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Fredrica Wechsler

Civil rights and women's rights advocate
1929 – 2014
by Maia Wechsler

My mother was a remarkable woman.   She grew up at 71 Ocean Parkway, an only child, with my beloved Grandma Rebecca and Grandpa Joe and although she nearly flunked math at Erasmus High in Brooklyn, she went on to become the night editor at the University of Michigan’s Michigan Daily after convincing her parents that she wanted to go all the way to the Midwest for college. After all, once my grandparents had arrived from Poland and Finland respectively in the earlier part of the twentieth century, why did she need to go so far away?

How did a cultured, well-read, thoughtful girl from Brooklyn end up in Gary, Indiana for the next part of her life? Well, she met Burt, my inimitable father, during a visit to Gary in 1953 for a former college roommate’s wedding, and this dear roommate invited over the most eligible Jewish bachelors in Gary, including my father. My future father and mother got into a heated argument at the dinner table over a new play that my mother must have just seen on Broadway—Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real—which it turned out, after my father passionately disagreed with my mother’s take on the play, he had neither seen nor read. My father concluded that my mother was a cold tomato, but this apparently did not deter him—he loved a good argument—because he asked her to go boating with him the next day on Lake Michigan. She responded that she had to get her hair done for the wedding she had travelled to attend, to which he responded, “Well, we all make time for the things we deem important.” Obviously, he had thrown down the gauntlet, which she picked up—and she went boating with him the next day. Six weeks later, they were engaged!

And like most women of her day, she followed her new husband to his hometown. She married into a respected Jewish family in Gary; my grandfather was the first president of the new Temple Israel. There were, in fact, a lot of Jews in Gary at the time, and a group of the younger ones, led by my father, had been introduced to the precepts of socialism by a beloved rabbi. These young people had become progressive activists, pushing back against McCarthyism and primed for the civil rights and anti-war movements coming in the next decade. This homegrown group was joined by young union organizers, many of them Jews, who came to Gary in an attempt to unionize workers in the steel mills.  It was with this incredibly vibrant and committed group of human beings that my mother made her new life far from New York.

And my mother was no shrinking violet. After a few weeks at home following the wedding, she got a job at the Gary Welfare Department, where she went on home visits and discovered Gary’s devastatingly impoverished African-American community. I am sure that this was a pivotal moment for her—and she never turned back. Our home was, in my memory, a nonstop meeting point for all the acronyms of my childhood, the NAACP, the ACLU, the SCLC, and the list goes on. My first memories of her as a professional begin when I was seven. I remember coming home from school and rejoicing that she was there to meet me, even though she had “gone back to work part time.” This job was at another acronym of our youth, the LCEOC—the Lake County Equal Opportunity Commission. Here she began what became her trademark and joy—taking under her wing the young, bright-eyed Vista volunteers who came to Gary to make a difference in the world, and bringing them home to feed them.

My mom went on to work with my father and his sister, my Aunt Doris, and those who became known as the Gary mafia—a group of wonderfully committed, outspoken (mostly) Jews—as speechwriters and movers and shakers in the election of Gary’s first black mayor, Richard Hatcher, who had been a law student of my father’s. It was a heady and optimistic time when blacks and Jews joined forces to effect great change, and my parents were in the thick of it. My mom got a job in Hatcher’s administration working in urban planning, and then she ran the first Commission on the Status of Women. I knew she was doing a lot of important things at the Commission, but what really struck me at the time was the bold act of civil disobedience she led when she and a group of female employees at City Hall marched into a city council meeting in pant suits!

The pant-suit strike led to a wide-reaching and lifelong engagement in the women’s rights movement when we moved to Washington, DC in 1975. My mom was among the first staff at the National Women’s Political Caucus, which was a significant player in the early struggle for women’s rights in this country. She even had a brief stint in Jimmy Carter’s White House, working on women’s issues. She was an incredible role model to me, my sister Shonna, and many of our friends.

Her last incarnation in her working life immersed her deeply in her lifelong love and appreciation of the arts, when she created the role of curator of arts and music at the National Academy of Sciences on Constitution Avenue in Washington. There she not only exhibited dozens of artists over the years and hosted an ongoing concert series, but she became an advocate of women in science and of the now highly visible push to attract more girls to scientific fields.  She and my father lived with her ever-expanding collection of art, beautiful pieces given to her by her artists—their walls covered two and three paintings high.

I have talked to you about my mother as an independent, courageous woman of the world. I would have to go on at length to describe my mother as a mother, and grandmother to Cyrus and Aviya, whom she cherished. I won’t do that now. I will say, however, that I grew up feeling such a powerful sense of connection to both my mother and father, their unfaltering love and attention, their acceptance and challenge of me, their inspiration. They gave me a foundation—and even as I grew up and out of their immediate care, I returned to them time and again for their guidance, which I never doubted would be wise and thoughtful. I have always been determined to give my children the same. My close relationship with my mother continued up to the end. Even as it became more difficult for her to speak and engage, I would still go on pushing her in her wheelchair in Central Park or at the Met looking at paintings, always talking with her about my current dilemma, asking for her advice. The reversal of roles, daughters caring for mothers, is a slow transformation that leaves very deep impressions. I am so happy my mother’s soul is now free, and I will begin the joyous process of welcoming back—like best old friends—my countless memories of my life with my mother.

May her spirit thrive in all those she touched.

Maia Wechsler, a documentary filmmaker and certified yoga instructor, is the proud daughter of Fredrica Wechsler. She has two children and lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, attorney Edward Hernstadt.

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Fredrica Wechsler, 1990
Full image

Fredrica Wechsler, curator of arts and music of the National Academy of Sciences, in 1990.

Image courtesy of Maia Wechsler.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Fredrica Wechsler, 1929 - 2014." (Viewed on December 14, 2017) <https://jwa.org/weremember/wechsler-fredrica>.

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