to walk straight.” I am to this day thankful that I was able at that point to apologize to this valiant lady. I never forgot what she said. #