At age 89, Alice Papcun may have been the most senior honoree on the Women's Plaza of Honor -- at least at its founding celebration. Though feminist in the personal choices she made life long and most especially in her support and reverence for other women, Alice Papcun insists that women's equality was not the issue that compelled her into political activism. Rather, her issue was Industrial Democracy, the organization of labor.
As a young teenager in the early 1930s, in the depths of the Depression and with a vision of a better world, Alice spoke from soap boxes in New York's Lower East Side about the need for social justice. She carried these ideas forth with a lifetime of commitment to organizations that supported women's issues, racial equality, civil rights, social security and the interests of working people. Then, at the age of 17, Alice Papcun set out from New York City with her young husband, George, to organize America's heartland for labor and for the civil rights of all people. Their first stop was Youngtown, Ohio, their last was Tucson, and the rest is history. Alice and her husband, George were founding members and Alice subsequently chairperson of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union.
"To understand my activities in the feminist movement, you must understand my efforts in the context of society as a whole," she said, on the occasion of being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Tucson YWCA. "Women, especially single mothers, constitute the largest group of people in poverty, so when you are working for the rights of poor people, you are working for women. Even today, women earn only 74% of what men earn for comparable work, so the struggle must continue."
Initially, Alice was opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment because it took away certain protections, such as limitation on hours women could be required to work to keep a job -- one of the protections hard won by labor unions in an earlier era. Later, she and the Labor Movement changed their position on the issue. Alice is passionate but never doctrinaire.
Welcome Alice to the Women's Plaza of Honor where you most certainly belong. --Sheila Tobias, January 2006
--'ÌÐI have always objected to being termed a liberal. I am a radical. I want this world changed all the way from top to bottom'--Alice Papcun (Laird).
Alice Papcun has dedicated her life to fighting for social justice. From an early age, she became inspired to fight for the rights and equality of marginalized sectors of society. Her friend Helen Mautner, former Executive Director of the Southern Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), once commented, 'I don't think there is a civil liberties issue, a needy cause or good group in this town that has not been touched by Alice' (Beal).
Alice Falik was born on July 23rd, 1916 in New York City. Her father was from Poland, near the border of Russia, and migrated to the United States around 1911. Her mother was born in New York City to parents who had migrated from the same area. Papcun grew up in the housing tenements on the Lower East side of Manhattan, a poor area of the city. Her family read a lot and encouraged her to read as well. Although her parents were not affiliated with any particular political party, they discussed and were aware of political issues.
At an early age, Papcun had already developed an interest in socialist politics. At 14, she became involved with the Young People's Socialist League (YPSIL), a socialist organization that campaigned for social justice. A loud and clear orator, she spoke on street corners, quite literally on top of a soapbox, about socialist concerns. This was the beginning of the 1930s, during the Great Depression, and it was a time in which people were opening up to new political ideas. She knew at this time that she wanted to change the world, and she committed herself to socialist politics. She attributes a lot of this early interest in socialism to her Jewish background. Her knowledge and belief system came from her father, a religious man who raised her with Judaic ideals. She is not religious, but she was influenced by the humanist philosophy behind Judaism, and her Jewish identity is a significant aspect of her life.
After graduating from high school in 1932, she continued her education by attending night classes in history, literature, and science at the City College of New York. In 1934, she met her future husband, George Papcun, at a socialist conference. Shortly after they met, they hitchhiked around the country as organizers for the Socialist Party. They returned to New York City, and married in November of 1935. In 1939, their only child, George, was born. It was around this time that Papcun and her husband were active in locating sponsors for Jewish families fleeing Nazi Germany.
Soon after their son was born, Papcun and her husband decided that they did not want to raise him in the city, so they moved upstate to Sloatsburg, New York. It was here that she began working as a lab technician at Lily Laboratories in 1948. In 1955, her husband was diagnosed with pneumonia, and shortly thereafter, emphysema. At that time little was known about emphysema, but they had heard that the dry climate in Tucson was a cure-all for people suffering from illness.
Papcun took a one-month leave of absence from her job, and the family moved to Tucson in December of 1955. After learning more about emphysema, they realized that the dry climate would not cure the disease. Nevertheless, Papcun decided to resign from her job in New York and the family stayed in Tucson. In 1961, she started working as a lab technician at the University of Arizona Poultry Science Department, where she worked until she retired in 1982.
When Papcun and her husband first arrived in Tucson, they began organizing for a better world. In 1958, they helped found the Southern Arizona chapter of the ACLU. They were also involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization in which Papcun is still involved. With the NAACP, they organized picket lines during the 1960s, and they put pressure on local businesses to hire people of color. Welfare Rights, now defunct, was another organization that they helped to organize in 1970. This organization sought to increase benefits and empower people living on welfare. The couple formed the Independent Committee in order to address issues regarding the treatment of homeless people, particularly the issue of loitering and vagrancy laws. Additionally, through the organization, A Better Chance, the Papcuns volunteered their time to help underprivileged students find college scholarships.
In 1970, Papcun became a precinct committeeperson of the Arizona Democratic Party. At 91, she still holds that position and still participates in her favorite organizations. In 1983, ten local organizations, such as the Arizona Women's Political Caucus and the Coalition of Labor Union Women, joined together with the ACLU when it honored her with its Civil Liberties Award. In 1993 Papcun won the YWCA Woman on the Move Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2007, her friend, Congressman Raul Grijalva, honored her for her many years of volunteer service to the Arizona Democratic Party.