THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“It wasn’t until 1972 that I really understood in a personal way why the women’s movement existed and why it mattered to me.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, March 2022
Jean Weinberg: My full name is Jean Weinberg. I was born just north of New York City in Hartsdale, New York, in 1952, so I’ll be 70 this year.
Judy Waxman: Please tell us about your childhood and some of the things that led you to be the person you are.
Jean Weinberg: I’d be glad to. I was brought up in an upper-middle-class family. My parents were the first generation to go to college. My father went to Dartmouth. My mother got on a train and went to Smith. In 1968, my cousin was shot in Vietnam, and I became an anti-war activist. We shut down our high school. Representative Dick Attinger came to speak. We had two days of workshops. I attached myself to the Representative, and at age 18, worked on his campaign. I bring that up because I am still working in campaigns. I’m still an anti-war activist, this many years later.
Judy Waxman: Tell us about your family, your siblings.
Jean Weinberg: I have an older brother and I have a younger sister. Both my parents and my husband’s parents all did some work in the Black community. My father-in-law was a doctor in Oakland. My mother-in-law was executive director of Planned Parenthood in Oakland. My mother worked in a reformed school [sic]. She taught inner-city Black kids how to read, predominantly boys who were adolescent. My father was a builder, but he created, 40 years ago, Westhab, an affordable housing group that now has 700 apartments, and was started in Mount Vernon, New York.
I was an anti-war activist from the beginning, and my Rabbi was an activist. In 1965, my Rabbi and a group of people in our community invited Julian Bond and MLK, Martin Luther King, to help them raise dollars and get supplies to go south to march. I was too young to be able to go, but I got to help get the winter coats. But more important, I got to ride on a motorcycle with Julian Bond.
Years later, when I was a PAC director in Washington, that was the first story I got to remind him of. He didn’t remember, but I got off the motorcycle and told my mother I would never shower. I was taken in by the movement. I was very lucky to have both my family and my religious leader help me to understand that you could be politically active and you could also be a part of a civil rights movement.
In 1972, I transferred into the first class of women at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. There were 23 women and 700 some odd number of men. And I was the only Jew of those 23 white women. I looked around and realized things that I had taken for granted, that I had assumed would be given to me and offered to me, were not necessarily going to happen. I had my first experience of understanding I needed a feminist community around me to help my world and the world of other women like me.
I was recruited by the President at Dartmouth to work with a woman named Ruth Adams, who had been the President at Wellesley, and she was brought in as a VP in the administration in the early days of coeducation to make it work. I started an organization with her called Women at Dartmouth. I was given $350,000 to invite Tilly Olson, Ingrid Bengus, Sheila Rowbotham, Susan Sontag, and I and a group of women professors basically had a year and a half of being around incredibly important women in a movement that was taking off. And I had one on one time with them. I was only 19, 20 and 21. Somebody said, what did you do with Susan Sontag? Well, I don’t really remember, but I know I spent a week with her.
In 1973 I took the term off from Dartmouth to go to UC Berkeley, and there was a class on women and their careers. I could have worked with a doctor, a businesswoman, a lawyer, or this “other lady.” I picked this “other lady.” She lived across the street from me, as it turned out, in Oakland. Her name was Tish Sommers. She started the Older Women’s League. She was then 60. I was 19. I wrote in my journal, Older Women over 25, and she said, “No, 25 is younger women.” I now have a new grasp of that. But I started learning about organizing and older women’s issues and realized that actually feminism was more than just helping me. It was about building a movement that could help women of all ages, not just younger women, but also older women.
It was an incredibly lucky, wonderful experience that I got to do that internship. When I graduated from Dartmouth, I got a Tucker Fellowship to do some prison organizing. There was a new form of organizing. And then on October 1st, 1975 – I remember the date because my friend Renee Loth is a journalist, and she has a journal. That’s the day we started. I was trained to be an Alinsky style community organizer by the Citizen Action Movement, and Heather Booth and Michael Ansara were my trainers that first day. I have been a community organizer ever since. My very first community organized national conference, there were 97 men and three women. Again, a time in my life when my feminist leadership skills were challenged, and I had to learn that it was important to stand up.
Judy Waxman: Do you remember any anecdote from that time?
Jean Weinberg: Originally, they thought that Alinsky style organizing was really just for men, that there was some sexual thing that happened at the doors between the young single man and that white housewife or that working class housewife. I think it was more the stories that were told, why women couldn’t do it made no sense to me, is what I would say. But mostly men did it. Women at the time did not pick it. At some point, 9to5 got created, so the women went over there. But I had already started on the other side doing community issues.
In 1977, I was hired by a NARAL affiliate in Massachusetts that had been inactive for a couple of years. I was given 200 names and $2,000 to reactivate the affiliate or to build it. Abortion that year was a key issue in our state budget and the women in the legislature, Dolores Mitchell, a woman in the Dukakis administration, Lois Pines, a state Senator. There were women all around me that helped me as a brand-new lobbyist, figure out the whole state budget was not going through because of an abortion amendment, and I needed to play a role. It was an experience I had that allowed me to see that women were going to help me. Older women, middle aged women, and even younger women.
Judy Waxman: Were you always interested in the abortion issue? Because 1972 is obviously before Roe v. Wade.
Jean Weinberg: I wasn’t. What happened was in 1977, we had the Doyle Flynn hearings. I was unemployed and it sounded interesting. I went to the State House and the woman in front of me was a woman named Pam Lowry. She was the first director of the NARAL affiliate, and she was the chair of the executive committee, which is a story I’ll come back to, how I moved from the state to the national level. But it was more just something that was happening and a group of women who had been organizers decided to go to the State House. I had never been to the State House before in that way, and it was the Doyle Flynn hearings on the abortion issue. It certainly was an issue I knew about, but it wasn’t that I went out saying that’s what I want to work on.
But in 1981, there’s an editorial that hangs in my office from the Boston Globe about abortion. The goal is to remove abortion from politics. It is in that period of time that we all realized that Dick Clark had lost the Senate in Iowa in 1978 and we realized that even though we didn’t really want to do politics, we would have to get inside politics in order to take it out. That was when I was a national PAC director.
And the other thing just to throw in, I have next to it on my wall a picture of Tip O’Neill, who was the speaker of the House, and from Massachusetts. I was so proud to have my picture taken with a campaign manager. I had hired another woman who had worked with me at NARAL and Barney Frank, my then congressman, took it into to the Tip to get it signed, and I was going to have something very political on it. I gave Barney a variety of things the Tip could write. What did the Tip write? “God bless the Democrats. Look at their pretty women.” Like, really? I was a PAC director and he said “God bless the Democrats, look at their pretty women.”
Let me tell you the story of going from state level abortion to national. I was in Washington in 1978, in January, and it was the end of a national conference at NARAL. I was with three other women from Massachusetts lobbying our then Senator Ted Kennedy and the snow started to come down. He said, I got to get you women out of here. And he got us to National Airport and he got us on the last plane out of National Airport, before it shut down for the Blizzard of ’78. We were rejected from Boston.
It was the olden days. Delta sent us to South Portland, Maine, and put us up for five days in a hotel. And I had five days to talk with Pam Lowry about organizing and political work and a way that NARAL could do their work differently, including less lobbying of everybody and more strategic grassroots organizing to build strong affiliates. At the end of that long five days, I had convinced her that we should start a new program at NARAL. And I ended up moving to Washington and becoming the Field PAC director.
We created a program called the Impact 80’s. I had organizers in 17 congressional and US Senate races, and we were able to raise $1.5 million, which at the time was from Roger Craver, a direct mail firm, and a huge amount of money for women to have. We designed and ran a wonderful program. We were all women, although there could have been men, but there weren’t. We worked predominantly with women, and I was mentored by three different women as this Field PAC Director. One was Anne Lewis, Barney Frank’s older sister. One was a woman named Ranny Cooper, who at the time ran the Women’s Campaign Fund and then she went to work for Senator Kennedy. And the third was a woman named Audrey Shepherd, whose brother had gone to college with Jimmy Shannon, who I knew.
I was blessed at a young age of 27 or 29, to have these “older” women, who were probably in their 30’s at the time, help me to fill this role. And it made me convinced, as Tish had convinced me, that I needed to not just have older women and middle-aged women mentoring me, but I needed to make sure that I was going to be mentoring middle-aged and younger women. That has been my life story.
A couple of things that I think about from the organizing is really how powerful we felt, although many of us are still together today and the abortion issue is behind where we were that many years ago. So whatever power I thought it felt at the time, I’m not sure about its impact. But we had an amazing woman named Denise Cavanaugh come teach us strategic planning. And when I left NARAL, I went to Audrey. I went to Ranny, I went to Anne Lewis, I went to Denise. I actually went to 30 women to say, what should I do next?
And they each had an idea for me. Denise said to me, you should be a management consultant and come be an apprentice. I’ll help you get started. And so, in fact, here I am. Since 1981, I’ve been running my own business where I work with nonprofits, I work with politicians, I work with government agencies, helping them to be better organized. I get to pick what issues I work on. I worked on lots of issues that impact women. I’ve worked on lots of issues where they are predominantly women in the room.
I have been able to make lifelong work and friendships, relationships with women because of that organizing and because of that ability. I have mentored those women and worked with them as they grew older. I have one woman in particular. I met her when she was 25. It was through a public health nutritionist group. It’s part of a trade association, and I am still working with that organization. She took a break. I took a break. She went back in 2007. I went back. In the pandemic, I had taken a break. She hired me back.
I have some women I have worked with for 25 years, helping them to grow to be better managers. Public health nutritionists are predominantly women. Not all, they’ve had one male President, but it’s mostly women. I’ve had wonderful experiences, I would say, with women’s groups throughout the years, working with board members, working with executive directors, hiring, firing, helping them do better planning. It comes from those original experiences, from Tish back as a college student to my time at NARAL, where we built a really powerful team of women around the country with a really powerful organizing program.
Judy Waxman: What were some of the women’s issues you worked on?
Jean Weinberg: I worked for Planned Parenthood affiliates. I worked on family planning. In fact, it was family planning in New Hampshire where one of those women referred me to the nutrition group. I’ve worked on shelters, a shelter in Boston and the shelter out in Worcester that were for women and children. I worked for the Older Women’s League and the affiliates here. I taught a class at UMass Boston, helping older women to learn to be organizers so that they could have an impact on older women’s issues.
I worked on Peace Groups, WAND. I worked where Helen Caldicott had been when she left. I came in and empowered a really powerful board that hadn’t gotten all the power it needed. And it was, again, wonderfully, strong, capable women. And the staff was all women at WAND at the time. I worked for Physicians for Social Responsibility. They were mostly women at the time. Jane Wales was the director. I go down this list and not all I did [was with women, I worked with] some environmental groups that were headed by men. And it’s not my bottom line. And it’s true with the political campaigns, I’ve worked for lots of men. But I’m now working very hard for a woman named Andrea Campbell, who I met in 2015, who’s an amazingly strong woman who was the head of our Boston city Council and is now running to be attorney general. If it’s a woman and she shares my values, then I’m ready to go usually.
Judy Waxman: That’s so great. You are still very active in a number of organizations. What about NARAL? I know you continue to work with Karen Mulhauser.
Jean Weinberg: Karen and I have been in touch the whole time, but we’ve just started working together, getting women’s groups to be more politically active by cleaning their lists and then helping them figure out how to get into that activity. I would say five or six years ago, I woke up and said, oh, my gosh, look at this abortion issue. It’s in terrible shape. I really need to do something again. And so, I got active at my local level in my state affiliate.
My state affiliate, Massachusetts, was one of the strongest affiliates over the years. And it has been one of the affiliates when NARAL decided that they had to have chapters, not affiliates that created its own organization, as many of their stronger ones did. And so that brings me to this new way of looking at women’s issues. If I look at the work we did on abortion in the 70’s and the 80’s, it was white women around the table. And we talked all the time about how could that be different? We never looked at how are we framing the issue? Does it open the door to women of color to make this an important issue?
And I look at our NARAL affiliate, which is no longer a NARAL affiliate, it’s now called Reproductive Equity Now. And what’s on the table is reproductive equity. Yes, abortion is a piece of it. So is forced sterilization. So is the treatment that Black women get when they get pregnant, when they have their babies. So is a bunch of other issues that maybe don’t seem quite as relevant to some white women. So is access, so is poor women’s access. Today my understanding of the women’s community is that if we want to be a community of women of all colors, we have to be open to what issues are we picking and how do we define those issues? Yes, I am active in the NARAL affiliate, but it’s a different organization today, and I’m glad it’s different.
That’s another part of my activism that I want to come back to. As I said earlier, my Rabbi got me turned on to the civil rights community, and the same is true for my husband. As teenagers, we both were active. In 1965, my husband went to South Carolina and worked on a voter registration project. He was the only white guy in the whole community. It wasn’t necessarily a safe place to be. It was something he cared a lot about. In that same year, Julian Bond came to Westchester, and that’s when I got a little more active.
As we grew older, we both kept that interest in racial equity and becoming anti-racist allies. And in 1995, we adopted a biracial three-week-old baby. And we felt like we needed to create a community around us that looked like this Jewish family we had now become and so we created something called the Jewish Multiracial Network. You can see throughout my history and my parent’s history and my husband’s, we are organizers, activists. We lead things. If it’s not right, then create it yourself. Whether it’s Westhab from my dad, my mother-in-law at Planned Parenthood, or my husband and I with the Jewish Multiracial Network, it is something that I saw being done successfully growing up. And I learned how to do it successfully as a young adult and continue it.
We ended up joining a temple where one out of five families were of color, and it was a very different experience and I ended up becoming a co-president. So again, my activism. We left that temple, but now I’m a part of a new temple with diversity and equity and inclusion on the agenda. I’m a part of a learning community of 59. I’m helping to form a school board. I would say my activism from my antiracist work, my Jewish multiracial work, my women’s work, we just got solar panels, climate change. I took a class this summer with my son-in-law, Beyond Plastics, so I could begin to learn how to take plastics out of my life. I think it’s how I’ve lived my life and will continue to live my life.
Judy Waxman: Do you give credit to the women’s movement for helping you become who you are?
Jean Weinberg: Yes, I would say everything from teaching me the skills, because Tish was the first one. Heather Booth certainly did a lot of training of me. When I got to NARAL, I hired Heather to help me train my staff at NARAL all over the country. The give and take, the fact that Dartmouth took women in, and I had to figure out how to be a woman in an environment where there were so few of us, where they didn’t want us there, and where I stuck out, I couldn’t pass. I would say a variety of experiences becoming an organizer, but only three of us being women in the beginning, meant I had to be stronger. I think that all of those gave me skills and confidence and opened the door.
At one point, I remember when I was first starting my own business in 1983, I got a contract with the recording industry. They needed to do some grassroots organizing. And they heard about me through Craver, Mathews and Smith, the direct mail firm I had worked with. And I went to the first meeting, and it was a group of men around the table, all in suits and me. I was the only woman. And in came a woman dressed in a little uniform to serve us coffee. And I was just beside myself. First of all, I said, no, thank you. I wasn’t having coffee. I don’t know why I thought that would matter, but it made me really talk to them. And soon thereafter, a woman named Hilary Rosen joined the team and she moved over. This was 1983, but she moved up. But I also hired all women to be on my team of organizers. And then I brought them to the table.
I’ve been in a lot of settings where women were new to the table. I believe the women’s movement all around me helped to open up those doors. It’s a cracked ceiling. It’s not really smashed yet. There’s still glass in places, as we’ve seen. We got Kamala; we didn’t get Hillary. There’s a variety of ways that women have seen that we don’t always win. But I believe that, yes, the women’s community around me, those who I knew personally and were mentoring me or others who were opening doors, made it possible for me to do what I do. And it makes it possible today, I would say.
Judy Waxman: And to pass it on, as you said.
Jean Weinberg: Yes, totally to pass it on. It is my job. I just agreed to mentor a Jew of color who’s doing a training project. She’s a woman in her 40’s. It just fits.
Judy Waxman: Anything else you’d like to add?
Jean Weinberg: I would say two things. I have spent 52 years working on political campaigns. And being an organizer and or a management consultant since 1973, when Tish first got me started. My work and my volunteer activities have brought many blessings. I get to be involved or work with a very diverse group of women, diverse color, background, race, profession. I help organizations become more successful, and often they’re working on issues that impact women. And I have all these women I have mentored over the years or who have mentored me, and so I feel like the community is around me and it enables me and it’s a real blessing. I don’t know if it had been a multiracial group of all men or a whatever group would it have had those same benefits. But the fact that it was predominantly women after that first organizing experience has made a difference.
The other thing was related to your question about accomplishments. For me, getting the women’s movement, and for me that was at NARAL when that experience happened, to think about using organizing and grassroots organizing and not just hiring lobbyists and lawyers was a pretty big accomplishment. NARAL had been very different before I hired organizers to work there. There was a period of time when that difference showed. There are lots of people out there who have built organizations, because I got to work with them and see them do that work and some of them went on. In the beginning we thought it was wrong to run for politics. But some of them have gone on to run for politics and won. And as I said earlier, many of them are lifelong friendships I’ve been able to form. I feel like my accomplishments gave to the world, but they also gave a lot to me. That it was a mutually beneficial arrangement.