Nancy Dubner: a life of path paving for women
By John Addyman
“I wish I could be born and start again,” said Nancy Couture Dubner.
Her voice didn’t trail off wistfully when she said that, like she was thinking of a dream. She meant it. She saw what she could do if she had another run at life.
“We waste so much energy and the power of our population by making women second class. Young women today aren’t going to take that. I’m very proud I’m a woman and outraged that women are still considered second class in this country,” Dubner said.
The 86-year-old doesn’t need a long runway to make her point.
She was a teen when she began bristling about being considered less than a whole capable person just because she wore a skirt, and she has spent the last 70 years clearing a path for herself and other women to follow.
You know her.
Well, you know of her works, her achievements.
In her career, Dubner singlehandedly changed Internal Revenue Service tax laws to allow working women to deduct childcare expenses.
She spearheaded the movement to restore Eleanor Roosevelt’s home, Val-Kill, and have it become a National Park in downstate New York.
Used her success with Val-Kill to start the process and land funding to create the Women’s Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls.
Born and educated in Connecticut, she started a family in Rochester, ran for town board in Henrietta, was a major player in Democratic politics, formed the Women’s Political Caucus to provide a Good Old Girl power network, was one of the first hires for the first female lieutenant governor of New York, attended national conventions and got tear-gassed in Chicago in 1968 with the whole world watching.
Along the way she was a junior high teacher in Minneapolis, worked in U.S. Army Service Clubs in Europe in the 1950s (where she met her husband), created the Mohawk Valley Institute for Learning in Retirement and taught a class there every Monday morning. She also served as a trustee at SUNY Polytechnic.
She worked for the New York State Department of Transportation and was a regional manager for the New York Power Authority.
Dubner learned lessons about getting things done early in life, and dedicated herself to showing other women the ropes.
“My purpose in being politically active in things I cared about is that I saw politics and public service were the ways to get things done,” she said.
She graduated from Central Connecticut State University. She taught for two years but wanted to travel. “You couldn’t do that on a teacher’s salary,” she said.
She found an organization that would show her the world and took a job in the U.S Army Special Services, working in USO Clubs in Europe.
“I got the job and went to Europe on a troop ship,” she said. “There were 1,700 men and 33 women on that ship. We did mid-ocean maneuvers and mock atomic attacks. The 33 women were going crazy because we were so bored, so we put on a show. I sang the old Danny Kaye “Triplets” song with two black friends. It was quite funny at the time. We had to put the show on five times so all the guys could see it.”
Her job in France was to keep off-duty GIs out of trouble. She gave classes on appreciating French culture, and led bus tours.
“Once we went to the Folies Bergere,” she said. “I was the only one with a top on.”
The GIs did a lot of wine and champagne sampling. “We had to stop at every poplar tree on the way back to base to let someone throw up,” she explained.
One day, Dubner needed to get a prescription filled and ran into the cutest pharmacist she’d laid eyes on — Hillel Dubner. There was something special in his potions and notions, and they were married in a Napoleonic Code civil ceremony in Fontainebleu, France.
“About 200 people came to our wedding, including all my friends from the army post,” Dubner said.
“It was the week celebrating the patron saint of Fontaineblue and the mayor — who officiated the ceremony — was dressed to lead the parade,” she said. “He had a Napoleon hat on and a French flag wrapped around his waist as a cummerbund.
“I realized that in France I had no right to own property, I couldn’t have an inheritance, and I didn’t own the money I earned or the children I bore. This was long before the feminist movement.
“I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute – am I going to say that I can’t sign this?’ So I agreed. As we were walking out the door, I said to my husband of 10 minutes, ‘Honey I think we ought to get married in America. We had the second wedding in Queens and had all the families together.”
Politics followed quickly. She became chairwoman of the local Democratic Social Club’s dance in 1961, was Henrietta committeewoman within the next two years, and by 1964 was a regular at town board meetings, pressing issues. She had an unsuccessful run at town board the next year, then worked on Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign in 1968, and found herself in Chicago. And the whole world was watching.
She became a state committeewoman and got her master’s degree with her oral argument delayed so the rest of her much-younger graduating class could gather for a celebratory beer party in her honor.
“We waste so much energy and the power of our population by making women second class. Young women today aren’t going to take that. I’m very proud I’m a woman and outraged that women are still considered second class in this country,”
– Nancy Couture Dubner.
As she and Hillel started a family, Dubner found out how successful a single, committed woman could be.
“When I went back to work I had to pay for child care,” she said. “I provided a salary to someone else. And I asked, ‘Why isn’t this eligible for a tax deduction?’ I did some research.”
A Louisiana congressman took her to dinner, and advised, “This is a woman’s legislation: you should get a woman to introduce it.”
Dubner told him, “Some day a guy is going to introduce this and he’s going to be right.”
“I came home and continued to work on that bill. I saw Congressman Barber Conable in his office on a Saturday morning. He said, ‘Nancy, I’m going to pretend that I am the committee and you are me – and I’m going to have to argue the bill before the committee. My first question is, what do you think will be the impact on the federal treasury?’’’
“How am I supposed to know that?” I asked. “Then I said,’ every person who can claim this – you have another taxpayer!’”
The bill went through the House and Senate. Nancy’s Law was signed in 1972. And working moms, you’re welcome.
Dubner had learned a pivotal lesson for women who wanted to create change: “To get anything done, you have to know how the political system works and then put in the work. This certainly beats an emotional appeal,” she said.
The next year, she established the Women’s Political Caucus, a vehicle to allow women to organize and seek public office. And she urged those who were bold and brassy to step forward. The organization started to fund women candidates in the next elections, and in 1974, Dubner was named feminist of the year.
During her college days, Dubner had been an officer in the Collegiate Councils for the United Nations. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a UN ambassador, and Dubner worked with her often.
The Val-Kill Cottage was Eleanor’s home after the death of Franklin in 1945. The home reflected her values: After the war, she turned a portion of the property into a small factory for hand-worked items to give local women an income.
Dubner started working for Lt. Governor Mary Anne Krupsak in 1975 as a community relations field representative and ended up directing Krupsak’s western regional office.
The Dubner family was now five with son Jon and daughters Jollene and Susan. Nancy’s workweek started on Sunday night when she made 38 sandwiches for lunches and froze them for the week. In 1977, she formed the Woman’s Network of Rochester, a mechanism to link and network rising women in the community and assist them in their endeavors.
She took a side trip to visit the Franklin Roosevelt National Park, and found herself at the side-by-side graves of Franklin and Eleanor.
“It was early in the morning,” she said. “There was tall arborvitae. I was alone. I was thinking, ‘I wish, Mrs. Roosevelt, you could realize what women are trying to achieve and be part of it and proud of us.’ I was in tears trying to communicate with her. It was like a religious experience.’
“As I was leaving the tour of the main house, I asked a park ranger to see Val-Kill, and I found out it wasn’t part of the park. It was willed to their son John, who sold it and auctioned off everything inside.
“I said, ‘Somebody’s got to do something about this.’ By the time I got home to Rochester, I had a plan,” she said.
She contacted New York Congressman Jonathan Bingham and Washington State Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson both friends of the Roosevelts — and began a campaign to save Val-Kill.
The effort culminated in a 1977 congressional hearing where Dubner had enlisted actress Jean Stapleton (from the “All in the Family” show, who also made a film about Eleanor Roosevelt) to testify her support. And Val-Kill, when it became a national park in 1984, did not just include Eleanor’s home— it was a museum and conference center.
Honoring the greats
While all this was going on, Dubner had been networking with landscape architect Shary Berg and the legislative affairs director of the National Park Service, Judy Hart. They were considering a women’s rights park in Seneca Falls, and it was Dubner who told them the Elizabeth Cady Stanton house was for sale. She pressed for the park service to include the site of what was left of the Wesleyan Chapel – site of the first women’s rights convention in 1848.
Dubner once again got Bingham interested, and tapped Senator Patrick Moynihan for support. Actor Alan Alda (“M*A*S*H*”) was a large donor to the effort and spoke at the opening in 1982, noting the buildings represented “part of the soul of our democracy.”
Within 14 months in 1996, Nancy suffered two tragedies — Jollene, a park ranger in Lowell, Massachusetts drowned, and Hillel died from an aneurysm.
The tragedies crushed Dubner, but the people in Lowell were so compassionate and loved Jollene so much, they honored her by creating and naming a park after her along the Concord River. Friends in Rochester sent 14 lilac bushes, and a childhood friend from second grade sent a special tree from a Native American reservation on the St. Lawrence River.
“Jollene’s Park opens up that neighborhood and people in the area take care of her park,” Dubner said. “They also named a conservation award in her name. I have the honor to present it to the winner.”
Dubner finally retired, then unretired. A trustee at SUNY Polytechnic for nearly two decades, she proposed a new idea a seminar series for retired persons. The OK was given even after a SUNY official claimed, “If Nancy says she has a good idea, run like hell.”
“We thought about 100 people would be interested; we had to cap it the first year at 750,” Dubner said. “It’s now in its 23rd year.” She teaches a class, “Quarterbacking the News,” about what’s happening in the world.
Dubner has slowed a little, but her family hasn’t: Daughter Susan is a civil engineer, son Jonathan an accountant, grandson Nathan an electrical engineer and granddaughter Hannah a Fulbright scholar working on her doctorate.
There’s no loss of voltage in Dubner’s spirit. She urges women to challenge injustice: “When you think things are wrong, say that something has to be done about it. We’re seeing it now with Black Lives Matter, an injustice. It’s also an injustice that women can’t control their own reproductive processes women have a right to make their own decisions about their bodies.
“I have a very high sense of when something is cruel or unjust: Somebody has to do something about this; someone’s got to try, even if it’s only to talk.”
Photo: Nancy Dubner and Susan B. Anthony.