THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“We were Working Without a Script and Taking Advantage of Every Opportunity.”
Interviewed by Judith Waxman, March 2021
JW: Jane, why don’t you give us your full name and when and where you were born?
JP: Jane Eleanor Pierson, I was born in 1942 in New Jersey. I was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey. But I grew up near the shore in New Jersey, it was a wonderful place to grow up.
JW: Tell us what your life was like before you ever heard of the women’s movement.
JP: I grew up in a lower middle-class family. My mother worked; my dad worked. We made ends meet. It was a lower middle-class neighborhood. I went to school in a place called Manasquan, New Jersey, which was five miles away. I had to take a bus to go there. It was a very interesting place because it was known for being a summer vacation kind of location. So, in the winter, it was very quiet. But we had the beach to ourselves in the winter, so I grew up with this sense of connection to water and to the beach. I was quite athletic, and I would walk every day or run every day on the beach. I was very fortunate.
When I got ready to go to college, I had to find a college where I could get a scholarship and where I could also work because we didn’t have funds for that. I found a school in New York that was part of the State University of New York system called FIT: Fashion Institute of Technology. I got in on a scholarship and I was able to start working even before I started school. There were plenty of jobs and they helped us get jobs, too. I was not the only one in that school that needed to work. Most of us needed to work.
JW: So, were you conscious of women’s role in your school and society?
JP: I was. My mother was a very independent person. Although she was a housewife to start with, she went out and got a job. But even when she was a housewife, she was head of the Girl Scouts, she was secretary of the school PTA, she was very involved in our Episcopal church. She stepped out in the community. She was not one of those people who worried about dust on the shelves. We cleaned the shelves, but it was not the top thing on her mind.
She was so independent that when I grew up, I thought, I want to be independent like my mother is independent. From a very early age, and one of the reasons I went to FIT, was that I thought I could work. I wasn’t going to be stuck in some school where I couldn’t work. I wanted to be in New York because I thought that was in the center of the world.
JW: When did you become aware of the women’s movement and get involved?
JP: I became aware of it when I was a reporter in South Bend, Indiana, working on a television station owned by Notre Dame University, which was an anti-woman kind of place. Few of us women had professional jobs there, most did not. They wouldn’t let you join any of the clubs, you couldn’t go to school there, etc. But I was a television reporter and I remember sitting in my office and Betty Friedan came on one of our monitors in the office, and I looked up and I thought, who’s she? So, I turned the sound up and I immediately thought, I’m going to work on that.
JW: What year was that?
JP: I don’t know. When was her book published? It is the year that her book was published because she was being interviewed on the Today show or something like that. I immediately got the book and I immediately began to read it and then talk about it with some of my women friends who were actually in graduate programs at Notre Dame. They did allow women to be in graduate programs, but not the rest of their programming. We all thought this was interesting.
I was there for quite a while and went to Europe, came back and when I got back to South Bend, I thought I’ve got to do something more than this. Shortly thereafter, my husband got a job in Washington, D.C. so I moved to Washington and I probably wasn’t here more than three months when the first National Women’s Political Caucus meeting was held. I saw it on television, and I thought that’s for me! As soon as I could track them down, I went in and volunteered to help probably within a week of seeing it on television, right after the meeting.
JW: And what did you do to help?
JP: There wasn’t much structure. I did initially anything I could do: picking up papers, checking on this, checking on that, answering the telephones, because there were a lot of telephone calls. But I very quickly became the organizing and field director. At the time, Doris Meissner had been asked by one of the people who had gone to the first meeting if she would come and be the executive director. She became the executive director. Doris and I liked each other a lot, we’re still friends after all these years.
She asked me to be the field director, I said sure, I’ll do that. I had some experience with politics, I covered politics when I was a journalist and I had worked in a political campaign in New York City when I was in school. Not much, but I did. I became the political director and we spent our time trying to organize this flow of information that was coming in from all over the country. Women from every state were calling. It was astonishing the letters that would come in asking if they could be part of the organization.
My job was to follow up with them and try to encourage them to start caucuses, tell them a little bit about what we were doing, and then I began to build lists of people in all the states in the state organizations. I mainly talked on the phone and encouraged people to get involved and then wrote letters to them and organized materials to send to them. We wrote all sorts of background material. The caucus was a brand-new thing, so we made an effort to make it a thing. It wasn’t just an idea, we turned it into an organization.
JW: What was the goal of the organization at the time?
JP: To elect as many women as we could to political office. There were practically none elected to political office at the time. There was Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm. There are a few that have been elected, but not very many. And our job was to work with those women who were already elected – most of them were Democrats at the time, not all. Margaret Heckler was a Republican from Baltimore. But we worked with them to create a mission, a focus, a structure, public relations, materials, all kinds of things to reach out to the field. They had lots of ideas, more ideas than we had.
JW: What were the ideas?
JP: Everyone’s ideas were to try to create in each state organizations of women who could then sponsor, support, and educate women who wanted to run for political office or parallel to that, work with them on women’s issues that were coming up in the Congress. And there were, of course, some issues coming up in the Congress at that point. We tried to get them to lobby their members of Congress, most of whom were men, to raise money for members of Congress if they were women. But our major goal was to get women elected to office and then to try to refocus some of the agenda in the Congress onto women’s issues.
JW: What kind of women’s issues?
JP: Health issues, educational issues, abortion which was part of a health issue, and then issues having to do with helping women learn how to run for office and to get involved in the political process. Most women had never done that – there were some that had. Each state had women who’d been in the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, and they had worked for male candidates. They knew about running. They knew about the political process. They had never thought of themselves as running. They didn’t even know how to recruit people initially.
We had some fantastic, wonderful women who were involved from every state. Our main focus was getting women out, educating them so that they could run in the next elections and we were going election by election by election at that point. We also focused a lot on the Democratic and Republican conventions, which were coming up very quickly after that meeting. We got a fair number of women elected to delegate positions in both the Democratic and Republican Party; more in the Democratic Party, but some in the Republican Party as well. We helped to create some task forces within those parties among those women to try to push for women’s issues on platforms and so forth. We were working without a script and we were taking advantage of every opportunity that came by.
JW: I’m interested in the fact that it was bipartisan. That seems hard to imagine today.
JP: That was a time when Tip O’Neill and the Republicans all talked to each other. That was a time when within the Congress, there was conversation between Republicans and Democrats. And so, it wasn’t that unusual for us to be focusing on both women and men. As we started working on the conventions, we needed to create these two different groups to work, one with the Republican Party, one with the Democratic Party. We thought we’d be stronger if we had both Republicans and Democrats and we’re focused together.
JW: Were there partisan positions on issues or the idea was really to just get attention to women’s health, women’s education?
JP: Well there were issues, mainly they were health issues. Any issue that came up in the Congress, there was always a women’s perspective. Whatever came up, we would try to figure out what the women’s perspective was, and we would try then to create a format for a response or to work with women like Bella or Shirley or Margaret Heckler to try to create a women’s approach to an issue, whatever the issue was.
JW: Can you talk about your most memorable or important experiences?
JP: In the first year going down to Florida for a Democratic convention, I think. Here we all were, six people or more in a room, staying overnight. We all had passes to get to the convention. I remember thinking to myself, this is terrific. I am going to do this for the rest of my life. Of course, I didn’t. I was completely hooked. And then there were the women who I was working with, both the Republicans and the Democrats were so fabulous. They were smart. They were able, they were young, and some were older, many were older.
They had a common purpose. Each time we worked together; we had a common purpose. At the Democratic Convention we’re trying to get things like women’s issues on the platform; that hadn’t been done before. In minuscule ways it had been done, but it had never been done in an organized way before. The same with the Republicans.
JW: Now, this was the early seventies.
JP: Yes. It was the early seventies. George McGovern.
JW: I remember. Did you go to the Houston meeting?
JP: I did. I helped organize the Houston meeting.
JW: What was your memory of that?
JP: The excitement of having so many women around us gathered in one place, all committed to women’s issues, all committed to developing a women’s agenda and the fact that they were willing to show up and work on these things and to be engaged, it was a remarkable meeting.
JW: How long did you stay involved with the Women’s Political Caucus?
JP: I was involved until 1978. In the middle of that I was a Kennedy Fellow for six, seven months, I think. Then I had the opportunity to go on a USAID trip to the Middle East. I went to Egypt, India, Bangladesh, to Sri Lanka, to Tibet. It was a wonderful opportunity, a couple of months. And I met with women’s groups in all of those places and talked about how you organized women around feminist issues. I remember one of my first meetings in Egypt and who showed up at the meeting? It was all men. There were no women there, not a woman.
We chatted about [it] and I said, our next meeting we really need to engage some women in this meeting. Well, why would we do that? I had never been to the Middle East before. I had been to Europe, but I had never been there. Eventually they did get some women to show up, we had a talk about women and women in politics and the women were very eager and excited and they wanted to know anything they could about me and about how the women’s caucus was formed and what our goals were and so forth. I had that same sense when I met with women in India, in Bangladesh and Tibet. It was a wonderful opportunity.
I think for them it was a good opportunity as well, because some of them did go out and organize groups. I had lots of materials to give out and talked a lot about how we did it. I did what I could in short periods of time. Following that, I met a number of those women because they came to the US, women from Tibet, a big group of women came from Bangladesh. Some of them began to move into the small business development focus in Bangladesh. I maintained relationships with many of them after having had some of the excitement of being involved in that.
At the Caucus I worked with a woman named Mildred Jeffrey, who you probably have heard about. She was kind of a mentor to all of us. And she became chair of the Women’s Caucus. I became executive director in about ’73, something like that. Doris left, went to the White House. By default, we didn’t have any money so they asked me if I would be the executive director during the period of the Carter elections and then the creation of our first women’s appointments coalition. That was the first time there was any kind of an organized effort to get women appointed to public office. And I think we did a pretty good job.
I was the chair of the Appointments Coalition, so we worked on the caucus, we worked on the campaigns, we worked on getting women appointed. We had thick books of women to nominate for every office, and we met with them and harassed them. We went down to meet with the Carter campaign in Georgia when they were beginning to lay out the appointees. We met for half a day with them going through our lists of people for each office. A lot of the women that we nominated actually did get elected and some of them are still involved.
JW: So, you went beyond getting women elected?
JP: We moved to that. We decided that we would actually have a three-pronged plan. Elect women to office, push for legislation on Capitol Hill and then push for women appointments. We had people working on each one of those things and we had fabulous women working on advocacy. We had women working on campaigns, and we had large groups of women working on appointments and that kind of thing. At any one time we had fifty, sixty, one hundred people in the offices all working on these issues at the same time. So, it wasn’t just ten or fifteen people together, it was a large group of people. As you said, this movement was not run by one or two people.
It was very exciting, because we had such talented people involved. I left there in ’78, and I became the legislative and political affairs director at the American Federation of Government Employees. My grandfather had been a union man and I had some sense of it. The main reason that I went there was that I needed a paying job. They offered me a good enough salary for the time, and it was something I knew how to do. I took some of the things that I knew from the women’s caucus and brought it to the union.
They had never done political fundraising. They’d never done organized…because it was a public employee union, they were afraid of the Hatch Act. I did my best to try to help them raise money. We did a lot of legislative work there. We then worked with women’s organizations and other political groups to get people elected to office. On our staff at the union we had half women and half men. It used to be all men and it used to be one guy who went around and lobbied. We had about 12 or 14 people working. We merged legislative and political affairs there and really created an operation that could do lobbying work as well as political work. I stayed involved in the caucus and stayed involved in political campaigns for a long time.
JW: Are you currently involved in activism?
JP: I give a lot of money to everybody. When I left the union, I started a consulting firm called Cavanaugh, Hagan, Pierson and Mintz, Inc. And I was a managing partner for quite a while. We did a lot of work both with political organizations and nonprofit organizations. Many of the people that I had worked with in the women’s movement were now back in my area, and some of them stayed good friends for many years. We worked with all kinds of women’s groups. One of my partners had been an activist who started NAWBO, the National Association of Women Business Owners, and her name is Denise Cavanaugh. She and another woman named Dottie Cook started NAWBOl.
So, Denise and I and then we had a couple of other people involved and now a young man is the primary person, although we’re on the website, I’m not working very much anymore, just doing pro bono projects. We had worked for 30 years together doing consulting work. My graduate degree was from American University and I of course worked when I was going to graduate school. Research and organizational psychology was the kind of thing I worked on. And so, I did that for 30 years, working for universities, working for nonprofits, working for corporations and some government work as well.
After a while I got so tired of getting on planes and going to California or going to New York or going to Pittsburgh, that I finally thought I’m going to have to find some local work. I began to get a few jobs in the federal government, which I liked a lot. A lot of women in the federal government are very active and very engaged and they’re not allowed to campaign but that doesn’t mean they don’t have opinions on political issues.
JW: What would you say that your involvement in those early days, how did that affect your home life?
JP: I was always fairly independent, but I became very independent and I became very sure of my opinions on issues. I try not to be pedantic, but I do have opinions on many issues, and I feel confident of my opinions on those issues. And I think being involved with the women’s caucus, learning about how legislation is developed, learning how people begin to create messages around legislative issues really helped me internally to think how do I process information?
What were the lessons for me? That comes back to me all the time. And as a consultant, that was very useful. When you’re a consultant, you walk in, you don’t know anybody or maybe you know one person and you have a group of 50 people, you’re working with an organization, the senior management team or something. You have to quickly analyze what’s happening in that organization. You have to begin to identify issues, power structures, things that are missing quickly. And I believe that my work in the women’s movement and my work in the caucus and working with people like Doris Meissner and Bella and others, Betsy Crone and a wonderful woman named Lael Stegall who died a number of years ago. I think that I developed the ability to do that. Graduate school helped, too, but I think my real education was in working.
JW: It sounds like you became your mother’s daughter.
JP: I suppose I did. She was very pleased. She agreed with everything. She really had strong opinions. I would consider myself a middle of the road person and independent. At one point I was a Democrat. Now I’m more of an Independent. You get older and wiser. And although I work on campaigns and I do support a lot of Democratic candidates. There are some women candidates who I think are fabulous as well. And there are some other issues that I think, economic issues, that I think are very important, too. When you have a retirement fund, you have to think about the economics of that, too. I think that’s what I have learned. I think I’ve learned how to be a critical thinker.
JW: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JP: I think another thing that I learned from being part of that – and I do think that everybody involved in the women’s caucus had the same experience that I did. We started with no sense of how to create an organization, how to create a movement. A lesson for me was that just because you don’t know how to do it at the beginning doesn’t mean that you can’t take small steps and begin to make something happen. When women were starting their campaigns to run for office, no one quite knew how to do it. You quickly can gather the information you need to begin to make your first speech, to begin to write your first policy paper. The doors are not closed to women because women are smart enough to think through these things.