THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“My story is one of getting excited about feminism, and finding a way to get involved.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, March 2023
CP: My full name is Cynthia Ann Pearson, which is the name I’ve used all my life. I was born May 17, 1954, in San Francisco, California.
JW: Tell us a little about your life. What influences do you think there were that led you to who you became?
CP: My parents moved around a little bit, like many people did in the ‘50s, but by about 1962, we were settled for good in the outskirts of Los Angeles. I grew up in Los Angeles County, but very close to Orange County, Disneyland, that part of LA. suburban, middle class. Just that moment in U.S. history, the ’60s.
What I experienced was only the mildest form of sexism inside my family. My mom was college educated, a teacher, and she believed women should have opportunities to just get out and do what they wanted. My dad was sort of a genial, nice guy, having grown up with real clear gender roles and expecting them in the family, but still a nice guy with two daughters.
The outside world was rife with sexism in the ’60s, and none of it made sense to me. Looking back now, as a young girl, and a young teen woman, sexism just didn’t make sense. Girls were just as smart as guys, so why were there all these rules about girls couldn’t have this job, or that job, or only very few. Sex segregated ads in the newspaper; couldn’t get your own credit card, that didn’t make sense. And then my mom’s sort of gentle sexism that I didn’t like, about how much you eat and being ladylike.
During my growth spurt, I was chastised a little, like, “Oh, you’re eating like a man.” And trust me, in the ’60s in the suburbs, there was no way in which men and women needed to eat differently. My dad was an executive. He didn’t need more food than any other person his size. My mom had grown up on a farm. She had cooked for the crew that came in, at the harvest time. She was speaking from her own experience, not some deep belief in women needing to make themselves smaller.
By the time I got to high school in ’68, and then through my high school years, there was a women’s movement emerging. It was in the big cities where I wasn’t, and there was no public transportation so I couldn’t get there, but I could read about it. And it was just so exciting. So exciting. In 1972, Ms. Magazine had the now infamous article about women declaring they had had abortions, whether or not they actually had. Column after column after column of names.
I had had an abortion a few months before, and it was safe. It was 1970, but I was near L.A. and the California abortion law had liberalized, so I could jump through the hoops as a young white woman with privilege and money, and get a safe abortion. But it was really secret. It was supposed to be the deepest, darkest secret of my life. And there were these women who said it out loud, that they did it. I was like, “Okay, this is where I want to be.” I had never felt ashamed of having sex. I had wanted to have sex. I enjoyed having sex, but I was clearly given the message that I should be ashamed of having had an abortion. And here are all these famous women saying they had had it.
JW: So, Ms. Magazine changed your life, it sounds like.
CP: You can see when I talk now, I’m animated and keyed up because it sort of opened something for me that I hadn’t seen in any other way.
JW: What did you do with that information? Anything?
CP: I went along on the path that I had been on already, which was that fast path to college. I think it helped me jump through the hoops of getting an abortion, because you had to convince someone to be on your side. And because I had no physical ailments, in my case, it had to be a psychiatrist. Just the fact that, “Here’s this smart young white girl, heading to college, we should help her stay on that path.” So, I went on that path.
In the 60s, California made college free of tuition to every resident in the state. So, I went to University of California, San Diego, and because I had found math and science easy, I was a science major. But really, as soon as a women’s center opened on campus, I was at the women’s center absorbing whatever was going on there.
I went to everything they put on. I volunteered there. And one day someone said, “Have you heard about what’s coming up next on our events? There’s this event from the women who started a clinic down in Pacific Beach. They’re going to come up. The women from Woman Care Clinic.” I went to that, and that is the moment at which my life changed. I found my path, my passion, and the rest of my life has flown forward from that moment.
JW: Tell us about it. What did you learn at that event?
CP: So, they talked a little bit in theory, about how medicine is dominated by men, yet received by women. Particularly GYN medicine. Our bodies, our periods, our giving birth, birth control, all that stuff. But what was so important to me, was they also showed a slideshow of self-cervical examination and a demonstration. In this slide show, not only was it just amazing to see the inside of another woman’s body, and vagina, and see a cervix, and see that you could do it yourself and go home with a speculum, but part of the slideshow said, “When we know our bodies, we know what’s normal” and the medical system sometimes pathologizes normal.
For example, if you have a tipped uterus. And I had been told that I had a tipped uterus, and I had been given exercises to do to straighten out my uterus. Now, today, that just sounds like leeches. It sounds so archaic and ridiculous. And there was the picture of a woman who had been told her uterus was tipped? And you could see, it was kind of like tipped up a little. It’s like a nose that goes this way or that way. And that profound, “Oh, they said something about me that isn’t true.” And now, I can see it myself. Yes, it was tipped, but it doesn’t need to be fixed.
And because California was supporting education, everyone at this presentation was mainstream age, everyone was early 20s. But I was not alone in already having had a wackadoodle, inhumane, sexist interaction with the healthcare system, and we sat around in the circle and talked about that as well afterwards.
So, I called the next day and said, “Do you need volunteers at this clinic?” And I finished my degree, because you couldn’t not, it just would have been wrong. From then on, that was what drew me. I worked for a year on a job after I graduated just to stay around in that area so that I could keep volunteering, and then finally got to work there. And I started working full time at Womancare, A Feminist Woman’s Health Center, in 1978.
JW: And what was special about feminist women’s health centers?
CP: So, a lot of things. One, was sharing self-examination with everybody at every opportunity. Sending everyone home with speculums, just like, “We have something so cool, so exciting, we want to share it with you.” But it’s always sharing, not teaching. You’re sharing, not teaching. They provided abortion care, they were the first open abortion providers in the county of San Diego, county and city.
It was a conservative military town. So, the changes that had come earlier to L.A. and New York and Chicago were coming later. They also provided prenatal care and infection checks and well woman exams. And this model of, well women, we’re well women, we need some health care services, but we don’t need medical care with a specialist.
And so, there were lay health workers who provided a lot of the information. And the owners, it was nonprofit, so whoever the owners are, the board of directors, the staff, were all women. So, it was a woman-controlled clinic. The medical professionals were hired by the lay women to do specific services and then zip on out because it was our place.
JW: So, what did you do? What was your role?
CP: I was a lay health worker. But remember, this is the ’70s and collective spirit was everywhere. So even though this was a business, it was a not for profit, it was a corporation, it had to follow business rules and turn in reports to the entities. It was a collective. I’m laughing because, oh gosh, that meant so many meetings.
The first four years I was there, we took turns doing other jobs in addition to the health worker job. So, everyone was a health worker. And then we divided up the rest of the necessary functions into teams. There was the operations team, the community relations team, the quality assurance team. I can’t even remember what they were now, but we would rotate through the teams and you would go through as a beginner.
There were always at least two people in these teams. If you were a beginner, you were with someone more experienced, and then you would rotate through again as you were more experienced. That is an expensive way to run a business. A lot of meetings, takes a lot of time. And you either don’t pay a lot, which we didn’t, or you work a lot of hours, which we did.
Eventually, kind of as the economy changed in the early ’80s, the oil price shock had happened, inflation had happened, it was just a more expensive world. And a little bit because of security costs, because Reagan’s election sort of opened the door to a new wave of violent anti-abortion actions, we had to be like everybody else, and have a typical business structure. And by 1982, I had been through the round of responsibilities more than anybody else. So, I was the executive director when we created that.
JW: Well, that seems to make sense now. Were you connected to the other feminist health clinics, the L.A. ones and so forth? Tell us about that. Carol Downer started this movement, right?
CP: Right. So, Womancare had come up spontaneously in San Diego. Feminists found each other, were frustrated about care from sort of not very nice male doctors, and the lack of access to abortion. So, they spontaneously came together. And that’s why our name was a little different. It was Womancare first, but as the clinic got itself settled and organized, it aligned with the other feminist women’s health centers. So, L.A. had been first, Orange County was there, Oakland was there, and I think Chico was about to start, and Atlanta was there. That’s all I remember now.
But during those times when it was sort of economically easier for nonprofit activist organizations to have businesses, and we could afford it, we would gather pretty frequently. We gathered at least once a year with everybody together, the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers. But because there were so many in California, when there was something specific going on that was challenging for the California health centers, we would gather together.
I worked with Carol a little bit, not a lot in those years, but I worked really closely with women in the Chico Health Center and a couple of other women who were at the L.A. Health Center, on what we called the state team. Because there was an era in California when some of the underlings in the state department of health took advantage of their regulatory power to try to mess with the health centers. They just didn’t like that women were running things themselves. And some of them thought we were doing illegal abortions on the down low, which we weren’t.
They would investigate, or say, “You’re out of compliance with clinic regulations.” And we would just zip on up to Sacramento and we would plot our strategies. We would walk over into legislators’ offices and say, “You’re pro-choice, right?” And, “You’re in my district, and the health department is messing with us, and you need to help us.” I just had intense times because we felt like our health centers were threatened, but wonderful times. Having that experience of four women, in a car or on a plane, get together in a little teeny apartment in walking distance to the state capitol in Sacramento and just figure it out. And we won every time.
Carol’s work to start the Feminist Women’s Health Center began before abortion was legal and included menstrual extraction, and she had been investigated for that. They found no evidence of it, but she went on trial for something else called, The Great Yogurt Conspiracy Trial, and that lived in people’s memory up in Sacramento. “There’s something fishy with those women. They are talking about menstrual extraction. We think it’s abortion, we think it’s illegal, or they just shouldn’t be able to do so much on their own. Who are they? They’re not nurses. They’re not doctors.”
There’s a lovely story that I remembered when I read the questions that you sent me in advance about, is there anything in particular I remember? So, back then, you couldn’t buy a pregnancy test in the drugstore. You had to go into a doctor’s office or clinic, but it wasn’t waiting for the rabbit to die, like whatever was going on back in the ’50s.
It was a little simple test where you put urine in, mix it with a drop of fluid, swish it back and forth for a couple of minutes, and then see what it looked like. We would explain to women how to do it, give them the stuff, women would do it themselves, and we would stay there with them. Well, that was one of the things. These state opponents, these regulators said, “That’s illegal, that’s practicing medicine without a license.”
In about 1980 I think it was, or ’81, we went to the office of the Attorney General of the state of California, who was George Deukmejian at the time. We went into the lobby, we had called the press, and we did a pregnancy test in the attorney general’s waiting room. We had this big poster that showed the difference between what it would look like if you’re pregnant or not, which is clumps. It looks clumpy.
I was the one doing it, and so I’m standing in front of television cameras doing this back and forth. The two minutes are up, and the reporter says, “So what is it?” And just, nothing but instinct, not rehearsed, just like at the clinic, I blurted out, “What does it look like to you?” And this reporter diagnosed the pregnancy test, and they changed the law. By making it public, we showed, this is just common sense here, common flipping sense that someone can hold this, rock it back and forth for two minutes and tell the difference. So, it was things like that.
JW: You know what I find, in a way, I don’t know if ironic is the right word, but when Reagan was governor, of course he signed the law to liberalize abortion. But then when he’s president and running for president, no.
CP: Right. It’s just his hypocrisy. And sadly, the Southern strategy, we’re living with the consequences.
JW: It’s just another example of how this issue is political. And that’s it. As far as I can tell, that’s what it is, political. Well, that sounds like you had an amazing experience, but you left California at some point.
CP: I fell in love with someone who was going to leave California. It was a tough decision, but because I had been spending the last nearly ten years of my life in meetings, I just talked with my group about it and sort of figured it out. How can you still have power in your relationship and not disappear? Be the tag along spouse? And it worked out really well for me. I’m still with the person I fell in love with back in San Diego, and we left in 1985. I did have to kind of look retroactively and create a resume that would make sense to the rest of the world.
JW: But you did stay in women’s health, right?
CP: I did, yes. So, the first move for us as a couple was to Boulder, Colorado, where my partner was going to do a postdoctoral fellowship. I had been working really intensely before we left. Violence had hit San Diego. Our clinic wasn’t attacked, but another clinic was. We were working just intensely, intensely with community supporters and with police and getting support from national advisors, as many clinics do, through the National Abortion Federation.
I thought I’d go to Colorado and at least take the summer off. We moved in May, but of course I needed a group. I called around. I called NOW, I called NARAL, I called somebody else, “Do you have a group? Are you meeting, or do you have a group?” And the person I spoke to at Colorado NARAL said, “No, we don’t have regular meetings, but there’s this job open. It sounds like you should come apply for this job.” Three weeks later, I was hired as a state organizer for Colorado NARAL, which was a delight. A complete delight, because small state NARALs at that time, worked really closely with the volunteer bases. And so, I just met a lot of great people and had some success on a local level.
JW: What kind of success do you recall?
CP: Because I had been our clinic’s representative to NAF, and had had to deal with the police, I had a lot of familiarity with restraining orders that kept protesters back from clinics. You have to be on the other side of such-and-so street, for example. And I had been in conversations with my friends, coworkers, colleagues, about how we shouldn’t have to get this clinic by clinic by clinic. So, I proposed to national NARAL that they give our state NARAL a little grant. They were doing little mini grant things right then for pilot projects. I said, “I’ll lead a pilot project on getting a buffer zone ordinance.” They funded us, and we created the first buffer zone.
It passed in Boulder, Colorado. Very liberal, also with two open abortion providers who were cared about in the community. So, there was no resistance from the city council because of their own feelings about abortion. But we had to work with the ACLU, who did not like the idea of a buffer zone in any place, anywhere. It impinges on free speech. So, I became immersed in time-place manner restrictions, and whatever you call the zone around a polling place.
So, we had to make some compromises. And in Boulder, it became a bubble zone that moved with the person going in and out, which isn’t very effective. But after I moved away, Colorado Planned Parenthood picked it up and championed it at the state level, and it became a buffer zone. And that’s a case that went to the Supreme Court and that was actually upheld, before they turned them all down years later. But they live on. There are still communities that get buffer zones passed. So, it was very satisfying. It’s just a year and a half, a short time in my life, but work I enjoyed.
JW: Then you moved somewhere, you left Colorado.
CP: I came here.
JW: Here to DC.
CP: Yes. So again, my partner was an academic, and this was where he was offered a job as an assistant professor. He grew up in California as well. We both thought, “Okay, this is a good step, because it’s a good step for him on the tenure track, and a good step for me, because there must be something I could do in DC that I’d like. How long will this be? Maybe five years? Why would any of us Californians stay out east?”
So, when I came here, I really sort of thought I was on an abortion career track, because the work at the clinic, even though the beginning it was everything, because of the anti-abortion violence, it became more and more about abortion, and then my work at NARAL. So, I thought, “I want to get a job where this is still women’s turf. I don’t want to be working someplace where I’m putting out a message that I don’t really agree with, or where there’s something behind it that we agree with the outcome, but not the means of getting there.”
So, I was very, very picky. And because I was now in my mid-30s, sort of mid-career, I thought, “Well, I’ll work either at NAF, National Abortion Federation, or NARAL.” I want them to think, “Wow, this is exciting.” Both of these organizations knew me. “Cindy Pearson’s moved to DC. Wow, we could, oh gosh, wouldn’t it be great if we had a job for her?” So, I didn’t want to volunteer with either of those, but of course I needed something to do.
My friends from the health centers in California said, “Oh, you should volunteer with National Women’s Health Network, because they’re a really good feminist health group.” And I called them up, and the person I talked to, explained who I was, and she said, “Oh, my gosh, you could help us with this project. It’s 1987, we got our first office about ten years ago. Our file cabinets are overflowing, and we just need someone. Our boss, our ED, got us a relationship with the feminist archives at Sophia Smith /Smith College, but we don’t have time to sort out our stuff. And you would know everything because you’ve worked in women’s health for so long. So, would you volunteer to sort out our stuff?” Oh, what a fun job. I stretched that out. I came one day a week for probably six months just reading about all these things that were new to me, like the FDA. I knew the big stuff about the FDA, but it was really fun.
And then a job came open there. I had to make my pros and cons because I had been thinking, I’m going to have an abortion career. I made my pros and cons, and one of the pros of working on abortion at that time, was there were some really good enemies. I mean, those men, those patriarchal bullying men who were at the head of the anti-abortion movement then, it felt really important and satisfying to oppose them, because they wanted women back in the kitchen.
They weren’t pretending any kind of concern for our health or well-being. It was just, “Get back where you belong, gals.” So, I loved fighting them and when I wrote that down, I realized, “Well, National Women’s Health Network has some good enemies, there are bad guys over there. Okay.” So, I took the job.
JW: What was the job?
CP: Oh gosh, it was the way things are in the early years of nonprofit orgs, it was this mishmash of three different jobs. It was being in charge of the clearinghouse. There was a hotline people could call and ask questions about health, and we would send them compiled information that was sources we trusted. So, we vetted the sources and then we put it together for them. I oversaw that, and I also did what was called program, but it was really policy advocacy.
The organization at that time was just trying to, in a disorganized way, move itself from the beginning years when the board did everything, or everything important, to the established years when there’s staff that has specific job descriptions, and the board is not involved in day-to-day work.
My first couple of years, what program meant, was usually helping a board member write a press release or write testimony. I was not intended to be in charge, but both because the organization was going through that transition time, the very normal arc for nonprofits, and because of my own talents and ambition, the position evolved.
Also, a new ED came along who was very much into, “I want to build this strong organization that is sustainable.” So, the clearinghouse work got separated off to somebody else. I was just solely program that expanded, and I got more and more autonomy where we would consult with board members, but they weren’t in charge anymore on a day-to-day basis.
JW: Interesting evolution. When did the newsletter start?
CP: The newsletter had started before I came. I think there are a few issues as far back as ’76, ’77, and the organization had its first public action in December of ’76. So, they put a newsletter out pretty quickly and by the early ’80s it was on a regular schedule six times a year.
I wrote for it occasionally, usually something to do in those years with either what specific advocacy had happened, because the FDA had a lot of meetings back then on women’s health issues and reproductive health issues, and so we would report on that. Or, if we saw a health issue that was going wrong or not getting enough attention, we would identify something and kind of commission ourselves to write about it.
JW: Do you remember any example?
CP: Well, the example that the Network became most famous for was seeing the ups and downs of hormone therapy in the ’70s. It first became correctly linked to cancer when it was provided as estrogen alone. But it was made safer by combining it with a progestin so that the chance of cancer forming in the uterus, by being stimulated a lot, was reduced by the progestin. But there were members of our board, who, I don’t remember which board member, but I remember at a meeting saying, “It was clear that it helped keep bones strong” sort of, no question.
JW: I want to interrupt you a second. Are you talking about birth control or hormone replacement therapy?
CP: Hormone replacement therapy. Because you said, what did we, the Network, identify as an issue, and I know why you’re saying, wait a minute, “Are you talking about birth control?” Because that’s the beginning of the Network. That’s Barbara Seaman, Belita Cowan, the very earliest stuff. So, yes, absolutely. And it’s what drew a lot of people to us, because in addition to focusing on the actual risks, which were always rare, the real serious risks, we validated that there are other effects that aren’t in your head, that doctors may be poo-pooing. And people loved that, just like, “Yes, you are validating what actually happened to me. Yes, I did feel depressed. Yes, I did gain weight, yes.”
JW: Okay, back to hormone replacement therapy.
CP: I came in in ’86, ’87. The research that the Network had inspired epidemiologists and the NIH and others to do on the safety of the pill was well underway. So much more was known then. But in ’86, ’87, ’88, ’89, women were getting a lot of messages from doctors about menopausal aged women, middle aged women. This is safer now. We figured out how to make it safe. It’ll keep your bones strong, which is an accurate message, and it looks really good for your heart, too.
And our board saw that coming, like, this is the next big thing. This is the next dang big thing that they’re going to say about menopause hormone therapy. So, we started lifting it up. It was a years long campaign to point out that it’s true, that women who take hormone therapy at that time were overall healthier, but it’s not true – because it hasn’t been proven – that it’s the hormones that are making women healthy.
So, is it an association? Because if you have the ability in your life to think, “Hey, I’m 50, I need to make sure I’m healthy when I’m 70, I’m 80, and can put the thought into it, and the time and the money.” Versus, “I’m 50, I’ve got a crap job, I have not enough money, I’ve got kids who need stuff, I’ve got older people who need stuff. I can’t even get enough sleep, let alone think about what else I should do. Maybe I should worry about my blood pressure, but I don’t have time.”
Those were a lot of women in those two different life situations at age 50, and the ones over here thinking about, “What can I do to be healthy when I’m 70,” were more likely to be taking estrogen. So, was it the estrogen that was keeping them healthy, or was it that they were doing everything they could think of, as much as was known?
Well, the estrogen did keep bones healthy, there was no doubt about it. But it hadn’t really been proven on heart. And that’s what a lot of doctors were telling women, “Looks good for the heart. Looks really good for the heart.” So, we started this campaign. We wrote brochures. We wrote articles. We spoke up at every FDA meeting, at every NIH meeting. We kept it alive as a question. We kept saying, “It hasn’t been proven. It hasn’t been proven.”
When Bernardine Healey got appointed as the first woman director of the National Institutes of Health, she wanted to make her mark, because there had been so much question about could she do it? Was she worthy? Had she even deserved the job? Blah, blah, all that. And there was this question just waiting to be answered.
By then, we had gotten some of the congresswomen interested as well. Pat Schroeder, who sadly just passed away, she was willing to tell her own story, that she went to the doctor and said, “Okay, I’m that age. Should I take hormones?” And her doctor said, “I’ve got to be honest, Pat, we don’t really know.”
And Pat is so smart and so good with her words, that when the larger group, the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, as it was known, started holding hearings on inequity on women and research, which we, and lots of others have helped make that happen, then comes Bernardine Healey, and she says, “Okay, I am going to start. I’m going to use NIH funding to do the biggest study ever of the health of aging women, because we haven’t been fair to our women. We haven’t done as much as we should, and we’re going to ask XYZ questions.”
And the big question was; Does long term hormone use, starting at middle aged or older, help women age more healthfully? We found out that, yes, good for the bones, but bad for a lot of other things. Some forms of it bad for breast cancer. And because it was federally funded, they told the world, and the world women heard.
About half the women who were on it, stopped right then, and breast cancer rates dropped immediately. And we estimate stroke and heart attack rates dropped as well. There are examples from little to big, but that’s the big example of how we saw an issue that we didn’t think was getting enough attention or the right kind of attention and made it just like a little terrier with our teeth in the ankles of the big guys.
There’s a quirk in the FDA regulations that has allowed the manufacturer of Premarin and Prempro have no generic competition ever, which is unusual. Most drugs eventually get generic competition. And so, before the Women’s Health Initiative results were announced in 2002 and their sales plummeted, those two drugs together were in the top five of the most prescribed drugs. A fair number of women have hot flashes, but not that many women. They’ve always been good for hot flashes and vasomotor symptoms, but those don’t last forever and not everybody has them.
So, they were up there in that top selling category because they’re being used for long term prevention for women starting around 50 and all the way out. That was the standard then. Most companies stop investing in marketing when they’ve lost patent protection, when they have generic competition.
Premarin does not have generic competition in the United States, so the company still has an incentive to try to find some way to market it. But now it’s an uphill battle because we got the scientific evidence out to a generation of women, and doctors. I have to say, that because drug company money permeates medical education so much, that there was a generation of well-meaning doctors, who thought they were purveying good advice to women. That’s gone. The generation that’s been educated in the 20 years since, has gotten the accurate message that there still isn’t good evidence that starting to take menopause hormone therapy in your early 50s will prevent heart disease later on.
JW: Yes. I’m hearing you say the manufacturers are gearing up again.
CP: Yes, I think there’s another manufacturer. There is more than just that one, of course. There’s another one that’s got a new product in the pipeline. And so that’s often a tactic of manufacturers to start building disease awareness a year or two before the product is due to launch. What I see in my Facebook feed is VMS, the scourge of VMS, vasomotor symptoms.
JW: We didn’t discuss how you became executive director of the network. We talked about what you did and it’s important. How did that happen?
CP: I was the program director for a long time. I had two great executive directors, and when the second one moved on to lead the Mary Helen Mautner Project for Lesbians with Cancer, I thought to myself, “Oh boy, it’s going to be hard to be lucky a third time.” Plus, my second director was happy to let me get a lot of the public notice, which is not common in DC, even amongst feminists.
Usually, the top woman wants the attention or thinks that’s the way to be most helpful to her organization. But this ED, Beverly Baker, did not. So, I had had a lot of attention, and I thought I might get someone who feels a little threatened by me. I’d hate to lose the wonderfulness of working here, so maybe I better just apply for the job. I convinced the board to interview me and they hired me. They promoted me without a search, and that was in May of ’96. So, I had been there not quite ten years.
JW: And how long did you stay?
CP: I stayed till Memorial Day of 2021. So, I was there 33 years, and I was executive director for 25.
JW: Do you have any comments about the organization in general? I mean, I think it fills a different niche than other groups, but what do you think?
CP: Yes, I agree that it’s a niche organization that sort of punches above its weight and never grew very big. And part of that, I think I would be a little self-critical, or just self-aware of myself, that I was really talented at many aspects of being an ED, and a leader of an activist organization, but I was never a particularly gifted fundraiser. We always functioned with a very small budget and a lot of emphasis on process. Even though the staff organization was logical and sensible, but by good practices, the board organization was always sprawling and kind of crazy.
JW: Interfering? Is that what it was?
CP: Yes and no. We had this process where the board did not select new candidates for the next board. The membership could self-nominate to be considered as a candidate. It was intended when the bylaws were written this way, it was intended that the people self-nominating would have been long-time members and familiar with the organization. But what we found in probably the last 10-15 years, is people would come from nowhere and nominate themselves and join right then, so that they would technically be a member. People were not only nominating themselves, but getting elected to the board who were new to the organization.
Susan Wood, who we all love, who was on our board and a champion of women’s health, said, “It’s a high risk, high reward strategy,” because sometimes you get someone who no one else knew, who comes from their own expertise and commitment to women’s health, who just, wow, opens people’s eyes, new ideas, new way of thinking. And sometimes you get people who are so unfamiliar with how the organization works and how it makes decisions about what to work on, that it really impaired the board’s ability to make thoughtful decisions about the governance level stuff.
When you asked, what do I see the Network’s role, it was a niche. In the ’70s, it was the only voice on women’s health in Washington, DC, but that changed. That especially changed in the ’90s when the National Partnership amongst several other very important groups saw, this is a time when we need access equity, not just individual woman to doctor respect and equity. We’ve got to open this up.
We thought maybe the Clinton administration would be our chance to get more people covered. But that understanding of, we need to work for health care reform, we need to work to expand access, we need to work to expand research so that when women have access, they’re getting good evidence-based treatments and testing and all that.
We were no longer the only woman’s voice, to the good, because we couldn’t have made the changes we accomplished, all of us, with just the National Woman’s Health Network. So, we took pride in that watchdog role. That because of the way the United States healthcare system evolved so differently from other countries, there is a little more incentive here for people to either be ignored, or for them to be over screened, over tested, over prescribed, because of the crazy financing of the United States system.
And that for the Network to be able to say, “We are staunchly pro-choice to the marrow of our bones, but if there’s a new kind of birth control that’s more dangerous than the other kind of birth control and there’s nothing else better about it, no, it shouldn’t be approved.” So, that sort of role.
Or the NIH. We did a search to find out how many studies they were doing on fibroids. And it’s like you’ve got three test tubes on one lab bench somewhere, and that’s all you’re doing on fibroids.
That was in 1990. But we actually did do a research investigation. So, those sorts of things became really, the world needs us to do this. We’re good at this. We can talk about it to our members. We can be effective. We can get enough support to keep doing it. And we stayed in that mode through the ’90s and early 2000s until we went through a strategic retreat, a strategic assessment process led by a fabulous consultant named Inca Mohammed, who just has tremendous talent and credibility in the reproductive health world.
She really challenged us to stop being so scattershot. Stop having 24 priorities and voting on our priorities every year. Which started when there was no staff, and the board was trying to decide with our $37 dollars that we have available this year, which of our priorities get $6 dollars each? But we kept doing it, because somehow it had become part of our culture that we vote on the priorities every year, we, the board. It was like, get over it, gals.
We realized that the need for this organization is not going away, and people who support you need to know that they can count on you to be doing certain things for at least a period of a few years at a time. So, with her encouragement, the board, I think it was 2003, or ’04, changed to three major priorities. And it was a very good thing that happened to the Network. It was a very, very good thing.
They voted that one of the priorities be healthcare for all. Amy Allen was the policy director then, or maybe it was still called program director. We flew back home from that meeting and just thought, “What the heck? Does this board not realize we are in year 87 of Republican administrations? Don’t they remember we tried to get health care for all in the Clinton era?” We were just beside ourselves. But it led to Raising Women’s Voices. That was the first time that the Network took on a sustained, not just episodic, opportunistic, but a sustained [focus on health care for all] – we’re going to build something to influence public policy nationally on health care access.
JW: Explain what that is.
CP: Raising Women’s Voices for the Healthcare We Need, was a project that was created by National Women’s Health Network, Black Women’s Health Imperative, led by Byllye Avery and the Merger Watch Project, which became a project of Community Catalyst. And when it was founded, Byllye had a separate project, which then sort of folded into the Imperative again, which she had founded years before that.
So, [it was] founded by three organizations, each that had been doing some sort of work on making health better, but differently. And each saw that the big guys are not thinking about women. They’re thinking about getting us access, but they’re not thinking about us, kind of in all our messiness, with our periods and our pregnancies and our abortions. And we got some support.
We found each other voluntarily and intentionally. All of us wanted to work on expanding access. We knew more was needed. We thought we would be good partners for each other. So, we spent some time getting to know each other. How would we work? What would it look like? And then we started introducing ourselves to each other’s funders.
Byllye and the Network were both funded by Ford. We took Lois there and she got funding. Byllye took Lois and me to Ms. Foundation, and Ms. gave us seed money. Lois took me and Byllye to the Nathan Cummings Foundation. So, we sort of opened our financial doors to each other. And when we started getting money once we got going, and got more money, we would sometimes re-grant to each other. If a funder could only give to one of the three of us, we would share it around.
We were organized through a steering committee. We met, again the meetings, we met almost every week, for probably 10 of those 15 years. We made most of our decisions together in that group, in the steering committee, and the top people never stepped away. It was really important to all of our organizations, and we launched publicly at the Hear Us Now conference that you spoke at, Judy, and that was 2008.
Then Obama’s election gave us all the opportunity to really try to influence public policy. And what Raising Women’s Voices brought to it, was relationships with local grassroots groups who we called regional coordinators, but they were independent groups that had chosen to affiliate with us, and we would give them mini grants and support to go to town hall meetings that long, hot summer.
Over the years after implementation, some of the regional coordinators worked in progressive states that embraced Obamacare in the marketplace. So, we worked with them to get implementation procedures and policies that were good for women. Like in Maryland, they did a study of, are there enough OBGYNs? And our regional coordinators in the conservative states, we mostly worked on helping them do what they could in their state to build support for Medicaid expansion. It wrapped itself up at the end of its natural life, about as I was retiring in 2021.
JW: As you look back on your personal and professional life together, would you say that some of those early instincts you had getting involved in the women’s movement, did that change your whole life professionally and personally?
CP: Absolutely. I mean, the story of me having an abortion, seeing the list of famous women saying they’d had abortions before it was legal, then seeing a self-help demonstration and going there and just loving it, and wanting to work there, and then working there, one thing led to the other, and it’s been my whole professional life. And then the way I think it influenced my personal life is in 1985, leaving a good job you loved and moving across the country with a man, you were still very vulnerable to taking a back seat. That if you’ve moved for a man’s job, then you get a lesser job the next time you move, and you get what you can. And the decisions are always about the man because the man starts earning more money.
The fact that I had had such an intense immersion in feminist practice and thought and meetings, gave me the ability to sort of negotiate ground terms at the beginning of when we got married and moved. And to keep that up the second time, the second move. Then the influence it’s had since then, is once I got the job I loved in DC and my partner was offered tenure here, then the possibility of moving again would be very slim. So, one, it would have to be a place that was good in his specialty, but two, it had to be a place where there could be a good, satisfying job for me.
So, for example, in his specialty, Cornell, in Ithaca, New York, would be a good school, but it’d be a nothing town for me. He was recruited very hard by University of Chicago after I had been the ED for about five years, and they gave him an offer, and they figured out they would need to recruit me. Not that I would want to be an academic, but they flew me out, and they set me up with interviews. “What would you want?” And they asked me, “How much money do you need?”
I said, “Hook me up with Quentin Young.” I don’t know if you recognize that name, but he was a very radical physician. Big, big guy at APHA in Chicago. He’s like, “Who the heck is your husband? Because they never asked me to do these things.” But in the end, my husband decided he didn’t want it. The fact that, what would be a good city for me became such a big deal.
Our relationship was absolutely about feminism, no other two ways about it. That wouldn’t have happened without the feminist movement. And he might have taken a job in Cornell and had a happy life at that university, but not with me. Now that I’m 68, I wondered what it would be like to be old and straight, in a sexist and ageist society without a title. And interestingly, I think because of having been a feminist for so long, the little bits of ageism I encounter, some of them are actually helpful because I’m also short, so I get a little bit of, “Oh, let me help you lift that.” Yes, you can.
But if there’s even a glimmer of, I’m standing next to this man who’s taller, and the eyes of the person we’re talking to about plumbing or something, go to him. I’m like, “Okay, so now I’m going to talk and just keep talking until you look back at me.” So, I think ageism and sexism towards old women still exists, no two ways about it. I guess maybe I’m in the young old age, being 68. I’m still able bodied, but I guess feminism has equipped me to deal with it.
My story is one of getting excited about feminism, and finding a way to get involved, first as a volunteer and then as a worker, and then having this miraculously lucky experience of having one job after another, and then one very long stint at the same organization, that was all about feminism. And it’s just the joy of my life.