THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I treasured my time at the National Women’s Political Caucus. It was an age in which you could do things without much background. But then you find a person like Millie Jeffrey, who’s willing to teach you everything you need to know.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, February 2023
JW: Joan, would you please give us your full name and tell us when and where you were born?
JM: Joan Elizabeth McLean. I was born in a small town on Long Island. Baldwin, New York in 1950. My parents grew up in Brooklyn, and they moved to Baldwin in the early 1940’s. That’s where I was born.
JW: Tell us a little about your childhood and what influences there were that maybe led you to the person you became.
JM: I think that the biggest influence was that for most of my childhood, until I was nine or ten, we lived in New York with an extended family. We moved to Queens, I went to public schools in Queens, and I had aunts and uncles and a grandmother I adored. Then my father accepted a job in Florida, and so, we moved to Florida. And we was my mother and father, and my brother, who was closest in age to me, who was six years older.
So, my adult siblings stayed back in New York, because they were married and having their own families. My extended family stayed back in New York, so that was a big change. And then about three or four months after we moved to Florida, my brother joined the Navy. So, all of a sudden, I went from having a sibling at home, siblings to visit in New York, my grandmother, my Nana. To me, mom, and dad. So, in some ways, I had life before ten and life after ten.
Politically speaking, that also is true, because I loved Dwight Eisenhower as a kid, and when I was told he wasn’t going to be president anymore, I cried. I asked my father “Why?” and he said, “Well, there are elections, and he can’t run anymore.” And I said, “Well, who’s going to be president?” He said, “We don’t know, but we’re Republicans, so we’ll be voting for Nixon. And we are Protestant, and we don’t want the Pope to run the country.”
So, my first introduction to politics was as a Republican Protestant from a Scotch Irish family that wasn’t too hard to put together. I think that that’s interesting, that a time in which I become politically conscious, I’m on my own, to figure out my father’s views in the context of where we lived in 1960. In public school in Queens we had every ethnicity, we had every religion, I was a pretty average student. We go to Florida, I’m in a small rural school, nobody but Whites, mostly Protestant, and I’m now a very smart person because everything we learned in third grade was being taught in fourth grade in Florida.
The reason I spend a little time on this is because it’s my first realization about differences. About where you live, your life is really different. And it’s my first real introduction to being with people who are really poor. Some people didn’t have lunch money, some people didn’t have shoes. I really felt it, and I didn’t think it was fair. And that’s been sort of my guiding principle ever since. I even shared my allowance. I didn’t get that much, but I just didn’t think it was fair that people didn’t have milk money. I don’t know how it happened, but that’s when it happened.
JW: Well, it’s so drastic. Everything at once, like you say. What town just out of curiosity, where were you in Florida?
JM: Most people would know the town now. It’s Port St. Lucie. But then, it was just a new development outside of Fort Pierce, Florida, on the east coast of Florida.
JW: I see, that’s why it was a lot of rural folks.
JM: Right. We went to the closest elementary school, which was halfway to the town of Fort Pierce, because Port St. Lucie didn’t have any schools at that time.
JW: I hope you made some friends anyway.
JM: I did. Who are still friends today. But what I also will point out, that that change in my living, of not having extended family or any siblings at home, was confounded. My father was a very quiet man, very orderly man. I wish my mother was still alive because I’d have so many questions to ask her. But here he was, trying to make a new living and a new career, and there she was, away from her twin sister and rest of the family back in New York. Plus I’m her only child still living at home. She had me when she was 38. So, I can only imagine what was going on in her internal life. But in a way, I too was left to find a new life, and I found it at school, and I found it with friends, and later I found it with politics.
JW: So, what got you interested in what I’ll call the second wave of feminism?
JM: I’m a child of the 60s, so my junior and senior year in high school was ‘67 ’68. So, full of the civil rights movement. And living in the south, but having lived in the north, my tendencies were to be so supportive of the civil rights movement, but my support was not necessarily welcomed by my classmates.
When we integrated schools in my junior/senior year, ‘67 ‘68, I was involved in student government, and class president and things like that. I was very welcoming of the African American students who were coming over from their school, but my classmates were very suspicious of that. Some of them transferred to a private school, and some of them just couldn’t understand. And I couldn’t understand really what the big deal was. That was civil rights.
And then you go off to college, and it was the Vietnam era. So, there was the war to think about, there was civil rights to think about, there was everything to think about. So here in 1972, when I’m getting ready to make my first vote, I am not a Republican anymore. I am a liberal Democrat, and I can’t wait to vote for McGovern. I don’t like being tear gassed at University of Florida, but if that’s what it takes to demonstrate, that’s what it takes.
I married my senior year, and then we moved back to a little town in Florida called Lake Worth, and I began teaching, and I taught Head Start. Again, the only white person in the church for this Head Start program. So, my eyes were really awakened again, to different things. This theme of fairness seemed to guide me, and guide me in the right direction for me. Later when I began teaching in our local high school, I also joined the American Federation of Teachers. I became active as a union member. I got interested in working issues. It seems like anytime I could do something on the outside that would help myself or others, I chose to do it.
JW: What introduced you to the discrimination against women?
JM: Well, roundabout way, it wasn’t my first initial interest. Civil Rights was my first, in education. But when you start joining groups, and if you join something like a union, you start becoming a person in a room. And sometimes, I was the only woman in the room, and I didn’t always feel listened to or heard. So, I think that was the early stirrings.
And then, you know, ’73, consciousness raising. There was a small group of us who got into consciousness raising, and it was a safe space. We could talk about anything. Our lives as wives, or our lives as teachers, or how we saw the political world. And that was a beautiful time. I think that’s what really awakened me to issues, in looking at it through a feminist lens.
JW: Did you join any groups at that time?
JM: At that time, I was living in an apartment complex. A neighbor of mine came in at the same time I was doing laundry, and we got to talking, and we found out we thought the same way. And she said, “You should come join this group I just joined.” I said, “What is it?” She said, “It’s called the National Women’s Political Caucus, and we’re trying to start a local chapter.” I went, and I thought it was interesting.
I didn’t have much affinity to it, but they invited me back, because they asked in the group, “Does anybody know parliamentary procedure?” And because I had been in student government a lot, both in high school and college, I said, “Oh, yes, and I love it.” And they said, “Would you come back and teach us? Because we’re not always sure when we go to school board meetings or other things, how to get to talk.” So, I went back and talked. I didn’t really get a chance to do much, because we decided to leave our jobs and travel to Canada and around the U.S. on our way to California.
JW: What year was that?
JM: 1975. We ended up in the San Diego area of California because my brother, who had joined the Navy, was stationed there. He was willing to have us live with them for a while until we figured out whether we wanted to stay. In California, I went to work for a small nonprofit group who was interested in health care, especially in South America and Mexico, and I worked for the HR director.
He was a very welcoming man, and he liked my opinions, even though they were quite different than his. And he said, “Well, people seem to leave here a lot. Why do you think?” And I said, “Well, as women working here, we’re not treated that great.” And he said, “Do you feel that way?” I said, “No. I’m very lucky to have you. You listen, and if we disagree, you may decide against me, but at least I feel heard. A lot of our women employees don’t.” And so, I started lunches with our women employees so that they could begin to trust each other. It’s sort of like when you’re in a union, to get people to join, you have to have trust. So, we did that.
And then, this is kind of a funny story. One of my friends from high school was now living in the state of Washington, and she called and she said we should become delegates to the presidential convention. It’s in New York, and we both love the theater, so that was her impetus. If we got to go to New York to the convention, we could go to the theater together.
So, I asked her, I said, “Well, Kathy, how do you get to be a delegate?” And she said, “Every state has its own rules.” I said, “Oh, I could figure that out.” So, I looked up the rules, and it’s very complicated for every state, et cetera. But long story short, I learned the rules.
I volunteered in the local Democratic Party headquarters, and then I ran for delegate. And eventually, I got to know some of the activists, and they asked me if I want to do advance work. And I said, “Yes.” And they said, “Well, who are you supporting?” I said, “I’m supporting Jimmy Carter.” And they said, “Why aren’t you supporting Governor Brown?” I said, “Well, I know Jimmy Carter. He was my next state over governor. I don’t know Brown.” I was one of the few Carter people. So, I started working, and then I started doing advance work over the state, and I did end up being an at large delegate from the state of California for Governor Carter.
JW: And this was in the ’76 convention?
JM: Right. And by doing this advance work, when he won the nomination at the convention, I loved being a whip for the Carter campaign in our delegation, and I loved going to the Women’s Caucus. They would talk about issues in ways I’d never really heard, especially about equal division, 50/50 delegate selection.
And this woman sitting next to me, she had this big hat on, and she got up and made this impassioned plea, why we had to hold Carter’s feet to the fire on 50/50. And she sat down and she turned to me and she said, “What did you think about that?” And I just kind of smiled. Well, of course, later I learned it was Bella Abzug. I always think of these moments as little points of light that kept me headed in the right direction.
As a Carter delegate, we were supposed to whip against 50/50 because he supported it, but not to have it done then. I told my delegates they could vote their conscience, because that’s what they had asked for in the Women’s Caucus. As soon as I got exposed to campaign work, it spoke to me. Then when I went back, I was asked to join the national advance team, and I did. We did big events like the presidential debate between Carter and Ford. We did the big union rally in New York City. After Carter won, we were asked to do the inaugural balls. And so, I went to DC. to work on that for two weeks, and left eight years later.
JW: I just want to go back to the convention for a minute. Was the Equal Rights Amendment part of the discussion there in ’76?
JM: Yes, it was part of the discussion, and there were lots of efforts to make it more part of the discussion, but it didn’t take center stage at that point. Equal division was such a big rule change for the party, but that’s the one I remember the most being discussed.
JW: So, this is equal division of delegates in the future. Is that how it was defined?
JM: Yes. The next convention had it, which is 50/50 to the closest number possible between male and female delegates. And that made all the difference. My mentor, Millie Jeffrey, had been a longtime civil rights activist, labor activist, and party activist, and she was spearheading this effort to do 50/50.
JW: She was National Women’s Political Caucus, right?
JM: Yes. I probably saw her at the convention, but I didn’t meet her until 1977. When I stayed in Washington, I had a couple of jobs. You get the paper and you see a job and you apply for it. Back then, that actually led you to some jobs. So, one was doing a training manual for returning vets, and how they could do interviews for new jobs. And then I worked for a small group who was interested in population, and they sent me to the National Women’s Political Caucus convention to learn about what women were saying about abortion.
JW: This is after ’76, then?
JM: Yes, this is ’77. The Caucus holds biennial conventions, and the ’77 convention was in San Jose, and that’s where Millie was elected. When I got there, I didn’t know anybody, so, as I often do, I just volunteered. I volunteered in the press office, which was wonderful, so I got to know the staff, and I got to see the operations. I love the behind-the-scenes work. That’s what my specialty kind of is.
Lo and behold, a few months later, there’s an ad in the paper. It says, “Women’s group is looking for a politically active woman who likes to organize,” and blah, blah, blah. I read it. I think, “Hey, that sounds good.” So, I apply. It didn’t say what the group was, but it gave you a box or something. I apply. I get a call to come in, and guess what? It’s the Women’s Political Caucus. And they asked me to come in because I said I had been at their convention, and I was impressed by this, and they just wanted to know who would come to their convention from DC that they didn’t know.
I walk in, and the first woman I see was Ann Kolker, who had been the press person. And she goes, “Didn’t you volunteer?” “Yes, I did.” So I don’t know why, but something led to another, and they hired me, and I became the political director. And that’s the beginning of a whole life that’s exciting, and a whole life of having Millie by my side, guiding me at certain things, leading me in certain directions, and standing by me when I was going in directions on my own.
JW: Well, let me go back again 1 minute. You were asked to find out what the women thought about abortion, and what did you find out?
JM: I found out that the movement was much broader. This group I worked for was called the Environmental Fund. Not the Environmental Defense Fund, The Environmental Fund. And their icon, or their brand, was the world, with a sword of Damocles over it, because of the population explosion. So, they were interested in a totally different way than the women’s choice or the right for abortion. It was about population.
So, I explained to them what the women’s movement, as I heard it in San Jose, was interested in. That was about having children that were cared for, and choices about how mothers can raise children, and families can raise children, or not. And so that there would be some issues they would dovetail on, and some issues they wouldn’t dovetail on. Especially, I think, if I had stayed with them, we would have disagreed on immigration and policies that were not necessarily of choice.
JW: Okay, let’s go back to your time then, with Millie. And what were the issues you cared about most?
JM: Well, the first thing when I came to work with the Caucus and work with Millie, is I went in and I said, “What do you want me to do?” She goes, “Well, there’s lots of things, but the first thing you’ve got to do, is in a few weeks you’re going to Houston, and you’re going to help us with our presence at the International Women’s Year National Women’s Conference.” And I said, “Okay, do you know what it is you want to do?” She said, “No, go call this woman, and she’ll be your volunteer, and she’ll help you.”
So, I looked at the name and I called Joanne Howes. Joanne came in, and at that point, she was head of the Democratic Women’s Caucus. She came in, and I said, “Now, Millie told me you’ll be my volunteer in Houston at the Women’s Conference.” And she said, “No, I’m going to the conference, but I have no intention of being your volunteer.” And I just looked at her. She goes, “Really, no. But I’ll help you. I’ll tell you people who will help.” And so, she gives me a list.
There was a woman named Cathie Hartnett and another woman named Stephanie Solene, and they came and they said, “Okay, here’s what we have to do. We have all these planks, and there’s no way we can debate each of these planks and get them passed in a three day session, so we have to come up with something.” And so we came up with putting some of the planks together into proposals, and then we had to figure out how to sell that.
And I think it was Cathie who came up with the name of our Caucus. It was called the Pro Plan Caucus. We had t-shirts made, we had buttons made, and we were going to try to get people to come together on the overall message, not each individual part of the message. That sounded fine to me, until I understood that this was an International Women’s Year conference and it wouldn’t just be pro plan people. There would be a healthy contingent of active non feminists, who were elected from some states, especially the Western states, and they definitely did not want some of these planks to pass.
We also would face a Pro Family rally going on at the same time and featuring anti-ERA conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly as its keynote speaker. And so, we had a press strategy. We had a pro plan strategy. Millie was one of the commissioners, so we had an inside strategy. I credit IWY with teaching most of us to be organizers. We had a very short time. We had a very important agenda, and it was probably the first taste for most of us, working against people who adamantly disagreed with us, and would go to the mat to make what we were doing fail. So, IWY was a very important learning experience for me.
JW: Was there any issue that you were most concerned about among the planks?
JM: Well, of course, anything working with lesbian issues, did not even have the support of a lot of feminists. Not necessarily because they were anti, but somewhat because they felt if we tied our movement or ourselves, to their movement, that the ERA would be tied to it and further weaken our ability to counter some of the arguments from the right. So, it was not always clear from even the best of feminists that we would be willing to pass that plank if we thought it would damage the Equal Rights Amendment.
Luckily, we had some more open thinking leaders who held feet to the fire of those, and said, “This cannot be one of the planks that doesn’t pass.” And then the lesbian caucus was very well organized, and if there had been anybody wavering the day that we needed to vote, they had balloons in the rafters that came down. And if I remember correctly, I think they said, “We are everywhere.” Their advocacy made it harder for anybody who was still thinking about opposing the plank to claim, “I don’t know,” or, “It’s not because I don’t understand, it’s because of the ERA, or it’s because of something else.”
It also was our first introduction to thinking about issues through the lens of rural women. Because there was a rural Woman’s Caucus, and what their issues were. It also was, I think, the first for many of us, of thinking about women who work because they have to, not by choice. And that to stay at home would be a choice, and a good choice for them. Especially our minority women who had to work in certain ways that we didn’t all quite understand. I’m saying this generally, but I think I’m responding to a widening awakening of what it meant to be a woman and what it meant to be a feminist.
JW: So, what did you do after the Caucus?
JM: So, we go back, have my next meeting with Millie, and I say, “Now what do you want me to do?” And it really was these kinds of conversations, because I figure, it’s Millie. Whatever she wants to do, that’s what she hired me to try to do it. And I’m young and naive enough to think, if she says do it, you go out and try to do it. So, she said, “Well, now we need to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.” And I say, “How do you do that?” And she said, “You go talk to Marie Bass at the ERAmerica, and she’ll explain it to you.”
My best friends to this day, were introduced to me as people who will explain things to me. First Joanne, and then Marie. I go over to ERAmerica, and Marie was the political director, so we were kind of like the people for our organizations that were going to be doing this. And she tells me some things. What she has in mind, which states probably are the ones we should concentrate on.
And she said, “And, Joan, you’ve got to tell the Caucus they can’t send people by Greyhound bus. You’re going to have to fly somewhere at times.” And that was a big move for the Caucus to pay for a staffer to fly. Marie says, “We have too much to do for me to go on a bus.” So that started [our] traveling around the country to hear what people in Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Oklahoma, what they needed, to try to get the three more states.
I spent the next two years traveling and trying to organize and trying to see if there was a way that we could bring coalitions together. We did it through grassroots organizing. We did it working with celebrities like Erma Bombeck or Liz Carpenter. Alan Alda, Marlo Thomas and Jean Stapleton. Each of them had their own area of expertise and could talk to different people and get crowds out. But after the crowds left, we worked with the locals to figure out how to best mobilize their supporters.
Then when Marie became pregnant with Timothy, and at that point, Millie just gave me to ERAmerica, so I would be available to work full-time there after Marie went on family leave.
It was a fascinating, but sometimes disheartening experience. And then within our own ranks, we had to decide whether we agreed with the extension. NOW wanted to extend the ratification deadline. Many of us felt we wanted to keep Carter under the pressure to ratify before his next election. Extending the deadline would take off the political pressure on him to do so. And so, we had to learn across organizations how to get along with each other. The deadline was extended from March 1979 to March 1982 but we still failed to win three more states.
After I left ERAmerica in 1980, I did some consulting. You know, everybody seemed to be a consultant at one point, and you got a card, and it always said your name, like McLean and Consultants. There were no consultants.
JW: I have one of those, too.
JM: Cathie Hartnett gave me a job. She said, “One of my client’s needs a field manual about organizing.” I said, “Oh, I could do that.” So, I picked up a few of those. And then Joanne called me one day, she had gone to work for Senator Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign and she said, “You know that advance work that you did?” I said, “Yes.” She goes, “You want to go with me while I try to do it?” And I said, “Well, where are we going?” She goes, “Maine.” And I said, “Yes. I’ll go.”
So, we went off and we did advance work trying to get women to rally around Ted Kennedy’s campaign. I did an advance trip for Joan Kennedy. I did some babysitting for her so she could do radio actualities from a house, and took the kids out and stuff like that. And we helped IBEW staff who were there organizing union women. We had a very interesting time. And we did end up at the convention as part of the Kennedy staff at the ’80 convention.
We worked against the “Robot Rule”, which was to try to get delegates not to have to vote who they voted for in the primary on the first ballot. We lost that. And then, as history knows, Carter became the nominee in 1980. Also in that ’80 election, there was a woman named Lynn Cutler who was running for Congress in Iowa. She didn’t win, and it was a devastating loss.
Her husband unexpectedly died of a heart attack less than a month before the end of the campaign. As you would expect, Lynn stopped campaigning for a while. She was a mother of three and so a lot of things happened. Not only the stopping the campaigning, but I do think people thought, she can’t go to Congress, she just lost her husband, and they just lost their father. She lost by a very narrow margin and we all kind of rallied around her. I didn’t know her very well, but I knew of the story.
She decided that she wanted to do something, and that maybe going to the DNC, the Democratic National Committee, would be a place she could continue doing something. A group of us put together a campaign. You campaign as you would for any organization, but they had expanded to include another vice president at the DNC, and expanded a rule that at least one of the vice presidents had to be a woman.
So, we took advantage of the rules again, and we organized. She was a good candidate. She had been a county commissioner, so she had all these contacts with local elected officials. We were successful and she was elected as the vice chair of the DNC, and she asked if I would go be her staff person there.
So, I went to the Democratic National Committee. She had as her agenda, to have more women in the room when the party leaders were making decisions, and to have some of those decisions include recruiting more women candidates and being more active on the Equal Rights Amendment. So, it was a nice match for us. The DNC wasn’t exactly a welcoming place, and because Carter had really used it for him, it sort of was demolished. Physically and staff wise, it was pretty demolished.
We went in, and along with some people who became our allies who worked there, Dottie Lynch, who was a pollster, became a dear friend and an ally. And Sandy Perlmutter who worked for the DNC for a long time, for the longtime secretary Dorothy Bush, knew where all the bodies were buried. And together, we did a lot of good things. Including 1982, the last midterm Democratic convention, in which we put together workshops. That was my job, to put together workshops that would talk about the planks.
I remembered from my pro plan days, that if you could combine things, you’re likely to win coalitions than if you do plank by plank. So, we did that and Lynn said, “Yes, you can do that, and you’ve got to make sure our elected women get on those panels and chair a few of those.” And I said to Lynn, “Here’s another thing. What about the ERA?” She goes, “Well, what do you think?”
I said, “I think it’s the only issue that all those men running for president agree on. And it may be the only issue we could get them on the platform at one time to show party unity.” So, we went to the chairman to pitch this idea because to have a rally, you have to get it on the agenda. And he said, “They don’t care about that.” And Lynn said, “Trust me, Chuck, they care about it and we’re going to do it. What time do you want us to do it?”
JW: And this was Chuck who?
JM: Chuck Manatt, who was chair of the Democratic National Committee at that time. And to his benefit, he said, “Okay, you can have a rally,” and he gave us some time. I don’t know whether it was right after lunch or something, but we did our magic. And one of the biggest pictures from our midterm convention, of all those candidates, from Kennedy to Cranston to Hart to John Glenn – you know, there were tons of them thinking about running. Mondale, all there, cheering and screaming for the ERA. Because of course we had primed all the women to just go crazy. When it’s mentioned, crazy time. It was great.
JW: Well, that’s what good organizing is.
JM: Yes. That’s why I really cherish IWY so much. It really showed me about coalition building. I treasured my time at the National Women’s Political Caucus because it was an age in which you could go do things without much background, just because none of us had much background. But then you find a person like Millie, who has the background, who’s willing to teach you everything you need to know. So that was a great time.
JW: So, we’re up to ’82.
JM: Okay, so we have the convention. ’83, I think it is, I take a detour. I’m not sure what I want to do anymore. I’m not sure whether I want to work in a movement. I had divorced by that time, so I’m kind of on my own. I’m thinking about trying to get a real job, not that that wasn’t a real job, but with steady income, health insurance and maybe pension, I don’t know if I thought about that much.
But a friend of mine had been interviewing for jobs and he said, “I took a job and there’s one job left over, and I think you’d be good at it. It’s working for a committee on the Hill.” And I said, “Dick, I don’t have any experience.” He goes, “Yes, but you have your political experience, and that’s what he’s looking for.” So, he called up the guy and he said, “I can’t come, but my friend Joan can come, and I think you’ll really like her.”
I went up and Richard Medley was working on the House Banking Committee. He was the chief on the economic side. And he said, “I just need somebody to help me organize and keep on top of things.” He said, “I’m not good at details. Dick said, you’re good at details?” I said, “Well, I really am good at details.” So, we worked together. We shared an office on the Hill, and it was a totally different environment, and I loved it, and I loved working for the Banking Committee.
People said, “How did you get a job on a committee?” because usually you don’t get jobs on committees. And again, I just had the kinds of skills he was looking for at that moment, and he was willing to teach me about the issues. I didn’t know much about banking at all. I fell in love with the Federal Reserve, and that was our jurisdiction. We had to have hearings twice a year where the Fed chair would come, who was Paul Volcker at the time, and I would sometimes brief the chairman on, “What do you think we could do to make him smile because he’s so intimidating.”
JW: Who was the chairman?
JM: Paul Volcker.
JW: Oh, I’m sorry, you said that. The committee, actually.
JM: Fernand St Germain, who was a great fan of consumers and did a lot to make banking regulation more consumer friendly. He hated that it cost a penny when there was an overdraft, but banks could charge $15-$20 to the customer. It was good. He wasn’t good on all things. I won’t go into those details, but he was good on those things and gave me a wide berth to work, as did Richard. It also allowed me to see, remember when I talked about the Midterm Convention and we had those workshops and Lynn wanted people to be involved, elected women involved?
JM: One of those elected women was Gerry Ferraro. We recruited her to chair one of the panels, and I met Eleanor Lewis, who was her administrative assistant at the time. And so, being on the Hill, I could see Eleanor more and I could follow Gerry, what she was up to, and that later dovetail into things that become probably more interesting as second wave activity. That was our planning for the ’84 election cycle.
While I’m on the Hill, I’m still meeting with my friends who are doing stuff in the women’s movement. And Bella Abzug and I think Ellie Smeal together, called a group together to talk about women’s presence in the ’84 presidential election. In a way, it was the best of all times because almost all those who were running for the Democratic nomination were good on our issues.
And so, unlike other years, there wasn’t one candidate who had most of the movement leaders involved in the campaign. So, in that discussion about what should we do? We should, of course, continue to work on issues, but somebody raised the question, “Well, should we start thinking about a woman on the ticket?” And people got engaged with that.
Bella turned to me, we had worked on a few things together, and she was a close friend of Millie’s, and she said, “You’re the researcher. Go find out how people get to be on the ticket.” I am a good researcher. So, I went out, and at the next meeting I presented, here’s the different ways. But in the end, they usually don’t bring much to the ticket and best way to say it is, “Do no harm” and things of this nature.
Then people started talking about, “Well, let’s try to get this covered in the press and let’s try to do this.” And it seemed to split into two camps. Some people wanted to do it for the idea, and some people wanted to do it with actually somebody that might be viable to get on the ticket or to raise their presence for a future race. So, Joanne and I split on the side of, we don’t need to champion an idea anymore. We need to see if there are women in place who could be talked about, and lo and behold, maybe even chosen, or in the running at the end.
This was the beginning of what we later called the A-team. Joanne, me and Nanette Falkenberg tried to think through a different set of ways to get a person. We did not share that with the larger group, because they were going more towards what I nicknamed “the crusader.” I wanted a candidate. Others wanted a crusader that would hold the banner, but not necessarily be a viable choice.
JW: Common split on many, many issues. I’ve witnessed that. The ideal, or something practical, that maybe isn’t everything you want, but it’s a step forward.
JM: Very well said. It wasn’t we were against each other; we were just moving in different directions. So, Joanne, Nanette and I talked about it and I said, “Okay, I’m going to get some names together, and we’re all going to write the first sentence of each person. How, if we introduce them to the public, how the media might describe them.” And so, we did that. We agreed that some of the leading Democratic women, we couldn’t consider because they were not pro-choice. For us, we couldn’t do that.
So, somebody like Lindy Boggs, who fit the profile in so many ways, or Mary Rose Oakar, in so many ways, but they were not pro-choice. Then we would look at people like Diane Feinstein, who was the mayor of San Francisco, but we knew that part of the sentence would be that she became mayor when the mayor was assassinated, that she was Jewish, she had been married a couple of times, blah, blah, blah. Didn’t think for the first time in ’84 to have a woman on the ticket, that profile would sell. We knew what they would say about liberal San Francisco. She’s a local official, she’s a mayor.
Then we talked about Barbara Mikulski, House member from Maryland. Single, Catholic, not much experience on the political front, new member of the House, four foot eight. I mean, we were sort of brutal. And then there were a few others. Pat Schroeder I think was the hardest one, because on paper she had the best resume, but she was somewhat on her own within the party. We were afraid that she wouldn’t be able to get the support of the party regulars, or maybe even Tip O’Neill, who was speaker at the time. So she was never off the list, but she just didn’t fill it as well as we thought Gerry did.
JW: Was she just really too vocal on women’s issues? You think that might be?
JM: Yes, and sometimes strident, although I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think she was strident, but I think others felt she was strident. That was a hard one. But then we came to Gerry, and she was a three-term member. She held office in the Democratic Caucus, in the House. The speaker really liked and trusted her. She was Catholic. Pro-choice. She was married with three children. And the way we used to like to describe her is, most women could see something in her that was in them. They were either a wife and mother, or they waited to start their career until their children were older, as she did, or a big sister.
We just saw a sense of connection with women, and lack of a threat to men. Now, whether that was fair, or too practical, but that’s how she came to our consensus that she would be somebody we consider viable. Only negative at that point in time, was that she was saying it wasn’t time for a woman on the ticket. So, we knew we had our work cut out for her. But before we could even do that, once Nanette, Joanne and I agreed that she would be a potential viable, we had to go to Millie and ask Millie what she thought about the idea, and about Gerry.
We often made decisions over meals. So, Joanne had Millie out for brunch in Tacoma Park, Maryland, where she lived. After brunch, Millie said, “Why are we here? We don’t come together if we’re just eating. Why are we here?” We explained what I was thinking, and we went through all our rationale like I just did, and she said, “Okay. I think she’s a little bit too tough on crime for my taste, but I think that it’s within my wheelhouse to say, okay, we can disagree on that a little bit.” Because, you know, she had been a prosecutor and her slogan running for Congress was, “Finally a tough Democrat.”
So, Millie said, “Well, let’s try. Let’s see. What’s your plan?” And we said, “Well, this is the third part of our plan. First was to agree on somebody. Second is to talk to you, and third is to then ask you to start mentioning it. If you’re asked about, is it time for a woman on the ticket? Yes, and why? And when you’re asked for examples, you could drop Gerry’s name into the discussion.”
JW: I’m interested that you didn’t have talking to Gerry about it, in that short list.
JM: Well, we asked Millie to do those things. And once the press started talking about it, was when we decided it was time to ask Gerry. So, September, October, the idea really was taking hold. Part of it, I think, was because the press could focus on it and there were so many people trying to run for the nomination that it was hard for them to cover that anyway.
And we had some very wonderful women reporters, who, especially like Kay Mills, were really interested in covering these kinds of issues. As that happened, and as Ted Kennedy said, “Well, somebody like Gerry Ferraro might be a good one.” And as the speaker started saying names and including Gerry, we felt we had to, 1. Go to Gerry to at least stop saying no about the idea and then, 2. Maybe let us continue with our plan.
So, because I had met Gerry and her AA Eleanor Lewis in my DNC days, I was tasked with doing that. I called up Eleanor, we met in the House Banking Committee room. It’s a beautiful room and surrounded by wood panels. We’re both very short, we’re sitting and having coffee, chit-chatting, and I said, “I’ve got a question for you.” And she said, “Yes, what?” I said, “A few of us are interested in Gerry running for vice president.” And she said, “Of what?” I said, “The United States.” She goes, “Oh.” It was one of those great moments in time.
So, she said, “You want me to seriously ask her that question?” And I said, “Well, either ask it, or ask her if she’d be willing to meet with a few of us so we could discuss the idea and why we think she’d be good.” So, Eleanor went back to Gerry and said, “There are these women, and they’re very politically savvy, so I can’t take it lightly, but here’s what they want.” And I think Gerry was a little like, “What?” But give her credit, she was open to meeting with us. And so, we set a meeting.
We tried to think of all things, and then I can’t remember, it may have been Nannette who said, “You know, we shouldn’t do this in public, not in DC. Because somebody’s going to recognize somebody. They’re going to recognize Gerry, and then they’re going to recognize somebody and they’re going to wonder what’s going on.” So, we went through a variety of things, and we ended up that it was going to be at my efficiency apartment. And just like most working women, I would order out and we would eat Chinese food when she got there. I lived on Connecticut Avenue across from the zoo.
So, we invited her, and she came. And again, sometimes I’m too detailed, and sometimes it works, but I’m thinking, wouldn’t it be wonderful if she got a fortune cookie that said something about the campaign? We had one of those copiers where you could shrink things down. So, I made a lot of different things about the campaign. And then when we got the fortune cookies, we pulled out what fortune was in there, and we inserted a fortune that no matter which one she got, she would get one that mentioned the campaign. We planned everything.
We sat around, I didn’t have a lot of chairs, so we were unfolding chairs and things like that, and just explain to her what I’ve been explaining to you. Here’s our idea. Here’s why we think you’re viable, here’s what would happen if we did this. You don’t have to answer tonight, but would you think about it and get back to us soon? Because if we are going to do this, we’ve got to get to the next parts of the plan. She went home and thought about it, and she and Eleanor talked about it on the way home, and she agreed to at least stop saying it wasn’t time. And if we carried out the rest of the plan, she would consider that her name be mentioned.
JW: Do you remember what fortune she got out of her cookie?
JM: No, I should. I mean, she has it in her book. I think it says, in ’84, you’ll meet a man in San Francisco, and travel around the country. It was something like that. And of course, she said, “You’re not going to believe what my fortune said.” She just looked over the top of her glasses. “You guys are good.” The idea did take off and the next thing we had to do was then try to figure out how to give her more visibility.
I think one reason I’m willing to talk about this, and I have talked about it when I went on to teach at a small college out here, is to empower people, especially women, to know that it’s not always something big that starts a movement or an idea. It’s the gritty, gutty organizing and the willingness to dare. How in the world we dared think we could get a woman on the ticket, and that woman be the person we hoped it would be, I don’t know. But we had had enough exposure to thinking, why not us? Why not this time?
So, it is a lot of little things that mount up and it also was a special time within the movement. We all joke, now we would never get hired because we don’t have the credentials that it takes to get hired at EMILY’s List, or the credentials it takes to be a consultant. Then, it was the true being at the grassroots level, when big things started happening.
JW: Well, I think we need that now too.
JM: Yes, it’s got to be a nice mix. And I think younger women are much more savvy than we are, of taking leadership roles earlier in their careers. And I love when younger women are talking about intersectionality, how all these issues cross back and forth. I think they get it at a visceral sense.
JW: So, you left DC then to go to Ohio, is that right?
JM: We first did the campaign. “Team A” comprised of Joanne, Nanette, Millie Eleanor and me expanded when Joanne Symons (political director of the American Nurses Association) and Ranny Cooper (executive director of Ted Kennedy’s Fund for a Democratic Majority) joined our behind the scenes efforts. We had to find a way to get Gerry to be more visible. And so, we worked within the party to get her selected to be the platform chair, which allowed her to go around the country and talk about issues and meet people. And then we worked with her as Mondale was trying to narrow down his selection. We had a mock interview about what he might ask and things of that nature.
And then when Gerry was chosen to be on the ticket with Mondale, a number of her behind the scenes advocates helped her out on the campaign trail. Eleanor was with her throughout the general election. Ranny Cooper remained a close advisor as did Pam Fleischaker (a long-time friend and the first director of the Women’s Campaign Fund). I joined the campaign staff and periodically traveled with Gerry to brief her on local issues and meetings with women’s activists.
And then, it was after the election was over, another turning point in my life was, “Now what do we do? Now what do I do?” I got my undergraduate degree in a very haphazard manner. I went to four different colleges, was the first in my family to go to college, I dropped out of college, blah, blah, blah. So, I thought, I’d love to go to grad school. And that’s what I did.
My friend Richard, who I worked with at the Banking Committee, goes, “Well, where do you want to go?” I said, “I’m not sure. I just want to go somewhere where it’s big and they don’t know anything about me. I just want to be an anonymous grad student.” And he said, “I know exactly where you should go. You should move to my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and you should go to The Ohio State University.” And I did. I came to Ohio to get my Ph.D. in political science.
Along the way, I fell in love again. And this time, I fell in love with a woman, my partner/wife, Cindy. And what I think is really full circle, is that we got married at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. We went to Brooklyn to get the license, and then we had 60 days to use it. So, we decided to use it at Chautauqua Institution. We got married there.
We were UCC, but we didn’t know that minister. He wanted to know a little bit about me, and when we got there, the garden he chose was the garden that one of the institute’s leaders, long time ago, had invited Alice Paul to talk about the right of women to vote, even though that person disagreed with that right.
So, he said, “When I saw what you went into, I thought, this is the perfect garden for you to get married.” We just had a very small, intimate ceremony. My friends were aghast that we didn’t have something big. So, Joanne decided that she would host our first anniversary party. And she and Marie and Nanette and another friend of ours, Maureen Murray, hosted it, and it was set for June 27, 2015.
And I said, “That’s great, because I’m teaching my American Politics and the Mass Media class this semester, so while in D.C. I’ll spend time observing the media’s coverage of the Supreme Court’s end of session decisions in several high profile cases.” Ironically one of those cases was Obergefell v. Hodges which would decide whether there was a Constitutional basis for same sex marriages and if so, whether those marriages must be recognized as legal in all states.
So the day before our anniversary party, Cindy and I were on the steps of the Supreme Court when it ruled same sex marriage was constitutional. Like most everybody else in the crowd that day, we were just mesmerized that it was a full decision.
Many of us thought maybe they would say, “could be”, but didn’t have to be recognized by all states. I remember Joanne saying, “Hey, they did it for you. They knew the party was tomorrow. Isn’t it great? What is our timing? Our timing has always been good.” So, I just think it’s so wonderful that there is full circle on that.
JW: That’s just so lovely.
JM: I taught at Ohio Wesleyan University for 25 years, and that experience was like passing the torch. That was for both young men and women, getting them to understand democracy, how it works, that they could become a part in many different ways. Marie and Joanne had a consulting firm, Bass and Howes, and they often took interns from my classes and things that of nature. So, it was a wonderful way to continue the legacy.
Millie came to campus and lectured. She was given an honorary degree from Ohio Wesleyan. I spent the first seven years of my research career working on a documentary about Millie called, The Secret to Change and I brought students to the opening of that video, and they got to meet her.
Then circle back the year 2000, Lynn Cutler is working in the White House and she called me up and she said, “Joan, they’re doing the Medal of Freedom nominees. I think Millie should be one of them, but I don’t have enough information on her.” I said, “Okay, got it.” Our film ends at the White House with Bill Clinton giving Millie the medal, putting it around her neck. It has just been a wonderful experience. Lifelong friendships that continue to this day.
JW: Well, is there anything you’d like to add before we end?
JM: I don’t think so, but I wanted to say that even during our bout with COVID in this country, we managed to stay connected. Marie, Joanne, Nanette, and I talked every week by zoom and continue to do so. In fact, I’m talking to them in an hour. And we added a second zoom with a larger group, that includes Ellen Malcolm, the founder of EMILY’s List. In 1985, EMILY’s List was started to help raise money to elect more pro-choice, Democratic women to office. We gathered in Ellen’s basement with our rolodexes so we could write to others we thought might join our efforts. Now decades later many of us are still in touch and zooming together. So, Ellen’s on the call as is Eleanor Lewis, Ranny Cooper, Pam Fleischaker, Judy Lichtman, Marcia Greenberger, and Mimi Mager.
We do a bigger call once the month or so. It is a testament to how important it is to find your people.