THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“My career wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the women’s movement.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, November 2021
MJC: Good morning, Bonnie Howard. Would you start by talking about your life? Where were you born and who were your parents and siblings and any other pertinent information from that period of your life?
BH: I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on the 15th of January of 1935, now a national holiday I’m happy to say, Martin Luther King’s birthday. And I was the daughter of a dairy farmer and an English teacher. Once my mom was pregnant, she lost her teaching job in Milwaukee. But she went back and became a farmer’s wife and I grew up with my younger sister, Paula, on a dairy farm just outside of Stillwater, Minnesota. Not a big place. 7,000 people in those days. A farm town on the St. Croix River, dividing Minnesota and Wisconsin.
And it was idyllic in some ways and challenging in many other ways. It was because of my mother’s background; I really wasn’t a typical farm child because she had really come from an academic background. Her father had his doctorate’s degree in English and was a college professor. He had always disapproved of my parent’s engagement, and broke it off. My mother was my father’s high school teacher. They didn’t see each other again for ten years.
Then my grandfather died and my parents met again and got married. So that’s how it all happened. And it was a high school college counselor who persuaded me to apply to go to Radcliffe College in the east. I didn’t know what it was, but I was eager to see the world and it seemed like a good idea to me. So that’s what I did. And I had a great experience there. I never met anyone else there who had the same kind of background I did.
There weren’t any other dairy farmer’s daughters there, but while there, I made great friends and had a wonderful time. I remember talking to my friends and saying I missed my era. I would have loved to have been able to chain myself to the White House fence. But the chance has gone by. In the year I was elected treasurer of NOW, we marched on the White House and I was thrilled, absolutely thrilled. But after college, where I majored in political theory, I got a job that was thrilling at the time.
It was a first training program for women managers at the First National Bank of Boston. And needless to say, they didn’t really mean it. They stopped the program after two years, and by that time I had married and then began following my husband and his career. We moved from Cambridge and then to Rochester, New York, and we moved from Rochester, New York, to Jacksonville, Illinois, way down south, close to St. Louis. And then he accepted a job in Argentina. So off we went.
That was a great experience. I thought for a moment that I had a job with the First National Bank of Boston in Buenos Aires. It was the largest bank in Argentina, and I made the mistake of telling them I was pregnant. Of course, you can’t come to work pregnant. That was that. I also encountered the real extremes of male dominance. I couldn’t leave the country without my husband’s permission. All child custody rested with men, et cetera. It was a frightening experience in some ways, although I loved being in Argentina. We were there for two and a half years, and that’s where our only child, our daughter, Laurence, was born so she has dual citizenship.
It was in Argentina that I read The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir for the first time, and I was just absolutely overwhelmed by it. It answered all my questions. It was mind blowing. When we took a cargo/cruise ship back from Argentina to the States, interestingly, we were seated at the table of the ship’s engineer and he had just finished reading The Feminine Mystique, which he lent to me. He was very impressed by it as was I. I came back to the States, really determined to do something, because my experience had been that every job I had, paid less than the job I had before.
MJC: What year did you return from Argentina?
BH: We came back from Argentina in 1963. The movement hadn’t really started yet. I was still waiting. I enrolled in the MBA program at the University of Michigan and by 1965, I earned my MBA. I was one woman in a class of 500. And what I particularly remember was Business Law in which I was the only woman. And I was called on in every single class. It was the usual kind of harassment. If I responded about the way the shop floor or the factory should be maintained, they would say “how appropriate, that you should talk about housekeeping.”
I was ready. I was waiting. Then I began to read about Mary Bunting at Radcliffe, creating a program to help women in their careers. It was fantastic. Then I began to read about Betty and the beginnings of NOW, and I was thrilled. My first meeting, if you will, was with a consciousness raising group here on the North Shore of Boston, because by that time my husband and I had moved to a very old house in Marblehead, Massachusetts, where we lived for the next 40 some years.
I was initially involved in things on the North Shore. And then I went to a big meeting in Boston, and I found out how I could make connection with the chapter of NOW in Boston. It was then called the Eastern Massachusetts Chapter. That was my first actual real-life involvement in the movement. And not too surprisingly, given what I had just learned at Michigan, I became the treasurer and probably within a year and a half after that Mordeca Jane Pollack had been a national board member, and she was going off the board and knew that they were looking for a new treasurer. She put my name in, and that was that. Not too many people were pressing forward to become treasurer.
But while in the Eastern Massachusetts chapter, what I got involved with was the Women and Religion task force, and it was a fabulous task force. One member of that task force was Pauli Murray. I was going to chapter meetings and task force meetings with Pauli Murray and Emily Culpepper and other really fascinating people. I think Mary Daly sometimes came to those meetings as well. What I remember particularly, is that Mary Daly gave the first sermon given by a woman in the Harvard Memorial Church, and the church was filled with women.
At one point I was seated up in the balcony for some reason during her address, Mary Daly said and now I’m leading the women out of the Church, and most of the women in the Church stood up and walked out. And I was a very active member of my Church, and I couldn’t quite do it. I sat there with tears rolling down my cheeks. I was so torn because one of my key issues was the patriarchy and what that had done to women. That was a dramatic and traumatic moment. That’s sort of the back story of how I got involved at the national level.
MJC: Wonderful. What a beautiful story. Do you remember what year you were first elected treasurer?
BH: I think I left being treasurer in ’75, which, if I figure back, because we had year and a half terms then, so it was probably ’72 or ’73.
MJC: Do you remember where you were elected?
BH: Yes. In Washington, DC, and I served two terms. I was elected in Washington, DC, reelected in Houston, and then unelected, so to speak, in Philadelphia.
MJC: What was it like to be the treasurer of this relatively new organization? Can you talk about some of your experiences? And there were some difficulties. Please talk about your experience.
BH: It was very exciting, because in effect it’s very much in collaboration and coordination with your organization. It was creating the infrastructure for this. I went home from the Washington, DC meeting where I was elected, with shoe boxes full of membership cards. They were on dollies that I took home with me to Marblehead, Massachusetts. Those were the records. And during that first term I also worked closely with you. But I also worked closely with Gene Boyer, who was the finance vice president, and we chose a wonderful computer fulfillment house.
The records were computerized. So those were the really concrete things. I believe that it was during the Washington, DC conference, that the first ERA direct mail solicitation went out. I made quite a splash with the post office in my hometown because sacks of mail arrived at my house and they were all being handled by me in my back room. It was wild. I was doing all of that. And then it was keeping track of all of the many task forces and the ERA efforts that were going on.
MJC: Do you remember Ann Scott?
BH: Oh, yes, I became very close to Ann Scott. I was a great admirer of Ann Scott, and I always felt that had she lived, we would have had a completely different impact with the ERA. Of course, thinking about the issues I was involved in, ERA was, of course, the biggest. But the people who served on the different task forces were such creative and forward-thinking people. They were amazing. But then it became clear, I don’t think that I ever felt that we had serious philosophical difference in NOW. But we did have serious power differences.
In the observation that I made years ago in the oral history for the Mary Jean Tully papers, I observed that when we were sort of struggling with the majority caucus – that was really a replay of the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks, who were the minority, but called themselves the majority, and it’s a powerful tool.
MJC: Had Massachusetts ratified by this time?
BH: Yes, it had, with the usual shenanigans. I was at the State House that day, and I was very active in the lobbying for the Massachusetts ratification. But the day the vote was taken, the men thought it was awfully funny to put up all “no” votes on the screen and then finally put up what had really happened, that we had ratified. It was time that we were making real progress on getting credit for women on so many things. It was during those years, really, that it became possible to use Ms., instead of Miss or Mrs.
MJC: Your services as NOW treasurer ended. But then how did you keep active as a feminist?
BH: I had about a two-year hiatus, and then I went back onto the NOW Legal Defense and Education Board. I served on that board for twelve years and probably didn’t end that until 1995 or thereabouts. And most of that time I was the Treasurer of the board, but we hit some very rocky times in the 90’s. At a point where we were looking very shaky, I was elected President.
I will say this for myself. Everything that I’ve done in the women’s movement, the thing that I feel that was most important thing that I did is that I rescued NOW LDEF from bankruptcy. We were going down the drain, and I stopped it. It was not easy. I had to close parts of the organization down. I let the executive director go. It was contentious, and it was not easy. But it did save the organization. And we came back strong. And I also give myself credit for being instrumental in bringing Helen Neuborne onto the organization as the executive director, and she was phenomenal. It was a lot of work for a lot of years.
MJC: Please talk a bit about who else served with the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. Who were some of the leaders there?
BH: Some of the leaders there were people like Gene Boyer and Muriel Fox. Barbara Cox was a very good leader. Jackie Washington, who was a wonderful woman from Detroit. Inez Casiano. There were some really great people. And we had people like Lani Guinier, who was a real spark.
I have to tell one story about my husband. When Stephanie Clohesy was Executive Director of NOW LDEF, we all got together and thought we really should do some long-range planning for the fund. And at that point, my husband was a consultant, and he was doing strategic planning for all kinds of organizations, from places in Fiji to the Securities and Exchange. He volunteered to lead a planning session. And we were all sitting in the planning session working like good doobies, and Betty Friedan came in late and sat down next to me. Betty was accustomed to leading the conversation. And my husband kept her in check. And she leaned over to me and she said, who is this turkey? I mumbled. I didn’t answer. When we took a break somebody else told her who the turkey was, and she came up and was extremely apologetic.
The other thing I remember about Betty was that during my term as Treasurer of NOW, there was a critical meeting in New York City. It was a meeting of the NOW Legal Defense and Education board, and Betty was sitting on that. She was no longer on the NOW board. And in the budget meeting, I was really being harassed and it was very unpleasant. I received a phone call from the NOW LDEF board meeting downstairs saying that they wanted me to come down and explain what was going on with the NOW finances right then. I went down there and they weren’t ready for me right away, so I was sitting in the kitchen with all the teacups, crying, where Betty found me.
MJC: NOW and the LDEF are still connected organizations.
BH: Yes, the membership on those boards overlapped. Later, when I was President of NOW LDEF, I was an ex officio member of the NOW board again for a short period of time. During those years, I became the founder of what was the Cape Ann/North Shore chapter of NOW. I started a local chapter. We were active in a local way, and I attended many marches on Washington. I’ve lost track of the exact number. We created a North Shore Pro Choice conference. We did a variety of things, but then it was really bringing it back to fairly local level.
MJC: Did you work with Betsy Dunn?
BH: Oh, yes. She was a very good and close friend. Betsy had a wonderful tradition. Every year on August 26, she invited some friends over and we celebrated Susan B. Anthony. We had a lovely time and told war stories. It was really NOW LDEF that became my continuing connection with NOW and with the movement and then more locally the NOW chapter. I also started a chapter of WAND, Women’s Action for New Directions, which had originally been Women’s Action Against Nuclear Destruction, Helen Caldicott’s organization.
MJC: What did you do with WAND?
BH: Basically, consciousness raising. We picketed stores at Christmas time about selling war toys. We held vigils on August 26th. It was less policy oriented than NOW ever was and it was close to my heart.
MJC: How do you think of your own contribution to NOW and the women’s movement?
BH: I think that my biggest contribution was saving NOW LDEF. I literally believe it would have gone out of existence. I think that was my contribution. And my contribution overall was simply being committed all the time.
MJC: Willing to be the treasurer was a very big contribution. Activists don’t always want those kinds of positions.
BH: That was what I could do, and I was always willing to do it.
MJC: What are you active in now?
BH: I’m active in the Essex County Community Organization. It’s religious organizations, temples, every kind of church, organizing around poverty and race issues. Right now, I’m part of the little group in my particular town tracking down the Police Department about racial profiling. Once again, I’m at a very local level, still working on those issues, and I’ve been active in my town with the affordable Housing Committee through the Episcopal Church I belong to. I’ve had connections with El Salvador, and the buzz is happening there and defense of the rights of the people in Central American countries.
I’m less able to travel around, but I still care. At the same time, I’ve had a series of career placements that have been interesting. When I left NOW in 1975, I went to work for the Latin American Scholarship Program of American Universities. Fortunately, that was shortened to LASPAU, and it was set up at Harvard. It really has nothing to do with Harvard, but it’s been set up there. And it really brought faculty from all over South America to the United States for graduate work.
It was a three-prong thing. The US State Department provided some of the funds. American Universities provided scholarships, and the universities in South America provided living expenses. It was a program that was basically funded by the Fulbright program. I was the Treasurer there for a couple of years. And then I became the acting director for a couple of years. I was able to use the Spanish that I had acquired in Argentina which was very useful. From there I became the controller for Radcliffe College.
That was at a time when Radcliffe had almost merged with Harvard, but not quite, but it had turned over its endowment. We were in a period responding to the women’s movement in which Radcliffe College decided to take that all back. My responsibility as controller was trying to take that all back. It was a very unequal power struggle between Radcliffe and Harvard. But I did that and then became the acting Dean of administration. I had the responsibility for everything, the buildings, the dormitories, etc.
That kept me busy for quite a while. Then when I left there, I said I’d like to try the real world, the commercial world for a change. I got a job with an educational software company, and it was a company that had great original success in the computer field because it created the Bank Street Writer, which was the first word processing program. I did that until I had to take it through Chapter 11. So that was a little disconcerting.
Then the next job was with an organization called America Works. It was a program that helped people who had been on welfare find good paying jobs. It was one of the things that Dukakis ran on. The person who was the director of that company was very politically close to the Dukakis administration here. As Dukakis was running for President, it became clear that the vultures were hovering, waiting for a chance to dig into those records and see if there was anything wrong. And from what I could tell, there wasn’t anything wrong. It really was clean.
But the moment Dukakis was defeated, they didn’t care. That was that. At that point, I joined the organization that I stayed with until I retired. It was called Management Sciences for Health. We had public health projects all over the world. Our major funder was USAID. I was responsible for 86 bank accounts. It was everywhere. I always remembered we were the organization that was providing all health care for Afghanistan. I was in Pakistan on the border the day the Soviets left, so I was able to attend a buzkashi game, which is the game they play with the headless calves and the horses. That was wild and woolly.
I was always having to sign things, saying, I, Bonnie Howard, personally, attest to the accuracy of these financial transactions. And we were dealing with money that came in wheelbarrows. I stayed with them until I retired in ’95. Then they sent me on special assignments. The special assignments took me to Nicaragua for four months. They took me to Yemen and to Madagascar. Finally, I was let loose from the desk.
MJC: You made quite a life for yourself, Bonnie Howard. It was amazing. Do you think that your time in the women’s movement helped you with your career?
BH: Absolutely. My career wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the women’s movement.
MJC: Kind of an apprenticeship for life.
BH: It was an apprenticeship. I was always being put in situations in which they needed a new computer system. I knew from nothing, but I had to go and find one and make it work. And then the next one, and then the next one. It worked out.
MJC: Well, it’s a wonderful life. Have we missed anything? Is there something else you want to talk about before we close?
BH: As I said, I had one daughter and she had one child, a son who is a student at American University, and his interest is in international relations. I hope that comes to something and I’m very proud of him. AIso, I hope that I clear up all of the papers. I did send some off to Duke because that was one of the other things that I really enjoyed doing. That was with VFA. With VFA, Priscilla Leith and I were co-chairs of a conference in 2004 that celebrated the anniversary of equal pay. We had Lorena Weeks come to that conference. Lorena Weeks was the woman at AT&T who famously wouldn’t pick up her typewriter because that was heavier than what they said she couldn’t do on the line.
MJC: Exactly. What a wonderful story.
BH: Yes, it was a wonderful story. Lorena Weeks was there, and we really highlighted what was happening in equal pay at that point. It was great. It was a wonderful opportunity to see all sorts of people in NOW and Legal Defense and Education Fund who showed up in force. I was proud of that.
MJC: I want to thank you. Personally, for me to be back in touch is really wonderful. We spent a lot of time together.
BH: Thank you for all the wonderful times we had with you, Mary Jean. Thank you again. Thank you for everything you do.