My First Female Hero: My Ahead-of-Her-Time Aunt Faye
March is Women’s History Month and to commemorate it I want to introduce you to a few of the women I most admire.My first female hero was my father’s older sister, my Aunt Faye, who was born in 1908 on the Lower East Side of New York, the first child of newly arrived immigrants from Poland. I’ve spent my entire life working to advance social justice, and the social consciousness that set me on that path came alive in the early 1950s sitting around my Aunt Faye’s dining room table.Aunt Faye was not what most would call a pretty woman. She had a large nose, an overly generous mouth, thick eyebrows, and dark hair turning prematurely gray. But her eyes sparkled, her smile was radiant, and she was so warm, vibrant, and charismatic that, to me, she was beautiful. Her dynamic personality captivated just about everyone she met. Social activism was rare in the early fifities. It was a time of rank materialism, social and political complacency, obsessive fear of communism, and a nearly universal belief that a woman’s place was in the home.Bucking that culture, my Aunt Faye had become president of the Brooklyn chapter of the American Jewish Congress and then National Vice President of the AJC’s Women’s Division. She used these platforms to fight for causes she believed were right – defeating McCarthyism, protecting civil liberties, helping the poor, empowering women, combating anti-Semitism, and ending the racial discrimination that was rampant in America. In 1950, throughout the South and in much of the North, African Americans could not eat in white restaurants, stay at white hotels, live in white housing, use white recreational facilities, or shop at upscale department stores.Aunt Faye lived in a modest brick row house in Brooklyn with a plastic awning shading its porch and rosebushes flanking its front steps. Every Sunday, my Dad, Mom, brother and I, along with my eleven aunts, uncles, and cousins, all crammed around the table in Aunt Faye’s dining room. The table alone filled nearly the entire room. Once you wiggled into your seat, your back was against the wall (literally) and you were stuck in that one spot for the whole, multi-course, multi-hour meal, which invariably started with matzoh ball soup and concluded with my Aunt Faye’s famous chocolate chip cookies.Talk at the table almost always ended up being about Aunt Faye’s causes. The talk turned into disputes; the disputes into noisy, heated arguments. Civil rights for the people we then called Negroes was the most explosive topic, especially racial segregation in public schools and the lawsuits to end it. My Aunt Faye, alone among the women at the table, spoke out for immediate government action to bring about racial integration and equal rights for all. But my Uncle Manny and Uncle Phil loudly and lengthily asserted all the reasons they thought she was utterly wrong. Unstopped by being the solo female voice, Aunt Faye fearlessly and fiercely took those two men on.I didn’t begin really listening to these debates until about 1951, when I was ten. When I did tune in, I felt in my bones that my Aunt Faye was right. She said that in our society everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed and that all people should have the same rights, regardless of their race, religion, or economic status. She condemned unfairness, injustice, and exclusion. She saw humanity and dignity in everyone. I realized that I shared those values. I identified with my Aunt Faye’s passionate commitment to justice for all. I was awed by the powerful way she expressed herself. And I was inspired by her courage to stand up for and act on what she believed, even in the face of nonstop attack by my uncles. I decided at that dining room table that I wanted to grow up to be like my Aunt Faye. And I did.