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  • Schuyler Daffey

Katherine Brewster

On campus organizing and second-wave feminism.

By Schuyler Daffey

Illustration by Oonagh Mockler

A woman with a silver bob waits for me at a table outside Le Monde on 113th. She greets me with an enveloping smile, and I feel immediately relaxed in her presence. Although she points out that we’re two generations apart, I feel as if I’m speaking with a peer. We exchange quips about Physics for Poets, a class, we note with shared chagrin, that would be more aptly named Physics for Physicists. 

She loves sunlight, she tells me, and asks if I mind sitting outside (I don’t). A few blocks away sits the campus that she once walked as a student, protested as an activist, and now remains connected to as an alum. Transition and adaptation embody Brewster’s trajectory and philosophy throughout her life and work.

With a spiritual underpinning and practical work ethic, she navigates and merges disparate experiences, careers, and identities. Under the mid-Autumn sunshine, we delve into her many worlds: discussing her role in the 1968 Columbia protests, documentary production for BC Voices, and forays into both the self-care and corporate sectors. 


This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 


The Blue and White: You’re currently the president and the executive director of BC Voices, and I was wondering if you wanted to talk about the work that you do there. 


Katherine Brewster: BC Voices was started by a group of classmates from the Barnard class of 1971. Our class lived through the building strike at Columbia in our freshman year, and with that event came a time of change in American society in terms of politics and culture. Out of that also came a second wave of feminism. Our class was coming of age at this fulcrum point, and, at our 40th reunion, we started talking about that experience and decided that we weren’t seeing anything written about our generation of women. What was it like to live through those changes? What has it been like over the past 50 years to be on the forefront of changes in women's lives, breaking barriers, coming up against obstacles like sexism in the workplace, and figuring out romantic relationships? We decided that we would start at least trying to tell our stories. 


B&W: That's wonderful. 


KB: So, we created an oral history. We’ve interviewed 79 classmates, and their histories are in the Barnard class of 1971 collection. It's a great resource. It’s primary research for anyone interested in the history of women’s rights. And then we said to ourselves, “Well, that’s primary research, but it’s in an archive. Who’s going to look at it? Do we want to tell the story to a larger audience?” That meant we needed to find a way to bring out all the stories that are in people’s lives, so we started making short documentaries, and that's what BC Voices has been doing since 2012. We created the archives, and we commissioned two different works. One is The Way It Was, which is about living through the political change at Barnard and Columbia, and then Making Choices Forging Paths, which is about our experiences coming into adulthood. Our latest project is the documentary series, Stand Up Speak Up: Personal Politics of Women's Rights, which connects the rights that changed in the middle of the 20th century and the impact those changes have had on our lives as women. Without the change of those rights, my life and your life would be very different.


B&W: I noticed that each episode is based on a different right women have gained over the past 70 years. How did that structure come about?


KB: Initially, we wanted to be really agile. When something happened in the news, we wanted to be able to respond with these little videos, with people talking about what it was like. But, as we got into it, we realized that history is a lot more complex, particularly if you’re trying to tell the history of all women, of all ethnic backgrounds. So they became longer. Then, the structure became something that provides a context for this particular right, like equal pay, which was critical for women gaining economic independence. Then, we’d interweave women’s personal stories with the history. By having these short vignettes, you can actually get a better sense of how the struggle for reproductive rights has affected multiple women across several generations and ethnicities. 


B&W: Of course. And no single woman’s experience is representative of the whole. 


KB: Exactly.


B&W: With the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, it feels all the more imperative that you’re producing this documentary series. What was the experience of compiling these narratives about gender equality while such a monumental cornerstone in the rights of women was overturned? 


KB: It actually made it very challenging because the story changed halfway through writing it. We had to rewrite parts of the script to incorporate that. It also made the process a little bit more depressing because it wasn’t as hopeful, particularly trying to write it right after the Supreme Court decision when so many of us were grieving. To talk about it in psychological terms, we were in mourning; hen we're mourning and grieving, it’s hard to have a broader perspective and see the hope. So that was a challenge. 


B&W: On the subject of sexism and equal opportunity, Columbia didn’t even start admitting women until 10 years after you graduated. What was the experience of being at Barnard with the wider male-dominated university during that time like for you?


KB: At Barnard, there was a sense of a community and camaraderie among women. There were enough classes that were primarily women. So, our voices were being encouraged andheard. Where it really showed up more was in the political organizations on campus that were still primarily Columbia-sponsored. In those spaces, men would dominate conversations while women were relegated to secretarial positions and excluded from leadership. They were not really listening to our voices when we spoke up. That’s where a lot of the sexism came into play. It was because of this that the student uprisings around the country took place. Columbia was the first, but it spread around the country and the world. Many, many women were experiencing the same thing, so then Second-wave feminism really blossomed. I mean, it had been building with Betty Friedan and the Feminine Mystique and started to take shape in 1966. But the real swell was driven by women, especially young women, becoming more politically active after experiencing sexism. They began responding and raising awareness about the issue within political organizations. 


B&W: What does second-wave feminism mean to you? 


KB: For me, I think it’s the collective energy which argues that women are of equal value to men, and that therefore as citizens of this country, we have every right to the same rights any man has. I’ve come to the human rights perspective that every person, no matter their sex, their race, their orientation, is of equal value and therefore [deserving] of equal rights under the law. It is this energy that has been pushing society to make that happen in all areas: not just in the political sphere, but also in the collective consciousness. 


B&W: I also wanted to touch on the 1968 student strikes and building occupations. How did it feel to be participating in such a watershed moment in Columbia history? What was it like to be part of that movement? 


KB: At the time, the Vietnam War was going on, and the 1964-1965 civil rights laws were in the process of being implemented. Simultaneously, people began asking themselves, unconsciously in some ways, how the organizations in their lives—where they work, where they go to school, where they worship—were responding to these issues. 


Students at Columbia opposed to US involvement in Vietnam realized that Columbia was allowing recruiters to come on campus and recruit students to join the armed forces. There was a consortium of universities that the Defense Department had put together which were doing research to create chemical weapons; The university was involved in creating chemical weapons to destroy people. 


At that point, the University was simultaneously trying to expand into East Harlem. It was using all the tactics of a slum landlord to evict people; it was not acting like a good neighbor. The University then decided to build a gym in Morningside Park. First of all, it’s a public park. The community was going to be allowed to come in at the bottom of the park while Columbia students came in from the top, and the community was going to be limited to certain floors. In many ways they were trying to create an apartheid gym. In response to these issues on campus, there had been a number of protests throughout the fall. The other big thing that happened was that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. When we came back from spring break, there was this kind of boiling, not just anger, it was like we were all in mourning and reeling from the awful news. The demonstration was called, and that’s how it morphed into the building occupation. The energy was such that students went into Hamilton Hall and then decided not to leave. This was not premeditated, it just morphed into a takeover of the building. I was not part of the demonstration or originally the takeover of Hamilton Hall.


I heard about all of this and talked to people about the issues, and decided it was important enough for me to join the building occupation. I went into Avery, the architecture center, and students collectively decided to stop school and to take over the building. To me, it was a very different decision, and it was a very heady experience. There were all kinds of conversations in that building. It wasn’t just about the strike, but about how best to shape society in a way that everyone is equal, that everyone has the resources they need. And how do you create housing that does that? 


B&W: What was getting arrested like?


KB: Getting arrested was very scary. Avery was one of the places where the police forcibly brought students out from the building. There was an enormous amount of anger unleashed on us. It was an absolute bloodbath. Cops were beating people, and there were students all around me who were hurt. I did not experience the violence personally, but plenty of students did. The day after, we were all released from prison, and there was another demonstration on campus. The cops came through on horses and almost trampled people. I remember feeling like I was going to be pushed by a horse into a wall. I had no place to go. The cops’ anger was so intense. 


So the headiness was the experience in the building itself and the thought that maybe we really could create a new society that did provide resources for everybody and which really did view everybody as equal. The repressive experience afterward was frightening and traumatic. 


B&W: How long were you in Avery for? 


KB: Boy, I’m trying to remember how many days the strike was, I think it was three to five days. We were living collectively, spending the night there. I’ve forgotten how we got food, but part of what made it exciting was forming a community with the people in the building. 


B&W: In talking about Columbia’s expansionist history, I can’t help but recall the Bollinger administration’s plans to extend further into Harlem and into Morningside Heights. What is your stance on those intentions?


KB: I would invite the University to rethink how it expands. Does it really need to expand? I mean, why is it continually expanding? Barnard is, I think, an example of how to deal with limited space: by tearing down buildings and building up. It’s a beautiful campus. All the buildings on the main campus are gorgeous to walk into, but maybe you got to tear ’em down and build up as an alternative. And if you’re going to expand, pay people, really pay them what the property is worth and act like a decent citizen. I remember when the Manhattanville campus was built. That was an area of thriving small businesses which were kicked out and not paid adequately for the space. 


B&W: You are currently president of the Barnard class of 1971, a position you’ve held for the last 15 years, and in 2021, you received an impressive award for service at Barnard. 


KB: It was an honor to receive the award. It’s great that Barnard has found ways to acknowledge the work that alumni do. Even though I was at Barnard for a very short time, experiencing the energy of a place where women were so appreciated and valued was a major influence in my life. Even though I ultimately didn’t graduate from Barnard, I’m glad to be considered an alumna.


B&W: After you were arrested for your part in the 1968 protests, you stopped attending Barnard. Would you want to talk about what you did in that time? 


KB: I was floating around for a while, and one of the things I did in that time period was that I joined a collective formed by the Black Panthers. They basically said that we all have the same issues. We have poor housing, we have poor education, we are over-policed and under-protected, and the city isn't responding to our needs. Our streets are a wreck. 


The Panthers looked at these problems from a socioeconomic perspective and formed what’s called the Patriot Party with a chapter in Chicago. Then they came to New York City to form a chapter, and I was part of the initial forming of that chapter. I was part of that  group from about nine months to a year, before I left and returned to Albany, New York, which is where I had grown up. I met a man I had gone to church with growing up, who was just getting out of the Marine Corps, where he had been stationed in Vietnam. He was an African-American man, and we fell in love and got married, then had a beautiful little girl. Unfortunately, that relationship didn’t last. So I was 25, divorced, and I had a daughter who was three. I'd been working in a couple of educational and management positions. I’d helped run an opera company in Albany, New York, coordinating one of the largest opera productions in the country at that point. I had created a program for the schools in New York State around the bicentennial for the New York State History Department. I’d done all these things, but I was still finding it incredibly challenging at that time to even move laterally. I needed to get a degree. 


I had already taken a couple of courses at SUNY Albany, and a middle school guidance counselor who was a family friend suggested that I try looking into graduate programs. This was in 1975. I switched my focus and applied to business schools, interviewing at Columbia, Harvard, and Wharton. That’s how I got into Columbia Business School. I realized that I was probably going to be the sole supporter of my daughter, so I really needed to make sure that I was earning a decent amount of money, which is partly why I also went to business school. 


B&W: What was going to business school while raising a child like? 


KB: Very, very challenging. There was only one other person there who had a child at the same time. There was very little understanding from my classmates when we were trying to figure out group study times and work on cases together. The time that I could devote to schoolwork was half of what everyone else had, and it was hard figuring out daycare. As it still is for many, many women figuring out childcare after school. 


B&W: I remember reading that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a similar experience when she went to law school. She had a child at that point, simultaneously going to school while raising her daughter. 


You were in the corporate world for a time, after which you became the founder and director of the ATMA Center of Transformational Yoga. The experiences, I can imagine, are vastly different. How has each played a part in your life? What have you taken from them? 


KB: In the corporate world, I worked at Citibank for almost 12 years in new product development. This was the time of deregulation, and Citibank was looking at different ways to construct products to give people a return on their checking accounts. I was laid off in one of their downturns during the recession of the late eighties. I did some consulting for not small organizations and went back to do some fundraising in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. 


What I got from that experience, I think, is a honing of a skill I have, which is to take disparate pieces and combine them. My first experience with this was in the opera, where you’ve got the orchestra and the chorus, and the leads and the costume, and sets and lighting. But there’s an overarching vision which combines all of these different parts. A lot of managing a business is the same way. There’s creating the product, then marketing it to promote what you’ve done. If it’s a physical product, then you’ve got the manufacturing plant, the people working there, the designers of the product, and ultimately you’re managing the disparate pieces to communicate one vision. At Citibank, getting a product into the marketplace, you're doing a similar thing. 


What drew me to the area of health and wellness, however, was much more personal. Initially, it was my own spiritual journey. Yoga was a way for me to connect body, mind, and spirit in a way that hadn't been in my life. What was important to me is matters of the soul. My way of expressing that was to support other people in listening to their souls and finding its expression in their life. Both my corporate and spiritual experiences come together in managing BC Voices: my organization, my vision.


B&W: Your description of how your talents lie in bringing disparate pieces together to form a whole is reminiscent to me of your work with BC Voices, where you've collated individual stories to form a greater picture of the steps taken towards gender equality. 

KB: Exactly! Well said.

B&W: This has been so lovely. Thank you so much for meeting me. 


KB: You’re welcome.


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