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News & Events

Q & A: Anita King ’37

At 90, Alumna Still Working Hard

Anita King ’37, who turned 90 last January, has spent much of her life working toward a better world. After her Smith graduation, she attended the Columbia University School of Social Work, from which she graduated in 1939, and worked for many years with families and divorcing couples. In the 1960s, she worked as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. And since moving to Williamsburg, a short jaunt north of Northampton, more than 20 years ago, she has lent her energy and passion for peace and environmental responsibility to local activism.

King currently chairs the Population Program for the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club, which works to raise awareness of increasing world population. The Population Program teamed up with Smith’s Project on Women and Social Change in the 1990s, and frequently organizes lectures and events at Smith and in the surrounding community.

On Wednesday, September 27, the program presents a lecture by Jane Roberts titled “34 Million Friends of the Women of the World” at 8 p.m. in Neilson Browsing Room. In 2000, Roberts launched a national effort to raise $34 million ($1 from each “friend”), in response to the refusal by the federal government to release that amount (approved by Congress) to the United Nations Family Planning Program (UNFPA), which assists families in Third World countries with birth control and AIDS prevention.

King, who frequently visits the Smith campus, stopped by last week to discuss the upcoming lecture and her life as an active voice for peace.

News & Events: What is the importance of raising $34 million for the UNFPA? How far along is the effort?

Anita King: The importance is that the United Nations would use that money for clinics that they serve around the world, where women go for contraception, where they get information about avoiding AIDS and so forth, so that money is very, very important. And the UN goal three years ago -- when we invited to Smith Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, [executive director of the UN’s Population Program and] head of the organization Family-Planning -- was to cure fistula, which is a horrible thing that happens to a lot of women who are really too young to be having a child, whose bodies are not sufficiently developed, and who during birth the lower part of their body is really torn apart. It costs $350 to sew a woman back to health.

I had heard that they raised $4 million so far, and Jane is working at it very busily now, she has appointments [to speak] in many different states, and she has several appointments in New Hampshire, and at the University of Vermont, before she comes here on the 27th. She sends the money directly to the UNFPA in New York City.

N&E: How has the response been in the Smith community to your efforts to bring influential speakers to campus such as Jane Roberts and Thoraya Obaid?

AK: Well, I think, generally, we’ve done very well. There were a couple of times when the audience was smaller than expected; but over the long haul, we’ve had at least one lecture every year since 1993, and most of the lectures in Neilson Browsing Room have been filled, 100 people. There have been a few times when there’s overflow, like when Obaid was here. Among others, we’ve had Margaret Carlson, who was formerly the assistant head of health and welfare in Canada, and who was really a superb lecturer. When I picked her up at the airport, she said, “call me ‘Maggie.’”

N&E: How did you become involved with the Population Program?

AK: It was really accidental. When I moved here 19 years ago, I had been a member of Sierra Club, but had never done any work with them, and I attended one local meeting, and afterward I got a phone call that they were looking for someone to go to Washington to lobby for international family planning and reproductive health. All expenses paid. We would want you to stay there for a week, they said. Well, I was delighted because I had left a large group of friends [in Washington] when I moved here, so I saw the opportunity to also visit with friends as well as do some work for the Sierra Club.

Well, I love lobbying. (I had spent lots of time lobbying in all the previous years of my life on peace issues.) So, I saw two members of the house: Barney Frank and another. It was a very easy job because Massachusetts is predominantly Democratic, and it was fun. I came back and I decided this is something I want to be involved in.

N&E: As an active member of Sierra Club, what predictions might you make for the future of our planet’s environment?

AK: Well, I know that there was a survey among leading scientists in many nations of the world that were pretty gloomy in terms of prediction. On the other hand, if we got ourselves together, we and all the nations in terms of changing the fuels that we use, we might avoid the serious consequences of global warming, which would be of course the warming oceans, the rising oceans that would pretty well wipe out the big cities along the coasts…If we begin really to value all of our wealth and natural products instead of placing so much value on corporate wealth and corporate success…it really would require quite a turn about.

N&E: What are some ways that things have changed in our society, from your perspective, since you graduated from Smith and Columbia School of Social Work?

AK: At the point that I went to school of social work, the emphasis was that people had to adapt to the environment, to the community, the circumstances they were in and so forth. I never really bought that. I didn’t like that approach. Of course, I think that there are a lot of things that happen in the community that require change, too. I practiced social work for a couple of years. I was making what was standard price for social workers, $72 a week. That was in 1953. Then I dropped out to have my children, and did not go back to work for ten years and then after that.

N&E: You turned 90 this year.

AK: Yes, in January.

N&E: What kind of advice might you offer to young people embarking on their professional lives?

AK: I’ve had a variety of kinds of jobs, and I think it’s okay to try different things. Of course, you need to stick with one thing for a while before you know what it’s all about, but I think it’s enriching to try different things, and there’s a lot to be done that needs to be done to save the environment; to actually save the survival of the race because of where we’re heading at this point.

Also, working on projects that are important to you. I think each of us has to have something that we really feel is important to work on and to stick with that.

There are a lot of people who retire around 60, 65 and 70 but then find satisfying volunteer work to do. But on the other hand, there’s a large pool of people over 65 or 70 who really could be useful, say, teaching children reading and children who need extra help, and they could also join various environmental groups and be helpful that way, and they would also probably live longer.

I certainly don’t have the amount of energy I had ten years ago or 20 years ago, but I want to continue as long as I can. I think that satisfying work is one of the things that has kept me alive.

9/21/06   By Eric Sean Weld
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