Mikki Ritvo, 94; educator was working mother in ’60s

Mikki Ritvo was a professor and dean at Lesley College. Mikki Ritvo was a professor and dean at Lesley College. (Paul Connell/Globe Staff/File 1976)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / July 29, 2010

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Two years before Betty Friedan’s landmark book “The Feminine Mystique’’ championed the then radical notion that women should be defined by more than their husbands and children, Mikki Ritvo was demonstrating how to juggle career and family and encouraging others to follow her path.

“A good mother isn’t measured by the number of hours she spends by the hearth,’’ she told the Globe in 1961, a few days before speaking at a “Women at Work’’ forum. “If she is unhappy, feels confined at home, her discontent will rub off on her family; the quality of time a woman spends with her family is what counts.’’

Mrs. Ritvo, a former dean of students at Lesley College who for many years was a consultant on interpersonal relations and group dynamics for colleges, corporations, and hospitals, died July 21 in Newton-Wellesley Hospital of congestive heart failure. She was 94 and lived in Lasell Village, a senior housing community on the campus of Lasell College in Newton.

“I would call her a protofeminist,’’ said Warren Bennis, a former president of the University of Cincinnati who met Mrs. Ritvo when he was a graduate student in Cambridge.

“She really felt there were possibilities for change, before there was a language for addressing gender equality, before the phrase ‘political correctness’ was in the air. I think Mikki was a pioneer, a forerunner of all the things that today we’re still working on.’’

In the late 1950s and throughout the ’60s, she worked at the Human Relations Center at Boston University, where she taught and became associate director, all while raising two sons, preparing meals for her physician husband, and keeping the family’s house in order.

Reflecting the tone of the times, she was identified in the 1961 Globe interview as a “dynamic Newton housewife and mother’’ before her job was mentioned.

That might not have surprised Mrs. Ritvo, who knew the challenges people like her faced. Sometimes, she said, wives and mothers avoided seeking jobs because they anticipated a backlash.

“Many women hold back, afraid of criticism from family and friends,’’ she said in the interview. “People will accept a carelessly cooked dinner from a housewife exhausted from waxing floors more readily than from one who has spent her day working outside the home.’’

Gloria Anderson, vice president for international and editorial development for the news services division of The New York Times, met Mrs. Ritvo in 1982.

“She was way ahead of her time, both in terms of male-female gender roles and how we accept people of other races, other cultures,’’ Anderson said. “I think she was truly remarkable.’’

Born in Lawrence, Miriam Meyers was the youngest of six siblings. She always went by her nickname, though she changed her preferred spelling to Mikki after the ascendance in popular culture of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse.

“Her father owned a lot of real estate in Lawrence,’’ said her son Roger of Atlanta. “Mikki and one of her brothers would sometimes go to collect the rents, and post-Depression, a lot of people could not afford to pay the rent, so they would pay a few dollars and some food. She used to say, ‘You don’t just look at the money, you look at the people and their needs, and these are people you can’t throw out — where are they going to go?’ That situation is, I’m guessing, a real deep background for her interest in social justice.’’

Mrs. Ritvo graduated in 1937 with a bachelor’s degree in history and fine arts from Smith College, which awarded her the Smith College Medal in 1991. In 1940, she married Dr. Meyer Ritvo. During World War II, while he was stationed in Europe, she worked in factories and got a workplace lesson when she and other women lost their jobs as men returned home.

In the years after the war, she returned to school and got a master’s in education and communications from Boston University, staying up late after putting her sons to bed to type her thesis. It did not hurt that she seemed to never need sleep.

“It’s as if she was born with more energy input than the rest of us mere mortals,’’ Bennis said.

She left the Human Relations Center in 1970 to become an education professor and dean of students at Lesley. Eight years later she was named special deputy commissioner in the state Education Department, where among other things, she worked to hire and promote women.

From there she became deputy director of employee development for the City of Boston and director of management development for the state. She also built a career as a consultant, which she continued until she was 88. And she led seminars for colleges and hospitals in Greater Boston.

Contrary to concerns that some raised, however, life at home did not suffer because of her work.

“I certainly remember a lot of my friends’ mothers asking how Roger and I would turn out as kids because she was working out of the home,’’ said her other son, Jimmy of Montpelier. “She always had dinner on the table for my father and brother and me. She might have been out changing the world during the day and on the weekends, but dinner was served at 6:30, and Mikki was serving it.’’

Intellectual and ethical nourishment also were on the menu. She turned her Newton house into a salon where colleagues and graduate students were always passing through, sometimes spending the night. If she criticized the behavior of one of her sons, she might use a word that would prompt a trip to the dictionary to turn even discipline into an educational experience.

“It was always a house that had something interesting going on,’’ Roger said.

In 1965, she took Jimmy with her to Alabama on one of the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery. “It was a fabulous bonding experience, and I truly look at it as one of the best things she gave me,’’ he said.

The lessons she taught in classrooms and boardrooms resonated just as strongly.

“I think she improved the life of anyone she came in contact with,’’ Anderson said. “She had an uncanny sense of what was real, versus what was superficial, and the amazing ability to speak in complete thoughts off the top of her head.’’

“She was a woman who was not interested in boundaries,’’ Warren Bennis said. “I think she had a deep sense of trying to make a world that’s more equal.’’

In addition to her two sons, Mrs. Ritvo leaves four grandchildren.

A service will be announced.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at