Ruth Rosen Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Women's Movement in Historical Perspective: Conversation with Ruth Rosen, historian and columnist; 12/5/01 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Ruth, welcome to Berkeley

Thank you.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born and raised in New York.

In retrospect, how do you think your parents shaped your character?

Oh, that's a hard one. I would say they were very conservative Republicans, and they shaped my character by pretty much teaching me mainstream American political culture.

When you were young, did you have any mentors in school or elsewhere who also shaped or influenced your thinking?

Well, it turns out, when we moved to a suburb of New York, by accident, I got to know a lot of kids of "red diaper babies" and children of liberals, and those kids became my friends. In some ways, they gave me a language for some of the social alienation and the political discomfort I felt with the United States by the time I was a teenager. Those kids became my mentors. I didn't know it at the time; only in retrospect, I found out what their parents' background was. But it turns out I was just attracted to them and got to know them.

What about books? Did you read any books as a young person that even today stick in your mind, that changed your thinking in any way?

Interestingly, the book that I wrote a book review about year after year after year was on Harriet Tubman.

In high school?

In elementary school, in junior high school, in high school again, I kept reading more advanced biographies of Harriet Tubman. What so impressed me was that anyone who had escaped the South would have the courage to go back so many times to free other people. So she became my very early heroine. When I was in high school, the people who most influenced me were existentialist philosophers, and probably, I would say, a lot of the literature by absurdists and by postwar literary people.

Where did you do your undergraduate work?

I was at the University of Rochester, which had an extraordinary history department with people like Norman O. Brown and a lot of other people who you wouldn't necessarily think of as historians. They're really cultural critics. So I became very immersed in history -- mainly cultural and intellectual history.

Was it there that you got the history bug, or did you come with it?

Yes. Hayden White was there, and he taught Western Civilization. Probably from the first day that I took that course, I knew I was going to become a history major. I was very, very turned on to history.

And what, in particular, turned you on?

I had been involved in the Civil Rights movement already in high school, and the war was really starting in Vietnam already. I knew that I needed to understand the past in order to understand the present, and so it was vital. It felt essential to me.

How were you involved in the Civil Rights movement in high school?

There were a group of us who were working in Harlem during the weekends. We were canvassing and we were working for CORE. And then in Rochester, I was working in the Civil Rights movement. So before the Gulf of Tonkin, which was my sophomore year in college, I already had had the experience of being involved in an interracial movement and questioning authority -- questioning authority in a big way, and questioning received wisdom. That was already part of my experience.

The thing that really had the biggest influence on me, which I have to back up on, was that the summer before I went to college, I went on the Experiment in International Living to Mexico. It was the first time I had the opportunity to see the United States as other people saw the United States. It was like reading The Ugly American, but in real time. And I was very affected by the way in which Latin Americans and Mexicans, in particular, were viewing American foreign policy. So I entered college with that kind of radicalization, seeing the United States from an outsider's point of view, which I had never seen.

So when were you in college, what years? In the sixties?

'63 to '67.

'63 to '67. So beyond what you've already said, how did the sixties affect you and change the direction of your thinking?

The Civil Rights movement set the pace, because it taught me that you can change things, and it taught me that you can question received wisdom about race relations. When the war began, I became very involved from the beginning, from '64 on, in antiwar activity. In 1966, '67, I lived in Italy for a year, studying government and political science. That was a very radical experience, because I lived with Italians, who did not speak English, who had been partisans in the Second World War. So I learned a lot of politics, and European politics, and comparative politics living in Europe.

When I came back, I was still very involved in the antiwar movement. By then, I felt like I was apart from the rest of the country. I felt I was part of a movement, a movement that was against American sponsorship of war in Southeast Asia. So by the time I came to Berkeley to graduate school in '67, I was well into seeing myself as an activist. I was very devoted to nonviolent action, but I very much had an identity as a movement activist by then.

Next page: Becoming an Historian

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