Clara Schiffer — New Deal Women’s Libber
by Nancy Schiffer Miller
“I swear to you on my common woman’s head, the common woman is as common as a common loaf of bread… and will rise.” This seemingly simple sentence, written in calligraphy, hung framed on the wall in my mother’s kitchen, and in so many ways is an apt description of her own life and interests.
Who was Clara Schiffer? The daughter of immigrants from Romania and Latvia, she was the oldest of five children who survived past early childhood, and the only girl. Her father thought college was not the appropriate path for a young woman, so she went to Memorial High School for Girls in a clerical track. In her junior year, one of her teachers encouraged her to pursue college, so to qualify she took both 2nd and 3rd year Latin simultaneously in her senior year, then was admitted to Radcliffe, graduating with honors, despite working side jobs to pay her way.
This included working in a leather factory one summer, chanting songs to stay alert so her fingers wouldn’t get caught in the leather cutting and stitching machines; another summer she was hired to work in a resort but was fired before starting because the owner figured out she was Jewish. These and other experiences helped shape her lifetime interest in working women and her sense of justice — tikkum olam, repair of the world.
I’ve often referred to my mother as “a New Deal women’s libber” — devoted to her family at the same time she was concerned for feminist issues. It was when I was pregnant with my daughter Rachel that [my father] Benny told me Clara had kept her maiden name until one day, when she was pregnant with Lois, and showing it. She was buying a dress at the esteemed Garfinckel’s, and the sales clerk looked askance at her when she identified herself as Miss Goldberg — no all-encompassing terms like Ms. in those days. According to Benny, it was at that point that she decided to shift to the surname Schiffer.
I can’t even begin to cite, nor do I know, all the organizations Mother worked for, the projects she worked on, the people she inspired. Suffice it to say Clara was always interested in the world around her—regionally, nationally, and globally. Her friends, co-workers, and co-volunteers were incredibly diverse, from many walks of life and regions of the world. A phrase I often heard over and over about one person or another was, “she’s such a smart woman.”
Clara Schiffer’s younger daughter, Nancy Schiffer Miller, also grew up in Washington, D.C., and received a BA in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She married attorney Craig Miller, and together they served in VISTA. After working in social services, Nancy received a degree in Interior Design and since 1981 has owned FORM & FUNCTION, Inc. in Milwaukee, WI.
Adapted from eulogy given at Clara Schiffer’s funeral on April 6, 2011.