THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“It was a very exciting time, the most exciting job I’ve ever had.”
Interviewed by Judith Waxman, February 2021
SF: I’m Sharon Anne Flynn. I was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, at Fort Bragg on August 11th, 1944.
JW: Tell us a little about what your life was like before you joined the women’s movement.
SF: I lived in New York. I worked for J. Walter Thompson; they said they were the largest advertising agency in the world. The man I worked for was being recruited by Richard Nixon to work on his campaign in Washington. I took a lot of calls from people whose names you might recognize; many of them went to jail. I decided to interview for Bobby Kennedy’s campaign when he announced his running. I was sitting in my apartment with my roommates and said, I think I’ll go to Washington. So I did. I initially didn’t get a job on the campaign, but I got a job on Capitol Hill with a congressman. I was taking notes for guys who hadn’t even gone to college, but I was their assistant because that’s the way it was.
JW: What year is this around?
SF: That was ’68. I came here in February of ’68. After Senator Kennedy was killed, they provided interviews, possible interviews with other organizations. So, I went to work for the American Jewish Committee. It was an all-male council and my immediate supervisor made several sexual innuendoes about me. At the same time, I went and took a class in sociology at George Washington University, and I did my paper on why there were separate job listings for men and women. I finished that paper and I was getting very angry as I was writing it. I quit and I took another job at another nonprofit in about ’71. I had been working in an administrative position and they were having some issues with staff and the director was fired. A new director came in and he looked back and said to me, “I want you to be my secretary and I want you to sit up here in front, next to my office.” I said, why would I do that? He said, Because I would like you to. And I said, I’m not going to, and I walked out.
JW: Wow, that was pretty brave.
SF: I just did things like that sometimes and I always find it interesting. When I started reading about the Caucus being formed, I actually had started reading about it, I worked a couple of temp jobs. I got married, I was kind of not very traditional. In meeting my husband, he’s Greek, I said I’m not taking your last name. He said, you’re not? I said, no. He said ehh that’s OK. His mother, however, was not too happy about it. But it was early on, we got married in ’71 and I just stayed Sharon Flynn. We had all kinds of experiences with that in hotels and whatnot, but it was interesting.
I had read about the National Women’s Political Caucus that was formed here in D.C. I thought, this sounds fantastic, this is what I want to do. I went in to volunteer in December of ’71 and worked for about a week there. At the end of the week, we were doing a mailing and we had gotten it all collated, mimeographed, all the things we used to do. People started going home – it was about 5:30 pm. I had put everything into the big, manila sized envelope kind of mailing, about 50. I had put all the stamps on it. I needed to take it to the post office, and it was snowing. My husband said, of course we’ll take it to the post office.
The next day I came in and Doris Meissner the executive director said, “Where’s the mailing?” I said, “I took it to the post office.” She said, “In the snow?” I thought that’s what I was supposed to do, and I always finish my job. She said, “Can you come and work here?” I said, “Of course, I love to!” They hired me as the office manager. When I started there were four people and an intern. I obviously stayed there a long time.
As people kept moving out, I kept moving up. Jane became director and I took her job as state and local Caucus coordinator, and then Jane left sometime in ’78. I became acting executive director and then executive director and then I was asked to stay on when Iris Mitgang won Chair, which everyone tells you, people left at that point. I stayed on for a while. I left in ’79 after Millie Jeffrey was defeated, so I was there for seven years.
JW: Let’s go back to 1972, that was obviously a very important year for the organization. Did the organization ultimately support Shirley Chisholm? I know there was controversy about it since it was a bipartisan organization.
SF: It’s interesting to read all of the information now. Like the series that was on TV, “Mrs. America”. They did not endorse her; I was very disappointed, and I said that. I guess for reasons that she probably wouldn’t win. Everybody was anxious to defeat Nixon, so I think there were very strong political reasons for it, but it was disappointing to some of us. I think it was a hard decision they had to make as well.
JW: And who’s they?
SF: We had three chairs at a time, so we had to have a Democrat or Republican. And I don’t know, the third person would sometimes be an Independent or sometimes just be a third person and they ran the Policy Council. There was a policy council and then there was one representative from every state. But the endorsement, I think, came from the Policy Council, which would have been Gloria, Bella, Betty Friedan, people like that.
JW: Did it start as bipartisan or did it evolve?
SF: I wasn’t at any of the organizing meetings, so I can’t really be specific about it. I think the intention was to be bipartisan. Elly Peterson from Michigan was always referred to as one of the founders. She was a liberal Republican woman. At the time they were all liberal Republican women. She was very involved to my understanding. There weren’t a lot of Republican women. From the time I was there it was definitely always meant to be bipartisan. We were called Multi-partisan because we didn’t want to limit it to Republicans and Democrats – it was supposed to be for any party that wanted to join under the affiliation and follow the policies and stance that we took.
JW: What were the issues you were most concerned about?
SF: I would definitely say abortion was my biggest issue. I knew people who had horrible abortions, I knew people who got pregnant and didn’t know what to do. It was horrible. I don’t think young women today understand how awful it was.
JW: Did the Caucus do any work on that issue?
SF: Everybody was pro-choice. It was our stand to be pro-choice. I don’t know of any time that we had a policy council meeting or a meeting with state representatives where there were anti-choice people. It was one of the biggest, other than the political equal representation and delegate selection and the Equal Rights Amendment and other obvious political issues.
There were a lot of women involved, especially in Texas. Texas had some of the strongest political women in the country. It was a very strong group in Texas, Sarah Weddington was the attorney on Roe v. Wade, she was part of the whole group of Texas women there. It was a very important issue.
JW: And how did that play out in the caucus? Did you support women and that was one of the criteria or how did that work in terms of the organization’s support?
SF: I don’t think we made it mandatory that women had to be pro-choice, at least publicly. It was an issue that I knew the Caucus supported. I remember when we suggested Peggy Heckler be a candidate for vice president. I’m guessing she was not pro-choice, although I can’t say for sure. But the issue didn’t come up because we let the Republican task force and the Democratic task force – we all supported each other.
But it was so new, there had never been anything like this before: a group of women getting together to support other women. There were some very interesting issues that we had to dance around. I wouldn’t say that the Caucus walked around and carried abortion as one of its feature items, but everybody that was involved was pro-choice. All the Republican women were, with the exception of maybe Peggy Heckler.
JW: Do you have any particular memorable experience you want to share?
SF: There were lots of great stories. In 1972 we went to the Democratic convention first and then we went to the Republican convention. We set up operations and we called the women together; we did the same things at both conventions. It was interesting they were both in Miami. The Democratic women came in jeans and, when we called a meeting of the Republican women, they’re all waiting for somebody to bring in chairs. Jill Ruckelshaus went out and got a bunch of folding chairs.
As a staff we were told at the Democratic convention, there was no dress code. But we were specifically told for the Republican convention that we should bring long dresses. I thought I never got out of the office except once at the Democratic convention, so I’m not sure. I brought a bathing suit cover; it was a terry cloth long dress.
There was a time when Jimmy Carter was president and his chief of staff came in. We invited him to the office, he came in and we had about 100 women there. He sits down at the desk and we’re mostly standing. He said, “Could you hand me my…no, that’s OK. I’ll get it.” It takes him 20 minutes to get through the crowd, but nobody handed it to him. Years of having to get men coffee. Nobody moved.
JW: What would you say were some of the accomplishments of you and the Caucus?
SF: I did start a newspaper there. We did a newsletter for a long time; of course it was the old days where you had it printed and mailed it out. But I wanted to start something more like a tabloid, so I started this newspaper called Women’s Political Times. They told me I could start it, but I had to raise the money to produce it and mail it.
I had a volunteer who was a very elegant woman who came in a couple of times a week. I said, “How would you like to be the advertising manager?” She asked what it meant. I said, “We need about $7,000 a year to run this. Do you think you could go out and raise that?” She said, “Don’t know.” She went out there and she was great. I’ve been saving copies of the Women’s Political Times for years. We had Ted Kennedy in it, we had people writing for it.
Until recently, the last maybe five years, they still had it at the National Women’s Political Caucus organization. I just went on their site and they do have highlights through 1980 every four years: what happened, who was elected, the highlights of each of those years, which I was surprised to see. Apparently they now must be pro-choice. It’s interesting that it’s still in existence.
JW: But it’s still bipartisan?
JW: Tell me what some of the issues were on that you wrote about or had people write on?
SF: A lot of them were about the number of women in Congress, the health issues, court appointments, how we had formed a coalition on judicial appointments, and we were women who might be interested in a judicial appointment, we’re collecting their resumes. We tried to cover actual news, depending on what the day was. It only came out four times a year. We sent it to our press list so sometimes they’d call us and do some follow up on it and put it in an actual newspaper.
JW: Was there some legislation?
SF: We had a person who did legislation all the time, she went up to the Hill. It was Ann Kolker and she had never done that before. She and I would sit together, and I’d say, “Well what do you think?” Well, I think this. I’d say, “That sounds good, let’s do that.” Most of the time we were at least on track.
JW: Interesting that Ann was at the National Women’s Law Center and I took her place when she left. So, I had some connection to her. We stayed in touch.
SF: I followed Ann into the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance when she was leaving there, I took over as the director for that. The Caucus was a time when a lot of women’s groups were starting up. We tried to work with NOW as much as possible. They weren’t the easiest group to work with. When I was the director for a while, I thought it’s better to join forces on things. We worked on the Equal Rights Amendment together, we would try to have press conferences together. We had a lot of people with big egos, so everybody wanted to get the credit for passing it but not for its failure.
We had a small equal rights campaign component for a while, sort of running under the auspices of the Caucus. In a separate [effort] Joan McLane ran it and she went to every state that was considering the legislation and lobbied on behalf of the Caucus and got as far as we got. Millie Jeffrey was the most wonderful human being that walked the face of the earth and she was the president when I was there. She was so smart, and she was in her 80s and she just had more energy than anybody in the place. I was very supportive of her to win reelection.
There was always some kind of revolt going on within the states. When Audrey Rowe ran and was elected in Boston, a lot of the state people came up to me and said, “Audrey’s firing all of you when she gets elected”. Any time they were angry at National, it was always the staff’s fault because we had three people and no money and [were] trying to communicate with everybody and make everybody happy. One of the things that I was very proud of is that we would have a 3-day meeting 4 times a year. We moved it around across the country, I think Jane started doing that.
I brought in a management consultant to run a session on the first day of the three-day meeting so that everybody could just get out what they were upset about. It was used as a gripe session – here’s a chance to talk about your concerns and how you would like to see things change and what we could do differently. By the time we had the actual meeting on Saturdays, everybody was calmed down. Denise Cavanaugh was the consultant and we just prepared for it. It was a great idea and we kept it until I left.
It’s not unusual when you see boards, I’ve worked with enough nonprofit boards, when they come in and they don’t know how friendly are you with the staff or how well do you know the director and what have you been doing? We had 115 representatives. We had one from every state, we had the Latino Caucus, the Black Caucus, the Lesbian Caucus, the Union Caucus, there were a ton of representatives that you were all trying to keep together and get things passed and let them say what they wanted. When Iris was elected, we all thought Millie would be reelected without any issue; in fact, we didn’t even think somebody would run against her. There were other things going on.
Seven years, other than when I owned my own business, that’s the longest I’ve been at any job. So it was time to go. Iris was very nice to me, she wanted me to stay on. I thought about it and then I decided not to.
JW: One thing I thought of as you were talking about strong personalities and of course they’re famous; you had mentioned earlier on that the Policy Council would have been Gloria and Bella and Betty. There had to be tensions among just the three of them and I wondered how that affected the organization? You came up with a fabulous idea with the representatives and the staff but even among the board?
SF: The Policy Council somewhat dissipated after the first few years. They wanted the organization to be represented by people from around the country. But yes, I was talking to somebody the other day, Ellen Boddie O’Brien, she did press. She said, “Yes I remember the time you told me I had to go tell Betty Friedan to leave the press conference, because Gloria was speaking.” And I said, “How come you’re still talking to me?” But Gloria was always centered, never raised her voice, always kept everybody calm. Bella loved Gloria. Gloria loved Bella.
Betty was just one of those types of people. I spent the night at Betty Friedan’s apartment. She wanted people to campaign for her as a delegate to the convention. She insisted that the Caucus send up staff or somebody to go out and campaign for her. I ended up going. My husband came with me. He was the only man and we were all in her apartment. She was late, it was pouring rain and we were sitting in this tiny little vestibule waiting for her. She got upstairs and we’re all talking and then my husband fell asleep and she said, “See, men have no stamina.”
The next morning, I woke up and I needed toilet paper, so I had to go out and find her and ask her for toilet paper. And then she made us a great breakfast and then we all went out to campaign. We’re carrying all of her fliers and you hand them out and people looked at them and stomped on them. But she did a lot of great things for women.
The other two both had, Gloria has an ego too, you cannot get away from it when you’re famous or like being famous. Bella was a trip. Bella would yell at all of us all the time, but she would go up there and give a speech and you would be in tears, so you just forgave her. She didn’t yell at me; she’d pick on certain people in the office just to make demands of them. “Why aren’t you doing this? Why aren’t you doing that?” I was too far down for her to get too upset with.
JW: So, after you left, I know you went on to do different kinds of things, but what about your feminist activities or maybe your feminist point of view? What did you carry with you from those years?
SF: It only strengthened as time went by. I started a film and video production company with my husband. I felt as though I had to continue my beliefs. We did a lot of corporate clients and they’d want to do a recruiting film and there would be no African-Americans in it, there would be no women in it. I said if you want this to last three or four years, you should get some women in here and some minorities. They looked at me like I had three heads, but they did listen to me.
I would do that with each client we had where I needed to do it. My two sons are both strong believers in strong women. I wasn’t part of any organized feminist group. I went to the march after Trump won and I’ve been in all kinds of marches and things. I show up. I just try to hope that beyond the next generation, I have two granddaughters – I said, “Why aren’t there any snow women? Why does everybody call them snow men?” We have these conversations all the time.
JW: So are you working now?
SF: Yes, I work 20 hours a week for Shepherd’s Table, they help the homeless. We just started taking food into neighborhoods. I helped them get a brand-new van. I raise money, that’s my job. They’re now taking food into the neighborhoods all around Silver Spring, Prince George’s County – there’s a line until the food is gone. We take 250 prepared dinners, which is what they do. They serve brunch and dinner and it’s in downtown Silver Spring, which was generally mostly men. I asked in my interview how many women do you serve? And they said, not as many as we’d like to. But now since we started this Beyond the Table project, we’re doing mostly families and single mothers. That makes me very happy.
JW: I’d like to ask you one last question, what would you say that your work and the National Women’s Political Caucus meant to American women in general?
SF: That’s an interesting question. I think there was a group of women it probably meant a lot to and glad to see it taken to that political level. But I do think that the Caucus and a lot of women’s groups then neglected homemakers. We could have had a much bigger base than we had. We didn’t reach out to enough women and we were hurt by that, and I think it was a mistake. You had to start somewhere, obviously, but we didn’t get to all the people we should have. But I think it was a very important time and it was a very exciting time, the most exciting job I’ve ever had.
I went to dinner with Candice Bergen, Garry Trudeau is still a really close friend of mine because he was such an influence and he was so good to the Caucus. We went through all his girlfriends after he broke up with each one. Everybody wanted to be part of it. We had all the women reporters in Washington. They would just come to the office and hang out and they just really enjoyed being part of it and really helped us to get from the Style section which the Post was called, what the women’s section before it was the style section and moved us up to the front page. And that’s where the story of the Caucus was – in the front section.
JW: Would you like to add anything else?
SF: Only that there’s one person who was there, Katie Fahnestock, who went out to the secretaries of state to find out about election laws. She doesn’t even know how she knew to do that. She was very important then and very smart and was one of the first people. It was Katie, Jane, Doris and me and Debby Leff. She’s amazing. We all have stayed in touch. Katie and I talk every few weeks, I’ve gone up to see her in Vermont. Debby and I see each other every quarter. I haven’t got those relationships with anybody else in any other place I work. And I’m divorced from my husband, so obviously it was more important.
JW: Well you have those granddaughters.
SF: And I’ve got two grandsons too. It’s just as important, if not more important, to make sure that they understand about women as well, and I give them the same lectures.