Women’s History Month must not close without paying respect to three women who recently passed from life but not memory — or eventually history.
They were members of that in-between generation, too young to fight World War II and too old to rock and roll. Some of that generation, who became feminist leaders in the ’60s and ’70s, might be called proto-Boomers. But these three– Jeane Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth “Betsey” Fox-Genovese and R. Gaull “Ricky” Silberman– recall the Greatest Generation in their defense of traditional liberal values. They were feminists with an asterisk, who believed in the advancement of women, but never at the expense of men and children.
Jeane, Betsey and Ricky knew one another, and all were very good friends of IWF. In a short time between December and February, all three passed away. As friends contemplated the loss of these ladies, the phrase we all used to describe them was “our ideal.” They showed us how to live fully and uprightly as women.
Yet all three were realists in their feminism. Jeane and Ricky raised their children before embarking on demanding public careers. Betsey had no children but almost single-handedly trained a generation of scholars who adhered to high standards of historical research on women. All married men who were their matches in intellect and integrity.
Although stereotyped as conservative white women, they led diverse lives. Jeane grew up Baptist, moving from Texas to Oklahoma to Illinois, attended a two-year college and felt fortunate to receive a fellowship at the University of Chicago. Betsey often contrasted her privileged upbringing, including Swiss boarding schools, with that of the “Sicilian Marxist” whom she married. Both converted to Catholicism as adults. Ricky, a Jew, was born in the middle of Michigan and attended Smith College, as she freely admitted, in search of an “MRS” degree.
Where would we be without them? Jeane was a prime architect of U.S. foreign policy opposing dictatorships and defining U.S. interest in terms of promoting democracy and human rights. In that respect, she gave a new birth to many countries that embraced the same ideals.
Betsey applied rigor to the nascent field of women’s studies, exposing certain non-sequiturs and polishing the best ideas. Her special ethical concern was for the women left behind by ’70s-style feminism– those who felt protected, not abused, by tradition, marriage and family– for whom she wrote “Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life.”
Ricky was vice chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the initial executive director of the Office of Congressional Compliance. She labored to bring forth a set of rules that would enable women and minorities to take their rightful place in public life and in the marketplace, while respecting the needs of institutions to fulfill their proper missions.
As the “founding mother” of the Independent Women’s Forum, Ricky said its purpose was “to give voice to independent, articulate, knowledgeable women who were secure in their femininity and who had the courage to challenge conventional wisdom and bring common sense to bear on issues of importance to women and to men.”
Jeane Kirkpatrick, Betsey Fox-Genovese and Ricky Silberman now belong to the ages. Where Women’s History may go next is anybody’s guess, but if it embraces the ideas and ideals of these three women, it will not go far wrong.