Fembio Special: Women from Latin America
(Raquel Rita Arditti)
* September 9, 1934, Buenos Aires, Argentina
† December 25, 2009, Boston, Massachusetts
Argentinian-U.S. American biologist and educator; feminist activist for science, health, and human rights; author
85th birthday on 9 September 2019
A Life of Activism: Science, Feminism, Health, and Human Rights
Born into a Sephardic Jewish family in Buenos Aires in 1934, Rita Arditti earned a doctorate in biology at the University of Rome, did laboratory science for more than a decade in Italy and the U.S., and ultimately spent the last 30 years of her career teaching doctoral students in an interdisciplinary program at The Union Institute and University. Always an activist, she co-founded three political projects: Science for the People, New Words Bookstore (one of the earliest feminist bookstores in the U.S.), and the Women’s Community Cancer Project. She wrote Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina (University of California Press, 1999) and co-edited two other books: Science and Liberation, with Pat Brennan and Steve Cavrak (South End Press, 1980); and Test Tube Women: What Future for Motherhood? with Renate Klein and Shelley Minden (Pandora/Routledge, 1984). Rita had one son, Federico Muchnik, with her ex-husband Mario Muchnik. In 1980 she met Estelle Disch, and they were partners for the rest of Rita’s life. Rita died in 2009 after living with metastatic breast cancer for over 30 years.
Childhood and education in Argentina
Raquel Rita Arditti was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on September 9, 1934. Her Sephardic Jewish parents, Jacques Arditti and Rosa Cordovero, had emigrated separately from Turkey to Argentina where they met, married, and had three daughters, Edith, Rita, and Alicia. During Rita’s childhood they were joined by three first cousins from Turkey, and the six girls, especially the oldest five, spent a lot of time together, visiting each other’s houses and attending movies on weekends. Rita and her mother also frequently saw films together, often in French.
When Rita was completing elementary school, she met a boy who attended the Colegio Ward in Buenos Aires, a bilingual (Spanish-English) private school run by Methodists that sounded to Rita like a very good school. Her father, always supportive of Rita’s education, agreed to let her go. She even boarded at the school during the week for the first three years. Because the girls’ dormitory was closed during her senior year, she ended up commuting an hour and a half each way. She loved her school and spoke appreciatively of the education she received there throughout her life. The school’s curriculum, along with Rita’s academic proficiency, prepared her well for university study.
During much of childhood and throughout high school, Rita studied piano and at 17 performed a Bach concerto with the Buenos Aires Radio Symphony. She seriously considered a career as a concert pianist as her teacher had encouraged her to do, but did not enjoy the pressure leading up to her performance and decided not to play professionally. For most of the rest of her life she played her piano for her own pleasure.
Higher education, career in science
Rita attended Barnard College but left after one year because she was not happy there. She had been placed in a dormitory with international graduate students, which isolated her from her age peers. While at Barnard, she met Mario Muchnik, an Argentinean studying at Columbia University, and they started dating. They returned to Argentina with a plan to continue their studies there, but the universities were in disarray, so they decided to study in Italy. Rita and Mario enrolled in doctoral programs at the University of Rome, she in biology, he in physics. They married in Italy, and their son Federico Muchnik was born there in 1960. Rita completed her doctorate in 1961 and went to work in a laboratory in Naples. During this time Rita and Mario separated and divorced.
Rita, Federico, and Rita’s new partner Paolo Strigini moved to the United States in 1965. She spent the first year in a post-doctoral fellowship at Brandeis University and a year later was hired by Dr. Jonathan Beckwith to work in his laboratory in the Department of Bacteriology and Immunology at Harvard University Medical School. During her science career Rita published many articles on her genetics research. During her time at Harvard she became increasingly aware of sexism in science and got together with other women affiliated with The New University Conference to discuss sexism more generally at Harvard. In 1970 they anonymously published a pamphlet entitled “How Harvard Rules Women.”
Science for the People
In the late 1960’s, Rita also became very attuned to the politics of science and the politics of the war in Vietnam. She ultimately left lab science in 1971 to teach about science and society at Boston University. In this period she helped found Science for the People, an organization that aimed to educate the public about the politics of science in general as well as the use of science by the armed services, especially during the Vietnam war. In 1980 she co-edited Science and Liberation with Pat Brennan and Steve Cavrak (Boston: South End Press), which included many essays originally published in the organization’s magazine Science for the People. Within the anthology is an essay by Rita entitled “Feminism and Science” (available on the Rita Arditti web site under Selected Publications). She continued to write for Science for the People into the late 1980’s. Rita’s interest in science and feminism segued into concern about the new reproductive technologies, especially in vitro fertilization, and in 1984 she co-edited Test Tube Women: What Future for Motherhood with Renate Klein and Shelley Minden (Pandora Press/Routledge & Kegan Paul).
Feminist activism; cancer
1974 was a challenging year for Rita. She took a new position at the Union Institute and University in its distance learning interdisciplinary doctoral program. She co-founded New Words Bookstore in Cambridge, MA, one of the earliest feminist bookstores in the U.S. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Words_Bookstore ). And she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which required a mastectomy at age 39. Feminism was exploding in the 1970’s, and Rita found a new home in the feminist movement. New Words was certainly at the center of her activity and awareness. She also read voraciously. It was shared feminism that brought Rita and her future partner, sociologist Estelle Disch, together in 1980 as they analyzed sexist dynamics in a cancer workshop that both attended.
During the early 1980’s Rita was exploring her Jewish identity and learning more about Sephardic Jews. Together with Estelle, she went to Israel in 1982, where they visited women’s projects – a battered women’s shelter, a rape crisis center, a women’s bookstore – and watched Israel react to the start of the Lebanon War/Invasion. Rita published a couple of pieces about being a Sephardic Jew and had hoped to write more about her Sephardic childhood but ran out of time. An essay entitled “To be a Hanu” was published in an anthology edited by Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz and Elena Klepfisz: The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women’s Anthology (Sinister Wisdom, 1986 and Beacon Press 1989) (available on the Rita Arditti web site under Selected Publications)
Human Rights Activism: Argentina and the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo
In spite of working full time and dealing with cancer recurrences in 1977, 1983, 2001, and 2006, Rita was almost always able to focus on her research, writing, and political activism. Her book project following Test Tube Women focused on human rights in Argentina. In 1986 she read Botín de Guerra (published by the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo) and learned for the first time about the appropriation of babies during the 1977-1983 dictatorship. She was appalled at what she learned and compelled to learn more. Shortly after reading that book she met two of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo (Las Abuelas) during their visit to Boston. This motivated Rita to read everything she could find about them. During trips to Argentina, she visited the Abuelas’ office and got to know the group. In 1993, with the full support of the Abuelas, she began interviewing them for a book, which she published in 1999: Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina (U. California Press). It was the first book about the Grandmothers in English. (Recordings of Rita’s interviews, plus transcripts of them, are available on the Rita Arditti web site under Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo.) The following year the book was published in Spanish in Argentina under the title De por Vida, Historia de una Búsqueda: Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo y los Niños Desaparecidos (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Grijalbo Mondadori, 2000, trad. Horacio Pons). (Available on the Rita Arditti web site under Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo). Rita kept up with the work of the Abuelas and several years later she wrote an update entitled “Do you know who you are? The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo,” for the Women’s Review of Books (Sept/Oct 2007).
Rita’s awareness of and concern for human rights emerged as she learned about the horrific events that occurred during the 1977-1986 dictatorship in Argentina. She immersed herself in reading about human rights and became an ardent advocate for human rights education. The Abuelas’ successful advocacy for two articles in the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child greatly moved Rita. Articles 8 and 9 relate to the right to identity and to a child’s right to be raised by her/his parents.
About ten years before her death, Rita joined the Human Rights Working Group at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She was not directly connected to UMass Boston, but the group welcomed her as a member from the wider community, and she helped develop the first human rights course taught on campus. She would be very happy to know that UMass Boston now has a minor in Human Rights. Short articles from the early days of the human Rights Working Group, including some by Rita, are here.
Feminist cancer activism
Throughout her adulthood, Rita’s commitment to feminist causes and her attention to science’s role in society never ceased. In 1991 she co-founded the Women’s Community Cancer Project (WCCP), which focused both on women’s issues and on the environmental causes of cancer. Rachel Carson was the group’s heroine and the group’s motto was “Rachel Carson was Right.” Ahead of its time, WCCP was one of the first groups to emphasize prevention rather than treatment of cancer. Rita became more actively involved both in public speaking and writing about prevention while working with WCCP. One of her passions was the campaign against the use of bovine growth hormone (rBGH). She worked tirelessly to produce a joint press release and a fact sheet on that subject. She was a regular contributor to and co-editor of the WCCP newsletters and Fact Sheets. The final WCCP newsletter, which includes a piece about the campaign against rBGH, is available on the Rita Arditti web site under Selected Publications. (An early flyer from the group is also posted there.) Rita also published an op-ed in the Boston Globe in response to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which, by the early 1990’s, WCCP had already renamed Breast Cancer Industry Awareness Month.
WCCP worked with artist Be Sargent to produce a mural dedicated to the Precautionary Principle. Displayed on a wall in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA, the motto of the mural is “Indication of harm, not proof of harm, is our call to action.” Rita and her colleagues worked hard to identify women activists who had died of cancer to be represented in the mural. Rita was especially committed to making sure that a diverse group of women was represented and she interviewed family members in some cases in order to learn more about the candidates. The site features not only women who died of cancer but also living activists fighting for a safer environment. Rita is featured in the top right corner of the mural, speaking at a microphone during one of the many Breast Cancer demonstrations she attended. For a look at the mural, go to Be Sargent’s web site.
Personal life, family
Rita and Estelle Disch met in 1980 in a cancer workshop in Texas led by Carl and Stephanie Simonton. Estelle had gone there to learn cancer counseling and Rita was there to learn more about their approach in order to cope with her cancer challenges. Estelle and Rita’s connection there evolved into a friendship and emotional/sexual partnership which lasted for 29 years. They co-led several health groups for women using the Simontons’ techniques.
Rita’s son Federico settled in the Boston area in 1993 after spending some time in Europe. He came back with his wife Naima Benali and their 3-month old daughter Layla. Rita and Estelle happily became Layla’s main baby sitters. Nothing made Rita happier than spending time with Layla. Although Naima and Federico divorced, Rita and Estelle remained close to both of them.
Rita also stayed in touch with her family in Argentina throughout her life. After her parents died, she maintained close contact with her sisters and her three first cousins and their families, although two of those beloved cousins predeceased her. Rita traveled to Argentina many times; together she and Estelle went almost every year during the last decade of her life.
Rita lived with metastatic (Stage IV) breast cancer for over 30 years. She died quickly and seemingly peacefully during a medical procedure on December 25, 2009, with Federico and Estelle close by. She was 75. Her cancer story and journal entries are published on the Rita Arditti web site under Rita’s Cancer Story.
The threads of activism, feminism, science, and human rights guided Rita’s life and work until her final days. Two months before her death she gave a talk about women and health. Two weeks before her death she gave a talk about the Abuelas. Rita’s persistence with projects she believed in kept her involved with New Words almost until her death, and she taught doctoral learners at the Union Institute and University for 30 years. Although she left Science for the People, she stayed engaged with science issues, including learning about how the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo had used science to verify the identities of found grandchildren. Happily, Rita’s work lives on. Rita Arditti, Presente!
This biography first appeared on the Rita Arditti website.
Author: Estelle Disch
Rita Arditti Official Web site: http://ritaarditti.com
Federico Muchnik, “Rita Arditti: Activist, Biologist, Teacher”
Richard Clapp and Genevieve Howe, “Rita Arditti—Remembering an Inspiring Cancer Activist.”
RITA ARDITTI, A SEPHARDIC HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST, DIED DECEMBER 25, 2009 AT AGE 75. This is from The Jewish Women’s Archive reprinted in a Sephardic Jewish newsletter.
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