THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Marilyn Ray Smith
“It’s really important for women to all row in the same direction.”
Interviewed by Rosemary Trowbridge, January 2022
MS: My birth name is Marilyn Ray Smith. I was born on September 30, 1943, in Lakeland, Florida, which is right in the middle of Florida and in the middle of citrus country and phosphate country.
RT: Briefly, what was your life like before you got involved in the women’s movement?
MS: I came from a long tradition of feminists in my family. My great aunt, who was a big inspiration for my mother, never married, and she was a college teacher, teaching voice in music and knew French and German. My mother was a pianist even though she grew up in a very Southern, traditional home. She never learned to cook or to sew or do anything but play the piano. She always had a spirit of independence.
I grew up surrounded by the notion that women should have equal opportunity. But on the other hand, I grew up in the south, which was surrounded by the notion that women should be in the home and not heard and only be attractive and take care of the men in their lives. There was always that family conflict growing up.
I knew from an early age that I wanted to go north to school because I had been reading many books as a child. There was nothing to do but read books. It was clear to me that all the smart women in America came from Massachusetts. I remember Abigail Adams; we’ll just start with her. I was fortunate enough for Smith College to give me a really nice scholarship and allow me to get on that train and go north in the fall of 1961.
That was really one of the most important crossroads in my life, because Smith just opened up an incredible wealth of education and powerful women and the notion that women could do anything. Even though this was long before the start of the women’s movement, in the second wave, as we know it. 1961 was still very much like the 50’s in terms of people’s culture and the things that they thought about and aspirations that they had for women.
Smith gave me a big boost and I was really incredibly happy to go to an all-women’s college. I think that the notion that I could flourish there in ways that would have never been possible at a coed college, where they’re the best of the Ivy Leagues in the north, who were the best of the universities in the south. This was at a pivotal point for women and Smith was much more on the cutting edge. It’s no small coincidence that both Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were Smith College graduates. That was not lost on me very early in the process.
But the women’s movement still was asleep in the early 60’s. Instead, the civil rights movement was heating up and being a Southerner in the North, I was acutely attuned to what was going on. I had grown up in a family that no one would characterize as pro civil rights because that concept didn’t exist in the 50’s. But my parents were both liberal minded members of the ACLU.
Most of my father’s clients were black. He refused to join the Ku Klux Klan when he was a young lawyer. He never made a lot of money as a lawyer because his clients often couldn’t pay him. But I was exposed to a lot of more forward-thinking ideas than most people in the south at the time were exposed to.
A couple of examples that I like to recount is that when I was three or four years old, maybe five, we were on a bus going to Alabama to visit relatives and a sailor got on the bus in the middle of the night and there was no other seat except next to a black woman. The bus driver wanted her to get up and move and she didn’t want to. This was long before Rosa Parks. This is in the late ’40s. My mother said she can sit next to me. I’m perfectly happy for her to sit next to me so the white sailor can have that seat.
The black woman still didn’t want to move. Then the bus driver got mad not only at the black woman, but also at my mother. He threw me and my sister, who was a baby, and my mother off the bus in the middle of night in north Florida. My mother later wrote a letter to the Greyhound Bus Company complaining of their violation of human rights.
She was using the word human rights in 1948 and I’m sure she’d gotten that from Eleanor Roosevelt. But the point was that that was a term that was used in my house and a similar reaction to the bus strike in Montgomery in the early 50’s and Brown versus Board of Education. When all those things were happening, my mother’s attitude was “It’s about time. This is what should be happening. We’re in favor of this.”
That was not a typical conversation that went on in my childhood playmates’ houses. I was very much prepared to go to the north. This is a little bit of diversion. I went to junior year abroad in Paris, which is also an amazing experience. Then when I came back after graduation, I worked for a summer organizing voting rights petitions in eastern North Carolina, where most of the counties were close to 50% black and white.
That was this summer that the Voting Rights Act was passed and Martin Luther King’s organization was organizing these movements. I had been connected to the civil rights movements all along. We know when the anti-war protests started. I was involved in that, the march on the Pentagon in 1969 I think it was. All of this stuff was very common in the 19th century, and I had done a lot of work in college and graduate school at that point on the history of the south and ethnic history.
It has been common for the women’s movement to be on the coattails of the civil rights movement. Many of the early abolitionists were feminists, and the women’s movement started the first wave mainly after the Civil War by a lot of people who had been involved in the abolitionist movement and who had been heavily influenced by it, including the right to vote.
This similar thing happened in the late 60’s where women were involved in the civil rights movement, and Stokely Carmichael was famously quoted to have said, the only position for women in SNCC and civil rights movement is prone. Well, that was a wakeup call to a lot of women. I had gone to graduate school, I worked in Washington for a year, couldn’t get ahead.
I have to tell a story, because it’s a funny one. When I was at Smith, and I had done very well in spite of having to struggle the first year when I couldn’t decide when I graduated, do I want to go to law school, or do I want to get a PhD in history? I went to my guidance counselor and she said, “Well, what you should do is go to Katie Gibbs and become an executive secretary, or get a masters in arts in teaching and teach high school.”
I said to her then, this is 1965, before the women’s movement had gotten under way, “Excuse me. I did not come to Smith College in order to be a high school teacher or a secretary. I’m doing something more than that.” I tried to decide law or academia. I went to Washington to see if I could be a lawyer and I wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t strong enough. I did not have the feminist consciousness awakening. I was still lacking in a lot of self-confidence as is the case for so many women in that era.
I said, the law is not for me. I’m going to go to graduate school. I came back to Boston and went to Brandeis, focusing on ethnic history and a little bit of black history but still finding my way. But it was very difficult. But this time it must have been 1968 or 1969. I looked around the room one day and said, “I don’t smoke a pipe, don’t have a beard, don’t wear a tweed jacket, don’t have a chance,” and so I dropped out.
At that point, I was really primed to join the women’s movement, and I don’t think anybody introduced me to it. I don’t think I had a friend who said, “Oh, you should join NOW.” I think I had just seen NOW in the newspapers, and they had an office down on Newbury Street. I walked in there one day and I said, “I’m ready. I’m ready to sign up.” They put me to work, working on different things. One of them was the image of women in the media.
I had not gone to law school yet, but I’d met some lawyers through NOW that were working on feminist issues and they were great inspirers and mentors to me. Some of whom I’m still quite good friends with these many years later. At some point, Julia [Wan], I guess, was present at that point and I was active in different communities and organizing a lot of consciousness raising groups. I was very good at organizing consciousness raising groups. I thought they were incredibly important for women to get together and talk about the pains in their history.
There’s a slogan in a Chinese Culture Revolution about speaking pain, eases pain. They had used a lot of consciousness raising groups in organizing the Chinese Revolution. We would gather, usually about 12 or 15 women, in different women’s homes and swapping different homes every week. People would just talk about their experiences and the frustrations that they were running into.
That was very powerful for me and meanwhile, I was reading every book I could get my hands on. Not just Betty Friedan’s book, but Germaine Greer and Carolyn Heilbrun, and every single book that’s on a bookshelf in that era about women’s rights and the history of the women’s movement into the 19th century and earlier.
I don’t know if it was Julia or somebody asked me to run for the President of NOW, and I was very timid and afraid. I didn’t have that much self-confidence, but I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” In the meantime, I had decided to go to law school during that year. The year of 1973 I was president of NOW and it was also the year that Roe v. Wade first came down from the U.S. Supreme Court. We lobbied on the State House for credit rights and a lot of different piecemeal legislation that was needed to correct the inequalities in the law in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and organizing more consciousness raising groups and expanding the chapter.
I can’t remember too many other things that were enormously consequential, except that I started law school that fall. I went to Northeastern Law School, which at that point was one of the first law schools in the country to have more than 50% of women in its admitting class. That year was the breakthrough year for law school for women. The year before women had been admitted to law school were about 7-10% of the admitting class. Then nationally, I think that year was 20%, in Northeastern more than 50%. Maybe there was one other law school that had that record.
Northeastern was a very hospitable place for women who wanted to be lawyers. No one thought it was strange. That was not true at Harvard Law School. I had worked for a year at Harvard Law School during that year while I was president of NOW, and it was not a very supportive place for an aspiring feminist. Harvard Law School is very hostile to women, not only to the secretaries, which I was a glorified secretary, but also to the women in the law school. That’s where I met Diane Lund. She was one of the few women on the faculty and she was off in a corner because she was teaching Woman and the Law. It’s like, what’s that? That was pretty much the attitude of the law school.
RT: You were president of NOW. Do you want to talk about that?
MS: Sure. It was a big moment for me. I had not sought the role, but similarly, when I was in high school, I had not sought the role but I was asked to be the president of one of the girl’s organizations that had all the popular girls in it. Not me, but the ones who were cheerleaders. For some reason, people would see me and say, we want you to be our leader. But I did not seek it and I still to this day don’t know why they thought I would make a good president, but I said okay.
I think it’s because I was willing to work hard and I also think that I understood the issues and was not particularly competitive. I try not to be super competitive with other people, but rather to be collaborative and get along. That year was a big year of consolidating task forces and membership and less publicity, because that work had been done by the predecessors of NOW. It was much more into building an organization at the grassroots level and having more consciousness raising groups, reaching out to more people and having a more diverse, although at that time, no one talked about racial diversity, but more diversity in terms of women from a lot of different kind of backgrounds.
The focus at that point was really on changing laws and increasing opportunities for women in the workplace, childcare – the intense focus on abortion rights came later because that was the year, actually, that the Roe v. Wade case came down. That seemed to be an issue that was going to be settled. Little did we know, 50 something years later, we’re talking about this again.
Then the last part of my tenure there, I was in law school. That was a significant distraction. But as the organization passed on to other people who have been very active, I got less involved with NOW because not only that, my first year as past President, I was in law school but then the second year as past President, I was pregnant with my first son. I think I got pregnant the last week I was president of NOW.
The reason it is funny, is because at the time, nobody was having babies. Nobody in my cohort was having babies. Women in NOW either already had their kids and were thinking about how can they get divorced from their husbands, or they were married and didn’t want to have kids, or they weren’t married and they didn’t want to get married. I was the only person I knew who was having a baby and I made the joke that people thought I was a traitor, because not only did I get pregnant, I went on to have three boys.
Where were the girls? How come you didn’t have girls? My brothers tormented me by saying that was God getting even with me for being a feminist. I finally realized it was God’s gift to me to raise three beautiful feminist sons whose calling card, when they met their wives, all three of them was, my mother was a feminist. My mother was president of NOW. The girls said, “Okay, I’ll go out with you.” There were some good that came out of that.
We organized a big rally. I think that was the first time NOW did a big rally on the esplanade in honor of August 26. Carolyn Schneider was the vice president. She did a lot of publicity. She was much bolder in dealing with the press than I was. I was fairly press-averse at the time. I got over it when I went to work for the Department of Revenue and the Child Support Program.
But the thing that was most important for me was that it really helped me make the transition into thinking of leadership and being powerful and making a difference in the world. It gave me the courage to go on and do the work that I did and for the child support enforcement program, which really was transformational. I never would have been able to do that if I had not had that experience in NOW.
What I learned from feminism and what it is that holds women back, really, even to this day, is the subtle messages that people get. Those are the days when Ms. Magazine popularized the click thing, where you were in some situation and some of you go, “Click.” It happened. Just had a moment of misogyny, just had a moment of discrimination. Got it, recognized it, move on.
Also learning how to deal with anger. Anger has an important place in social change but a lot of times, you have to figure out how to channel the anger so that you don’t alienate people on a personal level. That they’re willing to talk to you, and you don’t frighten them and make them feel wrong and bad and then they cut you off.
I was always more of a collaborator in the good sense, not in the bad sense. How do you find common ground with people in order to move forward, to make significant change? But I did fade away from NOW after I went to law school for a variety of reasons. I don’t know if you want me to go into those or not.
MS: First of all, I was too busy. That’s the most important thing because I was married, I was in law school, I had a child, and my husband was making this transition from teaching math at Northeastern University to having his own business in the investment world. He’s a mathematician, so he started his own business. My jobs at Northeastern, it’s a co-op program, allowed me to work, not necessarily in Boston. I took one co-op job in New York, another one in North Carolina for a civil rights law firm, and then the third one in Miami for the Public Defender’s office.
By that time, it’s 1976 and I just didn’t have the time. Also, I was not in Boston so much. But at that point NOW went through a period of tremendous internal conflict, which I was just not interested in being a part of. There was a lot of vindictiveness that was going on at the national level, and I just didn’t want to be involved in that. I don’t want to name names, but people who were around at the time will probably remember that.
NOW had really been the pathway for me to transition from having early feminist leanings and aspirations and convictions into understanding the different ways that women are held back in the world, to being clearer about my own self and why it was important for me to become a lawyer. All the reservations I had about being a lawyer when I was in Washington, DC in 1966, I completely understood where all that came from. I was prepared to do the work necessary to get the self-confidence and the training and the willingness to speak up and to push forward.
All of that I got from NOW. A lot of it I had innately, I was born with, but I got the clarification of what the world was like that I lived in, that created barriers and how to overcome those barriers. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t face discrimination against women all through my career. I was an early high-level manager at the Department of Revenue.
It was quite a novelty when I was brought on board as chief legal counsel. They hardly had any women working at the Department of Revenue then. When they took over the Child Support Enforcement Program from the Department of Public Welfare, then many more women were on the staff at the Department of Public Welfare, but they weren’t in high-level positions. I had constant battles with different people I reported to, but mainly they tolerated me.
RT: What issues are of greatest concern to you? What are your most memorable and important experiences? Is this the time for you to talk about the whole child support issue and legislation? Is there anything else you want to say about the issue?
MS: Sure, it was great. All my child support work, no question, was driven by a commitment to feminism. There’s just no question about that. But for a while after law school, I worked in a family law practice handling divorce cases. Three things came out of that. One is that I did not like doing litigation. Two is that I felt like the divorce was really a disaster, I didn’t feel it, I read the research that divorce is a disaster for children because of the breakup of the family which was just very difficult for them. Third, working on financial worksheets, it was clear that nobody could live on the amount of money they were getting through their court orders for child support.
I was frustrated because I didn’t want to do family law practice, so I took a leave of absence for a while. By that time, I had three kids, two more boys, one was born right when I moved from Miami. I was a couple of years in Miami, as assistant public defender, Juvenile Court, so one was born just as I was moving from Miami back to Boston.
I moved back to Boston because I had many more friends here. Many of them were from NOW, but they were just very different. I have many friends that I had or that I knew I could make that I didn’t find living in Miami. Then I had another child, third one in 1980. I had my hands full and I just don’t like family law practice, so I dropped out.
This is actually in a pivotal moment in the story that NOW features into because I was casting about, didn’t quite know what to do and somehow, I got some kind of message from NOW, I don’t think we had email then, that there was a meeting of a bunch of people that want to talk about what direction NOW is going to take.
I went to this meeting and Betsy Dunn was there. She had been a lobbyist for NOW during this time period. I think she was the one who got me to come. People were talking about the future of NOW and a Hispanic woman got up and said, “NOW is completely missing the boat. You’re talking about all the wrong issues. You’re not talking about the things that really matter to women. You’re not talking about what’s going on in the world of family law.”
I had just come from a family law practice and I said, “You are absolutely right. What is going on in family law for women is a disaster. They can’t survive on the money that they’re getting. This is just not possible.” Betsy heard me make this impassioned speech. She called me up a few days later and said, “Governor Dukakis is putting together this commission on Child Support Enforcement that’s mandated by Congress. Are you interested in joining?”
I said, “Sure”. I’m not working. I have three kids. I had household help, so I could take on significant volunteer work. I was a lawyer, I had background, and so my name got put up, not officially as a NOW representative, but they had to have a woman advocate, they had to have a father advocate. They had to have different people from the court systems and legal services organizations and so on.
I met people in the Governor’s office who are putting together this commission, and the only thing I knew anything about in the different task forces that they were putting together was child support amounts. I said, “Well, let me work on the guidelines chapter, the guidelines section.”
Connie Williams was the point person putting all this together, and Katherine Dunham was the official chairman of this commission for Dukakis. The two of them made me the chair of the guidelines committee, and it was like throwing a rabbit in a briar patch, because it was like I had time. I read every single thing that there was to read about child support guidelines, what was going on in every other state around the country. I did charts and all this stuff.
I had a really good committee, and we organized a very significant report, and a lot of detail about every single aspect that should be taken into account when you set the amounts, the percentage of income, health insurance, daycare, custody, all these kinds of things. We wrote a long report.
When I went to give this report to the commission, I had a conversation with the chair of the commission, Katherine Dunham, who’s still one of my best friends, and I said, “We’re going to make some very bold recommendations that are going to be shocking to people.” She said, “Don’t worry about it. You make the best recommendations you can come up with, and you leave the politics to me.” That was another very powerful thing. You don’t have to moderate. You don’t have to cut back on what it is you want to recommend. Recommend the best, and then we’ll go from there. So that’s what we did.
Meanwhile, this commission had a lot of different pieces of legislation that it was working on, involving all those committees and writing the chapter that became the foundational chapter for the child support program and the Department of Revenue chapter in 1980. I got very involved in the legislative drafting for that.
It also was a statute that we were working on to revise the way paternity was established in Massachusetts at the time. To establish paternity, you had to have a criminal trial. Now, they wouldn’t send the defendant to jail if he was found to have been the father of the child. They removed the criminal punishment, but you still had to have proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Blood tests were not admissible in court so it was only “he said, she said” evidence.
So, 10 out of 12 jury trials resulted in acquittal because she said he’s the father and he said I’m not, and the jury said that’s not proof beyond a reasonable doubt. We believe both of them, therefore we have to find him not guilty. We came up with a proposal that completely transformed paternity establishment and we went on to adopt it for the country as a whole.
Which is that many fathers of children born out of wedlock wanted to put their name on the birth certificate. They were in the hospital when the baby was born. It was only after a few years later, when they split up, that they ran away from the child and we had to hunt them down.
We made it as part of the birth registration process that if you want to put your name on the birth certificate, you have to sign a voluntary acknowledgement of paternity. The legislature adopted that. We made it a completely civil proceeding. It gave the probate court jurisdiction over paternity cases, not just in the district courts, which are largely criminal courts.
It made it a civil process, so you could go to court, but it also allowed the use of genetic testing as opposed to just a simple blood test of blood type AB, B, type O, etc. That was a very radical change in the Massachusetts laws and that got passed by the legislature in 1985 or 1986, and the program transferred from the Department of Public Welfare to the Department of Revenue.
I had gotten to know Ira Jackson who was the Commissioner of the Department of Revenue and some of the other senior managers there. Because when the results of the legislation were for the trial court to develop child support guidelines under the aegis of the Chief Justice of the trial court, I was on that committee as a person who had the most in-depth knowledge of the different pieces that needed to go into child support. But we thought it was really important for the court to issue the guidelines, not the legislature and not the Department of Revenue because the court was the one that’s going to have to apply them.
Anyway, I got to know them and sometime toward the end, when the Department of Revenue was getting ready to take over the program, they called me and said, “Do you want to come work for us as Chief Legal Counsel?” I said, “No, I have three kids. I can’t go to work. I can’t work full time, that’s too much.” My husband and some other friends said, “You have to take that job. That’s not an issue, you have to find a way.” So, I did.
That’s how I came in at a very high level. Usually, people get these jobs as political appointments or they work their way up through the bureaucracy. I guess you could say it was a political appointment because I knew Michael Dukakis, I knew Ira Jackson. I knew people in the Governor’s office and Ira Jackson wanted me to work for him.
For them, they knew nothing about the child support program. They only knew about collecting revenue. That was a unique opportunity for me because I helped make that transition when the program moved over from the Welfare Department. They had a lot of people who knew a lot, but I had a much bigger vision about what it was that we needed to be doing.
That was one of the things that really helped me a lot is that I had a really great education. I had a lot of history background. I had a master’s degree in American History, law school degree. I was able to think big picture, how systems work, how different branches of the government fit together, how you make legislative changes.
Somehow, I realized that the easy part in any transformational work is passing legislation. People think that once you pass the legislation the governor signs, it is over. No, the work just begins. Because now you have laws in the books. You have to take that law and put it into place. That’s what I spent 22 and a half years doing.
When I had my interview with Ira Jackson, I said, “I want to make this the best child support program in two years.” I laugh because about 22 years later, I staggered out the door and it was a long way towards being a really good program. But it still had a lot of work to do with this work that needed to be done, and it was not the work I was well suited for. It was like developing computer systems and that’s not what I was good at. I was good at legislative and legal systems and that is where the important work is now, it’s more and more automation.
Certainly, we passed a lot of laws during my tenure to make it possible, to do more and more automation, to collect child support, to seize bank accounts, to transfer wage assignments from one employer to another in the night where the computer picked up the new age reporting. For example, this person now works for Gillette, used to work for Raytheon and so within a week the wage assignment form order would be transferred from Gillette to Raytheon. It would come out of his paycheck in the next pay cycle. All that work we did. Meanwhile, I had developed a lot of connections all over the country through the National Child Support Enforcement Association.
One of the things that had come out of Congress in 1988 was this. The Congress would periodically pass laws telling states, “If you want to get welfare money from us, you have to have the following specific child support laws.” It was to implement the 1984 Child Support Amendments from Congress that got me involved in the Governor’s Commission in 1985.
Then in 1988, Congress did another big bill, the Family Support Act with more requirements for child support. One of which was to set up an interstate commission to study how to improve the Interstate Child Support Commission. I was not a member of the commission but was very involved in its work. One of my friends was the chair of it and another one was executive director.
They wrote a comprehensive book called Blueprint for Reform. It was very thick and it had not just recommendations, but literally almost draft legislative language that you could use to turn a recommendation into law. By that time, Governor Weld was Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and his commissioner was Mitch Adams. Weld was always very interested in child support and Mitch Adams said to me, “Marilyn, I want the best child support program in the country.” I said, “I have just the book for you. Here’s a Blueprint for Reform.”
He said, “Good. Go through there and get every single provision that we want to have in Massachusetts and we’ll enact it.” So, I said “Okay.” That’s what we did. We passed a comprehensive bill that I think went through finally in 1994. I worked in great detail with the legislature and Governor Weld was super supportive and the Massachusetts legislature was super supportive. They never saw a child support provision they didn’t like. They were very encouraging in all the work that we did.
Massachusetts passed virtually all the recommendations from the Congressional Report on Interstate Child Support. That commission basically came back and said, “You can’t improve interstate child support unless you improve in-state child support because every order is ultimately enforced at the local level.” You have to have uniform laws. You can’t have one state where you can run away and get away with it. Another state has tough laws because the second state will never get his orders enforced.
At about that time, Congress had flipped. It was during the Clinton Administration, the election of 1994, infamously when the Congress flipped from being controlled by Democrats to being controlled by Republicans. In the course of my work with the National Child Support Enforcement Association, I had gotten to know the chief person responsible on the House Ways and Means Committee for working on child support legislation.
I called him up after the election and said, “Hey Ron, has the fun started yet?” He said, “Holy smokes, we’re completely overwhelmed. We were not expecting to be in the majority. I need your help.” On child support, because they had a massive legislative agenda, I became the behind-the-scenes person for him, for the Congress, and for writing the child support provisions of then what became the 1996 Welfare Reform Act.
They had a lot of different important components to that bill, but the child support provisions were strongly bipartisan and they were based on the Congressional committee that Senator Bradley and some other Senators had been involved with. We were working off of their playbook and then saying, “We have now taken all your recommendations and we put them into law in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We know their work. Here are the results that we’re getting, here’s the money that we’re collecting, here are the systems that we’re putting in place. We can take this nationwide.”
Massachusetts prides itself, as do several other states, on being the laboratory of democracy, where we pass stuff in this state and then it works. Then we take it to Congress and say, “You get everybody to do this.” That’s what Congress did. In the course of 1995, I was president of the National Child Support Enforcement Association, by lucky coincidence.
Number one, I was the point person for the child support community nationwide because I was its president. Number two, I worked in the child support program itself so I had day-to-day knowledge about how these programs work, as opposed to being an advocate at the Children’s Defense Fund or the National Women’s Law Center or some other kind of organization, even the American Bar Association. We had to do this every day.
Third, I worked for a Republican Governor and the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He loved Bill Weld and he was in Florida. I’ll think of his name in a minute, a very, very good man. I was the perfect person for them because it was a Republican Congress. I was working for a Republican Governor. They all knew I was a Democrat. They didn’t care because they wanted the knowledge and expertise that I had.
That was during a time in Congress where there was not as much friction between the Republicans and Democrats. Obviously, the Democrats had just gotten beaten and lost control of the House and the Senate. They weren’t too happy about that, but nonetheless, there was still communication that took place in ways that are just unheard of now. People did work together and child support was a bipartisan issue.
The Clinton Administration worked really closely with me and the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement would work really closely with me. I became the point person for Congress of all the communications that took place and the compromises and “these people like this, these people don’t like that,” coming together to come up with a resolution everybody could live with. Most importantly, the Department of Revenue gave me a lot of latitude to just take this ball and run with it.
They knew that I knew what needed to be done, and they did not have to tell me what to do. What I had to do is to tell them what I was doing so they weren’t surprised, but it wasn’t like they were micromanaging me. I was really fortunate that I had that trust from them to do what was needed and I was in a leadership position for the people in the rest of the country to talk to them and to resolve their differences. It was really a unique opportunity.
The child support provisions that went through the Welfare Reform Act, people still complain about that bill, about the welfare provisions, but nobody complains about the child support provisions. Because it’s completely automated, made things easy, put all sorts of administrative provisions in place. It encouraged cooperation among states. It just did a lot of things to improve that program.
It was for that work that I received the Smith College Medal, which was really one of the highest honors I’ve ever gotten, because there are a lot of incredible women who go through Smith. To be singled out for that was truly amazing. I couldn’t believe it.
Then later on, I became the deputy commissioner where I ran the program as a whole, and I also got involved both before and after that period in working on interstate child support provisions. The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws is a group of lawyers and judges and professors who help write uniform laws for states so that state legislators don’t have to start from scratch. Also, particularly in operating the domain really is important for all states to have the same law.
The most important one is the Uniform Commercial Code, so that banks operating under state laws are all operating under the same law, they’re not operating under federal law. But when they have secured transactions and things like that, they don’t have to say, “Well, this law is different from that law.”
The Commissioner on Uniform State Laws encourages states to pass uniform laws in places where it makes a difference. Congress, one of its mandates out of the 1988 amendments was for the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws to come up with recommendations on a new uniform state law. I was involved in those meetings for many years. Again, I was often the only person in the room who worked for a child support program, who on a day-to-day basis had to make sure this stuff worked.
Most heads of child support programs weren’t lawyers, and most of them didn’t have a chief legal counsel at the level that I was at in the department. Many times, there’d be an argument and people would say and I would say, “That’s not going to work.” Somebody would say, “You know what? She’s the one going to have to make this work. We have to do what she says.” That was kind of fun. Eventually, all the states passed this law called the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act.
In the middle of all this, I was also working with the State Department on multilateral and bilateral treaties, because I had gotten to know the person in the State Department through the National Child Support Enforcement Association, because we had a lot of different areas of expertise. She would take me with her on State Department missions to various countries.
We went to France, Italy, Turkey, Romania, Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, and several others, where we were negotiating bilateral agreements so that people would say, “We’ll enforce your support orders, if you support our enforce orders.”
In the meantime, the Hague Conference on International Private Law had done some uniform child support work back in the 1950’s, and they wanted to get reciprocity among countries, and they knew it was time to revisit those laws. They were tinkering around the edges. We went to a bunch of different meetings, and, let’s reform this, let’s reform that.
The delegate from France got up in a very dramatic moment and said, “It’s just ridiculous to try to amend these provisions. They’re no good. We need to start over. We need to have a completely new convention.” They all said, “Great idea.” They put together a big multilateral where they just wrote an entirely new convention.
I went to all of those meetings. I was not the official delegate from the United States. I was delegate of the National Support Child Enforcement Association. Usually I think that was who I was representing and being involved. Again, somebody who has experience on the ground for how you have to put these laws in place in order to make them work.
That was eventually adopted by The Hague. I actually wrote a really nice article about that for the American Bar Association. It tells the whole history of the child support program and the history of the Hague Convention and the results that we got. Then ultimately, the treaty was adopted by the United States Senate. Different countries around the world have adopted it.
Meanwhile, I retired, and now I’m not really up to date with what’s going on in the child support world. I remember I retired in, I think it was 2010. I had done so much in child support, truthfully, I was burned out. But I also had been so much in a position of power and driving the super tanker in order to make things happen, as well as the speedboat, in order to be really quick and move very fast, in order to make things happen, that I did not want to be a consultant. I did not want to go work for another child support program. I wanted to do something different.
I’ve stayed only marginally in touch with what goes on. But I do know that we changed the world. Millions of children get child support. Millions of children get paternity established. Billions of dollars have been collected for single parent mothers. Nobody even talks about child support anymore. It’s not in the news anymore, except with a computer glitch or something. But you don’t hear moms beating down the doorsteps of the State House because they’re not getting child support or Congress, because they get it.
If the money is there and it can be attached, we get it. The places that it’s always the hardest to get, is the self-employed and people who work under the table. But there is driver’s license revocation, passport revocation, bank account seizures, things like that, to go after people who don’t have a regular, steady source of income. But for the most part, it’s a program that has an amazing success, and we know it’s successful because we don’t hear about it anymore. The advocates are quiet. They’re worrying about something else.
RT: Since you’re retired, you said you were doing volunteer work? What are you doing?
MS: Well, my primary focus is with climate change issues. It took me a while to reach this point, but I decided early on I wanted to get involved in things that relate to climate change, the environment, food. For a while, I was very involved in urban agriculture, and I have a big urban farm. That’s one of my hobbies, where I grow my vegetables all year round.
I’m on the advisory board of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy. It’s the Olmsted Park that runs through the center of Boston, which is a beautiful string of parks along the river. At my first meeting at the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, they were talking about how gas leaks were killing trees along the Emerald Necklace, and these were trees that were planted 100 years ago by Frederick Law Olmsted.
There are these beautiful red oak trees, and I just spontaneously burst out and said, “Gas leaks are killing trees. That’s the worst thing I ever heard of. That’s outrageous.” This is like my first meeting. The chairman of the committee turned to me and said, “Okay, you’re appointed to work on gas leaks killing trees.” I said, “I don’t know anything about this, what are you talking about?” But little by little, my little tenacity that always is there, I found a friend who was working for the Sierra Club on this group called Gas Leaks Allies.
Well, this is a group of people, many of whom had come to this group the same way I had, because they were outraged at gas leaks killing trees and others were climate activists who were outraged by the amount of methane being released into the atmosphere. Methane is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, worse than carbon dioxide in its first 80 years in terms of the blanket effects that it has on the greenhouse gas emissions.
I got involved with that group and they’re just an amazing group of very energetic, driven, powerful, we-are-going-to-make-this-happen people. The first meeting I went to, I didn’t understand a word of what they were talking about, but I understood one thing; these people mean business and I’m with them. Several of them were women, and they spoke my language which is just language of incredible intensity, and we’re going to do this, we’re going to make it happen, we are going to change things.
I’ve been very involved with them. The good thing about it is that they really need the legislative background that I have, which no one else has. It’s a fairly rare skill, even among lawyers, to have worked as long as and as intensively as I did on so many different aspects of legislation at the state and federal level. I have a very good grasp of how state agencies and federal agencies get their mandates from the legislative branch and how to put legislation together so that the legislature can say, “Oh yeah, we can do that.”
My senator, Senator Creem from Newton and Brookline, is the majority leader and she’s very interested in climate change. I’ve worked with her really closely on some very major pieces of legislation, doing the drafting and getting ideas from all my colleagues and the Gas Leaks Allies on things that they want to see happen.
Basically, they say, we want this, we want that and I say, “Okay. Let me figure out where in the general laws we need to make this change,” and I put the stuff together. Then I help them with getting through the legislature, through the committee process and working with legislators and where the different touch points for getting a legislator to do what you want.
We’ve had some good successes. Our big bills don’t necessarily pass, but they pick up little pieces of our bills and stick it in other bills. We have a lot of respect in the legislature. They take us very seriously when we testify and when we work with them on different provisions.
The climate change legislation, for the most part has focused to date on the electric sector and the transportation sector. They’re working on their way up to deal with the gas distribution system. I don’t think that’s going to happen in this legislative session, but I think the next one will be when they’ll start to make some profound changes. Because gas distribution, first of all, gas leaks put out tremendous amount of methane.
It puts noxious fumes in your house when you turn on your gas stove. It’s responsible for at least 27% of the heating in people’s houses, 27% of the emissions. We’re never going to have net zero if we don’t get off the gas distribution system. It may take a lot longer to have no gas to fire the electric grid, but we need to have systems that people can heat their houses other than natural gas.
The two most logical options are heat pumps. Air source heat pumps are quite the thing right now, but what we’re really working on, I’m also on the board of this little nonprofit called HEET, where we’re coming up with proposals for using network scale geothermal energy. You get the gas companies to stop delivering gas to your house, but instead deliver water that’s warmed by the earth and then with a booster in your house to heat it up enough to warm your house. That’s geothermal, it’s completely non emitting.
The earth is free. It’d cool your house in the summer, heat your house in the winter. This has gotten a lot of attention and the legislature in the last session actually authorized the Department of Public Utilities to permit gas companies to do some demonstration pilots. So Eversource is starting a demonstration pilot this spring. National Grid has four demonstration pilots in the works.
The gas companies are taking this all very seriously because we’re trying to show them that there is a different business model for you. We’re not trying to put you out of business. We just don’t want you selling gas anymore. Sell something else, sell hot water. If it leaks, it waters the trees, it won’t kill the trees.
That’s the core of what I’m doing. I’m also involved in some other things that relate to trees. One of our bills in the Senator Creem file is, a Municipal Reforestation Act which would provide funding for every city and town in the Commonwealth, to come up with a plan to plant more trees, particularly to deal with the climate effects of heat island effect. Trees are disproportionately allocated. It’s obvious to anyone who drives to any town. There are a lot more trees in wealthier neighborhoods than there are in poor neighborhoods.
The idea is to give cities and towns resources to be able to plant trees throughout their cities and towns. People who have bad air not only suffer from heat island effect and heat strokes in the summer, but also air pollution and more asthma and more respiratory illnesses and so on. There’s a huge public health component to having more trees. That’s the other sort of aspect of my climate initiative, is let’s get rid of the gas because gas is killing trees and let’s plant more trees because this is really good for the health of our people.
Then on top of that, I’m taking piano lessons. I’ve played the piano since I was a child, so every few years I take piano lessons again and then I get super busy and stop. But I’ll start that up again and that’s been very good.
RT: What accomplishments! I mean, you’ve affected the lives of children and their mothers all over the world.
MS: I feel good about that, but that’s so much in the past. Right now, I’m so focused on the future, which is to help mothers and children all over the world. Mothers Out Front, is another group I’m involved with on the climate change issues because it is going to be up to women, I think, to solve the climate problem. Because the women really see the long view in ways that sometimes men don’t, because we see the future generations, not just our own.
RT: Exactly. Well, thank you so much. It’s just been a terrific interview because you had such an incredible life. Good thing you got on that train and went to a women’s college.
MS: It all goes back to that.
RT: Yes, and also the CR. Thank you so much. Is there’s anything else you want to say before we close?
MS: I think that the train was really important, but I also think that NOW is really important and I hope I brought that out, even though in my later years I really felt it was important for me to make a difference in the larger world. It was always focused on the benefits for women and children.
But it’s through that work and the years in NOW, where I really got the tools that I needed in order to be successful in law school and to be a successful advocate as a lawyer and to really have the courage and the determination to act in the face of fear. I always say, courage is not being not afraid. Courage is acting in the face of fear and being able to do that.
RT: One thing that I think about when you’re talking is that Boston had a rule that you’ll be president for a year so another person could come and get that experience. It was giving women opportunities for leadership they never had anywhere else. What a difference that made.
MS: And Mother’s Out Front is very cognizant in doing the same thing and really developing mother’s voices to be heard. It’s very similar to the kind of work I did with NOW. I don’t do that kind of work now; I really focus on the technical legislative expertise because that’s where I think I can make the biggest difference and there are not so many other people who can do that. The same concepts of how you organize women are very much in play and Mothers Out Front accept that.
One big difference is that they’re very tuned in to handling conflict among women, which when I was in NOW, sometimes the women are their own worst enemies. Let me just end with that. It’s really important for women to all row in the same direction and to support each other and to not be envious when someone else gets great success, to see that as a success for all of us. That’s a really important takeaway lesson for today’s feminists and yesterday’s feminists and tomorrow’s feminists.