Amy Swerdlow was a woman so vibrantly alive that all of us who crossed paths with her find it almost impossible to accept that she is gone.
Amy came to Sarah Lawrence in the fall of 1972, as a member of the first entering class of master’s candidates in women’s history. By May 1973 the College had recruited her to teach a seminar titled “Women Organizing Women.” It was a course unlike any other Sarah Lawrence had ever offered or has offered since. Supported by grant money, Women Organizing Women brought together five Sarah Lawrence undergraduates, five graduate students in women’s history, and five women community activists from Yonkers and surrounding towns. Here’s a sentence from the minutes of the meeting at which faculty members associated with the women’s history program decided that Amy should teach the course: “Everyone agreed that she is the best possible person for this position and that it would be a waste of time to interview anyone else.”
Now, believe me, it is a very unusual thing for someone to enter a college or university as a graduate student and get drafted onto its faculty eight months later. But Amy was a very unusual someone. As an adult student with four children, she earned her bachelor’s degree in art history with honors at NYU. In 1961, the year before she finished at NYU, she became a founding member and organizer of Women Strike for Peace, which mobilized for a ban on nuclear testing and then against the U.S. war in Southeast Asia.
When Amy arrived at Sarah Lawrence, she was still working with Women Strike for Peace, now editing its quarterly journal, and she had added quite a bit more to her activist portfolio: member of the national board of the antiwar group known as Clergy and Laity Concerned; chair of the steering committees of two antiwar coalitions of women’s groups, the Jeannette Rankin Brigade and the Women’s Emergency Coalition; member of the New York State coordinating council of the National Women’s Political Caucus; public speaking across the country on behalf of the feminist and antiwar movements; author of numerous articles on women’s peace activism; member of the board of directors of an interracial housing coalition in Great Neck, Long Island, where Amy and her husband Stanley Swerdlow raised their family. So it’s both highly unusual and entirely understandable that Amy joined Sarah Lawrence’s faculty within year of her arrival as a student.
The seminar Women Organizing Women was a smashing success, so much so that Sarah Lawrence could not let Amy leave after she earned her M.A. in 1974, with a thesis on women’s activism in the Ladies New York Anti-Slavery Society of the 1830s. No sooner had she finished the thesis than President Charles DeCarlo appointed her Associate Director of Women’s Studies at Sarah Lawrence and announced that she would once again teach Women Organizing Women. During her several years as the associate director, she also headed the American Historical Association’s Institute for Women’s History in Secondary Schools and, and at Sarah Lawrence she organized a national conference of women activists that generated the campaign to establish March as Women’s History Month.
Eventually, we had to let Amy go, but only on the condition that she return as soon as possible. In the late 1970s, when she went off to Rutgers University to earn her Ph.D. in history, two things were understood: that her doctoral dissertation would be a study of Women Strike for Peace and that she would come back to Sarah Lawrence to run the graduate program in women’s history. That is exactly how it turned out. In 1981, Sarah Lawrence appointed Amy a professor of women’s studies and U.S. history, she became the director of graduate studies in women’s history in 1983, and she went on to transform her dissertation into a wonderful book: Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1993. The same year the book came out, Amy retired from Sarah Lawrence, and although she came back several times as a guest speaker or for other special events, her departure left a hole that really cannot be filled — at least not in the way that Amy did the job.
I have asked myself again and again what made Amy such a good organizer. It’s not an easy question to answer because Amy was herself fairly disorganized. All of us who worked with her have multiple memories of Amy dashing off to a meeting or a class or some other gathering scheduled to begin three minutes before she got on her way. She often wore shawls, or scarves or capes that would fly back as she hurried forward; yet as much as she hurried it seemed that her hair and make-up perfectly stayed in place and that at least one item of clothing picked up the red tints of her hair. Amy might be distracted, but never disheveled. In fact she looked like a work of art. Who could not be attracted to someone so beautiful? Who could refuse her a request? That must have been part of what made her a good organizer.
And of course there was also her experience with activism — not just all the work I’ve mentioned but also her childhood and adolescence as the daughter of Communists, growing up in a cooperative housing project in the Bronx, marching in May Day parades, proudly becoming a member of the Supreme Soviet at Camp Kinderland, mobilizing in support of the Loyalist cause in Spain, becoming the national high-school secretary of the American Student Union, and then later, as an adult, weathering McCarthyism, losing faith in the Soviet Union, and seeing her father’s stalwart faith disintegrate too. Amy learned from all of this. It made her wise about the ways social movements rise and fall; what they can and cannot accomplish; how history turns corners and demands that we re-imagine the future. Much better than most people—even most historians—Amy could read the possibilities peculiar to an historical moment. And far, far better than most academics, Amy knew how to manipulate a bureaucracy to get things done. These are essential traits of an effective organizer.
More than anything else, though, I think that Amy’s activism rested on love. She understood people; she went out of her way to meet their needs. When things went wrong — when a student or colleague fell down on the job — I never saw Amy cast blame or get angry; instead, she’d shrug and give a little smile and try to figure out how to make the best of whatever bad situation had presented itself.
And Amy was good at intimacy. My favorite memory of her is of a conversation we had in December 1992, on the Amtrak coming back from a trip to Washington for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. Amy had a wonderful time at that conference, staying out to the wee hours as she reconnected with old friends. On the way back, we spoke about the future of women’s history and then for a very long time about our families. Amy talked to me about her parents; about her husband Stanley who had passed the year before; about her children Joan, Ezra, Lisa, and Tommy and their spouses and children.
I will never forget that day: where we sat on the train, the low and throaty sound of Amy’s voice, the way the setting sun caught her hair, and my realization as she spoke that there was a seamless connection between Amy Swerdlow’s commitments to her loved ones and her commitment to activism in behalf of a better world. That’s what made this beautiful, wise and not-so-organized woman not only a superb organizer but also an inspiring teacher and a colleague who exemplified what it means to meet one’s obligations to the human family.