THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I came to realize that I could do and be more than was expected of girls and women.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, January 2022
JW: Please give us your full name and where and when you were born.
PF: My name is Paula Mandel Fleischaker. I was born in Victoria, Texas, in 1946.
JW: Great. And people call you Pam, even though not really your name.
PF: Right. I’ve never gone by Paula.
JW: Tell us a little about your childhood and what kinds of things you think led you to become the person you are.
PF: I was raised in Texas and never thought of myself as a particularly good fit there. I had a very small but tight, close, happy family. I think I’m unique in that as life goes on, I see how many people did not have happy childhoods, and I was very fortunate. I think the strength of my family’s closeness really led me to realize in Texas, then and now, a pretty repressive cultural and political atmosphere.
I came to realize that I could do and be more than was expected of girls and women in that kind of a climate, where women were expected to have an education but mostly get married, make a home, make a family, do good works in the community. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things, but it was not even thought about that you would do much more.
My mother fit that mold in a way, but she was very frustrated by it, and she’s very frustrated. She wanted to think and talk and be around people with ideas, with ways to make the world better, ways to make the world more equitable and more just. And she raised me and my sister to believe we could do anything, and we should do anything and not to worry about learning how to cook or anything like that, which as a result, I’m a terrible cook.
But, you know, she encouraged us, probably to her detriment, to be honest, to leave Texas, to go where women were doing more interesting things than the country club. And I did.
JW: Where did you go?
PF: First of all, I did what I was more or less expected to do, and I got married when I was just leaving College at the University of Texas. I married at 23, to a man who was two years older than I, who was in law school. We shared values, particularly political values, and cultural values. He and I moved to Washington, DC, where he had a job at the Justice Department, ironically prosecuting police in brutality cases.
JW: What year was that?
PF: It was 1970 or 1971. It was the Nixon era. The civil rights division at the Justice Department, where he went to be a lawyer, was very active. I had graduated from the University of Texas with a journalism degree. I always liked to write, and I wrote fairly well, but I followed him to Washington. I was pretty sheltered, and I’d never been much in the east and the northern part of the country, and I was very excited at the opportunity is the way I saw it, to go live in Washington and find what I could find there. And I did.
I fell in through a connection with a group of people that had been brought into Common Cause, which you may remember was a Citizen’s lobby begun in the early 70s by a man named John Gardner, who was a very moderate Republican who wanted to answer the growing frustration with the government and the Vietnam War. People were beginning to be very unhappy with the government and wanted to express that in various ways. So, one of the things Common Cause did was a voting rights project where we tried to reform. This is also ironic in a sad sort of way.
We tried to reform the voting laws in state legislatures all over the country. Gardner brought in someone who is certainly in an earlier wave of feminists than I. Anne Wexler – she had been the campaign manager for a man named Joe Duffey who ran for the Senate in Connecticut and lost. But Anne was a great organizer and a great behind the scenes power broker, really. And she hired this group of about six of us, and they hired me for their secretary.
And I was perfectly happy to be around this group of really energetic, strong, smart people led by a woman whom I rapidly came to admire. And I’d never met anyone like her, like the other people involved in this project. So that was my first dip into political life, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. And that led to other activities in politics generally; the Muskie campaign for President, where I was involved in election day operations, and I kind of learned the ropes about on the ground campaigning, building coalitions to support candidates, and a fair amount of press work because I enjoyed it and could write a decent press release. So that was my early dip into national politics.
JW: When did you become aware of the women’s movement?
PF: I was aware of the women’s movement, I mean, to the extent of just having my ear to the ground, but I wasn’t very involved until after a couple of presidential campaigns went down the tubes – Democrats – and I didn’t go down the tubes with them, but I moved away from it and ran a small pac called the Congressional Action Fund, which was supporting men and women running for Congress that were antiwar.
This was mid 70s, and there were very few women among them. And it frustrated me and our board, which was pretty well divided, equally divided, I should say, began the women on the board whom I had selected from just knowing them through the Common Cause effort and knowing that there was frustration and going through a lot of speeches in town. And I realized that there were very few women running for office, particularly national office, and they were very poorly funded and at the same time, a group of women [were] funded by Stewart Mott, a philanthropist and left of center political supporters. Now himself involved in elected politics.
He put up $25,000 to help start an organization that helped women raise money to run for office. There was a woman named Maya Miller who ran for the US Senate in Arizona. And I can’t believe I don’t remember much of the detail, but she was an excellent candidate. The National Women’s Political Caucus was up and running by then, and she worked with them to try to get support to run for the US Senate. And it was very sad because she couldn’t – I mean, the caucus tried to help her, but there weren’t people that believed a woman could be elected and raised the money she needed to be elected.
So, Stewart Mott’s money went to a mailing that was put together by just sort of I guess we should call it a rump group. The name Anzil might ring a bell to you. She was Stewart Mott’s kind of woman in Washington who had worked also to try to help Maya Miller. I don’t know how Anne put the group together, but she put a group of women together that included Sandy Cramer, who was from Louisiana, dear friend of mine who lives here in Santa Fe, Marie Bass.
And they convened a couple of meetings of people that understood or were trying to understand helping people build campaigns for the Congress. And like me, they were frustrated there weren’t more women. And Maya Miller was our example. I eventually joined the staff of this group, the staff being myself and a woman named Carol Wheeler. Her name at the time was Carol Randels, and she is a very smart, very hard-working woman in Washington who was also part of this effort.
So, for quite a few years, she, and I in a little hovel, first on Capitol Hill in a building Stewart Mott owned, and then in the building on Connecticut called, I think it’s 1346 Connecticut. And it had the reputation of having all the independent liberal groups with little offices in there. So really, that was the most activity, the beginning of my involvement in the women’s movement, in the women’s political movement.
JW: Did that group have a name?
PF: Women’s Campaign Fund. At the time we were bipartisan. We wanted to help women in both parties. Our goal was to increase the number of pro-choice. That was one call it a litmus test. I don’t care. It was you had to be pro-choice. And I believe pro ERA, which we were all hopeful would come to fruition. And those were our criteria.
And you had to be able to run a good campaign, win, and we would help from Washington with some – what did we call it then – some in-kind contributions, like we would pay for a pollster to help you. We would pay for some media training, some of the things that are still done. But we did a pretty good job of reaching out and trying to find candidates and helping groom them a little, but mostly helping raise money for them.
JW: And do you remember some of the candidates’ names?
PF: Probably the most famous – and this takes us a little further along chronologically – was Geraldine Ferraro; Olympia Snowe. I remember some of the Republicans, even though I’m a strong Democrat, because there were so few Republican women that were pro-choice, pro ERA, and would consider themselves part of the women’s movement. Claudine Schneider, who was a Congresswoman from Rhode Island. I think she only lasted a term or two. Barbara Mikulski and Dianne Feinstein. Connie Marella, she was another one of our Republican members.
JW: Talk more about Geraldine Ferraro and her career and your involvement.
PF: Geraldine was a special prosecutor in Queens in the DA’s office. And her bailiwick was sex crime cases, primarily special victims was tough, and she was good, and she was also smart and quick and funny. So, she was persuaded and desired to run for office. And I guess the first office you ran for was Congress. It’s hard to believe, but I think it’s true, because experience in lower-level office was very important to us. I’m not sure, thinking back, that was brilliant.
She came to our office, Women’s Campaign Fund, and we interviewed her and talked to her. In the office was me, and I think by then maybe Carol Wheeler, and our director. I was the political director, but the executive director was Randy Cooper. So, we interviewed her, liked her enormously, voted through our board and gave her $1,000. And that was huge. That was the biggest contribution she got to date. And she was great. She loved working with us. We loved working with her.
She got elected to Congress, and I think I stayed at the Women’s Campaign Fund during her first few terms. And then she gained stature and experience and presence in the Congress nationally. I can’t remember how she was named to chair the platform committee of the Democratic National Committee. Somehow, she asked me to come help her do press work on that committee. I did. And that committee assignment, which she did quite well, turned into her being considered by Fritz Mondale for his vice-presidential candidate.
By this time, I had moved with my husband and four-year-old to Oklahoma City, where my husband’s family business was, and he had decided that he needed to go there and spend a few years. His dad was ill, his parents were ready to be done with it, and we were just going to stay a few years because I was none too happy about this. Two years turned into 30, by the way. But anyway, so Geraldine, during this time gets nominated.
Are you familiar with a group of women named Team A?
PF: Team A is a group of women who worked behind the scenes on behalf of Geraldine. No one really knew much about them and [they] helped her get the nomination. I’ll tell you who they were because I think they deserve to be part of feminist political history. Ranny Cooper, Eleanor Lewis – who wasn’t that openly involved because she was Geraldine’s chief of staff – a woman named Joanne Howes, Joan McLean, I believe, Nanette Falkenberg, I think she was a Team A.
I was not, because I was sort of promoting Geraldine, but from within the Geraldine ranks because of the platform committee job I had, and I commuted for that job from Oklahoma City to Washington.
So, Geraldine formed a campaign. I was lucky enough to be hired, and my job was a little vague, but it was primarily – because now of course, the Mondale’s were in charge, the Mondale’s and all the men in the Mondale campaign. And that was not an easy needle to thread. It was challenging. There had never been a woman on the ticket before and women working for their candidate, the woman on the ticket. And, you know, we had fabulous colleagues.
We had Madeleine Albright, who was Geraldine’s foreign affairs advisor, and there was Anne Wexler, who had remained my mentor and dear friend. There were a lot of women involved now, one who I must mention, Susan Estrich, she was hired by Geraldine to run the platform committee. Then when Geraldine was named vice presidential nominee, Susan went to the Mondale campaign. She was very influential in my becoming involved in the broader women’s movement because of her writing, because of her experience, because of how incredibly smart she was. So, she was a strong influence on me.
JW: Well, let’s talk about yourself. So, what did you do during the campaign?
PF: I ended up doing sort of the Women’s Desk. It was a national campaign. And we kind of devised this plan where I did a lot of things, but this was one that comes to my mind because it was a good idea, and I don’t know if they do it anymore. We made sure that every stop she made, the key women in the community, small town, big town, not only if there was any woman in major office, but [they] would greet her, would somehow meet her, and have a photo op, have an interview, etc. We would organize a reception for her there.
We went in spite of some of the resistance from the Mondale campaign, the boys, we went for the women’s angle. They didn’t want to do that. They just wanted this to be a strong, capable woman who could be Vice President of the United States. But we knew that women had been neglected in terms of representation in the House, Senate, and federal office. We knew that women, meaning people involved with Geraldine in the campaign, and this very broad network coming from the team, a network. And we knew that there were millions of women who wanted to be spoken with, spoken to, represented, related to.
We wanted to bring women to the forefront through Geraldine. So, in every town we flew into, in every big city, especially, we had sometimes on the tarmac, key women in the city and in both parties. We didn’t kill ourselves to reach out for Republican women because there was a lot of you can imagine sores in that grief in that. But it was great to see women out there because she was a woman you could be proud of. And it was just, you know, it was something great.
I worked hard on that and had lots of volunteers and lots of people that would show up at the headquarters and want to work on that. I did a little bit of speechwriting again with a strong slant toward it’s time to have a woman in office and wrote a couple of TV ads. The best one and the one that finally made it somewhere was “Gerry, you make us proud.” And it was all about women. And it was a huge fight, frankly, campaign to get the money, to get the time, to put that up.
But it was very popular, and she had tremendous enthusiasm from women. And as we began to see that we weren’t going to win, we began to think, so what can we do here? Well, we can speak to women. We can bring women into the limelight the way we could and should have been, since suffragettes. So that’s what I did in the campaign and broadened my own network politically. And it was great fun.
After that campaign, I sort of settled back in Oklahoma. I had a very close friend, very close, whose name at the time was Cleta Deatherage. Her name is now Cleta Mitchell. At the time, she was a state legislator in Oklahoma, a country girl from a small town who was very left of center, but certainly didn’t seem it stylistically. And she and I had met in the Muskie presidential campaign, where I was supposedly in charge of election day in Milwaukee, and she was in Green Bay and would come to Milwaukee for her bumper stickers and yard signs.
And we stayed friendly. And for many years she was the Liberal light in Oklahoma. She was very popular. She was in the leadership in the House of Representatives, and she was doing really well, very girl next door who had campaigned with, who had been trained by Allard Lowenstein.
She and a couple of cronies [who] had gotten the ERA to the point of just about to being ratified in Oklahoma. At the time, Marie Bass was head of ERAmerica. They sent a delegation of helpers to Oklahoma to help her build support in the legislature to get it passed. And I got involved with those women and our friendship continued and deepened and then it failed, but it didn’t seem to hurt her reputation. And she decided to run for Lieutenant Governor. And she was very strong in the state party.
And at the time, Oklahoma still had a few good Republicans – I’m sorry, lots of Democrats and a couple of decent Republicans. I then got a job as a Planned Parenthood lobbyist in the state. By this time, I had become pretty outraged about reproductive rights and the difficulty of accessing them and the opposition, too. And
I’d come from Washington, DC, to Oklahoma, and I just couldn’t believe how far behind they were in this and how terrible the opposition was. The President of the board of Planned Parenthood at the time would not allow the word abortion to be used in any literature, in any official conversation. I remember I was just horrified.
JW: This is in the 80s, I’m guessing, right?
PF: Early 80s. Early 80s. And I had a five-year-old and not long after I had a newborn, so I was busy. So, Cleta runs for Lieutenant governor with all this ERA and Planned Parenthood behind her and her friends are the same. I was not the campaign manager, but I was sort of the chief advisor and fundraiser and could do things for her, which I think helped – although we didn’t listen carefully enough. Hired Peter Hart, who’s a national pollster, to do polling for her because there was no sophisticated polling for Democrats in Oklahoma.
And we hired a couple of people and we raised money and our opponent was a man named Robert S. Curry Jr., and you probably don’t know much about Oklahoma politics, why would you? He was of the huge Kerr-McGee oil corporation in Oklahoma. And Peter said – I’ll never forget this. While we’re over lunch one day, Peter, Cleta and I have you all noticed that there is a Kerr-McGee sign on every gas station in this state. He doesn’t even have to do advertising. It’s already there. And we got creamed. But then I stayed with Planned Parenthood, and I lobbied, and I found it to be an amazing experience.
I was once again a fish out of water in terms of my beliefs, my values, my style, and it was very hard, but I did a pretty good job at accommodating myself and to this atmosphere I was living in. We did well in the legislature in those days because I think really one of the reasons was that I had a lot of years of understanding what legislative committee chair you find and set up for defeat or raise money against or raise money for or all the ways you build consensus and build pressure on an office holder.
We defeated a lot of nasty antichoice legislation. It’s a little depressing now because it’s all back. So, I did that for quite a long time by then. And this is really not I don’t think about the women’s movement, though. It was about my friend Susan Estrich and my mentor Wexler that I went to work in the Dukakis campaign in Washington again – commuted. Susan was the campaign manager in the primaries, and I worked in communications at this point and worked with Wendy Sherman, Tamra Lozado, a lot of people that I’m still very close to.
I think at that point I grew sort of frustrated that we weren’t getting very far in Oklahoma. It was clear I was going to be there for a while, and I missed writing, actually. And there was very little journalism in the state from women. I mean, there were reporters here and there, but not even very many of those. And there was no one doing opinion on the left, no women doing opinion on the left. And the weekly free newspapers that were a lot about art culture.
One of them was a good one in Oklahoma City and good because the moderate to liberal people that were there were craving this, in terms of entertainment focus. And the daily paper was a very conservative paper that had mostly stories about religion and sports and not very much about theater and art shows. So, I pitched and was successful in convincing them to let me write a column, a weekly column, which I called “Liberty.” And I just began commenting on politics and local, primarily, sometimes national. I wrote a lot about reproductive rights. I wrote a lot about opinions about Oklahoma legislation, Oklahoma’s leadership.
You know, the city and I really developed a following and I really loved it. But I always stayed as an activist, and I think leader in promoting women for office in Oklahoma and other places too. Before that, just about the time we left Washington, my friend Ellen Malcolm started EMILY’s List, and I was not on the initial board because I knew I was leaving and didn’t know what life held for me.
But I’m still involved by giving money, by talking to Ellen frequently and others on the staff. So, it’s in me, it’s in my blood. I am tired of giving money to candidates, but I will target my pro-choice Democrat women that are running for office and follow EMILY’s list and others and worked pretty hard for Hillary. Now that I’m a senior citizen and have some health issues, I can’t do canvassing. I am currently avoiding COVID.
But when I have time for something else, I’m helping a woman who’s in Congress from my district, Marie, who is a very close friend, and we helped get her elected in 2020, and now her seat is – she’s vulnerable – and just last night sent out an email for a Zoom reception to about 20 people, which is tomorrow night.
So to that extent, I’m still involved. I guess the best way I’m still involved is that I keep up with a whole lot of those women that I connected to through all those many years, and really, they’re some of my closest friends and people I adore and respect the most.
JW: Well, as a final question, sort of the big picture, what would you say about the women’s movement, how did it create the person you are?
PF: Oh, gosh, I’m not sure this is the women’s movement or my mother, but I’m pretty confident now, after watching all these women from all over the country do so many extraordinary things and watching many of them fall to fail and fall for the same reasons everyone in the world does. Mistakes of judgment, bad choices, men, confusion in our roles.
But I would say that what I feel now is confidence in my ability to take on a project, whatever it is, and do my best and better than most. And there are women there to help me. There are some men sometimes to help me, and there are some women that I wouldn’t want to help me anymore. But the witness, maybe it’s giving me a posse.
JW: Well, do you have any final words?
PF: I came into this thinking that it was absurd to ignore or diminish or minimize half the population because we were supposed to be making biscuits and grits and not much more and have left it or not left it. But I’m phasing away from it, believing that that has, for the better begun to change in a pretty significant way. Whether the world will be better, as I always assumed, by having more women weigh in and have significant roles in the way the world works, I don’t know. These are hard times to make a conclusion like that, but it does matter. But, I mean, it’s not the reason to do it. The reason to do it is because we are half the population. We think differently. We do things differently. It’s valuable to hear from everyone in a society, and I’m proud to have pushed that idea forward.