THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“If women don’t have access to money, they can’t keep themselves safe.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, April 2023
VL: I’m Victoria Leonard. I was born in 1947 in Kansas City. I consider myself very much a Midwesterner. A friend once said, “The worst regional chauvinism was in the Midwest.” And I said, “That’s because it’s well deserved. We are the heart of the country, absolutely.” And as therapist, I’ve seen a lot of Midwestern women, and there is a way that we are ingrained to be self-effacing and to take care of whatever, or whoever is around us first.
JW: Tell us a little about your childhood and what’s influenced you. But I hear the Midwest influenced you.
VL: Yes. We were upper middle class. I had two older brothers, and so maybe in some way, they certainly helped me understand women getting the short end of the stick at times. My parents were very supportive. My father very explicitly liked smart women. And so, yes, school was good. I went to a funny little hippie college, because I did not want to be normal and go to Northwestern.
I was very aware at that age that normalcy was not me, or mainstream women’s roles. And then my father pulled funding, so I ended up going to the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and then ended up graduating from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
While I was at UMKC, Mohammed Ali came to speak, and I will tell you, up close, he was absolutely beautiful. I mean, I was 8 feet from him. Exquisite. Betty Friedan came, and one of our classes had us read The Feminine Mystique, and she totally got me thinking. So, when I ended up in Baltimore, I looked for women’s liberation and found it. It was 1969. Initially, we hung out at the anti-war office, and that was interesting, getting to know that crowd, because I’d obviously gone to anti-war marches.
I joined a consciousness raising group. Loved it. Loved it. And then I became somebody who would go out and start consciousness raising groups when people asked for them. And of course, the chagrin there, is that I was asked to be on the radio with an anti-feminist, and when she showed up to the studio, she had been in a consciousness raising group I had dealt with three weeks earlier.
JW: Oh, my gosh. That is an incredible coincidence.
VL: Yes. I guess I missed that one. I guess I didn’t really reach her.
JW: So, she was like a spy?
VL: No, it was eastern suburbs of Baltimore, and she liked the idea about women being homemakers and listening to their husbands. And one of the things that people don’t know, I think, about that era I don’t know, ’69, ’71 is how stigmatized we were. I mean, if I went to any party, people would come up to me. The men would come up to me and bait me.
JW: Like, what? Give me an example.
VL: “Oh, I hear you’re into Women’s Lib. Do you really think women can do men’s jobs?” I am not a fan of Patty Smith, because here she was, this alternative female performer, and she never supported feminism publicly in that era. And it’s just that it comes up because so many people adore her now. You can leave that out. You can edit that out.
But who did stand up for us, was Carolyn Heilbrook. She wrote the Amanda Cross mysteries when her kids were teenagers. She was at Columbia University, so she was in this incredibly prestigious position, and she was so explicitly pro feminist. It was just heroic of her. And, I mean, nobody else was.
Marlene Dixon was getting fired at University of Chicago, so that made her a feminist; little different. But when they did the press conference about Marlene Dixon at University of Chicago, they insisted that every reporter who came would be female. And in that era, women reporters rarely covered the news. They were covering weddings. So that was the beginning of showing up that issue. And in ’69, the classified ads were separated by gender.
VL: I had been visiting a boyfriend in New York City, and there they had done a rape speak out. So, I came back to Baltimore and said, “We have to do a rape speak out. They’re doing it in New York.” And one of the most obvious things was, in that era, rape was a capital crime so that he was going to get the death sentence, and we didn’t think that was appropriate. I mean, it wasn’t that we were anti-death sentence. It was not for this.
But it was also just how common it was, how badly women were treated by the police. And so, we did a rape speak out, and that was interesting. I ended up doing childcare in the basement. But also, we began to see how much incest was going on. The working-class women came and talked about incest events. It didn’t go anywhere, but it was the beginning of hearing about it.
One of the things we did later, was we did an anti-pornography march in New York City. And I bring it up because it was the only march I’ve ever been to where all the women were nodding and smiling. It was fascinating. Just the public support for being against pornography. Huge.
JW: And this was what year?
VL: Probably ’71, ’72. I think the ACLU has worked very hard to turn that around and sort of use it as a sexual expression issue, but women don’t like it. One of the things we did in Baltimore is that the lefties set up a people’s free clinic where we got doctor volunteers and provided health care four nights a week for free. And we had one night, it was just women’s health care, because women were always getting vaginal infections.
We set up a pregnancy testing, abortion counseling portion. And I was sort of key in doing that because in those days, you had to go to the doctor for a pregnancy test. And so, we’d get morning urine, put it in the refrigerator, bring it in, we would pipette it into the little things, and then like an hour later, we’d get an answer. And then we would counsel the women if they were positive. And by then, DC was doing legal abortions because of Vuitch. Vuitch did mine, what a hero. I went to his clinic when I was pregnant.
JW: I have a friend who worked for him. But anyway, go on.
VL: Huge fan. So, I went there in 1970. Wait, it was an election year. Would that make it ’72 then, I guess? And when I got there and said I was an abortion counselor in my free time, they said, “Oh, no, then you’ve got to wait. Vuitch has got to do you.” And then he was late. But the point is, he did me. And so, then I met him years later at a reception. We got to talk, and he talked about how he got into it.
He had come from Eastern Europe and gotten rid of all his equipment there because it was so illegal in the U.S. In the U.S. when you come from other countries, doctors have to do a residency. And the resident whose locker was next to his was a Japanese physician who was married, and his wife had gotten pregnant accidentally. The man would weep to Vuitch and say, “Please abort her. Please, please.” So Vuitch finally said, “Sure” and did it. The next person who talked to Vuitch about abortion was an FBI agent asking to get his daughter aborted. Vuitch clearly was going to have police protection.
JW: Wait, I missed that. So, after he helped this colleague’s wife, an FBI agent came to him?
VL: Yes. And asked if he would please abort the FBI agent’s daughter. And Vuitch did. And he also realized from then on, he would have police protection.
JW: I see.
VL: This was before it was legal, and it was Vuitchs’ case in the District that made it legal. This was before that.
JW: Yes, Okay. Got it.
VL: I’ve always been a huge person on abortion. Lots of unwanted pregnancies throughout my life. I mean, in college, freshman year, we did a slave auction to raise money for a young woman to go get an abortion. How is that for retrograde thinking?
JW: Really? Wow. What did the slave have to do?
VL: The slave had to do anything the boy who bought her for the next 24 hours, and the guys were completely easy about the whole thing. The guy who bought me said, “Oh, you don’t have to do anything. It’s okay. It’s all over.” But it was sort of this covert, we need big amounts of cash fast.
So, we were doing pregnancy tests and abortion counseling, and one of the couples I counseled were 19-year-old white kids. She was pregnant. They were right to lifers, but of course she was going to get an abortion.
JW: Of course.
VL: While in Baltimore, I just have to say, once we leafletted a candy factory way out in East Baltimore, early in the morning when the shift changes, and we had written two-sided 8 x 14, single spaced paper, about women’s issues. 8 x 14, single spaced, and bless those women, every one of them said, “Thank you” when we gave them a leaflet.
I moved to DC, it was ’74, I guess, because Nixon was going to resign. That’s when I joined Off Our Backs.
JW: Explain what Off Our Backs is. I’ve interviewed other folks, but please.
VL: Did you interview any Quest people?
VL: Well, we were like the State University to Quest that was like Ivy League. I mean, people were pressed if Quest people showed up. We just were sort of the state youth crowd. So, Off Our Backs was a newsprint feminist publication that came out ten times a year, and it had about 28 to 30 pages. There were a few ads, very few, and we would have a health section, an international news section, book reviews, and we tried to cover what women wanted to know about what was happening in the world. When we started, there was a left-wing news service like AP, that was very helpful, especially for international news.
One of my key jobs there was Friends Coordinator. I’ve always been the friendly, warm person of the women’s movement. So, I would coordinate them helping us out, because we wrote the articles. A lot got written that weekend, and then we did production. We typed them up, laid them out on big boards, added graphics, and then first thing Monday morning, we took them to a printer out in Carroll County. Then that night, we would go to somebody’s house. They were printed, and we’d carry in all the bundles, and we’d stamp mailing labels on them and bundle them up by zip code.
Carol Ann once added up that we were spending 40 hours every month working at Off Our Backs for free. So, it was exciting, and interesting, and thankless.
JW: But a lot of women liked what they read.
VL: The libraries were good about subscribing at a higher rate, and so that was very helpful. I think two key articles I wrote, one was, “Babies, Not Banners,” and The Village Voice picked it up and caught the idea, but didn’t flesh it out. And it was, don’t choose children. Choose political action.
JW: What did they not get right?
VL: I think that they just saw it kind of as snarky children, as opposed to, no, you can really think about this. I opened with talking about a coworker who didn’t live with her children, and how appalled I was, and how I had to learn to accept her where she was for what she was doing, and not immediately see her as horrific. So, it was a nice article.
And the other article was about, and I don’t remember the title, feminists being like mountain goats. I cited [Chairman] Mao talking about how radicals are supposed to be like fish swimming in this sea of people, and just be available and close to them, and that feminists were increasingly becoming mountain goats and very unavailable.
JW: Oh, interesting.
VL: Great graphic of a mountain goat. I got hired by the National Women’s Health Network because I had been working in fundraising for nonprofits. It was the best of jobs; it was the worst of jobs. I was a punching bag. I had a dream once that one of the board members is serving soup and saying, “One of the bowls is poisoned. We just don’t know which one.”
JW: So, the board was very involved in what was going on in the organization? Who was head of it at that time?
VL: Sybil Shainwald. She was a personal injury lawyer. The Dalkon Shield was blowing up, and she wanted all the Dalkon Shield cases. So that was all the background.
JW: Again, what year do you think this was?
VL: Oh, I think like ’81 to ’85.
VL: They were very involved, and it was fine to trash me. At one point, one of the board members who liked me said to me, “We’ve asked the staff,” I had maybe three paid people, four paid people, “We’ve asked the staff about what it’s like working with you, and they all raved, so we know they’re lying.”
JW: Oh, my God.
VL: Yes. But here are some of my accomplishments. I got the organization back on its feet financially, and raised the membership up to 8000 using direct mail. We produced an AIDS brochure for women with a Spanish version. It was the first anywhere in the country, and it was bought by California state officials and Kansas officials and another state. We stopped the mini condom. Somebody had proposed and the FDA was going to approve a condom that was an inch long, and we got it stopped. Yes, completely inadequate coverage.
We marshalled the cervical cap to FDA approval. So just a bunch of craziness. Because of me, we developed strong liaison relationships with FDA staff, and National Cancer Institute staff. We worked on breast cancer and dietary connection and got Ms. Magazine to do a whole pull out on the diet your doctor won’t give you, about how strong the data is between a high fat diet and breast cancer. We did a book series on women’s health. I had almost nothing to do with it, but I think the fact that I had made the organization seem reliable and sensible is why Pantheon called us.
I developed good communications resources with relationships with reporters and things like that. There was this huge birth control study out of Britain, talking about, “Yes, there is this cancer risk. It’s a small crowd. It happens between like, I don’t know, 38 to 40,” but that there was a protective effect for some women from uterine cancer, I guess. So, we made the New York Times front page on that one saying, “Yes, we need to pay attention, but we also need to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
JW: So, most of your work was with the FDA, is that right?
VL: A lot with media, alerting the public, but certainly, yes, we did a bunch with FDA and we got close to National Cancer Institute. Oh, you asked favorite experiences, and I’m really stymied, but one of them was working with Rose Kushner. Do you know about Rose?
VL: Rose was short with a froggy voice and brilliant. She was the first woman to go to Vietnam War as a reporter, and she got breast cancer. And the doctor said to her, “Well, we’re going to go in and look at things. You may wake up without a breast.” And she said, “Oh, hell no, you can wait a week. You go in and look at things and just you can wait.” And I think she sort of bullied them so much that they backed off.
But then she just became the breast cancer activist for women need to speak up for themselves. NCI totally adored her because she was always careful about her science and she was a delight. Just getting to spend time with Rose, she was just a joy to work with. She died of breast cancer years later. Yes, they did a singular mastectomy. But she really pushed for lumpectomies and information, and sort of in her battling they stopped taking all the muscle. They used to take mounds of muscle.
JW: They did as little as they had to. Which made a very big difference for women.
VL: Exactly. I worked with a National Black Women’s Health Project. Procter and Gamble gave us a bunch of money because they wanted to talk to women about menstrual periods and just to sort of be nice. And so, we did a conference with everything paid and we co-hosted with National Black Women’s Health Project. It was a two-day mini conference and it was really great and exciting. And then I worked with them in sort of a leadership program.
JW: Any particular individuals?
VL: Well, Loretta Ross, she just got a MacArthur [grant]. And Loretta ended up on the board of the network, and she was just a joy to work with. And Billy Avery.
JW: And Billy, of course. Yes.
VL: This is kind of naughty to put in, but it’s kind of funny. Kate Clinton was in town and I went to hear her. She’s doing a bit about how she doesn’t have boundaries, and she’s hearing her therapist say to her therapists’ partner, “Honey, you know that deck we wanted? I think we can afford it now.” And I said, “Damn, I should go be a therapist.” And that’s how I became a therapist. Kate was not pleased when I told her that story, but it’s true. I had left one job, and they gave me a Lucy from Peanuts. “The Doctor is In. $0.05, please” little cardboard.
And that leads me to say about the rest of my life, since. When I’ve applied for jobs, I always had men give me references, because at least one place they explicitly said, “Is this women’s issue stuff going to be a problem?” And so, I was very sensitive about that when getting jobs.
JW: Did you get women to give you references?
VL: No, men. I got men. Only men.
JW: I see. I thought maybe you added women eventually.
VL: No, never did. So, now I do therapy. I did therapy for almost seven years with soldiers, and that was wonderful. And soldiers are, male and female soldiers. The army really needs to do a reinventing, like Al Gore to the federal government. The army really needs to sit down and clean things up. At one point, I was talking to somebody high up, and I said, “It seems that you get paid off for lying in the army, and the people who tell the truth kind of get screwed.” And he said, “Oh, yeah?” And he said, “They talked about that at the war college.” Well, you’ve got to do more than talk about it.
JW: Did you come upon sexual harassment working with soldiers?
VL: Well, no, I saw them over TV and I was their therapist, so they weren’t going to sexually harass me?
JW: No, I don’t mean that. I mean from your client.
VL: You mean in the military. So, one of my African American sergeants said, “We had four sergeants who forced themselves on young women last year.” Now, let me think if I can get this right. One got promoted, one got kind of burned, and the other two was just sort of whitewashed. Certainly, they got better about talking about it and not wanting it to happen. It certainly did happen. And I think also, just because you’re working in such close quarters, such long hours, everybody can get real confused. And I had tons of young female soldiers come to me who’ve been raped before they joined the army.
VL: Yes. And they had never reported, they’d never talked about it, especially Southern young women. And what happened was they were in a class about, don’t let this happen to you, and they all started freaking out, and so their sergeants sort of pulled them out and said, “Go to therapy.” I did EMDR trauma treatment with them and tried to help them understand that that’s never okay. Of course, they weren’t party to any of it.
JW: Right. And this was in the ’90s?
VL: No, this is like 2013, 2010. Much more recent.
JW: Oh wow. Yikes.
VL: Yes. So, you asked what issues mattered, and in the early days, somebody had said, “Radical feminists care about sexual violence and socialist feminists care about equal pay,” and what’s the crucial issue at the core? And I always said, “They both are.”
JW: Well, they’re connected.
VL: Exactly. If women don’t have access to money, they can’t keep themselves safe. But I think that assuming women’s bodies are available to any man, at any time, I mean, that is still really pervasive among high school young men. I feel like it is. It isn’t certainly in liberal towns, but in more Southern areas and more rural areas. Yes.
JW: It’s the norm.
VL: So, I use my feminism now. It’s a big part of my therapy, because of all the anti-racism work I did in my feminism. I’m really just a very good therapist for African American women, and truly just a great cheerleader, respectful, absolutely there for them.
JW: That’s wonderful.
VL: I’ve seen a lot of lesbian clients, and the other thing, I go to marches. I don’t do anything else. I just see my clients and go to marches.
JW: Where are you living now?
VL: I live in Mount Rainier.
JW: Okay, so you are in the DC area.
VL: I’m in the DC area.
JW: In the metro area. Yes. So, easy to go to marches because so many are here.
VL: Right. And somebody said to me that they’d gone to an organizing meeting about marches, and 75% of the attendees are local.
JW: Yes, I imagine that’s true.
VL: So, it’s very important for those of us who only have to jump on a subway, to go.
JW: That’s true. Although I will say I went to the march before Trump was inaugurated, the huge march, and there were many buses that brought people in.
VL: Oh, yes. They really came from out of town for that one.
JW: I said it was like when I got to where the marchers were, it was like stepping into a river, and then it just moved you along. There were so many people moving. It was amazing. And you were at that one, too.
VL: Oh, yes. There are photographs Joan Biren has of me in the front of one of the big abortion marches. The bad thing about being in the front line is you’re not marching with your friends.
JW: I never had that experience, but, yes, I can see that. So it seems as if your ideas from when you were a child at home where you felt like you didn’t fit in the norms of how women were supposed to be, it seems like that’s carried you through your whole life. Professionally, certainly, and personally in your personal life as well, would you say?
VL: Yes, I had a lesbian relationship, around the ’80s for, like, two years, but the rest of the time I’ve been heterosexual. I got married in ’99, and he likes smart women.
JW: Like your dad.
VL: Yes, he makes me laugh. Ron’s a great joy, and understands kind of how important these issues are. I’m going to say one more thing.
VL: It was touching to have you reach out to me, because nobody has ever asked about this. And when I was much more active, my friends who weren’t at Off Our Backs never asked about it, never asked to see a copy, et cetera. And when Roe v. Wade got crashed a year ago, I brought it up to a few of my more progressive clients that I was kind of stunned, because I had spent a lot of time on this issue. We used to drive women to Hopkins to get late abortions, and none of them were interested at all.
VL: So, it’s really nice that you all are doing this project, because the world really doesn’t care much.
JW: I mean, that is the whole point of Veteran Feminists of America, to record the stories of men and women who did change the world. Now, we still have a ways to go, but we have made significant progress.
VL: Huge difference. It’s so weird to have done so many really amazing changes and then lose Roe.
JW: Well, I’ve been very involved in that issue, and I tell young women who are out there, that we have to keep it up. I mean, I quoted recently, I quoted Governor Whitmer who said, “We have to stay focused, we have to stay together, and we will win eventually,” and I believe that to be true. I mean, the American public, two to one, supports our point of view. We will win. There’s just going to be a lot of work, as we know from what we’ve done in the past. But it will come back. Maybe not in my lifetime, but it will. I’m confident.
VL: Oh, my God. That’s a grim response.
JW: Well, I mean, I’m getting up there. It may take, I hope not another 50 years, maybe 25, but we will get there.
VL: Yes, well, the abortion pill has just been such a gift. No, I just go into a rage about the issue.
JW: I know it’s really every day. Every day. Well, do you have anything you’d like to say in closing?
VL: No. I’m just so glad you’re doing this, really.