THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Roberta Cheff Brooks
“My Belief System Was Always There, but the Women’s Movement Articulated It and There Was No Going Back.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, July 2022
JW: Roberta, would you introduce yourself, please?
RCB: Yes. Roberta Cheff Brooks.
JW: And when and where were you born?
RCB: I was born in Wilmington, Delaware. I was born in 1942, and my father was already in Texas when I was born. He was a doctor, an intern, and he had enlisted in the army. We went to Texas for a year, and then he was killed in the war. We went to my grandparents for what was going to be a short period of time and ended up staying there for five years. So, Pennsylvania actually is my roots.
JW: I see. Okay. Well, you told us a little about your early years, can you tell us if ethnic background or religion is important? And what about your childhood do you think, got you in the direction that you went, ultimately?
RCB: Well, ultimately, I think it was the fact that my mother was a widow at a very young age with two children. My experience was that a woman needed to be able to work, support herself and her children. So, it was not the women’s movement that got me involved with the idea that I would have a career. Even though my mother, when she remarried (it was an unfortunate marriage actually) at one point said, “I hope you won’t have to work as hard as I did.” But I said, “Well, you were happiest when you were actually working.” So, she was really the model for me for the notion that a woman needed to be independent and capable of supporting more than herself.
JW: Right. In those years, many women did not work.
RCB: And then she did not work after she remarried. She left her support system and we moved to Ohio in the country, and she did not thrive. So, it was a multiple series of lessons.
JW: When did you learn about the women’s movement?
RCB: Well, that’s a really good question. My first son was born in 1969, and that was really why I became involved with the women’s movement. Because I did not want him growing up in a world with the notions that I had lived through in the ‘50s. The men…they don’t express emotion, they can’t cry, they’re the breadwinners. It was just kind of antithetical to everything that I had observed.
At that time, I got involved with local politics to support a woman candidate for city council as a progressive candidate. Not really because she was a feminist. We weren’t really using that language at that time. This was 1969 and we worked to elect Loni Hancock. She ended up serving in several elected offices but she did not win in ’69.
In 1971, we created a local organization called the April Coalition, and it was very progressive. We had quite a radical document that was our platform, and we ran a slate of four candidates. Loni did win that time. But in that process, we had some women’s cohorts. I was in a meeting with women, and it was the first time I’d really started to hear the language of the women’s movement, and it was very attractive. It kind of articulated a lot of things that I had had in my own experience, but had not formulated into a kind of…doctrine is a little too strong a word.
JW: What was it like to really hear other women articulating what you were thinking?
RCB: Well, it was very liberating. I know that’s a cliche, but it actually really was quite remarkable. Now, it was an interesting time. So, shall I get a little expansive here?
JW: Sure. Please.
RCB: So, because Loni was elected to the city council and the other two elected turned out not to be very progressive, she was having a difficult experience. I need to digress here. By this time, I was already working for Ron Dellums, so I’d been very involved with the political world at that point.
JW: Let me interrupt you and say explain who Ron is.
RCB: Okay. Ron Dellums was elected in 1971. An African American, radical, progressive man, who was the first anti-war candidate who was actually elected to Congress on an anti-war platform. And he was a psychiatric social worker. I worked in the district office in Oakland. He had served on the Berkeley City Council until his election to Congress. And because of that, he expected us all to continue to work at the local level. On our own time. And so, he was kind of the titular head of the April Coalition and he was always the top of any ticket that we ran.
So, when Loni was elected in 1971, through this process of our beginning to hear about women’s groups, consciousness raising groups, another friend of mine said, “We need to have a support group for Loni.” It’s certainly what I told my first husband. And a couple of other people told their husbands, “This is not a consciousness raising group. This is a group to help Loni.” I guess a couple of women came and went, but we ended up being six.
That was 1971, and though not everyone is still alive, we’re still our group. So, it was a huge experience for me…and everybody. And very quickly, it morphed from being a support group for Loni to…everything. Once we started talking about sex, then it was a whole game changer. But I want to say, at this time, we were all married, we all had children, and we were all heterosexual. And that was a commonality that I think allowed us to continue, because we didn’t have to argue over all of those things. I knew a number of groups that fell apart because there were so many differences around those topics.
So, we did approach the women’s movement from that construct, which was not always easy. We had our own group which really did start out to support this one person and morphed into something else. We were all also involved in a conference called Beyond Anger– a women’s conference. Some people walked out. We didn’t quite achieve the Beyond Anger part, but it was the beginning of, for us, the opening up of where there were some conflicts among women, because in our little group, there weren’t those conflicts.
I remember in 1972, maybe end of ’72, early ’73, I was already divorced by that time and I was in a new relationship. I had just had this child who was at that time, two and a half, and I went to a Saturday morning women’s conference which was so divisive. These issues kept coming up about feminism, lesbianism, radicalism, this and that. And I finally left and said, “You know what? I have too much going on in my life. I want to be with my kid today.”
I mean, it’s a Saturday morning, he’s in daycare the rest of the time. I’m going to be with my kid. So, I didn’t continue to participate in those particular groups because I didn’t have the time on some level. I also didn’t want to continue to struggle and argue with other women. I thought we need to come together where we can. And then that ended up moving me a little bit more into politics itself, as opposed to just women’s issues.
JW: Like what?
RCB: Well, because I worked in the congressional office, one of the things was a national health service, and early on, the Dellums office was very interested in sponsoring a legislation for a National Health Service, which took quite a while – a couple of years of arguing and working things out – but it was a remarkable bill and I got very involved in that (and other health policy issues). We had national affiliates of the Committee for a National Health Service all over the country, and we did get Congressional co-sponsors. So, there was a lot of work around health care.
I didn’t really get involved in the activist women’s health care organizations until a little later. I looked at your interview with Alice Wolfson. I got involved with the coalition for the Medical Rights of Women, of which she was one of the founders. But that was later in the ’80s. In the ’70s, there were a lot of issues around midwifery that Congressman Dellums held hearings about in the country, because he was the chair of the DC committee, and in that capacity was able to hold hearings. We had some in Oakland, really pushing the midwifery movement.
And then politics in general. I mean, there was the war, which many of us were deeply involved in. Then there was, starting in Berkeley and other parts of the country, the Third World movement. Certainly, the Women’s movement and Native American movement – I mean, there were all of these movements that we, as an active office, were deeply involved in. So when I say it expanded a little bit more into broader issues, I think that’s probably what I mean.
JW: Did women’s reproductive health issues come up? I’m just curious.
RCB: Very definitely. Until Roe. We thought it was over, right? We thought we’d gotten it. And through the midwifery movement, there was that expanded concept of women’s reproductive rights, autonomy, important of prenatal care, and ability to make decisions for herself with a midwife, as opposed to being told how and what you’re going to do, when you’re giving birth, etc. So, it was a pretty expansive definition I think, of reproductive rights. But we certainly were all involved with that. And here we are again.
JW: Did you join any particular organization?
RCB: Over the years, and I wish I had a better recall of what years, but I got involved with the National Women’s Political Caucus. I was on their local board. We did a lot of work around particular local issues that would come up, in particular. Always if there was a march, we would frequently march under that banner. There were some of those, I forget the groups that were pushing – the anti-abortion people, they have some parades occasionally, they have them in San Francisco – we’d always put a contingent of women together to stand on the sidelines and yell at them and things like that.
And then, as I said, a little later I joined and volunteered with the Coalition for the Medical Rights of Women and I was on their board. There was a subcommittee called Perinatal Health Rights Committee. We worked very hard, (and again, this was in the early ’80s) and published a booklet. I don’t remember the exact title, but it had to do with the dangers of over-the-counter medication during pregnancy. We lobbied companies to get them to put different kinds of warning labels on bottles.
Do you remember when, I think it was Tylenol, was contaminated? Before that, we had been in touch with that company and said, “You need to put warning labels on your medications about what is good and not good during pregnancy.” And they said, “Oh, it’s too expensive. Can’t do that.” But as soon as their own material was contaminated, they had all kinds of labels on those bottles. Interestingly enough, that happened when the Coalition for the Medical Rights of Women closed down. That’s interesting, because in my analysis of it, we were a very viable organization and people really came to us. There was a DES action, which was a subcommittee about people, the information around DES mothers.
JW: Explain what that is.
RCB: That was a drug that was given to women, I think in the ’50s, early ’60s, for morning sickness. They didn’t suffer, but their daughters had compromised reproductive issues. So that was a big part of the coalition. It was a very viable organization, but it was run by women who weren’t working yet. Most of the women that founded it weren’t working out of the home. It was run by volunteers, primarily. And then by the time I got involved with them, most women were working.
I believe that’s why it didn’t continue, because it just was very hard to raise money. I was on the board at that time. We got a development director. We tried to raise money. It was just really a hard time to do that for those issues, and we just didn’t have the resources to keep it going without volunteers. It was very interesting sociologically, I think. We did a lot of lobbying with a lot of companies around this prescription information for pregnant women, and it might have planted a seed, but I don’t know how the corporate world works enough to know.
JW: You were doing your own political work while you worked for a very prominent Congressman. So, were there any conflicts there that you’d run into that maybe something you wanted to do, he didn’t?
RCB: Remarkably, no. Many of us that worked for Ron Dellums have communicated throughout the years. It was kind of like a family. He had almost no turnover in his office. That doesn’t happen in Congress. And I think one of the reasons was that we all came out of a movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the movement for women’s rights. I mean, we were all involved, his staff at one level or another, with those movements that were external to the Congress. And so he empowered us, really, to continue to do that. And because we worked for him, it gave us entree into rooms because people respected him so much. So, there was never an issue about that from anybody on the staff.
JW: That’s really incredible.
RCB: Yes. The only thing that happened one time, I remember this. One of our staff members was being interviewed about one topic or the other on the air and when asked, said that she thought that marijuana should be legalized. That wasn’t a position that Ron had taken yet. So, he just called her up and said, “The next time you do that, would you just check with me?” Because we did all know when we were in these rooms, we were representing him. I mean, it was very difficult to separate who we were as individuals, from working for Ron Dellums, because he was really an icon around here.
JW: He’s an icon nationally.
RCB: Yes. It was remarkable that there weren’t conflicts. Very interesting question.
JW: Well, that’s amazing. I can see why you stuck with them for so long. How long were you with him?
RCB: The whole time he was in Congress, for 27 years. And then I stayed on. Congresswoman Barbara Lee was elected to fill his spot. She had been a colleague before. She had worked for Ron in Washington, and then I continued to work for her. I was her district director for 3 years before I decided 30 years was enough. I’m still very involved with her.
JW: She’s also very remarkable. What issue was of most concern to you, or were there just many?
RCB: Well, there were many. I looked at that question and I thought about it. Certainly, reproductive rights was an issue early on, and the empowerment of women. One of the things that I heard and read – so, we were not deeply involved in the Equal Rights Amendment, and I imagine Ron probably supported it. But I had read this article written by an English writer, and I wish I remembered her name, it’s one of those books that we were all reading in the early days of the women’s movement.
The premise was that it was misguided for the American women’s movement to be pushing the ERA. That more importantly, we should push for what they did in England after the war: child care, maternity leave, paid maternity leave, paternity leave, and issues of health care for children and women. Her position was that it was much more important to have in place those things that would make it easy and supportive for a woman to work, than to be pushing for something that was going to take years and years and years, and what was it going to mean in the long run. And that made a lot of sense to me.
So, I think that’s kind of the way we approached things in the office. Bella Abzug was in the Congress at the same time as Ron Dellums. They kind of divided things up– she would push on issues around women’s health and reproductive rights and he would be supportive of that. He would push on the military budget to reduce that, so we’d have the resources to do these other kinds of things. So, in a way that’s a little bit more where our focus was.
Except for the National Health Service Act, which was very far out. I mean, we never actually thought that it would win, but we thought it would move the conversation to the left, and a lot of what Ron did was based on that. I remember him saying this so clearly…he actually pulled the peace movement into a room one time. He said, “When I’m out there on the floor arguing for doing away with the MX missile or something, what are you guys doing?” He said, “We have to articulate what we want, what the ideal is. There will be compromise. Do not compromise before you go in the room. Set the standard, and then the conversation will perhaps move to a different place. But if you compromise before you go in the room, then it’s going to be further compromised.”
That really affected everything of how we worked and how I worked. I mean, we all thought we were going to change the world, right? I mean, those of us that were active…and I think we did. I think we did. The last couple of years have been a little shocking.
JW: But there’s more to go. Change is happening.
RCB: Definitely. The disabled movement is a really good example of that. If you think of curb cuts everywhere in the world now. Starting with curb cuts in Berkeley, with a small group of people advocating for that. I think that the issue of equality in the workplace, going back to this issue versus ERA, was something that we worked on a lot for women. In every sense of the word, women in the military, even though we didn’t particularly like the military, we thought if women want to be in the military, they have a right to be in the military. A right to be in the academies. So, a lot of that work was done with a very feminist analysis, actually.
JW: And it worked.
RCB: It really did. Yes. The other thing that Ron always said to us – and I just said this the other day to a few of us that are working on some political campaigns – he always said, “When you have a victory, you have to define it and celebrate it because that’s what keeps us going.” So, we did have some victories.
JW: Yes, we did. And we can thank Ron for getting the Affordable Care Act.
RCB: Yes. As an example of how that works, when Ted Kennedy was pushing his health care bill, he was speaking to a group of doctors in Chicago and he said, “You guys ought to get on my bandwagon because if you don’t, you should see the Dellums bill.” So, it was really a strategy too.
JW: That’s what it’s about. How do we get where we want to go? That is really super. So, anything more about working with Alice Wolfson and on the medical issues for women?
RCB: I think the other thing that really, I only heard articulated recently, but it’s what motivated me when my first son was born, is the issue of the over masculinization of men. Gavin Newsom, governor of California, talks about that quite a bit and I think it came from some of his current wife’s work. It’s something that was not as clearly articulated politically until recently, but it was something that motivated me a lot because of having sons, and certainly with regard to war.
It was something that our office talked about quite a bit. The setup that has been established for men. And yes, it’s impact on women. But it’s impact on men, too. There have been huge changes: you see men really being child-rearers and involved. It’s a whole different game from the ’50s. So, I think that was something that kind of permeated a lot of the work I did, and that our office did, and that flowed into and out of the women’s health movement. Because I think the whole issue of reproductive rights does involve men also, because they have a big responsibility in this, right?
So the subgroup of the Coalition for the Medical Rights of Women, our Perinatal Health Rights Group, realized, when the coalition ended, that we really liked each other, so we still meet. We still get together, and we try to talk a little bit about reproductive rights and perinatal rights, but it really is a different group now. It was just interesting. I think a lot of relationships were formed in the times when we were all involved in these topical groups.
Women’s groups, and certainly my women’s group, which was a whole familial thing, I mean, in a sense, it was creating family. One has died, and we still meet with her son on a regular basis and try to help him get through stuff. I’m deeply involved with another one in my group whose health is failing, and very involved with her kids. So, it really did create a family, and it’s what we had hoped would come out of these women’s groups.
JW: Well, that’s really important I think, that you bonded over all that and it was really strong, it sounds like. Maybe I should ask you more about Barbara Lee because I know she is very concerned about women’s issues.
RCB: She’s one of those members of Congress that stepped forward and discussed her own abortion, which was a huge thing for her. She’s a deeply private person, and she did an autobiography that revealed that she had also been a battered woman. None of us knew that. She really has been very private. Her editor said, “Why have you done so much work on the issues of violence against women?” And Barbara would say, “I think it’s important.” And then they’d said, “No, this is not authentic.” So she did reveal that she had been abused in a marriage. I think that recognition and her willingness to step forward to discuss these private issues established her as a role model. When you work closely with folks over many years, one never really leaves these jobs, on some level. And so, I’m on her advisory committee and we talk regularly and I do whatever I can to help her. She’s remarkable.
JW: What is your role as an advisor?
RCB: For instance, she cast that vote against giving the President power to go to war at any time right after 911. And so she called me up, she called other people, she said, “I don’t think I can vote for this, but what do you think everybody thinks?” I said, “I don’t think you can vote for it.” Those kinds of things. When something critical comes up, she calls a handful of us because we all worked for Ron Dellums. There’s a commonality of interest and perspective that I think we share, and it takes a long time to develop that kind of a trust.
So, issues like that she’ll discuss with me. And then she has an advisory committee, which is a process that Ron Dellums had started. Everybody wants the Congressperson’s endorsement, right? But rather than just Ron Dellums or Barbara Lee making those decisions, their advisory committee makes a recommendation. So, since we have a committee that reflects the district she represents, we interview people, we evaluate them, and recommend endorsement or not. She makes the final decision based on that input. And then she’ll frequently ask a few of us if some big issue is coming up, what are we thinking, what’s our ears on the ground?
JW: That’s really interesting. So, have there been more women coming forward for endorsements than in the past?
RCB: Oh, definitely. And it’s so interesting because I was reflecting on that the other day. I guess it was probably more in the late ’70s and ’80s when the issue first came up for me. Do you support a woman no matter what, or if she’s running against the progressive male, what do you do? On one occasion, a feminist candidate challenged a progressive male in the State legislature. This person had a track record, and he actually considered himself a feminist and certainly supported relevant legislation and introduced it. So…what do you do? Many of us continued to support the progressive male rather than a more one-issue female. Of course, there were Republican women in those days, but generally speaking, if a woman was going to run, we assumed that she would be somewhat progressive. We don’t make those assumptions anymore.
JW: Because they’re not always.
RCB: Yes. But there’s definitely more women in office than before, for sure.
JW: The last question really is how would you say the women’s movement, or being active in those groups that you were, affected the rest of your life?
RCB: Well, I’m still an activist but it has been increasingly in the electoral area. I guess because I was in that world for so long, I understand how important it is to have women in particular, and progressive people at every level. It really does matter who is at the table. Because I worked for black Members of Congress, I understood that their perspectives truly brought new thinking to issues and those issues are actually brought up when they are at the table. One of areas in which I think that we, as Democrats or independents failed, was not understanding the Tea Party’s long game 10-12 years ago. They understood the importance of building a bench from the bottom up and now we’re seeing it in state legislatures all across the country. We were asleep at the wheel. And now we’re trying to play catch up.
I work with a group now, East Bay Activist Alliance, a group initially part of Sister District. Sister District has assigned down ballot races to activist groups all over the country. In EBAA, we supported state legislatures in Virginia, Michigan, North Carolina. Now we’re doing a giving circle for a young pro-choice woman in Arizona who actually has a chance in the 1st district. If she wins (note: she did) it would tie the number of Republicans and Democrats.
In a state like Arizona, it could be game changer. Her name is Eva Burch, in case anybody listens to this. That is something a lot of us are really working on now. I think playing catch up to try to get back some of these state legislatures, and especially around issues around reproductive rights. I mean, who would have thought that we would be having to struggle with this right now? But that’s where it’s at until we get a Congress and a Senate that will institutionalize pro-choice. So, I’m very involved with that.
I’m on a local music venue board, which takes a lot of time, but it’s also again, where we have a deep commitment to equity and inclusion, racially and gender-wise. In a sense, I think the women’s movement has infused most of what I do, in a way, because having worked for two African American members of the Congress, when I go into a room, I look at the room and I instinctively know whether it’s a balanced room or not. And it usually isn’t. I think the women’s movement and also my Congressional experience, which was a remarkable one, working in a predominantly black office, gave me a perspective that infuses everything that I do really, I have to say.
JW: Is there anything else you’d like to add, something I should have asked you?
RCB: I guess the one thing I would say about the woman’s movement, it probably led to my first divorce. Actually, I’m in my third marriage. The 2nd and 3rd were/are much more egalitarian relationships. And I really think that personally, the woman’s movement changed my life. As I said, it was very recognizable when the women’s movement began to be articulated because of my own personal experience with my mother. I knew this to be true.
I got a job with Ron Dellums the day my first husband lost his job at the University of California. It was very symbolic of what was going on, and that was just unfortunate. But at one point, I said, “I always told you when I was in college that I was going to have a career.” And he said, “Yes, but I thought that was something you would outgrow.” My belief system was already there, but the women’s movement came along and articulated it, and there was no going back.
I think in that regard, we were very lucky. I do know a younger woman who’s probably maybe 12-15 years younger than I am, said, “Your generation was really lucky. You got married and had kids and then had your career.” She said, “My generation put our careers first, and now I’m too old to have kids.” It was really a stunning statement because in a way, we were such a pivotal generation that we did get to do it all on some level. To me, it wasn’t a question of getting married. I was 21 years old, I was out of college, I wasn’t going to live with a man. It wasn’t a topic of conversation.
So those restrictions, in a way, actually ended up giving us a lot of options in the long run. I think it was the articulation of the women’s movement for our generation, which came at a really good time. I was in college, and Betty Friedan came and talked, and I thought, Whoa. I mean, okay this is the game changer.
JW: What was the audience like?
RCB: Well, I was at Smith College, it was all women.
JW: Oh, okay. So the audience was receptive, though?
RCB: Well, we were certainly receptive. I’m sure there were some people that maybe took it with a grain of salt, but my crew, we were like, it’s incredible that this is articulated, and we’ve got a person who is willing to stand up in front of a group of people and tell us that we have certain rights. Now, at a women’s college, we were kind of taught that. I mean, it wasn’t finishing school. It really was a very rigorous education. And the expectation was that women would make a contribution. But I graduated in 1964, and there were women that were going to medical school but very low numbers. There were women going to law school but in low numbers.
But four or five years later, a lot of women were going to medical school. So, it was such a pivotal change. When I entered college, it was still in loco parentis–we had to be in at 10:30 pm during the week, 12:00 on Fridays, 1:00 on Saturdays, and if not, they called the police. I was friends with a woman who was a freshman. By the time she graduated, they had keys to the dorm, they could have men in the rooms. I mean, we were kind of on the cusp of profound change, right? And so, I think we were lucky in that regard. And I think it probably helped us all a lot in our lives to be able to know the before and after.