THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“We just wanted a seat at the table and we wanted to be heard.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, June 2021
JW: Welcome, Cynthia. Cynthia is in Philadelphia and today is the 15th of June, 2021. Cynthia, we’d like to start with your full name, which you just gave us. And where and when were you born?
CWT: I was born here in Philadelphia on May 13th, 1948.
JW: Tell me what your life was like before you got involved in the women’s movement, if you could include about your neighborhood, ethnic, religious background, that kind of thing.
CWT: Sure, I grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, a neighborhood that was changing. When we first moved there when I was five or six, it was probably half African-American and half working class white folks. And there was sort of this gradual flight which wasn’t unusual at that time. I grew up in a family with a mother who stayed at home, but was extremely active, very community focused. And I had four sisters and two brothers and my dad.
My dad worked for the federal government for quite some time, not long after the war. Interesting household, and for all intents and purposes, very traditional. I guess we’d have been described as economically lower middle class. However, my mother and my dad were always taking in people. And my mother in particular in her leadership role and with the work that she even did with our home and school association, it was not unusual for us to have someone in our home for brief periods of time, usually women who were victims of domestic abuse that my parents helped sort of transition away from their situations. This was before domestic violence became a more public issue.
That was just not unusual, not uncommon for us. And it was like that from the time I was very young into my late teens. Another example is my younger sister had a very, very good friend in high school who was having issues at home. His mother had remarried. This young man was just beginning to explore and acknowledge his identity at that time as a gay young man, and his stepfather did not want him in their home. My parents took him in at age 16.
He lived with us until after graduation. So that’s the kind of household I grew up in. Though my dad worked for the government, but was a bit of a rebel, had visits once or twice from the FBI who wanted to let him know what his daughters were up to. And at that particular time, in the late sixties, we were participating in sit-ins and demonstrating against the war in Vietnam. When I was 14, my mother took me with her to numerous demonstrations to picket.
I don’t know whether you remember Girard College here in Philadelphia. We were very much a part of that movement to integrate Girard College. So that’s pretty much the background: African-American family, parents who embraced all different kinds of people. And even in our neighborhood, not unusual to have people visiting us from different parts, other parts of the city creating for us a kind of rainbow world. That was pretty much it from early childhood to well into my twenties. I’ve always identified as a feminist.
JW: I see how the activism of your family propelled you forward. So, when did you become a feminist or rather, I should say, interested in women’s concerns?
CWT: I was interested in women’s concerns by the time I was 22, 23. I was working with my sister and a number of other women for a community development organization in North Philadelphia. We began to press the leadership, which at that time was predominantly male, including the board, to respond to rfp’s that were being offered for women’s programs in the black community. We encouraged them to allow us to write a couple of grants. My sister Linda, who passed away very recently, was sort of the leader of our little group of female staff, wrote a few grants.
The organization was very successful in getting one from Women in Leadership, which was a very new funding component of the Presbyterian diocese looking to fund organizations that were going to be addressing women’s issues, particularly women of color. Another was from the American Friends Service Committee. When the grants were approved, with funding on the way, there was a bit of a shift in the attitudes of some of the men and how we would conduct our programs for which we were in disagreement. There were a couple of people on the board who were not happy that we were going to be doing pregnancy options counseling, and that we obviously were pro-choice.
We made a very bold move, something that could probably not happen now without some pretty grave consequences. But things got pretty bad and contentious. And one day, two of the women who ran the office, who were the support staff and the backbone, as many, many women were at that time in community organizations took the checks that came from both funders. They took the checks and left the organization. We immediately contacted the funders, contacted other leaders in the community, set up meetings to let them know that this is what had been done and why. We asked for support and we were successful in getting folks to be with us and to understand why we did what we did. We engaged some social justice lawyers, Kairys & Rudovsky, to advise us and placed the funds in an escrow account. Reverend Father Paul Washington, rector of Philadelphia’s Church of the Advocate agreed to be a mediator.
And the one thing I will say about the men in the organization, there was no interest on any part in going a traditional route and dealing with lawsuits and that kind of thing. So, Paul Washington mediated our concerns and this issue, and encouraged the men to give it up and let these women do what they needed to do. We were offered use of an old Quaker meeting house in North Philadelphia in the Fairhill section.
We were able to use the site as our office. The AFSC did not charge us any rent while we were there. The organization’s history is very short lived in contrast to some of the other emerging organizations or some already in existence. But for close to four years, that is where we were. In late 1972 and we were pretty much situated by early 1973 in the meeting house and in our offices.
JW: So, you were doing options counseling for pregnancy before Roe v. Wade came out.
CWT: Before Roe v. Wade, some of us on our own even before we sort of banded together, were consulting with and advising and supporting neighbors and friends and getting them connected to the “Janes”, and even providers in our community. That was one of the things that we did. We were very inspired and influenced by the women at the Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA) who were in New York, who had a newspaper that they published called Triple Jeopardy.
And essentially their feeling was that there was not going to be any justice until our society addressed the three oppressions that women of color suffered and experienced. Racial, gender and economic oppression. So that’s how we took our name. The leaders of those organizations were also rebels. They were women like Fran Beal [who] left SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, because of her concerns and other women’s concerns about male chauvinism within that movement. So, lots of our principles and purposes were influenced by the Third World Women’s Alliance.
JW: What was your role in that group?
CWT: I served day to day as our office manager in that I staffed the phones. I also did telephone options counseling, as well as options counseling in person. I, along with the other four women, represented Triple Jeopardy at various community meetings, coalition meetings with both the women’s organizations and the male led community and progressive organizations of the time. I co-facilitated a discussion group that went on from the moment we were there – between women and men in the community, including some of the men in the organizations that we collaborated with and had discussions about male chauvinism and about ways in which they could encourage leadership for women. We did the same thing with a lot of the white women run organizations because in both settings, women of color still served in sub capacities, not leadership.
JW: I just want to ask this, because I got involved in the National Women’s Political Caucus and worked for Shirley Chisholm. Did your group do that? Were you involved in that political action?
CWT: We actually were not members of the NWPC at the time and not as actively engaged in electoral politics, but we did support Shirley and other women entering into this arena. We did work with and we actually conducted some workshops locally and regionally with the National Council of Political Women – Dorothy Height’s organization. We participated in those efforts. And I have to say that Shirley Chisholm, Patricia Harris, Barbara Jordan, all of those are women were our heroes, our role models. But at that time, a lot more organizations and ours in particular were sort of more aligned with TWWA, sort of socialist leaning or progressive. And so electoral politics, while we did not completely shun it, that wasn’t as much of a priority for us. We were very grassroots. And while we did not identify as socialists, I think that there were many socialist principles that we followed.
JW: And you said the group only lasted about four years?
CWT: Yes, we actually disbanded in early 1977. So we were close to five years. But we were then beginning to kind of link up with other organizations. Many of us were needing jobs. We needed jobs to feed our children. The whole time we were at Triple Jeopardy, some of us were single parents of very young children. Of the five core group members, two were in relationships, married and had conventional jobs and did part-time work with Triple Jeopardy. And the other three of us were getting stipends and public support via Aid to Dependent Children. At that time, that was what it was called, and really by that time [we] knew that we needed to individually get our lives a little bit more stable. Triple Jeopardy also supported members to the working group that started the Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center for Women. Blackwell was coming to the point where [it was] really about to open its doors, with loans secured, a site identified, and a Board formed.
I decided that I really wanted to continue to focus on women’s health. And so I applied for a job as a peer counselor with Elizabeth Blackwell. And I was with Elizabeth Blackwell for almost 20 years and left as its executive director.
JW: Where is the Center?
CWT: Elizabeth Blackwell was in Center City, Philadelphia. Our first site was at 16th and Sansom, and then our second site was at 11th and Walnut.
JW: So pretty accessible for folks across the city.
CWT: Yes. Near public transportation, first freestanding feminist focused women’s center in Philadelphia. Planned Parenthood existed, but this was the first with a feminist mission and we served everyone.
JW: What were the services that were provided?
CWT: When we started, we were providing routine GYN services. We were doing first trimester pregnancy termination, we were doing options counseling, and we were facilitating a number of different education programs. We started with one or two educational programs and then branched out over the years to everything. We were one of the first groups to put together a support group for women over 40. We were still in our mid and late 20’s and so it was addressing “older” women’s issues very much supported by Ernesta Ballard.
Ernesta Ballard was one of our staunch supporters and helped us design the program, gave us a lot of really, really good advice. But we actually did that. Others were: Know Your Body sessions where we use the mirror and speculum, and showed women how to do self-exam. And then again later on, as I say, more, more and more. We were again one of the first independent clinics to do insemination for single fertile women.
We really were trying to address the call from lesbian women and couples who were being denied services, such services in more traditional medical environments.
JW: I have a friend who had a child in the early 80’s who used what she called the “turkey baster” method.
CWT: Yes, that was very common, and we did teach people how to do that. We also had a contract with an outfit in New York who would send us sperm after going through the process of matching and all that. But we would teach the turkey baster method and we would joke each time there was a postal delivery, being the sassy women that we were. We would call it “man in a can” and then proceed.
JW: Two questions. One, was your clientele racially mixed at that time?
CWT: Very racially mixed. We were very interested in making sure that women who were either denied access to quality services or underserved in their communities would receive what we felt was respectful inclusive care to a diverse client population. And so, I would say perhaps a little under half of the women who we served were women of color. Over half of the women we served of all races were receiving medical assistance. We got lots of support from Philadelphia Welfare Rights Organization that was still pretty active at the time.
I had been a member of WRO from since I was 22 and participated in some actions, regionally, like in Harrisburg with Roxanne Jones and some of the other women who were leadership at that time. So that was one of the first groups that we contacted as we were opening and wanting to make sure that they could make sure that their constituents knew that we were there. We had middle class. We had upper class women, women from Center City where our site was. We also had a pretty diverse staff, although I have to be honest in saying that initially in the early years, most of the leadership, the top tier, were not women of color. That changed over time. But we were a motley crew. We had an interesting structure in terms of governance. We had a very diverse Board of mostly women.
Our staff were able to participate in decision making – at that time I think 20% of the Board was made up of staff people. We were one of the last to move away from that structure. But a lot of other women’s organizations and clinics in particular set up that way, a lot of other feminist women’s health centers. But over time started to go a little bit more traditional route. And I think there are definitely challenges and certainly could be conflicts. It’s very difficult to be a member of a staff and when you have to make decisions for the better of the organization, that can personally impact you as a staff member.
JW: Tell me how your role evolved over time.
CWT: At Blackwell, as I mentioned, I started as a peer counselor. When the Manager of Programs left, I applied for her position. I had been counseling and conducting workshops for a few years, and got the position. And then over time, I moved from there to being the Assistant Director and then for the last four years I served as Executive Director. I did a bit of everything. Over those years, I had the tremendous and wonderful opportunity to mentor a number of women, serving as supervisor to student interns, working with women we hired, some of whom were actually taking on their first real job.
We called it a real woman job, and not a girl job, with benefits and investment and everything else. Even as Executive Director, I actually continued to supervise undergrad and graduate level students from Penn, Temple, from West Chester. I also had an opportunity to influence (hopefully positively) young women who were training at Blackwell as medical assistants, phlebotomists, telephone counseling, or working at the reception desk. So those years I really treasure.
JW: How do you think the organization changed over the years you were there?
CWT: Well, the organization was very challenged with the onset of managed care. We were primarily fee for service, or received reimbursement from Medicaid. We hired a family practice physician who was wonderful, providing the GYN services for many years. To stay afloat, to comply with managed care regulations and requirements, we had to have a board certified GYN physician. We were not raising enough money to support some of the education components, which is very difficult when you’re dealing with capitated fee structures.
When you are also dealing with situations with women who by that time were not being supported by the State of Pennsylvania, and in all cases for abortion services after the Hyde Amendment, there were financial struggles over the years. And so we did have to adjust our ability to provide some of the free or low fee education programs. We had downsized on numerous occasions. We were very much challenged by Operation Rescue. We never completely shut down for any of the assaults, but it slowed us down. And the services that we were providing in the abortion service probably brought in more of the revenue.
We did open our first out of hospital birthing center. And it was the first one in Philadelphia. There had already been in existence, of course, the Salvation Army Booth Maternity Center and the Bryn Mawr Birthing Center. But this was the first out of hospital birthing center in downtown Philadelphia. It did not bring in a lot of revenue. People were thrilled and very excited. And I think that most of the people who experienced it with a midwife at Blackwell were very satisfied and very happy.
But when you are struggling financially and you can’t afford to have even the number of providers, the number of midwives, midwives can’t work 24/7. You have to have as salaried, two to three, to keep all the bases covered. And there were times that we just could not meet those expenses. We continued to receive support from donors and foundations but ultimately it wasn’t enough. In the area, there were a lot of other providers, other centers, other organizations, that were struggling too and competing for funds.
JW: Pennsylvania is known for its restrictions on abortion, you had to deal with those as well, I assume?
CWT: Right. After we dealt with the Hyde Amendment, there were other assaults. There were cases won, there were cases lost. We won Blackwell vs. Knoll. Catherine Knoll was our Secretary of Health in the ’80s. There was some legislation that would have restricted women from having an abortion after eight weeks. There were other things too, including consent issues. There was a piece of legislation where the male partner had to consent to the procedure, no matter the circumstances, so no exception for your rapist.
You had to have counseling, part of some of those bills required. And I know you’re familiar with them. Where women had to be shown fetal development, pictures, and photographs. And then there was the waiting period. Initially, I think that they were talking about a 72-hour waiting period. There were also those kinds of things. Most of the cases that we were a part of that had to do with the clinic assaults, we won. There were a number of folks who were charged, with either attempts at breaking and entering, attempted assault or of creating a barrier and keeping people from reaching their destination. Many of those we won. We worked very closely with the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia. And they’re still going strong. So, yes, lots of challenges. More over the years that we were there, to more facilities, and providers began to crop up, in spite of some of the restrictions and in spite of some of the challenges. We were definitely competing financially there too.
JW: So it did not survive. Is that what I’m gathering?
CWT: After I left in 1997, went to CHOICE, which was an organization that started around the same time that Blackwell did. It had a hotline, and did counseling support and made referrals for abortion services, domestic violence legal support and for shelters and and child care services as well. I went to CHOICE. I was hired to be its Assistant Director. I took a summer off. And then by the time I was to begin there, the director and the Board had done some restructuring and wanted me to direct their community education component, which I did for almost two years. I left Blackwell at a time when I really felt like I needed a break. We had a really, really good board in place at the time who I felt would be able to successfully address the mounting challenges mostly financial in an environment that was becoming more and more business focused and less patient centered. A lot of younger women and many of my peers had also moved on.
Allyson Schwartz first worked for the city and then was elected a state senator in PA. Many of us were sort of looking for other opportunities at that time. And I really felt like somebody else with more energy and perhaps connections to the managed care system might have been helpful. When I left, we were there, but there were still many challenges. The board ended up deciding to hire somebody who had worked with a for profit abortion center, who was from out of state, who did not have a lot of connection with people in the local women’s community, political activists, or elected officials. I believe she was tasked with focusing on bringing in more revenues or cutting expenses. In spite of whatever efforts and strategies were employed, and to the pain and frustration of a number of staff people who had been there for years, who were let go, they ended up two to three years later, having to close its doors.
JW: Well, let’s get back to you. So after you left the job with community education, do you still do this kind of work at CHOICE?
CWT: I did, and ever changing. JoAnne Fischer had moved from Booth Maternity Center where she led a Parenting education and support program and started the Maternity Care Coalition with its MOMobile program in 1980. She recruited me actually from CHOICE and I started working with Maternity Care Coalition in 2000. Maternity Care had recently partnered with the YMCA, who had gotten a grant for an Early Head Start program. I served as a program coordinator and staff partnership liaison. There was a child care center component that the YMCA provided and then there was a home visiting component that MCC coordinated.
So they partnered with us to do the home visiting piece and we started working with 60 families. When the Y decided to give up its grant, MCC applied for the grant and got it. I continued to oversee the program in South Philadelphia, but I also then moved to overseeing the general MOMobile program. I had both pieces and functioned as a senior director. While I was there, from 2000 to when I retired in 2014, we went from 60 families to 305 EHS families and it’s still growing. We had not only the YMCA’s old contracts, we were awarded grants for services in Norristown and Pottstown. A very rewarding experience, overseeing program expansion, site fit-outs, hiring staff, meeting very stringent federal performance standards, and increasing family services.
JW: What were the services?
CWT: The home based service was pretty extensive. Each family had a home visitor that visited once or twice a week. There were curricula that had to be followed for meeting the needs, not just the educational needs of the children, but the health and social service needs of the family. So home visitors sort of functioned as counselors and referrals and educators. There was a mental health component. We had to hire a psychologist who could avail themselves to any kinds of issues, any kinds of concerns, make referrals, if necessary, with each and every family that we served. Early Head Start serves families with children aged zero to three. So for children, but for family members as well. There was a community and governance component, as well.
We had to create a policy council that consisted of both parents and representatives from our organization’s board of directors. We had family and community services coordinators in each of those programs who set up monthly meetings. Any decision that was made, including grant renewals or any interest in expanding programs had to be approved by the Policy Council, not the MCC board. So that was very interesting that it was a government program that was very supportive of parent involvement. There’s parent involvement component, there’s the educational component, there’s family community services.
The very things that were happening on a home base level were also happening in the child care center. The only difference, of course, is that children were there on the site. There were teachers and they were very strict in terms of their certifications and qualifications. There are hundreds of federal performance standards to meet with Head Start and Early Head Start programs. And that was the first foray, it wasn’t the first government grant. There had been Healthy Start and others, but for MCC, that was the first time that we really got a taste of what it’s like to dance for that particular piper!
JW: The services go way beyond maternity care.
CWT: Exactly. The MOMobile started addressing the needs of vulnerable pregnant women. And the advocate would stay with the woman and the baby for a year. And during that time getting women connected to good prenatal care, checking in on them once a week to see how things are going there. Providing resources and referrals, to make sure that she was going to have a healthy pregnancy. And then after the baby was born, making sure that they were provided with diapers and formula. And that was the basic structure of the MOMobile program. And we had MOMobile sites all over the city and in Delaware County.
And I know since 2014, both of those programs have grown as well. When I left MCC, I was very proud of that accomplishment. And in spite of all of the struggles and challenges with the pandemic, the organization still seems to be doing very well. They made adjustments to do home visits via Zoom and still delivered. One of the signature pieces to both the Early Head Start and the MOMobile program is that we literally delivered services and supplies via these very brightly colored minivans, everything from portable cribs to diapers.
JW: We are just about at the end. Is there anything you want to add? Some concluding comments?
CWT: This has obviously been a very challenging year for many of us. And I am so very proud of the work I’ve done. I feel very lucky and fortunate that most of my working life and work experiences have been with women, which is very much like my family. My brothers are beautiful. I think my dad even would have described himself as a feminist. But I grew up with four sisters. I continue to be embraced by women and working with women for most of my professional life which has just been a joy and a pleasure in these generative years. I continue to mentor young women. But I am just very proud of the company that I kept. I’m encouraged by organizations including Philadelphia’s National Organization for Women that has embraced intersectional activism that we were fighting for and we were encouraging 30, 40 years ago.
We just wanted a seat at the table and we wanted to be heard and we wanted to be acknowledged for those oppressions and we wanted to be given the opportunities to lead. And so I’m much more encouraged now. I’m very happy to be able to do this. Triple Jeopardy was kind of a ragtag group. When we disbanded and went our separate ways, we were not very good at keeping our documents and archiving them and so that’s a little bit of a disappointment for me. But I know what we did and I’m very proud of what we did.
JW: This is at least some way to keep that memory alive, and we certainly appreciate your participation. Thank you.