All my life I knew something was wrong. I was not being treated fairly.
The first thing I noticed when I hopped onto a video call to interview Maretta Short were the balloons, flowers, and birthday cards dotting her window sill. Not to be deterred by the pandemic, Maretta had just celebrated her 70th birthday via Zoom. The friends she has made along her long journey of activism in NOW had all joined to wish her and catch up.
Maretta’s path to activism can hardly be considered traditional. Born in her grandmother’s home in Lyons, Georgia in 1950, she moved to New Jersey with her mother and sister at the age of five after her parents separated. As a single Black parent, her mother worked hard to make ends meet, but soon remarried and moved the family to Newark, where Maretta would spend most of her childhood.
As a Black girl growing up in the ‘50s, Maretta said, “All my life I knew something was wrong. I was not being treated fairly.” She remembers a time soon after she moved to New Jersey – they were driving down South to visit her grandmother when she needed to stop at a restaurant to use the bathroom. When her mother inquired about whether her daughter could use the bathroom, the attendant replied that she couldn’t use their bathroom – she’d have to go out back. It was dark outside and Maretta cried to her mother, scared. This was Maretta’s first encounter with racism and segregation but it would not be her last.
While Maretta grew up surrounded by the stark realities of racism, it was not until she returned to college in her early 30s, that she realized all the inequities in her life were not just due to the fact that she was Black; they were compounded by the fact that she was a woman. As Maretta explained, “Racism is a very important issue. Some people don’t see it as a women’s issue, but it is. It always has been.”
One day, she wandered into the Women’s Center at Ramapo College and noticed the book, Our Bodies, Ourselves lying on the table in the lounge. Having picked it up, she could not put it down. That started her journey into activism. She began to get more involved with the Women’s Center, organizing events and joining campaigns. She served as Bella Abzug’s bodyguard for a student-run event in the ‘80s and was a student coordinator for the Jesse Jackson for President campaign. Through her work on that campaign, she had the fortune of meeting Flo Kennedy and the opportunity to interview her for the student newspaper. She even attended Kennedy’s famous Thanksgiving leftover potluck dinner in her Fifth Avenue apartment.
After speaking at a Rutgers Women’s rally where she was interviewed by a television reporter, Maretta was approached by Fran Luck, the host of a feminist radio show on WBAI. Impressed by her interview, Fran invited her to co-host the radio show, the “Joy of Resistance” which Maretta did for several decades, interviewing icons like Angela Davis and Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Inspired by her own childhood and lived experiences, her biggest focus was on welfare reform as evidenced by her work on New Jersey’s paid family leave legislation. Through the years, she has spoken at several events and protests on issues like pay equity, violence against women, and racial profiling. As Maretta proudly exclaimed, she’s “a real rally woman.” Maretta’s proudest moment came when she was honored by the National Council of Negro Women and received a commendation from New Jersey’s State Legislature. She said, “It felt like I was the prodigal woman who had come home.” She had always seen herself as an outsider in such organizations, believing that upper class Black women chose not to affiliate with working class women like her.
When asked what she would tell the next generation of fighting feminists, Maretta had this advice for them, “Keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t stop – you can give out but don’t give up. You may get tired, sit down, and rest, but get back up. Keep trying and trying and trying until you reach your goal. That’s what we all have to do.”
Read the full transcript of the interview here.
Isha is a recent graduate from the University of Chicago and is currently working at Google NYC as a Software Engineer. She is passionate about promoting gender parity in tech and can more than hold her own in a Harry Potter trivia challenge.
Watch Balloons: HERstory – a short film based on this project.
Maretta Short was the first elected Black President of New Jersey NOW. She is a community activist, organizer, and a founder of the Women of Color and Allies (WOCA) Essex County Chapter. As a single parent, Maretta returned to college and received an Associate Degree from County College of Morris and a Bachelor’s of Communications Arts Degree from Ramapo College of New Jersey. Maretta co-hosted “Essex County NOW,” a Newark Cablevision Program and her bi-weekly column “The Way It Is” was published in the East Orange Record and in the commentary section of The Star-Ledger. She appeared on the nationally syndicated television program, “The Geraldo Show” as a panelist addressing important issues concerning women and race.