Betsey McGee

“I was always focused on girls and boys having equal chances.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, October 2021

BM:  My full name is very 1940s: Elizabeth Anne McGee. I was born in Roaring Spring, Pennsylvania, which is in Western Pennsylvania. The joke is seven churches, no bars. It’s a dry town. I was born in 1946. My father was then overseas as a West Pointer in the army of occupation in Germany. That’s the beginning of the story. My parents met in second grade in our town. The town was Republican, although not the kind of Republican we have now. All four of my grandparents lived in the town and one grandfather was Democrat.

It was a conservative town, but not conservative in the way we see now that a whole area went heavily for Trump. Blair County, where Roaring Spring is located, and Bedford County below, where on my mother’s side of the family people lived for 200 years, went something like 80% for Trump. It’s different now than when I lived there. And we have friends who are there. But none of them are Trumpers.

JW:  Tell me a little more about your background and what might have influenced you to take the paths you did.

BM:  I think there is your background that you’re born into that has to do with the region, your color, your religion. I’m Protestant. I’m white. I was middle class, although my mother’s family had struggled because my grandfather got tuberculosis from World War I, and they lived very modestly. My other grandfather ran the town dairy. Everybody bought McGee’s milk. It was a somewhat provincial background, except for my father going to West Point, then eventually to Yale Law School, which changed the world we lived in. I think my family had a very strong belief that white people and black people were all equal. They did not have advanced views about gender. And a lot of what I came to believe about gender was about what I heard and experienced in my own family.

JW:  Your parents never really came along on those issues? Is that what you’re saying?

BW:  They did come along. But not when I was growing up. That happened later. My father, and I don’t know whether he knew he said this, because I never brought it up to him later, but when I was a child, he said, “A woman cannot be a lawyer and a lady.” And they wanted me to be a lady. He changed. And when the first woman in his Hartford Law firm made partner, no one could have been prouder than my father. But that was a 20-to-30-year journey.

JW:  When did you get involved in the women’s movement?

BW:  For reasons that I cannot totally rationally explain, after college I had this deep desire to work in family planning. I had actually been a government major and had worked in the office of Senator Abe Ribicoff, my junior year in college, as a Smith College intern in Washington, and I went to Planned Parenthood. And in those days, you could walk in. And the director, after hours, came out and sat with me. And I said, I really want to work in this kind of work. This is in 1967. And she said, oh, well, I think the thing for you to do is to go to the Smith College School of Social Work.

Well, one, I was already at Smith College, and two, I didn’t want to go to Social Work school. I said, there must be another route. And somehow that summer and I don’t remember how, I heard about something called a public health school. Of course, there were no Internet searches. I don’t know how I found out the names. But somehow, I began to accumulate knowledge about where there were public health schools and what their curriculum was. And then I found out that many of them, such as Harvard and Hopkins, did not take you unless you had a prior professional degree.

For some years I didn’t do anything. I went straight to work. And I’ll tell you in a minute how that happened. But eventually I did go to public health school at Columbia University, which did not require a prior professional degree. Second year out of college in 1969, I called Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and said I was really interested in whether they had any jobs. The director said, we do have an opening, come in. He literally hired me on the spot. He is still alive. We remained friends and I had almost no knowledge for the job I had just been hired for.

I did everything I could to quickly learn up. And one evening, I hadn’t been there more than a month, a woman showed up at the office. This was in Boston, and it was around 5:00. People had gone home. And she said she was working with a group of women who are developing a course for other women about their bodies. And I said, oh, the drug companies give us all this free material. I could give you all this stuff about family planning. And at the end of our 45 minutes together, she said, why don’t you come and join our group? Why don’t you come to a meeting?

I can remember this in 1969, one dark evening in October walking down Putnam Avenue in Cambridge, thinking, I’m going to somebody’s house I don’t know, to a group I have no knowledge of. And why am I doing this? I could turn back. But I felt so obliged to learn as much as I could. And that group of women eventually became Our Bodies, Ourselves. And I was thinking today, what if I had turned back? A chunk of my life, a really beautiful chunk of my life would not be there.

JW:  What was your involvement with Our Bodies, Ourselves?

BM:  I only stayed in Boston one more year. I helped with getting the courses. I’m a person who likes to make connections. I helped one of the new volunteers with the group, Wendy Sanford come and volunteer at Planned Parenthood, and she eventually became the leading editor of Our Bodies, Ourselves. And I helped with a family planning chapter and an abortion chapter. I then moved to work in a political campaign, an anti-war campaign in Connecticut. Joe Duffey was running for the Senate and lost. And then I moved to Washington, where I was with the first free standing abortion clinic.

And I was living in Washington, and I could see that our chapter on sexuality, which I had not had anything to do with, was not nearly as good as it should be. I knew more from my work at that point. And I said to Wendy and others, we need to redo this chapter. And I believe it was Miriam Hawley and Wendy and I who worked on that revision, the second revision of the Simon & Schuster editions. Let me tell you one thing. You can’t interview Ruth Bell, who was a member of the collective, because she has dementia.

But you may know that she then proposed a decade later that there be an Our Bodies, Ourselves for teenagers. And it was called Changing Bodies, Changing Lives. And I helped her locate three or four people that could write chapters for her. We used to type out the chapters, use white-out and send them around to each other. It was so medieval.

And we finally met in Sally Buoy’s bar in Milton. The group had never met. I knew Ruth, but the other people didn’t know each other. And I’ll tell one other story that I think is really sweet. A niece of mine went to college in the ’80s, and said, everybody loves Changing Bodies, Changing Lives. And I said, but it’s for teenagers who are younger. And she said, oh, but we all want to make sure we know it. The book had a life.

JW:  Please tell us about the Preterm Clinic in DC.

BM:  In the spring of ’71, Nan McAvoy, who was a wealthy woman living in a beautiful house in Georgetown, worked with a number of other people to set up Preterm. She recruited a woman named Judy Jones who has since died. It’s too bad because she would have been wonderful for you to interview. And Harry Levin. Harry, Nan and Judy were the instigators of Preterm.

Somehow, I found out that they were hiring ten first counselors. And we were all individually invited to Nan’s beautiful home where she always had fresh flowers. That made a big impression on me. And they selected ten people, one of whom was somebody that I actually told about the job, Patricia Raley. And she also was hired, and then they hired a few more people. Eventually the counseling staff was 15 to 20, who would see about five women a day.

You would not use the word abortion. You talked about a procedure, which is something we probably should have talked about more, but we didn’t. And you went through the abortion with women, which was really a hard procedure. I think about how many women I went through then and other places I worked, and lidocaine did not do it for some women. It was the procedure.

JW:  This was before Roe v Wade, but I know in DC. it was allowed legally, right?

BM:  Exactly. And New York was also on board. I didn’t live in New York at that time. In fact, I never envisioned living in New York at all.

JW:  I want to go back to something that you wrote to me about when you first read Betty Friedan’s book when you were 16. I’d like you to address that. What did you think of it then?

BM:  I had an unhappy mother. That’s a great motivator not to live the life your mother is living. My mother was a homemaker. She was a good person, but she couldn’t find her way in this world. And I read Betty Friedan at 16. And then I think, as I wrote to you, very shortly thereafter I went to Smith College to see a family friend who was at that time a junior. And I don’t know how Betty Friedan came up, but she said to me, “Around here, The Feminist Mystique – we call her the feminist mistake.”

I was shocked, because I actually hadn’t discussed the book with anybody. I certainly hadn’t discussed it with my mother. I thought Betty Friedan was saying the right things. I was at a girl’s high school. I was interested in going to a women’s college. Wouldn’t you want to use your talents and your time in the same ways your brothers and boyfriends were thinking about using their time and talents? I thought she was right on.

JW:  That was shocking. And before we leave Our Bodies, Ourselves, totally, you did say one of your aunts had some particular comments about it.

BM:  I can see myself in our Connecticut driveway. My aunt, who is married to a doctor, throws out at me, and I don’t remember what she knew about my role in Our Bodies, Ourselves, but she said, “Betsey, I think they must be a bunch of troubled women.” She, to her credit, produced two fantastic daughters, with important careers who are distinguished in their work.

JW:  After Preterm, did you stay involved in women’s activities?

BM:  Yes. I finally moved to New York to go to graduate school. I needed a way to pay for expenses. I began to work part-time at The Door, which was a breakthrough adolescent service center in lower Manhattan. And then I would go to school. And actually, the center was open until ten at night. And a staff person had to stay until 11:00. I could go to school during the day or early evening and still work. And there I was, a family planning counselor and then head of a counseling service. From that point on, I was directly working in the women’s movement. There was an activist group here and in New York, I went to a few of their meetings, but I didn’t have much time. My commitment to women’s and girls’ rights was really now focused on adolescents and teenagers.

JW:  Did you continue to do that work? You did a lot of educational work as well.

BM:  Yes. I finished my degree. I was in the first group with Alan Rosenfeld at Columbia, and he is a very important person in the family planning world. I was lucky. The population and family planning division of the Columbia School of Public Health was building its own space, but he didn’t have a history there. There were faculty that had been working, but it was his first year, and he was a wonderful man. And it was a wonderful one plus years. I wasn’t there a full two years because they waved my practicum. By that time, I had done enough with all of my work.

And then I had met my husband and he was finishing his medical education in Dallas, Texas. And I decided to go. And that’s when I went back again to work for a second Planned Parenthood, Planned Parenthood of Northeast Texas, which was extremely different than the experience I’d had in Massachusetts. Massachusetts had no clinics. The Planned Parenthood in Northeast Texas had clinics all over the place, and they wanted a focus on teen pregnancies. So that’s why I was there.

JW:  In Massachusetts, they just gave out information. Is that what you are saying?

BM:  Exactly. And, Judy, this is important. When I was there, ’69 to ’70, birth control for unmarried women and teenagers was illegal. The lawyers who advised Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts said, you can tell anybody who comes in here anything, but they have to write it down. You cannot give them any printed material about doctors who will see teenagers, doctors who will see unmarried women, abortion service referrals. None of that. We never gave out any printed materials.

In Dallas, I continued to work on teen pregnancy. I worked on Changing Bodies, Changing Lives. I worked for an abortion clinic in North Dallas as their training director. I was offered a chance to direct a clinic by a man who is still known in the abortion world, he and his wife. And there’s a new book out about Roe, the case Roe, and the woman who is Roe. I haven’t gotten the book yet, but I want to read it because I knew him and he is still alive.

So that’s what I did with my time in Texas. And then I also got pregnant. And for women of my era, that is a divide in the road, a fork in the road, because child care was so difficult. I came back to New York, where my husband joined the faculty at Cornell Medical School, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, in terms of child care or even if I wanted to go back to work. I wasn’t sure.

And I was too late in my pregnancy to get a job. My first year, I stayed home, and I loved the baby. I was very reluctant to leave her. But I did not like being at home. I had trained. I had things I cared about. I think the child care dilemma is so pervasive and so misunderstood, perhaps by the elite of this country who can buy their way out of the dilemmas. If you have enough money, you have the choice, you could get full time help.

If there was center-based care, you could choose center-based care. But there was hardly any center-based care. If you were lucky, there might be a mother or a woman who took children into their home. It was less expensive. But then there were multiple children and there were issues about kids passing colds to each other and that sort of thing. You could use your family. But I didn’t have family. You could rely on neighbors. But when I moved to Brooklyn, I had one daughter who was turning four and a second daughter who was one. I knew maybe two people in Brooklyn, when we moved here. My husband was born here, but I moved here because a friend that you interviewed told me that they thought I would like this neighborhood where we live. It was socially active, and it had beautiful old homes.

JW:  And you did like it. You’re still there apparently.

BM:  I’m still here after 37 years.

JW:  You did go back to work eventually, right?

BM:  I did. I started to figure out what I could do when my first daughter turned one. And the first real consulting job I had was with Pru Brown at the Ford Foundation, and she wanted a study of teen mothers. And I have to say, up to this time in the family planning world, teen mothers were our mistake. We didn’t do it right. We didn’t get to them. So suddenly I was looking at the other side of the picture, and I became, for some years very involved with issues of teen pregnancy, wrote materials, had different jobs, worked on the issue of how teen mothers are or are not served in the public schools of New York City and other places around the country.

JW:  You continued to do a whole variety of kinds of work on education. Anything you want to mention?

BM:  When I said there was a fork in the road, eventually, this is how we solved our child care issues, and it had a huge impact on my life. My husband didn’t get home early. We had no family in the city. There wasn’t a center-based care. Eventually we turned over all of my salary every week to have a woman that I had watched for a year take care of other children and saw that she was not well used by her employer. And when we moved to Brooklyn, I said, “I will pay you more. And it’s a much shorter commute since you already live in Brooklyn.” And she then became our caregiver.

I was not willing to work late hours and that severely limited what I could say yes to, in terms of work. Eventually, I sort of migrated laterally into school reform work because I was very involved in school reform politics here in Brooklyn. And I thought if I’m spending this amount of my free time helping to start schools, helping to reform schools, helping get good candidates on the school board, I might as well begin to work in this area, and I spent at least ten or fifteen years and then eventually migrated more into civic education and service learning, where I spent another number of years. In each of those jobs and in each of those lines of work, I was always focused on girls and boys having equal chances.

JW:  Are you involved in anything right now?

BM:  Yes. The concern about child care and the dearth of those opportunities made me focus a lot on who was working in people’s homes – domestic workers. When I stopped paid work, which was 2014, I was already deeply involved with a new network of domestic employers called Hand In Hand, and I only stopped doing that work after a dozen years. And it was board work and strategic planning kind of work. I only stopped that about a year ago. And two years ago, I said to a group of people I knew here in Park Slope, “We spent our early years working on reproductive health and service issues. Look what’s happening with abortion. Let’s meet together and talk and see if there’s anything. Because all of us deeply in our hearts don’t want to see things going backwards as they do seem to be right now.” And that’s the group that puts out occasional e-blasts called Abortion: Talk About It, and also occasionally writes letters to various media outlets. And you saw that letter.

JW:  I saw a letter to the editor of the Times. Tell us how you came up with the name and what the name is.

BM:  Older Women Remember & Speak Out (OWRS). You know how coming up with names is. It took several meetings and lots of ideas, and we liked the idea that it was “ours.” And we tried to come up also with words that conveyed that. Older Women Remember & Speak Out. And there are five of us. I think we’ve done it for two years. We’ve done ten e-blasts. And we have about a thousand people who read us. What we know is that abortion, unlike gay rights, has not had that success of gay rights, because people won’t talk, because there is stigma and silence.

And almost all of us have the stories of women who have said to us, I’ve never told anybody before, but I had an abortion. We know people in our family. We cannot out them. If they won’t speak up, we can’t say anything. I used to say if there was a moment at noon someday that every woman in America who had an abortion would stand up, it would change the conversation. I have been to weddings in the south, in Oklahoma, where the bride, the groom, and I knew the bride had had an abortion – in a conservative evangelical Church. That happens over and over.

JW:  How would you say involvement in the movement affected your later life?

BM:  Well, for one thing, I wasn’t unhappy like my mother. I did what I wanted to do. It has had a choice effect on my life and my daughters’ lives. And I think that everything I do in any place that I work or am socially involved, I’m always looking out to see that women have equal chances and are equally seen. And I have to tell you about this summer, July 4, at the annual meeting of a community in Vermont of about 60 or 70 homes, based on Quaker values. I, as the outgoing President, was introducing the new board, and I said, many of you know that it really matters to me that our boards have been heavily male for two decades.

And now the new President is male because he came forward and he’s worked before in this role. We know he’s going to be great. But when the second man came forward as Vice President, I said, how about you share this job with your partner, who’s a terrific nonprofit activist. And then I said to someone else, well, you’ve already done this job. How about your wife? And by this time, all 40 of the people in the meeting were laughing even though I hadn’t meant it to be funny. I meant to say I’m working hard to get women on this board. And that is what’s happened. And the message has been sent. We shouldn’t have boards in a volunteer setting [with] Quaker values, that are heavily dominated by men.

JW:  Is there anything you would like to say in closing?

BM:  Judy, this is a question I have, that in thinking about all this stuff, why was Phyllis Schlafly and her movement so successful? I’ve read a lot, but I don’t systematically read women’s history of the second wave movement. Was it that she was a masterful manipulator and malevolent? Was it that the message of the feminist movement was too far too fast?

Was it a combination of these things? Did we in the feminist movement, not listen well enough to people from like my hometown in Pennsylvania? I don’t have an answer, but I’ve been thinking about it. And the OWRS group is meeting tomorrow, and I’m going to ask them. Did we not do something that we need to think about right now? I think we have to learn better how to speak across lines of class.