THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“To the younger sisters… don’t give up your agency. Don’t give up.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, March 2023
CB: My name is Constance Billé. Almost everyone calls me Conni. My mom called me Constance occasionally when she was aggravated with me. It’s just a long name, but sometimes on email, if that gets to be your official name in a company, then everyone calls you Constance.
JW: And when and where were you born?
CB: I was born in West New York, New Jersey. Where’s that, you say? If you jump into the Hudson River from West New York and swim across the Hudson, you’ll come out of the water at about 69th street in Manhattan. It’s ten minutes into Manhattan by bus.
JW: I see. Okay. And when were you born?
CB: November 6, 1946. I am the absolute cutting edge of the baby boom. Born nine months after my father got back from the war. I already had a brother who had been born during the war. My father never met him because on D-Day my father, who was already enlisted, was home with my mother, because she was having a very difficult pregnancy, and they thought she might not make it. She had glomerulonephritis, a serious kidney infection, and there were no drugs then, hardly. But Pearl Harbor happened, and my father was whisked away, and he didn’t see my brother until he was five years old.
JW: Oh, my gosh. Wow. That’s quite a story. Well, your name sounds French, but I know you’re not French. Tell us the story of your last name.
CB: Yes, my last name is “Billeh” or “Billay”, depending on the accent. My family is Sicilian on my father’s side. On my mother’s side, they’re from Abruzzi. My paternal grandparents were immigrants, and they lived with us in a two-family house. So, I’m very close to understanding immigration and the importance of it. And the French name Billé comes from my great, great, great, great, grandfather who fought with Napoleon and wound up in Sicily. Napoleon lost that campaign. And so, the family is still there. I still have relatives there.
JW: Tell us a little about your life. What do you think were the influences in your early years?
CB: I was the intellectual one in the family. My parents were both professional athletes, by the way. My mother was a world class athlete. She played women’s professional basketball before there was women’s professional basketball. She was actually paid to play and she dropped out of high school to play professionally. Because during the Depression, wow, making $25 a week was like a fortune.
She played for the New Jersey Red Girls and she played at Madison Square Garden in the same program as the Boston Celtics. The men’s teams would play, and then the women’s teams would play. And the pride and joy of her life was when Kate Smith, the famous singer, who used to sing for all the baseball games, and owned the Celtics, came over and patted her on the shoulder and said, “You were really great.” Her team won, and was supposed to go on to Cuba, but there was some kind of fracas going on in Cuba in 1939, so she never made it.
JW: That’s amazing. And what did your dad do? He was an athlete, too?
CB: He was a professional coach and manager (professional then meant charging people to come watch your team play) right up until World War II. And in fact, basketball saved his life. He was among the first people shipped over. Like I said, he was already in the army when D-Day happened. He was immediately called up. At that time, the Atlantic was so dangerous, they had to send troops across the Pacific and Indian Ocean up the Red Sea and Suez Canal to North Africa. And so, he was in North Africa right after the battle of El Alamein.
In North Africa he started organizing games. basketball, football, baseball, stuff like that. At one tournament a priest walked up to him, who was the coach from Seton Hall, a big basketball school in North Jersey, and he said, “Sal, what are you doing here?” Then, he said, “We need you. Come with me.” And my father followed him. My father’s unit was supposed to get sent over in a few days as part of the first shock wave of Allied troops into Italy.
But Father Monsignor Keyes, as it happened, was the aide de camp to General Chennault, who was the head of that theater of the War at that time. Monsignor asked my father to stay there and keep running basketball games and baseball games for the men who were leaving for or coming back from the front. Sports were to help the troops deal with the stress, since they couldn’t drink in Muslim countries, and they weren’t supposed to womanize, so my Dad spent the whole rest of the war managing and coaching basketball.
JW: But he wasn’t on the front, so that was amazing. What got you involved in the women’s movement?
CB: My family were all athletes, but I was the intellectual one. If, as my father would say, “You hand her a book and you sit her in the corner, she’d be happy.” So, I used to go to many tournaments with them, because I was too little to be left home, and I would sit on the edge of the court with a book. The players, men or women, depending on whose team it was, would thunder up and down the court, and I’d be sitting there reading.
I did test very highly. The school didn’t know what to do with me. They gave me special classes, and I studied piano, I studied art. The Museum of Modern Art had an art school for children then, so I had a lot of opportunities that my parents made for me. They didn’t go to college or anything, but they said, “Oh, we have this brilliant daughter.”
Along with that, I have a great sense of agency. I tell a story that was a real turning point in my life. And that is when I was about eleven years old, I used to go over to the Museum of Modern Art’s People’s Art Center, it was called. It was a building adjacent to the museum. It’s now been incorporated into the museum, so it no longer exists as a separate thing. My mother had other kids at home, my father was working, so I used to go by myself. I can’t imagine today someone sending their eleven-year-old daughter into Manhattan by themselves.
But then, I didn’t see it was a problem. I knew how to do it. I took the bus, and then I’d walk from Port Authority Bus Terminal on 42nd street or 41st, over to 53rd. It was no Disney World at that time. There were all kinds of dubious people. Hookers, the 24-hour movie theaters were basically flop houses, and I was aware of all of that. I’d been to New York before.
You just walk through. I never had trouble from any of the people you’d think might give me trouble. Only occasionally, some White guy with a briefcase would proposition me, that happened a couple of times. And because I was a New Yorker, I would turn around and say, “Oh yeah, just try me, buddy. I have sneakers on and I can out run you.” I was always that way.
So, one day I’m on the escalator from the bus platform down to the street level at the Port Authority, and on the up escalator coming the opposite way, I see a young girl about my age, and she was sobbing. I mean, her face was beet red, tears coming down, and she was just sobbing. I look around, nobody’s noticing, and I’m transfixed. Like, what’s the matter? And as she passes me, I see that the man behind her has his hand up her dress. And so, I screamed, “You bloody freaking pervert, get your hands off that girl!”
I swore an oath at that moment; (who knows, it might have been her stepfather), but if that ever happened to me, I would kick the guy in the head so hard I would knock everybody else behind me down the escalator. I would not stand there quietly sobbing and taking it. That was it. Nobody was going to take advantage of me. So, you’re talking about formative experience.
JW: I hear that. So, I assume you went on to college at some point?
CB: Yes, I was very fortunate. A friend of my father knew that I was the smart one. My parents didn’t know anything about colleges, and so he suggested that I go to a college counselor. As a gift to my father – because my father helped him paint his house, and he wouldn’t take any money for it –, his friend said, “Tell you what, I sent my daughter to this fancy college counselor, and I’m going to send your daughter there. Would your daughter like to go?” My father said, “Oh, sure.”
So, Christmas vacation, I had to go to this place in Princeton, New Jersey, I believe it was, and I had to take tests all morning, I guess it was the SAT. And then we went for lunch, and we came back in the afternoon and met with this college counselor. He looked at me, because I think he usually got kids who are hard to place, so he was thinking, “Well, where do you want to go to school?” And I said, “I think I want to major in History of Art, because I study art already. If I really wanted to just be an artist, I would just stay in New York and paint.”
I mean, I already had artist friends, and we had a studio. We used to rent a studio in Soho. $60 a month, four of us, $15 each, to rent the studio. So, I said, “Well, if I only wanted to paint, I would just stay in New York. But I really want to learn languages, and I think I want to learn history of art. And I know you have to learn, like, three languages to do that. I’ve already taken French and German, and I know a little Italian.”
And so, he’s looking at me like, okay. So, he said, “Well, I would suggest the University of Pennsylvania.” And I was thinking, why would I want to go to that football school? That’s what I thought it was. I was applying late because their application deadline was January 1st. I didn’t know it was the Ivy League, I thought it was that football school.
Then I went for the interview and discovered, oh, it wasn’t a football school. And then I saw their museum, and I thought, “Oh, this is really actually a great place.” I did get in, and I got a full scholarship, and I attribute it all to my college counselor. About 20 years later, I discovered that his name was Frank Lovejoy, or I remembered his name was Frank Lovejoy. Like in Lovejoy’s College Guide, which was the only college guide in those days.
There was no US News ranking. Lovejoy’s College Guide was it. I guess he must have written a letter to the school, I had no idea. He must have written and said, “This student is really well suited to your school,” or something, I don’t know. But that’s how I got there as the working-class child in a school with a lot of preppies.
And of course, when I got there, I never stepped foot into a fraternity house or sorority house. Although today some women classmates who were very different from me then are good friends. I hung with the anti-war and the civil rights crowd from the get go, from day one. So, I got very involved in student activism.
JW: Yes. And when did it turn into women’s activities, or activities on behalf of women, I should say.
CB: Almost from the beginning. The pill, by the way, had just come on the market, because we’re talking 1964. For the first time, women had some sense of agency. But there were still lots of women getting pregnant. Lots of women in my high school, they all got married a year after they graduated. In college, they managed to hold off pregnancy because they probably had more birth control. I had had an abortion myself. I already knew the abortion underworld that existed, and the girls in college, they could all go to Mexico. That’s what they would do. I heard of several students who had abortions at that time.
Maybe I should go even back further. For a book report in 10th or 11th grade, we were asked to do a biography, so I chose Margaret Sanger. I thought maybe some sex education would be helpful to my classmates because she was a hero of mine. I read her biography. I thought she was great. The biography was written by Larry Lader, who later became a good friend who I worked with, but I didn’t know him at the time.
So, I read Margaret Sanger’s biography. I read widely. I had read Simone de Beauvoir; I’d read a lot of things. So how did I become involved with the movement? I already was. Of course, Betty Friedan’s book had come out, too. I was probably less interested in that because hers is written from a different perspective – of someone who’s already older and had spent their life sort of entrapped. That was the story of her life, breaking out.
And my mind was like, “I’m not going to do that.” In fact, I never learned to type because you might become a secretary to somebody else if you learned how to type. In high school, instead of typing, I took German. It helped a lot because later I worked for a German software company, and I spent four years mostly in Germany as one of the only Americans in the company who spoke German.
JW: Okay, let’s go back to your experience then, in college. Getting into women’s organizations, or not yet?
CB: There were no women’s organizations. What women’s organizations? I first was very involved with civil rights and went down to Mississippi. I noted that my observation was that women did all the work, and men got all the glory. I believe some of the sisters from the Black Panthers movement just recently came out with a book which basically says the same thing. I mean, they ran all the breakfast programs, and I just saw that pattern. Mostly the men were spokespeople for the anti-war movement. Rightfully so, because the men were the ones who would get drafted, not the women.
I was very involved with the Vietnam Week committee. We organized Philadelphia Resistance, we organized big demonstrations in New York and in Washington, DC, draft card burnings. I helped write a pamphlet on how to emigrate from the US. In fact, I had a job lined up in Canada. I may well have become a Canadian, teaching art, and then other circumstances, grad school and whatever intervened, and I had the opportunity to help start NARAL.
So because I didn’t go to Canada, I took a teaching job for a while and was thinking about what I wanted to do. And what I wanted to do was to help legalize abortion in the United States. I just thought that women needed more agency. I was also teaching the first women’s liberation course. The Students for Democratic Society organized a free university and so I proposed a course on women’s liberation, which nobody knew anything about. There were no studies.
I had read a lot of books that I thought people should know about, like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. So, I heard of a woman in New York who had a women’s bibliography, so I wrote to her. Cindy Cisler, Lucinda Cisler, and she sent me a list of books that I might want to include. She also sent me a little notice of a conference in Chicago. The first national conference on abortion laws, and I said, “Yes, I want to go to that.”
Being that I was a student, I bought a student ticket for $44. Remember that? That’s how much it was. I could get a round trip to Chicago, and then I asked one of my Resistance friends if they knew anybody there. My college friends came from all over, “Anybody know anybody in Chicago I could stay with?” Tom Doerr had a friend, and so I called him, and he said, “Sure, you can stay here.” And so that’s how I got to NARAL. Once again, a surprise in my life. How did I get a full scholarship to Penn? How did I get on the Board of NARAL?
I had to take the subway to get to the conference hotel which was on the gold coast, and I had to take the subway from south Chicago. So, I got there late on the Saturday of the conference, and the registration table was already closed. They already starting the meetings, so I never registered. I just walked in. I wasn’t staying at the hotel, and I didn’t actually formally register. I just made a name tag and put it on. Right away there was a lot of stuff going on, and I noticed almost immediately I was the only young woman there. Everybody else was middle aged or older, like my age now.
JW: So, I know what NARAL is, but our audience might not. Explain what NARAL is.
CB: At its founding, it was the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. After Roe v. Wade, it became the National Abortion Action League, and then it became NARAL Pro- Choice America. I think it kept that name. It’s known as just NARAL now, but then it was the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws.
That conference was seminal for the movement, because that was where they were going to decide whether they were going to have five conditions under which women were allowed to get abortions, or whether it was just a woman’s right to choose. And half of the conference were people who were more conservative.
In those days, there were just as many Republicans very involved, maybe even more so than Democrats. It was like what educated and sophisticated women would support. But of course, their options were mostly to fly out of the country. A lot of people with a lot of money were at that conference. The real debate at that conference was with the American Legal Institute five conditions for abortion.
JW: Do you remember them?
CB: Rape, Incest, Life of the Mother, Health of the Mother, and Deformity of the Child. So those were the five reasons ALI proposed you could give to justify abortion. They had breakout sessions, and in one of the breakout sessions was a panel, and they asked for audience comments. I stood up and I said, “Well, the ALI position is absurd. By the time I would know I was pregnant and then had to go to court to prove to somebody that I was raped, or that it was my stepfather or whatever it was, I would have delivered the baby already.”
I said, “This is an absurdity. Why do you need to know? Why does anybody need to know? It should be a woman’s right to choose, and the woman knows best what’s best for her life.” And I was so gratified that there was an older woman there, she looked to be in her 80s, sitting towards the front and I was towards the back. She turned around and she said, “Bravo, young lady.” And then someone told me that she was a doctor who used to work with Margaret Sanger.
JW: Almost as good as Kate Smith. I mean, better.
CB: The conference went on, and towards the end, they were coming down to what the final resolution would be. Betty was up there trying to craft the statement that people could vote on, and Betty is a strong personality, so she gets strong reactions on both sides. I could see it wasn’t going towards the choice position, which she was espousing. She was the main spokesperson for it.
So, I just got up on my hind legs and walked up to the podium where she was speaking, and I whispered in her ear, and I said, “Say it’s a woman’s right to control her own body,” as opposed to a woman’s choice. She was going to say it was a woman’s choice. She was pushing for that. I said, “It’s a woman’s right to control her own body.” And so, she put that in, and that became what they could all agree on.
The next morning was the wrap-up session, and I had an airplane to catch for my $44 ticket. I couldn’t afford to upgrade or to pay a penalty, so I had to leave, and it was running late. I was sitting with women named Barbara Johnson and Mary Theunissen, who were from Philadelphia like me. They were in the clergy consultation services. I didn’t know them because it was all underground. Nobody knew anybody else unless you happened to run into them. So, they were delighted to meet me and I was delighted to meet them.
And Barbara asked me, she said, “Well, I’m thinking of putting your name up for the planning committee.” I said, “Sure.” And she said, “So how do you spell your name?” I said, “Well, it’s Conni with an i” and I don’t know if she wrote it down. And then I literally had to run because I was afraid of missing my airplane. So, I left before the thing ended, before there was a vote, before anything, and I didn’t know anything. I didn’t think anything of it.
The next day, I was at a Resistance potluck dinner. We had potluck dinners every Monday night at our offices, and my friend Bob Brandt was there, and he turned around to me, he was holding the Times, and he said, “Hey, you’re in the Times?” I said, “What?” He said, “Didn’t you just go to some conference in Chicago?” I said, “Yes, I just got back.” At the time, I was also married, so my name was was Conni Billé Finnerty.
So, in the New York Times, was Cini Finnerty. C-I-N-I. Somehow that Conni was whispered down the line, the poor New York Times reporter asked the women at the table, “How do you spell that?” And they said, “Conni with an I”, or I don’t know, maybe they mixed me up with Cindy Cisler, who wasn’t there. I’m trying to think how the reporter got that. He probably went to the conference registration to confirm my name and it wasn’t there. And then he maybe went to the hotel to look at the hotel registrations. But I couldn’t afford to stay at the Drake Hotel! So, he just had to wing it.
JW: What did the article say?
CB: Oh, just that I had been elected to the planning committee for NARAL. There were twelve people. Larry Lader, Betty Friedan, Bernard Nathanson, Ruth Cusack, Pat McGinnis. Off the top of my head, I don’t remember them exactly, but some people were from the West Coast. They were trying to balance it. Some people from Chicago, but Larry is from New York, and he definitely wanted the center of power there. Since I was from Philadelphia, with family in West New York, it was easy for me to participate. It’s an hour and a half by bus or train.
Anyway, so there I was in the Times, spelled wrong. And then I said, “Gee, I don’t know that they know to get in touch with me.” So, I got in touch with one of them. Let me see. It was Bea McClintock. Mrs. Harvey McClintock. Oh, and by the way, in those days you were always Mrs. or Miss. So, they had it really wrong. They had me as Miss. They were never going to find me.
JW: Well, what was the goal then, of NARAL at the beginning?
CB: The goal was that it would be a woman’s right to choose. That was their founding statement. And their goal was to address all the state laws that outlawed abortion. They figured it’d be a state-by-state campaign. It was already legal on the west coast, in Washington, and Oregon. They were the only places. New York had a bill introduced that year after the conference, and it did become legal by one vote in Albany. I attribute a lot of that to Cindy Cisler. There were people from all over the state who worked hard for it, but the last-minute lobbying by Cindy and her friend, sort of pushed it over the edge.
Suddenly, it became legal on July 1st, 1970, in New York, which was almost as surprising as Roe v. Wade. I rearranged my life to move back up to New York. I had family up here, so it was not that hard and I came up, just to work on helping get it off the ground. I organized the first symposium to train physicians on how to do non-hospital procedures. So, in-office procedures, which of course, many of them had been doing. D&Cs, were something that were taught in medical school anyway.
But still, there was a lot to know, more about the problematic ones. When somebody’s past first trimester, what are their options, and then what about third trimester? How can that be done? And so that’s what the conference was about. That was another learning experience.
I came up and I organized the referral network. Believe me, I did not do this by myself. The New York Women’s Center was already a going operation. And so, I went to the Center, met with some other women, and they were already getting calls. This was way before July 1st, and so we had to figure out a strategy.
What were we going to do? What was the price going to be? At that point, you could only have an abortion done in hospital, and it cost $700. Take $700, then multiply it by six, and you get about what that that price would be today, if not more. Pretty much out of reach, with required in-hospital stay. There’s no need for hospitalization for a very simple procedure.
So, at the Women’s Center, we said, “Well, what can we do?” I said, “For one thing, we can get the names of all the doctors who are willing to do in-office procedures, and then we can do referrals. I’m going to be organizing this conference on July 1st.” I was the conference organizer, and I said, “We’ll get all the doctors who are willing to take referrals, and we’ll find out what they want to charge, and we’ll make a Rolodex. Let’s make a rolodex.” So that’s what we did.
We had dozens of women who volunteered at the center and started taking phone calls. As soon as July 1st came, we could do that. We were getting names first, and then we were getting volunteers who were willing to put women up because women started coming from all over the country. We had women in New York who volunteered their couch for overnight stays, for sisters from out of town.
July 1st, I got a list of doctors, and at that time, since the doctors knew that they were charging $700 in the hospital, they figured $500 would be reasonable to charge in-office. But that was way too much. So, we made a Rolodex, and we put $500 next to the doctor’s name. And then Sheila Doran, Rachel Fruchter and I and some others, said, “Women can’t afford this.”
I don’t know if I said it or if Sheila said it, but it was between the two of us, we came up with the idea, well, what if we just lie a little bit and tell doctors, “Oh, others are charging less than $500.” Rachel said, “Yes. But how are we going to get that done?” I said, “I know. Boycotting. We take half the doctors, we tell them all we’re sending them referrals, but we take half of them and we don’t send them any referrals. And then when they ask us why they’re not getting referrals, we say, well, we have these other doctors only charging $400.” And so their price would come down to $400.
And then we’d boycott the $500 guys that we started with, and then they would call us and say, “We’re not getting any referrals.” And we’d say, “Oh, that’s because we have doctors charging $400.” So, they would suddenly come down to $400 and then the other $400 guys wouldn’t get any referrals. and then they would call us and say, “We’re not getting any referrals.” And we’d say, “Oh, that’s because we have doctors charging $300.” This is literally how it worked over the course of the summer. In eight weeks, we got the cost down to $200. It’s like being a medical insurance company. That’s what they do, right?
JW: Oh, yes, that is what they do.
CB: Once you control the pocketbook and the information, you control the medical system. We figured that out pretty quickly, and we were able to bring the cost down to where women actually could afford it. But it was a very crazy, intense time. We were getting 1500 referrals a week. Most of them, we had to find places for them to stay. For a few who were late pregnancies, we had to get people willing to help them get salting out procedures. That’s a third trimester procedure and it can be done as an outpatient, but you have to go in to have the installation of the salt. Then you come back and a day later, you go into labor, and then you have to go back and deliver. Bernie Nathanson taught that procedure at the July 1st Symposium..
That was a very intense summer where the women at the Center were working around the clock. Then, by the end of the summer, Planned Parenthood opened their clinic. Bernie Nathanson became director, and they only charged $150, if I remember. And then everything calmed down to normal. People from all over the country could call Planned Parenthood in New York. They didn’t have to call the Women’s Center anymore.
JW: I see. With a name. Yes, that would have attracted people.
CB: Yes, they could afford it too. Also, another little interesting aspect is that in those days, there was no Internet, there were only telephones, and there were long distance charges. Long distance was very expensive and we really couldn’t afford it. But a fairy godmother came to us: Jane Fonda gave us her credit card and that is how we were able to charge the calls we made. People would call in and then we’d have to call them back. Either the person with information wasn’t there, or it was something where they needed follow up. So that was another little-known fact of women organizing together. There was unbelievable help and support.
JW: Did you stay involved with NARAL once it got set up?
CB: I was the national secretary. At the end of the planning committee, they elected an executive committee and then the executive committee elected officers. And because I think Larry Lader was on the radical side of the women’s right to choose. He certainly wanted allies, so, he thought I’d be a great secretary. Also, because I was young, I was a female, other demographics, I guess.
So, he put my name in his nomination for secretary, I was elected, and I served until Roe v. Wade; basically until 1973. By that time, I was in grad school and having my own first kid and I thought, “Oh gee, now it’s up to other people to do this.”
In Philadelphia I had started the Abortion Rights Association, which became the Pennsylvania Abortion Rights Association (PARA) because ARA services threatened to sue us for using the abbreviation ARA. I had been working very hard on that, and I was writing for the underground press and illustrating for Liberation News Services underground press. I went down to graduate school and I was worked there for the Great Speckled Bird weekly and helped to start a radio station, Radio Free Georgia, WRFG.
That was part of Atlanta’s transformation from a sleepy southern town where they used to chase Black people out of restaurants with axe handles (I think that was Lester Maddox, wasn’t it?) to the Atlanta that became a very different place, starting around 1970.
I had been so busy organizing the doctor’s symposium, that was like a full-time job. Between that, and the Women’s Center that whole summer of 1970, and then, I had to actually support myself. So, I got a job in PR. I circled a job in the New York Times, I called and interviewed the next day, and I got the job that day because I could already say, “Well, I have credits in Life Magazine and the NYTimes and I have dealt with the press” It wasn’t hard. I could have written a press release on toilet paper; they (reporters) would have come, because it was the issue everyone wanted to know about. So, if the young women were having a demonstration, sure, they’d be there.
In fact, the day of the first national conference, this is another good story. when I was organizing the conference, of course I was 22 years old, and a lot of people thought I was young and dumb. The producer for Walter Cronkite, a gentleman named Stanhope Gould, came to the NARAL offices, which were on 57th, and took me out to lunch so that I could explain what the conference was going to be all about.
I thought, “Gee, I didn’t need a lunch for that.” But anyway, I’m happy to have a free lunch. And so, I explained to him that the session in the morning would start early, and it would be closed to the press, because it’s going to be a medical conference and you don’t need to be taking pictures here. And the doctors, I’m sure I didn’t say that, but the doctors had been doing this stuff illegally for years, and they did not really want to be on camera.
So, the medical conference in the morning was closed to the press. And then at lunchtime, there was going to be a press conference at a luncheon at a nearby hotel. And in the afternoon, it would actually be open because it was going to be more about the social counseling and public opinion. So that was fine, and Stanhope took his notes and went away and said, “Yes, we’ll be at the press conference.”
So, the day of the conference, July 1st, I show up early in the morning, walk into NYU Medical Center, and Lee Gidding, who was our executive director, comes running up. She was always a little worried about me. She was a grown up, and I was this 22-year-old wacky kid. And she comes running up and she said, “NBC is setting up their cameras down by the podium and they said that their producer said that you said it was okay.”
Boy, that made me mad. So, I marched down the aisle and I threw them out, and I said, “I said no such thing. You are not permitted in here. This is closed to the press.” And they said, “Well, you should talk to Stanhope.” I said, “I definitely want to talk to Stanhope.” So, I had to go to a pay phone (Remember, there were no cell phones then) to call him on a pay phone.
And he said, “Oh, well, I thought it would be okay because my crew isn’t available at noontime, so if you want coverage, they would need to film it now.” And I said, “Oh, what a shame. So, CBS and ABC and the local news, will all have a scoop on you, and you won’t get the coverage.”
He changed his mind. The crew went outside and they took some exterior shots. People walking into NYU saying, “We’re having this big meeting.” I said, “So if you want to cover it on the 6:00 news, I guess you should come to the press conference.” They came to the press conference. He thought I was going to fall for it, that I would be so excited to have NBC that I would do anything, but no.
JW: Wow, good for you. And I’m assuming you are still that same person who would tell them right off today if they were stepping on your toes, am I correct?
CB: Yes, I’m pretty much still the same person. But to some extent, after I handed over NARAL, I felt like I handed it over to the next bunch of young women. I put in plenty of sweat equity on this, I had other things to do. In fact, as years went on, and I watched in dismay as the Right to Lifers organized their cult and started shooting physicians, killing people, murdering people. Now they have – in South Carolina is it – that they introduced a bill of capital punishment for women who have abortions? They said, oh, good, we can kill two for one. They get a 2-fer. They kill the woman and her fetus. So, I was glad not to have to confront that.
I did appear on TV in some debates with Catholic spokespeople. It wasn’t organized. You have to understand that in the 1960’s, 1970’s, the Right to Life was not organized. They didn’t get money from big donors as they did later. Just like the Astroturf people who created the “Tea Party.” They find some gullible people and they rile them up and make them feel righteous, that they’re better than everyone else, and they can make decisions. They’re fascists. They can make decisions for everybody else’s life. Anyway, I was glad not to tangle with those people just because they make me so mad, I might hurt them.
But over the years, I watched, step, by step, by step, by step, by step, as abortion rights in every state were picked off. Larry Lader had been extremely reluctant for NARAL to move from New York to DC in 1973, probably because he really controlled the press in New York. I wouldn’t say controlled but influenced. He was influential because he taught journalism at NYU. He wrote for The Atlantic, Esquire. He was a journalist and a feature writer, for the New York Times Magazine, etc.
Everything was concentrated then. There were only four networks, and the world centered around New York media. But once Roe v. Wade became legal, I was of the opinion that much more lobbying would be involved in Washington, and it wasn’t enough to just control the press in New York. As time went on, control of the national press became irrelevant. Now it’s the control of social media. Be an influencer. That’s the way to control everything. Put lies out there and make them outrageous, and then you’ll get everybody believing it. But at that time, I thought that lobbying would be more important, and so there was a big vote whether to move NARAL from New York to DC.
And that was the first time I ever broke with Larry, not being on the same side. I said, “No, I think it really belongs in DC.” At the time, I’m leaving, I’m going down to Georgia to go to grad school, but NARAL did start losing influence when they lost Larry being there every day. The national office did not have the same force because they then had to depend on organizers in each state to carry the message.
Just like in Pennsylvania, my God, dealing with Harrisburg, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. One by one, death by 1000 cuts. They started going after abortion rights and women were just too complacent. Women always had a way that they could get it if they went around this way, or went around that way, or around this way, follow the rules, and go to a different state or whatever. Until Roe v. Wade got taken down this year. It was like a slap upside the head. And then suddenly, whoa, now you’re woken up and you’re voting.
Before, women weren’t voting enough. They weren’t as incensed. What made the anti-war movement as powerful as it was, was the draft. Take away the draft, and people lost interest. As someone said, “It’s as if you were late getting to Woodstock, and just as you got there, all your hippie friends were leaving to get into their BMWs to drive home.” That is kind of what happened. Women could get what they needed after Roe so they lost their outrage that they had no right to their own bodies.
Going back to 1970. On New Year’s Eve, 1970, I appeared on a radio show. Andrea Mitchell, by the way, was the station manager for Penn’s radio station at the time. They were interviewing, talking about the new millennium, the new decade. The 60s are over. What are the 70s going to be like? That kind of thing. And the three guys who spoke before me all said that, “American youth had been radicalized by the anti-war movement. And from now on everything was going to be far more progressive.”
It came down to me, and I said, “I don’t think so. Right now, there’s a lot of self-interest among the male gender. The one thing that’s going to really be different is the women’s movement, which is not going to change. And for a simple reason. The pill came on the market, and abortion is about to become legal in New York. And women aren’t going to go back. This is a fundamental change. It’s going to change families; it’s going to change the workplace. It’s going to have far-reaching consequences. The war in Vietnam will end, and everyone will go back to their lives. But women will not have the same lives after this. They will fundamentally have a different relationship to their own agency.” From my mouth to Gods ear.
JW: Oh wow. Gave me the chills. I’m not kidding, really.
CB: They were like, “Okay.” They had to have a girl on the panel?
JW: A woman’s libber, I know who she is.
CB: Well, no, they were all in for Women’s Lib. They just didn’t realize it was quite as important. They (the guys) didn’t understand how they weren’t really feeling the notion. They’d always had agency; they didn’t realize what it is when you didn’t have it.
JW: Well, you called it. Did you continue doing any work on women’s issues? You then went to graduate school. I don’t know what you did in graduate school.
CB: I went to graduate school, I started a family and I had to work to support my family. I made my career in instructional design, which was a completely unknown field at the time. I was probably a pioneer in that, because I had a fine arts background and I’m not a bad writer. And also, I had taught, so those are the three skills you need. I had a two-year-old, so I only wanted to work part time.
I went for a couple of interviews because I had PR credentials, but they all wanted me to be available nights and weekends. I have a two-year-old, I don’t work nights and weekends. I literally came home and said, “You know, the phone is just going to have to ring.” A week later, I swear to God, a woman who was at the very first director of the Women’s Center at Penn, Cynthia Adcock, called me. By this time it was 1975 and they had already started doing some women’s studies, said, “I have this friend who’s looking for someone who can write for radio and also knows about teaching language.”
I said, “I’ve written for radio. I worked in PR in New York for a nonprofit when I had to start making a living.” So, she said, “Well, they have written these scripts to teach language arts to children who are watching cartoons.” Children’s shows like Gilligan’s Island, The Flintstones, Scooby Doo, I think. Every once in a while, they’ll use a big word, just as kind of almost a joke to the kids. They use some big word and they assume the kids don’t know what it means.
So, we had to create a character who would be sitting next to them on the radio, and in the silences of the TV program would explain the words that were being used as a vocabulary building thing. And then we’d go into the actual school system and test for kids who were listening to the show and heard the simulcast radio, whether their vocabulary was improving. It was a crazy, weird thing. But anyway, they couldn’t find anybody who could do those scripts for Dual Audio Television.
So, the phone rang and someone said, “Could you do this?” I said, “Sure. This doesn’t sound so hard.” That’s how I got into instructional design.
From there, I went on to work for a company that needed people to write medical stuff for diabetes, explaining to patients the various treatment options. And so, I went on to work in a lot of technical writing, and technical instruction, which was very fun and interesting. I didn’t really get involved in nonprofits again until my daughter was in kindergarten or first grade.
She was going to an after-school program at a local art center. And suddenly we got a two-day notice that they were going to close the art center because it was going bankrupt. So, I said, “Oh, no, they’re not, because I have to go to work and she has to go someplace.” So, we called a parents meeting. We raised $10,000 that night, and we kept it open. And then I became president. So, for the next ten years, I had to run an art center. We had a theater, we had children’s camp, we had children after school, and we had art classes of various types. I said, “I know how to do that.”
Then, I went on to other nonprofits. I started a much more political organization called Neighborhood Networks. And we actually have had, one may consider, a fair amount of impact since 2000 or 2004 on the city of Philadelphia. People always talk about Philadelphia being very progressive. There’s a reason why. We interview candidates, and we endorse. Then we put people power out on the street to go door to door doing the hard work of voter education.
I came to the analysis that the state of Pennsylvania could be carried in state-wide elections by the city of Philadelphia. The entire state. Because of our population. But only if we get the turnout up. And so, our strategy then was, let’s get turnout in Philadelphia for national elections. And that is why Pennsylvania pretty much has been blue. All along until of course, Trump and the RussiaGate social media campaign. That was the only time this century when Pennsylvania didn’t go blue.
But even then, little by little, we’ve turned the suburbs around Philadelphia blue too. So, I’ve been on a different mission that’s a little broader than the women’s movement. Women’s issues are absolutely involved in it, but it’s to get more power behind making legislation.
And also, I started something called the Philadelphia Public Banking Coalition, and we were able to become the first city in the country to have our city council pass a bill, which became law, to create a Philadelphia Public Finance Authority. We’re still battling though with the mayor, to get the funding, and naming of the board. So, we have a mayoral race going on right now, and a lot of the effort will be to find the best mayoral candidates. How could we support you if you didn’t support the public bank? Anyway, have I been active for many years? Yes, it’s been at a different level.
JW: But you remain an activist is what I’m hearing.
CB: Oh, absolutely, yes.
JW: How do you think your time at NARAL affected what you did later?
CB: It made me fully understand that you could do all kinds of things if you just get up on your hind legs and do them. I didn’t need permission. I didn’t need permission to fly to Chicago to . I didn’t need permission to start Neighborhood Networks. In fact, it started out of the Howard Dean campaign. And then the next election, 2004, when George Bush was running, we carried Pennsylvania; though Democrats lost nationally.
MoveOn had organized people throughout the city and I had organized some people doing voter registration. I was a coordinator for MoveOn and the day after the election, when they lost, MoveOn pulled the plug. They had internet, they had lists of voters, door to door you can knock on, training and volunteers. We had a thousand volunteers all over the city who were organizing in their little communities.
And the day after, they pulled the plug and my friend Stan Shapiro and I were down at the meeting, and Stan looks at me and goes, “What do we do? We can’t contact anybody anymore.” I said, “Stan, I’ve worked in IT long enough. I have a list. I’ve been keeping all the emails and making a database. It’s not everybody, but we’ve got a good 60 to 80 to start with.”
JW: Well, I wanted to ask you if you had a closing statement.
CB: To the younger sisters, don’t give up your agency. Don’t give up. And a good offense is better than a defense. Women have been playing this defensive game for all these years instead of an offensive one. They want to make you afraid. There are more of us than there are of them. Be brave.