Frances Patai

Frances S. Patai (1930-1998)

Frances Elizabeth Saxon Pollack was born in New York City, on the Lower East Side, in 1930. Orphaned at a young age, she left school at 13 and became a professional model, actress, and dancer. She performed in local productions and “Borscht Belt” theater in the Catskills. 

In the 1940s she lived in the East Village in a community of actors, artist, dancers, and musicians. She loved art, had many friends from the Art Students League, and enjoyed attending the League Balls. She had little money, but later remembered this time as the happiest of her life. 

Eventually she returned to school and graduated in 1955 from The City College of the City University of New York (CUNY), all the while working full time. In 1959 she obtained her Master’s Degree from The City College. It was in returning to school that she discovered her love for literature and music, and she cultivated these interests, along with art, all her life. 

She also became a deeply committed feminist activist. During her years on the Steering Committee of the national feminist organization Women Against Pornography, she worked tirelessly, pounding the pavement in picket lines, and frequently presented the group’s slide show to the public. 

She made her particular contribution in the early 1980s, when she parlayed her knowledge of the theater and her academic training in cultural criticism into the organizing and production of the annual “WAP Zaps,” a feminist awards ceremony in which Women Against Pornography honored advertising that promoted the equality and dignity of women, while giving “Zaps,” in the shape of plastic pigs, to companies whose advertising was deemed demeaning. “We want to tell advertisers to stop producing ads that degrade and promote violence against women,” Frances stated at the 1985 awards ceremony. During that year the group received over 500 nominations for the awards. By the time the event was garnering much attention in the general and trade press, it generated some positive changes in advertising campaigns. In February 1982, for example, WAP presented a “Ms. Liberty” (“Libby”) award to Joe Famolare, the shoe designer, “in recognition of his turn-about from sexist to fun-oriented advertising,” according to a WAP statement at the time. Frances had been instrumental in persuading Mr. Famolare to rehire feminist advertising expert Jane Trahey to develop a new campaign. 

Later Frances turned her attention to history and journalism. She wrote widely on the contributions of American women to the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War; her research project, “Heroines of the Good Fight: U.S. Women Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39,” for which she received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, produced numerous articles and lectures, including a talk at the World History Association’s Sixth Annual Conference in Pamplona, Spain, in June 1997. Her research is currently housed at at New York University's Tamiment Library as the Frances S. Patai Collection of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA). 

In the early 1990s she founded Urban News International, a news agency specializing in women’s and labor issues. She was also a member of the National Writer’s Union and the New York City Labor Chorus. 

Her life and work were informed by her early years of poverty; by the fact of the Holocaust; and by her witnessing of the Peekskill riot of 1949, during which people attending a Paul Robeson concert were attacked and injured by club-swinging police on horseback who shouted racial and anti-Semitic slurs at the audience. She recalled this experience as “terrifying.”

Knowing that stereotypes about groups of people could hurt and kill, Frances endowed a course called “The Nazi Holocaust: Its History, Consequences and Contemporary Significance,” to the taught at The City College of New York Center for Worker Education. She also donated her books on violence against women to Camp Sister Spirit in Ovett, Mississippi, and, via the Global Fund for Women, to MONA, the Budapest based Women’s Resource Center in Eastern Europe. 

Not long before Frances’s death, a friend asked her what she wanted to be remembered for. “I want to be remembered as having fought for justice and dignity for everyone,” she replied.


Last Updated: 11/29/2023 21:20