THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Alice J. Wolfson
“The Women’s Movement Gave Me a Voice”
Interviewed by Judith Waxman, June 2021
JW: Why don’t we start with your full name and when and where you were born.
AW: Alice Wolfson. Alice J. Wolfson now, because my maiden name was Jacoby. Born in, I think, Manhattan, actually, in 1939.
JW: Great. And so, what was your life then before the women’s movement?
AW: I have actually been asked this question, and I have thought about it. Why was I such an ardent feminist? My political life basically started when I graduated from college and moved to California and met some of the friends I still have and see them all the time. Whenever I go to DC I join my old feminist buddies protesting in front of the White House for gun control. While in California, I got involved with Ban the Bomb, then the civil rights movement, then the anti-war movement. And I think that the second wave of the feminist movement really grew out of the anti-war movement because women were of necessity so secondary. That was our role. We didn’t have any choice. After all, we couldn’t be drafted. It was the men who we were supporting.
But then a certain number of us got a little tired of just mimeographing or typing, and we said, “Wait a second. There’s something more going on here.” And I think I joined my first consciousness raising group in 1968 in New York. And in 1969, because of the Vietnam War, my ex-husband was drafted into the public health service, of all things. We were totally surprised about that, since we had already been to Cuba. And were fairly good friends with the Cuban attaché to the UN, Ricardo Alarcon and his wife, Margarita. We didn’t understand it, but it seemed easier to go there, especially since my sister lived there, in DC, than Canada. So, we did.
And Phil, my ex-husband had a friend from college, Marilyn Webb, who was living in a building on Calvert Street, which was in the Adams Morgan section of DC. And there was an apartment for rent, which we took, for $100 a month for a three bedroom, living room, dining room, kitchen falling apart apartment. But we fixed it up and lived there. And Marilyn was in the women’s movement, in the nascent women’s movement at that time. And we used to have meetings at her apartment. That’s where Off Our Backs was born. And eventually DC had a very, very, very strong women’s movement.
In fact, I still play mahjong once a week with two of the women from that time. Jan Fenty and Norma Lesser. Norma has collected all sorts of paraphernalia, pamphlets, literature, old newspapers. So if you want to see any of it, she’s the one who has it or knows where it is. Early on we formed a group called DC Women’s Liberation. We were only about ten women in the beginning, but probably at our peak, we had maybe 400 members.
We had a governing body that we called Magic Quilt because we wanted nothing to do with anything that sounded male. And we all joined various specialized collectives. I was in the Health Collective and the International Collective. We met every single day. Nobody really worked. There were a couple of women who had fellowships, I think, from the Institute for Policy Studies. That’s where we had our original meetings. And they donated the money to the collective so that we could keep meeting. I was in the health collective and the International collective.
JW: So, tell me about the Health Collective first.
AW: The Health Collective, we were about six women and we were having a meeting one day. Obviously, the first thing we were doing was abortion stuff. And as we were meeting, well, let me go back a little bit. At the time that I was active there in 1969 and moved out here to San Francisco in ’77, Washington, DC was then a 76% black city. So, it was very hard for us, as feminists, and I don’t mean hard in a bad way. I mean, in a thoughtful way, to see abortion as a single issue. We never approached abortion as a single issue. We always approached it in the context of sterilization abuse and choice.
After moving to San Francisco I founded another organization called the Committee to Defend Reproductive Rights, which grew out of protests around the Hyde Amendment which took away Federal funding for abortion. From the beginning, CDRR had a reproductive rights analysis. This was before Planned Parenthood and NARAL and we were named plaintiffs in the case that maintained medical funding for abortion.
They really basically took it from us. Anyway, back to DC, one of our early demonstrations, and there were many, I don’t remember how many – it was like “have demonstration, will travel” – was outside of DC General because we had learned that the leading cause of maternal death in Washington DC at that time was from botched abortions.
And since they were largely poor women, they were being treated at DC General. And the day that we were holding a demonstration happened to be a day that interns were walking out because of the terrible conditions. So, we immediately kind of got connected to a larger analysis of health care in general and formed an alliance with another group called Welfare Rights. With them we managed to get on the mayor’s board examining the reasons for DC’s poor health care in general as well as pediatric healthcare. So, we were always doing stuff with other groups and never saw abortion as a single issue.
So, there we were, sitting together, having one of our endless meetings, and somebody said, “They’re having hearings on the Hill about the birth control pill.” So, we started to talk about the pill. And all of us had taken it at some point and had had minor side effects. My own had been my hair started to fall out. I went to the doctor. But the doctor had no idea what it was all about. He sent me to a dermatologist. I didn’t know if all my hair was going to fall out. I remember asking my husband, “Would you still love me if I’m bald?” And he said, “Well, it would be harder.” Those kinds of side effects, and we had also read and synopsized Barbara Seaman’s book, The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill. So, we were kind of cognizant about the possible dangers of the pill.
And we went to these hearings and there were about six of us. And the hearings, this of course you’ve heard before, were shockingly male. All men, in fact. All the senators were men, all of the people testifying were men. They didn’t have a single woman lined up to testify about the safety or side effects of the pill. We were outraged so we raised our hands to ask questions. In those days you could just walk into a Senate hearing. Remembering the times. Now, this could never have happened in the same way, if at all.
JW: What year was this?
AW: 1970. And we started to ask questions like, “Where are the women? Why aren’t any women testifying?” All of the cameras turned from the senators to the women, to us. Remember, we were never against the pill. What we were against was a lack of informed consent. But from there, one of our questions was, “Now, why is there so much opposition to just telling a woman what could happen on the pill?” I don’t remember now the statistical stuff, but a huge number of things get changed in your body to prevent one thing. You’re a healthy person taking this drug that does a lot more than just prevent pregnancy. We thought we were entitled to know what those things were and we thought doctors should tell us before prescribing the pill. In other words, Informed Consent.
Anyway, as the cameras turned from the senators to the women, Barbara Seaman was in the audience. They called a halt to the hearings for lunch. Barbara came over to me and asked if we could have lunch. Don’t ask me why I got identified as the person. I’ve never understood that, actually. We had lunch and she and I formed a really deep friendship. Remember, I lived in DC and she lived in NYC. She used to call me constantly: alerting me – they’re doing this, they’re doing that. We had a sit-in at then Secretary of HEW Finch’s office to demand a warning on the birth control pill. That’s what we were asking for. Not take the pill off the market; give us a warning. Tell us what’s going to happen.
We had this big sit-in, there are pictures of it with all of these women sitting there, some nursing babies. And they would say, “Get the children out of here.” And we would pipe up and say, “Fine, where’s the day care center?” I have thought a lot about what enabled me, us, what made us so bold? And I think part of it is because we thought we were going to win. We thought we were really going to make a revolution. After that first demonstration, we said wow, okay, we better plan this. So, we got lots more women involved. And we planted ourselves in the audience at the end, in the middle and at the other end, and all through the audience, so that each time a Marshall came in to take us out, somebody in a different row would ask a question. So they kept running all over the place trying to kick us out.
We kind of just outsmarted them just that way. And in the end, we thought, okay, are they really going to arrest women who are just asking for information? And they didn’t, we didn’t get arrested. All of us were there with about $10, ready to be arrested, but dressed in our finest, our short skirts and boots. It just grew from there. At the same time, the feminist women’s health centers were happening. The Jane Collective in Chicago was happening. The United States was just buzzing with women coming alive and saying, What’s happening, what’s going on? It was an amazing time to be young.
When all this was going on, I didn’t have kids, but that changed. At the first demonstration for the National Women’s Health Network, which really grew from these first demonstrations – I have heard it referred to as the Boston Tea Party of the women’s health movement – my second child was an infant, Barbara Seaman’s kid was wheeling him around in his stroller as we were demonstrating. The night before, a lot of women got together in the basement of my house and made signs. And one of the signs said something like Feed your Pills to the Pigs at the FDA. Stuff like that.
JW: So, the health network came out of it. I want to hear about that.
AW: The more we got organized – and the Pill hearings were really a catalyst for organizing. The women who were in contact around this, and I very much include Barbara Seaman in this. It felt like we needed to have a voice in Washington, for legislation that was happening or could happen that we needed. Not just Barbara calling me and telling me to crash a secret meeting at the FDA and stuff like that. We felt like we needed a more organized voice.
There were five founders: myself, Barbara Seaman, Phyllis Chesler, Belita Cowen and Mary Howell. But many other women were involved. I remember we had long conversations about what to call the group. At first it was going to be the Women’s Health Lobby. But then we felt like that would not get past a 501(c)(3) thing. So, we called it the network, and it grew from there. The network was founded, basically, to give us a voice at the DC power table and to be less of a rebellious wing of the women’s health movement, but our wing, nevertheless. We succeeded in a lot of ways.
We did get the warning on the Pill. Patients now always have inserts of information. Way too long, we wanted a bulleted six warning label, but nevertheless, patient package inserts exist and they didn’t before our work. I think DES action was born around that time. Lots of stuff happened. It’s depressing now to watch the rights we fought so hard for being taken away. On the other hand, we made enormous changes, really, when it comes right down to it. We’ll see. But women’s lives are very different. I was 46 when I went to law school. And at that time, 51% of the graduating class were women. When I started organizing in 1970, maybe 10% were women.
JW: So, tell me more about you. Did you stay in the network a while? What were some of the things the network did?
AW: I was on the board. I was on the executive committee, way through the time that I came to San Francisco. I was going to meetings, formed a lot of really good and deep friendships. Byllye Avery, a black feminist, who at that time had an alternative birth center in Tallahassee, Florida, was on the board of the network as well – and from there formed the Black Women’s Health Project. An obviously amazing person who has stayed active all these years. But I think what I’m trying to say, is that nothing happened in isolation – one thing came from another.
You know, in a made for television movie, Mrs. America, one of the demonstrations that they showed was an abortion rights demonstration. A huge demonstration. Well, Judy Norsigian and I were honored guests. We were standing on the stage in that demonstration and I recognized it because of the size of it and the colors. And I can’t find the picture anywhere. I know that we had a picture of us, with this big thing that said honored guests on it.
JW: Tell me why you went to law school.
AW: Well, that’s a little more complicated. I don’t know if I want it all recorded. But to put it in a nutshell, that is okay to record is, I realized that I needed to make more than $10,000 a year. I had been working for the Committee to Defend Reproductive Rights as the executive director. And I think my salary was about $10,000 a year, and my ex got fed up with me making $10,000 a year. He was kind of pushing me to get a regular job. And I had applied for numerous regular jobs and kept coming in second. I had been the Executive Director of CDRR and it was very hard to make the transition from a small reproductive rights organization, although it wasn’t that small, but still a budget of like maybe $300,000, to a big organization.
And then my oldest son was diagnosed with leukemia. This is while I was still applying for jobs. So, of course, I stopped applying for jobs and at a certain point I don’t know how my reasoning on it went but I just felt like I needed to do something that made my life feel like it was moving forward but also gave me the flexibility that a leukemia diagnosis demanded. I thought, well, I’ll apply to law school. But I’ll only apply to Hastings, which is in San Francisco, and would also let me be close to Noah if he needed something. Also, being a student gives you a lot of leeway. You don’t always have to be in class. Someone could always take notes for you and stuff like that. And I thought, alright, I’ll take the LSAT for a trial just to see how I do on it. And then I’ll take a class afterwards.
But it turned out that I could only apply for that next year with the trial LSAT. My son was in remission, but still on heavy duty chemo at that time. I thought I was crazy for doing it but I took the LSAT having only read the prep book once. Miraculously, I did quite well on the LSAT, even though one section of it, which I know I could have learned if I had taken the class, the logic thing, I never figured out how to do it. And when it came to that part of the exam I just chose every other one without thinking about it. I was the first one out of the LSAT. I guess I did well enough on the other parts of it. And I got into Hastings.
Phil, my ex, was never in favor of my going to law school. When I got the results of the LSAT, Phil said, “You must be an idiot savant.” He said, “You were just going to law school so you can get divorced,” which was in my mind. But I said that’s not why I’m going. But even if it were, wouldn’t it be better for you if I was making money and you didn’t have to pay me spousal support? But he was pissed about it. Then I got into Hastings. God knows why or how or whatever. Hastings at that time, I think, was $2,500 a year. It cost more for the books. At Hastings, criminal law was one of my first classes.
And in the first class I got called on a lot. And the professor said something like, blah, blah, footnote, blah, blah, blah, and then called my name. And I said, “We’re supposed to read the footnotes?” And he said, “Law is all about the footnotes. Footnotes are really important.” At Hastings, you took your exams by number, so they never knew who you were – making whatever you said in class pretty irrelevant. So, I was sitting with all these young students. After being momentarily embarrassed, I said, what’s a little public humiliation. He’ll never know who said that. After that, people in my section would pass whenever they were called, and it became much less toxic to get called on. I also met a very nice group of young men.
I was in a study group with them, and they really took care of me when I couldn’t attend. And I had a buzzer, so I was available if someone needed me. And then in the second semester of law school, my son relapsed for the second time. I dropped out because we went to Seattle for what turned out to be a failed bone marrow transplant. After Noah died, I really didn’t want to go back to law school. But my younger son Eric said, “Then why do I have to go back to school if you don’t go back?” He was 13. “Yeah,” I said, “Okay, I guess I’ll go back.” And I did okay, surprisingly enough.
My mind wasn’t on it, but I did okay. I was a semester behind, but my friends had taken notes for me on all of the finals, and I was able to take the finals. I still graduated one semester late. Also, I did a lot of clinical work at Equal Rights Advocates, which at that time Hastings gave you credit for. I don’t know if I could have gotten through law school if ERA hadn’t signed off on the clinical work. Eventually I became a specialist in insurance bad faith and in particular, disability. California has a tort remedy for insurance bad faith. It became an extremely lucrative 20 years, let’s put it that way. It really has paid for my not working all these years. I’ve probably not worked now as long as I did work.
I do some cases with one of the guys I trained. I was so afraid when my first job was insurance defense. And I thought, oh, God, what’s going to happen if I have to take a case that I find morally repugnant? I lasted in that job about eleven months. While looking for another job, I had 22 interviews. I kind of faced, I think, a fair amount of both ageism and sexism. But I have a friend, a guy who’s a lawyer. And he said, you must be doing something wrong in your interviews. What hangs you up? Every interview, they would ask, “Well, where do you see yourself in five years?” And remember, my son had only just died.
And I would think something like, five years? I can’t believe I’m living right now. I can’t imagine. So, he helped me formulate an answer. And then I got the next job, and I stayed there. I have only had two jobs as a lawyer. And I became a partner in this small plaintiff’s firm, specializing in individual disability insurance bad faith, which I still do some. Just a little.
JW: What would you say that your involvement in the movement, how did it affect your life?
AW: How did it not affect my life? That would be a better question. For one thing, it certainly made me feel powerful. And it gave me, as a woman, power that I may have had all along, I don’t know. It’s kind of gutsy when I think about it or when I look back on it. If somebody hears my story, to think that I went to law school while my kid had leukemia, finished it, passed the bar, had a successful career. I think it was all because I had been in the women’s movement and because it had given me a voice that I’ve always used since. I don’t know if I had gotten married when I first graduated from Barnard College – which, by the way, I just got an award from, very, very surprising. The Millicent Carey McIntosh Award for feminism. Surprising for Barnard, with whom I had had nothing to do all these years. I don’t know how it happened.
JW: So, it made you who you are, is what you are saying.
AW: Definitely. It made me who I am. And in thinking about it, if you want to go back to being a child, I think I got some of my spirit just from being rebellious to my mother. I think that’s true. I was always rebelling. I wasn’t rebelling in a sense of not getting good grades, but in other ways. Yeah.
JW: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
AW: I guess I would like to add, and I think I’ve kind of said it already, but I think it would be a very good thing for us, all of us, to take some moments to think of the ways in which things have changed because of our work. I think it’s an important thing. Not just around abortion, which may or may not be taken away as a basic right, but just all the things that we talked about. Like the difference in medical school attendance and law school attendance and just what our daughters and their daughters, maybe even more their daughters, can imagine their lives to be, which WE had the temerity to act out, imagine and act out. And there are tons of changes that we can see. It’s good to realize how much we’ve accomplished but also to find the courage not to be discouraged—and to find the strength to fight on.