Interview with Miriam K. Slifkin

Miriam K. Slifkin was interviewed by Georgina Oram on November 6, 2010.

Mrs. Slifkin may be known around the state most for her development of the first National Organization for Woman chapter in Chapel Hill as well as her development of the Rape Crisis Center there. Mrs. Slifkin was born on May 24, 1925, in Birmingham, Alabama.   Mrs. Slifkin attended college at the University of Alabama to study chemistry and other sciences. She graduated and received her bachelor’s when she was 21 in 1946.  Mrs. Slifkin’s began her research in Mycology at Princeton and continued it while moving through in Urbana, Illinois, and during her time in graduate school at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill through a division of the Botany Department. Being a woman in the science field in the mid twentieth century was an experience that was controlled by gender. From listening to Mrs. Slifkin talk about her early life and careers, it is clear that her experiences inside and out of the workplace led her to her interest and passion for the Women’s Movement.

On changing her name

Mrs. Slifkin had an interesting experience with her name after her marriage to Larry Slifkin:

I was born Miriam Kressus, and I was identified as Miriam Kressus until I got married. And when I went to get my license – Larry wasn’t there at the time – they wanted to know what my married name will be. And I said, “Miriam Kressus.” And they said, “You can’t.” This was in Alabama. And I said, “Why not? That’s my name.” He says, “You’ll take your husband’s name, it’s the law.” [GO: Wow.] So I was kind of angry about this. I tried to find reasons to be happy about it. And the only reason I could find is that when I was smaller, I was teased, because there was a big chain store Kress, HS Kress, and people used to laugh at me and say I was very wealthy when the opposite was the truth. It was Depression and we were quite poor [Laugh] So I had this anger of being forced. I mean, had it been voluntary, I think I would have felt a lot different.

Listen to the audio of Miriam’s response about her name.

On sex discrimination

When Mrs. Slifkin was applying to jobs after graduate school, she had some trouble getting together her recommendations:

NIHS, which is the Research Triangle Park, this is back when they were first starting, and I applied to them, and you have to have people who will recommend you, references. Dr. Couch, who was theoretically my advisor, had to be one of them. And I got a note from the people I had applied to, and they said, “We’re sorry but we’ve only got two recommendations and you should have three.” And I called them up and asked who was lacking. It was Dr. Couch. And I went into his office and said, “Why didn’t you recommend me?” and he said, “Oh I was afraid you would leave Larry.” There was a chair by his desk and I took that chair, I was so angry, and I took it and went ram! [motion of breaking the chair]. And he said, “Give me, I’ll sign it.” I was so angry. I mean usually I keep my cool very well. But boy, I exploded.

Listen to the audio of Miriam’s response about this experience.

On race and sex discrimination

Mrs. Slifkin talks about her experiences with racial tension while working in a government run lab in Alabama:

I was working in the lab one day, everybody got on beautifully. The man, I don’t know what he was supposed to be. He was supposed to be the head of it, but he did what I did. He probably got paid twice as much. He was quiet he didn’t say anything. But the man that was in charge of the whole operation, all of the state, had an office connected to our laboratory. Well, one day he was in the office and he decided we were making noise. It turned out, one of the black women, a young very attractive young lady, had gotten engaged. She had a ring on. At lunchtime she was showing people the ring, everybody the black and the white. The women weren’t so restrictive as men were. Everybody was cooing over it. And this boss comes in, he said, “What’s going on?” He was just curious. She showed him her ring. He pulled up her dress and started to feel. The other black women, they had Coca-Cola’s you could buy in the lab. They broke the bottles and surrounded him with these broken bottles and threatened him. He got out of there fast. [GO: Oh, yeah] The next thing we knew, his secretary came out with a little board giving names saying, “You’re fired, you’re fired, you’re fired…” All of the black women were fired for threatening him. [GO: Oh my God] Well, I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand it. I went in the office, and said I’m quitting. I just left.

Listen to the audio of Miriam’s response about this experience.

On early activism

Early meetings of the Chapel Hill National Organization for Women Chapter:

First we’d meet in other people’s houses on Monday nights because their husbands would listen to the Monday Night Football or something. Their husbands disappeared so it was very nice for them. They were mostly students so they were in small places. As we grew bigger I said, “Come here.” I asked Larry if it was all right with him, he said, “Yeah. I won’t bother you. I’ll go in the back and leave you alone.” He couldn’t stand it; he couldn’t stand it. We’d get settled here. The first thing he does is comes out, “Can I get you ladies something?” You know, and they would order, “Oh, I’ll have a coke. I’ll have cookies or whatever.” He’d usually come out with a thing of cookies and say, “Can I get you something to drink?” But, I said, “Larry what’d you promise me?” He said, “Oh I just wanted to make sure everybody had refreshments.” [Train goes by] He was so funny.

Listen to the audio about the early NOW meetings.

Experiences leading to activism

The progressive inspiration for the beginning of the Rape Crisis Center in Chapel Hill:

When I was publicized as NOW everybody thought of me as NOW even though there were other people working in it too. People started calling me with problems. I would more or less let them come to my house or I’d meet them at coffee you know in some way if it wasn’t too private. I tried to get out of the house. But some of them saying, “Well I hate to be in a public place.” They would come in. Actually they would usually sit on this couch and we would look out the woods. I found that that made people calmer. So often a woman would come in and she was nervous and she wants to talk but she can’t. I’d just sit up like this on this couch, this couch in very old and it’s heard a lot.

Listen to the audio of Miriam’s response about her meeting with rape victims.

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