Judy Waxman

“I Went to a NOW Meeting – and the Sky Opened Up.”

Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, August 2019

MJC:   Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview for Veteran Feminists of America. We’re very thrilled and pleased to have you. Start by saying your name, if you would.

JW:  I am Judy Waxman and I was born in 1947. I’m an original Baby Boomer. Dad came home from the war, parents got married, I popped out. I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and that’s where I grew up. 

MJC:  Did you have siblings?

JW:  I have a sister who is 12 years younger than me. So, big break. Two “onlys” [only child].

MJC:  What was growing up in Philadelphia with those parents and sibling like?

JW:  My parents were both from the first generation of their family to be born in the US. My grandparents all emigrated from Eastern Europe and they were a very traditional working-class family. Our large extended family all lived in the vicinity of each other. When we moved from South Philadelphia to Northwest Philadelphia it was like a major trauma for my mother, although we went back quite a bit. It was maybe a half hour ride. The South Philadelphia neighborhood was very mixed. There weren’t many African American kids but otherwise very mixed ethnically and religiously.

We moved when I started junior high to the other part of the city. The high school I went to was very racially mixed. We always said it was a third Jewish, a third Black, and a third everything else. It was an amazing experience that shaped the person I am today. I guess you would say I was a natural leader. I kind of rose to the top in different school activities; I was chair this, that and the other thing.

We actually had our fiftieth high school reunion a couple of years ago and it was amazing. I walked around with a lump in my throat the entire time seeing this very mixed crowd and how well everybody who came had done. When I was in high school in 1964, I could remember coming to Washington and singing “We Shall Overcome” out of the bus window! I was already sort of part of the movement that was beginning at the time.

 I went to a local college, I lived at home, and I continued to date my high school boyfriend. At the end of my junior year, the boys were being drafted to serve in the Vietnam war. My boyfriend graduated that year. We got married and moved to Florida, where I finished my education to become a teacher – because that’s of course the path I always knew I would follow. In tenth grade, I had a different boyfriend who said that he thought he wanted to be a lawyer. I remember very clearly my mother and I having a conversation about how if I were a boy that’s what I would do. But clearly girls just did not do that. And I was going to be a teacher. And that’s what I did.

After the first year in Miami we came back to the Philadelphia area, I taught elementary school for a few years and we decided to have a baby. When my baby was about to be born in 1971, my husband got a job transfer to the D.C. area. We came here. I didn’t really know many people and of course I was going to be a stay at home mom because that was the path. Well, I was very itchy saying home. I realize now, that’s just who I am. I need to be doing a lot of activities.

My husband saw an advertisement for the Women’s Political Caucus that was starting a chapter in Montgomery County where we lived. He said, “You would like that.” This was the beginning of the end of my traditional life. He wanted me to join the women’s club in the community who were doing floral arrangements, but I was interested in the Women’s Political Caucus. I went to a couple meetings and these women were running a candidate to be a delegate for Shirley Chisholm in Montgomery County.

I decided that this is what I was going to do. I had this little guy [my son]. I dragged him along and we marched, and we handed out fliers and I set up speeches and all the stuff one does in a campaign. Our candidate did not win that spot. But near the end of it, people were saying to me that I really had to join our NOW chapter, which was just about a year old or so in Montgomery County, Maryland. I went to a meeting and I met these women that were doing all different professional things. It was like the sky opened and I was just blown away.

 Within about six months I was president of the chapter. I had skills that enabled me to bring different factions together. Of course there were factions at the time. We worked with the Montgomery County Commission on Women. I also joined another group in D.C. called the Women’s Lobby with Carole Burris. There was a woman from Virginia, I’ll think of her name as this goes on, who was very active (Flora Crater). Every Thursday I went down to the Hill. We met at one of the cafeterias and we just went around to the offices where people told us to go. 

We were lobbying about abortion in those days. It was an issue very dear to my heart and still is. I remember going into one office and the Congressman actually came out to talk to us and asked us, “Why are you here?” We told him, and this is pre-Roe [V. Wade]. And he said, “If abortion was legal my mother might have had one and I would not be here!” And we were all stunned into silence. Anyway, people would say to me “What do you do, what’s your job?” And I’d say, “I’m an emerging woman.” That was my line. But I still thought about law school.

I thought I’d just get the LSAT book and see how I’d do on practice exams. I was answering the questions and I did OK. So the next step was to take the exam. I thought, I’ll just take the exam. I’ll see how I do. I did fine. Okay, I’ll just apply. OK. I got accepted at two schools and I picked the American University, Washington College of Law in part because it was geographically close as to where I was living. I started law school and my son was 2 years old.

He did fine. We luckily had a family daycare placement for him and one of the big benefits was he potty trained himself, because all the other kids were potty trained. I graduated three years later. At the law school, I started a Women Student Collective because at the time the only club for women was the Law Wives’ Club. One thing our organization did was to educate professors on appropriate language such as, “you don’t say reasonable man, you say reasonable person” and so on.

MJC:  How many women were in your class?

JW:  It was about a third women, the year before was a quarter. My class was a third and it kept going up. Now it’s half or more than half nationwide. I became known as Judy Waxperson when I was in law school for obvious reasons. And even now, if I see someone from law school they’ll say “Judy Waxperson!” and I’ll know how I know them because I was tagged appropriately so. Language was as important then as it is now.

I did graduate and on a personal note, in my last year of law school and through law school, my husband and I were growing farther apart. I was becoming a different person. He’s a fine guy, we’re still friendly. I don’t see him very much but when we are over with the grandchildren it’s fine. But I really was becoming a different person. And he just didn’t know what to do with me. And partly, my anger at the time about everything was really over the top. And I was probably incorrigible.

You know that “click” from the MS Magazine? You know that article. I got the “click.” I couldn’t watch TV, I couldn’t read. And he’d say, “Well let’s go out with this couple and you can point out all the husband’s flaws and break up their marriage.” I’d say, “OK!” because that’s kind of what I was like. I’m sure many people watching this will understand what I’m saying.

I graduated from law school but shortly before that, we separated. Most of the women in my class that started married were divorced by the end. It’s very much a pattern. A lot of women were rushing into law school in those years and also getting divorced and going out on their own at the end. A very common pattern. I was 20 years old when I got married to my high school boyfriend. So yeah that was a pattern. And we were no longer in the same world view space. So, then I got an apartment with my son who was almost six.

I started my first job at what was then HEW (Health Education and Welfare) in health law. It wasn’t directly on reproductive health, but it was in the health area.

MJC:  What year was that?

JW:  That was ’77. It took me a little while to get the first job. I moved into the city and my son started first grade in the D.C. public schools. It was a different life. Very fortunately for me there was another single mom down the hall with a boy around the same age. It takes a village – that helped a lot. And I did feel I needed a job with confined hours.

One particular job I was offered was at the Maryland state legislature, which sounded like it would be fabulous for me. But it was in Annapolis and I was going to have to travel a lot and have long hours and I just decided as a single mom I couldn’t take it. I was not happy about that. They were not happy because apparently the women legislators had fought for me even though I was a single mom. I ultimately had to take a job with more regular hours.  

I started out at HEW in healthcare and in a few years somebody in my office gave me an ad for a job that he said sounded just like me. It was at the National Health Law Program. This is an organization that still exists, having its fiftieth anniversary next year as many of these non-profits are. And it was all about access to health care for low income people. And I got that job. The main office was in Los Angeles but there were a couple of us in D.C. as the “eyes and ears” for Legal Services lawyers from all over the country. I got very involved in lobbying and following what was going on in the legislative process.

A life changing experience was meeting the other people. There was one man in particular who was on our board at the time, who was a legal services lawyer in Chicago and actually had worked on the Hyde Amendment case. That obviously piqued my interest in him and he eventually moved to D.C. and got a job with the Children’s Defense Fund. We eventually bought the house we’re in now, got married and adopted our daughter a few years later. That was a very significant outcome from taking that job.

In the 1980s, some of the issues we worked on were fighting the Reagan health care tax cuts, the block grant proposals. We still hear about the same issues today. How do we provide health care for low income people or do we just cut them off? I remained interested in the women’s issues and connected with some of the women’s groups over the years as kind of a liaison in the community. I worked a lot on what we called anti-dumping. In 1986 a law was passed that said hospitals must take patients that are in an emergency situation, including active labor. We advocated for this law because we heard stories of uninsured women being in active labor and being turned away from the hospital. That did pass and is a continuing part of our law today.

 In the middle 1980s I was asked to be the President of the board of a women’s health clinic that was on “I” Street called Women’s Medical Center. They did abortions and other services. There was a dispute in court because the person who started it – it was a nonprofit, but he put all his family on the board. The rent was going up and he was trying to just take all the money out and close down the place. The staff took him to court with Gail Harmon as their lawyer and she won that case. Somebody thought of me and asked if I would be president of this new board. I did. It was touch and go – I met great women on the staff and board, who I’m still friendly with, and we struggled along. Ultimately it did have to be closed for financial reasons, but at least we rescued it from the predator, and had it continued for a few more years.

MJC:  And the clientele was mostly poor women?

JW:  Yeah. I just bring that up because people thought of me in the reproductive health policy area. I continued to be active where I could even though I had this other full-time job. You had asked me earlier about my parents and my upbringing. My parents were working class, my mom mostly didn’t work outside the home, although occasionally she would work part time as a bookkeeper. My dad was the main breadwinner and he was a foreman in an iron works shop. They always did outside volunteering in the community.

There was an ambulance association starting in our neighborhood and I remember being in the basement, helping them stuff fund raising letters in envelopes to send out. My dad was a volunteer driver. They were in various other organizations in the community – and my grandmother, too. My grandmother was always involved in some Jewish activities. My grandfather actually ran a credit union for the people that had moved to Philadelphia from his village. So, you know, that tradition of having your full-time job and your family but still contributing to your community was really a big part of my growing up and it is tradition that I felt very comfortable continuing.  I always had something else going on.

I was at the National Health Law Program until ‘89. A Congressional Commission was forming on the hill to look at universal health care. I knew a lot of Hill staff and I applied to be on the commission staff. I went over there, and we created a plan which ultimately became the Clinton health plan, which pretty much became the Obama health plan. The big thing that wasn’t included in the Clinton or Obama plans was long-term care. We had a whole separate section on long term care and that was too much for Congress to bite off.  

I got to know a whole lot of new people who worked on the Hill and in advocacy groups. After that I moved over to Families USA, which is an advocacy group, again, to really work on that Clinton plan. I was doing policy and advocacy. At that point, I ran the Medicaid coalition. There were a whole lot of groups in town that were interested in how Medicaid was going to fit into this and the ups and downs of that program.

I can picture being in the conference room stuffed with organizational representatives where we would develop our strategies. Then we would write our papers and do our lobbying and our media activities, which was not quite as robust as it is now, but still was pretty robust through the 90s. We worked on the Clinton plan until it died in committee.

My husband and I have a story about when the Clinton plan was being voted on in the Finance Committee. We had a three-week vacation planned to Cape Cod and the first week we just let the rental go. Part way into the second week, the bill was dying. We knew it wasn’t going to pass. I remember going to my boss and saying “Ron [Pollack] it’s dying. We all know it is. I would love to spend the second half of my vacation at the Cape. He said, “Yeah go.” We threw our little girl in the car with all our stuff.

There were no cell phones then so I would be out at the pier talking on the payphone. We had a fax machine, so we would go out and come back and there’d be these reams and reams of paper. My husband was at the Children’s Defense Fund, so he was very engaged in this issue. The good news is that the Child Health Insurance Program came out of that. The whole package of health reform didn’t move forward. But we did get CHIP ultimately and put some groundwork in place for moving forward again when the time was right.

MJC:  So this vacation you didn’t see the beach?

JW:  Not too much, but at least I was out on the pier in the sun. It’s an example of how involved we both were with the whole thing. I guess another story might be, when CHIP was happening, my organization and the Children’s Defense Fund were not quite on the same page. Outsiders would say “Oh how great you two are working on the same issue” and we would smile. But without going into the policy differences, there were some differences. We would get press calls and both of us would have to say “I just want to say who I’m married to. You probably either talked to him first or will talk to him. We just want to put it out there, so you understand – you know where we’re coming from.” And the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) did pass.

MJC:  Which version?

JW:  His. We were both invited to the signing ceremony on the back lawn of the White House and somebody was taking a picture of us and someone else yelled out “and they’re still together!” So that was a great story and we’re both happy and Chip has grown. The big issue was, is it going to be finite funding or an entitlement? It has become an entitlement over time, which again speaks to that’s how we do stuff in this country – incrementally, whether we like it or not. It did become more like my version in the end. And he was happy about that too!

At some point, I decided it was time to move on from that job and the National Women’s Law Center had an opening for their vice president for health and reproductive rights. It brought together my various interests and streams of expertise and I remember folks from the Guttmacher Institute who I had worked with over the years saying, “Wow that is just so great for her and them.” It was very confirming; so I moved over there. That was 2003. The fights on the reproductive health front, which now look weak, at the time they seemed very serious – but now of course we are in a much more serious situation. NWLC continues to do the work on general access to health care and specifically for reproductive health issues.

MJC:  Was this period during the Obama administration?

JW:  Yes. I got there in 2003 and after 2008 the Affordable Care Act became a live thing. I feel like I was really at the right spot at the right time, because I had also hired health policy experts along with our reproductive rights experts and we could walk down both sides of the sidewalk, as I described it. We would get calls from the reproductive health community saying, “Well how does all this private insurance stuff affect our issues? What about Medicaid? What do we need to be thinking about?”

We could add to the bigger picture on where things should go in reproductive health issues to fit in with the bigger picture. We had a campaign called “Being a Woman is Not a Preexisting Condition,” because women were charged more just because they’re women. That was very popular and successful. I got to testify a few times and it’s interesting because the people I already knew from the insurance industry were testifying at the same time and they had to say, “Well, yes, gender differences in rates really should go.” It was a great spot for the organization and for me to lead this with these different pathways going on.

We worked on the preventive health services that included contraceptive coverage as preventive service. That was a big issue. The abortion issue we kind of won actually. There was a lot of movement to say the plans cannot cover it. And the end result was they can if they want to, but they don’t have to. So that was kind of a win from a limited point of view. When people talk about it I say, we were not the last issue to be decided. It was, could undocumented immigrants buy in on their own? And they cannot. But it was the next to the last issue to be decided.

After the bill passed the Institute of Medicine set up a panel to decide what the women’s preventive health services would be. I was invited to testify. We did help get certain members on to the committee, and I was asked to testify. We knew we were going to say contraceptive coverage should be a preventive health service. We had worked with domestic violence people and we knew we were going to say screening for domestic violence should be included. I can recall a meeting in my office where I said we needed a third thing. Maybe they’ll have to let our third suggestion go, but it was a strategic move to ensure that we would get the first two.

There was a woman in my office who had just given birth and she went into her office to pump. She comes out and says, “I got it: breast feeding counseling and supplies.” I said, “I love it.” In my testimony that day I mentioned adding breast feeding counseling and supplies. There was a gasp in the room. I did not know what that meant but afterwards people came up to me and said, “that is a fabulous idea.” Breast feeding counseling and supplies made it into a long list of preventive services that all women must have in their private health insurance.

At the law center we had to start a hotline to explain it to people and tell them how to get it. But I use this story as an example of why it is so important for women to be at the table, because who knows their own needs except themselves? It seems like it was just happenstance, but it took a long time to get to that point and women knowing what they need is crucially important to know what to ask for. We got to ask for it, and then we got it. It was a brilliant stroke. I’m just very proud of that little piece.

The organization continues to do a lot of work on implementing the Affordable Care Act, hoping that it continues its course, even though it is under major threat again. The National Women’s Law Center is working with the other organizations in town to make that a reality and protect women’s access to all health care – but particularly reproductive health services.

I retired at the end of 2015. Shortly thereafter, the Planned Parenthood videos came out. These were the videos where the people had gone into Planned Parenthoods and surreptitiously asked questions about what they do with the abortion remains. I was asked to testify, even though I was no longer at the organization, because people think of me as a Medicaid and reproductive rights advocate. I think I was the only person on the Democratic side – there were two or three on the Republican side.

Marsha Blackburn was on the committee at the time. They started out by showing some of the videos. I could see the other people raptly looking at the screen and I thought I better look too. I was watching it and of course one of the Republican members immediately said to me, “Well I saw you looking at the video and did you find it disturbing?” I said it was unpleasant and that it was clearly edited. And in fact, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, a member from Illinois picked that up. She said, “Well we know it’s edited, because there’s music in the background.” The bill they were proposing was a Medicaid bill. It said that if the governor suspected an entity did anything wrong, they couldn’t get Medicaid funding. To which I said, “This is un-American.”

I know one of your questions is have I continued to be involved? Yes. I have become an oral historian and I am currently doing a major project for the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. They’re the Title X trade association. I am interviewing people from the beginning of the program (50 years ago) through now. It’s fascinating. I am on the board of our local Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington (PPMW) and I’m teaching reproductive health policy at GW Milken School of Public Health. I love the students.

Another thing, which I really feel is my current mission, is mentoring young women who want to go into this field. There is a group called Women’s Information Network (WIN.) Karen Mulhauser got that started. I’m on their experienced women advisory board. I do a lot of counseling of young women, helping them and networking. That’s what it’s about – Women’s Information Network. I feel like it’s the teaching and the PPMW, all the work I’m doing now is passing it on. Occasionally, WIN has sponsored a seminar in my home. My pitch to them is: “I’m here to pass this on to you. Here’s where we are, here’s where we’ve been. And I’m willing to help as long as I’m here but you people are picking up the mantle and I’m here to pass the torch.” So that is what I’ve been involved in in the last few years.

MJC:  I’m hoping your interview here will be part of that legacy that we can all pass on. So, what would you count as some of your most memorable experiences and important experiences in your contribution to the women’s movement?

JW:  I think I mentioned a few. Continuing leadership to keep things moving along and bring factions together – that’s not so specific, but it’s been an important effort all along. I think the Women’s Medical Center was an important episode in my life. Doing some of the other policy issues that I’ve mentioned – even through access for all, that anti-dumping statute is crucially important for women in particular. And then all of the reproductive health work. I would also say meeting my husband was a good thing. I can’t skip that part. It’s hard to pick out one or two, I mentioned a couple – certainly the ACA and hoping very much to help keep that growing.

MJC:  Anything that stands out as disappointing? Or something you wish could still be done?.

JW:  Of course, we’re in such a difficult situation right now. It’s hard to get past that. We thought we made a whole lot of progress, which we did, but we are at a crucial juncture again and we have a small minority of people really trying to impose their views on the general population. You see time and time again these polls about abortion and contraception is used by ninety nine percent of heterosexual women in this country. Yet they are conflating the two, claiming that “This or that kind of contraception is actually an abortifacient”.

That’s a lot of why I do the teaching too. I think it’s important for the young people to get to know and understand what’s really going on. It’s all a power struggle. Let’s face it. It’s about power and power over women, in particular. It’s really disheartening to see some of the potential back slides that are maybe happening now. But I have confidence in the up and coming advocates. Women will prevail.