THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Audrey D. Sheppard
“I Have to Find a Way to Change Things” – Audrey Sheppard after Ronald Regan was elected
Interviewed by Judith Waxman, August 2020
AS: I’m Audrey Sheppard. I was born in Newton, Massachusetts in 1948.
JW: Great. Tell me what was your life like as a child before the women’s movement happened to you?
AS: I was born to a middle class family, and my life was normal as a little girl. We moved from the suburban Boston area to Westchester County, New York when I was three. Life continued normally until I was 10 and my father died suddenly. We moved back to Boston and 1 ½ years later my mother remarried. It was turbulent for a period, where we moved five times in two or three years.
JW: You have siblings?
AS: I do. I have a brother three years younger, a sister seven years younger, and then Jack Sheppard, Jr. came into my mother’s life and they had a fourth child, Melinda. I certainly don’t consider her or call her a half-sister, she’s my sister. She’s 13 years younger. I’m very fortunate to have my siblings. And I still have my mother. My nuclear family life is full. I never had my own children – maybe I’m getting ahead? But let me say a significant number of my contemporaries who were professionally oriented, we never had children.
JW: I need to ask about ethnicity or religion in the family.
AS: I was born to two people who were Jewish, and when my mother remarried, she married a man who was also Jewish. But we were secular Jews. I consider myself a secular Jew now. My first husband was a WASP from Arkansas. My second husband was Jewish, and I am now deeply involved with a man, Pat McCarthy, whose mother was a Romanian Jew who married a Roman Catholic. Pat was raised Roman Catholic.
JW: So when did you get involved in the women’s movement? What year? What drove you to that?
AS: Leading up to that I think that there were inklings when I came to Washington. I was in a presidential campaign, the McGovern campaign in ‘72, and then I went to work on Capitol Hill. The things I said and did when I worked for a congressman led me to get the women’s portfolio, such as it was at the time. And then I was out on my own as a political consultant in ‘77.
I’d actually done one thing even before that: I was a political consultant in a firm and we had a disproportionate number of women clients in ‘76. I mean, most people had none and we had three or four. After that election, we did a study of the women who ran for high office and how it was different and harder. I consider myself kind of a pioneer in that whole area and that led to me connecting with the National Women’s Political Caucus, which was in its infancy.
In 1975 there was a UN-sponsored international women’s conference and all countries were supposed to have a national conference after that. The US one was in Houston in 1977 and I was hired by the National Women’s Political Caucus as part of the “Pro-Plan Caucus” team to staff it. The “Plan” was pro-choice on abortion and for reproductive health in other ways, like contraception. Whatever you think of as Phyllis Schlafly positions on everything, we were the opposite. She was a front for business – I certainly never thought of that at the time. We were feminists pushing the agenda for women in Houston and we prevailed.
JW: I want to go back a bit. When you said you were given the women’s portfolio because of what you said and did, do you remember any of that that would make people think that’s what you should do?
AS: I probably corrected people, charming as was, corrected people in terms of their vernacular or how they referred to people. I didn’t kick anybody when they used my married name, but I kept my maiden name when I got married at the end of ‘73. That was a little bit “out there.” I made frequent comments day to day in a congressional office of a very liberal House freshman from the Bay Area, I felt very comfortable saying things that were pro women.
JW: Let’s go back to Houston. What was your job exactly?
AS: In anticipation of going to Houston, I produced a poster with a photo of diverse women stating in large letters “We’re all Pro-Plan.” It was part of the campaign at the convention. We were the pro woman, advancing women’s prerogatives group. I was young, very young, in my 20s. My job was preparing for the campaign in Washington, but then being an implementer in Houston. People deeply involved on the Pro-Plan side as delegates were senior, savvy, experienced women who included Bella Abzug, Ann Richards and her people, one of whom was another Texan named Jane Hickey, who I remember.
Other staff on our side were some of the Washingtonians who were involved with the National Women’s Political Caucus.
In Houston, we had a campaign office headquartered in a hotel right by the convention center and we took action using our posters and other materials and backing up our delegates. After the women’s conference, my involvement with the Caucus continued. Millie Jeffrey became the elected chair of the NWPC and she invited my colleague, Jill Buckley, and me to tea at a fancy downtown hotel. She brought the woman who was going to be a dollar a year press person and our role was to teach her, give her pointers on how to do it. That person was Ellen Malcolm. I guess we never even thought at the time about the fact that to be a dollar a year employee she had resources; we later learned that she was wealthy. I was actually one of the people in her basement the evening she had a Rolodex party to start EMILY’s List.
JW: Did you have any awareness of Phyllis Schlafly?
AS: Yes. My awareness was that there were all these people who already rallied around an anti-woman, anti-progress message. Whatever we were for, they were against.
JW: What other activities were you involved with, with the Caucus going forward?
AS: I became a volunteer in other activities with them, tending to gravitate toward initiatives that advanced women.
JW: After you were somewhat involved with the Caucus what other activities having to do with the women’s movement were you involved in then going forward?
AS: In 1978, an organization called the Women’s Campaign Fund sent me to Vermont to help a legislative leader run for Lt. Governor. I advised Madeleine Kunin, who won that year and became Governor. She later became a close colleague of Bill Clinton, was his Deputy Secretary of Education and ambassador to Switzerland, where she was born. Madeleine continues to be a role model and mentor in Vermont and continues to be my friend. As I consider five separate chapters in my life, I think of things that bridge them.
In 1980, I was in the Ted Kennedy Presidential campaign and someone I knew introduced me to a woman named Joanne Symons. She needs to be noted, because if she were alive today, you’d be interviewing her, and she’d be all over this. She was an early feminist. Joanne was the state chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party and at the same time, very much a feminist. These two vantage points seam contradictory, but they were not. She and Dudley, both State Legislators, were the founders of the draft Ted Kennedy for President movement in New Hampshire and nationally in 1979. Then Kennedy ran and bombed out. Joanne and her family moved to DC.
I met Joanne, a force, because a friend got in touch with me and said, “A mover and shaker in N.H., Joanne Symons, is moving to D.C. She has outgrown, burned too many bridges in New Hampshire. Do you know of jobs for her?” And I helped her get a job at the American Nurses Association heading their PAC. She became my client working on it. One of the things she did was start a series in which she invited the Democratic and the Republican presidential candidates to come speak to us, a group of women leaders and advocates. I remember Bob Dole, Gary Hart, Presidential candidates in the ’80s came and spoke to this group. Joanne put herself, other women and women’s issues that needed to be addressed in the mix.
I can picture a classroom style set up with all these women and Joanne introducing these male candidates. I think this was tremendously interesting to do on behalf of the American Nurses PAC. This is pre EMILY’s List, pre all these other things. Joanne was a natural who would have advanced women innately had she not died of ovarian and breast cancer way before her time, roughly 18 years ago.
The next thing that I was involved in was the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. I was the Political Director when we went from being a backwater that helped only incumbent senators, to building an organization that actually helped non incumbent candidates and gave them huge amounts of money. Under the law, we were the lone entity that could give money based on a formula by state population. I was hired in ’81 after Ronald Reagan’s coattails brought in a dozen new Republican senators, including Jeremiah Denton, Paula Hawkins and others anathema to liberals and feminists.
I lived on Capitol Hill at the time and I remember thinking after the ’80 election when Reagan and all these people came in, I have to either move off the Hill and not face the Capitol dome every day or I have to find a way to get really involved in changing things. I’d already been at a political consulting firm, the one that had all these women clients and we did the study of women who ran for high office.
JW: What did you find out in that study?
AS: Things were entirely different for women. When I write my book, Judy, this will be in it! I was telling my partner recently that to raise money to do the study, we made a list of people and did cold calling, sent letters to people. And in came a check for a thousand dollars from Gary Trudeau. Nancy Pelosi was on our list. I think that she offered to be of help. Later I got to know her in a different context. But let me go back to what I was saying. In ’81, a top aide to Vice President Walter Mondale in the Carter White House named Mike Berman was influential at the DNC and around town. He knew of me when the person running the DSCC Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in ’81 asked him for possible Deputies.
I was hired after interviews and vetting by Ted Waller. To this day it is the official campaign arm of all Democratic US senators. Ted was Senator Alan Cranston’s boyhood friend and Cranston was the consummate, powerful Senator and fundraising giant from California. He was the number three Senate Democrat with Democrats in the minority. That was the whole point: to gain the majority. There was a power struggle at the DSCC in Winter, 1981. Wendell Ford who was actually the chairman and a traditional Southern Senator, and Cranston, an entirely different sort.
I went there in September of ’81 and ’82 was the election year. At the end of March of ’82 a new executive director was installed. Waller was fired and Leon Billings became E.D. and asked for the staffs’ resignations. He put them in his desk drawer and never looked at them again. Cranston out, Ford in, slowed us from giving a lot of money to candidates because the Committee didn’t have it.
The law allowed giving $17,500 to candidates – incumbents or non-incumbents. But we were totally oriented toward the incumbents, so we gave that amount of money. At the same time, I was developing a shop where we helped the non-incumbents by providing technical assistance, political skills training to their staff members, and so forth. That was the beginning of what I built up, because I stayed for the whole Senate to turn over, a six year cycle.
JW: Did you have women in your group you were giving technical assistance to?
AS: There were some women candidates. They were definitely the rarity, as you might well imagine. None of them got elected. The cycles kind of blur with women candidates who challenged incumbent Republican Senators. There was a woman named Eddie Harrison who ran in Virginia. There was a woman whose name I forget who ran in Oregon. These were women who were gutsy enough to take on popular Republicans such as Mark Hatfield.
One of my favorites I got to know very well was Joan Growe of Minnesota, who was the Secretary of State for many, many terms and she got the DFL nomination for US Senate in 1984. It was contested by some men as well. I remember going to the hotly contested DFL convention which went on all night. Joan was a likable woman and a terrific candidate. She resented that you had to run two campaigns. One was in your state, but the other was in Washington, for money. And she called it correctly. You do, far more today than in 1984.
JW: To get the support of the current establishment?
AS: The support translating into money. It was in ’85-’86 that Ellen Malcolm went on to start EMILY’s List. She and some of her close friends became observers of this process. I’m sort of tying things in a bow in my own mind as I talk to you. It was those early years that the women had such a hard time and you asked me what we found in my survey. The firm I was with in the ’70s after I left the hill was Rothstein-Buckley, and it was pioneering in its own right, because Rothstein was Joe Rothstein, a man, and Buckley was Jill Buckley. Over the years I referred to the fact that Jill Buckley was Mandy Grunwald before there was a Mandy Grunwald. Now there are lots of women consultants and pollsters and all, but Mandy became the first really big deal, prominent, even presidential level, media producer. She produced Hillary’s media over different campaigns..
JW: Let’s go back to EMILY’s List and if you could say what it stands for.
AS: This goes back to Betsy Crone, a part of the National Women’s Political Caucus when I worked with it. She may be the one who with Ellen Malcolm came up with the name EMILY’s List. It stands for “early money is like yeast”. It Makes The Dough Rise. That’s what it’s about. It’s about getting women the money they weren’t getting. It has gone on to be one of the biggest political action committees for many years now.
I think of Ellen, but I think of Betsy Crone and Joanne Howes, whose name I have not mentioned previously – a very smart political strategist who’s had a fascinating career. If you haven’t spoken to her, I would. She helped bring us equal division for the DNC, making the DNC have 50-50 delegates to the national convention, state party membership, etc. That is huge. Until that time, it was way more men. She and I were in the Ted Kennedy campaign together.
JW: You were at the DSCC trying to get women elected, but with not much success. What about after that?
AS: This is where the DSCC and EMILY’s List kind of converge but also diverge. EMILY’s List was founded in the ’85-’86 election cycle, because Barbara Mikulski of MD was running for the US Senate and I had more ability than most to help the women Senate candidates that there were and to spread the word if there was encouraging polling. Ellen created EMILY’s List and I say we converged and diverged because I staffed the recruitment committee of this little subcommittee of the DSCC.
I met once a week with five or six senators from George Mitchell, who was the chairman of the DSCC, to Bill Bradley, Jim Sasser, Max Baucus and another one or two. We would interview Senate candidates and I don’t recall Barbara Mikulski coming to see us, she probably thought we were hostile territory. And in a way, she would have been right. But these tall men from Maryland who ran in the primary – and she beat them – looked more like what Senators thought senators looked like at the time. It wasn’t until Barbara Mikulski had a good poll and I think Wendy Sherman, Joanne Howes, different people were around her at that time, she was very popular in Maryland, she was a Congresswoman and she won the Senate seat. That was in part due to EMILY’s List. The DSCC had to be convinced.
JW: Was she the first Democratic woman to be elected in her own right?
AS: She was, yes. I think that most of the Republican women were daughters or wives like Nancy Landon Kassebaum was the daughter of Alf Landon, the presidential candidate. But as a Democrat, she was the first Democratic woman ever elected without a relative preceding her.
JW: How long did you stay there? You moved on from that job at one point, right?
AS: Well, not so fast. I was there for over six years from fall of ’81 to spring of ’87. In ’86, we regained the Senate majority. It was a thrill of a lifetime and I always said it was a gift that kept on giving. In ’82, we picked up a couple Senate seats, in ’84, we picked up five Senate seats, important names – Paul Simon, Tom Harkin, Jay Rockefeller and others. And in ’85-’86 we brought in what I think was something like 7 more new senators. We held seats, we picked up seats and yahoo!, we gained the majority.
I stayed into ’87 and I probably wouldn’t have been tough enough to be the number one, but I would periodically when there was an opening, raise my hand and I’d say, you should think of me for the number one. When Lloyd Bentsen became the Chairman for ’83-’84, I got along well with Joe O’Neill his Chief of Staff and I ended up becoming close to and have a terrific relationship with Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. It was clear that I would be the number two. So I became the institutional memory and the continuity and the person who loved building things and built a very robust effort to provide the technical assistance to the candidates, actually the Senators themselves, the non incumbents and their staffs and we would have all kinds of training sessions and all. I left after we regained the Senate.
JW: It sounds like you played the woman’s role. You did all the work, but you couldn’t get the glory as the head person.
AS: Well, yes and no. I got a lot of rewards from it. Think of the people that I came to know. At one Democratic National Convention, my second husband and I attended it that year in New York. I had recently left the DSCC so we went to the hotel of the Democratic Senators and was chatting with some of them. Charlie noted afterwards that six different Senators all came over to me and kissed me and I knew them well, people like Al Gore. I got to know Geraldine Ferraro very well, first meeting her in ’84 at the Democratic convention, meeting Nancy Pelosi, who chaired that convention. And then I got to know Nancy extremely well because she is a very smart strategic person who came to see George Mitchell in ’85 and said in effect, “I’m from California, I’m a terrific fundraiser and I would like to help you.” She was part of the effort, unpaid, we gave her an office and Nancy Pelosi was a few doors down from me as part of the team to regain the Senate.
JW: Was she in the House then? She was not in the House?
AS: No, no. This was before she was in the House. This was no doubt part of meeting and helping a lot of people that she otherwise didn’t have the access to. It was a way to authentically help regain the Senate while smartly gaining skills and contacts to soon run for the House.
JW: And what about Geraldine Ferraro? What can you tell us about her?
AS: This goes back to Joanne Symons and some other things. In 1987 the organization called NDI, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, was created. There were labor institutes, business institutes and political institutes and all got federal funding. NDI’s leadership was cognizant that half the population had been totally ignored. There was a conference in San Francisco, I would have loved to go, but my friend Joanne Symons did. It was held by NDI which was at that time headed by Brian Atwood. NDI’s worldwide women’s conference had funding to bring women from Africa, Asia and Latin America. This enabled elected women from the world over to begin talking.
NDI staff had done research to figure out who were the leading women in their countries. They had a conference in San Francisco called the Eleanor Roosevelt Conference that was supposed to lead to efforts in all the different regions of the world to organize and branch out. To have conferences and just start organizing, reaching out to other women; and one of the women who played a key role in San Francisco was Gerry Ferraro. She’d already run for vice president and that had elevated her. After that conference Joanne Symons suggested that I become the first executive director of the new organization called The International Institute for Women’s Political Leadership and Gerry, Senators Barbara Mikulski and Nancy Kassebaum were the prominent American Board members.
Working out of a rented office of the American Nurses Association, I became the first Executive Director of IIWPL and it was a kind of mixed experience. There’s another world leader other than Gerry who should be noted. She didn’t think highly of me and perhaps justifiably, I wasn’t of that world enough, but it was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. She went on to be the president of Liberia, and when I got to know her she had been jailed by the regime because she was an insurgent and very brave. She’d gone to jail and then the government changed, and she eventually became President.
She was in exile in the United States at this time and she was an official at the World Bank. I got to know Gerry well. We went to a few foreign countries together as part of programming. Ellen wanted us to do programs around the world more quickly and it took some doing, it took some fundraising and so forth. We went to Costa Rica – a Board member was First Vice President of Costa Rica. We went to England where we had a board member in the parliament. And we went to Bonn, which was then the capital of Germany, and a member of the Bundestag was our host.
In each of these places a small crowd was built to do a seminar about women in politics. I traveled to these different places with Gerry, a couple of others, Joanne Symons and I believe another woman named Carol Darr who was our counsel came as well. There weren’t many nicer or more genuine people than Geraldine. It was one of the treats of a lifetime to get to know her well. I was dating Charlie Zeitlin, who became my second husband. It was New Year’s or right after New Year’s in 1989. I was running IIWPL. Gerry and I talked on a Sunday night and Charlie, Gerry and I were at my kitchen table. He was sitting with me because I think we’d been having dinner and was talking to Gerry about what her holiday had been like. She said it was so great to relax and be in the Virgin Islands at their place, on and on. She said, “We even tried sex.” Hilarious!
She was absolutely darling and such a good person. That’s Gerry Ferraro and IIWPL but that organization was short lived. The other things I’ll mention that were big things in my life: there was FDA where I became a Clinton political appointee. I was there on the first day the Office of Women’s Health began. I was very much a part of that world from October of ’94 till I left the agency at the end of ’99 thinking I’d been selfish to remain a political appointee for six and a half years, when the average was 18 months.
JW: Tell me what the purpose of that office was.
AS: To have a seat at the table, to look out for women’s interests at the regulatory agency that guaranteed safe products for women. I was hired by David Kessler, Commissioner at the time, and he said to me, “We regulate twenty five percent of the nation’s economy.” That was drugs first and foremost and medical devices. It has a lesser role in terms of what the law required or allowed in terms of cosmetics, foods, animal products. A growing area that’s gotten huge since I left there 21 years ago is biologics, or medications containing living organisms.
JW: Can you remember any particular accomplishment that the agency did on behalf of women?
AS: Just as an aside, now in women’s health, my clients are almost always those whose products are taken by women alone, like contraception and female sexual dysfunction. Back to FDA’s women’s health accomplishments: we gave a significant amount of grant money. This funded Intermural research, that found important things in terms of gender differences, sex differences in how women metabolize drugs. If you’re going to get a stent, the stents aren’t really made for women’s arteries and veins, they’re too big. That is one area where that we played a huge role.
After the FDA, within a few months I went on the board of the historic National Woman’s Party, which owned Sewall-Belmont House. I became the first vice president very quickly and then was President of the board for four years. It was more of maintaining the house and trying to have programs and you and I were part of the same process of trying to have more programs and being a part of trying to save the house and save its collection.
JW: This is Alice Paul’s party. I just wanted to say that for the record. The house is now part of the National Park Service and is a national monument. That was an exciting effort for all of us involved, I think.
AS: The house and its possessions, which you’re very well aware of, are an absolute treasure trove. A lot of people who are veteran feminists came through there.
JW: What do you think was the effect of the women’s movement on your life?
AS: It has made me a part of something larger thank myself, a part of history where I was able to make a difference. It is not something that will ever end. I can’t imagine that my granddaughters will think we’ve done it, women have made it. I’ve been a part of something I feel is critically important and ongoing. I have been, I believe, a role model and just a little piece of something bigger than myself. It’s been communicated to my grandchildren and mostly granddaughters, but I have a grandson who asks me about contraception. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. It’s been a theme of my life. I’m a willing and available target for all things women. I help women candidates, which is back to my roots in the ’70s. I’ve no doubt left out some things because there have been numerous smaller actions to advance women, which is definitely a love, a passion of mine and I am sure it will continue to be until I take my last breath.
JW: Well, thank you, Audrey.