Vicki LevinsGabriner

Activist
1942 – 2018

by Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild

Activist, agitator, proud Brooklynite, feminist, lesbian, socialist, wit, wife, cherished friend and relative. Vicki Levins Gabriner was articulate, principled, often ahead of her times. Her high school years presaged her future political direction. Active in school governance at Brooklyn’s James Madison High School, she ran on the same slate as Bernie Sanders. Both lost; the rest is herstory.

Vicki continued her interest in making social change in college and beyond. At age 22, Vicki and then husband Bob Gabriner learned organizing by volunteering with Jesse Gray and others working on rent strikes in Harlem. This experience served them well when they traveled to Fayette County in west Tennessee as part of a Cornell University group, to register voters and work with local African-Americans who had formed one of the first grassroots civil rights organizations.

Vicki had a knack for making and keeping friendships; her connections spanned the entire course of her life. Her work in Fayette County in the early 1960s led to a lifelong friendship with Sadie Harris, one of the high school student activists she met there.

Vicki and Bob created history and also sought to preserve it. In 1964, as students at the University of Wisconsin, they were among those who persuaded the Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society to fund their traveling around the south, gathering up materials from local civil rights groups and records of Freedom Summer organizing.  These form the heart of the second largest US collection of civil rights documents from the sixties, housed at the Wisconsin Historical Society. 

At the University of Wisconsin, Vicki took part in the 1967 Dow demonstration protesting the company’s production of napalm, and was among the first to be arrested in these actions.

Post-Wisconsin and Bob, at age 28, Vicki left her Lower East Side teaching job to join the Weather organization. Told that she didn’t have the right stuff to go underground, she instead was dispatched to Cuba on the second Venceremos Brigade, where she went from raising cane to cutting it for the Revolution.

Vicki was drawn to where the action was, from summer civil rights organizing in the South, to anti-war, feminist, and lesbian activism. Moving to Atlanta, she lived in a women’s commune, and worked for the Equal Rights Amendment. Coming out as a lesbian, she helped found ALFA (the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance), DARII (Dykes for the Second American Revolution), and the Atlanta Socialist Feminist Women's Union. She played on the ALFA softball team, writing about her lesbian athletic experience in the 1976 issue of Quest. Reflecting her wit and playfulness with words, she wrote that she had: “Come out Slugging!”

Acting on her principles, Vicki was arrested several times. Her most serious brush with the law came in 1973, when she was arrested in Atlanta on charges of accomplice to passport fraud connected to her brief Weather organization involvement. She was tried in Boston Federal Court, with busing Judge W. Arthur Garrity presiding, and convicted at trial. But in 1978 she won her appeal, aided by the efforts of her lawyer Nancy Gertner.

Vicki liked to be outrageous and provocative, challenging societal norms while doing social good. Her body was a political canvas. She refused to shave her legs; her hairy legs were a point of pride. For many years she worked as a medical model, teaching Tufts medical students how to do pelvic and breast exams, serving as a role model for the other workers.

Long before the #MeToo movement, Vicki spoke out and wrote about the sexual abuse she experienced. In 1971 she published Sleeping Beauty: A Lesbian Fairy Tale, with Sojourner Truth Press. Through Sleeping Beauty, Vicki discussed openly the taboo subject of incest; she influenced many other women to speak out at the time. Later in Boston she was a leader in one of the first Incest Survivors’ groups.

Vicki did not have a “career” in the traditional sense. Instead, she tried on many career paths—organizing, teaching, art and medical modeling, carpentry, telemarketing, investigating EEOC complaints, serving as Executive Director of the feminist newspaper Sojourner, and finally successful doctoral candidate. Writing consistently defined her public life. She wrote prolifically for publications such as off our backsQuest: A feminist quarterlyThe Great Speckled Bird, ALFA's newsletter Atalanta, Sojourner, and Gay Community News. In 2009, she received her Ph.D. from the Union Institute and University, with a dissertation entitled Peak Time: Progressive Jewish Mothers, the PTA, and the Postwar Red Scare in Brooklyn, New York, 1946-1956, about the successes and limits of PTA activism at PS 153, the school for Brooklyn’s Homecrest neighborhood. 

Vicki had a distinctly spiritual side, which manifested itself at first in deep connection to Buddhist meditation. She sat for two three-month silent retreats at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and continued her meditation practice as part of a local sangha until her final illness. In the last part of her life, Vicki connected more directly with her Jewish roots. She considered studying to be a rabbi; together we became bat mitzvah at Temple Israel in April of 1995. For the JWA and Temple Israel project “Women Whose Lives Span the Century,” Vicki interviewed activist for Soviet emigrés Ranya Schwaab, and with Ranya appeared on the cover of the project booklet. And Vicki threw her heart and soul into singing in the Boston Worker’s Circle Yiddish chorus A Besere Velt, A Better World. Reaching back to her secular Jewish roots and the fight for social justice with Jewish values, she was a driving force in A Besere Velt concerts, especially those commemorating New York’s 1911 Triangle Fire and the 1912 Bread and Roses textile workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. With Linda Stern, Vicki completed her last major writing project, an article published in the 2016 book The Great Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912: New Scholarship on the Bread & Roses Strike, entitled “The Cloth From Which We Are Cut: Using Music, Narration, and Images to Tell the Story of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.”

Vicki didn’t have biological children, but she bonded with many young people, for whom she was a cherished special combination fairy godmother, aunt, confidante, and role model.

Vicki and I met in 1977 and became a couple in 1992. We took advantage of the Massachusetts marriage equality law as soon as we could, marrying on July 16, 2004. Ours was a mixed marriage—Vicki a socialist feminist and me a radical feminist.  Vicki was the love of my life. I will cherish forever the years we had together.

Suffering from both leukemia and Lewy Body Dementia, Vicki died at home. Honored by the Jewish Women’s Archive as one of its first Women Who Dared, Vicki always recognized that the social justice work of tikkun olam, repairing the world, is never ending. She is greatly missed.

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Vicki Gabriner (right) and Rochelle Ruthchild (left). Photo by Joanna Levine. Courtesy of Rochelle Ruthchild.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Vicki Gabriner, 1942 - 2018." (Viewed on July 24, 2019) <https://jwa.org/weremember/gabriner-vicki>.

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