Simona Chazen

“When we Started in the ’70s, There Was Not Even a Name for Domestic Violence”

Interviewed by Muriel Fox, January 2018

MF: Simona Chivian Chazen, did you feel that you suffered any discrimination because you were a girl from your family or in high school or at the University of Wisconsin?

SC: My family was really a very liberated family. My sister, my brother and I were all afforded the same opportunities and it was not an issue that was ever present in my home life. It wasn’t present in my family; it was present in the world outside my family. And as I gradually moved into that world I began to experience it in odd ways. In high school it certainly didn’t come from the teaching staff and not from my friends.

But I was a quote unquote smart girl in quote unquote smart classes with quote unquote smart boys. None of those boys ever asked me out or ever dated me. Actually I went out with the athletes. I think they weren’t threatened by a quote unquote smart girl because they had their own excellence.

It really wasn’t present for me at the University of Wisconsin except of course that I lived in the era when girls lived in houses that have housemothers and we had ours. We had to be in 10:30 p.m. weeknights 12:30 a.m. on weekends. That did not apply to the boys. The rationale was that if the girls were in early that would control the boys. It was really pretty crazy.

But aside from that – no it was a very liberal school.  And however, I think at that school was when I first realized that there were still lynching’s going on in this country and that was before Goodman Cheney and Schwerner. Lynchings were not uncommon in the south. And my sense of horror, combined with what we were beginning to hear about in Europe was overwhelming and I was very aware of that at that time. And there were marches at that time at the University of Wisconsin against the lynchings that were going on.

MF: When did you start to think about feminism and sex discrimination?

SC: Very odd and perhaps not very important incident – but it was overwhelming for me. Jerry and I were married a few years and living in Milwaukee. We had gone to the University of Wisconsin and we had many friends who lived in Milwaukee and we had known them in the university setting. One evening we were invited to go to the apartment of one of our Milwaukee born friends and we were to have a drink. And then go out to dinner.

Now going out to dinner was a very big deal. Not like today when we go out every other night. It was a very big deal. And we were three couples and the women had dressed very nicely to go out to dinner. Well the guys decided that they’d rather play bridge. And we could just eat in the apartment there.

I think my disappointment must have been very large on my face. All I know is that I was treated like a poor sport. And I think I was quite angry at the other women who didn’t say a word. Not an important incident but overwhelming for me – and thinking – good lord who do they think they are.

MF: Tell us about the organization you helped to found. Volunteer Counseling Service.

SC: Volunteer Counseling Service was an organization founded by funding from the Ford Foundation in 1970. The original charge was to use an unused resource – intelligent and caring laypeople to serve an underserved population. The clients of the Family Court. I saw a small ad in The Journal News that said – would you like to learn to be a counselor and I was curious and I answered it. There were 60 or 70 applicants and they took 17 of us.

I would say that those interviews that I underwent at that point were the toughest I ever had. Never had that tough an interview for a paying job. But they were very careful about who they selected and very rigorous about their training. And about three or four months later we were ready to see the clients from the Family Court. Now that was our first charge.

But very soon we began to take on other issues. One of them was domestic violence and I must tell you that it was not called domestic violence. There was no such term. When a man beat up his wife that was called a family offense and that was supposed to remain in the family. Well we were seeing clients from the Family Court. And some of these were quote unquote family offence cases and what we noticed was that the court ordered – ordered the woman into a year of counseling. And gave the man a slap on the wrist and a reprimand and that was it.

Well enough of these cases were coming through our doors that we became really concerned and we appealed to the judges of the Family Court to let us do a study. And they were decent men. And we asked to see the outcomes of the family offence cases – not the names – not the any of the facts about them – just the outcomes. And what we discovered – and what they were really appalled when they realized that was what they were doing. Is that – there was no penalty for the man – not at all.

And the woman had to come to counseling. Granted she may have liked it and it may have been helpful to her, but the man was not ordered to do anything. Out of this grew – eventually our program for batterers. And out of that grew a remarkable program. Which eventually Phyllis Frank developed and still to this day runs – called the New York State Model for Batterers Program. And you will hear more about that later.

MF: You served on Volunteer Counseling Service and retired as Assistant Director in 1981. How have you remained active in VCS since that time?

SC: Well I would call myself a lifer because I have been active ever since the day that I formally retired. I have supervised counselors. I have been on the board. I have been in close contact with the staff. And I have supported many of the programs and I would like to feel that it’s always been my project.

MF: You used to be a stay at home mother of three children.

How did you decide to get a graduate degree and embark on a professional career?

SC: Well that came out of Volunteer Counseling Service also. It was about six or seven months into my first seeing clients and it was a sunny day and I was sitting at a desk and there was a shaft of sunlight coming across the desk and I was dealing with a most – most difficult man. And just at that moment it was sort of an epiphany that for the first time in my life professionally – I was sitting in the right chair after.  That is when I pursued a degree in clinical social work.

Violence Against Women Act

MF: You served on the board of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, which played a major role in getting the Violence Against Women Act, passed which we called VAWA. How has VAWA made a difference in helping victims of violence?

SC: It certainly has made a tremendous difference. First of all – and probably most importantly – it put the term domestic violence on the map. Secondly of course it has funded programs all over the country and that’s been really really important. But I must say that at Volunteer Counseling Service we were ahead of the curve. We’ve developed the program for batterers.

When we realized that that wasn’t enough, that we needed to change the social and political climate, we undertook a program of training police chiefs. And I must say that the police chief of Orangetown was the very first to join our program and other chiefs came afterword.

After that we also were asked to train rookie classes. And I remember I was teaching a rookie class. And it was – the young men were enormously hostile. So we knew that we had a lot more work to do. They kept saying to me – Are you married?  And what do you know about this?  It was really quite rude and quite hostile.

Volunteer Counseling Service has been a remarkable organization.

All these last 40 some odd years in the county and beyond. We have been there to see the gaps in service, be ahead of the curve and develop cutting edge programs.  In addition to developing a batterers program, we brought an unbelievable racism program into the county. And that has become more or less institutionalized. Organizations in the county are sending their people to it. The county for quite a while was sending many of its people to it – until our present administration of course.

We also – early on discovered that there were not really services for gay people. For the whole LGBT community and we developed really the first services.  That grew out of out of Volunteer Counseling Service.  And the Pride Center is a child of Volunteer Counseling Service.

MF: You’ve been a leader in gay pride activities. Please tell us more about your activities in this field.

SC: Well certainly I supported all the efforts that were going on at VCS. And when Phyllis Frank proposed to me quite some time ago that we needed – we really needed a gay pride center in Rockland. I was very interested in it.

I would say that she really inspired me.

Plus I had had gay clients in my practice for a long time. And I was more tuned in to what was going on perhaps in the gay community than other people might have been.

MF: Your husband Jerome Chazen was CEO of Liz Claiborne. Has he taken an interest in your feminist work and your work to combat domestic violence?

SC: Absolutely. When I became passionate about the issue of domestic violence and would come home and talk about it – Jerry was CEO of a large company.  A large international company that served women. And employed many many many many women. And he began to look into what was going on.

More than that he developed an initiative. And the initiative was to get the word about domestic violence out there. And he developed and executed plans in two cities – San Francisco and Boston. And did all of the necessary public affairs work. They got in touch with the mayor. They got in touch with the community leaders in each of these counties.

And a day was set aside. That was Domestic Violence Day.

The object was to popularize the term. The object was to get it out there and the object was to get a hot line started in each of these communities. And that did happen and that was in 1989.

MF: Your County – Rockland County New York State has been a national leader in feminist issues and domestic violence. LBGTQ issues. Is there any reason why Rockland has been such a leader?

SC: Lucky enough to have a lot of great women. I’m not quite sure how I can answer that question. I would say that if you look at the complexion of the county – the river towns are very liberal. And there’s always been a save the world – save the river – save the women – save the children kind of effort.

MF: Are your children feminists?

SC: Absolutely. My daughter Kathy in particular was early into the feminist movement. She was active when she was in college and then thereafter. And is still pretty much a feminist.  And Louise while she was not as formally connected to the movement is definitely a feminist.

MF: Looking back, is there a memory or moment in your feminist work that gives you special joy?

SC: I would guess that it would be the issue of domestic violence. Because women were the victims. And you know early on when we would talk to audiences there would always be some man who would stand up and say – what about the men who were abused? And of course that was – that was a question that we could only say – What man? 1 in the 1 percent perhaps. Perhaps.

So I would say that the domestic violence work, which continues to this day, and I wish that we didn’t have to be doing it – was that moment. I would also like to say that while all this was going on at VCS there was a ferment all over the county – perhaps because feminism did start there with Betty Friedan and with you. Perhaps that’s why domestic violence became such an issue – that’s why feminism became such an issue in the county. And it was many things were happening. It was not just volunteer counseling service.

The women of the county were marshaling their resources. They were finding safe houses. The nuns were helping us with safe houses. It was all happening at the same time. Volunteer Counseling Service was founded in 1970.  And it was the efforts of VCS and women all over the county of the NOW people that eventually led to the opening of the Rockwell Family Shelter in about I think 1976 or 1977.

MF: Were you a member of NOW from the early days?

SC: I was but I can’t say that I was officially active in it. I think my activities were feminist. I would also like to say that I was a proud also a proud founder of Rockland Family Shelter.