“The good news is that I’m old.”
That was how Lois Blum Feinblatt, 92, opened the discussion that she and Chris Kraft, Ph.D., therapists in the Johns Hopkins Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit (SBCU), led June 10. The talk — “The Modern Family in America” — was a follow-up to a recent TEDx Baltimore presentation by Feinblatt called “Choices We Make.”
TED is a nonprofit organization that brings “ideas worth spreading” to the masses through free video talks that can be accessed online. TEDx refers to independently organized video talks that provide “TED-like” experiences to local audiences. Feinblatt’s TEDx presentation, and its follow-up discussion, explored the evolution of the American family since the early days of her career in the late 1950s.
“I’ve lived through the civil rights movement, which impacted the women’s movement and the rights of adoptees, gays and all people of color. It was the great movement of my life,” said Feinblatt.
In 1963, Feinblatt and her family joined protest demonstrations to desegregate Baltimore’s Gwynn Oak Amusement Park.
“Morris Lieberman, the rabbi at BHC [Baltimore Hebrew Congregation], started it and got us all involved,” she recalled. “He was a great moral leader. I think my Jewishness had to do with an interest in civil rights and helping people. Once I asked a rabbi ‘What is it to be Jewish?’ He said, ‘It’s simple: to do good and to do good.’”
In addition to her professional work, Feinblatt is on the board of the Free State Legal Project, a nonprofit that provides pro bono legal services and referrals to low-income LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Marylanders. In 1999, Feinblatt founded the Blum Mentoring Program to support first- and second-year teachers in Baltimore’s public schools.
In 1957, Feinblatt made the unconventional choice to work outside her home. A housewife and mother, she was the first among the women in her family and friends to do so.
“I think it was the encouragement of my husband, Irv Blum. Once I got the idea, he ran with it,” Feinblatt said.
After a family trip, Feinblatt and her husband determined that their three children seemed overly dependent on her. They speculated that if Feinblatt got a job, their dependency would necessarily lessen.
“That was what really gave me the impetus,” she said.
Feinblatt applied for a position with the Baltimore City Department of Welfare.
The story of how Feinblatt landed her first job there illustrates the differences between women in the workplace then and now.
“At my first interview, the interviewer told me of a possible job in public assistance. Without a drop of embarrassment, I asked her if I could use her phone. Then, in front of a total stranger, I called my husband. I described the job that had been offered to me, and he said he didn’t think that would be appropriate for me. The interviewer … seemed to accept that as a reasonable answer and asked me to come back the next day.”
At that meeting, Feinblatt was offered a job as a receptionist. Once again, she called her husband from the interviewer’s phone. Again, he didn’t think the job sounded right for her. When she returned for a third time, the interviewer told her about an opening in the adoption division.
“She asked if I’d like to use her phone to call my husband,” recalled Feinblatt.
“‘No,’ I said. I felt this was the right job for me, and I didn’t want to call my husband,” she recalled.
So Feinblatt began her career in the adoption field.
“This was pre-birth control pill and pre-Roe v. Wade; there were lots of babies being placed for adoption. We told the adoptive mothers, ‘Raise her as if you gave birth to her. She need never know who her biological parents are. Birth mothers would never see their babies after they were born,” Feinblatt said. “Today, it is understood that children have the right to know their birth parents and heritage.”
In 2013, with modern-day medical advances, adoption is not the only option for couples who cannot conceive naturally. Furthermore, many biological parents whose children are adopted by others remain involved in the lives of those children.
“It’s very exciting to have choices,” said Feinblatt.
In 1966, Feinblatt saw a column in The Baltimore Sun that announced that Johns Hopkins Hospital was seeking housewives who could be trained as psychotherapists. In order to qualify, the housewives had to have raised a family, be at least 35 years old, be college educated and “happily married.” After an exhaustive screening, Feinblatt and eight other applicants began three years of training to receive master’s degrees and certification as licensed clinical professional counselors. The trainees were called “the housewives” behind their backs.
In 1970, Feinblatt joined the staff of a new Johns Hopkins program known as the Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit. Feinblatt recalled a time just before SBCU was formed, when Masters and Johnson, the renowned sex researchers, visited Johns Hopkins.
“It was electrifying — standing room only. I had to sit on the piano because there were no seats,” she said.
When the clinic opened, Feinblatt recalled that many of its first patients were gay and lesbian and came to the clinic with hopes of “fixing” their sexual orientations.
The women’s movement and its impact on marital relations was also evident from the “rash of men” who visited the clinic in those early years, said Feinblatt.
“Some men felt their wives had broken their marriage contracts by going out into what was then a new frontier [the workforce],” she said.
Others, she said, felt sexually inadequate, as their wives demanded more from their sexual relationships.
“There wasn’t the openness there is today. Now, it’s about people knowing who they are and what their individual rights are. That’s the biggest change.”
Today, Feinblatt, who doesn’t take new long-term patients anymore, said patient problems are different. She said she sees many transgendered people and marriages affected by “overdoses of Internet pornography.” She also works with couples that describe their marriages as “sexless” and are struggling to maintain monogamy.
Feinblatt continues to teach and consult with SBCU. Her fascination with people has not waned.
“I have never lost interest in people,” she said. “It’s still exciting when after years of therapy, a client gains insight into themselves. It’s been a great ride.”
Simone Ellin is JT senior features reporter firstname.lastname@example.org