THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Dr. Jane Delano Brown
“I thank the Goddess for being born when I was. For having opportunities, for having parents who also supported me and who thought I could do anything and who were always there.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, March 2023
JW: Jane, introduce yourself please, and tell us when and where you were born.
JB: I am Jane Delano Brown, and I was born in August 1950, in Rising Sun, Maryland. My father was a dairy farm man.
JW: Did you grow up on a farm?
JB: I did. Until I was 18 and went off to college.
JW: What about your childhood do you think led you to ultimately get interested in the women’s movement?
JB: It was mostly my mom, who was a traditional housewife. Before that, she had been a journalist on her father’s newspaper in Long Island. She was a writer, too, and she began writing a column for her father’s newspaper about our growing up. About her moving from city life to country life. Kind of an Irma Bombeck style column. She always regretted having been pulled out of college. She was in St. Lawrence University, and she loved going to college. She was very literary and liked education and books. She was a reader.
All the other journalists had gone off to war, mostly men, and so her father brought her home from college to fill in for the men having gone to war. And so, she always regretted not having completed college. I think she could have been a more well-known writer, too, so I think I got that. She also was a major community activist. She was the PTA president and on the Hospital auxiliary, and then she got involved in the League of Women Voters in Maryland. And so, I saw all that. She always expected that I would go to college and be somebody.
JW: Did you have siblings?
JB: Yes, I have a twin sister, Judy, and a brother a year older, Carl. We had a fabulous childhood. In the moment, we weren’t sure that it was a fabulous childhood because it was a lot of work. We were growing up on a dairy farm. We had a to-do list since we were three years old. We originally got paid 33 and 1/3 cents an hour for working. I’ve seen now that it was a fabulous childhood and that we all got to raise animals and get the rhythm of the day, and also really learn a work ethic.
JW: Well, how did you get involved in the women’s movement then?
JB: That was college. I think I was born at just the right moment. We learned about The Beatles in 1965 when I was 15, and then the Stones and all that great music. We got to waitress at Ocean City, Maryland for two summers. It was a great time. And then when I got to college, I went to the University of Kentucky, primarily because I wanted to get out of state. We were into horses at the time, my sister and I, and I thought we were going to be into horses in Kentucky. I never saw a horse the whole time I was in Kentucky.
My mother had been in a sorority, and so she recommended that I be in a sorority. So, I rushed my first semester there. It was so off putting, I realized that was not me. They were concerned about my hemline, and they had ten rules about smoking a cigarette, and it wasn’t me. I was a farm girl from Maryland, and that didn’t fly. So, the alternative, was to be what we called a god-damn independent, a GDI, instead of a Kappa Kappa Gamma.
I found that the people I most resonated with, were other out of state students. There was just, it seemed, like a handful of us. There were a lot of kids from New Jersey, because New Jersey didn’t have great public universities at the time. It was inexpensive tuition for out of state students. So, I fell in with the alternative lot. The non-fraternity people. That was basically your two options. They were political, and they were interesting. They were the hippies, the political activists, the people who were paying attention to the draft of Vietnam, civil rights, and the women’s movement.
I don’t know how deep you want me to go, but the moment I remember saying, “Oh, I want that” was, a woman walked across the front of us, the class had already begun, big class. This woman walked across the front of the room, in obviously thrift store clothing. Big, kind of old fur coat, a flowy skirt and clogs. And she stomped across the front of the room and sat down in the front after the class had started. And I went, “Oh, I like that. I want to be her.” So, I made friends with her, her name was Barbara Sutherland, and she taught me about how to be a hippie. Basically, how to be a liberated woman. And I went to consciousness raising classes, or groups.
The women’s movement was beginning. It was small, but it was beginning, and I liked those people. Until then, I had been really male focused. I had really been what we called male identified, and women were there only as people to talk to about boys. And what I learned in consciousness raising, was women can be your friends, and they can be your allies. It’s not all about boys and sex and male relationships. The women’s relationships can be even more sustaining and less dramatic. They can support you and have fun too. And that was a very important turning point for me.
And then simultaneously, I was a journalism major and a biology major. I thought I wanted to be a science writer. And in a way, that’s what I turned out to be. I became a social scientist doing research in the media. I started writing for the student newspaper. The first article I wrote was about how student health service had started offering birth control pills to unmarried women.
I started there in ’68. I was living in a brand-new high-rise dorm. It was women only. And then there was another tower. There was a woman’s tower and a man’s tower. And the first year we were there, it was in local parenthesis where all the women had to be in by 9:00 on weeknight. And 1:00 on weekend. No boys were allowed in at all, except once in a while they’d have an open house day, and you had to keep your door open and a foot on the floor.
JW: I’ve heard of that. And did the boys have any rules?
JB: No, of course not. But that changed the second year I was there. Then the women got no hours, there were no curfews. So, it was beginning to open up right then, ’69. And six women, I can’t remember the exact number because it wasn’t only on my floor, but because I wrote the first article about birth control in the student newspaper, everybody thought I knew something about it, more than they did. I probably did, but not very much more. And they started coming to me with unwanted pregnancies.
My first-year roommate got pregnant early on, because these senior men would prey on the first-year women. They would see them coming, and they would take them to the fraternity parties and get them drunk. To some extent rape them, but more they’d get them drunk and they’d end up pregnant. And Judy, my roommate – there were a number of women who actually had come to college to get a husband, and she was kind of one of those. But it was tragic. She didn’t finish her first year of college. She was from a tiny coal mining town in Kentucky and didn’t finish.
That summer, my sister got pregnant when we went back to waitress in Ocean City, Maryland. I told our mother. This was a moment of betrayal for me, because I didn’t tell my sister that I was going to tell our mother. But thank goodness I did because Judy was just kind of in denial. This was my twin sister’s name, Judy, as is yours.
So, my mom went into action and got our family doctor to help my sister get what was then called a therapeutic abortion in Maryland. My sister had to go before a panel of three doctors and claim that she would take her life if she had to have the baby. It was an in-hospital procedure. And it was a betrayal between me and my sister, so we were kind of estranged for the next ten years or so. And my mother went through with this without telling my father either.
JW: It was such a disgrace at that time. Right?
JB: Yes. Terrible. My best friend in high school had had to go to a home for unwed mothers. My other friend in high school got married, was pregnant as she was valedictorian. She had to get married.
JW: Let me ask you, let me go back to the women who came to you on your floor. Did you have any advice for them?
JB: I had nothing to do for them. That was the problem that first year. There was nothing. I didn’t know anything to do. But after that summer, when I learned what my mother found out, I came back and joined a nascent women’s group who were beginning to do pregnancy testing and abortion counseling. And so, I joined them, because they’d been doing research and trying to figure out what was going on.
They knew of an illegal abortionist in Louisville, and we started referring women there. I still don’t know who that was, or what happened, but we would help women who came to us raise money, and get to Louisville. It was very secretive, and I’ve learned subsequently, that it was like what the Janes were doing in the Jane organization in Chicago. We even put an ad in the student newspaper for pregnancy testing and abortion counseling.
JW: And they let you put it in?
JB: Well, I was then assistant managing editor of the newspaper.
JW: And this was before Roe v. Wade?
JB: Oh, way before. This is ’69, ’70. And it’s before New York went legal. I think New York went legal in ’70 because then we were able to refer women to New York. But with the Louisville person, one woman came back with a botched abortion. We had to get her to the emergency room, and they wouldn’t admit her until the police had interrogated her. So, we felt like we were doing important work.
I was now living in a collective house with all the campus radicals. We had a red fist sign on our front pillar. It was the president and vice president of student government, the student attorney general, and I was the managing editor of the daily newspaper. So, we were the powerhouse. My phone number was the number people should call if they needed abortion counseling or pregnancy testing. Back then, a pregnancy test took two or three days, and you had to get a urine sample, so our refrigerator had a special shelf.
Somehow, a young woman way out in the country found out about us, and called and said that her father would kill her if he found out she was pregnant, and I believed her. She had never flown; she had never been out of the state of Kentucky. Our only option was to send her to New York. We were working with a women’s collective there, it sounds so crass now, but for every three women we sent, we got the fourth one free. I don’t remember how much it was costing, but it was a lot of money for college students to be raising. And a plane ticket.
So, we got that arranged. I borrowed a friend’s car and drove way out into the country. It was still dark, she had walked 2 miles on a dirt road to meet me, and there she was. I took her to the airport, I put her on a plane with instructions about how to get to the guy we were working with in New York. Dr. Schwartz, in New Rochelle. So not only did she have to get into the city, she had to get north of the city to New Rochelle.
She’d never been in a city, basically, and I think it was naieve on our part that she could do this. We started thinking about, oh, my God, all that could go wrong. This was before cell phones, and we weren’t going to be able to be in touch with her. So, we were all very anxious that day. I went back to the airport that night to pick her up. It was just, go up, come back. She got off the plane and she looked like a different person. And she said, “You saved my life.”
JW: Oh, my, you did. I think you did.
JB: She said she felt powerful, and that sealed the deal for me. It’s like, “Okay, this is really important work” and I’ve been doing it ever since.
JW: I just have to say, you know, what occurred to me is the phrase sisterhood is powerful, which is really just what you’re saying, and was a theme at the time.
JB: It really was. We believed it, and we did it, but I had to learn it. That’s what’s interesting to me, I think. I’ve met women now who didn’t get that then, and they’re still kind of working on being friends with women, and how to be friends with women.
JW: Really? That’s amazing. So, you said you’re still doing it or you kept doing it ever since. What did you do?
JB: Well, I also testified before the Kentucky state legislature when they were going to make harsher abortion rules. I mean, it was illegal at the time. They called for testimony about the existing abortion laws. You mentioned the National Women’s Political Caucus. The Kentucky Women’s Political Caucus that I belonged to, and there was, I think it may have been a national, or at least regional conference, of the National Women’s Political Caucus in Bloomington, Indiana, and I went there. There were workshops on masturbation and wonderful stuff.
The women from Kentucky decided that we were going to testify in the Kentucky state legislature, and they thought that I would be a good person to testify as a young woman who this really affected, and that I’d been doing this abortion counseling work. And so, they wrote my testimony and I gave it. I thought it was pretty powerful but it made no difference. I got hate mail, and I got a bible with passages circled in red, about how I was going to go to hell. Which just cemented my interest in doing more. I’ve been involved with women’s issues on every local board of our Planned Parenthood.
JW: So, you just through the years, you stuck with it one way or another, is that what you’re saying?
JB: Well, I went to graduate school. I was involved in civil rights and the anti-war movement too, because all our friends were getting drafted. My brother was a conscientious objector, so we were protesting the war and I was going to the demonstrations in DC and so on. Then, when I went to University of Wisconsin for graduate school, it was the fall after the army math research center had been bombed, and the movement there just had kind of collapsed.
It was such a marker event in the movement because someone had died as a result of that violent action. The women’s movement there, I found it insular, and hard to insert myself. So, I didn’t get involved with the women’s movement there, but I started doing research on the gender differences. What we called back then, sex differences. Now they’re called gender differences or gender spectrum.
JW: And what did you find that was interesting to you?
JB: My dissertation was on how women choose nontraditional occupations. I found that women who were in groups where people were encouraged to debate issues and argue, and consider their own opinions and so on, that young women who were in those kinds of interpersonal groups, were more likely to choose nontraditional occupations than if they were in more, “I’m listening to you, and you have opinions, but I don’t” kind of group.
Back then, the four occupations women were basically allowed to choose were, teaching, nursing, social work, and secretarial. I did a survey at a local women’s college, and there were women who were choosing nontraditional occupations who were going to be professional women, and I was interested in how they were doing that. And then I got a job at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in journalism. I like to say it like this, “When I was a teenager, I did sex, drugs and rock and roll. And when I was a professor, I studied sex, drugs and rock and roll.”
JW: I love it. Yes. And what did you learn by studying that?
JB: Well, it went right back to my adolescence. We were so much on the cusp of a traditional path for women, versus a very nontraditional path for women. It was confusing how to choose that, and which way to go, and would you never be married? So, if you were never going to get married, then when should you have sex? That’s kind of the thinking I was doing. Like, “Well, I might as well have sex now because if I’m never going to get married because I’m a good feminist, I might as well have lots of sex right now.” That’s what I was interested in.
Then I was studying the media, and how kids make those choices when they’re teenagers. I thought about it as, that’s when you are creating yourself and you’re looking around for, what’s your identity going to be, what’s your path going to be. And there was a lot of media then, a lot of media aimed at teens, teen magazines, Seventeen Magazine, and so on. And I used those as an adolescent to think about who I wanted to be.
I saw that teenagers were still doing the same thing. That they were using media to help create a sense of identity. And I did what my favorite research was, it was just girls I was most interested in, and went into their bedrooms and asked them to give me tours of their bedrooms. How did they decorate them and what did all that mean for them and what did it mean for who they were trying to be? It was as if they had projected their identities onto their walls. So, we were trying to get different classes, and then races.
We got boys, too, ultimately, and they were all doing it. Some had more influence from their parents, and some the parents had said, “Go for it, whatever you want.” So, we found boys rooms where whole walls were full of pin ups, basically, and scantily clad women and cars. My favorite was a young woman, who I still know. When I first saw her room, she was a preppy. It was all organized, and blue and pink, and kind of nice. And then, about only half a year later, I went and she was now a punk. And rather than take down what she was before, she had just plastered over what was there.
JW: Well, that’s really interesting. And were rooms very messy?
JB: Oh, yes. Well, that also depended on the parents. We had to get permission from the parents, and so the parents would be embarrassed by a messy room sometimes, and they would encourage their child to clean up the room. Sometimes you couldn’t even walk around in it.
JW: So, did you stay a journalist your entire career?
JB: Not really, because I got more into social science research, because I got a PhD in communication research. But I did teach basic news writing and reporting for a lot of those years, but then mostly I taught research methods and communication theory. And then I got to work with honor students on their projects. I think part of feminism is also being a champion for women in higher education. I worked with more than 50 graduate students, many women, to help them get masters and doctoral degrees. And then I taught a class in race, class and gender. It was a first-year seminar in sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
JW: I love it. I think I need to take this class.
JB: It was the first time I ever had football players in my class.
JW: Tell me a little about what the course covered.
JB: Well, I was most interested in their media today, so whatever they were using. And then the subhead to the title of the class was, Adolescents Health and the Media. So, what we were interested in was looking at how was the media affecting sex roles, or gender roles and sexuality, and early sexual behavior.
I did a big five-year study on how teenagers learn about sexual behavior from the media that was funded by the National Institute of Health. A million-dollar study, where we found that kids who were 12 to 14, who were choosing sexual content in the media, were more likely to have had sexual intercourse by the time they were 16.
So, that was more the theme of this course. How are the media affecting who you are and how you behave, especially your healthy or unhealthy behaviors? Like, does it encourage you to do drugs? Does it encourage you to smoke? Does it encourage you to drink alcohol? Does it encourage you to have sex without a condom?
JW: It’s a very big topic today. Media, and I think particularly adolescent girls. You see a lot about that.
JB: Absolutely. That’s exactly right. We were also studying eating disorders. That was the early days of the internet, so I retired just as all kids got access to the Internet.
JW: How would you say your early days of learning to be a feminist affected your personal and your private life?
JB: For a long time, I didn’t think I’d get married. There was kind of an indoctrination part of it, too, early on in the women’s movement, where I went from the norm of wearing makeup, and worrying about my clothes, and does it look right, and so on, to the new norm. The feminist norm was no bra, no shaving, which didn’t work very well for me as a 32D cup. And I was like, “Yikes, guys are looking at me more than they were when I was wearing a bra.” And there was a kind of feeling like, how to be a good feminist, right?
There were the radical feminists who thought that men were the enemy, and you should not be with a guy, that they were all potential rapists. I was in feminist reading groups where we were reading that kind of work. And my problem was that I really liked men, and I liked heterosexual sex, and so I had to work all that out. Part of the fun of being in the right moment in the late ’60s, early ’70s, was it really was free love, and it was pre-AIDS, and there just weren’t as many STDs floating around.
And as far as we knew, I did use the morning after pill, that was accessible, and abortions became accessible. That was a pretty fun time. Most of my friends were not married. I was hanging out with a lot of single women, and we were having boyfriends, in and out boyfriends, but we were having a great time just being young women. And then there was this moment when I turned 32, and apparently a lot of us turned 32 at that moment. There was a Newsweek article that said that well educated women in their early 30s were more likely to be struck by lightning than to get married.
The point was that we had educated ourselves out of the marriage market. No man would want such a well-educated woman. So, I had an abortion that year, with the guy I ultimately married ten years later, so that affected me. That was all an effect, I think, of the women’s movement then, and the idea that you had to be really careful about getting married because it was a patriarchal thing to do, and you could get trapped in there.
There were traditional gender roles, and they could just kick in, and you’d be trapped. And there really was no good time to have babies anyway, because there was no childcare. There was no maternity leave. There was sexual harassment. I was sexually harassed by my doctoral professor. There weren’t even words for it.
So, all of that was happening. I did marry this guy. I’m still married to him 35 years later. Wonderful man. Former student. He was my student, and he’s the smartest man and a great feminist himself. Sometimes a better feminist than I am. We didn’t get married till we were 37, both of us. It was his second marriage, my first.
We had a baby when I was 39, almost 40, and he let me be me. He was proud of me. He supported me in every way. He was, I’d say, more than equal partner in childcare. We were raising his son as well as our daughter, and he was a fabulous partner and father. I think I wouldn’t have put up with less from being a feminist. I mean, that’s what we learned, is that we should be equal partners.
JW: Wow, that’s wonderful.
JB: It makes me cry.
JW: I’m very touched, I have to say. Well, this has just been wonderful. Is there anything you’d like to add?
JB: I thank the Goddess for being born when I was. For having opportunities, for having parents who also supported me and who thought I could do anything, and who were always there. My mother died when I was 22, and she didn’t get to see how far I went. But my father, he rose to the occasion, and he was very proud of me.
JW: And you reconciled with your sister at some point?
JB: Yes, we did. And she’s now one of my best friends.
JW: That’s wonderful.
JB: She lives in North Carolina. Our father died at 94. He still was on the farm in Maryland, and she was living on the farm, helping take care of the farm the last 25 years of his life. And then she sold the farm to the Amish, who made it back into the dairy farm it was when we were growing up, and she moved to North Carolina. Now she lives in the mountains, and I live in Chapel Hill. But we see each other a lot.
JW: Oh, that’s wonderful.