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The life of an AGELESS ACTIVIST A women's rights protester, a pioneering professor, a Peace Corps volunteer at age 65--Alice Rabson makes a difference

June 18, 2005 2:20 am


Rabson brings her faithful pet, Arthur, last month to the Unitarian Universalist Felowship's Blessing of the Animals service. tcrabson2.jpg.jpg

Alice Rabson (left) is an active participant at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fredericksburg. (Far left): Rabson taught psychology for 16 years at what was then Mary Washington College; the lifelong activist received negative comments when she celebrated Liberation Day in 1970; the purple Volkswagen beetle displayed all the causes Rabson advocated. tcrabson3a.jpg

Rabson has been an active member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Caroline Street since 1969. She sings in the choir and participates in any activities they sponsor, such as celebrating the Religious Freedom Monument. tcpeace.jpg.jpg

Rabson was 65 when she joined the Peace Corps in 1986. She taught psychology, human development and English while living in the Marshall Islands, a group of South Pacific islands. tcrabson4a.jpg

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LICE BRAND RABSON made her feminist views known the first year she moved to Fredericksburg.

On Aug. 26, 1970--Liberation Day--she walked around downtown and at a nearby shopping center decked out in sandwich-board signs reading, "Let Woman Be Free" and "Celebrate Woman's Liberation Day."

"People threw things at me and pulled their children away, saying: 'Don't talk to that woman,'" Rabson said recently while sitting in her apartment in Fredericksburg.

But she didn't care what they said. Not then and not now.

Rabson, 84, has been an activist her entire life, and she doesn't plan on letting her age stand in her way.

She didn't let it interfere when she joined the Peace Corps at 65--being one of the oldest people in her group.

Standing a little over 5 feet tall, Rabson comes across as a fragile woman. But it's her feisty personality, strong opinions and actions that have helped shape Fredericksburg over the past 36 years.

Her passion for justice was one of the reasons Mary Washington College, as it was known then, went coed in 1970.

Her desire for equality motivated her to become one of the first members of the local chapter of the National Organization for Women. And her compassion drove her to advocate with others for the creation of the Rappahannock Area Council on Domestic Violence, where she is still a counselor.

Rabson's philosophy is simple: "Even if it's unpopular, you have to stand up for what you believe in," she said.

All in the family

Rabson is a self-described feminist and pacifist. It's in her blood.

The New York native and descendant of European Jews said her family emphasized tolerance and education. They didn't just speak it; they showed it, she said.

Many attended universities and became professionals. They also were active in their communities.

Rabson's maternal grandfather marched with her mother, Ernestine Isabel, in the suffragette parade in New York in 1912. Alice's mother also taught English to foreigners during World War I.

Her father, Albert Brand, was one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union--of which she is a lifelong member.

Brand also taught ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Rabson was among the few women to attend the university and graduate at the time.

"The ratio was 7 to 1 [seven men to one woman]," she said. "I had a wonderful time."

But Rabson, who majored in sociology and anthropology, wanted to quit Cornell her first year.

Most classes were too easy, she thought, and many of the girls she met weren't as interested in academics as much as they were in getting married, she said.

Rabson couldn't relate to them. She loved learning.

Her father advised Alice to stay for the rest of the year and then make her decision.

She listened to him and ended up loving Cornell. Alice also fell in love with Gus Rabson, a fellow student.

The two married in 1941 and she graduated the following year.

Since Gus worked as a mathematician for the Departments of Agriculture and Labor during World War II, the newlyweds constantly traveled.

After the war ended, they moved to Michigan and then to Indiana, where Gus taught at Purdue University.

By this time, the Rabsons had two children. Steve is now a professor at Brown University and Ann, who resides in Fredericksburg, is an internationally known blues musician and also plays with Saffire--The Uppity Blues Women.

In 1955, Gus and Alice divorced. Alice worked as a research associate and consultant in psychology at Fels Research Institute and as an instructor at Antioch College, both in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Alice Rabson was actively involved in each state she lived at by joining the ACLU board and attending Civil Rights demonstrations. She was arrested twice.

Alice wasn't alone, either. Like her grandfather, she sometimes had her children by her side at protests. In one case, a barbershop in Ohio refused to cut black children's hair, and Steve and Ann picketed the shop with their mother.

"Studies showed children learn by modeling what their parents say and do as early as 5 years old," Alice said.

Ann Rabson said she agreed. She has passed along the same lessons her mother taught her and even protested during the Vietnam War with her own daughter, Liz.

"I admire [Alice] greatly," Ann said. "She has always been a pacifist and very politically active and giving. My brother and I have learned from that."

Alice Rabson furthered her education by obtaining her Ph.D. at Purdue and later did her post-doctoral fellowship with the Educational Testing Services in Princeton, N.J.

In 1969, Rabson decided to teach undergraduate programs. She was working as a research and teaching associate at the Merrill-Palmer Institute and a graduate professor at Wayne State University, both in Detroit.

Her higher-ups wouldn't accommodate her request, so she quit. She applied to several universities and received many offers, but decided to go with then-Mary Washington College.

"This was the lowest salary and least prestigious place," she said. "But when I came here for an interview it was spring and it was so beautiful here."

Alice and Mary

Before Rabson accepted a professorship at Mary Washington, she asked to teach a class on ag- ing for the psychology department.

At the time, the department offered courses only on child development and adolescence, she said.

"That's not human development," she said. "You need to start at the very beginning and do the life cycle. They were very happy about that. It was a trend of the times and everybody teaches it now."

Roy Smith, who is a psychology professor at the University of Mary Washington, started working there the year after Rabson began.

The core of today's psychology department was formed between 1968 and 1974, he said.

The department's eight professors--Rabson included--helped redefine the department, Smith said.

Rabson held seminars on psychology of women, human sexual response, personality and social psychology.

She and Elizabeth Clark, a former religion professor at the university, also pushed for a women's studies course, Smith said.

Mary Washington was an all-girls school at the time, but college officials allowed veterans to take classes with their GI Bill, and non-residential men were admitted to the college's summer sessions.

The school's female students weren't allowed to take classes at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville--Mary Washington was the women's division of the university.

Rabson was outraged.

"I was hearing a lot of complaints, and it was unfair," she said.

Rabson, who was on Virginia's ACLU board at the time, contacted the civil-liberties group. The organization filed a lawsuit against U.Va., contending sex discrimination by the university in connection with the denial of admission of four women who applied to the school's undergraduate College of Arts and Sciences.

The ACLU took a step beyond Mary Washington and asked that the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court prohibit sex discrimination at any state-supported college or university.

The civil-liberties organization won.

Rabson, who retired in 1985, said she doesn't think she's responsible for the school going coed. Others might have complained. But she has noticed how Mary Washington has changed over the years and loves it.

"The first year I started working there, women wanted to be secretaries or nurses, and all of them wanted to be married and, by the time they graduated, they were engaged," she said. "Students aren't like that anymore."

Smith, who remembers Rabson driving a purple Volkswagen beetle decorated with bumper stickers, said Rabson was always fighting for a cause.

Fighting for a cause

Since women's rights have always been a concern for Rabson, it seemed natural that she and a group of friends would form a local chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Elizabeth Clark co-founded the local chapter in 1972. Rabson, who commuted to Northern Virginia for meetings, was among the first members. Others included Becky Reed of Stafford and the late Sue Hanna.

Rabson also recruited students from Mary Washington to join.

"She spoke out on discrimination of every kind you can think of. She does not mind taking a stand on issues," Reed said. "She's a pacifist, which is unusual these days."

The group of friends was also active in the creation of a local shelter for battered women.

"There was absolutely nothing for women here," Rabson said. "Something needed to be done. We wanted to get a place where they go, and no one would know where it was."

Rabson, Reed, Hanna, Becky Guy of Stafford, Ray Davis of Stafford, Florence Ridderhof of Fredericksburg and others founded the Rappahannock Council on Domestic Violence in 1978.

The group first worked with women at their homes--Ridderhof had some live at hers. RCDV soon got a grant and was able to open a shelter called The Haven, which is at an undisclosed location.

Each member had a role to play. Rabson worked as a crisis counselor with the men who were court-ordered to attend group sessions, Ridderhof said.

Rabson continues to serve as a counselor for the nonprofit organization, which has an office off U.S. 17 in Stafford County.

"She is such an exceptional woman," Ridderhof said. "She is going to be doing and giving for a long time."

Retirement? Never

When Rabson retired from Mary Washington College in 1985, she didn't stay home and garden.

Instead, she joined the Peace Corps in 1986. At 65, she was one of the oldest volunteers in the organization.

She was sent to the Marshall Islands, a group of South Pacific islands. She lived for two years with a native family in Majuro, the capital, and taught psychology, human development and English at the local college. She also wrote and distributed pamphlets on health issues.

Alice loved the friendliness and love the Marshallese show each other and to strangers.

"When you walk in the streets you greet each other by saying, 'Yokwe,' meaning 'I love you,'" Rabson said.

Her main accomplishment was a study of the high suicide rate on the island among the young men, she said.

"The boys felt things were changing," she said. "The Marshall Islands was moving into a monetary economy, and the boys worried about their future. Some had problems and were not doing well in school."

Since her return to Fredericksburg in 1988, Rabson has continued to do what she does best--advocate.

For some years, she taught at Germanna Community College and provided lectures at colleges and community organizations on the problems of women in modern society--her favorite subject.

"I've always been interested in the way people are looked at in our culture in terms of sex roles and how parents treat them," Rabson said.

Her efforts were recognized in 1989, when she was cited as Citizen of the Year by Fredericksburg Elks Lodge 875 for her work with the Peace Corps. She was the first woman to receive the award.

She still fights for her convictions--gay rights, opposition to the death penalty and religious freedom--by attending demonstrations or handing out literature for the Democratic Party at her local precinct every Election Day.

If she isn't counseling at the Rappahannock Council on Domestic Violence, then she is attending Mary Washington ElderStudy. It is a program at the university where a group of local senior citizens meets for educational programs on varying topics.

Rabson is also active in the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. She has been attending the house of worship since she moved to Fredericksburg. She sings in the choir and participates in events they sponsor, such as celebrating the Religious Free- dom Monument.

In her spare time, she reads and walks her dog, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel she named Arthur--after the mythical king.

Looking back, Rabson sees how much Fredericksburg has changed.

When she first moved here 36 years ago, it was a small Southern town where everyone "knew their history and were still upset they lost the Civil War," she said.

Since then, Fredericksburg has grown and become more diversified and accepting of different cultures.

Rabson said she is glad she moved here.

"I love Fredericksburg," she said. "I've had a very good life here."

JESSICA ALLEN is a staff writer with The Free Lance-Star. Contact her at 540/368-5036, or jiallen@freelancestar .com. RHONDA VANOVER is a staff photographer with The Free Lance-Star.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.