THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I Was a Mentor to Women.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, October 2022
JC: I’m Jeanne Connelly, and I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in August, 1946.
JW: Briefly, please tell us what your life was like before you got interested in women’s issues.
JC: My parents married in the middle of World War II, so when my dad came back from the war, I was probably born a year later. Housing was really scarce. We lived in a small apartment in Philadelphia, and when my mom got pregnant with my brother about four years later, they were really anxious to get out of this one-bedroom apartment. My dad actually built the house we lived in. He bought a lot out in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and at night and on weekends, because he was working full time, he built a house in seven months and we moved there.
After that, I was about five, I would say I led a fairly typical suburban kind of carefree life. My parents were, I would say, lower middle class. Neither of them had graduated from college. My dad went to college for two years on the GI bill. After my brother and I were gone and my mom was more free, she went back to school and did college for two years. But I was the first person in the family to graduate from four years of college. I would say I had a very typical suburban upbringing, pretty carefree.
I went to Bucknell University and then in my junior year of college, I’d say the trajectory of my life changed somewhat because I got pregnant, and this was early 1967. I went to the local doctor in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and he said to me, “Honey, you need to go home to your parents.” I went back to the dorm. I was very immature, not really ready to be married or have a baby.
But while I was trying to decide what to do, a woman who lived in my dormitory, I didn’t know her, had a botched abortion and was taken away in an ambulance. And that kind of made up my mind. I ended up marrying my college boyfriend and having a baby, and he was a year ahead of me. I left college after my junior year, and the marriage only lasted a year and a half. Wasn’t really a wise idea, but I matured pretty fast in that period of time from the carefree college girl going to fraternity parties.
I needed to get a job because I was a single mother and I went to work for the Bucks County Board of Assistance, as a social worker. That’s the welfare department out there. That’s probably where I became more active, first on welfare rights, trying to organize welfare rights organization locally to help the single mothers who were on welfare. There were a group of women, we all worked as social workers there together, and we formed a little women’s group.
At first it was consciousness raising, mirrors looking at your vagina, goofy stuff, sharing stories. Then, one of the women found out that Planned Parenthood needed volunteers to be abortion counselors, basically pregnancy counselors. I would say that is how I got really more actively involved in women’s issues. At night after work, we would go to the Planned Parenthood offices in Bucks County, and as volunteers, we counseled pregnant women.
The options were so limited. I knew that from my own personal experience, but if somebody had money, you could send them to Europe or to California. But we didn’t really deal with women who had money, for the most part. That was a rarity when someone could actually afford to do that. New York, there were some doctors. If people had health issues, sometimes we could find doctors that would do D&Cs on health bases. But it was really heartbreaking, and that was in 1970, ’71, ’72. I still remember the Roe v. Wade decision because we had the biggest party I’ve ever been to. Amazing celebration. And now, 50 years later, I just cannot believe we’re back where we were. Crazy.
JW: I want to go back to when you worked on welfare counseling, you counseled individual women. Is that what you were doing?
JC: As a social worker for the Department of Welfare, we were given cases. It was interesting back then. They had divided what they called income maintenance workers, the people who determined whether you are financially eligible for welfare, and then the social work staff. If anybody mentioned any problems, I have a housing problem, I need a job, I’m having trouble with my kids, whatever, they would send the clients to the social workers.
I would drive around Bucks County, going to people’s homes in low-income neighborhoods, trying to help single women with children who were on welfare figure out their lives. From that, and seeing how badly the welfare department treated people, we were trying to organize a welfare rights organization that advocated for better welfare benefits. So outside of the job, we were trying to organize people to form this welfare rights organization. It was really advocacy.
JW: I see. Did that work?
JC: Yes. Welfare rights was quite big in Philadelphia and the suburbs. It was very active for a period of time there, although this was during Nixon. He actually proposed a welfare reform bill that had a floor, and in southern states, it would have brought up the amount of money that welfare recipients received, but in northern states, it wouldn’t have changed anything. And we had this $3400 or fight. We wanted this high level of benefits and nothing else would do. That didn’t pass, and sometimes it was a lesson learned. Take a piece and keep on advocating for more. You don’t need the whole enchilada in one turn.
JW: Did the low-income women you were working with, get Medicaid or any health benefits?
JC: Usually. Eligibility for welfare was usually similar to eligibility for Medicaid. But at the time, you couldn’t have a male in the household. It was really terrible. Families would break up so that the mother and children could get welfare benefits. We had people living in their car in our parking lot of the welfare office because Bucks County was kind of an expensive place to live generally. In that way, nothing much has changed. There was so little low-income housing available, so a lot of what we did was try to find apartments.
The social workers didn’t have control of the money, but we could buy people uniforms if they got a job, we could send them to training programs to prepare them for a job. We could pay their moving expenses if they needed to move. I always said that was the only money I had control over. For at least all my clients, I bought them a new set of clothes, and we called it a uniform they needed for work. I sent them to community colleges. That was their training program. And I helped them move into a more decent place when we could find one. You did what you could do.
JW: Regarding Planned Parenthood, do you remember any particular incident of speaking to a woman or a couple of women about their situation at the time?
JC: I do remember one woman who actually had a relative in New York. We spent a long time trying to find a doctor in New York that would take her case because she could actually get there and had this relative who would help her. At least she had a place to stay, that kind of thing. We were always so happy when there was actually a solution. There were women for which we couldn’t find a solution. Then, there was a woman who came, and she was so late in a pregnancy that there was absolutely nothing we could do at that point in time.
JW: Did you do any counseling on adoption?
JC: We gave them the option, so I called it abortion counseling. Most people had told Planned Parenthood they wanted an abortion, but it was called pregnancy counseling. We did talk to people about all the options that were available, from adoption, what the adoption services were, to the limited abortion services that were available, to the fact that you might be eligible for welfare if you had the child. We tried to lay out all the options, but almost all of these women had expressed to Planned Parenthood when they found out they were pregnant that they didn’t want the child. I guess at the time, Planned Parenthood couldn’t actually do the abortion counseling. So, then they were told, if you come back in the evening, we have people who will talk to you about what your options are.
JW: Who were they? They were not on staff?
JC: No, they were us, the volunteers.
JW: It was because you were working somewhere else in the day, is that it?
JC: Exactly. We would go to the office in the evening. We were all unpaid volunteers. And these women would come in the evening. They had found out they were pregnant, and they would come in to find out what their options were.
JW: I see. After 1973, what did you do then? Did you stay on or move on to other things?
JC: I didn’t stay on as a volunteer because then because it was legal, the actual paid staff at Planned Parenthood could do these kinds of referrals and counseling. So that was a big change. I then got a job in downtown Philadelphia for a United Way planning organization. Later, I got fired from that job along with two other women. They let three women go. They told us that they could no longer afford the program that we were working in.
Only there were four of us who worked in that program, and one was a white male, and then there was three of us, and they let the three women go and they gave the white male another position in the organization. It was like, whoa. There was a woman lawyer in Philadelphia who had done a very early sex discrimination case against the Philadelphia public school system because they had a public school for girls and a public school for boys. And the boys’ public school had a million more resources, better building, better books, better everything, and she brought an early sex discrimination suit. So, the three of us who got fired went to talk with her and she took our case and we won. Actually, I won a little bit of money, and it sent me to law school.
JW: That worked out.
JC: Changed the trajectory of my life one more time.
JW: That’s kind of amazing. So, they just did a settlement. Did they hire women after that, do you know?
JC: They agreed to change their processes. They agreed to change a lot of things internally. It wasn’t as much about the money as the other changes that they agreed to. In fact, I was the only one who got money. I had decided I wanted to go to law school, so I didn’t get another job. I was applying to law school. My other two friends got other jobs, so they didn’t have any monetary damages. I was the only one who got a little bit of money. But mainly we were interested in seeing change in the organization.
JW: This was United Way?
JC: A United Way planning organization in Philadelphia. So even the best of organizations that were supposed to be doing good work, it was just very subtle discrimination, too. I had a boss who said to me, “Jeanne, I understand why you work because you’re a single parent.” He said, “But I don’t understand why your friend Allison works because her husband is a lawyer in a law firm and she doesn’t need to work.” And meanwhile, my friend Allison’s boss said to her, “Allison, I understand why you work because you don’t have any children, but I don’t understand why Jeanne works because she has a child and should be home with her child.” So, you have these people saying really stupid things, which helped our lawsuit immensely.
JW: It’s amazing, isn’t it? Because that was the consensus, really, around that time, and you lived it. Did you help women in some way after you were a lawyer?
JC: I started out being a legal services lawyer in Philadelphia. My cases were often low-income women who needed help. Then I moved to Washington because my husband got a fellowship in Washington, and I worked for the Legal Services Corporation, which is the federal agency that funded local legal aid programs. And I ended up in their government relations office doing advocacy.
And when Reagan was elected, I went to Capitol Hill and worked for a senator in a Senate committee. I would say all of that. I was still pretty active, strong, feminist. Then I went to work for a law firm, and I went to work for a corporation. The things I was doing then, were more about how I ran the offices that I ran. I tried to hire and promote women as much as possible, and I actually ran the Washington Government relations office for a paper and wood products company. Very male oriented industry. And in the period of time that I ran the office, we ended up with an all-female office, except we had one male. He was our receptionist.
JW: That’s super.
JC: It was a highly unusual government relations lobbying office in Washington.
JW: I’m sure they were all very competent.
JC: I had the smartest people working for me. One of the things that I love is that over the years, I have hired so many women that have gone on to run their own operations and head of associations and be incredible in their own careers. At that stage in my life, I was much more of a mentor to women, and I think I made a difference that way.
JW: What do you think the women’s movement did for you?
JC: I don’t think I would have been able to go to law school. Five years before I went, there was maybe one or two women in each law school class. By the time I went, it was about 25% women and growing every year. It made you more aware of the possibilities. If I hadn’t lost that job and gone to this woman lawyer and saw the amazing work she’d done, she was kind of a mentor to me. I think five years before, I would have just been a housewife. I really do, like my mom. To me, it made a real difference. I had this stupid poster in my office at my first job that said, “Fuck Housework”.
JW: That’s great. Do you still have it? I’d love to see it.
JC: It was a little immature. Probably. I loved it.
JW: Any other comments before we stop?
JC: I don’t think so. I haven’t done much in the recent years, except maybe give money to women’s causes. Now that I’m fully retired, I’m thinking of getting more active again and doing some volunteer work. Next stage of my life is coming up, and I will become an activist again.