Women's History Month

Participating in, instead of watching, history

Susan Gottehrer couldn’t ignore inequality, even as a young girl


She described herself in college as a “timid soul” with a fear of public speaking.

Meet Susan Gottehrer now, and you’ll find out that’s nowhere near accurate.

The 60-year-old is director of the Nassau Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, advocating through the years for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, along with police reform and overall equity. She is using her decades of experiences to continue developing class consciences — all of which started during her days at SUNY Oneonta.

“I somehow fell in with the political crowd,” Gottehrer said. “I didn’t feel like a well-formed person at that point at all, but I guess I had it in me because we became student leaders.”

As in leading fellow students to lobby for lower tuition fees in Albany, speak out against the 21-year-old drinking age, and attempt to keep Ronald Reagan from winning another presidential election.

But when Gottehrer graduated in 1985, she found options for women like her were limited. Unless becoming a secretary was a career goal.

“Unfortunately, I could actually (type) very well, and so I became an executive secretary,” she said — but on her own terms, of course.

“I said, ‘OK, well, if I have to be a secretary, let me at least be a secretary to nonprofits that I care about.’ So, I got into the communications department at the March of Dimes.”

Created by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938 during the polio epidemic, the March of Dimes took on a noble task of working to prevent birth defects and infant mortality.

Yet, eight years in, Gottehrer was not feeling fulfilled. She needed a change and wanted to start a family. She had met a man she wanted to marry — but who was going to take whose last name? Not exactly the kind of conversations couples had at the tail end of the 20th century, when there wasn’t much talk about equity.

Gottehrer harked back to when she first started consciously thinking about gender as a young girl.

“I was developing a conscience about it,” she said. “When I would be sitting in temple and listening to God be referred to as ‘he,’ I didn’t know it at the time, but I really did have a very rebellious spirit from the time I was little.”

That spirit would become more pronounced as she grew older, coming to a head during early married life and motherhood. It was there she faced the decision between family or career.

“Ironically, I had my first child and I did not want to go back to work,” Gottehrer said. But she also had good reason. Her mother died when she was 7, and Gottehrer wanted to spend time with her baby.

“It went against all my feminist everything to say I want to be home with my children,” she said, doing exactly that, although she acknowledges losing “a lot of career time.”

Gottehrer’s two children bear both her name and their father's. 

When her son was old enough, Gottehrer went back to school, earning her master’s degree in public administration from New York University in 1993, and another master’s in political science from the New School for Social Research in 2010. She also attended Columbia University to become a certified social studies teacher.

Using that knowledge, Gottehrer has taught along the way as an adjunct at Pace University, Adelphi University and Long Island University. But she hasn’t taught since before Covid-19.

“If they call, I’ll teach,” Gottehrer said, stressing that “it’s really super-important to be able to teach the good and the bad — what a country has done — because we learn from history.”

Those topics have included government and radical social movements. Living through many of the definitive moments of human history, Gottehrer talks to students about the various movements that have been used so effectively over the years such as Act Up — looking to improve the lives of people living with AIDS — the structures of power that take away a person’s dignity, and having community voices shouted from on top of the soap box.

All of these play a role with her finally ending up at the ACLU, where she most often advocates for police reform in New York.

“I have a really hard time describing why I do this work,” Gottehrer said. “It relates to power, and it relates to dignity and powerlessness. And it relates to the most intense sense of outrage, that anybody thinks that they can have power over somebody else’s life and their dignity.”

Gottehrer believes in the promising power of dignity, and how having — or not having — it can lead down very different paths.

“It gives people hope,” she said. “It gives people a positive path forward. When you are treated with punishment, it is demeaning. It is condescending. It is somebody exerting power over you. And usually, if you take two human beings, and take a negative path of one and take a positive path with the other, the one that you give the positive path to is going to do better.”

Gottehrer says her biggest achievement with the NYCLU is the implementation of a police reform report analyzing law enforcement conducted in Nassau County.

“The prison system and the jail systems are the most entrenched and difficult to change because of how the people inside those structures are viewed,” she said. “These faces are some of the most closed in our society, and the most dangerous because of that.”

Yet, so much work still needs to be done.

“There is a at least a five-times-more-likelihood that Black and brown communities will be stopped, patted down, field interviewed, or any of those things,” Gottehrer said. “As far as complaints go, that is still very, very hidden. Because the police department investigates its own officers, there is no independent oversight.”

Handling advocacy of vulnerable populations can get tense, and sometimes targeting.

“I walk out of some situations just going, ‘Wow, that felt almost even threatening to me as a woman, that level of power coming at me in a very degrading way.’ It feels frightening sometimes,” she said. “So yes, that is that is something but you have to be able to carry it — carry it, and you have to be able to come back at them.”

But you don’t need to be Gottehrer, or have a position like hers, to have your voice heard.

“Speak your truth,” she said. “Keep fighting for what you need to fight for, and your credentials as a human being will be what has to win the day.”