THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Rev. Selena Fox
“I have been a lifelong activist for social change.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, January 2022
SF: I’m so thankful for Veteran Feminists of America and this opportunity to be part of the project and to share some experiences and perspectives along the way.
MJC: Excellent. We’re very happy to have you, Selena. Why don’t we start by telling us your full name and a little bit about your upbringing, where you were born, ethnic background, parents, siblings, all those good things?
SF: I was born October 20th, 1949 in Arlington, Virginia. My name at birth is Suzanne Marie Bissett. Later in life, I expanded my name to include my professional name, Selena Fox, and my husband’s surname. So, my full name is Selena Suzanne Marie Bissett Carpenter Fox. I grew up in the part of Arlington, Virginia, known as Clarendon, and I have two sisters, both living. My parents died in 2018. I was raised in a Protestant-Christian household. You may say I would fit the category of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
That said, part of the oral family history has been that on my mother’s father’s mother’s side was Native American ancestry. I have attempted to look into that. My understanding from doing some genealogical research in Virginia was in the 1920s, records were changed, and the nuanced designation of racial identity pretty much got distilled to white and colored. I have a picture of my great-grandmother, who supposedly was Native American, but I haven’t yet been able to verify her heritage. However, I found myself connecting with people of many different racial backgrounds and cultures during the course of my life, and hopefully, someday I’ll get that mystery solved.
MJC: Wonderful. Talk a little bit about your education and leading toward how you happened to encounter the women’s movement.
SF: I really think the feminism that I’ve embraced throughout my entire adult life actually had some roots in my ancestry. I found out through studies of research on my father’s side and my mother’s side that there were women doing things that were not what you might call the normal range of things. On my father’s side, some women were ministers, they were Quaker leaders, and they were actually part of the leadership in the emerging Quaker Movement in the 1600 and 1700s.
In the case of my mother, her father died when she was 9 years old, which meant that her mother, my maternal grandmother, was supporting our family. My maternal grandmother actually went to secretarial school and learned stenography. Early in the 20th century, she was venturing into the professional realm.
On both my father’s side and my mother’s side, I come from multi-generations of people that have worked in the federal government. And as part of my journey in this life, I, too, have done federal government service. As I was growing up in Arlington, Virginia, I worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the U.S. Forest Service, actually answered Smokey the Bear’s fan mail as part of my work in the 1960s, as I was making my way through college. I would do summer jobs working for the federal government. I’d come back home and do that. I worked for the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Army Chief of Staff. I filled in for one of the secretaries who was out on maternity leave.
In terms of education, I had private education my first year at Birchwood Elementary, and part of how I came to go to that private school was the determination of when birthdays fell and who could enter school at that time. My parents didn’t want me to wait another year because I was born in October and you needed to have some other educational options before you entered the public school. So, they sent me the first year to Birchwood Elementary, and I really appreciate the education I received there. And then when I entered public school the following year, I actually went into accelerated training. Throughout my elementary, junior high, and high school, I was on what some would call the accelerated track. I think part of it had to do with my upbringing and part of it had to do with that early start.
I also did quite a bit of education in the form of religion. The family church, First Baptist Church of Clarendon, was not too far away. I got religious education as well as my secular education. I’ve loved reading, I’ve loved studies, and I even considered at a time to be a librarian because I am so interested in the realm of learning and preserving history, which is one of the reasons I appreciate the Veteran Feminists of America oral history project.
I decided as I looked at choices for my college and university education to go to the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. In 1967, I entered William & Mary. Now, some other choices were presented to me. However, back in the 1960s, even women that had high-grade averages and did well academically were not able to go to all the institutions of higher learning. University of Virginia, for example, was closed to women at that time. And I almost went to one of the Seven Sisters, all women colleges, but my parents really wanted me closer to home. So, I applied and got accepted at the College of William & Mary.
Now the College of William & Mary, founded in 1693, had been an all-male institution until 1918 when they started letting women come in. I entered in the fall of 1967, and it was still mostly a male college. I’d say about 75% of the undergraduate class were men. I became embracing of feminism through a psychological process that you might call cognitive dissonance. Not only did you have to have a higher-grade point average to get in to William & Mary if you were female, but once you were there, you had a whole set of rules that the men who went to William & Mary did not have. What we could wear, where we could go, we were locked up in the dormitory at 11:00 at night. So, the William & Mary Woman Rulebook was part of our orientation.
I was excited to be at college and I really appreciate my education at the College of William & Mary. It was an excellent education, but I learned about feminism as a result of seeing the inequalities firsthand on campus. And decided, after my first year there, I really needed to do something to have more equality. In my second year at the College of William & Mary, I decided to do something about this and decided to have a public on-campus burning of the rulebook, the William & Mary Woman Rulebook.
There were lots of guys who showed up and a few women. I helped to organize this grand conflagration but followed it up with some direct communications with the university administration. And by the time I graduated in June of 1971, some positive changes had been made. I was trying to get the university, as part of a lot of my institutional recommendations for reform, to actually have birth control provided for their students. They didn’t go for that. However, the rule that we had to get signed parent permission before we could go walking in the University forest, that got changed. The rule that women could not wear slacks got changed. And there was some changing of curfew hours for the dormitories. So, I am thankful for that.
While I was at the College of William & Mary, my undergraduate major was Psychology, and I entered the honors program and my focus for my honors thesis was Sex Role Stereotyping. I delved into the university archives and saw firsthand the big debate about women being admitted to the college. I am thankful for my education at the College of William & Mary, not only the classes I took, but the real opportunities I had with several female faculty members and some other students [who] formed a women’s rights organization called Women’s Equality, and that was also part of the quest to really have equal rights for women on campus. And part of that came as a result of me continuing to see the discrepancies between how men made their way into the world, not only in the campus life but the larger world, different from women.
I was an honor student and had the opportunity to be at an honors banquet my senior year and getting to meet distinguished psychologists. Harry Harlow, who did quite a bit of research with various creatures and really talking about surrogate mothering and that type of thing, came to campus. I was one of two women that were with the students that were invited to this dinner. He asked to sit between the two women and his remark to all of us has said, “It’s so great to be here with all these brilliant men and beautiful women.” And I said, “Women are brilliant, too.” He gave a really horrible presentation, a very sexist presentation that evening.
Professor Baumgardner of the Anthropology Department actually was so offended, she got up and walked out interspaced with images of monkeys doing nursing, where Playboy had pictures of women. Well, I decided to stay to get the evidence, but needless to say, there’s some direct corrective feedback to the Psychology department. Going through the change of our society and being part of the change in society has pretty much been central to my whole life. I started looking for graduate schools. Where was I going to go to graduate school? I applied to a number of different universities. One of them was Rutgers University.
I graduated in 1971, and shortly after that, I went to work on an archaeological dig, as well as did some volunteer work at a heroin clinic that was trying to bring some healing and stopping the addiction in inner city Hampton Roads, particularly among the African-Americans there. While I was in my summer job, I not only got the acceptance from Rutgers, but they were giving me a grant to go to Rutgers. I found out later part of that had to do with funding, and there was a need to open the universities to get certain sources of funding.
I was off to Rutgers University in the fall of 1971 and help break the gender barrier there. Rutgers was founded in 1766 and also had been an all-male institution. In 1970, the Board of Governors decided to start letting women attend but work at the graduate level. Coming in the fall of 1971, I was one of the first women at Rutgers University. I went directly into a PhD program, but what I really wanted to study was looking at the connection between mind, emotions, and spirit, the field that some call psychoneuroimmunology. That was a big stretch at that university. They let women in, and now they want to look at all this holistic stuff. I ended up leaving Rutgers University in 1972 in the spring.
That fall, I’m happy to report, was when the undergraduate part of the university became coed. I traveled around the US. I ended up in Madison, Wisconsin, and started making Wisconsin my home. Shortly after I arrived in Wisconsin, I started connecting with a variety of different women who were also looking to bring about equal rights for women in society. I was part of a women’s art collective. We produced a calendar. I helped organize events. Within a year or so of arriving in Madison, I was able to get a job in women and family resources at the university and became the personal assistant, executive assistant of Dr. Kathryn Clarenbach.
There, I not only got to work with her, but there were two other women who were very bright and committed feminists: Connie Trident and Marion Thompson. With these three women, I not only learned about the university as an institution, but I was able to work with them on some other projects. There was the Wisconsin Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women. I was involved with that. There was the Women’s Political Caucus. I was involved with that. And yes, I worked on the Equal Rights Amendment during that particular time.
One of the things that I really appreciated about Kay Clarenbach, as most people knew her, that knew her well, was her real dedication to service. She was hardworking, she was brilliant, and she persevered. I took those qualities which I had already gotten from my upbringing as a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. But I upped it even further. Although the Equal Rights Amendment did not pass, did not get ratified, I learned the importance of working within institutions to affect societal change.
I ended up changing careers from psychology and working at the university at the time. I decided to go into commercial art and photography. At this time, the realm of corporate photography was pretty much a male domain. I was covering events as a photojournalist. I worked for CUNA Mutual Insurance Society in their Audio-Visual department. I was the only female professional AV person in the AV department. I would be covering conferences. I worked on the corporate publications. I even won awards as part of my short time working for CUNA Mutual.
In terms of my contributions to feminism in the realm of photography, I was one of the first women that I know of, in Wisconsin anyway, that was breaking into corporate photography. Did I have to problem-solve on what some people would call harassment on the job? Yes. It seemed that if you were female, young, and considered attractive, it opened you to a variety of opportunities to make sure you were standing near the door in a private office so that you would not go beyond just being harassed.
But I’m so happy now that more people in the workplace are standing up and putting an end to that. But unfortunately, I had encounters with that during my corporate life. I’m thankful for a lot that I learned at CUNA Mutual. However, part of corporate culture at the time was very male-dominated, and women were objectified. It just gave me more ammunition to do some education to bring about a different and better solution to how women and men could be together in society.
While I was at CUNA Mutual, I had the opportunity to also do some work with publications, and I actually got promoted from darkroom assistant and assistant photographer into an editor position. There, I was hoping to edit company publications. But even so, I realized I really needed to expand beyond the corporate world. I decided that I needed to leave my corporate job and enter ministry full time.
I had founded Circle Sanctuary in 1974. And in 1978, I took the additional steps to have Circle Sanctuary incorporated as a non-profit religious organization. As a result of that, I have been making some changes regarding the realm of religion. At that time, there were a variety of women’s spirituality groups. There were groups that would call themselves Wiccan and Pagan that also worked with the Divine, not just as remote male deity, but that was an eminent indwelling form of the Divine. And to work with Goddess as a great oneness and as a multifaceted one.
I was very involved in helping to grow the Goddess spirituality movement and the women’s spirituality movement and have continued on since that time. When I was very young, I felt a calling to ministry, but being female and a Southern Baptist, that wasn’t an option for me. In my 20s, I figured out a way to make it an option. I founded Circle Sanctuary in 1974. I left my corporate job and decided to have Circle Sanctuary become a religious institution. We incorporated as a non-profit religious institution. In 1978 and 1980, we got federal tax-exempt status.
As a result of taking those steps, I have been able to help bring about more understanding in the larger world of religious studies academically, as well as in the interreligious world in particular. In 1988, I went to speak at the World Council of Churches first international interfaith conference for women. There was a Women’s Dialogue conference. There were women from many different faith traditions from around the world that were there.
There were two of us representing Goddess spirituality traditions, Margot Adler, a reporter for National Public Radio, and myself. We had opportunities to talk about our own experiences of working with the Divine in Goddess forms and we also were part of dialogues about the need to take a look in every religious tradition and root out sexism. We had a lot of allies from women around the world who were submitting new language for Sacred Text, and we were able to build alliances and to do some education because many of the women there were not aware of contemporary pagans. This was an opportunity to connect with us. So that was a really wonderful experience.
Margot Adler and I were both very involved in feminism, as well as helping to birth paganism in new ways in the US and other parts of the world. I have, throughout my life’s journey, connected with a variety of wonderful women that have taken part in this work. Another person who was involved with interreligious and international networking is a woman by the name of Deborah Ann Light who lived in the New York area, had a place in New York City, in the Village, as well as in East Hampton on Long Island. She first connected with me in 1983 when she was doing Master’s research on Goddess spirituality. I helped her with her academic work. She was a student of mine. Over time, we got involved in a variety of activities. She was part of the Circle Sanctuary delegation to the Centennial Parliament of the World’s Religions that was held in 1993 in Chicago.
At the very first Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893, there were suffragettes and suffragists that were there, and it was really wonderful to be part of feminists that were at this rebirth of the Parliament of the World’s Religions back in 1993. I have been part of the Parliament of World’s Religions ever since the centennial rebirth and have been involved in each of the convenings since that time. Deborah Ann Light decided to form a foundation to bring feminism to the philanthropic world. She formed the Thanks Be To Grandmother Winifred Foundation and using money from the Upjohn Light inheritance that she had to fund older women, you had to be 54 years and older to apply, and to have projects that specifically benefited women.
From 1992 to 2001, for nine years, I served on the board. We met twice a year in Florida at one of Deborah’s properties, the one in Florida, and we would look over lots of applications for funding from the foundation. It was a really wonderful experience to be with a group of women, and we had funding to be able to help women achieve some goals. There were art projects, there were speaking projects, there were archiving. There was just a whole range of different things that we were able to fund as a group.
Deborah Ann Light, although she is no longer alive, really did much to help bring about a better understanding of feminism in different parts of society, not only with her academic work, but with her philanthropic work as well and her interreligious work. She, representing Circle Sanctuary, Covenant of the Goddess and Earth Spirit community, went to serve on the organizing body for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. It was wonderful to have her actually in the administration of that. She was part of a variety of Parliaments. She and I were in Africa together, Cape Town, South Africa in 1999. In 2004, the Parliament was in Barcelona, Spain.
And I not only connected with her, but from women and men from many different walks of life and spiritual traditions as part of the interreligious realm, and I’m continuing to do that work. The most recent Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in October of 2021. I was involved doing presentations at that parliament. It was the first online parliament. One of the women’s programming things that I helped contribute to was international podcasting by women. I was with a woman from Brazil as well as a Mexican-American woman, and we talked about the importance of working with podcasting to connect people around the world. I was really delighted that feminism and podcasting actually got on an international interfaith stage for that.
There’s a number of different things throughout the course of my life in which feminism has played an important part. I certainly have gone from psychology, and I still have a part-time psychotherapy and counseling practice. I’ve been doing feminist psychology since the 1960s. I’m continuing to be involved in photography. I’ve now expanded it into radio and television and I’ve been doing regular podcasting since 2011. In the 1970s, I got into broadcasting with community-sponsored radio and television. I brought some feminist perspectives to WYOU, a news station in Madison, Wisconsin. I produced and hosted the Circle Magic Show. On WORT, an FM radio station that still exists, I had the Circle Magic Show.
It was important to me to be able to bring some diversity to podcasting, not only to be a female doing broadcasting but to have topics that mainstream media was not touching. Going back to that idea of psychoneuroimmunology really looking at holistic health, looking at the power of imagination, personal attitudes. I have continued in that realm ever since. Now, it takes the form of podcasting and YouTube and pop-up live streams and webinars and a whole host of other things.
I’ve continued to be part of broadcasting and the media. In addition to producing this, I have had, throughout my life, opportunities to be in the media, and this started in early days of television. The first time I was on TV was a children’s show in Washington DC, WTTG. At age five, I was on TV, and then in 1964, I ended up being in the Washington Star newspaper. How did I get in there? I was playing Powderpuff Football and making a touchdown. Football is not an important part of my life, but it was a fun thing to do. To actually start understanding the importance of media was something that happened even in my youth.
But as I went to the College of William & Mary, I was very active in a variety of social change. I not only worked for equal rights for women, but I founded the Gay Liberation Group which is now called the Lambda Alliance. It still exists and worked for a better understanding of LGBTQ+ people. Back then, it was all called gay liberation. But over time, it has expanded and been more inclusive. I’ve been part of that. I started putting my psychology skills into action by doing counseling with social change dimensions to it.
I did birth control counseling for women. Back in the 1960s, it was illegal to show birth control devices in public. I was definitely on the edge there as I responded to a need that wasn’t available at our college infirmary. I did push to get birth control devices and counseling available at the University Health Center. Yes, William & Mary has caught up with the times and now has a much more comprehensive healthcare delivery system for their students and whole university campus.
I also did draft counseling. Back in the 1960s, as there were a variety of different social change movements, I was very involved in them. I was very involved in my academics, but I was one of the first women and one of the few women that were involved in New Left politics. I worked for social change. Martin Luther King Jr. and his march on Washington in 1963, even before I got to college, really had an impact on me. While I was not at that rally, I was part of a group of youth at our church and adults that did support work for that. I have been an activist for social change pretty much my entire adult life, even going back to my teen years.
I helped organize a conference on peace and justice along with several other campus activists and got to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this event at College of William & Mary last year, in 2021. We brought activists and thinkers from around the country to our Conference on Peace and Justice. What prompted this Conference on Peace and Justice? Richard Nixon had all the attorney generals from across the U.S. gathered in Williamsburg, and it seemed to me that there needed to be better balance because there was misinformation and lies going on as a result of how the Vietnam War was being conducted.
While at this stage in my life, I’m doing a lot of support for people in the armed forces, especially in terms of religious accommodation, making sure that those people involved in nature religions have the same treatment and opportunities. But back then, I really saw it was important to pursue peaceful resolutions for things and was very much involved in the movement for non-violent social change. We had a conference on peace and justice. However, the university did not want us to have it, so I decided it was time to lawyer up.
I was one of the first women and the youngest at that time to be on the Board of Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia. I contacted the ACLU, and they provided us with some legal counsel. We met with the Board of Visitors and other college administration people and demanded our rights to have free speech and to gather people together. Of course, I wanted it right in the center of campus. They weren’t going for that, but what actually turned out to be better is they gave us the wooded area of this beautiful amphitheater.
We had our conference. More than 2,000, and some say as many as 4,000 people attended. It was packed. Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet, was one of the people that we brought to campus, and I had a chance to connect with him. There were a variety of different speakers, all looking to have a better U.S.A., to work for peace, to work for social justice, racial equality, and, yes, feminism. Well, the conference was a success. It got our message out in the media, so that was a really positive thing.
However, when you stand up and are so visible, there are sometimes consequences for that. Within a couple of weeks of having organized this national conference, I was passing out some flyers advertising a peace conference and action in Washington D.C. I was passing them out at a local shopping center with a couple of other people, and all of a sudden, got surrounded by police cars and got arrested.
Me, a professor from Canada with her kid, and a graduate student in sociology, he was really having a hard time. They scooped up a couple, who were young Democrats, who were there for a different reason, but hauled us all down to the Williamsburg police station. I pretty much got the two young Democrats off the hook. I said, “Look, they aren’t with us. Let them go.” They were both shaking and in tears, and they let them go.
But I had the opportunity to have some direct encounters with standing up and making voices known. Well, it turned out eventually, the charges were all dropped in that type of thing. However, that let me know that in America, when you stand up for what you think can be a good thing for all of us, sometimes you have some more opportunities to be strong. That really opened my eyes to what was happening with our country and how the federal government was conducting itself.
Now, I continued to do my summer jobs while I was at William & Mary. Every summer, I’d go home, and I’d work for the federal government. I did not see that as a conflict. I was doing government service. However, I realized that not all parts of the government were really functioning with a rule of law way, and that actually was a big education for me. William & Mary was a formative time for me.
Going to graduate school also brought some changes, and being in Madison. I’ve been in the Greater Madison area since 1972. I have made my home in this area. Yes, I live out in the country now and have been living rurally ever since, but I consider Washington D.C. still my home, and I continue to work in ways that are not only local and statewide, but national and global.
Some additional things that I have done over the years is be part of Take Back the Night marches. I was part of the Women’s Strike for Equal Rights back in the 1970s. I continue to be part of demonstrations as well as working within institutions to bring about good consideration and, ideally, some collaboration and positive change. I was at the big Women’s March a few years ago, where there were literally millions of women all over, and was in downtown Madison and that was amazing and wonderful to see that resurgence.
I’m also very active in the environmental movement. In 1970, I helped birth Earth Day with an event at the College of William & Mary. Yes, I was one of the many founders of Earth Day events back in 1970. In 1983, I founded Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve, and in 1995 founded Circle Cemetery, one of the first green cemeteries in North America. In the environmental science movement, I’ve also brought some ecofeminism.
In my early days in the movement, it had a preponderance of white males who were running the organizations, and yet I found a way to be present, to dialogue, to collaborate. Now, things have diversified more. I’m very thankful for that. I was part of the Climate March and Strike back in 2019. More recently, in October of 2021, there was a Green Faith Call for Climate Justice, and I spoke at the State Capitol as part of an inner religious gathering there.
I’m continuing to bring ecofeminism to my environmental work, and I’m now very active in Chaplaincy realms. I have been part of Chaplaincy realm since the 1970s and forming Circle Sanctuary, but in the most recent years, beginning in 2021, I have begun serving national leadership with Chaplaincy administration. This has been another opportunity to be a face of diversity and collaboration and a way to bring about some more changes. Yes, there are now a lot more women chaplains, as well as men chaplains. Administration, though, tends to be more men than women. So I’m hoping to bring some change about that.
I have been involved in a quest for equal rights and equality, liberty, and justice for all throughout my entire adult life, and it’s part of how I live and how I work. It’s my hope that as we move forward, not only here in the United States but around the world, that people will continue to have hope and be motivated to collaborate and to bring about changes in which truly there is equal opportunity for women and men, and people of all gender identity and sexual orientation all around the world and as humankind goes off planet also at the International Space Station and wherever else humans might go. I am passionate about the importance of women being able to have equal opportunity, not only here in the United States, but around the world, and I hope to be able to continue to work on this with others long into the future.
MJC: Excellent. Well, it doesn’t sound like you slowed down at all, Selena. So that’s excellent. That’s wonderful. This has been just a wonderful time with you. Is there anything we’ve left out?
SF: Yes, I should tell one additional story, at least because, while it wasn’t framed as a feminist issue, I was part of a group of women that was able to bring some corrective feedback to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Well, let me back up. As part of Circle Sanctuary work, we have grown and developed as an institution. We’re located on 200 acres in southwestern Wisconsin, about 45-minute drive west of Madison. We have a nature preserve that serves as our headquarters at our green cemetery. That’s part of that, and we do a variety of work in society in the U.S. as well as internationally.
Some of the work that we do involves bringing about equal rights for people who are involved in nature spirituality. That would include Wiccans, druids, heathens, pantheos, animists, and ecofeminists, and my church is in the woods, folks. In that context, we have led the way in a number of fronts. Early on, shortly after Circle Sanctuary was formed, yes, I’m a peace activist, but I have a strong passion to bring support, equal rights for people who are first responders and people serving in the military, serving our society.
It’s really important to me that those people who are involved in nature spirituality have equal treatment and have equal opportunity. Coming out of this, back in 1997, there was an effort to get the five-pointed star in the circle, which is sometimes called a pentacle, added to the list of emblems of belief that can be included on the memorial stones that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs issues to mark the graves of deceased veterans.
I was in a support role in Circle Sanctuary. I was in a support role for a number of years. Some other individuals in organizations attempted to get this done, and we thought, “Good, we’ll support you,” but no one was really moving on this in the federal government. Having worked for the federal government in a number of different departments in different ways, well, not responding to something is a way of delaying things. For several years, nothing was happening.
Then in 2005, as more people were going over to Afghanistan, to Operation Enduring Freedom there and to Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom, it was really important to me that we got the symbol on the list. So that if people were killed in action, or for the veterans that had served and had an honorable discharge, and then it was the natural end of their life, that they could have their religious emblem on their gravestone.
By the time 2005 came around, when none of the other groups had been able to get anywhere, I decided it was time to shift from a support role into an active role. So we did our own application to get the pentacle added to the list of emblems of belief that the VA had for the gravestones and went through a whole series of processes around that. But we actually were getting responses from the VA, which was good. They were basically saying, “Well, we need to update our rules.”
Then they let us know about their new rules, and they were actually making it much harder for people to add symbols to the list. However, we were able to provide everything that was needed under the new rules and went ahead and applied. And I followed up. Having worked for the federal government, it’s really good to stay on top of things and to keep the communication lines open.
Well, it became apparent that in 2006 that things were bogging down, and we needed to expand our ability to have communications about the importance of this happening. A woman whose husband was killed in action in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan got word about our effort, made contact with me. I talked with her and said, “Are you willing to make your story public?” Because she had gone to the local Veterans Cemetery to get the memorial plaque for her husband, who was killed in action, and they said she couldn’t get her religious symbol on there because it wasn’t on the list. So, she and I went out on the road.
We were on Capitol Hill. We were in the VA offices. We did a variety of different things to not only move the administrative process forward, but we took it into the court of public opinion as well. Even though I’ve appeared in the media over time, I’ve never really looked for media attention until this time. Then it became apparent that we really did need to build alliances, and as a result, we decided to do a ceremony on Memorial Day, the first Memorial Day after when Sergeant Patrick Stewart had been killed, along with others in his Chinook helicopter. That got a lot of media attention, and we decided that we would get a legal team to represent us and help us accomplish this.
So, Americans United for Separation of Church and State was the group of people that we worked with, and they represented us and provided us legal help as well as helping in the media department. We worked in a variety of ways to try to get the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to finally add the symbol on the list. After exhausting the administrative procedures from the executive branch, we were up on Capitol Hill. Harry Reid, who just recently died, was very much on board, helping us, and actually, this was a bipartisan effort. Jim Gibbons, a Republican representative from that part of Nevada where Sergeant Patrick Stewart was, was also supportive.
We went to the VA with somebody from Senator Reid’s office, myself and Roberta Stewart, the widow, and met with National Cemetery Administration officials, and they still were not letting us put the symbol on the list. We ended up having to sue the VA. Americans United for Separation of Church and State did an excellent job of pulling together all the things that we needed. There were actually five of us women that were part of the lawsuit. I represented Circle Sanctuary, and the other women had connections with Circle Sanctuary. Roberta had lost her husband in Operation Enduring Freedom. Another woman had a husband who was on life support, basically in a coma, in a VA hospital, and then two other women were also part of our network of providing military support for those Wiccans and other pagans in the US military.
Five women were all very much working to have this happen, were part of this lawsuit. One of the women’s husbands had died of natural causes, Jerome Birnbaum was the husband, and Karen D. Polito. Here were five women all giving some corrective feedback to George W. Bush’s VA administration. The good news is we got it done. On April 23rd, 2007, the pentacle went on the list and grave markers started to be issued. At the press conference at the National Press Club, there were our attorneys, and Roberta, and myself, and we were all speaking about how relieved we were that this had happened. Indeed, there were 11 families that were waiting for this thing to be done. The good news is that we, women, were able to be part of a process that actually not only got the symbol we needed on the list, but it actually changed the procedures that the VA uses. Now people of different beliefs are able to have their symbols go on with less hassle.
Then Memorial Day of 2007, we did a dedication of three memorial markers at our cemetery and had a press conference with three of us women who are all part of the lawsuit, talking to the press about this. On July 4th, the very first interfaith marker with a pentacle and a Christian cross, I helped dedicate with Barry Lynn, who was the head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State at Arlington National Cemetery. I would say that out of the different quests for equal rights that I’ve been involved in, that not only lasted a while, several years, but it also helped build awareness about the need to treat those involved in nature’s spirituality equally as those of other religions.
SF: What is ahead? It’s my hope that future generations will listen to the stories, not only of Veteran Feminists of America, including myself, but really look at this wisdom and these experiences and be part of the process of continuing to work for equal rights. I continue to do International Women’s Day on March 8th every year and use that as an opportunity to do some education, and at interreligious international conferences, being able to have first-hand contact with people from around the world about how to bring about equal rights for women all around the world, I think, is vitally important. I’m so thankful to be part of a much larger movement of veteran feminists that are continuing to be out working for a better society and a better world. I thank you for this opportunity.
MJC: Thank you so much, Selena. It’s just been a pleasure to talk to you and hear your story.