Linda Wassenich

“I Think Everybody Has a Part to Play.”

Interviewed by VFA member, Suzanne Tuckey, March 2022

ST:  Hello, Linda. Thank you so much for being here. I wanted to speak with you today about your experiences during the second wave of the women’s movement, roughly from the year 1965 to 1982. Not only what you did, but your thoughts and feelings around it, and then also broadening that. I want to go back and hear your thoughts on what experiences you had earlier in life that motivated you to get involved and motivated you to have the perspectives you did on the world.

And then also reflecting on years since the second wave women’s movement, how you feel things have evolved since then. There has been a lot going on in the world. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts about that. What’s good and bad. First, reflecting on that period, specifically, roughly the late 60’s through the 70’s, could you describe your experiences during that period, how you were involved, the organizations, the events, how you experienced that period and your thoughts on it?

LW:  Sure. Actually, 1965 was the year I got married. My husband was fulfilling his ROTC commitment in the Air Force, and we ended up living in Germany for three years, which was a wonderful experience. But of course, having just graduated from college, I was convinced that I could go over to Germany and learn German and meet all the local people. I did make some friends, and I’m still in touch with some of them, which is remarkable since it’s been over 50 years that we were there.

But one of the interesting anecdotes about that experience is that I had a teacher certificate, but I had no teaching experience since I had just graduated from college. I was not eligible to teach in the school for the children of the Air Force people who were living there. As a result, I ended up working in the base education center basically 4 hours a day, five days a week. I talked to new arrivals about what the education center had to offer.  I also taught American History and Government in the Adult Evening High School to airmen and spouses who had not graduated from high school.

I got very involved with the German American French wives’ club. We had a French military base there, and of course, the American base and the people in the town. Being young and naïve, I went to all the meetings and I enjoyed it so much. It was just a wonderful experience to get to know these ladies, and they were very gracious.

The last year we were there, when it was time to elect officers for the club, I was nominated as the American president, and there was no one else nominated to serve as the American president. The amusing part was that at the last minute, somebody who had not come very often, a major’s wife, was nominated. I don’t think she knew very many people, and I was elected.

I thought that was an interesting expression, perhaps, of men’s attitudes toward women in positions that might have some consequences. I say that  because the women in the French American German Wives Club had some presence in the community. It was a respected, if you will, political organization. It was intended to build relationships among the three nationalities, especially since we were just 20 years out from World War II and trying to heal the relationships between Germans and Americans. They thought maybe this young gal from Texas didn’t know very much and couldn’t fulfill that responsibility.

After we spent three years in Germany, we came back to the United States  and entered graduate school.  I got my masters in social work at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Then we moved to Dallas in 1970, and we’ve been here ever since.  When I was working on my social work degree. I recognized I was much more interested in public policy than I was in clinical practice of working with people.

I had several different jobs in the course of the years that I worked. I worked with the family court counselors to prepare family studies to help the Court decide custody and visitation rights. Then I went to work for the Visiting Nurse Association (VNA). I had two separate stints with the VNA. And in those two periods, I held several different positions.  I worked  on the public policy aspects of health care, which was fascinating to me. I also worked for the Lone Star Council of Camp Fire and Incest Recovery Association.

The public policy interest coincided beautifully with my avocational interest in the League of Women Voters, which is the only organization that has survived out of the women’s suffrage movement that culminated 102 years ago in 1920. One of the things that I love about the League of Women Voters  is that the League is not afraid of tackling any kind of issue, technical public policy that deals with human lives, subject matter that is so important to the way we live in our communities.

And I think that’s where my zeal, if you want to call it being a feminist, came about. I recognized how important our public policies are in the way people are treated in the community. We have so many things that affect children, that affect women, that affect men, affect how we live in society together.

I find the League of Women Voters to be one of those organizations that very calmly looks at the facts, finds out what the majority of the group thinks or what the consensus is. Actually, League positions are not even based on just the majority, but the consensus, what the group, as a whole, thinks about a particular issue. Right now, we’re focused on making democracy work and concentrating on voting rights, election administration, registering people to vote, redistricting, and money and politics.

ST:  You are going back to a number of things you’ve done in the past, and you’ve done so many things. You were involved with HIV and AIDS prevention programs years ago. Human Rights Initiatives, Community Council of Greater Dallas. These are all other things in your bio.

LW:  These are just different organizations that I worked with. The HIV/AIDS program in Dallas was controversial.  This is a funny story, really, but it’s kind of sad. Dallas at the time was receiving federal grants for AIDS prevention and treatment. One of our county commissioners got upset because he said we were condoning indiscriminate sexual behavior because we were distributing bleach kits for drug users to sanitize and keep from spreading AIDS.

The county decided it wasn’t going to sponsor or be the recipient of these federal grants. I was working for the Visiting Nurse Association and thought we can’t afford to not get those grants because people’s lives are at stake. I quietly talked to several people in political positions who could make a difference, got some recommendations about how to proceed, and by golly, it worked.

It was not a 100% win because the grants were transferred to UT Southwestern Medical School, which has a much higher overhead rate, so more of the money went to the administration of the medical school. That was unfortunate because it wasn’t paying for direct services. But the flip side of it was we wouldn’t have gotten those grants at all if we hadn’t been able to make those changes.

This controversy occurred during one summer when I had three or four social work interns working with me. I kept sending them to all the commissioners court meetings and other meetings as well. I said, it’s amazing because it only took a summer to turn that situation around. It’s very unusual in community organizing that you get results that quickly.

ST:  These are all examples of ways that public policies impact people’s lives and things that impact women are all embedded in this. But things that impact women directly or indirectly, it’s all part of the larger story.

LW:  Yes. I love the phrase that the Texas Women’s Foundation has, and I’m going to paraphrase it a little bit. It says when you help a woman, you help her family, and when you help her family, you help the community to be stronger, to have positive results in raising children. Even if you look at it from an aging standpoint, as the woman ages, it makes a difference to be able to respond to those needs. Of course, women typically live longer than men. We have a lot of aging women to be aware of and to take care of.

ST:  You said as you help women, you help the community. I would say as you help the community, you help the world. You mentioned aging. I also read that you chair the advisory Council of the Dallas Area Agency on Aging. You’ve done many things.

LW:  Yes. It’s funny, I consider myself a generalist when it comes to things that I’m interested in reading and studying. I think, gosh, I admire people who focus in on one particular issue or work so hard on one thing, but that’s not me. On the other hand, I appreciate having a broad background because it helps me “get it” a lot faster than some people do.

We were talking earlier about calling ourselves feminists. In that sense, I am completely aware of the benefits of having a generalist background because that’s how you recognize that even though maybe you don’t have the expertise in that field, you still have something to contribute because you know how this issue fits in with the rest of issues. We gals are pretty sophisticated in recognizing the role of women, and nowadays we just don’t sit back and say, “whatever you want, honey.”

ST:  The broad perspective, the generalist perspective, the wisdom of that is seeing the interdependencies between many things. All of these things are ultimately connected. I appreciate that. I’m sure you spoke to some of these things, but just thinking of your experiences again, still focusing on that period that’s associated with the second wave women’s movement or feminist movement, of all of that, how would you describe what you feel best about, what you feel you’ve most accomplished or what you’re most proud of?

LW:  The main thing that I feel proud of, now this is going to sound kind of silly, but I’m an old lady now, even though this is my natural hair color. I don’t have the energy to do things that I used to do. But what I’m most proud of is that I did have the opportunity and I took it, to stand up for some things like the HIV/AIDS programs.

We had a number of different ways of going about helping women. One of our projects, at the Visiting Nurse Association, was to provide home visits to young mothers, usually teenagers, who needed support when they came home from the hospital after they had a baby. There’s some wonderful research that shows just the intervention of a few visits during the child’s first two years can make a huge difference in both the baby’s history and the mother’s history.

More often, the mother will go back to school, finish high school, stay off drugs, get a job, keep a job. When the child grows up, he or she is able to finish high school, often go on to college, stay out of trouble, not go to jail and be able to avoid risk behaviors like smoking and drinking, and drugs. And it costs so little.

This is one of the things I get frustrated about because there’s so much research out there that shows that these programs, if we paid what it costs to do these kinds of preventive programs, save sometimes ten times as much money as we spend trying to deal with the consequences of bad choices. Our President is trying to suggest that an ounce of prevention or intervention at the beginning can make a huge difference on down the road.

ST:  Just more examples of how policy makes such a difference and how it has a ripple effect to be very broad and doing the right thing at the right time. Smarter spending. That’s awesome. Still focusing on that period when you think back during those years and what was going on during those years.

What are your thoughts about the things that made it a struggle, like the roadblocks, the frustrations you had during that period that might or might not still be here? Put us in that period to help us imagine, remember or understand what it was like for folks.

LW:  One of the things that I think is very telling, since I’m living in Dallas, is women’s right to make her own reproductive choices.  1973 was the date of the Supreme Court decision on Roe versus Wade. Henry Wade was the Dallas County district attorney, and that case originated here; it went up through the Fifth Circuit to the Supreme Court. To me, this is an example of how our public policies have become perhaps worse than they were, because even though technically women can still get an abortion in some states, at least in early stages of pregnancy,  many state legislatures are trying to make things so difficult.

It surprises me how ignorant some state legislators are about women’s reproductive systems. You may recall there was a legislator, I think, in Missouri when they were debating abortion. He wanted to prevent abortion. Somebody asked what about in the cases of rape or incest? And he said, oh, well, you can’t get pregnant the first time. Well, some women have gotten pregnant the first time.

And the Texas law says no abortions after six weeks.  A lot of women don’t have such regular periods. They don’t know they’re pregnant at the six-week mark. And do you think that those legislators listen to anybody’s input? I don’t think so. And that’s really sad. We  need to pay attention to women’s voices, especially about an issue that affects women as much as reproductive choice.

On the other hand, we see lots more women in positions that used to mostly be male only. TV anchors, TV reporters, doctors, gosh half my doctors or more are female, lawyers. Many more women going to law school. The medical school in Dallas, UT Southwestern, has more women than men enrolled in their classes, and those are wonderful steps forward. What I’ve read is we still don’t get paid the same as men for the same jobs, but it’s getting better. I think it’s like $0.80 on the dollar or something like that.

ST:  For white women, and if you’re a woman of color, it’s much worse. It sounds like your message is some of the frustrations that we’re still dealing with today. Some have gotten better, some haven’t. The reproductive rights issue and the access to a full range of professional options.

LW:  What this speaks to, in my opinion, is we have to be vigilant. In fact, I think this is true for men and women. We can’t ever relax and say, oh, well, we fought that battle and it’s over and everything is going to be great. You know, speaking more in terms of race relations, we make progress and then we see some setbacks.

It’s important to recognize that we truly are almost in charge of our own destiny, meaning that we need to stay aware. We can’t shut down and say, okay, it doesn’t matter. We’ve gotten this much progress and I’m going to quit looking at whatever. All of this speaks to the fact that we live in a society where we are in constant contact with people, and the mantra is to love others as you love yourself, to be able to treat people, men and women, boys and girls, with dignity and respect and appreciation for who they are. They may be very different from us.

ST:  Again, as a generalist. So that message applies no matter who you are. It might be someone very different from me or you. You said something a while ago, I’d love to actually go back to that briefly. You mentioned the word feminist and I know that word can be, especially in recent decades, since that is the era that we’re focusing on, that word has different meanings to different people, and it can be kind of controversial. If you have any other things to say about how you experienced that word and what your thoughts are about it out in the world. I’d love to hear that. If not, we can move on.

LW:  Yes, I did. I just saw something recently that was talking about how feminist is not a word that many people use now, kind of a recognition that we’ve moved on, maybe. I don’t know what an alternative word is, but it’s interesting. I hear men refer to themselves as feminists when they want to affirm to women that they do understand and respect women’s rights and roles in our society.

Maybe one of the things [was] that I felt like feminist didn’t match me. I’m not a go out and demonstrate type person. I want to work on the sources of the problem, so to speak, the policies that make things go the way they go. Back in the 70’s, that was a pretty hot period of time when people were demonstrating. I always think about the bra burning, but just demonstrating in the streets. No. And that’s not me. I don’t relate well to that. But I don’t have an alternate word to use either.

ST:  Many people relate to particular words in different ways. It’s kind of that spirit. I mean, you spoke more of that generalist spirit for having everyone at a place at the table with opportunities, full opportunities and full respect of everyone.

LW:  Beautifully said.

ST:  Thank you. I would love to broaden a bit and think back on your life because you talked about that period and things that you were doing and what it meant to you. But if you look back at the earlier part in your life, can you think of people, events, things you read, anything that you see that influenced you to care about the things you cared about and do the things you did?

LW:  I have to say that I’m fortunate that I had wonderful parents. My mother was a social worker, and she had a heart as big as her whole tiny little body. It was just amazing. She cared about people, she remembered people, and she did things for people. My father-in-law once asked me what influenced my values, and I just blurted out, “Oh, my mother did.” And then, as I thought more about it, and I  realized that my faith, my church also influenced my values.

But I definitely grew up in a household in Houston that appreciated individuals of all colors. My mother used to invite her co-workers from Family Services for Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas dinner if they didn’t have relatives nearby. That meant we had some black couples. And it was really wonderful. At the time of course, I didn’t think about it as this is something that influenced me. It just was the way it was.

I grew up as an only child, and that also probably made me more aware of how things affect other people. I’m going to fast forward a little bit. I didn’t talk about my family except for the fact that I married right out of college. Mark and I have two boys. They’re middle-aged adults now. But I did take some time off when the first one was born, went back to work, and took about four years off with the second son.

For me, that was the right thing to do. It was important to have that time with babies, not saying I was particularly a good baby person, even with my grandson. It’s not my favorite time, but I think women have such an important role in nurturing human life and connections and the continuity of family lines that are important.

I’m just thankful for all that I’ve been able to do, including the volunteer work. When I started going to weekend board meetings in Austin for the League of Women Voters and then was on the national board, I left my husband by himself, and he had to fend for himself in terms of meals and that sort of thing. But that’s good for him. It’s something that every man needs to know, how to at least prepare something to eat.

ST:  Awesome. Great foundation with your parents. Just moving back to the second wave feminist movement. Thinking of the movement in general, when you look back on it now, not necessarily your personal experiences or direct experiences, but when you look at the movement and that era, do you have any thoughts on what was primarily going on, what their primary goals were at the time and what they accomplished at the time? Because I’d like to have that as a foundation and then from there move forward on how things have gone since. But every era, and every movement, has a certain focus, and then it matures and evolves through time. I’m just curious, when you think back on that era, how you viewed the movement in the larger society.

LW:  I’m not sure I was aware enough at the time to know what they were trying to do, but I do have the feeling, at least, that there were a couple of really major issues, one of them having to do with women’s health care, reproductive choices, and the other having to do with equal pay for equal work or raising the glass ceiling.

Those two things kind of come together. If women couldn’t be promoted past a certain point, they hit the proverbial glass ceiling, or they could be promoted but wouldn’t get the same pay. I think those three issues: the reproductive choice, the role of women in the workforce in terms of both pay and positions were my impressions of what the second wave of women’s rights were focused on.

ST:  Reproductive choice has so much to do with what women were able to do professionally. Like you said, they’re very tied together. I know your earliest years weren’t in Dallas. You grew up in Houston, though. Thinking back to that era, what was it like in Texas versus the larger society versus more national? Do you think that Texas was in any different position from other areas of the country back then, and then we can move on to think of how we’ve moved forward as well.

LW:  Even back in the 50’s, Texas has always been a very conservative state. A lot of the approaches to dealing with women’s issues were primarily behind, if you will, or just not as progressive, not as insightful as other states, but weren’t really altogether outlandish. It just was slow.

ST:  Yes. There’s still lots of people working on these things. Which is why I wanted to move towards thinking, because we’ve had several decades since then, when you think of the women’s movement or even more in a general way, all of these issues that involve people having a seat at the table and open opportunity and all of those things, when you think of the last several decades, what are your thoughts on how it’s evolved, positive or negative?

LW:  I alluded to this a little bit earlier. There are certain areas where we’ve made major strides, certainly the sensitivity both to gender and to racial or ethnic background when it comes to positions that we see regularly, like news moderators on television, reporters, doctors, lawyers. And that doesn’t seem to be likely to change anytime soon, because as I mentioned before, over half the medical students at UT Southwestern are women.

On the other hand, I think there’s a throwback on the issue of reproductive rights. Men are trying to keep women from having any choice in the matter. It’s concerning to me that they think they can prescribe or rule what happens to women because it’s not always in the woman’s best interest.

Some of the latest laws the Texas legislature has passed, they must think, this is for the women’s benefit, this is for women’s health. But it’s not. To make a 13-year-old girl go through a pregnancy is not in her best interest physically, emotionally or socio-economically because she can’t support a child. I think it’s a mixed bag. I really do.

ST:  Speaking from all of your life and all the ways you’ve grown and learned and all the wisdom you’ve gained, what can you say when you think of people who are getting involved with all of these issues in this generalist category, people that are getting involved today or even people in the future that aren’t involved yet, but will be. What kind of wisdom or advice would you want to share for those folks now or in the future?

LW:  I have two things. One is I think everybody has a part to play, and sometimes we think, oh, I couldn’t possibly do such and such. But if you take a small part of it, maybe it’s to make phone calls, maybe it’s to write the publicity announcements for an event. Maybe it’s to invite a friend to go with you to the demonstration, whatever it is, everyone can have some role and you don’t have to do the whole thing.

And the other piece is, I think, finding out where your strengths are, what gives you joy in life. It’s so necessary to remember that we’re all human beings. As some people have recently been saying, there is no race except the human race. We need to work on our interpersonal relationships with people whom we are around and people whom we maybe don’t see very often but still pass each other on the sidewalk.

It’s just so important to recognize the common humanity in all of us. When I look back, I think gosh, some of the things that I am most proud of are the wonderful friendships that I have. And I think that you take a lot of satisfaction out of being a good friend and being there for a friend when they need a friend.

ST:  Through all of this work that you talk about doing whatever it is you do, drawing on your joy, whatever. One of the things you get from it is you can develop some great friends, lifelong friends. It’s like the joy of work, the things that can come from it. In Texas, with some of what you’ve already described, all of that is true as well. It’s just the challenges are here. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

LW:  When you live in Texas, it made me think, it’s also incumbent upon us to realize that we can be friends with people who have different opinions. If it’s too difficult to talk about those things that we disagree on, just avoid those topics and recognize the other aspects of the friendship that are safe to talk about, if you will. Or if you want to be really adventurous, you can say, okay, we agree to disagree, but let’s go ahead and talk about it, see if you can promote civil discourse. I think we lack that.

One of the things that really concerns me as far as our future is concerned is why so many people are willing to almost become followers in a cult. I don’t understand the abandonment of common sense, of knowledge about what has transpired and sometimes leads to making some bad decisions about how we as a nation interact with another nation or what have you.

In summary, I would say it’s incumbent upon all of us to keep learning, whether you’re a generalist or a specialist, to keep working at gaining knowledge and using it to be sure that you’re on top of issues and don’t get misled into something that’s not good for us.

ST:  I always like to end with a concluding thought or statement because we’ve reflected on your life and then beyond, all these things going on in the world. Would love to hear a closing thought from you. If you think of a theme or a message that sort of captures the essence of your life as this generalist that’s working for human good, how would you sum that up? A simple phrase or a couple of sentences, whatever you want.

LW:  I probably said some of them, but I’m happy to repeat. One of the main things is to find your joy, find what you really love to do and pursue that. We all have talents and to understand what our talents are and how they can be used is critical. And then the most important thing is to remember that we’re all human beings. We were all created in the same way and called to respect each other with the dignity and kindness and appreciation that each person deserves.