THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Feminism is dynamic. It’s an act in progress. It relies on each generation to take the work forward.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, September 2021
EA: My full name is Elayne Grant Archer. I was born in London, England in 1943.
JW: Tell me briefly what your life was like before you got involved in the women’s movement. What kind of things led you to think about it?
EA: My father was killed in the war right after I was born and my mother took us to Toronto, which is where I was raised. My childhood wasn’t the easiest. I was in foster homes and all that. But things got better. My brother was going off to drama school in London. My mother was saying she was going to go back to London, too. I didn’t want to be the only person in Toronto, which was not the city it is now. And I applied to colleges in the United States. And much to my amazement, I got into Radcliffe College. I found out later, I got in on a foreign student quota. I wasn’t particularly active in the movement at that time. There wasn’t that much going on when I was in college, 1962 to 1966. But there was starting to be opposition to Vietnam.
And then I went to London to live with my brother. I got involved in a demonstration for Cassius Clay, before he became Muhammed Ali, because he was refusing the draft. I came back to New York with my boyfriend/fiancé and went to Columbia Graduate School. And basically, things were starting to happen in the women’s movement. And a neighbor of mine was working with an organization called Health PAC, Health Policy Advisory Committee.
The neighbor didn’t join it. But she told me of the Women’s Health Collective that was starting within Health PAC. And one of the people was a woman called Rachel Fruchter, whom I knew from England, and her husband Norm Fruchter. And I got involved in that. We did workshops. We produced leaflets. At first, we took women for illegal abortions. And then there was a break off. One group became the Women’s Abortion Project and one group was called the Women’s Health and Abortion Project.
Anyway, we planned a huge demo for Union Square. It literally was rained out. But also, it wasn’t important anymore because just that week the State of New York repealed its hideous abortion laws, restricting abortions and banning abortions. It was ’70 or ’71, and by that time I had a baby and I was teaching full time at the City University, and there wasn’t as much women’s health activity.
But I was still involved in a group working to legalize abortion. And then Roe v. Wade was passed and a new group was found called HealthRight, which was a bunch of us from various places. HealthRight, Health PAC, Women’s Health Collective and Women’s Medical Center that continued to do educational work, put out leaflets, and teach courses. I taught a credit course at Hunter College called Women and Their Bodies. We took the title from Our Bodies, Ourselves. We were in touch at that time, Rachel especially, with Judy Norsigian, and all those people in Boston.
You could say HealthRight was a very minor version of Our Bodies, Ourselves. I remember when it was called Women and Their Bodies, and then they said, Our Bodies, Ourselves. That was a big moment. A number of years ago they produced a big new version of it, and they dedicated it to the memory of Rachel and a woman in their collective who had died of breast cancer.
JW: What was your role in these groups? What did you do?
EA: Mainly collective. But because I was a writer/editor and at that point, also an English teacher, I took a big role in doing the newsletters and their written materials and editing them and all that. But because I was also a teacher, I did a certain number of workshops. I mean, we did workshops on natural childbirth, and we were up there lying on tables. We taught at NYU and various community centers.
JW: Tell me about the commune you mentioned. What was that like?
EA: That started in about 1972. My friend Rachel Fruchter and I started talking about living communally to deal with issues of how are we going to help women move into jobs, into the labor market, who didn’t have money or didn’t want to hire a nanny? People don’t believe this now, but there was very little in the way of child care. If your kid was three and toilet trained, they could go to nursery school, private nursery school, of course. I had a women’s babysitting group. But that required you to do a day a week or half a day a week. It wasn’t great if you had a nine-to-five job. We talked about this. And I remember when Rachel, who came from some wealth, asked me if I had any capital. I didn’t know what the word meant, so I assumed I didn’t have it.
At some point, my mother sold her house in Toronto and went back to England. We never had any money. But my mother, in her final years leading up to retirement, bought and sold a few houses to profit. And she gave my brother and I both $10,000. She could have traveled around the world, but to her great credit, she gave us the money. My brother and I each bought a piece of property. The British have a phrase, “getting on the property ladder,” and that’s what we did.
And I put that $10,000 on the house in Brooklyn. Rachel put in $10,000, and I think we borrowed money from rich friends of theirs. We moved to the house in Brooklyn. I’m sitting in the dining room of the house. We lived in a two-family house. It wasn’t a fancy brownstone, but it was wider and longer. We had three floors for the kids with bedrooms and studies and bedrooms for the adults and kids and studies for the adults. And one ground floor that was totally communal.
And we always joked that it was a very sort of middle-class commune because we lived in a better space than we had lived in our tiny Manhattan apartments with a tiny backyard and a stoop in the front. And we found another family who was interested. And we lived like that for about six and a half years. Then there was a break up of a marriage. The woman, one of my communal sisters, moved up the street with her new friend/partner.
And two families lived in the house. In total the commune lasted about 14 years. I’ve just finished a memoir about it. I am going to self-publish. It’s at the publisher today. That’s what I’ve done during COVID. At first, I published a memoir of my mother. She left me 150 pages of her life, the Blitz, and then coming to Canada. I’ve been spending my retirement years writing.
JW: Now let me ask you this. Were men in the commune too? You said a marriage broke up.
EA: There were four men in the commune. There were three couples. I had a letter in the Times recently about it. I said, there was a horrible article by a woman that said the women’s movement failed women because of what’s happened during COVID. I just said we didn’t fail at all. She mentioned an article which said that women don’t need men. And we said we needed men. We wanted men to help with the work.
You never saw men in those days pushing strollers in the neighborhood. Oh, no, it was always women. And you didn’t see grandparents either, because we had our children relatively young, in our mid 20’s, and most of our parents, who were close by, were still working. Now a lot of people in the neighborhood have parents who retired to live near them in Brooklyn to help take care of the children.
JW: How many children were in the commune?
EA: There were three families of six adults and five children. The children were aged nine down to two. I had the two-year-old son and the other two couples had two children each. And I’m still in touch with all of them, essentially.
JW: Were all the women involved in the activities with you?
EA: Alice was not. She was a psychology major and she had her own groups. But yes, Rachel and I worked together in HealthRight for about five years until I finally left. And then it continued for another few years. And then it just had to close its doors because interest was waning and also because people realized they had to earn a living. Some people had other jobs and came to our meetings. We met once a month or so. We put out a string of fabulous newsletters. I just collected all the materials I had and several other people had. I have already donated some of them, but I just donated a whole bunch more to the Schlesinger Library. Because I had a connection at Radcliffe and it’s hard to know where to put things and actually, when my brother died a few years ago, he had a lot of my mother’s stuff because they lived in the same old house in London.
And I found 19 letters I wrote my mother from college. I asked the Schlesinger if they wanted them and of course they did, because nobody writes letters anymore.
JW: As you mentioned you were a writer and editor at HealthRight. What did you write about?
EA: Everything. Sterilization, breast cancer, breastfeeding, workers’ health rights. I don’t know why I didn’t keep a list of all the newsletters. I was hoping Schlesinger would do that for me, but they’ve been so backed up with COVID and were closed down for a year. But we wrote about everything. I joined the women’s health movement because I thought health issues affected all women across race, etc.
And I had more of a working-class consciousness than many because my mother had been a secretary all her life after my father died. But the only black women in our group were gay because the Black Movement then didn’t want to be involved with gays or with women. And I also was teaching at that time at St. Peter’s College, which was a Catholic University and 95% of my students were black, minority, and working-class whites coming back to school trying to finish their degrees.
All of the black women in that group, especially the ones who were at all politically aware, just let you know that they wanted nothing to do with feminism, white feminism. And because they thought that they would say things like the black community can take care of its own. The black community doesn’t need free abortion, which was, of course, ridiculous, because black women were getting abortions like everybody else. But at that time, you didn’t want to have a nasty dialogue, so you just let it go. But that’s why we were not racially mixed and we regretted it. But it wasn’t that easy.
JW: I remember at the time the push for middle class women that you get jobs rather than just stay home. And black women would say “we’ve always worked. We don’t know what you’re talking about”. I was aware of a considerable divide.
EA: A friend of mine retired, and she wanted to put together a group of essays by women on what they would do with retirement. And one of the things they said was, “We are the first generation of women who worked.” And I said, “Wait a minute, women always worked. My mother worked, there were always secretaries and cleaning ladies.” Another person I know said, “They’ve just written a book on parenting after 40.” Well, a friend of mine had to tell her, “Catholic women, everybody had children after 40. It just wasn’t their first.”
Women had children before 40 and then after 40 because they couldn’t control their fertility or they didn’t want to because the Church told them not to.
JW: Like me, I had two marriages, so I had one child in my 20’s and my other one came along at 41. So, there you are.
EA: I had that too. I had one child at 27 and one child at 38.
JW: Moving on, can you remember any particular memorable or important experience during that time?
EA: There was really a psychic energy. There we were in the middle of it, going to demonstrations, going to abortion marches. I remember the joy when Roe v. Wade passed. I remember that we breathed a sigh of relief and I guess I thought the struggle was over. Little did we know, right? And I remember, of course, there were lots of arguments. Collective writing is hard, right? I don’t remember anybody leaving the group though.
Barbara Ehrenreich was a member of the group because she was a member of Health PAC. And she was so clearly smarter than all of us. And I think at some point she did leave the group but because she was just very busy with other things, writing books and whatever. I don’t remember that we ever had huge issues. People went in the group, they heard about it. I received $25 for three days of work. So we got a little bit of money from several foundations, concerned leftist foundations.
We got some money from the city. But at some point, that allowed us to rent an office in the Flatiron building which is now a very trendy office, but at that time was basically falling apart. And that whole area of Manhattan was really seedy at that time with bars, and drunk people in Madison Square. That’s why we could afford the Flatiron building. Shared toilet in the hall sort of thing.
We just had a really good feeling though. And I think we had a pretty big mailing list. And I was always the secretary. I wrote letters to people. There was a lot of women coming to New York. They would stop by and visit. At some point, we inherited in our basement records of one of the women who had died. Three women in the group died. One of uterine cancer, one of colon cancer and one was in a bike accident.
But we inherited boxes and boxes. So, at some point, Rachel Fruchter and I organized people to come and clear up the boxes. And I was so disappointed that all the letters that I had written, dozens of them over five to seven years working there, were all on carbon paper and they had all just disappeared. Because in those days, people didn’t have copy machines. If you wanted something copied, you went to a store or a print shop. Not that many of them. And you paid quite a bit of money. I didn’t copy every letter I wrote.
We were in touch with groups in Kansas City, LA, Chicago, all over. And one of my jobs was to write those letters. And I did it religiously. We wrote about what we were doing. We sent them our literature, and we had a budget for that. We never charged anybody for literature. And I remember people used to come to the office. It was so charming. I remember a woman who came. She had a double mastectomy and she wanted help. And she said, I’ll ask the feminists to help me. We had so few facilities. Of course, we sat and talked to her, but we couldn’t do much for her. I remember saying we have a friend who’s a therapist, and I’m sure she’ll see you for minimal amount of money or whatever.
But we were all donating our time and finally, we didn’t have that much time to donate. I left HealthRight in about 1977. I had two jobs to try to support myself. And my ex-husband was giving me money. But with two jobs, one in New Jersey, and one in the North Bronx, I didn’t have time to be at HealthRight anymore. I’m in touch with five or six of the people since three of them aren’t alive, but that’s quite a few. But I do remember a key moment when I become a bit of an expert on the birth control pill. I had done a lot of reading about it, and I did an article on it and it wasn’t extreme. In fact, I remember saying that despite the fact that we’d all taken too strong doses at the beginning, because who knew, that I was very grateful to the birth control pill to have been able to have sex during college without worrying about getting pregnant.
I remember when I was a freshman, a senior upper classman came to me with a crumpled piece of paper and said, this will tell you if you ever need it, where you can get an abortion. It was a doctor in Western Mass, and she said, you pass it on to anybody else. And then when I came to New York, somebody gave me the slip of paper with the doctor in Westchester, and I took my sister-in-law to that one.
But I just remembered my last time presenting about the pill. Two people in the very front row kept talking and eyeing me. And at the end, a man and a woman – they were both doctors – got up and really just lashed into me. What I was saying was simplistic, etc. And I realized that I was not a professional, and things were getting professional. And a lot of my other friends in the group, one worked in a lab. My friend Rachel became an epidemiologist. People were going into health professions, and I wasn’t. So that’s when I got out because I thought, I don’t have the knowledge now to stay in touch with everything.
And I was very involved in the PTA because I had two kids so far apart for, like, over 20 years. That was my major volunteer activity. And then after Trump was elected, a group of us got together and formed this group called Older Women Remember And Speak Out. Because we just thought we had to start talking. At some point, a lot of people came to our initial meeting, but in the end, it boiled down to five of us. But there was a young woman who came. She came just to be there because she wasn’t going to be in New York. She was a young African American woman, and she didn’t know what a coat hanger abortion was.
And yet she said she’d had an abortion, a legal abortion somewhere where, and in fact, she wasn’t treated well. So, it was back to collective writing. We put out e-blasts, about probably ten of them since 2016. It took a long time to decide on a name and what we were going to do. And we put out e-blasts on all sorts of issues. And then when COVID really hit, we got briefer and briefer. The last one just went out today, because when the Texas abortion law went into effect, I said to the group, “We have got to do something.” But this was the middle of August and everybody’s away. I just wrote a letter. One of my other members revised it much better. Somebody else combined it. And it got published in the Times about two weeks ago.
JW: That’s how I learned of you. I saw the letter to the editor in the Times.
EA: And then we just sent out an e-blast with the letter and giving people, like, five things they could do. Donate, show up at demos, keep in touch, share information. But “donate” was a big one. Giving to a group in Texas called Abortion Is Health or something like that. And it gives to ten women’s groups in Texas. We were thinking we might disband because it’s so hard to get five people together. It’s very hard to do it during COVID, for sure.
We have a website. All it really has is an archive. There’s a group in Brooklyn now called Women’s Health and Action. Some of us have gone to those meetings and been involved. They have demos and stuff like that. I haven’t gotten involved in them. I did not volunteer to help with their writing because I was overwhelmed with my own writing.
JW: I just have to say how fabulous it is. I love the name of your group. It sounds like it was hard to come up with one. I so identified with it.
EA: I think it’s really important that people remember. History is lost and found. I think Napoleon said, “History is that version of events we’ve all agreed to agree upon.” Of course, the more common history is written by the winners.
JW: That’s why we’re doing these interviews, because we want to hear it from the people who were there. This is your story to tell us, what it was like, what you do.
EA: I always felt that I was never the major person in the group with HealthRight. There were people like Barbara Ehrenreich. There was somebody called Andrea Eagan, who was quite an expert on breast cancer. And she wrote a book which had a great title: Why Am I So Miserable If These Are The Best Years of My Life? And Rachel was so knowledgeable, she was already a biochemist or something and went to Oxford. And I never felt that I was the major person. But somehow at this point in my life, I seem to be the person doing the archiving. I’m very concerned that it not all get lost.
JW: How would you say that your involvement in the movement affected the rest of your life?
EA: It made me a stronger person; it gave me all sorts of support. I mean, I would still say that my HealthRight sisters, at least two of them are my absolutely best friends. One of them lived in the commune with us for a while. Another one, Rachel, would be, but she died, unfortunately, in a bike accident. My mother was always a bit of a feminist. She was a single woman raising children in Toronto, which was at that point, the city dominated by, you might as well say – it was a Calvinist city.
It was incredibly uncharitable. There were lovely people, don’t get me wrong, but it was a very hard place to be a working widow with children and, of course, living in Brooklyn and New York. I don’t know. It just made me feel like I was part of the big world and in my travels, I did sometimes visit women’s groups in England, women’s groups in California because some of my friends had moved. A very good friend, a member of HealthRight moved to California and got involved in, I guess what you call Chinese medicine.
She’s an Acupuncturist and she has a group called Acupuncture Without Borders and does a lot of work. It just absolutely helped me become who I am. I met people from high school who would say, oh, yeah, you were the one who is going to be the feminist. Because I was ahead of my tiny high school, my tiny Church Anglican, not at all fancy. I was a scholarship student. And my mother was always so happy to hear about it, because she at some point, just settled down to be a secretary.
But before that, she was waitressing. And she met an actor, a Canadian and said, wouldn’t you like a woman with a good English accent to read the news? He worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, and she never got over his response, which was that no one would ever, ever listen to a woman reading the news. And I remember she really talked to me later in her life before she died about really being so happy. It was better for women, but how she regretted that she hadn’t been born at a time when women could do more.
People say things they don’t mean them to be. I remember I had friends anyway who said, “Oh, it must be so much easier for you to work because your mother worked.” And I would say, “It didn’t look quite like that when she was struggling to put money together.” But, yes, I would always work. I wanted my own money, and I also wanted to share. I don’t want a husband supporting me. And also, I truly believe it’s better for children to have time apart.
That was part of the whole thing with the commune – that kids would benefit from having other parents and other siblings. They would have the benefits of a large family without the burden of it being on one couple. The commune became our extended family.
JW: Do you have any concluding comments?
EA: I sometimes say, the present generation will think that we didn’t do enough. Of course, we didn’t do enough. But as I said in my letter to the Times about how feminism had failed women. You know feminism is dynamic. It’s an act in progress. It relies on each generation to take work forward. It doesn’t just end.
JW: Passing on the baton now.
EA: Absolutely. As a friend of mine said when she got the e-blast newsletter about what to do, she said, “I will certainly donate. I will certainly keep up to date. But I’m not sure there’s an abortion demo in my future, unless it’s very close. And certainly not on the steps of the Supreme Court.”