Lynn Wenzel

“I always say to myself, someone’s got to do this and it’s got to be you.”

Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA Executive VP, August, 2020

KR:  Lynn, thank you so much for being part of the VFA Pioneer Histories Project. We’re really delighted to have you consent to an interview and eager to have you tell your story. If you could just start by telling us your full name and when and where you were born.

LW:  My full name is Lynn Shallenberger is my maiden name, and Wenzel is my married name. I was born in San Francisco in 1944.

KR:  What is your ethnic background and what kind of lifestyle did your family live when you were young?

LW:  I’m a genealogist and a historian so I do know my family background. My family’s been in this country since 1600. Not me personally, but my family…although there are days when I feel like I’m that old. I was a military brat and we moved around a lot when I was a child. I went to school in Baltimore. I went to second grade in Texas to a school of all Mexican kids, and then me. I remember that with great fondness: they were very kind to me because I did not speak Spanish.

Then we went to Europe and lived there for about two and a half years, mainly Germany, but we traveled around and then we eventually came back home to California. I had a kind of a peripatetic childhood, but a wonderful one in my opinion because the kinds of things I was exposed to and the education I received was far superior to anything I would have had had I stayed in Concord, California, which is where my parents home was.

KR:  What was your family’s ethnic background?

LW:  English, Irish, Scottish, Swiss, German and Danish.

KR:  When it was time to go to college where’d you end up going? What did you end up studying?

LW:  I love languages, which makes sense because when I was overseas as a young person, I was immersed in whatever school and language I was living in at the time. I decided I wanted to be an interpreter at the UN – that’s what I thought I wanted to do. I applied to Middlebury College in Vermont, which was really well known for languages, and I did not get in. I did get into Lewis & Clark College up in Oregon with honors.

I went there, but it could not hold me. It was a Presbyterian, rather conservative college with strict dress rules. We had a housemother. We couldn’t date, they had to meet us in the living room. To me, it was ridiculous and I was a real rebel, I used to sneak out of the windows at night to meet my boyfriend. He was Lynn Easton, who played with the Kingsmen. They did Louie, Louie, among other things. He was the guitarist and I used to crawl out the window in the basement, meet him, my friend used to leave the window open and I’d crawl back in the basement. I only got caught once and it wasn’t for that, it was for hiding scotch in my underwear drawer.

It was not the right school for me. I left after a semester and went back to my parents in Marin County. I went to college in Marin and I met the man who would become my husband fifty eight years ago. I was a terrific student, I was all about academics, but as soon as I met him, my grades went down. There was a lot of drama around that and my father didn’t want me to see him. He went into the military and I stayed back and finished my education there. When he got out of the military, he went to Los Angeles and I met him there. Eventually we married in 1964 in the chapel at the Presidio in San Francisco.

KR:  How and when did you start to get involved in the women’s movement? What led to that and what was your first activity?

LW:  There are two things that had a big effect on me. One was when we lived in Germany we lived at base housing and there was a long backyard and a gate. At the back of the gate were garbage cans and I noticed the little German children coming in the evening time and stealing food out of the garbage cans. To me, that didn’t seem right. I always had plenty of food. I started taking apples, bananas, oranges and things that were easy to hide and then when nobody knew I’d go out and put them in the garbage cans. So the kids would find fresh food. That was the first time I really thought about injustice.

The other thing that was more personal is both my parents worked and when my dad came home from work, he just went and sat in his Barcalounger. He’d say to my mother, Roberta get me a martini, and my mother would give him a martini. Meanwhile, my mother was working all day and then she would come home, do the washing, dinner and all of that. I thought that was not fair.

I spoke up to my father one day, I was about 12 and I said, “Dad, why don’t you get up and do something once in a while.” That did not go over well at all. I believe he sent me to my room, which was fine. I loved being there. I noticed that and I never forgot it and I thought to myself, if and when I ever get married I am never going to wait on my husband hand and foot the way my mother waited on my father. That was really clear to me. Those two things kind of settled in my mind.

KR:  I know you were active in NOW in New Jersey, how did that come about?

LW:  After Jeff and I were married we lived for seven years in Los Angeles. Towards the end of that time, the end of the ’60s, I became aware of and involved in other movements. I was involved in the anti-war movement and did a lot of marching and protest. I was involved in the civil rights movement and did a lot of marching and protesting with my baby in the stroller. I became aware of NOW, which I didn’t join then, but was aware that it was going on in 1966.

Then we moved cross-country to New Jersey for my husband’s job promotion in New York City. It was there that I really became involved in the women’s movement. I joined the NOW chapter in 1972 and I’ve been a member ever since. I’m not always happy with NOW, but I feel like a veteran – I can’t stop being a member. That’s when I really got involved and took all kinds of offices in the chapter.

I was co-president and I worked in coalition with other groups in Bergen County, New Jersey. I was involved with developing one of the first battered women’s shelters in northern New Jersey. In the beginning we were taking these women into our homes and I did that, too. I was involved with the Rape Crisis Center – this is all in the ’70s. When I became a little more well aware of LGBTQ plus issues, my chapter was very involved in that, very supportive. We were in a lot of marches.

There was a player on the New Jersey Nets basketball team. He had raped a woman and been found guilty, but received a little pat on the hand and they let him go. We wanted the nets to fire him, so we decided to protest. The whole bunch of us went out to the Meadowlands in New Jersey and stationed ourselves at different entrances. I’m standing there with another woman with a sign, and some guy yelled at me ,“You effing d*ke, go home to your husband!” And I just laughed at him, which I’m sure he didn’t appreciate.

We were the subjects of a lot of verbal abuse that night. There were police there and we had a perfect right to be there, because it was our taxes that paid for the area that we were on. A police officer came over and I thought we were going to get busted, but instead he said, “I’m going to stand here with you women in support to make sure that nothing happens.” And I thought that was really great.

KR:  How did you go about getting this battered women’s shelter to come into being?

LW:  A lot of meetings, a lot of planning, a lot of fundraising. We had to find a house and then someone to be the director or executive director of it and be there all the time. We looked at houses that would fit a lot of women and their children and we eventually raised enough money. When I say “we”, I mean our chapter of NOW and other women’s organizations in Bergen County raised enough money so that we could purchase this house. We hired a wonderful woman who ran it initially and sad to say, it was always full.

KR:  And how was the funding to sustain it, were you able to get public money to do that?

LW:  Once we got it established and it was being run really well it was turned over to the board that had been developed that ran the shelter. I was no longer involved in that part. They got grants, it was early days of applying for grants for battered women and women who’ve been assaulted. It was not easy then, because it wasn’t understood as a real serious academic problem, so fundraising was not easy. State grants and federal grants were how the shelter supported itself in the earlier days.

KR:  That’s a great accomplishment. Are there other major accomplishments that you were a part of when you were at NOW or before or after that you want to talk about? You’ve got a lot of stuff you’ve done personally that’s pretty amazing.

LW:  I am a writer and historian. Much of my activism work is writing. A person who wants to make changes has to work in areas in which she’s most skilled. That is my area and I’m very lucky that I can do that. I was always writing for some publication about women, violence against women, reproductive justice. That’s a major way that I made a difference.

The other thing is I was in a lot of marches in the ’80s. I walked for the ERA. I can’t remember the exact dates, and some of the giant marches for reproductive choice in Washington, D.C. One of them I managed and organized the whole event for Bergen County, including getting all the buses together. I remember us leaving, it was still dark at 5:00  in the morning. These were the years when I could do absolutely everything, when I had so much energy. I got on the bus and gave a speech and then I passed around homemade food. I was very busy doing that.

I also never mentioned that I have two children. I made them get involved and they didn’t really mind. I would say to them “on Saturday we’re going to work at the recycling place to raise money for my NOW chapter.” My daughter would say “Ok,” and my son would roll his eyes, but they would go and they were exposed to it at a very young age. It was very good for them. They’re both feminists. My son married a real strong feminist. My daughter is one as well. And their children. 

When they were young, I took them with me when I could. The only time that they ever balked was when I was going to do that protest at the Meadowlands. My son became very worried about the guys who were coming to see the basketball. He said “Mom, please don’t go. I’m begging you, don’t go.” And I said, “Michael, I have to go.” And he said,” I think something terrible is going to happen to you.” I said,” No, it won’t. Don’t worry.” That was the days before cell phones were a thing, I couldn’t call them. I just said, “Don’t worry.” He was really upset and worried. And that’s the only time I ever remember either of them saying, “Don’t go.” My husband had to be careful about what he did because he had a corporate position so he could never do anything where he would be filmed. But he did also participate in a lot.

KR:  Tell me about your books.

LW:  The first book I did was co-written with a friend of mine called I Hear America Singing, which is basically a social history of the United States, told through music and it’s illustrated by sheet music covers. That was a beautiful book and it was really the only book I did that wasn’t directly connected to women, although I did write the chapter on women and social movements. Random House published it.

I did my second book with the same writing partner, Carol Binkowski, who lives in New Jersey. She has been a wonderful writing partner all through our lives. She and I wrote a book called More than Petticoats: Remarkable New Jersey Women, which was published by Globe Pequot Press in 2003. They brought out a second edition in 2016 published by Rowman & Littlefield and asked us to write two new chapters. This book deals with the lives of women in New Jersey, all born before nineteen hundred. It’s a terrific book, and it is still in use in schools and colleges.

I was also involved in a book called Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women. I did the biographies of a number of women that appeared in that book. I was asked to be involved with Women and Social Movements in the United States. It’s an online journal database and it has about twenty four hundred suffragists profiles – a major undertaking. It’s in all colleges and universities, it’s accessible online, and I was asked to do a couple of biographies on unknown radical suffragists who would otherwise be lost to history. I wrote about two that nobody had ever heard of.

The huge project that I’ve been working on for the last two years not does not have anything to do with that. It’s a history of my family in the United States since 1600. It’s a massive project: I have 20 chapters. I only have three more to go to edit. The designer is working on it now and it should be out next year. It’s been taking up most of my time, except that I am still doing activist work here in Nevada County.

KR:  What are you doing activist-wise in Nevada county?

LW:  I am currently board Director of Communications for Citizens for Choice, which is a reproductive organization that was founded here in 1989. In 2006 we opened the Clinic! It’s the only place in Nevada County where you can get unbiased, non-judgemental OBGYN reproductive care no matter what. If you can afford to pay or have insurance, we take that. But if you can’t, we don’t turn anyone away.

We don’t do surgical abortion, but we do medical ones. We refer clients if they need a surgical abortion. Most of our work is birth control and STDs. There are a lot of young people who can’t go to their parents, but they know there’s something wrong with them, so we take care of that. We just moved into a really large, nice clinic space. There are PAs and nurses there all the time doing this work. We’re open two days a week, but we hope to extend that to three days.

Running the clinic is a big job: there are the women’s health specialists to do the medical part of it and then Citizens for Choice pays for the clinic; we pay the rent and the utilities and anything connected to upkeep, communications and outreach. 

I’m also on the board of Business and Professional Women of Nevada County. It was established in 1930 and also has a national aspect to it, established in 1919, and we work for women in all aspects of their life. We give scholarships to reentry women, many of whom come out of battered situations, or are single moms who want to better their lives. They want to get an education so they can make more money and support their family. 

KR:  That’s terrific. Sounds like you became an activist early on and you haven’t stopped. You’re still doing it, which is great.

LW:  I can’t stop. I’m so tired. I would like to stop, but I can’t stop.

KR:  I totally understand. And I know you’re still writing columns.

LW:   Yes, if something really gets to me I always say, “Lynn, you’ve got to write something about that, you can’t let this go.” It’s an odd feeling, because you know that there’s got to be other people in the world who are noticing this and writing about it, but not in my community. So I always say to myself, “Someone’s got to do this and it’s got to be you.”

KR:  When did you move from New Jersey back to California?

LW:  1995. We lived for five years in Berkeley and then moved up here. But I was very familiar with this area because as a kid we used to come camping here all the time. And also my ancestor settled this town in 1850, he was a gold miner. So I have a deep history up here in Nevada County.

KR:  Is there anything you feel that we haven’t covered yet that you want to make sure we get on the record and part of your amazing story? I’m so excited to be able to talk to you and hear your story firsthand. It’s great.

LW:  Thank you. It’s so unsettling what’s going on now, and how debilitating it is. It would be bad enough without covid, but on top of that [it] makes everything so much more difficult. We’re trying to do everything virtually on some of our board meetings, that’s not a problem. We’re temporarily frustrated with the clinic fundraising right now. We’re trying to figure that out. The most important thing anybody can do this year if you don’t do anything else, even if you just lie around and eat chocolate chip cookies all day long, is to go vote. Most important thing. Everything else pales next to that. I am working on that. I’m participating in this project where you send letters to people all across the United States.

KR:  Thank you so much for your time. I love this. It’s been great getting to know you and hear your story. So thank you so much.

LW:  I think I managed to get through this, which is shocking, without dropping one F bomb. I said, “Lynn, come on now. Watch your mouth.”