In Memoriam: Marge Frantz (1922-2015)

To: UC Santa Cruz Community

From: Helene Moglen, Emeritus Dean of Humanities and Professor of Literature

An inspiring and beloved teacher, skilled activist and generous friend, Marge Frantz died in Santa Cruz on October 16 at the age of 93. Passionately committed to social justice, she identified strongly with the three great social movements of her time: socialism, civil rights and feminism. They shaped her as an organizer, intellectual, and teacher who refused hierarchies while embracing and delighting in differences. She crossed boundaries wherever she encountered them—between teachers and students, academics and activists, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight, black and white. Her emphasis on commonalities was crucial to the success of the progressive communities she created and sustained throughout her life.

Marge Frantz was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1922, to Esther Josephine (née Frank) and Joe Gelders. Her father was a physics professor who joined the Communist Party during the Depression in order to organize for labor rights and racial justice in the deep South. She followed him, she often said, as her “lodestar,” becoming a member of the Young Communist League at 13 when she also hitchhiked across the country with him to New York. There, she sold The Daily Worker on the subway and began her life-long commitment to political activism. She entered Radcliffe College at 15, leaving two years later when she lost her scholarship because of her radical politics, she believed. This loss, along with the near-fatal beating of her father by thugs that a Birmingham steel company hired, taught her the costs of activism and the courage that pursuing it would require. The knowledge only reinforced her dedication.

In 1941, Marge married Laurent Frantz, a lawyer and Communist Party member. She worked as an organizer and editor in Washington D.C. and Nashville until 1950 when, hounded by the Klu Klux Klan, they moved to Berkeley, where they raised four children and participated in the Bay Area’s radical community. The move proved to be pivotal. In 1956, Marge left the Communist Party and two years later she began her vital--if occasionally vexed--relationship with the University of California. She worked as an editor at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Industrial Relations from 1958 until 1969, when she quit her secure job in response to the university’s violence against students protesting at People’s Park. In this period, Marge met Eleanor Engstrand, who became her life partner, and she began to attend classes in political theory with professors Sheldon Wolin and John H. (Jack) Schaar. She enrolled formally as an undergraduate at Berkeley in 1970, completing her BA with distinction in 1972, when she started to work for a Ph.D. in politics. When Schaar and Wolin accepted positions at UCSC in 1973, she followed them to the History of Consciousness Department and moved with Eleanor to Ben Lomond.

She received her Ph.D. in 1984, having written her dissertation on the philosopher and educational reformer Alexander Meiklejohn. At UCSC, Marge found the two passions that animated and shaped the next stage of her life: teaching and feminism. In an oral history she observed that her discovery of teaching “was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.” It enabled her to find her voice, she said, and her métier. First as a teaching assistant in 1973 and then as a lecturer beginning in 1976, she taught a range of courses for the American Studies and Women’s Studies departments (courses in U.S. social movements, U.S. women’s history, McCarthyism and oral history). She believed that the best classroom was one in which everyone learned and everyone taught, and this was the environment that she strove to create. She helped generations of students understand the essential relation of history to economic justice and social change. In 1989, she won a “Teacher of the Year Award” from Re-Entry Services, and in 1997, she was given a Distinguished Teaching Award by the Alumni Association. Over more than 40 years of teaching, she won the gratitude, respect and love of generations of students whose minds she opened and whose lives she deepened and enriched.

Marge came relatively late to feminism. She said it was Adrienne Rich’s book On Lies, Secrets and Silence (1979) that finally persuaded her of the intellectual seriousness of the feminist movement. Once she was committed, there was no turning back. Feminism became the lens through which she saw all movements for social justice. She wanted to make the woman’s movement broader and more socially critical. “Working for women’s rights is trying to get incremental gains within the deeply patriarchal system that we live in,” she said, “…while feminism is challenging the whole system.” For her,“feminism requires a profound transformation of all of world society and all of human relationships.”

However global her vision, Marge always acted locally. In addition to serving for many years on the Women’s Studies Executive Committee and the Board of Directors of the Women’s Center, she was a member of numerous college and departmental committees. She was in high demand as a speaker for campus events and commencements as well as for the local public radio station KUSP, Cabrillo College, the ACLU, and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). She presented papers at Vassar College, Stanford University, UCLA and Williams College and published book reviews and articles in Santa Cruz Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News and Santa Cruz Sentinel, as well as in Mother Jones, Matrix and Tikkun. She was featured in the 1998 documentary film, Seeing Red, and she wrote a chapter for Red Diapers: Growing Up in the Communist Left (1998.)

Marge is survived by her partner Eleanor Engstrand, three children: Larry Frantz of Vancouver, B.C., Virginia Frantz of St. Louis, Mo., and Alex Frantz of San Leandro; a sister, Blanche Hartman of San Francisco, and eight grandchildren. She was predeceased by her husband, Laurent B. Frantz, and her oldest son, Joe Frantz. A memorial will be held on January 17 in the Music Recital Hall on the UCSC campus from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. There will be a reception following the program. Contributions in Marge’s memory are welcomed by Aptheker/Frantz Women’s Studies Endowment at UCSC, American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, and Alzheimer’s Association, Northern California and Northern Nevada Chapter.