THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“The Emphasis on Women’s Empowerment and Autonomy was Central to My Thinking.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, January 2020
JW: This Judy Waxman and I’m interviewing Gail Harmon and we’re in Washington, D.C. at her office. Gail, we start with your full name and where and when you were born.
GH: My full name is Gail McGreevy Harmon and I was born in 1943 in Kansas City, Kansas.
JW: What was your life like before you learned about the women’s movement?
GH: The language that people use now would very much describe my childhood, which is white privilege. I grew up in a very sheltered, comfortable suburban area of the Middle West. I had lots of personal advantages. I was always someone who was a bit of a rebel and a bit of an iconoclast. Before I knew about the women’s movement, I was always someone who chafed one way or another at the restrictions on women.
The most amusing and early example is a nursery school report that at 3, I’d liked to run and gallop with the little boys. And when I was in middle school or maybe late elementary school, I was very frustrated with the Girl Scouts. My brother in law had been an active Boy Scout, and I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t be Boy Scouts, or why we couldn’t have the range of activities that the Boy Scouts had. It was a lot of frustration along those lines. You know, that wasn’t the only part of my growing up. But it was certainly part of it.
JW: And when did you learn about the women’s movement and get involved?
GH: I would say in college. I went to college from ‘61 to ‘65, so that’s the very beginning of the second wave of the women’s movement. My friends and I talked about it, were interested in it. I remember that I wrote a long paper on a woman psychoanalyst and I wish I could find it now. I was very interested in that part of feminism. Also, it was a time of political awakening. I had friends who were very involved in SDS, I sort of flirted with that a bit during college so that the intersection of other progressive activities and the women’s movement was just part of my life at that time.
JW: Did you go right on to law school?
GH: After one year. I was trying to decide whether I wanted to be a psychologist or a lawyer. I got a job in Boston giving psychological tests, which was enough to turn me off of psychology. And so, then I went to law school. Another thing that is not really women’s movement but is sort of women’s empowerment is my decision to go to Radcliffe.
It had been well expected that I would go to Vassar. I just realized I would not be happy in an all-women’s college, removed from the big city, and where the emphasis was on having a date or going away for the weekend. I knew I’d be very unhappy there with the different pressures that would be put on me. I opted to go to a co-educational college, of which there weren’t a lot at that time.
JW: Radcliffe was pretty integrated then.
GH: All our classes were with Harvard, all our exams. It was integrated totally academically. There were things that were terrible, like there was a library we couldn’t enter that had the books on reserve from our classes and we couldn’t go in it because it was only for men. This was in ‘61 through ‘65 and it was much later, 25 years later, I felt the real impact of that. I’ve a very specific memory of walking to my office from the bus stop, my husband also was in the same class in college, and we were going to a 25th Reunion event.
And it suddenly hit me that I was going as a wife and not as a graduate. I’m walking down the street with tears streaming down my face and remembering things like not being able to go to my library. Just the humiliation of it in many ways. And indeed, I went to this event and my nametag did not say ’65. It said Gail Harmon. People would say, you look familiar. I said, yes, we were in the same class.
JW: That was because it was a Harvard reunion?
GH: It was a Harvard reunion. Radcliffe had a separate admissions, separate Dean’s office, that wasn’t very useful, and separate residence hall. Later they merged. The separation was kept, and it was kept for a variety of reasons. I think part of it was Harvard wasn’t supposed to raise money from Radcliffe graduates because Radcliffe wanted to raise money from those people. So, the reunions were somewhat separate because reunions focus on fundraising.
JW: You went to law school and then. So now I suppose we’re in the early ’70s?
JW: And did you become active in any women’s movement activities then?
GH: When I moved to Washington. I moved to Washington in 1975. I graduated from law school in ’69 and moved to Boston. My job dealt with juvenile justice, and then I worked for a regular law firm. Then we moved to Washington. And the first organization that I got involved with was the Women’s Legal Defense Fund. I was on the board and then I was president. At that time, Judy Lichtman was called the executive director, rather than the president. I served on the board and served as essentially chair for a number of years.
JW: How did you get to that position?
GH: I think through Gladys Kessler, one of the partners in the law firm that I joined, who had been one of the founders of the Women’s Legal Defense Fund. Gladys has had an illustrious career as a judge in the superior court in the federal district court. Gladys was very involved in that. I think that’s how I must’ve been encouraged to go to a meeting.
JW: Do you remember any of the early issues?
GH: Some of the issues were very simple, like providing a way for women to change their name. The Fund did not, at that time, did not have a large staff and relied primarily on pro bono counsel. But we were very involved in some issues of great importance. I remember that Zona Hostetler wrote a very significant brief in the Mississippi nurses case. I believe what it was focused on was that a man could not be admitted to nursing school in Mississippi. And so even though the Women’s Legal Defense Fund would not normally represent a man or be involved in that because it was a blatant example of sex discrimination and sexual role typing, it was very important. And we prevailed. So that’s an example.
We also created a shelter for victims of abuse. It’s called My Sister’s Place and it still exists now. But it was originally started out of the Women’s Legal Defense Fund and was a project of ours. A very important physical resource, a house, as well as a program for women suffering under domestic abuse.
JW: I have to mention that when I graduated law school in ’76, a friend of mine got divorced, wanted her original name back, and we went to the Women’s Legal Defense Fund and got council and she won the case. I directly remember that particular issue that was going on.
GH: We were involved also in divorce issues and struggling with questions such as, was mediation in divorce appropriate? Because of the power imbalance. I remember that we convened a sort of debate on that topic with various people on either side.
JW: And were there any conclusions?
GH: There were no conclusions, because the views were pretty strongly held, and they didn’t change.
JW: Interesting. So that led you to the early ’80s. What were the issues of greatest concern to you at the time?
GH: I think abortion rights was one of the issues of greatest concern to me. Early on I was introduced to Karen Mulhauser, who was running the National Abortion Rights Action League and with her, created a foundation for NARAL, as well as the Political Action Committee. And then we were involved in filing complaints against the “Right To Lifers” for their illegal election activities.
One of the pictures, which I will give you, is an article in The New York Times about the complaints that we filed. I worked with a divorce lawyer in town and at that time she was working on digging up the dirt, primarily in the Middle West, in Indiana and Iowa, of different activities that the “Right To Lifers” were engaged in. We had to have very specific documents and get all of them so that we could file these complaints.
JW: Where were they filed?
GH: With the Federal Election Commission.
JW: Were any of them successful?
GH: One was successful, which is quite ironic. One was in Massachusetts for a slate of candidates that was being endorsed. It went all the way to the Supreme Court and was called Massachusetts Citizens for Life. The Supreme Court said that’s for the small ideological nonprofit without either corporate or union money that was protected speech. That allowed us to use that both in NARAL and in a couple other clients to engage in independent expenditures, which was very helpful. But of course, now with Citizens United, it’s a different story. You look back on it and no one would have ever thought that it would have moved to Citizens United.
JW: What would you say were some of the major accomplishments that you were involved in at that time?
GH: A lot of the work for NARAL. Another story that you know well is the Women’s Medical Center story. One day this woman who I didn’t know came and knocked on the door of our office and said that she ran a women’s health clinic actually right across the street from the office and that the owner of the clinic was a crook. I talked to her for a while and I found her quite credible. And she wanted to get rid of him for good.
It was an abortion clinic that provided other women’s health services, so pap smears and other related reproductive health services, but primarily an abortion clinic. It had been an early abortion clinic. As you know, before Roe vs. Wade, D.C. and New York and Kansas were the only places where forms of abortion were legal on a statewide basis. D.C. had some number of nonprofit and for-profit abortion clinics early on.
This woman had a record of a telephone message her predecessor had from the guy with the number of the federal penitentiary. I thought it was pretty amazing. I called a very good friend of mine and client, Frances Kissling, who ran Catholics for a Free Choice. And I said, “Francis, if you ever heard of Bernie Halbert?” And she said, “Oh, sure. My mother ran his clinic in Queens before Roe vs. Wade. I’m the only one in Washington who knows he was in the federal pen while he was running the clinic.”
I managed to find a little bit of information on the case that he was convicted on, which had to do with billing Medicaid for tests of strep throat in children that were never performed. I found the name of the lawyer who prosecuted him, and I called him and talked to him and explained why I was interested. He said, “Well, this is really unorthodox, but I’ll get you the pre-sentencing report.”
Then pursuing this as a matter of litigation was really beyond me. I’m not a litigator and [it was] beyond the capacity of my firm. I found this wonderful lawyer, Alan Novans, who had been involved in the only case in the District of Columbia about the obligations of directors of nonprofit organizations. He and I worked together on this case and we got the board removed, as you know. Judy [Waxman] then became the chair of the new board.
JW: Someone called me and told me the background and said, we’re creating a new board and what would you think of being chair of it? And I did. That was a great experience. The place did thrive for a while. Well, that was quite an amazing story, obviously, to me. How would you say being involved in the movement affected your personal life?
GH: I think it had an impact on both my children in terms of them feeling empowered. I’ll give you a funny anecdote that precedes my coming to Washington. That probably must show something of my attitude – this would have been before ’75 – rubbing off on my children. I remember getting a baby present for my second child and my son at that point was 3 and it was addressed to Mrs. John Harmon. And he said, “That’s not your name.” I think something had already rubbed off on him. Later on, he was asked, are you going to be a lawyer when you grow up? And he said, “Oh, no, that’s what mommies do.”
JW: It was already a new generation. When were they born?
GH: They were born ‘71 and ‘74.
JW: I assume they’re feminists also.
GH: I wanted to get to Emily’s List. It is really an innovative political committee for women’s rights. It was created to take advantage of the opportunity for bundling contributions, raising small contributions and then making contributions to women candidates because women candidates traditionally did not have much money. The powers that be in the Democratic Party and also the Republican Party believed the candidate was not viable if they didn’t have money. So, it was a vicious circle.
Betsy Crohn, who was a very strategic fundraiser and Ellen Malcolm and some other women created Emily’s List. Emily stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast, it makes the dough rise. The concept was that a number of us who were part of the women’s community would write to all of our friends and neighbors and family members and encourage them to join Emily’s List and give moderate amounts of money in many cases, which then would be pooled and given to identified candidates who were pro-choice, Democratic women.
The first two candidates who we supported were Harriet Woods and Barbara Mikulski. This came out in part because Harriet had run for governor and had lost. When she was running for Senate, political women started trying to think about why she lost and what can we do to help her the second time around. And so that was one of the reasons that the analysis started, and that Emily’s List was created.
I knew the election law, and so they came to me and I was also part of their friendship group and their political group. We worked out this structure and strategy for raising the money that then would be bundled and given to candidates so that they would, in the initial part of the election season, be perceived as viable by the leaders of the party.
JW: Tell me about the Barbara Mikulski connection.
GH: Barbara was the other candidate who we supported. And of course, she won and became a very important leader on women’s rights in the U.S. Senate. She was the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate in her own right. She was not the widow or child of a former senator. She was there 30 or 40 years.
JW: Is there any activity that you particularly want to highlight? Maybe some sort of disappointments that we as the women’s community have suffered.
GH: Certainly, the failure of the ERA to be ratified. I mean, that’s a very, very important issue and a deeply frustrating issue. We are in Washington. We’re not out in the states working on this and that is deeply frustrating. The different federal restrictions on abortion with the different gag rules and Hyde Amendment have been enormous setbacks to women’s reproductive freedom. And right now, I am the chair of an organization called PSI, which is an international public health organization with programs in more than 50 countries, and one of the things that we do is medical abortion, where it is legal in the country.
We also get a lot of federal money from USAID [United States Agency for International Development]. We have been engaged in a very complicated series of transactions to enable us to continue to both get our USAID money for other activities and continue to provide abortion services for women who desperately need it in those countries. PSI was originally called Population Services International, but that phraseology is a little problematic, because it sounds a little bit like population control. And certainly, we are very involved in a rights-based approach to reproductive health. We know and acknowledge that the name is Population Services International, but we use PSI both because it’s less of a mouthful, but also it doesn’t reflect that part.
JW: You said it’s a complicated situation because of this administration’s gag rules.
GH: Yes, it’s because they have a gag rule on international family planning for foreign organizations and this particular rule doesn’t apply to U.S. based organizations. So, to the degree that we can operate ourselves as a U.S. nonprofit in Rwanda then we can conduct abortion services. And we can have a local Rwandan group that could not do that with the federal USAID money, but could, for example, do programs to combat the AIDS epidemic. It’s a wide range of health services. It’s a range of women’s reproductive health, malaria, child health, clean water. It’s a wide range of services and products.
JW: Do you distribute the abortion pills too? You said medical.
GH: Yes, we have a network of clinics. In many of these countries, you have government clinics that don’t work, where people don’t show up. They’re understaffed, and under resourced. But they’re then in some of the countries that are growing economically, a network of individual practitioners who we have worked to empower by creating a franchise and giving them certain quality control standards, certain education, certain advertising. And it’s these clinics that we fund that provide the services.
What’s interesting now, particularly in the more developed countries, is that we are working much more with digital and with what we call consumer centered health care, so that we have a device for women to inject contraceptives themselves in the privacy of their own home and maybe not even letting their family members know about it. And then we do things like AIDS self-testing, where people can send results and get results back digitally so that no one knows. It’s very interesting. I’ve been on that board since the ‘90s. We didn’t have term limits. It was a very informal board, even though it’s a very large organization.
JW: My last question is what do you see for the future of, you know, of women’s issues, of women’s advocacy? How do you see the next generation taking over?
GH: I think that’s such an interesting question, because younger women, while they are feminist in some ways and certainly have many more opportunities than you and I had as young women, are not comfortable by and large with some of the feminist rhetoric. So how that works out, I don’t know. I have a specific example.
You probably know Gina Glantz. She’s a former client and a friend and has created something called Gender Avenger. The concept of it is that in public presentations women are dramatically underrepresented on panels, particularly in the computer industry, but every panel you think about, every talk show you see, you name it. Women are dramatically underrepresented. She has worked in various ways, I think most recently, primarily in the high-tech area, of trying to get more women on the boards and in the public presentations at large meetings and conventions.
But the reason for me mentioning this, other than the fact that it’s fascinating, is that several people who I’ve been talking to about it say that for the younger generation, Avenger is not the right word. Something softer might be better. That is the dilemma with the new generation of young women who definitely care about women’s rights but see it differently than we did because they’ve had a different life experience.
JW: We hope we’ll keep moving forward. Well, thank you so much, Gail. It’s been really great and informative.
GH: Thank you so much.