Meet Eileen Preiss

Imagine Peace

"What would make an impact on women in a very practical way, that would allow them to participate in establishment institutions, where they had been pretty much rejected?"

Eileen Preiss knows what it’s like to imagine a revolutionary idea and see it come to life. So when you share a deeply held dream with this longtime activist and cofounder of The First Women’s Bank of New York, she responds with a graceful generosity that makes you feel like you can do anything.

She also has firsthand accounts of culture-changing antiwar marches and feminist protests. A group of women navigating the halls of Congress in their high heels and best dresses is not the image we’ve been served of the second-wave feminists who called for the end of the Vietnam War, but Eileen was one of those women. To listen to her calming voice is to learn of the real steps American feminists and peace workers took to pave the way for liberties many of us take for granted today.

In the early ’70s, Eileen, then vice chairperson of the New York State Democratic party, and some of her feminist cohorts began to wonder, “What would make an impact on women in a very practical way, that would allow them to participate in establishment institutions, where they had been pretty much rejected?” she says.

Back then it was difficult for women to get loans without male co-signers for no justifiable reason. Women were considered a financial risk. Female bank executives and board members were incredibly rare. So the decision was made to start a bank mostly for women by women. Some male and female business contacts, not necessarily involved in politics, believed in the idea as well.

By 1975—after fulfilling the banking-regulation requirements and arranging branch details, such as the bank’s children’s corner—the doors to the First Women’s Bank of New York finally swung open in Manhattan. It was “exhilarating,” Eileen remembers today. “The best thing was really the people who came in to borrow money and we could lend money to. Also, to see what happens with human beings with small businesses who were rejected in the past and had a problems getting loans.”

Eileen is still an activist, currently involved in Moral Mondays protests in Raleigh, North Carolina. Almost every Monday a group assembles at the state capitol building to decry conservative-led legislation focusing on immigration reform, voter suppression, the defunding of Planned Parenthood, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid. These acts of civil disobedience generally result in arrests.   

Her three grown children—who all participated in peace activism as well—know their mom’s commitment to social justice almost better than anyone. Ten years ago, one of Eileen’s sons attended a Yoko Ono exhibit at the Venice Biennale. As visitors left the installation, they were handed buttons that said, “Imagine Peace.” When her son got home, he gave the button to Eileen, who proceeded to wear it every day. Even after that one button was lost, and then another, she would search for more to wear. But now she doesn’t have to worry about finding more buttons. “It’s always with me,” she says of her pendant.

Yael Kanarek