Friends remember Jean Grossholtz, professor, campaigner for social, environmental justice

  • Jean Grossholtz was in elite academic circles as a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a professor at Mount Holyoke College, but when called to ask if she would pose for a portrait she didn’t comb her hair or put on a less wrinkled shirt. COURTESY PHOTO/SONALI GULATI

  • Jean Grossholtz, a Mount Holyoke College professor, participated in demonstrations and civil disobedience all over the world. She loved protests that included playful creativity and campy community while making hard-hitting points about changes that needed to be made. COURTESY PHOTO

  • Jean Grossholtz taught in an approachable style while challenging the conditioned thinking of her students at Mount Holyoke College. She always wore T-shirts.  COURTESY PHOTO/JOAN E. BIREN

Staff Writer
Published: 2/17/2021 9:03:15 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Those who knew Jean Grossholtz described her in many terms: She was an activist, a mentor, an organizer, an out and proud lesbian, an avid reader, an accomplished athlete, and all in all, a pioneer.

Grossholtz, 91, died Feb. 9, leaving behind a legacy of advocacy and generosity, friends and fellow activists recalled this week. A longtime South Hadley resident and former professor at Mount Holyoke College for around four decades, Grossholtz’s influence ranged from grassroots organizing to the international sphere, covering areas such as environmental justice, feminism, anti-war protests, labor rights and food security.

Grossholtz was also a founding member of Diverse Women for Diversity, an international environmental activism group, and established the women’s studies department at Mount Holyoke.

For many, Grossholtz’s spirit was contagious, with friends and former students, such as Sonali Gulati, citing her as an important influence in their own activism and personal lives.

“I definitely feel like the fact that I’m a professor today, that I’m an activist, and that I’m out and proud about being a lesbian has a lot to do with Jean,” said Gulati, a student of Grossholtz’s in the 1990s who is now a filmmaker and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Diana Riddle, a close friend, also recalled Grossholtz as an inspiration. Riddle first met Grossholtz at the Northeast Organic Farmers Association conference at Hampshire College in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and, after watching Grossholtz give a lecture on agricultural industrialization’s harmful impacts on farmers around the world, felt “overwhelmed and immobilized” by the issue.

Riddle stayed afterward to talk with Grossholtz, who helped to advise her on “taking steps to do what you can from where you are,” she said. While Riddle was already involved in various activist circles herself, Grossholtz’s perspective made a lasting impact, and the two forged a close friendship over the years.

A native of the Midwest, Grossholtz was born to a working class farm family — a background that she never forgot, said Anna Gyorgy, a friend who worked alongside Grossholtz in her activism.

This background, along with her experience “seeing the real situation for people outside of the U.S.,” likely influenced Grossholtz’s work, Gyorgy said, alongside “the real, deep sense of justice and anger at oppression” people experienced.

Joan Grenier, owner of the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, was a child when Grossholtz first came to Mount Holyoke College, just across the street from the bookshop that her father founded in the 1960s. As Grenier grew up, she got to know Grossholtz not just as a regular presence at the Odyssey, but as a fellow activist.

“We were at a lot of demonstrations and rallies together … we were in a lot of the same social justice, anti-imperialist rallies,” Grenier said. “She was very much a revolutionary in terms of her teaching and reaching out to people.”

Grossholtz’s connection to activism “was in her blood, almost,” Grenier added. “She knew the impact of poverty in this country and around the world, and she connected that to the military industrial complex.”

Grossholtz was in the Army herself at one point, which she told Grenier she’d done to get her teeth fixed, and “understood why poor kids go into the Army.” She later joined Veterans for Peace, in addition to participating in other anti-war protests.

Her work with Veterans for Peace contributed to many of her numerous arrests, according to Riddle. But these were far from her only arrests: “She was there wherever there was struggle,” Riddle said, noting that Grossholtz also participated in causes such as the Occupy Wall Street movement and protested alongside Frances Crowe, her friend and fellow renowned activist, against the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

Grossholtz was also a skilled athlete, and at age 65, won a silver medal in body-building at the Gay Games.

A friend and mentor

While far-reaching activism was instrumental to Grossholtz’s values, she also impacted people’s lives on an individual basis, with friends recalling her compassionate, giving nature.

Gulati didn’t connect with Grossholtz beyond a professor-student relationship until after she graduated, she recalled. But even before she knew Grossholtz as a friend, Gulati said that Grossholtz’s guidance extended to her personal life.

Grossholtz, who came out as a lesbian in 1965, was a mentor and familial presence for many lesbians struggling to find acceptance, Gulati said, herself included. Gulati did not know any out lesbians while growing up in India, and Grossholtz, “being an out and proud lesbian,” gave Gulati the confidence to affirm her own identity.

Gulati kept in touch with Grossholtz after she graduated, and Grossholtz went on to guide her through some of the darkest moments of her life. Gulati’s mother, who lived in India, died in 1997, and Grossholtz and her partner, Eileen Elliott, insisted on being there for Gulati as she prepared to board a flight, driving an hour and a half to take her to the airport.

Grossholtz’s support did not end there: Gulati struggled with the thought that her mother’s home was no longer there for her, so Grossholtz dedicated a room in her own home as “Sonali’s room.”

“Jean said, ‘This is Sonali’s room, and it will always be your room. You should know that you always have a room to come back to,’” Gulati recalled. “That meant a lot to me.”

Grossholtz “adopted” other students over the years as well, Gulati said, and since Grossholtz’s death, she has heard from Mount Holyoke students spanning generations who were supported and inspired by Grossholtz.

Grossholtz was also an avid reader, and her support for the Odyssey went beyond that of a typical customer. When the bookstore was on the verge of bankruptcy in the 1990s, Grossholtz and Elliott helped Grenier raise money to save the shop.

“She had principles, and she lived by them,” Grenier said, “and she was very generous. Not just to me and the Odyssey, but to many people.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at

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