Joan Kuriansky

“We are more effective when we speak in a collaborative and united voice.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, July 2020

JW:  Good morning, this is Judy Waxman and I’m interviewing Joan Kuriansky over Zoom because we are in the pandemic. Good morning, Joan.

JK:  Good morning.

JW:  The place we always start is with your name and where and when you were born.

JK:  My name is Joan Arthur Kuriansky. Arthur was my mother’s maiden name that I chose to use later in my life. I was born on April 30th, 1951 in Stamford, Connecticut.

JW:  I know you have been involved in the women’s movement for a long time. Tell me what your life was like before you were introduced to women’s rights.

JK:  I have lived in some of the most exciting times. Before being involved in feminism, I was an activist on a number of issues beginning with high school. Our science teacher introduced us to environmental justice. In 1968 and 1969 we were the first group of an organization called PYE: Protect Your Environment. The first button I ever wore was my PYE button in yellow, blue and green. We went to Hartford, Connecticut, the capital of our state, which was confusing for me because I always thought New York City was our state capitol! We went to Hartford and argued to protect the wetlands. 

I graduated from high school and moved on to Washington University in St. Louis. My first year culminated, unfortunately, with the Kent State killings. During that initial freshman year, I was much more involved in issues of community justice and anti-war work. My exposure to the women’s movement didn’t come until I went to law school a few years later. During my college years I was an activist in a number of ways: I was one of the co-founders of Movement for New Congress and I co-founded the first organization to bring the St. Louis and Wash U communities more together in a volunteer program called Roundhouse, which continued beyond my tenure there; I also volunteered for the St. Louis Legal Aid Society. 

When I went to law school, I first became familiar with the very few laws that protected women. In our class, at U.V.A. Law School, we decided that we wanted to create both a women’s law organization and bring in a professor from Washington, D.C., to teach Women in the Law. At that time about fifteen percent of the class were women. There was only one female professor and she did not teach women’s rights. So, we invited a professor to come from D.C. once a week to teach for three and a half hours. Through that, I became active in the Virginia Commission of Women. A colleague and I wrote the first little handbook on women’s rights in Virginia.

JW:  Can I ask what year that was?

JK:  I graduated in ‘77 so I’m assuming I wrote this between ‘76 and ‘77. We presented the handbook in Richmond at the Commission on the Status of Women. What shocked me was how little rights women really had and the continuing issue of women being treated like property. I also volunteered at the first women’s law firm in Charlottesville and I attended the Women in Law conferences, which really opened my eyes and were so formative in my thinking going forward.

JW:  What did you do with that information when you graduated?

JK:  As soon as I got to Washington, D.C., I headed to the Women’s Legal Defense Fund. At that point, they had a number of wonderful community-based programs. And you could get engaged as a volunteer in a number of different counseling programs. During the day I worked as an attorney at Legal Services Otherwise, I was a very active volunteer with the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, eventually serving on a number of committees including the Screening Committee, to assess potential cases to go to the Supreme Court or other courts. What was most formative to me was being involved in the beginning of a hotline for battered women that came from a counselling program on quote “Family Issues” in 1978. 

This family counselling group learned that so many of the calls were coming from women who were being battered by their spouses or partners. This prompted WLDF volunteers to first, create a hotline that we operated from our homes. Secondly, we decided there needed to be a shelter for battered women in DC. I was one of several people who co-founded the shelter, My Sisters Place, that still exists today. I was its first president.

I felt then and I still feel it is one of the most insidious and obvious consequences of the unequal roles of men and women in our society. I have continued to do this work throughout my life. I have always been grateful to be a small part of the birth of battered women’s movement, a movement that still resonates today and whose values underlie so much of our current work on all aspects of gender-based violence.

This particular volunteer work was so inspiring – meeting other women who began to have the same passion that I did and to share that passion and transform it into real concrete solutions like the shelter. Before we were well-staffed, some other colleagues and I would stay overnight at the shelter, that was housed in an undisclosed location. When we received a call from a woman needing immediate shelter, we would meet her in  an anonymous location and accompany her to the shelter.

The courage and drive for survival that so many of these women had was so inspiring. They were willing to do what they could to prevent further abuse. It was nothing like my own experience. I was in awe of these women who were able to make the decision to leave their home and usually bring their children to an unknown, strange place with only their clothes and little, if any, resources. Not every woman immediately chose to permanently leave her abuser for any number of understandable reasons, but the fact that these women would take this first step to safety has stayed with me for the rest of my life and continues to inspire my work today.

JW:   At that time, that was the issue of most importance to you. But you went on to do other women’s work after you left legal services.

JK:  I have to say that my volunteer work inspired me so much that in a three-week period, I gave up my job, I gave up the city where I lived, and at 29 years old moved to Philadelphia to run what was already one of the most expansive battered women’s programs in the country. Women Against Abuse. Between 1981 and 1987, we served 40,000 women each year through our Hotline, Shelter, and Legal Center. We did remarkable work, some of which, in retrospect, I might have done differently. 

We established the first domestic violence courts in the country, both civil and criminal. Some other jurisdictions, in addition to us, had already established special units and prosecutors’ offices. But we went far beyond that and to the other end of the justice system. Because of the work of some of my colleagues at Women Against Abuse, we decided to launch the first program for battered women who were incarcerated because in trying to defend themselves, they either hurt or killed their abuser. 

It was challenging to work with the defense bar of the criminal justice system representing women who were charged with crimes in defending themselves against an abusive partner while we worked so closely with those prosecuting batterers. It took sophistication, including that of both the Public Defender’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office, and an understanding of the breadth and impact of domestic violence, to understand why women would be in both positions of a victim and an offender within the criminal justice system. 

One of my greatest pleasures is to know that one of my colleagues at Women Against ultimately founded the National Clearinghouse on the Self-Defense of Battered Women. It operates in Philadelphia today, but staff work all over the country with attorneys, survivors and advocates on the issues of self-defense in domestic violence cases.

I love new issues and challenges and while my career can be defined as promoting the rights of women, I have done that through different lenses, venues and approaches. When I returned to Washington in 1987, I became the director of an organization called the Older Women’s League, OWL.

I think that’s when we first met each other.

JW:  Yes, I think so.

JK:  I was at OWL between 1987 and 1994.  OWL was created by women who were disaffected by NOW and felt that older women’s issues were not being significantly addressed by NOW. When I joined OWL, I was relatively young, but for whatever reason, I was offered the position. It was the first time that I had worked in Washington as an Executive Director and in primarily an advocacy position. I had done some national domestic violence work, but my home base and focus was in Philadelphia. Here, I was running a national organization with chapters in many parts of the country and one that was a truly activist, unflinching feminist organization. 

OWL was founded in California by two very dynamic women, one Tish Sommers, who had always been an activist and later moved into – as she aged – this issue of aging as a woman’s issue. And her colleague and partner, Laurie Shields, who had never thought in terms of activism or feminism – she’d been a journalist. As she became older, she, too, became incensed at the discrimination against older women. So, Tish and Laurie established the Older Women’s League in California in 1980. By the time I assumed the role of executive director, its headquarters had moved to D.C. with chapters all over the country. 

To give you an example of the energy of these women and our chapter members: I went to California to meet the staff there, the original leadership and chapter members. I was waiting in the hotel to meet one of the chapter leaders and I wasn’t sure how I was ever going to find this woman.

An older woman comes over with a neck cast covered in political buttons. I knew she was the one, and when I introduced myself to her, her first comment was, “If I have to wear a neck brace, I might as well use it to make a statement”. That is our OWL personality. I was at that organization for seven years and we did a lot of exciting work that I’m happy to share.

JW:  Sure, give us a couple examples.

JK:  One of the issues that is now so front and center, but in the 80s, we really gave voice to the role of women as paid and unpaid caregivers and how these responsibilities have an impact on women’s earnings, women’s retirement and their own wear and tear. With the current focus on the impact of COVID, particularly on emergency workers – essential workers – it is no surprise they are often women of color, who are most likely the ones to be infected by Covid and its consequences. There are many different kinds of essential workers, but those who are doing the day to day care tend to be women. 

And in terms of unpaid caregiving, we can see what the impact is right now where most childcare programs aren’t in place. Many mothers and, to some extent, fathers are having to be the child-care workers or even teachers while they are also trying to earn a living. This issue of recognizing the worth and value of caregiving is reflected in the passage of the Family Medical Leave Act. OWL’s emphasized  the role of elder care and in the quality of the care. OWL was very visible in raising the continuum of care that affected women throughout their lives.

OWL in conjunction with AFSCME, produced a series of materials on the rights of “chronic care workers”. Newsweek published a front-page story on the “Daughter Track”. We were instrumental in bringing that article to fruition. We also published a report on job discrimination that analyzed legal cases where the multiple issues of gender, race and age were present. It’s very important to understand where older women fit in any issue but particularly in job discrimination and access to retirement income.

The most exciting work during my tenure at OWL was expanding our focus on the health of mid-life and older women to address the impact of health care of women throughout our lives. In conjunction with the President’s Council (of national women’s organizations), OWL co-founded and mobilized the Campaign for Women’s Health. The Campaign was a response to Hillary Clinton’s effort to get national health care reform enacted during the Clinton Administration.

As we know, that didn’t happen. However, we were able to organize a very broad-based coalition of women’s organizations – not all of whom had been involved in health care before – to demonstrate the importance of health care for all women and girls and the inequities that we face. Several of our national partners were unions, expanding our membership to over six hundred thousand people.

CWH leadership made a strategic decision to focus only on issues that affected the health of women from treatment and research perspectives. Many of us were in organizations with different philosophies about the overall structure. In those days, it was single payer versus a private pay system and that continues to be an issue today, although the words may be a little different. We decided that there were too many issues that affected women from prenatal care through death that we needed to address, regardless of what structure the health care system eventually took. 

For instance, women with heart disease often ended up going to the doctor and being treated seriously by the doctor much later than men. Part of that was because there were no clinical trials that included women at that time. There was also discrimination against women as they went to the doctor – often their complaints, their concerns, were somewhat ignored or they would be placated. By the time a woman actually got to a doctor who took her seriously, she had a much greater level of risk with her heart disease.

It was during those years that the first Office of Women’s Health was created. Vivian Pinn was the director of it at NIH. We played a significant role in the establishment of the Office through our partnership with groups like the Society for Women’s Health Research, the Back Women’s Health Project and the National Women’s Health Network.

The Campaign conducted a number of its own research projects, not medically oriented, but relating to issues of access and equity in women’s health care that brought the Campaign international as well as national attention. We also formed chapters in different parts of the country, recognizing that community voices were essential to getting Congressional support. Many years later, I was quite thrilled to learn that after the National Campaign for Women’s Health ended,  some active local campaigns continued.

The Campaign became the leading voice for women in key strategic meetings with other national health rights organizations and unions to consider the policy and the political dimensions of passing national health care reform. While OWL was at the proverbial “table”, we were informed and effective because of the many groups who made up the leadership of the Campaign and the OWL Board. OWL had always addressed health care policy. Earlier we played a big role in the passage of COBRA, that so many people still use today. OW was looked to as the “women’s voice” in addressing long term care and other issues relating to the health needs of older women in health care reform.

JW:  How did you continue with your women’s work?

JK:  I wanted to begin to undertake some work internationally. Through Sarah Harder, a dear colleague of mine, I got very involved in working in Russia in those early years when Gorbachev and Yeltsin were in office. Sarah and I hoped to bring our experience as women leaders in the US to  building similar coalitions in the evolving “civil society” of Russia. When Gorbachev and Bush held their first Global Summit, a corollary Summit of women leaders from Russia and the United States was held that I attended.

I got so excited about the possibility of working in a country that was really revamping its  political and economic systems to hopefully give voice in different ways to all parts of the society that I wanted to devote some significant time to that work. I did such work with Russian and American colleagues for about ten years. Now, of course, we have a dramatically different relationship with Russia, its leadership and government that no longer has respect for the idea of a civil society.  

Once the Violence Against Women Act was passed in 1994, I had an opportunity through the Justice Department and the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, to create the first program within the Violence Against Women Office to provide technical assistance to all states and territories. Each jurisdiction was receiving money to implement VAWA. Unlike many federal programs, advocates played a significant role in its drafting and that was reflected in how the funds were supposed to be used.

Overall, the money was focused on making justice systems more responsive to victim safety and offender accountability.  Some funds were devoted to building coordinating community responses at the state level with significant input from advocates. The bill continues to be a wonderful model with application to a number of issues addressed by legislation today. This work really captured my attention and passion. For the next seven years, I continued to do this work as well as consulting on an international level that extended beyond Russia and the NIS (New Independent States) to Southeast Asia and Europe.

JW:  Was the office in the Department of Justice?

JK:  The Violence Against Women Office (VAWO) was in the Justice Department. I worked under a cooperative grant with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Independently, I was appointed by President Clinton to serve on the first National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women where I served through the end of the President’s second term.

Many of us on the Council were, in some instances, a thorn in its side because of our disdain of the proposed welfare reform legislation, that was ultimately passed and our insistence that VAWO  have responsibility and autonomy outside that of the typical DOJ grant-making offices with strong and visible leadership.

During President Clinton’s administration, great strides were made to keep women and their families safe – the launching of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and critical criminal justice reforms to address violence against women. Some years later, when Senator Biden became the Vice-President, he established  an office on violence against women in the White House.

 As was my habit, I shift gears every seven years or so. I enjoyed the approach of becoming totally immersed in an organization and its issues for a period during which I could make an impact and then I was ready to undertake a new challenge.  In 2001, I became Executive Director of Wider Opportunities for Women. In many ways it was the culmination of the work I had done throughout my life.

WOW focused on the economic issues that were affecting women and their families and recognized that our economic well-being or lack of it affected every other aspect of our lives. The ability of a woman to have the income necessary to be independent with her own sense of agency was key, whether we were discussing retirement income, the kind of jobs that women typically held, access to health care (and the specter of Medicaid for the poorest among us), or the ability to be independent of an abusive spouse who controlled all the household income.

Wider Opportunities for Women was founded in the ‘60s. I served as its director between 2001 and 2011. During my tenure, we took the opportunity of several historic moments grounded in WOW’s own legacy. WOW explored what it really took for a family to make ends meet. In conjunction with our esteemed research partner, Diana Pearce, of the University of Washington, WOW had already launched the Self-Sufficiency Campaign that was based on the Self-Sufficiency Standard.

The Standard  considered the fact that women were working, had childcare responsibilities, transportation and healthcare needs. The Standard was a stark alternative to the poverty level – which to this day at its base is the calculation of how much food people are going to need to eat in multiples of the size of the household and age of the head of the household.

A major drawback in the assumptions underlying the traditional poverty level is if there is only one head of household member, he/she is not working. While other organizations that adopted similar measures and some laws now use other measures than the traditional poverty level to establish access to benefits, the “WOW” Standard was based on actual data on a county by county basis and detailed family types, offered a gender lens to assess income adequacy and was intended to be used as an advocacy tool.

WOW worked in partnership with states and local organizations across the country to use the Standard to advocate for specific policies that were reflected in the numbers. WOW created a similar program, The Elder Economic Security Initiative, in conjunction with the UMASS, that included state-wide advocacy initiatives in a large number of states to advocate for the well-being of those who were 65 or older recognizing that women were likely to live longer and with less economic security than men.

WOW was a leader again in the late ’60s, in creating the concept of non-traditional jobs for women, which were basically those jobs that had less than a certain percentage of women in that workplace and offered better paying jobs with the promise of a career ladder. Yet, these workplaces were often hostile to women. Initially, WOW founders Jane Fleming and Mary Janney created an open-door program for all women, whether a law school graduate or a woman with a GED, to develop a resumé, find solidarity with each other, and look at ways to make a difference for themselves and other women.

However, over time it became clear that those women with the greatest challenges were low-income women, without the opportunity to go beyond high school – often young moms with several children. Where could they fit? One answer lay in those jobs that were achieved through apprenticeships like construction. Women often began working in jobs that were related to things like sewage treatment or air conditioning (installation and repairs). As WOW evolved, so did a movement that initially seemed short-lived – the Green Jobs Movement.

We became a leader in addressing green jobs as women’s jobs and making the point that we don’t want to start out on third base as certain kinds of jobs are created. (Our motto was not that “green jobs were good for women,”  but that “women were good for green job”). We were able to develop programs in part with the U.S. Labor Department, unions, and some employers, to address how women could be real players in the evolving field of green jobs. The first jobs that some of the women who were trained through WOW in the early 70’s, like working in sewage treatment plants, today are considered green jobs.

JW:  We’re coming near the end of our time. I’m really fascinated by the way your initial experiences back in the day of the second movement have gone through your whole career. It’s almost like you’ve gone full circle. What concluding remarks might you say about that?

JK:   Glad you asked, as I was reviewing this history, I was thinking what are my learnings? I’ve identified five that strike me as significant. One is that I have never worked in isolation from what happens on the ground to what one tries to advocate for from a policy perspective, whether it’s on a national or local level.

My work with Women Against Abuse began on the local level with the experiences of women in their day to day life and that was translated into the policy work we did on the local and state level. And in the reverse at both OWL and Wider Opportunities for Women that were national organizations, we had local chapters or regional state partners who were grounded in the experience of women’s day to day lives.

It also was important to always make sure that women were front and center in the decision making about policy or services and assumed leadership. Without doing that, we would be invisible (with the consequences noted in the example of heart disease).

As my work developed, recognizing the intersection not just of women and men, but race, poverty and  income became very important in my analysis and approach. Whatever the issues are that we look at, we must do so holistically, recognizing the different communities who are affected. I believe we are more effective when we speak in a collaborative and united voice. Having a strong voice multiplied by many is one of the real important aspects of the way I’ve done my work.

Two other things. One is that I have come to appreciate that having access doesn’t always mean impact. Often, I would be invited to participate in a meeting or press conference because the work my organization was doing was considered important enough to be asked to be the token representative. So, I would get to go to all these fabulous meetings. But then I would ask myself to what end – what’s the impact? I don’t think one should be too impressed by having access if it doesn’t truly translate to impact.

And lastly, I have come to value the role that direct service has played in changing the lives of individual women within the organizations that I have led. Throughout my career, I’ve been focused primarily on policy change, yet many of the laws we worked so hard to pass are now at risk or have been lost. But the impact of the programs and services that we offered individual women will hopefully have a lasting impact.