THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I Make People Think.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, June, 2020
FK: I’m Frances Kissling.
MJC: Tell us about where you were born and your family, ethnicity, etc..
FK: I was born in 1943 in the Salvation Army Hospital in New York City. My mother was 18 years old when she had me. She got pregnant before she was married, and she convinced my father to marry her. He married her and he went off to the war. My very early years were with my mother. She came from a poor coal mining family in Pennsylvania. My first years were spent in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, not too far from Scranton and Biden territory. My mother was one of seven children. She was the youngest girl, there were five boys and most of them went off to the war.
When my father came back from the war, we moved back to New York. I went to Catholic schools from the beginning of my school life. I went to the public school in the first grade but by the time I was in second grade, my mother had been divorced and remarried from my father. She married Mr. Kissling. Three other siblings ultimately followed, one was a Romanski, my sister Sharon, and the two others were Kissling. By the time I was 10, my stepfather had adopted us, and we all became Kissling.
I loved Catholic school. I was a good girl in school for most of my school life till high school. and then I started to get a little funky. The sisters were a very strong influence on my life. I was always an extremely independent child and I think I liked from the beginning the fact that the sisters weren’t married, they had their own lives, even though they were in habits. But there was something attractive about them.
I went through Catholic high school as well. And then I went for a year at St. John’s University. I was not politically active. My family read the Journal American and The Daily Mirror and The Daily News. Those were the papers of our childhood. And I have no memory of any conversations about politics whatsoever. I went to university for a year at St. John’s University and then I went into the Sisters of St Joseph in Brentwood, Long Island.
I went into the convent for several reasons. One, I had no interest in marriage. I never have had an interest in marriage, and I have never had an interest in having children. Two, as I said, the sisters represented freedom to me. And as a working-class Catholic girl who lived in a working-class milieu, I didn’t really think about being anything else. What else could I have been? A teacher or a nurse or a nun? Those were the three things that we became. So, I went off to the convent.
The birth control decision was passed down while I was in the convent. I knew that I agreed with the birth control decision, even when I was in the convent and I thought of myself as someone who had different ideas about Catholicism – more open. My mother was divorced and remarried, so I knew that the church didn’t like her very much. I thought it would be good for somebody like me to become a nun, because then I could introduce ideas to students that would make the church go forward. I was in the convent for about nine months.
They never wanted me in the convent because I was “illegitimate”. Two priests went after the sisters and said, “you have to accept this girl”. And so they accepted me, but they didn’t really accept me. One night I was with the mistress of Postulant and there were some 70 young women in my group entering the convent at that time. Now nobody enters the covenant anymore, basically. In my little personal interview kneeling by the mother of the postulant she said to me, “Frances, would you like to go home?” And I said, “Yes.” I hadn’t even thought about it.
The very next morning a sister came to me and took me up to the attic of the convent. And there was sitting the mother superior of the order in this empty attic on a hard-backed chair. She said to me “You know, we never wanted you.” I went downstairs, and the mistress of postulants, who was a nicer person, said, “Francis, you should do something like go into the Peace Corps.” She saw something in me. I went into a room and I changed out of my habit, put on my street clothes and my mother was waiting for me. And I went home. And that was the end of the convent period.
I then went back to St. John’s for a year. And this was too stifling for me. My theology professor said to me one day when I was asking too many questions, “You should sit on your hands.” I said I have to go somewhere else. This life is not for me.
We’re now, about the mid ’60s right now. I had to decide where I was going to go to school. I used to take the subway to my high school: Bishop McDonald Memorial High School from Queens to Brooklyn. And I passed 14th Street. And at 14th Street, there was a sign that said The New School. So, I applied to The New school and I was accepted. And now life changes dramatically, because St. John’s University is a conservative Catholic school. And The New School for Social Research on 14th Street in Manhattan is a hotbed of the social activism of the late ’60s.
My politics began to change. I still was not particularly involved in the women’s movement, but this was the period of the Vietnam War. Several things happened. I got in with a bad crowd: the Marxist, Leninist, SBX crowd at The New School. Right. And also, with some people who were part of a movement called progressive labor, which was even more radical. This was when the trips to Cuba were being organized and I said, I should go to Cuba because unlike these people, I will tell the truth when I get home. So, I applied for the trip and I was accepted. My mother and stepfather had by then divorced and I told my father that I was going to Cuba. And my father reported me to the FBI.
This was my first entry into being politicized. I had to get a passport on an expedited basis because the trip was leaving quickly. I went to the passport office to pick up my passport and they said we have no passport for you. Call this number in Washington. So, I did, and a man named Abu Schwarze answered the phone and said, “We understand you are going to Cuba with this passport. Your father told us. And we’re not giving you a passport.” I lied and said I wasn’t going to Cuba; my father is not my guardian anyway. I was just shy of 21.
He basically said, “We don’t really care about any of this. You’re not getting a passport. But we’re going to send some people to talk to you.” So, I went home and there’s a note on my apartment on Cornelia Street in Manhattan, which says, “Mr. Crowe and Mr. Robinson from the FBI are here to interview you.” Mr. Crowe and Mr. Robinson came back. They were graduates of St. John’s University at that time. A lot of FBI guys were nice Catholic boys who studied law or accounting.
When I told them the same story and they said, “OK, fine, you’ll get your passport.” They left and of course, I didn’t get my passport. I wasn’t able to go to Cuba at that point, but I began to get involved in left wing politics. That was the time of the Vietnam War and there was a huge demonstration at the U.N. in the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza against the war. It was my first demonstration and I got arrested. My first entry was around politics, not around feminism.
My political changes were not first focused on feminism, but that was the next step that followed in my transition. I was always a feminist. There’s no doubt about that, if you hear my story, what I was interested in, what my life was like. My very strong sense of independence, the desire always to be identified by myself. I always call myself a SELF identified person. Feminism was always a part of my life. I became an active feminist through the reproductive health movement. In July 1970 the law in New York changed on abortion. I finished university and I was working at something called the American Association of Psychiatric Clinics as an administrative person.
It wasn’t a terribly gratifying job, but it was the job I had on. Somebody I knew was a child psychiatrist, a guy named Herb Schreyer. And he knew doctors who had opened an abortion clinic and needed someone to run it. He recommended me to these two doctors, and they hired me. That really was the beginning of the depth of my feminist journey. The women who worked in the clinics were already feminists. They were beyond me in terms of having been feminists for a while and I was then exposed to feminist knowledge and to the experience of women seeking abortions. Right.
This was a heyday in New York. Abortion was only legal in about three states in the country in 1970, California, Washington, D.C., New York and I think Alaska and Hawaii also. We would see 100 women on a Saturday, perform 100 abortions from women who came from all over the South and the Midwest to New York to have an abortion. And that was when I really began to completely understand what women’s stories and what women’s lives were about.
This was one of the early jobs available to white feminist women in which they were in a milieu that was very feminist. These are free freestanding clinics, they weren’t hospitals. And so, there you were in a milieu where almost everyone except the doctors was a woman. Where everyone you served was a woman and you really could see women’s stories right up front. Who are these women who got pregnant? What were their stories? I was working in a feminist workspace.
When I left the convent, my connection to Catholicism was cut in my mind. I didn’t want anything to do with this religion at all. The church was not a particularly social justice church. The Vatican II was just happening, but I was not the least bit interested in it. I switched from religion to left progressive politics and then to feminism. So, my career progressed in reproductive health. After four years of working in two different abortion clinics, I took a year off and went to Southeast Asia. I had a partner at the time, and we lived together for about 10 years and we went together.
I came back the day that Nixon left office. I had to find a job and a colleague in the abortion rights field, the director of Planned Parenthood in Pittsburgh, whose name was Leah Sales, knew of this organization called IPASS. She said, “They’re looking for people to open abortion clinics overseas.” Cordelia May Scaife, part of the Scaife family, which is a prominent conservative family, was pro-abortion. She gave the first Planned Parenthood in the United States a very large sum of money to encourage Planned Parenthood clinics to have abortion services.
Planned Parenthood clinics, after the law changed, did not want to dirty their hands with abortion rights. This money was a way to sweeten the pot to convince them to do abortions. And then she decided she would give a comparable amount of money to this new organization called IPASS, which was trying to open legal and illegal clinics outside of the United States. They were trying at that point to open a clinic in Italy. Before the law change, Italian women went to Yugoslavia for abortions. There were a few illegal abortion clinics, but not too many.
The issue was hot and the feminists in Italy were not interested in accepting the money of this organization. They were extremely suspicious, and I couldn’t convince them to take the money. That was the beginning of an international experience for me – there is a world outside of the United States where key issues of feminism, key issues of sexual and reproductive health were active. IPASS then hired me as a consultant. The abortion law changed in Vienna, Austria and it had been legal for a year, but no abortions were being performed.
There was a desire on the part of the international abortion community to establish an abortion clinic in Austria. So, I went over and visited the doctor who had been in the parliament and was largely responsible for abortion being made legal. He said, “Yes, abortion is legal, but we wouldn’t want to rock the boat by performing abortions.” I was joined by a doctor I had worked for in the first abortion clinic in the United States who went to several emergency rooms and just chatted up the doctors. He was looking for a doctor who had money problems.
He found the doctor who was in the midst of getting a divorce and got him to agree to be the first doctor in the first clinic in Vienna. And we opened the first abortion clinic. It was an old-fashioned brownstone. Wood floors, no coverings. The doctor’s girlfriend had a big Doberman pinscher that she brought to the office all the time. But abortions began to be performed for Austrian women.
So, I was developing this international interest and along the way meeting European feminists. Austria was one of the countries where there were very early meetings of feminists. In Italy, for example, the person I dealt with the most was Emma Bonino, who was a strong feminist and ended up in parliament, ended up in the European Union, a human rights activist, etc.
I came back, I worked on something called Abortion Rights Action Week, which was one of the first very serious weeks of demonstrations all over the country for abortion rights. We’re now in the ’80s when abortion becomes seriously under attack by the right wing. We now have the Hyde Amendment.
The Hyde Amendment said, “You may have the right to have an abortion. But the federal government has no obligation to pay for your abortion.” The bill had been passed in Congress and no federal funds can be used for abortions. Because of my own Catholic history, I’ve always approached issues related to feminism and in general around what we Catholics call the preferential option for the poor. The most important thing for Catholics in terms of a social justice Catholic, is to serve the poor. They come first. Poor and marginalized people come first. And the Hyde Amendment is a prime example of the poor coming last.
To me, it was the most important issue. I was running something called the National Abortion Federation when all the Hyde Amendment stuff got hot – I was one of the founders. It was one of the early splits in the pro-choice movement – two things were happening. An effort to pass a constitutional amendment declaring the fetus a person from the moment of conception was underway in the Congress. And this attack on the provision of services through the Hyde Amendment was happening as well.
The movement was small. It consisted of seven organizations at that point – that was the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, National Abortion Federation, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, NARAL and the Alan Guttmacher Institute. At that point, it was small. It wasn’t that anybody was against these things, but it wasn’t their issue. Pretty soon everybody got in because there were some efforts where we all had to meet together to talk about the constitutional amendment and whatever else. The movement knew that the threat to the constitutional amendment was not real. We knew there was never going to be a constitutional amendment because we know from the ERA what it takes to pass a constitutional amendment.
Rosie Jiménez was the first victim of the Hyde Amendment. She was a young woman in McAllen, Texas, who needed an abortion, who went to see her doctor, Chester Arthur Young, who said, “I’m sorry, you have to pay for this abortion because Medicaid does not cover this.” Now, Chester Arthur had performed a prior abortion on Rosie; he didn’t remember Rosie from a hole in the wall. So, Rosie went out and got an illegal abortion in McAllen, Texas. Seven days after the abortion, she died. She died in horrendous circumstances of sepsis. Her death was horrifying: she was bleeding infection from every orifice of her body when she died.
On her deathbed, Dr. Chester Arthur took her hand and said, “Rosie, squeeze once if you had an abortion. Twice, if you didn’t. He didn’t do it in a mean way. He just wanted to know what this was from. The CDC had to investigate Rosie’s death because there were a cluster of complications in McAllen, Texas, which is where she died. And this was in the time of Reagan and they had put the kibosh on the CDC which had a marvelous record of investigating and understanding and reporting on the performance of abortion in the United States of America. And Reagan stopped it.
And so now the CDC is being asked to go out and investigate whether or not this abortion was the result of the Hyde Amendment. The powers that be had no interest in the CDC coming back and saying yes. So, the CDC conducted its investigation. There were three young epidemiologist service guys and girls who went down to do this and they got snookered. Their reports said that Rosie didn’t have her abortion in the United States. That Rosie being a Mexican immigrant, was ashamed of her pregnancy and went over the border and had it done in Mexico. Dr. Arthur was fully involved in this investigation and still didn’t remember Rosie.
That was the judgement. A very important feminist writer named Ellen Frankfurt wanted to write a book about Rosie together with my commitment to the Hyde Amendment. Ellen and I went down to Texas and we investigated this death. She went to visit Dr. Arthur and it was at that point that he checked his records and discovered that, in fact, he had performed an abortion for her several years earlier. She wasn’t ashamed of her pregnancy, there was no money to pay for it. This case is the only verified case of death from abortion, there were other complications that took place.
In New York and cases in Atlanta there were women who misunderstood the publicity around no Medicaid funds and thought abortion was now illegal. They went to illegal practitioners and they had serious complications. None of them died, but one lost her fertility, she had a hysterectomy. The other one took lye. All the things we know about from the old illegal days, these women tried. That’s a bit of the chronicle of the Hyde Amendment, which we have never been able to get rid of.
My belief is that if we had made the Hyde amendment the center of our early efforts we could have defeated it much earlier. There were points where we had the majorities to do that. Once the court affirmed the Hyde Amendment, it opened the door to every other kind of restriction imaginable. If you can say the federal government doesn’t have to pay for abortions, then you can say the federal government can say that you can’t have an abortion after 16 weeks. All of the kinds of bills that have since made it very hard for women to get abortions safely, timely, compassionately stem from Hyde.
We had certain prejudices that existed within the movement. By the time I was part of Catholics for Choice, Congress passed bills banning a certain type of abortion procedure, which they call a partial birth abortion, and we call a late term D&C which prohibited women beyond a certain gestation, from getting an abortion. It didn’t pass at first, but it passed eventually. During the Clinton administration, the movement took on the case of partial birth abortion like no other issue in abortion that they had ever taken on. And it was the most unpopular thing.
We couldn’t take on Hyde, but we can take on the small number of abortions that occur after 24 weeks. What does that say? In response to requests from the pro-choice movement President Clinton invited to the White House women who had needed to have these abortions. They’re very sympathetic women: they discover at twenty-five weeks that their fetus has no kidneys, anomalies in the fetus that make carrying that pregnancy to term a bad idea. The child that would be born would suffer enormously and probably die pretty quickly in most cases.
All these women who visited the White House were blonde; white, blond, blue-eyed girls. I’m sitting there with Catholics for Choice watching this going on and again seeing the re-pitch of where the movement thinks its energy should go and who stands front and center. That’s the next thing that came up politically that was interestingly in the same vein – an effort to codify Roe in law through a bill, FOCA, that the pro-choice movement developed, which was not a codified Roe bill. It was a codified Casey bill.
Casey was a subsequent decision because that same inability to cope with poverty and Blackness still prevailed. Medicaid funding for abortion was left out of the codified Roe bill. It codified every other aspect of legal abortion, except funding for poor women. We’ll never pass it if we include Medicaid funding. There’s goodwill on the part of many people in the movement who I’m criticizing because the congressional leadership was no help. All the pro-choice women members of Congress said to the movement, “We are not going to the max for this, because we don’t have the votes.”
So, the movement was stymied. But the movement for many years basically accepted that, these are our friends and they do a lot so we’re not going to push on that funding. That’s always been a very strong element of my own commitments. I’m a working-class girl. I know what it means to not have enough money all the time. That solidarity’s always with me in the work that I do.
MJC: How did you get involved in Catholics for Choice?
FK: It was 1979. I was working outside of the movement; I had gotten a job as an interim director of something called the Youth Project. It was an intermediary. It raised money and it specialized in giving it away to community organizing stuff that was predominantly led by young people. You had to be under 30 to be on the board. They needed an interim director and I became that interim director for a year, which was a good experience for me. I was then hired by an individual philanthropist, David Hunter.
He was a big player in progressive movements in the ’70s and well into the ’80s. David hired me to study organizations working on social justice issues in the Hispanic southwest. While I was doing that work a woman named Patricia McMann came to me. She was the executive director of Catholics for Free Choice. It had been founded in the midst of the Supreme Court decision as a New York based organization. It was quite feisty. Its leader, Patricia McQuillan died of cancer during this period of time that she was leading it. She is best known for having appeared in papal robes in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, posting up a rich [display] about abortion and feminism and all of those things.
The organization moved to Washington, D.C. and Patricia McMann, a good Irish girl, asked them, “Who do you know who is Catholic and pro-choice that I should think about for my board of directors?” She had some people on her board, but she needed more. Someone said “Frances Kissling,” because everybody knew me from the abortion rights; a few people knew that I had been in the convent for a brief amount of time. And so, she invited me to be on the board.
I had a very big decision to make at that point about whether I considered myself a Catholic. I thought about it and came to the conclusion, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” That’s what they say. Baptism gives you an indelible mark on your soul and you will always be a Catholic, no matter how you try not to be a Catholic. There’s a certain superficiality to that. But there’s also, “No, I’m ready. I can do that one.” And in a certain way, there is an element of truth to that.
It’s obviously not true for every person who has ever been a Catholic, but I think like a Catholic. My intellectual frame is Catholic. I ask big questions about what is the right thing to do – that’s number one. Number two, in the same vein, is cultural Catholicism. Just as within Judaism you have Jews who the religion doesn’t mean a lot to them. And you have Jews who are very observant. Mary Jean and I are cultural Catholics. In addition to everything else, our ethnicity and our formation makes us Catholics. We like certain things.
Somebody once called it the smells and the bells. He must have written this 15, 20 years ago about how Catholicism is going to change as children of Catholics no longer go to Catholic school. Their cultural attachment to Catholicism, because the nuns are no longer nuns, their attachment to Catholicism is substantially different than those of us who can tell stories to each other – about the nuns, about the school, about the boy – is about everything. I have a cultural affinity and I have an intellectual affinity for Catholicism.
So now I’m deciding. Can I go work for this organization for Catholics for Free Choice? I bring another element into this: doubt. Every Catholic has their period in which they think. I don’t know about all this stuff. If we’re well taught we know that our job is to act as if you believe. If you act as if you believe you will overcome the doubts. And it will be fine. This I call the will to believe. Many Catholics don’t believe, but they choose to live as if they believe. I compared it to three types of will: the will to power, the will to love, and the will to believe. And so, I accepted the job and I became the head of Catholics for Choice.
It was a very small organization; I think the budget was fifty-seven thousand dollars the first year I was the executive director. The board of directors were abortion rights people. They came from organizations like NARAL, Planned Parenthood. Their identity on abortion was secular. And I thought this was not a good idea. These were not people for whom Catholicism meant much. We needed Catholics on the board of directors. That was number one. Number two the kinds of policy decisions and the way in which Catholics for Choice talked about abortion was not Catholic.
It was difficult in the beginning because people probably didn’t know what would happen to them and their place in the organization, once it became more Catholic. The first time we would say something that wasn’t what Planned Parenthood or NARAL would say, they would freak out. That involved recruiting a new set of people and Mary Jean knows all of this because at a certain point she came to work for Catholics for Free Choice. That meant getting people like the theologian Daniel McGuire who is pro-choice, on the board.
There were some old people who had been involved in Catholics for Choice when it was in New York and it was more Catholic. Rosemary Radford Ruther, a feminist theologian, had been on the board of Catholics for Choice and I recruited her to come back. And then other people like that followed. Eventually the old timers got mad at me, they challenged my leadership, they lost. And we moved on. Catholics for Choice began carving out a different kind of role, publishing things that dealt with the complexity of the issue. We didn’t go very far in that stage, but we were not just in lockstep.
In 1987 somebody from Bogota, Colombia sent me a publication that they had translated into Spanish. I looked through the publication and realized there’s a lot of Catholics in the world. America is not even a Catholic country; we’re only 25% of the population. But all over Latin America, there are millions and millions and millions of Catholic women. This publication said maybe what we are publishing and thinking would be helpful to them. For two years I traveled around Latin America meeting people and women’s groups and asked would this be useful to introduce Catholics for Choice? And people said yes.
We had a conference in Washington, D.C.. It was a big conference and we had a side event for about a dozen people from Latin America to decide whether we were going to go seriously into Latin America. And the decision was we would, and we raised some money for that. We hired three people in three different countries to be our representatives. They had no office, a very small amount of money. One of them, Cristina Ranelagh, Silvia March Marcos, a well-known woman in Mexico, and Sofia oh, I forget her last name in Argentina. And she had a long motion.
A very old woman had a very long history in the church movements and everything else. Her last name was Newberry. The airport was named after her grandfather, the Newberry Airport. And so those three women began the process of spreading Catholics for Free Choice in those countries. It was about that point that I looked at our budget, which was still quite small. I think we were up to five hundred thousand dollars. And I said, this can’t continue, because we have a lot of work to do.
The Ford Foundation hired a man to run its reproductive health program named José Barzelatto who was Chilean. He’d been the head of the Reproductive Health Unit at WHO and now he was running this project at Ford and decided that Catholics for Free Choice was important and gave us our first big grant. One hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars a year for two years. And from that we were able to raise more money and become more successful. At the time I left, the budget was about 2.5 million. Still a small organization, but we could do a lot with that.
A series of U.N. conferences began in 1992; the first was the Rio Conference on the Environment. But we were not a player. And then I went to the environmental conference where they discussed whether or not population would be included as a barrier to environmental progress. The Vatican and the feminists were opposed to including population in the document. They were opposed for diametrically different reasons.
The Vatican didn’t want anybody talking about population, because the next thing you know, they’re going to be talking about family planning, contraception and abortion. The feminists didn’t want it in the document because of the long history in the reproductive health movement globally of abuses against women taking place in the name of lowering population growth rates and size. Big organizations and foundations became very worried that when we got to Cairo in 1994 this configuration would raise its head again and screw up everything to do with women’s reproductive health.
So, Catholics for Choice became popular. We could play a big role in challenging what the Catholic Church was up to. The Catholic Church and conservative Catholic groups in the United States discovered the U.N. in 1992 and organized as NGOs in the U.N. to defeat any document for Cairo for family planning. That included family planning, access for youth, abortion. Who was president then?
FK: Bush and the U.S. government had no interest in fighting the Catholic Church. They were willing to let the conservatives get exactly what they wanted. The Vatican built alliances, you have the NGOs and you had the Vatican itself, which has a specialized status in the U.N. that no other religion has. Therefore, the Vatican had access to all the other governments, and it could influence conservative states like the Muslim states where Islam is dominant. Saudi Arabia, etc., because they don’t want women having these rights. Some of the Central American countries and some of the African countries are very Catholic. So that was a very charged period of time. And Catholics played a key role in the meetings. We ended up with a decent document.
Then came the Beijing Conference on Women. The Vatican published a very big document about how they love women, women have dignity. But we don’t want to expand this concept of human rights. Dignity is enough for women. We decided to challenge the status of the Vatican in the U.N. The Vatican was called a permanent observer state, it couldn’t vote in the General Assembly, but it could vote at conferences. The U.N. likes to act like a consensus body so they will argue forever when somebody says, “We’re not signing this document.” The fear was they wouldn’t sign the Beijing platform on women.
So, we started what we called the Sea Change campaign, because they’re called the Holy See. They got really nervous about this. When they’re not nervous, they just ignore you. They wrote things about how they deserve to be there and all that stuff and everything else. We wanted to bring our campaign to a pre-conference at the U.N. for the Beijing meeting. But it is against the law to demonstrate in front of the U.N. or inside the U.N.
I said, “We’re going to rent a boat and we are going to demonstrate on the East River in front of the U.N,. back and forth, to get the Vatican out of the U.N.” It was wonderful fun. There were about 50 of us. It didn’t make a big splash in the press, but to this day, when I meet people, they say to me, “I was on the boat. We loved that boat.” People at the meeting loved this. They were hanging out the windows of the U.N. that looks out over the river cheering us on. The cops came up to us once on a boat and said, “You can’t do this.” And I said, “Yes, we can.” They said, “OK, but don’t go so close to the wall between the sea and the land.”
We did what they wanted. And then we continued the campaign. The campaign was controversial within the U.N. and the forces of the Vatican fought hard. It never became a serious issue. Part of the backlash to it was the Vatican ended up getting more rights. But it was the right thing to do. I’ve always believed in Splash. It’s important to do steady work. But when you are a small organization you have to do something big with a small amount of money to get noticed. The Sea Change campaign with the boat was one of those kinds of efforts.
The next thing we decided we were going to go after the Vatican on was AIDS – HIV, AIDS. They were the obstacle. They didn’t believe in condoms. So, we developed a series of advertisements that went after them. One of the posters was the backs of all the Cardinals in their red outfits sitting in the Vatican. And it said something like, “Don’t you care? Don’t turn your back on…” blah, blah, blah. That sort of thing. Another one of the advertising it’s my favorite, actually was a pillow. And on the pillow was a bishop’s miter. And the slogan said, “Worn correctly, this can prevent AIDS.”
MJC: Oh, my God. That’s amazing.
FK: I still have the pick – I can send you pictures if you want them.
A friend of mine, Adi Stann, who is a journalist wrote an article in Ms. about me in which she said, “Frances Kissling, the woman who makes the Vatican sweat.”
All of this continued, Catholics for Free Choice became bigger in Latin America. The staff grew, Mary Jean joined us at some point early on. She was our vice president and she’d come from NOW. Her portfolio is very political, and I like to think, although I am a charismatic, dominant person, that Mary Jean and I were good partners. I learned a lot from Mary Jean. She was also the person in Catholics for Choice who paid the most attention to staff, they all love Mary Jean. It wasn’t that they didn’t love me, it was that I was a little intimidating. I could be tough. And so, Mary Jean was the smoother over. But Mary Jean is also a Veteran Feminist. Do you have an interview in the series?
MJC: Not yet.
FK: Wow. Somebody better do that.
So, at any rate, in every job she had, Mary Jean cared about the younger people who worked in the organization. She was the best in terms of how she worked with them, her collaborative spirit, her educating of them, giving them a space to grow and spending significant amounts of personal time with the people on her team. If CFC did not have Mary Jean in addition to me in those growth years we probably would have gotten in a lot of trouble. I’m not as great at that stuff as she is. In thinking about my leadership now, I was in most ways a traditional boss. I am hierarchical. I’m not a bitch or anything, I don’t think, but nobody thinks they’re a bitch. Other people think you’re a bitch.
Everybody thinks they’re a great boss. I hear people talking about what great bosses they are and then their staff tell me that they’re always screaming at them. That aside, I did not make the investment in people that Mary Jean made in people and an organization needs that. I spent more mentoring time with people outside the organization then with my own staff. That’s a shortcoming. I’m not perfect. I’m a Catholic. We know we’re not perfect.
If some student would call up working on their thesis, they could come to my office and I’d spend hours with them one on one shooting my mouth off like I am in this interview telling them everything. But I didn’t do the same thing for my own staff. I didn’t even think of simple things. There’s no reason I can’t include the people on my staff when I’m mentoring these people. In all of almost all of the organizations I know of one of the biggest lacks is internal education.
I remember when Cecile Richards became the president of Planned Parenthood I had lunch with her and one of the first questions I asked her was, has anybody at Planned Parenthood given you a reading list? The answer was no. How do staff learn things? Yes, they learn in action if they’re lucky and they learn from people like Mary Jean, but they also need to be educated. How many organizations hold brown bag lunches for their own staff where they invite the leaders of other organizations to come in to talk to their staff? All these fabulous opportunities for building people, and building a team are lacking in feminist organizations.
I was at Catholics for Free Choice for 25 years. I never lost interest in my job because the issues fascinate me and because I had a board of directors that was so supportive of my trying new things. And that permitted me personally to grow. As the head of an organization often you should be the lead in new ideas. Other people, too. But if you are not out there as the head of the organization, thinking new ideas, your organization will probably stagnate. I have that kind of restless mind. So, 24 years into my tenure there I’m not tired of what I’m doing but I became convinced that I had said everything I could possibly say about abortion. In the last five years I took on some very controversial ways of looking at abortion.
I wrote more about dialogue, about what’s good with pro-life, what’s good with pro-choice, what are the limits? Who is the fetus? I did a lot of stuff that wasn’t overly popular, not that I care. But I said this, and I had a platform and I was allowed to do this, but I felt I wasn’t going to convince anybody. The movement was becoming more rigid than my take. People may disagree. Because I had been given a very large platform, I had a lot of media and I was saying the same things over and over again.
I was afraid I was becoming out of date and becoming the Madalyn Murray O’Hair of Catholicism. She was an old battle-axe, America’s number one atheist. She became stereotyped. You become stereotyped. I did not want to become a mouthpiece. Since I couldn’t influence the movement internally and I didn’t want to become stale in the public arena, I decided to leave. Finding somebody to run Catholics for Choice is very, very hard. There are not a lot of people who are theologians who also know how to run organizations. There are a lot of advocates who don’t know anything about theology.
I had an executive vice president who was a man who’d been there for over 10 years, maybe longer. He was restless. I knew that he would leave within a year or so, and then I would be stuck with this organization and I couldn’t leave. I decided on that basis but also because I thought he would be a very good head of the organization. I promoted his candidacy to the board of directors. This was a very big step because he’s a man and we like women to get these jobs. So, I had some convincing to do to myself as well. I had to convince the board that this was OK. And in the end, they bought the argument. It worked and I was able to leave. I left in 2008.
I now work with a lot of people who don’t even know me, and they never heard of Catholics for Choice in their entire life. And I like that. My attitude towards abortion is as follows: The value of life, even fetuses, and the value of women’s rights to make their own decisions. Those are two goods. Abortion is a situation in which those two goods come in conflict and both sides of this issue don’t see that. They only see the good of women’s lives and women’s decision making or they only see the good of fetuses.
It’s good to be pro-life. There’s this interminable clash. And I have the feeling that some of this clash could be mitigated if people could recognize that it is a clash of goods. On our side, for example, when we win in the political battle and for women, there is a loss for the values of life in a certain way. We can never say there was a loss, but that’s the nature of life. Things come into conflict. You have to make a choice. One good prevails and the other good is lost. And just the ability to say that would make such an enormous difference.
That is the ambiguity that people live with and it’s a hard pill to swallow because you don’t think you can win if you do that. On our side and their side, you’re reacting to the other. You hate them, they’re just awful, horrible human beings. We may feel that way, but we have to learn how to control it because we’re not winning. That was my interest and I was extraordinarily lucky that I got a fellowship to go to Harvard, to the Radcliffe Institute. I spent a year there thinking about this stuff. And I also got a column in Salon for that year, so I wrote about this every single week. I didn’t accomplish a book, which was one of my goals, but life is life, it is what it is.
I had done what I could do as a Catholic. I was not interested in doing Catholicism. I will do it if somebody asks me about it, but I don’t seek to present myself in that frame. And also, I left Catholics for Choice. I sometimes call myself a professional Catholic. I was a professional Catholic for 25 years. My interests are Catholic in the small “c” sense. My identity is a thoughtful person who asks big questions, who sees all sides of an issue. So, I have substituted ethics for theology, and I have in my own way, without going to university for graduate school, become an ethicist. I sometimes feel a little shy, but I have become an ethicist.
I’ve done a lot of stuff on abortion but not in the Catholic framework. I got hired as a consultant to IPPF, Latin America. And to PSI, a very large social marketing agency all over the world. Both of these groups were in transition on the issue of abortion. They were getting involved in this issue and they had pre-existing staff who did not work on that issue. The IPPF people worked on family planning. The PSI people worked on social marketing, bed nets for malaria, and condoms, those sorts of things. So now the people who worked for these organizations were being asked to work on abortion.
All this stuff that I had developed about openness, civil discourse, respect for the ideas of the other, was marketable. I traveled first for IPS all over Latin America and with IPPF all over Africa and did workshops for their staff focusing on values and ethics. Basically, in both cases, what I do is I teach people to think critically. Most of us don’t think critically. I’ll give you an example.
I was at a meeting in Africa that the Gates Foundation was doing on family planning. I was sitting next to an African priest and people are coming over to talk to me about abortion. When we’re alone he turns to me and he says, “So you believe in abortion?” I said, “I believe that women should be able to make the choice.” I said, “What about you?” He was an Episcopalian Priest. He said, “I believe that life begins at conception and ends at natural death.” This is a standard line of antis. I said to him, “I see. That’s very interesting.”
That’s what I say to people who disagree with me, “That’s very interesting.” Or, “I can understand that.” I want them to tell me the truth. If they don’t like me they’re not going to engage me. And I’ve turned that into a profession. I asked him a question, because that’s how you get people to think. You do not get people to think by giving them the answers. So, I said to him, “Where did you learn that?” He was flabbergasted, because his learning of that was so inchoate, so interior, that he has no idea where he learned it. For years that’s what he heard. He heard it from authorities and therefore, it was true.
He said, “I learned it from the Bible.” I said, “That’s interesting. Where is it in the Bible?” Totally calm. He couldn’t answer me. That’s just a tidbit of what I do over three days. I don’t do anything in the United States because the climate is such that nobody wants to hear it. I make people think. I always ask the hard questions. As of now, I do that professionally. I love it very much.
After I left Harvard I needed a place to go. I asked somebody I knew at Penn if he’d make me a fellow in the Center for Bioethics. So, for three years, I was a fellow in the Center for Bioethics. Perfectly meaningless thing to do. After the first six months, I never went again, but I was still a fellow because there was nothing to do. But then Penn asked me to teach reproductive health ethics in the master’s course and I developed a presence in Mexico. Now I’m a visiting professor at the National Autonomous University in Mexico, and I teach reproductive health ethics to graduate students.
I really enjoy teaching. I am actually a good teacher. My students like me. My co-professors like me. Right. So, I had somebody come to visit my class in Mexico. A professor came to visit my class in Mexico and after observing said, you are a born teacher. He was so blown away with the way I teach.
MJC: I wish there was a way for you to bring some of these insights back. We need you now in the middle of an uprising over race and equality. The message to the pro-choice movement and to the whole world about how inequitably this issue has been dealt with, with respect to the poor is entirely on target.
FK: I want to say something more about feminist leadership and leadership in general. But feminist leadership in particular. I always operated on the basis of playing to strengths, not weakness. No organization or individual is good at everything. One of the things that we’ve encountered in our work are two trends that I have resisted. One was the demand by donors that Catholics for Choice have a Hispanic unit. My reaction to the donors then was build Hispanic Latino organizations. Don’t ask me to take this on. This should be taken on by Latin and Mexican people in this country. I can’t do this. It’s wrong.
I would say that you’re never going to give me enough money to do a good job. You’re going to throw a little bit of money on me, and then I’m going to do a bad job with this Latin unit and it’s going to be a failure. And I don’t like to fail. Give me more money for what I do well, and that’s all. At one point I agreed to do this, and we housed within Catholics for Free Choice, something called the Latina Institute. One of our staff members ran it, we had other people run it. At a certain point I said to them it’s time for you to go out and be your own organization.
First, I can never raise enough money for you. Donors are only going to give me small amounts of money for this project. If you go out, you can do really well. Secondly, you’re accountable to me but you’re not really accountable to me. You have freedom, but you don’t have full freedom. They went out, with struggle, and the institute has turned into something very, very real and very important and still exists. Jessica González-Rojas, one of their last leaders, is now running for New York State Assembly.
The other thing that I resisted is I don’t want to know anything about young people. I deal with young people because I teach them, I’m a teacher. Things have legitimacy but they also become bright, shiny objects. Donors would say, why don’t you start a program of Catholic Youth? I say, “No. We’re not good at that. There’s nobody that works here who could do this.” Play to the strengths of organizations, whether you’re feminist or not. That doesn’t mean that as feminists we don’t have an intersectional approach to social change and justice, but it means we don’t necessarily take over other people’s work. But at the bottom, I really don’t care about them.
When I left Catholics for Free Choice, and finished my year at Radcliffe, the Hewlett Foundation gave me two hundred thousand dollars. Free and clear. One hundred thousand dollars a year for two years. And they told me I could do anything I wanted with it. We know the problem in our field of aging leaders. A lot of people would like to leave but they don’t have the money to survive and nobody is finding a place for them. That’s where the youth thing also gets me a little bit. With that money I formed a mid-career leadership group of a dozen people in reproductive health.
We met people like Miriam Eom, Bill Smith was in it. Donna Crane was in it and we met for five years. Laura Chasten would give us the house and Chappaquiddick. We’d go up to Chappaquiddick for four days, people would be beautifully fed by my brother and we would meet and bond and discuss leadership questions and their future. Nobody is paying attention to mid-career people. They are the most important people we should be taking care of because they have significant experience, they have proven that they want to work in this field and they need opportunities, and nurturing.
We don’t know whether these 22-year olds are going to be with us. I see this a lot internationally. I think it’s a little different locally, but they get in these U.N. youth groups, and they travel all over the place, go to graduate school and they become something else. Mid-career people are solid.
Plus, this question that we’re not dealing with, which is that a lot of the people that you have interviewed probably have a lot more that they can give. They’re not finished. We don’t want to be the heads of organizations. I am striving for nothing. Professionally, we are not striving, right? We don’t have to be at the press conference. We’re not fighting for recognition. We have our recognition. We have our place. We can help other people. We want to make a contribution. OK. Now we’re done.