THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I didn’t know the word sexism, but I knew inequality and I knew double standard and unfairness.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, July 2022
JW: Good afternoon. This is Judy Waxman in Washington, DC. And it is the 18th of July, 2022. Adele, could you please introduce yourself and tell us your full name, when and where you were born?
AB: Adele Brookman. I was born July 3rd, 1946, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
JW: I have to say I knew that because Adele and I were best friends in what we called junior high then, and senior high, so we’ll just take it from there. So briefly tell us what your life was like before you got involved in the women’s movement and maybe what kinds of things led you in that direction.
AB: My own immediate family – my parents were not educated. My father was a sort of Archie Bunker character, and yet I do have some memories that pop up, like discussing politics with him, discussing Adlai Stevenson. My father was anti-intellectual, but he actually explained to me that Adlai Stevenson was an intellectual. And at least in that case, that was a good thing. Even though my father was a republican, in later years, he came and said we were right, and he was wrong. But anyway, my mother…I just saw her read the paper every day. And years later, a cousin of mine who his family had moved to Florida, to Miami — he was my favorite cousin, he became a major political activist around Miami named Radical Jack, Jack Lieberman, who we unfortunately lost in the pandemic early on. Terrible loss. He informed me that our beloved grandfather, who was a roofer, a union activist, and one time was even hit over the head for something. Spotty stories, but I didn’t find that out until later.
My mother’s lofty goal for me was like this, “You’re very pretty. You’ll grow up and be a secretary and you’ll marry your boss.” So, there was no encouragement at all for anything about education or higher education. I also wonder, would that be the case had I been born now? I don’t know, it may have still been the case. I just don’t know. But great influence on me was the outer world around us, being from the Quaker City, which at that time did have a very major Quaker influence. Public school. Well-funded public school was a big influence on me. Otherwise, I never would have been to a museum or this place they used to take us called Fellowship House, which was promoting the idea of brotherhood. They didn’t say sisterhood at the time. I even wrote a little poem when I was a little girl that somebody told me was put on a plaque at Fellowship House all about equality, concerning the color of your skin or whatever religion you are. So that was a big influence. And sometimes you’re influenced greatly by seeing what you shouldn’t do, and how you ought not live, by your immediate family. Having TV and seeing the happy families like Ozzy and Harriet and all those kinds of things…but the Quaker influence was huge.
I remember our first day of school at Germantown High School — which I remember the population differently from you. I think you said it was broken down into thirds. I mainly remember being mostly Black, then mostly Jewish, and some smaller percentage of others scattered in between. Anyway, I went up to the school and saw all these Black guys. At that time, I think we used the word, Negro. We were just beginning to use the word Black, and they were horsing around outside of the school as I was about to cross the street. I remember feeling this feeling inside and asking myself, “What is this feeling?” And I realized, oh, my God, I’m afraid. This feeling is fear. “EW”, I said to myself…literally, “No, you won’t be prejudiced. You will not be.” I didn’t know the word racist, but we knew the word prejudice. I just took some deep breaths, walked across the street, said, “Hi,” they said, “Hi,” the bell rang, and we all went into school. And that was a life changing event, as so many other events in our high school were.
Going there at the beginning of the civil Rights movement. One other little anecdotal tell involves you, always running for office — one office or another, as you were. And as your bestie, I was your campaign manager. I went around the school advertising Judy, and checking in, “Will you vote for Judy?” There was a little circle of girls on a landing, and they were African American. I went up to them and said, “Will Judy have your vote?” I kind of knew them, and they very warmly said to me, “No, we’re not voting for white people anymore.” Once again, I had an “aha moment. Oh, yes. I get it. I totally get it.” A totally friendly interchange and more consciousness raising. And then, of course, there was Mr. Wagner, who ran the Historical Honor Society. I was vice president of that.
JW: I was president with you.
AB: You were president of it? Oh, great. That, I didn’t remember. But anyway, I have to go back into the yearbook, which you so kindly recopied for me one year when I couldn’t find mine. But anyway, do you remember how we went on trips with him, like to the civil court? Well, I guess would it have been criminal court? You’re the lawyer, you’ll tell me. Where there was a Black woman who accused a white man of rape. And it was just a typical story of the day, that they were trying to twist it that she was a prostitute. And the judge could not believe that he brought these kids to sit there in the courtroom and witnessed this.
JW: I don’t remember this.
AB: He was a wonderful teacher. So, I had influences like that, as you did, being in the school at that time. And I could go on about it, but I won’t. It’s just wonderful that kids can go to school. Hopefully that will continue — public education.
JW: What got you interested in the women’s movement? Oh, by the way, I do want to say, the years you’re talking about for our audience are probably ‘62 to ‘64, something like that. That’s when we were in high school.
AB: Yes, maybe the end part of ‘61, too. We should look that up. But anyway, yes… influences.
During high school, my mother got sick. Well, the last time I saw her sort of normal, was at our junior high school graduation. She had a brain tumor. Going through high school with your mother sick — and I remember at times when it got to be the worst of it, I remember you coming over after school and even helping me. When it came time to go to college, and by the way, I knew nothing about going to college — my mother is so sick, nobody was going to college in my family. Somehow, I figured out how to go to college, probably with the help of the school counselor.
I’ll tell you about how college influenced my getting into political activism, in particular women’s issues. I was asked to put off starting college, which they weren’t particularly supportive of my going at all anyway, for a few months, because my mother had gotten worse and worse. And this is another question. Would I have been asked to put off going to college, stay home, and essentially be the nurse to my mother while my father was working?
My older sister lived two and a half hours away in DC and my younger sister was in school. Would I have been asked that if I had been a man? During that time period of taking care of my mom, there was no one to turn to. Nowadays, we have a whole cancer community largely built up by women, I am sure, and there was nothing. I just tried to find out about social service agencies, anything that might have existed to help such a young woman with caregiving and all that, and there was nothing. So that, of course, is another big influence. I finally said goodbye to my mother. She had to be put in a nursing home, and I said my goodbye to her, which I was never sure whether she could hear me or not. Then I went to the most expedient college to get into, because it was so late when I finally realized, “Oh, everybody’s going to college, I should figure out how to do that, too.” And so, I went to Shippensburg State College. It had been a state teacher’s college from what I understand, now it’s a university, but at that time it was almost free.
One of the classes that I had, and by the way, my mom died eight days after I got to college. One of the classes I was in, was a speech class. And this college was very Christian, rurally populated. The speech professor was a minister of some sort, and this college had no rules for boys, no rules. But for girls, you had to wear a skirt into the dining hall, you had to be in by 9:00 on the weeknights and by 11:00 on the weekends. I know somebody else whose interview I watched mentioned a college like this. Coming from the big city and having to be so independent from what I just described, I was shocked. And I had friends at Dickenson College, and I wanted to go and visit them on the weekends. And so, in this speech class, I made a speech about the double standard. It was the beginning of ‘65, because I had to put it off. I didn’t know the word feminism. I was thinking before, when did I learn the word feminism? I do not remember. I didn’t know the word sexism, but I knew inequality and I knew double standard and unfairness.
And so, I made a speech about it, and it became scandalous because one of the boys in the class said, “Well, Ms. Brookman, of course it’s like this because boys can’t get pregnant.” And I said, “Well, nowadays there’s such a thing as birth control and that doesn’t have to happen either.” Meanwhile, I was a totally innocent little virgin myself. So that got all over the school and I’ll just fast forward to — I was a controversial person and lots of things happened. I was asked to leave the school. My other professors loved me, I was doing extremely well. But anyway, when the dean of students called me in, his memorable words were something like this. “Crusaders are wonderful, Adele, the world never would have changed without them, but we don’t want them here.” They were allowing me to finish out the term because my professors came and said, “No, you can’t do this.” Even the minister said, “Look, some of her behavior is because her mother just died.” He said, “Finish up the term and transfer to a big city university to be with your own kind.”
JW: And Jewish too.
AB: Yes, one of the three known Jewish students. And I think there were one or two Black students. Anyway, from Shippensburg though, in the writing class I wrote some essay on loyalty and the teacher sent it to the Atlantic Monthly and I got some kind of honorable mention. They called my name up at an award ceremony, but I was no longer there at the school. My friends told me this. And I’m still friends with the woman who was my best friend there. We’re still friends today. So, then I transferred to Temple University. In the past year, I was asked to write for my affinity group. I had a very active affinity group in the ‘80s and affinity groups came up around the Nuclear Freeze and non-intervention in Central America. Anyway, we had scattered hither and yon, but the pandemic brought us back together on Zoom. One of the people, Stephanie, got us all back together and every other week we meet. I was asked to write about how I became a political activist. We all were.
One of the things I wrote about was how, in the student union at Temple one day, there were a few people who would have been considered the dorky/creepy type. I don’t know. They had enormous pictures of Vietnam. Scenes from Vietnam. And this was the first protest I had seen. I remember Mr. Wagner, back in high school from the honor society, took us also to see Madam Nhu’s father who was speaking. He was speaking about how all our funding for Vietnam was going into his daughter’s Paris wardrobe. But that’s the first I knew of Vietnam. Then here I was, at Temple University in student union, and there’s this demonstration with these pictures. People were sort of mocking them at first because they weren’t popular types. I was a popular type. I got up there and stood with them because I just was so moved and thought this was so outrageous. I remember after that going around to sororities where I had friends, like you, and talking about a big peace rally that was going to be coming up. And my memory is that you got your sorority sisters interested in attending.
I visited the fraternities where of course I knew boys in the fraternities. That was just some of the beginning of organizing around the Vietnam War. And of course, went to countless demonstrations in Washington, DC. All the hopelessness of that era, of when the hell — what do we have to do to get this war to end? So that was part of my activism. Also at Temple, I became part of a movement to abolish the grading system. At a lot of the meetings, because my mother had wanted me to grow up to be a secretary. When we were in high school, along with all the academics, I took typing and shorthand. So, in a lot of these meetings, it was, “Oh, she knows shorthand.” My role wasn’t a leader, it was doing the shorthand and typing up everything that was going on. And I started to think, what’s wrong with this picture? A term before I was going to graduate, I wanted to go off and travel.
At one point in the very early ‘70s, I was in Berkeley, and I was a drop out, but I was also a drop in. I just dropped into classes and things like that. But I was a Kelly Girl in order to make a living. And I was assigned a stint with a doctor, a general practitioner who did a lot of gynecological work. I remember at that time, I was getting into the medicinal value of natural foods with my former Shippensburg best friend who lived in Berkeley and learning a lot about health. And this doctor was telling women to douche with pHisoHex, which was the acne treatment that my friend was using on her face. I thought, why are you telling them to douche in the first place, and to use that? And one time, an older woman with a mastectomy came in and he wasn’t sensitive enough to think for a minute that maybe he should warn me, prime me about what I would be seeing. He had the sensitivity of a dead rat. I don’t know. Anyway, this just really opened my eyes, and I knew that I wanted to be involved in women’s health care.
After that time in Berkeley, I moved to Bucks County. I was involved in so many things. In a way, the Back-to-the-land movement. I was involved in yoga, and the medicinal value of natural foods and growing your foods. I think in there I was involved in trying to get a food co-op off the ground. So, I was involved in spirituality and politics, and I could not understand why there seemed to be a chasm between the two for most people. Yogis wouldn’t dream of being in any kind of political movement and politico’s, ”Ew, spirituality.” And for me, the two were just so entwined because they both had to do with really love and compassion. Eventually, I talked this up and got more people to bridge that divide. But some things that influence me, like going to Temple University, and having a major in secondary education and a minor in, I guess it was English literature. Temple’s Department of Education, or at least the way I was involved in it, was very oriented to educational psychology.
I always had to work. I worked in high school, and then I worked in college. I worked for an educational psychologist, two different ones while I was there, and that had an influence on my future profession. I think one of the jobs I had. I was just reading it over last night, was interviewing young kids about how they were disciplined in school. I think child abuse laws didn’t come into play until 1982. I had very consciousness raising things going on there. There was a YWCA in Germantown and Shelton, and as a practicum in the Education Department, I was counseling young women there as part of Johnson’s anti-poverty program. I had a job teaching creative dramatics in a playground with the young kids. There were gang members all around the gate and I wasn’t supposed to talk to them, and of course I did. I just did some ad hoc counseling with them. In that instance, I would say, it was not more about girls. I think it’s so important to remember how sexism and the expectations put on boys are so detrimental also, and limits choices for boys of certain classes. So, that came into the mix of counseling those boys. And the little ones doing creative dramatics. That was both little boys and girls.
In Bucks County, I didn’t realize how much of a Republican County it was. Just a quick example; I was the head teacher director of the childcare center. When the minister of the church, it was in a church at first, said, “What’s your name?” And I said my name. And he said, “Well, is that Ms. or Mrs?” And I said, “Ms.” And he said, “Isn’t that for manuscript?” In Bucks County, I did get very involved in the women’s health movement. I remember, I was active raising money for Joanne Little for the Southern Poverty Law Center. There was the pro-health majority of the Medical Community for Human Rights. I wrote petitions, went to meetings to gather and give information for the Consumer Board of the Health Services Administration of Southeast Pennsylvania. I was in Central Bucks County health task force, and I created and distributed a local women’s consumer healthcare questionnaire on local medical care to give an evaluation. I arranged self-health program meetings and participated in marches on Washington around that, Title XX for family planning.
And then I saw an ad that the Planned Parenthood there, wanted an outreach worker. And that was just a joy. I went in for the interview with the two women running the place and we just fell in love with each other. It was before answering machines, I think. I came home, my phone was ringing off the hook. “We’re not interviewing anybody else. We want you.” Sometimes you wonder why didn’t you stay in touch? Just like you and I over years had lost touch, but not completely, thank goodness. But I did lose touch with them, and I just loved them. Then I was the head teacher director of the Childcare Center.
JW: Did you stay involved with women’s health?
AB: Yes. A thing like the childcare center, with very poor Appalachia children, you wind up doing a lot of counseling in a situation like that. Many of them were single mothers, not all of them, but that was my daytime gig. Nights and weekends, I was doing all these other things. So, let’s see, that was ‘74 to ’75, and then I got involved with a group of women. We were founding mothers or sisters of a Women’s Center for Bucks County. That is what we wanted to do. We wanted it to really be a woman’s place. A place that was just for women, whatever it would be, whatever would unfold. Part of it was, and this was mostly from me, to have a women’s growth center as part of it, and to lead groups for women of all sorts. I started to lead a group called Know Your Own Body. I was influenced very much by Our Bodies, Ourselves, of course, as we all were at that time. A lot of consciousness raising went on in the group about how important it was to remember that you have a body, to really make friends with your body in every way and appreciate it, and therefore, you will be taking care of your general health, your reproductive health, and that kind of thing.
And it was psycho educational. I just mentioned the educational, but the psycho part was hearing from them. For all of them to be sharing their experiences, that was just a very wonderful part of my life. It took ages to get it off the ground. When you’re that age, you think a few years is just forever. In a conservative county, we couldn’t even find a place to meet besides each other’s houses. There weren’t any community places welcoming us to meet there. Eventually, some of the originators like myself, started to burn out. After all, we did have our income making jobs that we had and so forth. New blood came in and were changing the face of it. They brought in a male minister, and there was all kinds of upheaval. One of my friends said, “Look, if I call a woman center, I want a woman answering the phone. I don’t care if I’m just calling to ask what time it is.” Also at this time, I got involved first as a volunteer, and then they hired me. This was probably I started around ‘76 until I left the area at some point in 1978, concern for health options, information care, and education known as CHOICE.
They were housed out of the, I guess, sort of famous Friends Service Committee building on Cherry Street in Philadelphia. And once again, this feeling of, how did I not stay in touch with these magnificent women? My two direct bosses were Susan Thompson and Anne Ricksnecker. I was a patient advocate and birth control options counselor. As far as I remember, before abortion was legal in Pennsylvania, as we know, it was legal in New York, the women of CHOICE came together. I’m not sure how they came together, but they were a feminist organization that ran an underground railroad to get people from the Delaware Valley area, I guess it was called, to get up to New York for very safe, medical, legal abortions. I’m not remembering exactly how I found out about it, because I was so involved in the women’s health movement. Some things I haven’t even mentioned. So, I found out about it, and like I said, volunteered and then they hired me as one of their patient advocates. We protected the medical rights and emotional wellbeing as a liaison between the doctors, nurses, lab, any other necessary hospital personnel, and the patient and the CHOICE office.
We also gave emotional support not only to the woman who would be going through an abortion, but also the person who escorted her there. How this all came about was when abortion was legalized in ‘73, many gynecologists in the Philadelphia, Delaware Valley area, wanted referrals to do abortions. They knew this feminist organization had all this infrastructure already established, and everybody knew to call them for help. And so, these doctors wanted to be in on that. And Joy said, “Great. Fine, as long as you consent to do whatever we tell you to do.” I was there as an advocate for the patients to make sure that that was happening. We were given a lot of training about what lab tests the women should be having. It was just a great job. The staff meetings with the women were wonderful. Everything I learned, biologically and everything, it was just a marvelous experience. And had I not made the decision that I wanted to come back out West, and this time to San Francisco, rather than stay, who knows how long I would have continued to work for them. It was just an all-around, wonderful experience. Personal, emotional, support.
I don’t know if you’re interested in any anecdotal stories. They all touched me deeply. But a patient who touched me very deeply had come. Because of the terminology we used in the day, “a change of life pregnancy.” She was a very religious Catholic. She came with her husband, and they were just suffering because a year before, their 16-year-old daughter was pregnant. And they forced her — She wanted to have an abortion, and they wouldn’t hear of it, and they forced her. They had the power over her to go through the pregnancy. So now this woman, not only was she feeling the weight of the Catholic Church and her guilt about really needing her own abortion, at least she knew to be mad at her doctor, who said, “Oh, yes, you’re pregnant. Congratulations.” And she said, “He knows all my health issues at this juncture of my life. How it totally endangers my life to carry a pregnancy to term.” We were just there for her 100% and held her hand emotionally. She did go through with it. Very painful…and of course, we would not say anything about what she should do.
I should say, some people came with some ambivalence, and we offered all choices, including letting them know you could carry this pregnancy to term, and have a baby who you give to relatives until you are ready to raise your baby, and foster care. But we said, “You need to go to this other place for counseling about that.” But we planted the seed that these are options that could happen. The seed planted was someday it’s very possible that you and your daughter, when the age is right, when the time is right, will be able to process this.
When I moved to San Francisco, I was really into getting my master’s degree. And, I’ve always been involved in dance, so this mixture of dance and politics and mental health all came together. So many things were going on at once. I said, “How did I ever have the energy to do any of this?” I went to a couple of months long feminist dance workshops with a feminist dance theater troop in San Francisco, and one of the trainings, the first one was actually up in Eugene, Oregon but then they were here.
As a result of that, some of the women who had also been through the workshops, we decided to form our own little troupe called Moving Voices. One of the things I did at that time was, I wrote a poem about my mother creating while she was dying, through my teenage eyes. She had knit me a bright orange sweater, and that’s the name of the poem. I wound up choreographing it and performing it along with other performances we put together. We put together performances about incest, which, of course, is not just a woman’s issue, but appears to be overwhelming with more women. We performed at the women’s building and some dance studios and art galleries. At this time, I was finishing up graduate school, and I got a job in the student union building at an office called EROS. It wasn’t just an office, it was an activity center there. It had to do with health and sexuality.
I had been going through an internship at a place called Huckleberry House where I worked with all kinds of youth, including sexual minority youth. More and more people were coming forward that they were not only emotionally abused, they were physically abused, they were sexually abused. And you know, in the back of people’s minds, you kind of maybe heard about somebody’s purvy uncle who would do this or that, but there was enormous blindness, minimizing, denying, in the whole society about incest. And more and more as I learned about this and here I was at this student organization, EROS, and the campus women’s center, was right next door, I started to put together a community forum on incest to raise awareness about this. I know I told you I was a foot soldier in many movements. Then going through my little red book and my old resumes, I thought I wasn’t just a foot soldier. So anyway, this forum on incest at San Francisco State, I got a panel together. Sandra Butler, who wrote Conspiracy of Silence: The Trauma of Incest, and a woman named Sharon Bergeron, who I knew from the feminist dance theater work that I was doing. She was from up north of here, Petaluma People Services Center, and she was presenting a slide show. Then a man I knew who would do some shows on KPFA, which I know you, and many other people know of KPFA. His name is Rich Snowdon, and he counseled male perpetrators of incest. Angela, from an organization Playathes, I guess is how you pronounce it, a self-help activist group of survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Some of them also, at different times were sex workers. The forum consisted of me giving an introduction of what it was all about. My old friend, who unfortunately died about eight and a half years ago, she was a filmmaker, and she filmed this but very carefully, to not film people’s faces or anything. After the panels, I had people break out into small groups, including one led by Rich Snowdon for men. This was a chance for male incest survivors to have their first group to talk, and amazingly, a man from a pro incest organization actually showed up in the group. I have to say that really the Women’s Center, CHOICE, this forum on incest, those were big important things that I did.
JW: I know you’re a therapist and you got your master’s degree, I guess, in social work.
AB: Well, it’s officially called Marriage and Family Therapy.
JW: You have been a practicing therapist for many years now. Do you get many women, or is it mostly women?
AB: At first, I only wanted to see women. In the course of a long career, you go through different, in quotes, “areas of specialization.” For a time, I would think about ten years, I led groups and workshops for women who lost their mothers. Including on Mother’s Day, when so many people, especially younger women, would see all their friends go off to be with their mothers, and there they were, left abandoned on Mother’s Day. A lot of women who were mothers, who had their own children, they still felt very strongly about coming to this workshop because I made it just in the afternoon. So, they either had breakfast in bed given by the family for Mother’s Day or taken out to dinner. It was like an afternoon ritual. I made a little memorial wall where you went up and said whatever was your truth that you wanted to say about your mother. Because there are people who did not have the most wonderful, and at times detrimental, relationship with their mother. And I said, “This is your opportunity to say what you learned not to do. That can be your benefit from having a problematic mother.” So that’s just a piece of that, and it became that my work was around grief and loss in general. I had a man call me and say, “Can I see you about my grief about my mother too?” And I said, “Of course.” And then, women and men who lost their fathers at a young age and the impact this has on your life forevermore.
There’s another great thing I was involved with politically. It wasn’t just about women, but it was so great, I just want to briefly tell you. In the early ‘80s, I mentioned this affinity group. We were called the Peace Potatoes, and we did a lot of work including Gorilla Theater, which I had earlier done around women’s issues at different demonstrations. San Francisco was very active in non-intervention in Central America and there were different organizations. There was the ERN, Emergency Response Network, and people had these affinity groups and at the same time, people were very concerned about the Nuclear Freeze, and so there was a joining of forces between SANE Freeze it was called. And we were friends with a wonderful man who was the main person heading that up, who is no longer with us, and Committee in Solidarity with the people of El Salvador. My husband was on the steering committee of that. It went on for several years. A twelve-hour dance marathon called Give Peace a Dance. We were on the steering committee of Give Peace a Dance and back then $80,000 was a lot of money and we would raise that. I have to try to remember whether it was three years or four years, but it was just such a wonderful event to be involved in.
JW: How would you say the years that you lived, that when you were born, and as things changed in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s and certainly the women’s movement affected your life. What would you say? What do you think your life would have been like without it?
AB: Oh my goodness. I would have to do some imagining. The word circles comes to mind, and beautiful things that I’ve heard Alice Walker talk about. The importance of circles, tribes, since ancient times. Just recently I heard a Dharma talk, you could call it wisdom talk, by Tara Brock, about dealing with the descent into the Dark Ages. One of the images that she used in there was about redwood trees. They don’t have deep roots. These really enormous trees, and you always find them in a family, or a circle. And below the ground, because they don’t have deep roots, their roots are entwined in a circle or circles. And that is how, in a sense, they all hold each other up. And I just love the image. I love that I am still involved in circles. My group, Therapist for Peace and Justice, that I’ve been in since about 2004 maybe. It formed right after 9-11. And I’m in a circle of elder women therapists who decided to change the name to Wise Wild Women and my old affinity group and other circles. So, I don’t know if this answers your question.
JW: It does.
AB: When we came of age, women still couldn’t have their own credit or buy property, I think. It was typical for men to not understand what is the problem with rape? Why don’t you just decide to enjoy it? I’ll just say this, my husband and I talk about our coming-of-age, that period, like a blip on the radar screen of time as far as progressivism and that goes. Now, we could be wrong. It does seem like a special time.