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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Campus Life March 24, 2016

Items From the Archives: A Rare Childhood Photo of Activist Virginia Apuzzo

From the college archives: girl (Virginia Apuzzo) in soldier's hat leaning against a garden wall.

At first glance, there is nothing unusual about the 1940s-era photo from Smith’s women’s history archives of a young girl in a soldier’s hat leaning against a garden wall.

But once the identity of the girl is known, the picture takes on a deeper meaning.

The smiling toddler in the photo is Virginia (Ginny) Apuzzo, a former Catholic nun who became the first director of the National Gay Task Force—and, as a Clinton administration assistant, the highest ranking out lesbian in government at the time.

The photo of Apuzzo reveals her roots in an Italian-American community in the Bronx, where faith and loyalty were important, says Jennifer Rajchel, project manager for special collections at Smith.

“It shows her patriotism,” Rajchel says, pointing to the envelope-style soldier’s hat Apuzzo is wearing in the photo. “That’s something she only realized was connected to her later activism once she started talking with us in the context of the MOOC.”

The MOOC is Smith’s new online course about the Psychology of Political Activism. The free seven-week course, which begins this week and is still open for registration, uses Smith’s unique Sophia Smith Collection as a resource for studying what inspires people to become activists. Apuzzo is one of nine women whose stories are told in the class.

Apuzzo’s photo and her oral history in the collection help underline generations theory—one of the psychological theories explored in the MOOC, Rajchel says.

“One of the elements of generations theory is the way historical events that occur when you are young influence your worldview and your later activism—even if you are unaware of them at the time,” Rajchel says. “Ginny Apuzzo entered a convent in her 20s, in the era of Vatican II. That’s where she began to study redemptive politics and to think about how to encourage acceptance of being gay or lesbian.”

After she left the convent and came out as a lesbian, Apuzzo became a leader in the National Gay Task Force. Items in Smith’s archives document her efforts to include a gay and lesbian plank in the 1976 Democratic Party platform and to bring attention to the AIDS crisis in the early days of the epidemic.

Later, Apuzzo campaigned for the New York State Assembly and spent two decades as a political appointee—first with the Cuomo administration in New York, and then with the Clinton administration, as Assistant to the President for Administration and Management. (Her gold seal-embossed White House business card is also housed in Smith’s Sophia Smith Collection.)

Rajchel says Smith students who helped create materials for the MOOC spent hundreds of hours reviewing items in the collection before identifying 263 items—including Apuzzo’s photo—for use in the course.

But the photo was a late addition to the college’s collection.

“When we realized we had so few items from Ginny that were not from her days in politics, we reached out to her and she sent us the photo of herself in the soldier’s hat,” Rajchel says. “In this way, we are co-creating the archive with the activists.”