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Freethought Today · March 2017

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Roerden’s activism isn’t by the book - By Chris Roerden

Name: Chris Roerden

Where and when I was born: The Bronx, N.Y., in 1935; grew up in Manhattan's Inwood neighborhood.

Family: Two sons: Ken, who majored in mass communications at UW-Madison and works in film in L.A.; and Doug, who lives on a farm outside Boston with his family (my three grandsons) and is a web architect.

Occupation: Book editor for 55 years, now specializing in mysteries and thrillers by published authors (such as award-winning author/investigative TV reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan) and still teaching writers' workshops. My website is

Education: New York City's High School of Music & Art (now named LaGuardia), an art major; graduated in 1952 at 16 and went to work in publishing.

Eleven years later, I was married with two toddlers, living in Maine, and having researched 300 years of history for the publication of my first book in 1965, Collections from Cape Elizabeth, Maine. I enrolled at the University of Maine-Portland and took the maximum class load nights and summers to graduate in four years with a B.A. in English summa cum laude in 1969.

I was hired by the University of Maine-Portland (now University of Southern Maine) as an instructor of English. I earned an M.A. in English in 1971.

How I got where I am today: Feminism and activism!

I discovered sex discrimination in 1960 when my husband's first transfer took me out of New York City to upstate Albany. A small publishing firm of CPAs and lawyers hired me as its first editor but would not meet my previous salary. I agreed to a trial period, soon earned my raise, but also found my name listed in the various publications not under "Editorial" but "Office Staff," together with the other two women employees. I was told, "We can't have the bookkeeper and typist getting jealous." When I left a year later to have my first child, I was replaced by a head-of-household male who started at twice my salary. Six months later the publisher asked me to edit from home, and I invoiced what my work deserved.

One week before I graduated college in May 1969, a failed birth-control option led to an illegal abortion performed by my family doctor at midnight, with my husband of 12 years disposing of the evidence at the town dump while our boys, 6 and 8, slept a few blocks away alone at home. I was deeply affected — but only by the many contradictions involved. My situation defied all the stereotypes of a college student having an abortion. Everyone cheering for my top honors one week later couldn't know the truth. My mother had gotten numerous abortions until advised that having me would be safer, thereby introducing me to three siblings, then ages 12, 16 and 17. In order for my mother to continue working for my father in his store, he kept my 16-year-old sister from graduating high school to instead care for me, causing all the neighbors to believe she was the mother of an illegitimate baby.

My activism — not knowing that's what it was — began by challenging my grad school's requirement for summer residency on its Orono campus, a hardship on mothers of young children. My alternative to the dean's argument that residency provided "intellectual intercourse among graduate faculty and students," was to create the first association of grad students on Portland's commuter campus and host faculty-student socials with major speakers. In 1971, still teaching and raising a family, I earned the first M.A. in English awarded by the University of Maine system for studies and thesis conducted entirely on a commuter campus.

Feminism led to my joining the National Organization for Women in Syracuse in 1971, finding the greatest support I'd ever known. Becoming an almost full-time NOW volunteer for the next 12 years, I helped create the Syracuse school system's nonsexist curriculum; was elected to regional and national committees, asked to organize for the Equal Rights Amendment throughout the Midwest, elected Wisconsin NOW president, participated in many statewide coalitions (FFRF, ACLU, League of Women Voters, Governor's Conference for the White House Conference on Aging, and others), and won a majority of votes to the national board; and often speaking, writing, and lobbying in Madison and Washington for reproductive rights.

Throughout my life I've had the great honor of interacting with Anne Gaylor, Madelyn Murray O'Hair, Gaylord Nelson, Gordon Parks, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and many other inspiring role models. In the late 1980s, I joined the international organization Sisters in Crime, which today takes most of my energy.

Person in history I admire and why: Elizabeth Gould Davis, a librarian and author of The First Sex, because of her extraordinary research on institutional sex discrimination throughout the centuries and her persistence under fire for her theories of needed social changes. Her book altered my world perspective.

These are a few of my favorite things: Reading, listening to classical music, time with my partner and our rescue dog, observing politics, mentoring new writers, and intelligent conversation.

My doubts about religion started: I never thought about religion even as I absorbed a few Jewish cultural traditions from my secular, immigrant grandparents. My defining moment occurred in an adult evening class on philosophy when the instructor threw open the window, leaned out, and called up to the night sky: "Hey, God, you up there?" After aiming several more questions skyward, he closed the window and announced, "I guess no one's there." No doubt he elaborated on the point he made, but I no longer listened; I was so surprised that an authority figure would publicly demonstrate such bold disbelief, and I savored the great satisfaction of finally witnessing such absolute closure.

Before I die: I hope to complete one more book (currently mired in rough draft), thereby adding to my 10th and 11th titles (Don't Murder Your Mystery and its all-genre clone, Don't Sabotage Your Submission) by offering writers some final words of advice.

Ways I promote freethought: Approaching 82, I continue participating in my local atheist society and donating conservatively to progressives — those political candidates and organizations that keep up the fight for my humanist, pro-choice beliefs.