THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“My whole life has been about working with women. The defining feature of my life is having an automatic gender lens on absolutely everything.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, August 2022
AH: My name is Arlene Herman. I was born November 16, 1949, in Philadelphia, PA.
JW: Can you tell us a little about your childhood, your sibling background, your ethnic background, and a little about what you think may have led you to the career you had?
AH: First let me say that I come from a working-class Jewish family, and I think I use this term working-class liberally, because there were lots of periods of unemployment for my father. So, I think we were very marginal. I’m an only child. I was born in Philadelphia, but at around eight years of age, they moved to Stratford, New Jersey. I think it is significant in my development because my parents lived in Strawberry Mansion, Philadelphia, which was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood that eventually was all African American, and they were the last white family to leave the area.
They moved to an area of New Jersey which they were told was going to be a “Jewish community,” and to make a long story short, we were the only Jewish people in that community. So that’s a little bit about my very early background. I grew up in a more rural part of the country. My parents both worked in Philadelphia. I was a latchkey kid before that term was even developed. Because we were Jewish, and my parents were very protective, they didn’t want me to have any non-Jewish friends, which of course, didn’t work because we were the only Jewish family there.
I grew up under circumstances in which I felt like I was the “other,” because there was a lot of antisemitism where I grew up. I used to have people come to me and say, “Arlene, Arlene, can you show me?” I said, “Show you what?” “Your horns.” I grew up with a lot of antisemitism. Swastikas painted on our car, our house stoned, lots of things like that, which I think sensitized me to “otherness.”
The other thing I’d like to say is that neither of my parents wanted me to go to university. At the time that I went to high school, you had to have your parents’ permission to go and take the academic stream. There were two streams, academic and clerical. And my parents refused to sign the academic stream. Their view was, why do I need a university education? I need to just marry somebody who’s got a good job.
I told that to my guidance counselor, and he said, “Well, this is ridiculous. Let me meet with your parents.” My parents came in, and after they heard him say, “It would be a waste of Arlene’s mind if you didn’t let her go to university,” I took the academic stream. And I’m very glad I did, because I never married a Jewish doctor like my mother would have wanted.
JW: Your mother worked though, that was unusual at the time.
AH: My mother worked. My mother did not drive, but she worked. In fact, my mother supported us. She worked in the same fish company for 35 years. She never took a sick day. She, interestingly enough in the family, was the person who could repair toasters, who could do things that were very nontraditional. But she saw herself as a very traditional woman. Of course, with my father being frequently unemployed, my mother thought, look, you really have to marry somebody who’s got a good job. Because she didn’t.
JW: When did you get involved in the women’s movement?
AH: Well, first, I think I should preface this by saying that it was really my university life, which didn’t bring me to the feminist movement until a little bit later. I was very active politically when I went to my university, and at that point, I would have defined myself as a socialist. I saw what capitalism did to my father and all his myriad of jobs. I joined SDS, the Workers Party, the Progressive Labor Party. I was active in that arena. What was interesting to me – and this I think, was the first dawning of sort of really beginning to understand the profound differences between men and women – the men were the leaders of these parties, and the women were the doers of the parties.
I took it as a taken for granted thing, until I began to see that as being a misuse of my brain, and other people’s brains, women’s brains. And so, I kind of fell out of that arena pretty much. And at that point, I was in university. I got a Bachelor of Social Work degree. I was very active with what I would call social justice work in poor areas of Philadelphia, of which all the inner city was. Not really oriented towards feminism per se, just the broader umbrella of social justice.
JW: What got you thinking more and working more with women, which I know you did.
AH: Yes. My whole life has been about working with women. The defining feature of my life is having an automatic gender lens on absolutely everything. I was trying to think back to this. How did it all start? I think you do have to have some recognition of how men and women, even in progressive, social change movements, have been stratified to even gravitate towards the feminist movement, because otherwise it’s hard. I really became very involved in Philadelphia, and I’m trying to remember how it all started.
Whether I was post degree, or whether it happened as an initial placement of some kind. But I worked with an organization called Women in Transition. Women in Transition started out as three women in the basement of a church, and the two people who started Women in Transition were Lynne McMahon and Linda Resnick. And I was really trying to think back, how did I get there, how did I start there? But I started there, and I think it could have been through a university assignment of some kind. I ended up working there for many years, and we grew from three women in the basement of a church, to 30 women with three satellite campuses.
I did a variety of things, but I grew up there. Women in Transition started out as an organization for women who are going through separation and divorce. It developed pure self-help groups for women with a feminist lens. In terms of how to move on from being part of a couple, to being independent, and all the issues which are part of that. Coming into your own power.
I did a variety of things there. I led peer self-help groups. We always had two women facilitating, one with some professional training, one with more life experience. From that, I helped develop a couple of programs. We developed a program, we got a small grant, developed a program for women who are recently widowed. We took that same model and we adapted it, and I led that program. I also worked to help coordinate a big project.
At that point, what enabled us to go from 10 women to 30 women, is we got, at that time, what we called, dirty money from the government, because all the money from Women in Transition was prior foundation until that grant. That grant was a huge grant, and it was for what was called Displaced Homemakers. Women reentering the labor force.
JW: Right. I remember that.
AH: I coordinated that project, and that was very profound in a lot of ways. We ran as a collective, as a feminist collective. And we decided that, here we were, predominantly white women, in a predominantly African American city, and that every hire that we would make would be African American. And that did happen. And we, the majority, became the minority.
That had profound implications for Women in Transition. In fact, I left because I moved to Australia after that great growth. At the time I left, there was a big debate going on. African American women felt very strongly we needed to be able to serve men. I believe, and I’m not 100% sure because I’ve been out of that, but I believe they changed their name from Women in Transition, to People in Transition.
JW: Ahead of their time.
AH: The founding mothers left, because what happened was you hired all these women, but you wanted them to sign on to your mission, and it didn’t happen. So, I grew up in this organization in terms of having a feminist lens. And also, this is an aside, but a pretty important aside, during this period, the whole survivor movement was also getting going. Women who had been sexually abused as children, and I realized during the course of this work, that I had, and that I was a survivor.
And this is quite profound. I think that’s one of the things about the women’s movement, is that it has uncovered all the aspects of women’s lives which have left them with certain inequities. It was an umbrella for so many other issues. It was a pretty profound experience for me. And I think honestly, my whole career, to some extent my whole work life, my whole personal life, my whole parenting, everything, has been shaped by it.
JW: Yes, I can imagine. What were those years that you were there?
AH: 1981 to ’85.
JW: Do you remember any poignant moment beside your own, I don’t know what the word is, revelation? Was there another incident you can remember, helping somebody in the group that you might want to share?
AH: Well, there were so many. There was a woman who, we co-led groups together, and she was a woman who had been widowed, and she was quite impoverished. I saw her through the, I mean, she was very shy and very quiet and lacked any confidence, really. Had been totally dominated by her husband and was very tentative in nature. But she was very insightful. I actually said to her, she had been in one of our groups, and I said, “Alma, I think you would be a great co-facilitator.” And Alma became a great co-facilitator.
And Alma went from a woman who didn’t exercise her voice very much, to a very powerful older woman. It was fabulous to see. It was powerful to see, and I learned a lot from her. It was great. I would always say that these groups that we led, and that we participated in, that there was a magic that happened. That we were greater than the sum of our parts, and that every opening-up for one woman, produced an opening-up and a solidarity with another. Once you have that experience within you, your life has changed.
I had left at the time, so I had gone to Australia where I carried on with that kind of work. But I was interested in the development of the organization, and in the resistance. The great resistance to these ideas. So, I’m not surprised that some of the founding people left and that the organization changed. I think it was quite naive. I mean, they were separatists. The women that founded the organization, was what I would define as separatist.
JW: This is kind of a personal question, but this phrase came up recently in a couple of contexts, and I wondered if it was prominent in your groups, and that was, you’re only one man away from welfare. Does that sound familiar to you?
AH: Yes, of course. Actually, that thread of women’s dependence on men, and women’s dependence on the state, was a thread on everything. You can imagine, the reason we went for this big money for women who are reentering the labor force, was to really solidify women’s economic independence. Help to do that, right? But, you know, that’s very complicated in the US for lots of reasons. There’s no social safety net of any real substantive kind. You don’t have child care. There’s lots and lots of things. From there, I went to Australia and I did a lot of work in Australia too, in this similar kind of work.
JW: Before we go to Australia, is there anything else you’d like to say about your own understanding, about your own history?
AH: I think it was profoundly shaped by that early experience and by being an “other.” I guess what I would say is, I didn’t fit the mold in any way when I was growing up. I think a lot of women feel they’d never fit the mold because the mold is very narrow. I’m just really grateful that my trajectory landed me at Women in Transition, because it shaped so much.
JW: Okay, so let’s go to Australia. You said you taught there.
AH: Yes. I mean, I have a long career and I’ve gone many different places, so if we did this, we’ll probably be more than 2 hours. I was teaching there at university, but I was also doing work with immigrant women and women who were in non-traditional women in trade. I had a research project there. I did a variety of different things. My whole interest was on women’s empowerment and what I would call breaking down barriers for women. That’s really been a large part of almost all the work I’ve done.
I have to tell you, I landed in Australia at a very unique time. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the term femocracy or femocrats. I landed in Australia at a time when, in the state of New South Wales, every government department, industrial relations, all the departments, had a women’s policy person. They were deemed femocrats, and they were active with the women’s movement. Even though those relationships were tense.
I was actually very interested in two things. Australia is a country of immigrants, so a lot of the immigrants and the women’s service organizations that I worked with, were Latin American and I’m fluent in Spanish. It was a hodgepodge of many different immigrant groups in Australia.
Other than working towards the development of more women’s services within many different arenas, I was fascinated by the femocrats themselves, and their experience in the bureaucracy. And so that took me also into, which is sort of big in my world, women in leadership, women in bureaucracies, women in powerful places. I did some writing on that, and that also is, and still is, one of, I think, the most challenging areas.
JW: What did you teach?
AH: Because my background is in social work, I was teaching what I would call, direct practice experiences, community development, poverty courses, activism courses. Later, when I came to Canada, I taught particular courses on women in poverty. All under the umbrella of social work. I did also teach in sociology. I did teach one time, in the Schulich School of Business at York University, on women, power and organizations.
I was really interested in, and I still am, women in leadership roles anywhere. I’m very interested in what happens in that context. I’m an ABD person, in women’s studies. I finished my comprehensive exams, and I was in the process of writing my proposal, and then went through a divorce and moved to northern BC. And then was going to continue to do the work, but I got halfway through writing up my proposal, and just with two kids and everything, and also, I became disenchanted with the academy, very disenchanted.
JW: Well, about the leaders that you, what did you call it, femocrat? Is there any lesson you learned or any kind of, tentative conclusions that you can share?
AH: The women who became the most productive, were the women in the bureaucracies that maintained their connection to the grassroots women’s movement. But that is very challenging to do. If you don’t have that ear, that dialogue, you become less relevant. I see it happening. Lots of women who would define themselves as feminists were in leadership positions in a variety of organizations, but they become removed.
There’s a great article, “Is it the feminization of the bureaucracy, or the bureaucratization of feminism?” I would say, unfortunately, it’s the bureaucratization of feminism. And that, I think happens, when women lose sight of their constituent group, of women’s experience. But I also think, that these positions over time, it’s very rare for women not to be bureaucratized. It’s very challenging. I speak from experience because I’ve been a vice president of two colleges, and it’s challenging. It’s very challenging to keep your eye on the ball.
JW: And the ball keeps changing too. What would you say if you could, talk about some major accomplishments.
AH: I’ve recently had to evaluate all this in my own thinking. I’ve taught at universities, I’ve worked direct service work with women, I’ve published, I’ve done all these things. But at the end of the day, my greatest legacy is how I worked with other women in whatever context I was in. In other words, there are a lot of women who are much younger than me, and I feel my legacy is more in how I influence their work, that they’re carrying on. Because I have created lots, not I, but we, created lots of programs. Lots of courses. Lots of initiatives.
And then somebody else comes in, and doesn’t completely undo it, but dilutes it, to the point where it’s unrecognizable. But what never gets diluted is the impact you’ve had on other people that you’ve been working with. They carry that on. Their impact on you stays there, and your impact on them. So, I’m connected to the people that I’ve worked with, and I really have to say, even though I could name lots of things, that’s my legacy.
JW: Very important. I mean, it’s just really important. I appreciate that.
AH: Younger women. Younger women who have 20 more plus years to be battling a lot of these issues.
JW: Yes. And they’ve got a lot of battles ahead of them. What are you doing currently? Anything? Are you active now?
AH: I’m not active now. I retired about seven years ago, six years ago. I spend a lot of time in Mexico. I’ve become connected to women there, in particular communities, very impoverished communities. I’m working with some women to try and help move some of their phenomenal artwork into a more lucrative place, so I do that. But I do feel, quite honestly, when you’ve had a very active life, I would say I’ve only been living here for eight years, and the longest I lived anywhere is nine years.
And my most wonderful experiences of work were not here. I was kind of leaving a lot of high powered, interesting work. When I left Vancouver, I said, “I’m going on a post-secondary detox.” I never came back, and came up here, and did work in a completely different area, which was fascinating and opened my eyes into what’s happening in health care. I’m at a place now, where I would really like to write some of the stuff up that I’ve been thinking about, but I haven’t done it.
JW: Finish your dissertation, maybe?
AH: That’s what my son says. I still am very much interested in the role of women in leadership positions and this whole kind of trajectory that happens for women. But when I was working up North in Northern BC, I was very heavily involved in First Nations communities and looking at the role of women in First Nations. It’s a matriarchal system. But the people in positions of what I would call bureaucratic power, are still men.
There’s a lot of issues there. I just want to talk about one funny little vignette that happened. I was working in California before I moved to Australia. It was in California, and I was at a community college, and I led a program for women reentering education. I kind of was, a symbolic women’s person in the college. And so, I started developing programs during Women’s History Month. I had a huge statewide conference on women making their own way.
But I have this little vignette that I love because I was telling it to somebody else. I was setting up this visible display board on Women’s History Month. This guy comes by and he sees it, and he’s very agitated, very angry. And he says to me, “What about men? What about men?” And I said, “Don’t worry, you have the other 364 days.” He was so ready to punch me out. And he just looked at me, stunned.
JW: Perfect. Well, I can’t help but ask. It sounds like you have not lived in the United States for a while.
AH: I haven’t lived in the US for 23 years.
JW: Is there anything about your work that you like better in other countries?
AH: I miss the US in many ways. But the manifestations, what we’re seeing, I was very glad to be out of the US because I was held up at gunpoint many, many years ago. My mother was held up a gunpoint. Over a 30-year period, my father, my mother and I, all had been held up at gunpoint. I wanted to live in a more peaceful place. The social inequities in the US, the poverty, everything that’s happening now, that’s even to a greater extreme, I saw that, and I saw lots of other things, and I wanted the experience of living elsewhere. I will tell you this. I think that the only way you really understand the US, is to live outside of it for a while.
And I’m very grateful. At 18, I dropped out of university, went traveling, and lived in Argentina for a year. That was the beginning of my education on American foreign policy and lots of other things. I was thinking about this lately. Did I choose to leave the US and never go back? No. But have I ended up doing that? Yes. I’ve not been a planner. I’ve been one interesting experience after another. I seem to have this collage of things that have constituted my life, but I don’t feel I have a particular home. I’m still very connected to people in the US. I have a son who is working in progressive Democratic politics in the US, and I am still very connected. I also have a son who’s here, and I have a son who’s in Canada.
JW: One more question. Were your parents happy about you going on to the university?
JW: They weren’t? Even in the end?
AH: Well, you know why? I think because at the age of 14, 15, at my high school, I had a natural ability for language. So, my Spanish teacher, I was speaking Spanish, he was just amazed. My parents were not happy about my going to university, and also not happy that if I had to go, this is their view, why couldn’t I just become a Spanish teacher?
It’s really kind of a sad thing in a way, because, as I said, I jumped a class. My parents were definitely working class. I became a member of the middle class. But I also became heavily politicized, and my work took me into what my parents would consider dangerous areas. And that was true. I was in the street. I was doing a lot of things that were, I worked in very difficult neighborhoods. I was at the forefront of a lot of stuff. And so, my parents thought I put myself in harm’s way.
JW: I understand that generation divide myself. Well, the last question, really, you’ve already answered about how the women’s movement affected your life and your legacy. So, I’ll just say do you have something else you want to add?
AH: I do want to say this, this is my concern. We’ve seen more and more women become leaders in organizations and have leadership positions. What I have seen over my lifetime is, I’ve sat around the table with presidents and vice presidents, whether it’s public sector, private sector, or whatever. And I sit around the table and I see women, and men, all of whom look very tired and stressed. And I do not see that in the men that I have worked with over my lifetime.
My analogy is that women approach organizational life the same way they’ve approached family life. They think, “Okay, what needs to be done? Let’s do it.” And men come into an organization and they look at what needs to be done, but they look at what’s going to be good for me. That’s not a model I want to promote, nor do I want to promote the other model.
In a couple of colleges where I had leadership positions, every noontime, I’d see my boss walk out with his gym bag. It didn’t matter what was going on, he’d go to the gym. And I use this analogy a lot, to the ability of men to not approach organizations like it’s a family job. They approach it as though it’s their job, and they take care of themselves for the most part. Not every single one, but overall. So, I’m fascinated by this.
I left post-secondary because I found it to be very demoralizing to see that repeatedly, and I wanted to be out of a leadership position. I actually tried to do things differently. But it’s very hard when you have a what needs to be done attitude, as opposed to what needs to be done and what is good for me, or for the goals I’m working on. It’s like being what has been traditionally seen as the mom.
And even though women who are in those positions don’t come across in that way, there’s still this underlying, they take on a very broad plate anyway, and then if they don’t, and if they walk with their gym bag, they’re looked down disparagingly. Often. Not publicly, but underneath. It’s very interesting. It’s very hard to be a woman in leadership position. It is. Still. I think that women carry with them their cultural, personal, heritage into the public arenas, and it leaks out. Or, a lot of women have fallen under great criticism for not doing that.
It’s still the same. If there’s two people at a meeting and one is a woman and one’s a man, if the woman is quiet, it means she has nothing to say, and if the man is quiet, it means he’s thinking. It hasn’t really changed. It’s the underlying baggage that we all carry that plays itself out in these very intricate ways in public life, and in organizational life, and in private life.
I’ve been trying to think about what I might be writing about if I were writing, and there’s so many tangents on this that I’d like to kind of dip back into earlier writing and see. But anyway, I guess the only thing I will say is that, I’ve been, in my whole life, really, I’m drawn to women. I’m drawn to their intelligence, their power, their capacity. I wish there was a way we could harness it where it doesn’t get diluted or beaten down or bureaucratized.