Nanette Falkenberg

“My Career Intersected Politics and Women’s Rights.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, March 2023

NF:  My name is Nanette Falkenberg. I was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1951.

JW:  Tell us a little about your childhood. What influences do you think affected you in terms of who you became?

NF:  My mother’s American, my father was German. I went to public schools until college. My parents weren’t very political, but I remember in Scranton, you joined whatever party was running the city at that particular point. So, I remember when Kennedy was running for president, my parents were Republicans at that point, and I remember I was a Democrat. My father bought me a big Kennedy button, and my mother took me to see Kennedy go by in a motorcade. I’m just trying to think of my first sort of political memory and that’s kind of it. I think I had a normal small town growing up. I went to synagogue. I went to Girl Scouts, and I think it was a pretty much an ordinary sort of, as I said, semi small town.

JW:  Do you have any siblings?

NF:  No, I’m an only child.

JW:  What got you involved in the women’s movement?

NF:  I went to Bucknell University in Lewisburg. This was 1971, 1972, so, at least the women’s political movement was sort of nascent at that point. I was thinking that my work in politics and my work in the women’s movement have really been sort of intertwined through my whole career. I did help plan the first women’s weekend at Bucknell, and I ran for the first university Senate. A friend of mine and I were the only two women on it, so none of the professors or the administrators were women.

And then, I think the other thing that I would say about when I was in college was, I did an internship at a place called The Center for Political Reform, in Washington. We were working on delegate selection. It was at the beginning of the time when we were trying to get more women and minorities elected to Democratic conventions. And then I went back after my internship and I ran for delegate. I lost, but I ran for delegate, and I actually did go to the 1972 Democratic Convention. That was an important event for women in politics, for sure, and so that’s kind of how I got started.

JW:  Give me any memory you have of the convention.

NF:  That was the summer I was an intern at The Center for Political Reform. And my memory is we stayed at a hotel called the Betsy Ross Hotel, which is now a fancy boutique hotel in South Beach. We stayed there, and the Women’s Caucus was there, and a bunch of the liberal caucuses were there. I don’t think that I got on the floor at that point, but that place is a real memory for me.

JW:  As you say, it’s what got you really started. Well, what did you do when you came back?

NF:  After I graduated from college, my first job was in a women’s organization. I wouldn’t call it a feminist organization, but it was an organization of women who own small businesses all over the country. It could have been a dry cleaner or a small store.

I stayed there less than a year and then I went out and worked on a political campaign for a woman named Maya Miller, who was running for the Senate in Nevada, in Las Vegas. That was my first real political campaign. She also lost. She lost to a man named Harry Reid, who went on to have quite a political career. And then from there, I went and worked on another Senate campaign for a woman named Betty Roberts, who also lost, and I wound up back in DC.

This was, by this point, 1974 and it was the first midterm convention. I worked at that point for the Women’s Political Caucus, and we were working to get equal division of women and men delegates at the midterm convention. I worked for a small steering committee that included a woman named Phyllis Seagull and Bella Abzug and Patt Derian and a woman named Kurin Horvall from Minnesota.

We didn’t get everything we wanted, but that was sort of my first experience running something. I was doing all the staff work and that was the time when I started to meet political reporters. You were asking about memorable moments. We actually were able to shut the convention down. They went into recess so they could actually go and negotiate an agreement. So that was pretty heady time for somebody just out of college.

JW:  I’ll say. And you say you didn’t get totally equal delegation, but you did get something?

NF:  We got something. I can’t remember exactly what, but we got something.

JW:  Well, let’s hear what you did next. You obviously stayed involved in women’s issues.

NF:  Yes. So, after that, I was staffing this group called Democratic Women for Affirmative Action. I had met some people from labor unions, and from there, I got hired to work at AFSCME, which is the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. I did a bunch of things there. I went and did organizing in Florida, and then I worked in the political division.

It was a time when there were a lot of young professional people and they hired a lot of women. Women’s issues were always sort of part of the undercurrent. I wasn’t working specifically on women’s issues at that point, but it was a very progressive union, and so we were involved in women’s issues and I wound up going to Florida to organize.

I came back and worked in the political division, and then from there, I was hired to be the executive director of NARAL, which was at that time, the National Abortion Rights Action League. It now has a slightly different name. So, I was 30 when I was hired to run NARAL. That was really the one time that I worked, I would say, on something that was a full-time feminist women’s organization. I was hired not so much for my feminist credentials, but for my political credentials, because they were trying to make the issue more political. Let me say it differently; Get more involved in politics.

At that point, people weren’t that involved in political campaigns around the issue. That was really what we focused on while I was there. I was talking about this with some other people you’ve interviewed who remain my good friends. I hired Marie Bass to be the political director at NARAL, and Joanne Howes at that point was at Planned Parenthood.

I remember we were talking, actually just last week, about how hard it was to get Democratic senators to even talk about the issue and how we were helping them find the exact words that they could be comfortable with. It hasn’t changed that much, but now at least they’re more comfortable talking about it. Obviously, it’s gotten worse.

JW:  Yes, I know what you’re saying. That still, everybody picks their words extremely carefully.

NF:  Extremely carefully.

JW:  What year was that around?

NF:  In the early 80s. ’81, ’82. And I think the thing that I did, in addition to the political work that I did there, was we organized. This has actually been done since then, but we decided that people didn’t really understand the impact of the issue on women’s lives. So, we organized a letter writing campaign where women told their stories. And it was your mothers, your daughters, your sisters, your friends, and we had a big day in Washington, took the letters to the Hill, had sort of a speak out, and I think we collected 100,000 letters.  A lot of local press came out of that as well.

I guess the other thing, was that we really took the lead in a woman named Harriet Woods running for the Senate in Missouri. Nobody thought she had a chance. She actually didn’t win, but she came very, very close and I felt like we were instrumental in that becoming a serious Senate race. So, those are some of the things that I remember.

I can’t remember what case it was, but there was a Supreme Court decision that came that was very positive. I remember my legislative director said, “Well, this is so good. This is over. The issue is over. We can just go home.” And how many Supreme Court decisions later? Here we are.

JW:  Here we are. But this time was already post Roe?

NF:  It was post Roe. And this particular case was at the beginning of the cases where the issue got nibbled away at by placing restrictions. And so, this particular case came out very much in favor of, I should have looked it up, but they turned down a lot of restrictions in this particular case. We were so excited about it because we thought we really had the momentum on our side.

At that point, there were two men in the Senate, Orin Hatch and Jesse Helms who were particularly anti-choice. And then, there was a man in the House named Henry Hyde who sponsored a bill to make sure that abortions weren’t paid for under Medicaid. And so, we had the three H’s, but we felt like we were turning it around at that point. Obviously, there’ve been a lot of turnarounds one way or the other, but as I said, here we are.

JW:  Right. But the Hyde Amendment, as we call it, is still in effect.

NF:  It is still in effect. While I was at NARAL, came 1984, and I was part of a group of women who encouraged Gerry Ferraro to run for vice president. We wound up being called Team A. There was a small group of women who plotted to get Gerry nominated, and in that case, we actually were successful. And that’s a very big memory in my life, obviously. We were meeting in the evening, since I was doing that while I was at NARAL. It was a small group of women. Eleanor Lewis and Ranny Cooper, who worked for Ted Kennedy at that point, and Joan McLean, Joanne Howes and Millie Jeffrey, who was a mentor to all of us.

JW:  I’ve heard that from a number of people. Well, that was quite a feat to get her on the ballot. And of course, you know, we do have a woman vice president, but it’s taken a number of years since 1984.

NF:  And she’s not having an easy time.

JW:  She is not. So, what did you do after NARAL? When did you leave?

NF:  I left NARAL I think in ’85. I did a fellowship at the Institute for Politics at the Kennedy School. I came back to Washington, and didn’t know exactly what I was going to do. At that point, Marie Bass and Joanne Howes had a business called Bass and Howes doing consulting. And so, Marie and I started to work on a project on the abortion pill. It was, at that point, called RU-486. We got a little bit of money and wrote a report on the feasibility of bringing it to the United States.

And from that, came something called the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, which Marie ran for many years. I was on the board for many years of RHTP. Then I went on and I ran a foundation. We staffed eight small family foundations, and two of them focused on women’s issues. After that, I came back and I became Joanne and Marie’s partner in Bass and Howes, and we focused a lot on women’s health. They focused more on women’s health, and I started to work a lot on issues around community health, and that became a bigger part of my later career.

JW:  How would you define community health?

NF:  Health care in underserved communities. While I was at Bass and Howes, we worked a lot on some foundation programs for Pfizer to fund community health centers. So, I’ve done a lot of work around community health centers since that point.

JW:  Do you think more women go to community health centers? I mean, you may not know, but I just wondered.

NF:  Yes, because community health centers take care of a lot of kids, and it’s a heavily Medicaid population, so it’s moms and kids. Yes. I don’t know what the numbers are, but absolutely. And a lot of the community health centers are run by women.

JW:  You were doing that in DC or somewhere else?

NF:  No, Marie and Joanne had the business in DC and I lived in New York at that point. I had moved to New York to run the foundation, so we opened a New York office. So, we grew that business. I can’t remember how many people wound up working in New York. We had an office in New York and an office in DC.

JW:  If you had to say, what were some of your biggest accomplishments, besides getting Gerry Ferraro on the ticket?

NF:  I would say, this isn’t a single accomplishment, but I think participating in the development and the growth of people and organizations, helping get women elected. I mean, the growth of women’s participation in the Senate and the House and just in politics, I would say, I had a very small role in that. Just that whole development, and watching what happens now with EMILY’s List, the growth has been so phenomenal. My career really intersected politics and women’s rights, and so that’s really, I think, a big thing. Being part of that and being part of that community, I think was a really big part of my life.

And then, this is not a professional, but a personal. One of the things that’s been so great is I’ve made such amazing friendships out of this. I mean, my best friends really have come out of this and we’ve been friends forever. Our conversations still mix politics, with feminist issues, with personal. I wound up moving to Connecticut, and we sold the business and I wound up becoming an independent consultant again.

When I moved to Connecticut, I became the chair of something called the Susan B. Anthony Project, which is not the same as the Susan B. Anthony List, but it’s our local domestic violence organization. I wound up being chair of the board of that. And though it’s on a small canvas, it was extremely rewarding because unlike when you do something in Washington, when you’re very far away from what’s really going on every day, this was very much close to the ground, and actually, for me, a big accomplishment. Even though, as I said, it was very much on the local level.

JW:  But you see women getting helped.

NF:  You see women getting help and you see them being able to talk about it afterwards. Yes, absolutely.

JW:  That’s great. Now, I know you’re still in touch with a lot of your best friends, right?

NF:  I am, very much so. Four of us are very close, and then some of us who ran women’s organizations around the time that I was at NARAL, get together and sometimes just try to sort of catch up. We’re all still involved, but it’s fun to get together and talk about how well things are going, and how badly things are going. Some of the development of the reproductive health movement is very different than it was at that point. It’s much more diverse and it’s a good thing. And many smaller organizations that I think have really started to make the issue more of a social justice issue.

Ironically, now, so much of it comes down to things like, where is the abortion pill going to be available and how easy is it going to be? So, you know, when I look back at it, I think about all of those strands in my life. Marie and I worked so early on the abortion pill, on RU-486. And so, it’s interesting, you never know when you’re working on those things, which things will turn out to be to be important. You just don’t ever know.

JW:  Right. And here you are, more than half of abortions are with RU-486.

NF:  I guess when I think about it, that is something that I’m also very proud of. Having worked on that issue.

JW:  Yes. That’s amazing. Well, do you have any other closing thoughts you’d like to give?

NF:  The project, and the questions, are about specifics about second wave feminism. But I feel like from college on, it’s just been so much a part of my life. It’s hard to separate a specific organization, or a specific activity, from the fact that it’s just really been part of everything that I’ve done in my life. It’s just, as I said, part of me.