THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Before NOW I knew very little, if anything, about taking risks for a truth and for a cause beyond my own personal survival.”
Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA Executive VP, June 2019
KR: Hi Jan. Thank you so much for agreeing to participate in the VFA Pioneer History Project. Can you start by telling us when and where you were born?
JC: I was born in 1943 and reared in Taft, a small desert town in the Central California oil fields.
KR: What was your family background like?
JC: My ancestors were primarily from Western and Northern Europe. My mother’s family was early Mormon “settlers” who were attempting to escape escalating religious persecution in the 1840s. My father’s family arrived as early as 1619 in Jamestown, and many became – as one described herself – “Bible Thumping Baptists” in Missouri.
Due to poverty, family trauma and stigma, neither of my parents were able to attend school beyond the seventh grade. Because of grit, intelligence and white privilege, my parents were slowly able to move us into what – in that very working-class community – was financially the middle class. However, like millions of Americans to this day, we were always one serious illness away from financial ruin.
I might add that, though it was never discussed, Taft did not allow people of color to stay overnight. And that included The Harlem Globetrotters.
KR: What was your life like before you got involved in the Women’s Movement?
JC: Through study and, like almost every other woman at that time, by working twice as hard as most men, I had at 28 worked my way up the ladder a few steps in two careers. The first was in real estate management, and in 1971 I was employed in media sales as a senior associate media director with an office on Madison Avenue in NYC.
By the time I entered the Women’s Movement in 1971, I had been both sexually discriminated against and sexually threatened out of my very hard-won job in real estate property management in San Francisco – though we had no word for sexual harassment at the time.
My story of that experience would appear in about 1974 in an article about sexual harassment on the front page of The New York Times. And in about 1977 I would arguably be the first person to tell my story of sexual harassment on Jane Pauley’s Today Show. However, at that early legally and socially unsupported juncture I did not name the company involved.
After that experience in San Francisco in the mid 60’s, I moved to London for a year. Then upon newly moving from London to New York City in 1965, within six months I was raped twice. Also, in New York in 1968 I had very seriously dated a man for about a year that it turned out had created a very complex false identity to hide from me the fact he was married. Though deeply injured in many ways, I was somehow able to survive that and also to professionally start again at the bottom of the ladder and focus on trying to create a successful profession life.
KR: How did you get to New York?
JC: Because of the sexual harassment in San Francisco, I moved to London in an exchange program for secretaries. And then it just seemed the natural thing to me to move to New York City to pursue career opportunities. I had gotten myself out of the secretarial pool in real estate in S.F. but also learned how fragile achievement could be.
However, probably because of my parent’s example of survival, I had some hope I might be able to do it again. And I again worked my way out of the secretarial pool into a senior associate media director’s position, buying and selling radio and television advertising time.
KR: How and when did you get involved in the Women’s Movement?
JC: I met Betty Friedan and her then husband socially about two years before I entered the movement in ‘71. Focused on surviving and building a career, I was not political in any way at that point – though I had begun to encounter new sex-based obstacles to further achievement in my field. However, as I was leaving her apartment in The Dakotas, I said to Friedan that I might be interested in doing something for the movement.
If you don’t know much about Betty Friedan, she could be brutally dismissive and was very much so to me. However, I put that in the back of my mind and kept forging forward in my career.
A year or so later Gloria Steinem’s photograph was on the cover of Time Magazine, and I was told by a number of my broadcast station clients from all across the country (all male of course) that the photo looked a lot like me at the time. And obviously thinking I would find Steinem and the movement laughable, several of them kept teasing me by saying, “Your picture is on the cover of Time Magazine.”
On the spot, I made perhaps one of the first brave statements of my life: to their obvious shock, I somewhat carefully said, “You know I don’t entirely disagree with them.” It happened so often that I decided to send a note to NYC NOW saying I might be willing to do “a little something” for them. About six months later a group at NOW showed me the note, and it had everyone practically doubling over with laughter.
Within a few weeks of joining NOW I found myself in a lunch meeting with National NOW President, Wilma Scott Heide, Jacqueline Ceballos and others involved in actions against the networks. They asked advice about conversations they were going to have with Westinghouse TV. It was very inspiring to be with these women and very meaningful to me to feel as if I could contribute something to their negotiations. It was the beginning of being exposed and introduced to so many brilliant, dedicated and brave as hell women.
KR: What year was that?
JC: In ‘71. I joined Midge Kovacs, head of the Image Committee, assisting her in the promotion of the NOW National Public Service Ad Campaign. I found that work engaging and months later at the NOW National Conference I conducted a workshop for women about how to go to their local television and radio stations to get the ad campaign on the air without cost. Midge was the dedicated “mother” of this project, and I was very happy I was able to contribute to the campaign.
That was my entry point. A few months later, there was an election for the board of NYC NOW. There were easily over one hundred people at the meeting that evening and many people running for the board. As I remember it, I think there were about 25 candidates, and one had to receive a majority to be elected to the board. And in the first round, I was the only person to get a majority. It was one of the happiest moments of my life, particularly because I had some extremely painful scars from early life experiences of groups.
I felt welcomed and appreciated on many levels, and I became active in several different areas of the movement. In charge of the programs for NOW New York City, one of the things that interested me was putting together panels of women from very different parts of the spectrum of consciousness.
At that time, a panel might include someone like The Feminists radical Ti-Grace Atkinson, but also a very successful advertising agency owner Jane Trahey, who was about as far away from Ti-Grace politically as you could get. And, for example, I also invited several of the acknowledged male feminist writers as well as numerous women from New York Radical Feminists in an effort to infuse NOW with people from a number of different perspectives of feminism.
A group of NOW women and I were also able to persuade the editor of Redbook to work with The Wall Street Journal to run, to my knowledge, the first WSJ advertisement directed toward reaching out to possible women readers. I also participated in rape speak outs and did some street theater – the latter of which I very much disliked doing – especially the ones right outside my office at the time.
Because of the exposure to so many inspiring activist women and my wonderful consciousness raising group – which included the very wise and loving author of Patience and Sarah, Alma Routsong – I was becoming more and more aware of the patriarchal structures of power that had dominated our lives and more committed by the moment. The brainwashed “structures” in my psyche were beginning to crumble, and I was beginning to be able to see outside the man-made box.
In 1972 at the Democratic Convention in Florida I was able to work with a small group of women that included Friedan and Steinem to get the signatures to make Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm eligible to be nominated for President of the United States. Unfortunately, the party later put obstacles in her way, but for one brief moment…
Also, my “sexual preferences” (or what they might these days call “sexual fluidity”) had expanded significantly. After having been exclusively heterosexual, I identified briefly as bisexual, and ultimately during this period I became committed to women for the rest of my life.
In part because of this what would turn out to be permanent shift in my affections and commitments, Dolores Alexander’s history on the board shortly before my joining NOW NYC became even more important to me. Delores was not a lesbian at that time, but she was closely associated with some of the lesbian feminist activists at NOW. Because Friedan and some others were, to say the least, against lesbian participation or public recognition within NOW, Dolores was maneuvered off the board.
Because of that and other events, the newly developing Lesbian Feminist Movement in New York City and NOW NYC were very much divided. There was a great deal of rightful suspicion from LFL, and I wanted to help bring them closer and heal some of the wounds if possible. At that time Judy Winning was president of NOW NYC. And in part through our friendships in both movements, I believe we were forces that helped this natural connection begin to repair.
KR: It sounds like you have a natural talent for trying to bridge things, which is a great role to play.
JC: Before NOW I knew very little, if anything, about taking risks for a truth and for a cause beyond my own personal survival. The Women’s Movement, as it did for many people, saved my life. The women I came to love and respect taught me something about the necessity of taking risks no matter how high the cost might be. I began to see the enormity of women’s suffering and the cause of that suffering. The women I worked with taught and continue to also teach me about my own creativity and strength, and I am forever grateful for that.
In 1974 I formed a coalition of women’s groups at ABC, NBC and CBS and testified for this coalition in Congress regarding broadcast license renewals. The testimony focused on the image of women in broadcast advertising and the glass ceilings for women’s employment in the broadcast industry. We were up all night, lawyers and supporters, helping complete the testimony. I delivered it before a body of, of course, all white Congressmen on the House Commerce and Power Commission the next day.
At around this time I also organized the NYC Feminist Community Coalition, which brought together women from numerous women’s groups. And Eleanor Cooper of the Women’s Center was very helpful in contributing to that occurring. Steinem was one of the people that came to speak with us at our first meeting, and I had an exciting private talk with her about feminist philosophy. Like Bella Abzug, who I would later have the pleasure of spending the day with, I was moved by their sincerity and courage.
Another major area of activism for me was sexual harassment. Someone I had been very close to a few years earlier, Lin Farley, coined the term sexual harassment after a brave woman who was working class sought her help at a community activism division at Cornell University. Lin then wrote the first book on sexual harassment titled The Sexual Shakedown. As I may have said earlier, I appeared on Jane Pauley’s Today Show with Lin in ’78, and it was my role to tell two different stories of personal sexual harassment experiences in about two minutes.
So, to this day, when people date the national public discussion of sexual harassment back to Anita Hill or even Gretchen Carlson, I want to say, “No, it actually began with Second Wave lesbian feminists— particularly Lin Farley of course.”
During these years I did a number of speaking engagements on feminist issues (what isn’t a feminist issue?), and I had my own show for a couple of months on WBAI Radio in New York. It covered general feminist topics including, for example, training opportunities for women in construction.
I also blitzed my hometown newspaper with an article that I felt might be relevant for them, for example, how legally at that time school sports programs should now be equally funded for both boys and girls. I was also involved in several street actions and led a group to offices in Rockefeller Center to protest the jailing in Portugal of “The Three Marias” for writing a book questioning women’s roles. They were later released, fortunately.
At some point during those years, from about ‘71 to ’75, I felt Ms. Magazine might be interested in publishing a petition about women who either had intimate relationships with women or were allies who stood behind the legal right for women to have these relationships. At that time, Jean O’Leary was really the major charismatic force behind the early Lesbian Feminist Movement. (She later became involved with Midge Costanza, who was one of Jimmy Carter’s advisers in the White House and was behind gay and lesbian people being officially invited to the White House for the first time).
Jean took the concept of the petition to Ms., and they decided to publish the “Petition for Sanity.” Hundreds of women signed it, and their names were published. Congresswoman Bella Abzug then read the petition and names of the signatories into the Congressional Record. A few months later I got a surprise phone call from Gloria Steinem saying she had learned that petition was my idea and thanking me. It was very kind and emblematic of her generosity and warmth.
Though I was predominantly a NOW activist, I was also tangentially involved with leaders of Lesbian Feminist Liberation. The New York City Council had turned down the gay rights bill for the umpteenth time, and I was with some of these friends as they were having meetings with the gay male leaders about how to respond to the bill’s failure again. Because St. Patrick’s Cathedral was the epicenter of preaching resistance to gay and lesbian rights, I suggested that we march from City Hall up Fifth Avenue and non-violently take the cathedral over for as long as we could.
So, when all the people waiting outside City Hall for the decision learned that it failed again, hundreds of us headed up Fifth Avenue and took over St. Patrick’s for about 24 hours. However, once one left the cathedral you couldn’t get back in. Because of that it was very moving that there were hundreds more people who had come to support us, singing to us outside St. Patrick’s through the night.
Once inside we were orderly as well as respectful toward the parishioners inside. Some of the gay men from Dignity also went up to the resident priests and attempted to arrange to have meetings at a later date with them.
I felt it was an effective action, we got some press for our outrage and satisfied a bit of the community’s sense of help-lessness – especially, it appeared, for some of the Catholics taking part in the protest.
KR: Yeah you’ve done some fabulous things!
JC: The last action I would like to have noted in the archives is related to one of the NYC Gay Pride Marches in, I believe, 1975. At that time there was always a rally of tens of thousands of people at the end of the Pride March, usually in Central Park. And it had consistently been very hard, if not impossible, to get lesbian feminist speakers or women of any preference included as speakers in these historically gay male dominated rallies. Usually the only women on stage were Bette Midler and other fabulous women entertainers, several of whom had emerged from performing at gay male bath houses.
The afternoon before this march I had been at the Women’s Center in New York, and women were coming in from all over the country and world. Some were complaining there was no public way we could speak to each other or even be recognized by the larger gay community.
It so happened the night before Lesbian Feminist Liberation had done a musical called North Atlantic – a lesbian version of South Pacific – at the Gay Wooster Street Firehouse. It occurred to me about 5:00 pm that we should have our own rally after marching in support with gay men up Fifth Avenue the next day.
There were tens of thousands of people at the Gay Pride March, and we had overnight to plan and prepare. Three of my friends, including Lin Farley, agreed to do this with me. Scrambling through the night to get a sound system and thousands of explanatory flyers made, we were also able to get the cast of North Atlantic scheduled to perform. Additionally, we invited Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics, and a few other notable speakers, as well as provide an open microphone for women to come up and speak about their lives and communities.
During the parade, Lin, Susan Meyer, Karen Sauvigne and I very carefully drove a battered old car through the thousands in the parade, handing out flyers where we could. Then with throngs of people pouring toward them as they stood at the south entrance to Central Park, we had several women posted who only had the time to say, “Women to the right.”
That turned out to be very painful for some women marchers who had to abruptly decide which rally to attend. Many had come up through the Gay Movement and were understandably identified with gay men as friends and allies. (Note: That is why we four had initially planned to symbolically march up Fifth Avenue with these men).
However, the great majority of the women who attended our rally and those who were speaking on open mic appeared to be pleased and excited that they could be recognized for a few minutes about what was happening in their worlds.
A week or so later in a community meeting, called, I believe, by men and women more identified with the Gay Movement, Lin Farley and I were verbally attacked for our roles in creating the women’s rally.
That was painful for me, but again, the choice for some women about which rally to attend was a difficult one. The next year there was no separate women’s rally, but the year after that there was an adequately pre-planned women’s rally that Eleanor Cooper organized.
But back on the NOW NYC front, still passionately involved in making an impact on television’s influence on women, NOW National President Wilma Scott Heide had a bold idea to briefly technically unplug one of the national networks as a statement of women’s seriousness about these issues.
I have a letter from her in 1974 in which she asked me if I could form a group of feminists in media who could be part of creating that action. It did not get off the ground, but the fact that the President of NOW, seen by many I’m sure as a moderate, academic older woman, was considering a plan to unplug a network was shocking – even to me – and damned inspiring.
I was also involved in the sit-in at NBC TV after they broadcast a television program called “Flowers of Evil.” This was one of the first, if not the first, representations of lesbians on television. They were nurses at a home for the aged whom they were killing and robbing.
Even though I was still employed in broadcasting at that time and broadcasters were my clients, I was incensed. So, a few days later, I found myself sitting on the floor of the lobby of NBC in my fur coat (forgive my unconsciousness at that time). And not unexpectedly several of my NBC clients came walking by. In amazement one of the men said, “Jan, what are you doing here?”
Knowing of course that this was the end of my media career, I simply said I felt I had to be there. They knew nothing about my even being a feminist. Shortly after this some trumped up reason was created for my being fired from my job, but I knew that was probable. And though in my active movement years I do regret some instances of personal immaturity, misguided attempts of ego repair and insensitivity toward some of my movement friends or lovers, I don’t regret for a moment doing what I could for and with all three movements.
KR: How long did you stay active in the Women’s Movement?
JC: Probably through about ‘75 or ‘76. I had to start putting my life back together. I studied many approaches to body therapy, including becoming a state certified medical massage therapist. At that point I only had a couple of years of college, so I then went back to college and got a master’s in clinical social work.
One of my two requested internships was at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. After receiving my LCSW I was hired on staff. Working at first with brain and breast cancer patients, I was there when AIDS slammed into so many people’s lives. For some time, we did not know how AIDS was being transmitted, so the work was frightening at moments. To my knowledge I facilitated the first hospital AIDS (then called lymphadenopathy) group. And I will never forget those men and women patients who taught me so much about life and death.
Throughout my life I have been a constant student, attending literally hundreds of spiritual retreats over forty-five years.
The traditions I was drawn to were primarily Eastern religious practices not focused on worship of deities, but rather on the deepest possible personal and transpersonal inquiry into, let’s say, varying experiential dimensions of being. And I am profoundly grateful to each of my numerous teachers.
Until a few years ago the primary areas of additional study have been psychology and phenomenological philosophy. In the ’80s I became an analytic candidate at The Training and Research Institute for Self Psychology – an empathy-based form of psychoanalysis. And after state certification as a psychoanalyst, I taught a class at TRISP on sexuality and gender with the brilliant Dr. Doris Brothers.
During that time, I also wrote a very radical paper on gender trauma for a prestigious mainstream book in the analytic field. It was rather surprising that they published it. However, my theory was so layered and complex I’m not sure I’d understand it myself today. It was titled “The Severed Self: Gender as Trauma.” The chapter proposed the traditional edicts of what we were told was natural for women and men demanded bifurcation into was constituted an injury traumatic to the deeper self.
Since those years I have also written chapters for several books by women on psychology and spirituality, and in recent years one of my goals has been to introduce people to the two therapeutic perspectives that have heavily influenced my own recovery and my work during the last twenty years of my forty-five-year private practice.
In 1998 I was introduced to and became one of the first two psychotherapists trained in biophysicist and psychologist Dr. Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing. To put it way too simply, Levine’s work helps people access the nervous system’s natural capacity to reregulate itself after overwhelming unrepaired traumatic experiences no matter when they occurred, including in utero.
Studying with him and his skilled colleague Diane Heller I learned to identify signs of uncompleted natural fight, flight or freeze impulses and guide the person back to that natural ability of the body to experience the completion of the impulse without further reinjuring them in the process.
Since those early years I am grateful I was able to contribute to building the SE community of therapists in New York and assist in their training. I was also able to introduce this approach to groups and organizations as varied as a Gestalt training institute, to family counseling centers to, more recently, Hostage USA.
The second influence on my life and practice since about 2009 has been German phenomenological philosopher and psychologist Bert Hellinger’s Systemic Family Constellation work. My extremely personal book, The Disorderly Soul: Aligning with the Movement of Love, introduces work and deals with the obstacles to my – and several of my client’s – obstacles to the deeper level of connection to some of those in my present family and both family lineages. And those entanglements if unresolved of course interfere with receiving the fuller possibilities of the life force itself.
The book is published in English and Spanish. However, it is a “niche book” in that a person who hasn’t had at least an introductory experience of this work will usually have difficulty understanding in their mind and body how it can, like SE – with a little guidance by a facilitator – naturally untangle these often generations old obstacles to an increasing capacity to be able to rest in the deeper, more nourishing, and even transcendent truths.
For example, one of the things my book describes is a very remarkable resolution of my primarily unconscious relationship to/with my maternal grandfather and his lineages. He died in 1949 when I was six, and fortunately I was not allowed to meet him. My mother’s father had sexually attacked her and her younger sister when they were children. And I would also learn many decades later that he was a pedophile who went to San Quentin for crimes against another child. It is rumored he was probably beaten to death by police when he got out of prison.
One of the moving experiences of writing my story and that of resolutions for several of my clients over the years as a trauma specialist was a beautiful email I recently received from my Spanish publisher in Buenos Aires. Graciela sent me a photo of a group of mainly women studying to be facilitators of this work in Lima, Peru. They were joyfully holding my book in the air, all smiling and celebrating. It was one of the high points of my life to see them reconnecting to something – as I have – truer than the narrative that we’ve often developed through some psychotherapies or on our own.
I am beyond profoundly grateful and privileged to have been able to study with Hellinger here and abroad. And I am as fortunate to have had the opportunity to study for many years with his colleague Suzi Tucker here in New York.
Due to two brain and two partial skull replacement surgeries five years ago as well as several very close brushes with death, I’ve limited my trauma practice at seventy-seven. I love my work and continue to be thrilled by what it can open and resolve for some people. And in terms of activism, some of it has been and is through writing about gender, my work as a feminist psychotherapist and more recently by challenging racism through poetry.
I continue to be grateful for what I learned about gender, race and class in consciousness-raising groups in the 70’s. For example, one story I’ll never forget: I remember one of the wealthy-born women saying, “My mother would be dead drunk on the kitchen floor, but we would just walk over her and pretend like nothing happened.” That was one of the moments that helped me have more understanding of a group I didn’t particularly have compassion for.
My health prevents me from attending marches anymore. However, I was able to send a number of women from NOW to the recent Washington Women’s March. I requested the women to be women of color, if possible.
I’ve been involved as a student in an anti-racism group for the last four years, and it’s had an extraordinary impact on me. Part of that impact is focused on facing the internalized racism structures that I unconsciously possess yet have never been aware of, acknowledged or been accountable for. I’m very grateful for being able to work with a group of both people of color and people of less color like me.
My recent interest is to show through my poetry my own unconscious – and many white-identified people’s – deep ambivalence about becoming aware of one’s privileges and often also unconscious assumptions about the unexamined sense that our structures are just natural. I daily continue to become aware of assumptions and delusions that, even a revolutionary white woman, can have buried inside.
I now think that I entered these Racial Literacy groups to explore my accountability as a person, some of whose ancestors have been here since Jamestown. I now, however, also feel so much respect, inspiration and admiration for those people of color in the group and outside the group who despite the continuing brutality, struggle for survival and recognition can show even a moment’s generosity toward their oppressors.
As a part of individual reparations, I have set up a trust for women at Spelman College and women at Native American colleges. The scholarships will be called Second Wave Feminist Scholarships. That decision has had very sad, to say the least, consequences for me in terms of the expectations of my family. However, it is something I strongly believe in, and my loss of family doesn’t even compute compared to the suffering and loss to others because of white supremacy.
KR: So, you’ve really been an activist your whole life. Since you got involved in the movement, everything you’ve talked about that you’ve done since then really is a form of activism.
JC: I don’t know who could leave the full-time feminism in the ’70s without being changed. Fortunately, I don’t think we can have those experiences without carrying them in one’s bones. The women I knew were a hotbed of brilliance and support.
While thankfully these days many women and some men speak feminist, sadly many are afraid or too brainwashed to identify as feminists. These days I like to watch The View on television and was pleased that Joy Bihar proudly said she identified as a feminist. I think Sunny Hostin did also, but Whoopi Goldberg said, “That wasn’t about me.”
And I’m very sad about that because there’s some truth in it – my consciousness certainly wasn’t raised as much as I wish it could have been about the depths of suffering of people of color people and my part in that.
I know also that everything we worked for was and is for all women. And it’s also true that in New York we tried to do some outreach to communities of women of color. But even though women of color were welcomed at NOW meetings, in general they were even more desperate than many of us were in general and just trying to survive. Fortunately, there were exceptions. Again, a visionary, Gloria Steinem wouldn’t go on speaking engagements unless a person of color went with her.
KR: Flo Kennedy was with her a lot.
JC: Yes. And also, a woman named Margaret Sloan-Hunter who worked in Ms. Magazine and was a fabulous speaker and often accompanied Steinem. I had the pleasure of her friendship before she moved to San Francisco, and I’m hoping that she’s recognized as much as she should be as a brilliant voice for feminism.
It’s been really wonderful living long enough to be able to look back on my life and remember what I can still remember. I love those years of my life. And there were, of course, some bumpy moments, usually because I was very – sometimes too – open sexually.
For example, there was a woman named Betty Harrigan on the board of NOW NYC. She was a great contributor in the area of women and the work world with her well received book, and she was also a very funny woman. Betty and my dear friend Jane Fields, owner of New Feminist Talent, were good friends from their advertising career days. Together they sued the giant J. Walter Thompson Advertising because of its treatment of women employees.
One day the three of us were having lunch, and I was saying something about my daily life when Betty said to me, “Well of course you’re a slut.” It was shocking and painful, but it certainly alerted me that some people were not in agreement with my intimate behavior and choices. Betty was quite conservative and very Catholic. However, I could be pretty, let’s say, celebrative, and I’m sure there were some others that were not approving of me.
KR: Too bad for them.
JC: I can understand now how hard this may have been for some women. And I really appreciate the work you are doing to get these stories included in the history of the movement.
KR: I loved it. I loved hearing your story. You have an amazing life. You should be so proud of yourself, and I am delighted to be able to share your story with the world.