Urvashi: The Vassar Years, 1975-79
This roundtable features three friends of Urvashi from her years at Vassar College. Susan Allee worked at the United Nations for nearly thirty years and prior to that as a legal aid attorney. She also was a founder of the employee advocacy group UN-GLOBE. Robert Bloch worked after college as a community organizer for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform (ACORN) and since 1984 has been a labor lawyer in Chicago representing unions and employees. Betsy F. Ringel is a Baltimore-based foundation professional with twenty-nine years of experience in family philanthropy.
Marc: What do you remember about meeting Urvashi at Vassar? What were your first impressions?
Betsy: I met Urvashi during our first week at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York; it was 1975. She was a precocious 16-year old, wickedly smart, highly adventurous, and infectiously outgoing. We started hanging out together, meeting classmates, making new friends–there was lots of fun (partying, dancing) and basking in the joy and freedom of being college freshmen. We both came from families with strong ethnic/cultural identities (me European Jewish, Urv Indian/Hindu). Over the next four years we became close friends, co-conspirators, campus activists, and housemates.
Susan: My first impressions of Urvashi were of a studious, interested, questioning woman, who laughed easily and took things, took me, seriously. She was curious; she pulled people in. Urvashi was out to make an impression on the world, or at least the campus. She had a political outlook early on, and explicit standards of fairness and justice. At the same time, she found and created fun. I noticed she was Indian, of course, but that impression was almost indivisible from how struck I was by the fact that she and her older sister, who she resembled, was also at Vassar, and that their third, older sister had just graduated from Vassar!
Robert: Urvashi showed up with an infectious laugh and a willingness to try anything. A group of us students quickly found each other, and we bonded over campus organizing–not that any of us knew exactly what we wanted to organize about, just that we weren’t satisfied with what life had so far given us and a sense that we could right the world’s wrongs. It’s a cliché now to say that’s when we became woke, but that’s what happened. And Urvashi showed all of us by her example the importance of personal relationships in the struggle--that whatever issue we were fighting the College administration about still required us to maintain relationships with administrators, that organizing isn’t something abstract but is working with people.
Marc: What do you remember learning, during your time at Vassar or later, about Urvashi’s family background and history—her parents and siblings, her family’s immigration story, her childhood, her sense of herself as Indian or South Asian or Hindu, her visits to India?
Susan: While at Vassar, and fairly early on, I learned about her family and immigrant background. Urvashi was very much Indian, and very much American. There was a strain within her family, especially between Urv and her parents, about the tension between those identities. Urvashi was rebelling against many Indian traditions on the path to discovering and asserting her full feminist self and making space for the person she was becoming. Hinduism, for example, was not a part of her daily life, though it was central to her mother’s life. At the same time, she shared critical values with her family, including intellectualism, culture, a sense of community. And food: with Urvashi, Indian food was always part of the equation—first, when she was living in dorms, as care packages from her mother, then when she moved to group housing, as cooked by Urv. Urvashi and I, and our close friends Betsy and Robert, met one another’s parents in the fall of 1976, at Vassar’s sophomore parents weekend. The four of us connived to ensure that our eight parents—that is, two Hindus, two WASPs, and four Conservative Jews—hung out together. There was at least a dinner together and, I believe, a coffee the next day, all orchestrated with Urv in the lead, in large part to ensure that the parents could all see that their child was not the only activist outlier at the college.
Betsy: I don’t remember exactly when I learned the story of how Urvashi came to America, but it sounded somewhat traumatic for all involved. When Urvashi’s father was hired as a professor at SUNY Potsdam, he, his wife, and their older daughters moved to the U.S. Urvashi stayed in India with her maternal grandmother. Each time the family went back to India intending to bring Urvashi to the U.S., her grandmother would be distraught at the thought of losing her, saying it would kill her to lose the child. This went on until Urv was eight years old, when her parents essentially had to kidnap her and bring her to the U.S. Urvashi said that, at first, she called her parents Mr. and Mrs. Vaid, not really realizing or understanding who they were. She also talked about having early memories of living with her grandmother in India.
Robert: Urvashi described herself as a “Hinjew”--she felt a deep connection between her Indian culture and values and Jewish ones. I think she chafed at much of her family’s early disapproval of her life choices, particularly coming out in her sophomore year. Yet she deeply loved her family and sought their acceptance, which came with time. My parents and Urvashi’s parents got to know each other and ultimately became close friends, visiting each other in India and Chicago.
Marc: Can you share any stories about how and when Urvashi came out as a lesbian? Any particularly significant intimate relationships during her college years? Do you remember Urvashi having relationships with just women or with both women and men while she was at Vassar? Any fun or funny sex stories that you think Urvashi would be happy to have you share?
Susan: Urvashi was sexually adventurous at college, into men at first but by sophomore year adding women into the equation. Urv was open to experience, full stop, in life, not just sex. She had a serious relationship with at least one guy I remember, of Italian background, named Michael. My memory is also that her first lesbian relationship was with an older, tall, blond Norwegian woman named Åse. She had a very serious long-term (however we defined that in college) relationship with a French woman who came to Vassar on a type of junior teaching arrangement (Betsy will have to help here), who was a young woman but older than a student. I won’t give details on any funny sex stories, but I do know that possibly several included the campus library where Urv had a work-study job. Urv was a strong feminist—we all were—and she spent a good deal of effort prodding our women professors to be more strongly feminist in their teaching and campus involvement and/or to come out as lesbians.
Betsy: Susan is right. Urvashi was adventurous and open to experiences, many experiences. She was involved in a relationship with a man freshman year. Sophomore year, she slept with a woman for the first time (Åse, the tall Norwegian woman who lived down the hall); that was more of an initiation, not really a relationship, although they stayed friends. But then Urv had a major, life-changing love affair with a woman, Eliane Zamek, who was a visiting teacher from France. They ended up living together (with us and other housemates) in an off-campus townhouse. It was a passionate and wonderful relationship for both, but then Eliane had to return to France, where she eventually got deeply involved with another woman and broke Urv’s heart. One morning during senior year (when she was living as an out lesbian), Urvashi surprised us by emerging from her room with a nice guy who we knew was a reporter at the Poughkeepsie Journal. They clearly had spent the night together, which said something about her open mindedness and eclectic tastes at the time.
Robert: Susan and Betsy covered it. But we had some wild sex adventures during sophomore year (never mentioned until now!).
Marc: What do you know about how, when, and why Urvashi became an activist? Did this start before Vassar? What were the major political issues on campus at Vassar in the 1970s? What were the causes, struggles, and campaigns most important to Urvashi? How would you characterize Urvashi’s politics during those years, and do you think her activist experiences at Vassar shaped her later work?
Susan: The question of why Urv became an activist is hard to answer; I’m not even sure I can answer it for myself. A strong sense of fairness was innate. I know she was involved in some political campaigning for George McGovern before Vassar. I will leave the details of this to others who were involved, but Urvashi’s commitment to activism was already manifested by November of freshman year, when she, Betsy, Robert, and a few others started the November 12th Coalition to protest sexist admission policies. Urv had very left politics and was active at Vassar on the topics of feminism, college policies on race and gender, poverty in Poughkeepsie, South African apartheid, gay and lesbian rights, and I’m sure I’m forgetting something. She always embraced direct action and community organizing. Together we and others organized the Feminist Union Socialist Symposium, an annual four-day weekend of speakers and events; joined with a community-based organization to fight poverty in Poughkeepsie; and established Vassar’s anti-apartheid group, subsequently sitting in on a Board of Trustees meeting to force divestment. For that latter breach of etiquette, ten of us were taken to College Court, where Urv was instrumental in crafting our necessity defense—which worked!
Betsy: It was the 1970s! Social change and political movements were emerging here, there, and everywhere around the globe! There was a lot to do and Vassar had a cohort of progressive students who were ready to be involved. Urvashi was first and foremost a passionate feminist. She built on that ideological base, integrating human rights, gay and lesbian rights, class, race, global politics, and all forms of oppression and domination into her analysis. She loved strategizing and mobilizing and brought her boundless energy to organizing her peers and anyone else who would come along. There was the early freshman year demo against the admissions office for its attempts to attract men to Vassar by downplaying the strengths of women. Urv was one of our spokespeople (see Vassar Quarterly for the full story). Throughout our years in Poughkeepsie, we organized around feminist issues on campus. We started a group called the Feminist Union which eventually opened the first women’s center, launched the first women’s weekends that brought national speakers to the college, and engaged the administration and faculty in tackling feminist issues. When I returned from a semester at Hampshire College junior year, I was able to connect our group at Vassar to efforts at the five colleges in Amherst, Massachusetts, area who were demanding that their institutions divest from investments in apartheid South Africa. The November 12th Coalition took advantage of local interest and connections made with the African National Congress to launch a campaign to get Vassar to explore divesting from its holdings.
Robert: When we first arrived, none of us knew what we were doing. But I have a very specific recollection of Urvashi passionately arguing that all of the issues over which we were struggling –feminism, South Africa’s apartheid, gay rights, and elitist administration policies–were in fact the same fight for liberation.
Marc: From what I remember and what I’ve learned about Urvashi, she also was passionate about arts, culture, and music. What do you remember about those aspects of Urvashi’s life at Vassar?
Susan: Surely, if Emma Goldman had not pre-empted her, Urvashi would have come up with the phrase, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution”. She loved punk and new wave rock and loved to dance to R&B and disco. She wanted to play the bass, and eventually learned. Frequently, after long afternoons of studying or political organizing, or both, she would land at Matthew’s Mug, the bar on campus (the drinking age at that time was 18) and dance until closing. Urv played a pivotal role in bringing the Patti Smith Group to perform at Vassar, and with a few of us, produced a historic concert of women musicians touring as the Varied Voices of Black Women.
Betsy: Yes, Urv knew how to party with the best of them. Remember, these were the early years of disco.
Robert: Well, we were certainly Patti Smith groupies. We listened to her records constantly, and we traveled the East Coast to attend her concerts. Urvashi was also an English major, I think, and wrote her thesis on Milton’s Paradise Lost. She loved literature.
Marc: As far as you know, has Vassar claimed Urvashi as an important and influential alum? What do you think would be an appropriate way for the college to celebrate her?
Susan: Vassar has, yes, and with Urvashi’s premature death, the college is likely to launch something to honor her. There is nothing concrete as yet.
Marc: What do you recall about Urvashi’s plans, aspirations, and hopes for the future at the time of her graduation from Vassar? How and when did her plans take shape to move to Boston? Would it have surprised you, at the moment of your graduation from Vassar, to learn that Urvashi would become a lawyer, work at Gay Community News, and become a leader of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the LGBTQ movement more generally?
Susan: This question is very much for Betsy, who went to Boston and lured Urvashi there. But no, the course Urv took after graduation was not in the least a surprise. To support her activism, Urv’s first job was as a secretary—she was an excellent typist—which was perhaps the only surprise given our radical feminism.
Betsy: We graduated from Vassar in 1979 with a strong sense of mission and purpose: to change the world and make it a better place. I knew I wanted to move to Boston after college. It was a fun and happening college town crawling with thousands of young people. It was a hotbed of progressive organizations and movement organizers of every type–socialists, labor rights activists, human rights activists, anti-nuke activists, gay activists, feminist activists, black lesbian feminist activists (and the amazing Combahee River Collective), and vegetarians. It had great bookstores and bars, and it was affordable. Boston was an easy sell for Urvashi. She had gone home to Potsdam, New York, after graduation and we both knew that she absolutely had to get out of there to start the next chapter of her life! I just had to convince her lovely, loving, and overly protective parents, Krishna and Chumpa, that Boston would be a safe place for us to find jobs and ponder the inevitable applications to graduate school (law school for Urv) that we knew lay ahead. I went to Boston to scour newspapers and bulletin boards for places to live and get the lay of the land. About a week later I called Urv and told her to pack her bags: we were moving to Allston. Her parents were nervous, but we reassured them--we could handle the move; we were doing it together and all would be fine.
Marc: What else can you share about the home you shared in Boston?
Betsy: We rented the top two floors of a funky, charming house in Allston-Brighton, not far from Boston University. 48 Allston Street wasn’t in the best of shape, but it had everything needed for a cooperative feminist household: five bedrooms, two baths, and a yard with vegetable garden and fruit-producing pear tree all within walking distance to the Boston Food Cooperative and Allston’s main commercial street. The house was owned by Joe Mazzapica, a real estate operator and convicted arsonist who’d been involved in the Symphony Road arson-for-profit fires of 1975. Joe was living in a half-way house when we signed the lease. We made him swear that he would never come near the house with a match. For the next four years, 48 Allston Street was home base for a succession of fascinating lesbian and feminist women. We shared chores and politics and good times. Urvashi flourished in those post-college years. She fully embraced the freedom and independence of young adulthood. She went to her first big city gay and lesbian pride march; had tons of fun going out dancing every week till the bars closed; cooked elaborate meals for friends; and explored many new relationships. Allston St. became a hub of activity and the birthplace of various initiatives, including a consciousness raising/activist group, Lesbian Feminist Liberation, and a neighborhood safety project called Allston-Brighton Greenlight. Modeled after a successful effort to respond to a series of rapes in another city, participating households put green lights on their front porches and decals on their doors to signal that they were “safe houses” for women who were being threatened or experiencing violence on the street or in their own homes. Urvashi brought her characteristic drive to the effort: going door to door to recruit participants, running trainings, and holding regular community meetings. Through Greenlight, we joined up with a women’s affinity group connected to the Clamshell Alliance and its efforts to close the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. In 1980 when Urv started law school, Allston St. became a meeting place for the law school study group. Urvashi continued to dedicate her sizable gifts for strategy, making friends and building networks to the many issues she was passionate about throughout her three years of law school. After graduating from Northeastern in 1983, Urvashi took a job in D.C. working for the ACLU’s Jail Project. The Allston St. gang stayed together for another year or so; eventually we all moved on.
Marc: Did you remain close to Urvashi after Vassar? What would you like future generations to know about Urvashi? Any concluding thoughts that you’d like to share?
Betsy: I will always treasure my longstanding friendship with Urvashi. She was a constant throughout years of change. Urvashi was an extraordinary human being whose unique spirit and energy lives on in the organizations and movements she served and helped to build, and the people she touched and loved. I miss her every day.
Susan: Reading through the Vassar and Boston sections of this exhibit, and having spent a lot of time over the past eighteen months recalling Urvashi’s life, I find what I want to say to young or potential activists is “Do that! Do what Urv did! Take it all on, integrate your thinking, open your arms, and embrace a wide vision of the possible and the necessary.” Urv didn’t hold back and she believed there could be a vastly more just world. That seems to me to be the only way forward.