THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Working with People at the Grass Roots Level Became My Passion.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, April 2022
BH: My full name is Barbara Louise Hays. In the first year of the baby-boomer generation, my father was in the South Pacific during World War II, and he came back in 1945. I was born in 1946. I was born in Peoria, Illinois, but it was because there was no hospital in this rural southern Indiana town where my parents were going to set up housekeeping where my father’s family had lived. My grandparents lived in Peoria, and so my mother went to stay with them and I was born in Peoria. I became a resident Hoosier at age three weeks.
MJC: Were you the first born in your family?
BH: I was the first born in my family.
MJC: What was your life like growing up, especially in terms of how it might have influenced your joining the women’s movement?
BH: I’ve always said when I’m asked that general question that the greatest gift I ever got was that I was raised by two people who lived through the Great Depression and World War II. The values and the way we did things have been things that I have taken with me all my life. It’s given me fantastic grounding for not just feminism, but a lot of different activities that I’ve been involved in.
I’m now interested in genealogy. My father’s family came to southern Indiana from England, Germany, and Switzerland and Alsace, and that was in the 1700’s and 1800’s. But my mother’s family came exclusively from Germany and Eastern Europe, and my grandparents were first generation Americans. All of these questions about immigration and why people come to the United States have been interesting to me because I always took my multicultural background for granted, and never really thought about it very much until recently. But it definitely has shaped a lot of who I am.
Education was really important in my family, and that goes back several generations, and it applied equally to the females and the males. I have relatives, great-great aunts, and so forth, all went to the equivalent of a junior college. My parents were both college graduates and had master’s degrees, but my father’s parents also went to college.
We didn’t have a lot of material possessions in terms of new cars and things like that, but education was important. We didn’t have a television. I thought we were actually a little bit on the wealthy side because we owned an Encyclopedia Britannica, and we were expected to know how to use it. That’s how I came at some of this from an intellectual perspective, but as I grew older, I became more aware of discrimination against women.
One example of this that makes me smile even to this day is that I was absolutely fascinated by politics. I was the editor of the high school newspaper. I love to write. I love current events. My high school guidance counselor never got the memo. Even though I had gotten a C- in chemistry, I was encouraged to enroll in a four-year nursing program at Indiana University because that was more appropriate for women than to become a political scientist or a history major.
That was an early lesson that I got in how women are stereotyped. My family did a lot of things in the name of being self-sufficient; that was very important. My mother made all my clothes. We canned vegetables from the garden. My grandfather taught me how to harness a horse. All of those things gave me this grounding of wanting to be as accomplished as I could, but as comfortable as I could in my own skin.
MJC: Very good. Wonderful. Tell us about when you got involved with the movement.
BH: I went to college, and my freshman year was awful. My father died. My grades tanked. I made a lot of different decisions about what I was going to do. I got married. I helped put my husband through graduate school. He got a job in Michigan. We moved to Michigan, and we had two daughters. My experience was multifaceted. For the first time, I was home all day long. I could read, I could study what I wanted to study, and I also was very interested in reading to my children and getting them started in a good way, a good educational background.
There were no books where women were anything except teachers or mothers or nurses or witches. That just covered it. My daughter was interested in learning about microscopes. The only book we could find was entitled Greg’s Microscope. I went to the library, and the local NOW chapter in Midland, Michigan had put together a non-sexist reading list. There was some information on the bottom of the page. I actually found out that we had a mutual friend, so I had my mutual friend introduce us. This woman was very involved in the NOW chapter and got me to come to my first NOW meeting in Michigan.
The chapter did a lot in the way of social issues, but I was fascinated by what was going on with the ERA and constitutional law. My uncle, my dad’s brother, was just a wonderful, more than a role model, but a support system for me. He used to send me articles about the ERA and how this woman named Phyllis Schlafly was throwing a huge monkey wrench into all of the ratification efforts that people were trying to get. This was by 1974.
The chapter was very interested, even though Michigan ratified almost right away in 1972. We found that, first of all, the anti-ERA people were raising a lot of money in the state, but we couldn’t get a lot of women who were supporting the ERA to speak out on behalf of the amendment because the “anti’s” had all of these horrible scenarios that would happen if the ERA was ratified, like women would not be able to collect social security in their husband’s social security account. They would have to pay different taxes. But nobody wanted to take on these people because they would just talk you down, shout you out. It was horrible. I actually went through that.
Some people in the chapter all got together and we said, “Look, this is crazy”. All of these women are well educated, our friends were well educated. They were articulate. They just needed the information. They just needed to be able to feel confident enough to stand up and say, “No, you’re wrong,” and have the information that they needed to discuss this ERA in public.
We put together a template for a day-long workshop that groups of women in towns all over Michigan could put on. It had topics that needed to be covered. It had sample handouts. It had suggestions for speakers that lived all over the state if there wasn’t somebody local that they could get to come and do the presentation. It helped in a couple of ways. It helped some of the women’s groups in these communities get together more to work on progressive issues, but it also helped get women to be more confident about speaking out.
That was my first ERA thing that we did. This was probably in ’79. I joined the chapter in ’75. But we worked on the extension campaign, and we tried to do a lot of info evenings, I think that’s what we called them, where we talked about various things that concerned the amendment so that people could get comfortable about debating it and understanding what was going on when they read things that didn’t sound right.
But for me personally, I could not have been more fascinated by things like, if a state rescinded, what did that mean? Because there was case law from the ’20s about when some states had rescinded their ratification of an amendment. There was a great deal of concern, which of course exists to this day, about whether or not the fact that the time limit was in the introductory clause at the beginning of the amendment, and not actually in the amendment itself, if that meant anything in terms of actually ratifying. This sort of thing, I read and read and read. I thought this was the most fascinating stuff. It got me started wanting to do more to get the ERA ratified.
MJC: You’re still raising your kids and not in the workforce at this point, right?
BH: I had part-time jobs when it worked out in my otherwise busy schedule. I worked in a bank for a while, and I worked in the business library at Dow Corning. We had moved to Midland and my husband worked for the Dow Corning Corporation, so I got a job in the business library. That helped a lot. I could arrange my hours so I could still help my kids with after-school activities and things like that.
MJC: Did you go to school while you were in Midland?
BH: I took classes from time to time. I actually went back to school after I worked on the countdown campaign in Illinois. I went to the 1978 NOW Conference in Washington. They were recruiting people literally in the hallways to sign up to work on the countdown campaign in the state. My mother at that time lived in central Illinois. Of course, that’s a neighboring state to Michigan, so I was like, “Okay, well, I’ll just volunteer in Illinois.”
The arrangement that I worked out with the folks in Illinois was that I would come to the state for between two and three weeks, mostly three weeks, every month. Then I would go home for a month. Then I would come back and stay for another three weeks. In the process, there was a primary campaign where we were trying to get pro-ERA legislators elected.
There were lobby days that were organized on a regular basis for professional groups like Nurses Lobby Day, Teachers Lobby Day, and so forth. The Springfield office hosted a lot of those. We got to do that. It was fun. I didn’t always stay over in Decatur with my mother, but I did a lot. It was nice as an adult to move back in, so to speak, and be able to spend a little bit of time with her.
She was very cool about everything being this activist support system. I remember one time I showed up with four interns that had shown up at the Springfield office from some college in Iowa. Apparently, their paperwork had gotten lost, and we had no idea they were coming. They didn’t even have a place to stay, so they came over to Decatur and slept on my mother’s living room floor.
I think that as an adult child, you find out things about your parents. The most shocking thing that I still can’t believe, my mother watched Dallas every week. I just found that appalling. But it was fun. It was fun in so many ways. What that started me focusing on more than anything else was the whole process of grassroots organizing.
In other words, most of these women had never done anything this political. They had jobs or they didn’t. But if you spoke to them about going to talk to the county council about something, they immediately had more things to do and couldn’t possibly help out. But getting somebody out of their comfort zone was just fascinating to me, and I couldn’t, at that point, see how it was done because people’s comfort zones are usually very carefully constructed to protect them.
However, I knew that you had to have wins. To motivate grassroots people, you have to have a victory, you have to have something. The ERA had a lot of little victories, but the final result was not a victory. We had to look for other things that happened that were good for the Women’s Movement besides just the fact that we wanted to ratify the ERA.
We accomplished a lot of coalition work; we had a lot of women running for office. In other words, we had to look for those kinds of things. But the whole way we went about working with people at the grassroots level became my passion. When I got done with the campaign in Springfield, I went home. I decided to go back to college, and this time did not major in a four-year nursing program. But I started down a path of getting a bachelor’s in political science.
At that point, I was fascinated to learn a lot of the ways that political parties were using perfectly-sound statistically-arrived-at formulas for getting voter turnout. They had been doing this, in other words, understanding that people needed to hear the name of a candidate a certain number of times before they realized that this person was running for an office and hear about the issues enough to associate. All of this was very researched sound operating procedure for a lot of these campaigns.
But what I started understanding was that this was not a whole lot different than what NOW was trying to do. Absolutely, this was getting people out of their comfort zones, this was helping them make those associations, feel that excitement when they were able to get the member of the county council to change their position on something, or they had a particularly clever action that they were doing about an issue.
I found the education that I was getting about politics to be something that I was excited to try to adapt to my work in NOW. I became the President of Michigan NOW. Two or three weeks after that, Walter Mondale selected Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate. I had another job. I had to learn how to speak in public really fast. I also had to learn how to drive around in downtown Detroit, which was quite a shocking experience, and arrive at my destination, that was the other part.
But it all started coming together for me that this idea of having grassroots philosophies and ways of motivating people to get outside of this comfort zone, but to also feel a power that we wanted them to feel as making strides, achieving things in the women’s movement. It just started coming together with me and I realized that this was what I wanted to do. I graduated. I actually applied to several graduate schools.
One of the ones that I was accepted at was the University of Maryland in College Park. That fit with the idea that I wanted to come to the Washington, DC, area. I’d always wanted to live in Washington, DC or in the Metropolitan area. At that point, I moved to Washington and started taking some graduate classes, but also Ellie Smeal was calling me up every couple of weeks. “Oh, yes. Can you come in and work on this?” Or “We need some people to make some calls to some chapters about this.”
By now, we’re at 1986. I had a little apartment out in Tacoma Park, and I started working at the NOW office whenever I had time, and I was taking classes at the University of Maryland. One of the classes that I took was actually the one that pulled everything together. You talk about how fate puts you in a certain place at a certain time when you’re hearing a certain message. I took a class under a woman named Margaret Conway. She had written a book called Political Participation in America and it pulled all of this together.
I didn’t understand why people didn’t keep a copy of this book right by their beds and read it all the time. It was just fascinating. She is a political science researcher. She’s actually still alive. She’s a professor emeritus at a university in Florida. But she’s also done a lot of research in political participation and how it is affected by gender and race.
And it just started me on this path. I had friends and some of them got so tired of me that they would think of other reasons not to have coffee with me because all I wanted to do was talk about political participation. I had one friend who would get me to go on walks. I talked to her until probably her head was about to explode.
But I found that I could hone my message better and I could get more interest in trying to adjust and shift some of NOW’s outreach a little bit more so that people were doing more purposeful membership recruitment, membership retention, leadership training. Women were getting skills to work with a more diverse membership than we probably had had.
Just the passion of wanting women to have equal rights to men wasn’t getting us anywhere. That was fine, but we needed more people than that because, as you know, the other problem we started having was that we were victims of our own success. All of a sudden, all these people that used to be around for phone banks and rallies and work, had jobs.
We had to change. And change is always hard. I have to credit Kim Gandy because she actually helped me have a platform to make some of these changes. I worked at the NOW office. I went on staff full time, probably by 1987, and I started being the Chapter and State Development Director in 1989. Before that, I did some legislative work, representation in meetings and coalition work on the Hill. But then she made me the Chapter and State Development Director.
I started rewriting all the materials, we started having state presidents’ trainings, which over the years we expanded to be activist training weekends, where we bring in groups of people from a state and have different tracks of trainings, like for action, media, membership retention, leadership, event planning, all of that kind of thing.
I could see that it would work and whether it did or not, but it was very exciting. I still get Christmas cards from some of these people. Interns send me pictures of their grandchildren. It’s very rewarding to know that people did respond to that message about activism. Paying attention to the grassroots could not have been more important.
MJC: How long were you working with NOW?
BH: In the chapter development, as you recall, we had an abortion rights march in 1989. And with the growth and the energy and the money and so forth, that came in as a result of that, they started funding an entire chapter development staff again. It started out with two of us, and then gradually we had a few more people.
But that started in 1989, and I worked as a Chapter and State Development Director, and then doing some organizational development work, trying to develop more training materials and write down more of what was in my head about some of the more complicated issues. I tried to write a chapter development report entitled Dealing with Difficult People in NOW.
MJC: That could be a long chapter.
BH: It was a wonderful project that never saw the light of day, but the truth was that I had three or four interns that wanted to work on it. We did a lot of research. For example, we discovered some links from women who had been victims of violence to their leadership styles being very controlling and manipulative. It wasn’t just, “Let’s run these people off,” but instead try to figure out ways to work with them.
That was the kind of thing I did toward the end. In other words, I tried to put everything together. I tried to do one on non-violent civil disobedience, and I discovered that we ought to just have a team of lawyers write that because there were too many legal issues that people were concerned about. That didn’t go very far, although I did leave quite a body of research and writing that we did about why that could easily be incredibly important on some of the issues that we were working on, like abortion and so forth, that civil disobedience would really be key going forward.
MJC: Did you travel to the states or state conferences?
BH: Yes. My family could give a much more colorful description of how I would be gone. I traveled to 45 states. Some of them I had been in before, but some of them I had not. I love that kind of travel. I stayed with people in their homes. I drove most of the time. I would fly and rent the cheapest possible rental cars and drive to these places. I did state conferences, regional conferences, workshops, meeting with chapters, all that kind of thing.
I remember one time I was supposed to be at a meeting in Colorado and there was an avalanche. I couldn’t get to the meeting because I couldn’t get through the road. But it was exciting to go out and actually see and meet the people where they were and with what they were living with, because it’s great to sit in Washington and talk about what people in Des Moines, Iowa should be doing with their time. But you go to Des Moines and you get a different view.
It made me much better at what I was doing. Even though I came from that kind of background. It made me much better at writing things that people could hear and not sounding like somebody inside the beltway. I think the idea of using our lists better, the people who joined through direct mail, pulling them in by getting those people, notifying them that someone was coming to their state and setting up meetings. You were getting some of the new people and new ideas, new issues that they wanted to get involved in. We were able to really diversify and grow some of the states. That worked out very well.
MJC: That’s good. You were there 20 years?
BH: I stopped working at the Action Center in 2008. And part of it was that I thought maybe what I wanted to do was to drill down a little bit more specifically to focus on membership work, because there were a lot of membership organizations in Washington that were looking to grow their base of support.
But unfortunately, the world was just full of these kinds of people after Obama was elected in 2008, who were way under the age of 60, who were perfectly willing to work for about a third of what I had been making, even at NOW salary.
I realized that I needed to think through how I wanted to spend the rest of my life, what I wanted to do that used a lot of these skills. Because I found the whole thing fascinating. The travel. The idea of going to people where they were, all of that kind of thing. I made a list, I didn’t do anything elaborate, I just started thinking through the things I really enjoy. Geography, which turned out to be about migration patterns and so forth, and history. I decided on trying to do much more with genealogy. The whole genealogy field was just changing by the minute with a lot more of an ability to work online and databases that you could access that way.
This was more 2012, 2013. I started a small business and developed a whole additional network of people that I could connect with. I work with people all over the world, at this point. When I was talking about the genealogy, I’d like to say a couple more things about that. One of the things that I had personally experienced growing up was that genealogy to an awful lot of people were these horrific books that listed births, marriages, and deaths. Maybe little paragraphs about the people, but they were so awful [they] could sedate hyperactive children.
I took a small page out of my past, and decided that the kinds of reports that I wanted to produce would have maps and pictures. I had to quickly learn a whole lot about copyright law. I came up with a couple of card games that I made decks of cards that had all of your ancestors, and so you could play a version of, “old maids” with all of your relatives and so forth. My clients have found that to be very exciting.
For example, this couple had moved out to Missouri in 1850, and I found a picture of what transportation they probably took at the time, which was a covered wagon and what a covered wagon looked like in 1850. It just blew them away. They knew these people had made this trip, but to see how they did it made it very exciting to those people. I think that has helped me.
I’ve done work for people who had Italian ancestors. Almost everybody came over here because they were either trying to escape a war, trying to get food to feed their families, or just wanting a job and wanting to work. One person is quoted to have said, “They told me that there were all these wonderful streets in the United States. I had no idea I was going to be building them”.
It was a good decision. It was a good field for me to go in. But, of course, I’m still involved in NOW. At this point, only at the state level. I’ve always been involved in Maryland NOW to a certain extent, but a group of people and I started a concerted effort about three or four years ago to develop programs and approaches that use more social media, use more outreach to college-aged women, not looking for people who wanted these jobs for life, but that we could get information from them about how to organize our outreach.
At the same time, we were giving them an opportunity to hone their skills, and that’s worked out really well. The work that I’ve been doing in Maryland has been very good. But I do try to juggle so that there’s some time left for my family, some time for me to get this work done with Maryland. Then, of course, I have clients. Invariably, I’m hopping along doing my stuff, and somebody wants to get into the DAR, and they have to find somebody, and so I’ve got to stop what I’m doing and actually do some work. Billable hours.
MJC: That’s amazing. NOW women don’t quit working. That’s my experience. Since you have such a long experience with the women’s movement directly and the organization specifically, would you talk a bit about how it changed over the years?
BH: Over the years, NOW has done a very good job of adapting our priorities to understand that there are some times when certain issues are going to be front and center, and then other times we have to be flexible because something’s going to happen and we have to be able to move things like the direct mail program. We have to be able to adapt the membership messages and so forth to accommodate.
I think that there have been administrations that have done a much better job of that because they either had better support in terms of the commercial vendors that we had and so forth. An analogy that pops into my head is that, any time you have people who have their jobs through elected office, they need to balance that with what looks good and what needs to be done. What needs to be done is not always what’s going to be, like Joe Biden is finding out today.
I don’t want to date the interview, but, in other words, what needs to happen can’t always be what is going to look the best to the grassroots, who may or may not understand why something needs to be done differently. That’s always been hard because obviously you want to get reelected. But you have to change sometimes.
I know that there have been times when I think the leadership has wanted, for example, to put a lot more money into developing diversity, and it just hasn’t been there because the need at the local level is something that will bring in money so that they can buy equipment and stamps and supplies and send people to conferences and grow that way. There’s never been enough money.
I don’t know if there are other groups that have solved this differently. There may have been ways for us to have figured out a way to take corporate money in a way that didn’t tie us to the negatives of that. They’ve been able to skate, carve a little bit of a path where we could have gotten more money. But I think that the development of having more resources has always confounded us. We’ve never figured that part of it out. We’ve never been a movement that could have a good financial footing.
MJC: In looking at information that you provided, I was particularly taken with the fact that you were able to attend the Beijing conference.
BH: It was the most exciting thing that I was able to do in terms of seeing what was going on for women outside of the United States. I wasn’t always necessarily interested in having a chapter in Paris or something like that. I didn’t feel that that was at all feasible, but I was interested in how the movement was growing in other countries.
When the Fourth World Conference On Women was scheduled for Beijing in 1995, I was really interested in going. I wrote a proposal for two workshops. One was on chapter development because I wanted to see how some of these problems that people had in the United States, how universal they were, and how other women had solved some of these problems. The other one was one that we did jointly with I’m pretty sure it was New York NOW that we did on consciousness raising.
Both of them, I would say, were fabulous successes. The chapter development workshop was just an incredible experience. I started out, and of course, the room was packed. I knew that there were people who didn’t understand a word I was saying. I spoke for about three or four minutes, and some women got up and said, “Wait a minute.” They reorganized the room so that they identified four languages, that people could hear English and speak this language. They organized the room.
You also have to understand that the place where the NGO forum was being held was out in the middle of nowhere, because what had happened was, the Beijing government had bid on this conference thinking that it would help them get the Olympics. This was in the 90’s. When they didn’t get the Olympics, this women’s conference could not have been less important.
It went by the wayside. None of the buildings were finished. There were stairs that didn’t work. There was no plumbing. It was just amazing. There were no windows. There were just openings in the wall where a window would have been opened out into the hallway. It was packed. There were people out in the hall, but people were very excited and people had great ideas.
I don’t want to say it never occurred to me, but I learned a lot from the people who were trying to organize in places where the literacy rate was very low. Nobody could read. You had posters about domestic violence that were just pictures of how somebody was experiencing domestic violence and could get help. It was all just drawn pictures.
Some women from several countries in Africa were very frustrated because they could never get any visibility for some of their issues because AIDS was so horrible. The papers, the media, only wanted to cover everything from a perspective of, “Okay, you’re working on women’s rights. How does that affect AIDS? What are you doing to work on AIDS?”
It was a tremendous eye opener. I’ve tried to follow the women’s movement in some of these countries, and they have made an awful lot of progress. It’s quite impressive to see how much they’ve been able to do. The consciousness raising was probably in some ways even more interesting because what was very clear was that in the patriarchal societies, a women’s movement meant something entirely different. It was differently interpreted than in a country where it wasn’t quite so patriarchal, and women did have an ability to actually work on things that affected them directly.
In the consciousness raising, we ran into trouble almost immediately because none of the women from China were asked to identify themselves by their matriarchal line. These Chinese women could not do it. They could not make their brains work to say their mother, their mother’s mother, their mother’s mother’s mother. The idea would be offensive to their fathers, and their fathers were basically God. So that was very eye opening.
When I hear about some of these situations that have existed for many years in China, I can easily see how that’s happening and how Chinese women are still struggling. But it was a wonderful experience, and I learned a lot about what I was doing, about where grassroots organizing needed to go, not just in Duluth, Minnesota, but in Bangladesh.
MJC: What a wonderful experience.
BH: It was. It was fabulous.
MJC: What have we missed? Are there things that we haven’t talked about that you would like to include in the interview?
BH: There are some things that I wish maybe I had said a little bit better, but I don’t know. What’s done is done. I got a lot of support in the Midland community, among my friends and so forth for the work that I was doing in Illinois. I had a lot of people who helped me by agreeing to pick up my kids and take my daughter to gymnastics every Tuesday and Thursday. They were in ice skating classes and had to be at the ice-skating rink at 6:00 o’clock in the morning.
There were people who said, “Oh, sure, I’ll do that for a month.” Sometimes when I can talk about all of these fabulous things that have so enriched my life, I have got to thank some of the people who made that possible. That’s very important because I could not have done it, especially the Illinois work where I was gone so much.
MJC: How old were your daughters during that Illinois ERA period?
BH: Thirteen and 11. They were very excited. One of my most prized possessions is a letter that my younger daughter wrote to the governor of Illinois explaining, “My mother has been coming to Illinois to work on the ERA. You really need to pass this.” I pulled that out of the letter writing pile to keep myself.
MJC: Good for you. That’s amazing. It just supports what you already said, which was you needed the support of people who would help out in your absence.
BH: Absolutely. I think that that goes for a lot of what I did when I was the Chapter and State Development Director. A 55-hour week was common, so dinner became a memory.
MJC: All those women deserve our praise as well for the way in which they supported you so you could support them. Anything else we’ve left out, Barbara, before we close?
BH: I cannot tell you enough how important I think this project is. As I started reading about it, I felt an awful lot of our social movements could benefit from a lot more of the insight of the people who are working on the ground, making the day-to-day things happen, and less pontificating from the people who think that they are doing all the work, who think that they are in charge, that are sucking up all the oxygen.
My illustration of needing people to be a sounding board for me developed some of my chapter development messages. My friend that used to drag me over to Brookside Gardens and walk around for an hour and listen to me pontificating about all these theories. That support from your friends is also incredibly important. That rarely gets public airing. We cannot do this by ourselves.