Interview with Jacquelin E. Washington2020-09-08T09:47:29+00:00

THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT

Jacquelin E. Washington

1932 – 2019

“Maintain the gains we have made. There will always be battles to be fought and women are going to have to be as vigilant as ever.” – Jackie’s advice for the 3rd wave

Interviewed  by Carol King, May 14, 2005, from the Carol King documentary, Passing the Torch.

JW:  My name is Jacquelin Washington. I had several positions within the National Organization for Women when I was at the state level. I was a state organizer and on the national level I was the president of the NOW Legal Defense and Education. I was also a member of the national board.

CK:  Jackie, you were involved in the very early movement on behalf of battered women?

JW:  That’s correct. I was at the time, a school social worker in the Detroit public schools. I had a client, a little boy, who was acting out. We could not figure out what his problem was. As it turned out, he was living in a home in which battering was taking place. His mother called me and asked me if I could give her some help on what to do to get out of the situation she was in.

This was something that had happened in my life, that I had also been a child who lived in a home where domestic violence took place, and I could understand what that problem was all about. But as I tried to help this client find a way out of her situation, I found that there was no place for her to turn. The police would not respond to her, there was no place where she could go. She had no money. She had no assets of her own. There was no alternative to the arrangement in which she was living. So as a social worker I was very frustrated in trying to find a solution to her problem.

And then it dawned on me that there might be one place that I could look for help for this woman. I turned to the Detroit chapter of NOW. I called and I said, Do you have a program that could help this woman? Do you have resources for her? And the answer was no, we don’t. But if you come and join us, we’d like for you to start a task force working on this issue. I was so taken aback that I said, oh, sure, I’ll be glad to do it. And it was then that I began to get involved. I had heard a lot about the women’s movement and I was sympathetic to the women’s movement, but I had not been involved before.

So with the whole idea of trying to help women like my client and like my mother, I decided to join NOW and to be a part of this task force that was dealing with the issues of violence against women. In studying it, I realized that there was a lot there to be done. In studying the issues around violence against women I realized how many barriers there were to break down.

First of all, society was not sympathetic toward the woman. It was always felt that it was her fault, that if she acted in a different way, then that battering would not take place. Or when I tried to work with the police department, they said it’s a domestic issue and didn’t want to intervene. When we talked to judges, they said, I’m not sure we want to sentence a man. Why would we want to do that to him? They ought to work this out. It seemed as though the whole system was set up in such a way that women did not have a way to get out of the situation in which they were in.

So working in our task force, we began to work on all of those fronts at one time. We began to work with changing society’s ideas about women. And we did that through a public relations campaign. We spoke wherever we could on that issue. We began to educate the public here about the issues about domestic violence, whether it was for newspaper, radio, organizations, we began to do a massive campaign and opened up the eyes of the public on just what this issue was all about. And when we did that, we began to hear from a lot of women saying, yes, I’m in that situation. I want to work on this issue, too.

So there was a groundswell of people who were willing to do something about it. The other issue that we needed to deal with was the police. And that was much more difficult because the police department being at that time all male, did not wish to hear this at all. They had other issues that to them were more important than dealing with a domestic violence or domestic relations issues. Fortunately, there was a deputy police chief by the name of Jim Bannon who was sympathetic to this issue.

And because he was within the department, we were able to form a collaboration with him and with people like Maryann Mahaffey of the Detroit City Council and other interested people in initiating training for the police department. This did not happen overnight. It was over a period of years that we worked to try to change the attitude within the department to the place where they would have training for police officers so that they would know how to respond when a woman called them and said that she was being battered.

We had to teach them how to listen to this, we had to teach them how to indicate which [one] was telling the truth. If the man’s knuckles were bruised, then we could tell that violence had taken place. Those are things that they never looked at before, they would always take the side of the man. We were helping them be able to sort this out as they do with any other crime. And they also were empowered to file on the woman’s behalf if she did not wish to make a complaint. But in other cases, they did not have to have the victim to file a complaint. If they felt a crime had taken place, then they could do this on their own.

CK:  So that didn’t require separate legislation?

JW:  No, it did not require separate legislation. It was only carrying out the police officer’s duty to protect the person who was a victim of a crime. What needed to be changed was the attitude that indeed there was a victim. Before they didn’t feel that there was a victim. They had the old fashioned notion that the man’s home is his castle. Whatever happens in his home is OK, or that the woman would only make up with him after they left so why should they get involved?

There were all these stereotypes that had to be broken down, they had to be shown that this was a crime just as any other crime. Detroit was one of the first places that training took place. In most instances this didn’t happen. Because we had the deputy chief of police who understood what the issues were, we had access and we met with many people over the months and years that we worked on this issue to begin to get something done. The more difficult task was working with judges.

I’m not sure that we alone in the Detroit Area changed the attitude of judges. The change that took place was being done on a national level. The NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund had a program in which we were training judges who were bringing education to judges about this issue. This took longer to enact than some of the others. And I think one of the other things that made a difference is that they began to have many more women judges who understood what the issues were involved in domestic violence. And the cases weren’t easily dismissed, they were then examined, as you would any other case.

So those are three of the fronts that we worked on. The other front we worked on was what to do with the woman when she wanted to leave the home, like the client that I told you about. There was no place for anybody to go. And initially with the task force, we were trying to find places that would be suitable alternatives for women. I went to the YWCA downtown in Detroit, which was virtually empty. The Y had been a place where young women came when they moved to the city and this was a safe residence for them but things were changing and young women didn’t feel that they needed the protection of the YWCA. So you had a building that was fairly empty, they had very few residents.

I remember making an appointment to meet with the board of directors of the YWCA of Metropolitan Detroit, and I raised with them the possibility that they might use the YWCA as a shelter for battered women. You would have been surprised by that reaction. They could not understand why we would even think about the possibility of battered women and their children living in the YWCA and they still maintained that they wanted to keep their the residence available for young women who were coming into the city. They did not feel that this was an issue that they wanted to deal with, that it would be totally inappropriate for the YWCA to step into such a situation.

When I left there, I was very discouraged because there were few other alternatives that we could find where there was a ready made residence for people to move into. But simultaneously, the whole idea of the YWCA working with victims of domestic violence was gathering steam. It took a couple of years before I received a phone call from new members on the board of directors of the YWCA and said, you know, you were here talking to us a couple of years ago and we want you to come back and talk to us about the possibility of using this building as a residence for violence against women.

It was certainly a different board. There were younger women, newer women, women who were much more receptive to the issue that are surrounding battering. And I think also that with the combination of the public relations messages that we had been getting out from Detroit NOW and from the movement of the YWCA, the time was just right for them to even consider this. They asked a lot of questions: they wanted statistics and wanted to know what they could do and how they could protect the women who would be there if they decided to do it. How could they prevent husbands from coming in and creating havoc if their wives were in that building?

Those are things that they would have to work out. But it was obvious from the kind of questions that they were asking that they were seriously considering the possibility of making a change. To their credit, the YWCA began to make moves to change from the kind of influences they had on young women moving into the city, to women who had been battered and needed a place to stay. From there on, I need to compliment them because they really did take the ball and begin to run with it, seeking funding and moving into that area.

That’s the kind of thing that we wanted to have happen. Those of us who worked on the task force never felt that it was our role to implement a shelter or to implement things that would happen. We wanted to be a catalyst to cause others to make those changes. And in that respect, we believe that that happened. Simultaneously, other people in the Detroit area were considering it.

There was a shelter that was opened up and adjoining communities and the whole atmosphere began to change. And there was a wider understanding of the need to take a look at this issue and to protect women from battering. Over the course of years, as we began to withdraw from that issue, as others took it over, I’ve seen a change in how people view the whole issue of battering. Moving away from it’s a secret that nobody talks about into something that somebody talks about and something that somebody is willing to take some action to do. So things did change. And I do believe that it was because of the work of the task force for Detroit, NOW, that we were able to make a difference in this city.

CK: I want to talk about your work at NOW LDF and on the national board of directors. While on the national board there were some issues that we were dealing with nationally, but there were some issues very specific to Detroit and to Michigan. Did you see that in trying to go between the two organizations?

JW:  When I was on the national board, a lot of what was happening was more political. NOW was moving in the direction of trying to make an impact politically because they saw that as a way of making change for women and not that there’s anything wrong with that, you just have to move on several different fronts at one time. I would say in the Detroit area, we were working on a variety of other issues.

Because the ERA had been passed in Michigan very early on it meant that we were free to work on some other issues that national NOW could not deal with. We were able to work on issues of child care, credit, television broadcasting, domestic violence, issues of labor, employment, all of those kinds of things that we were doing on a local basis were not necessarily the issues that were taken up by the national.

With the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund there was some crossover in that there were issues relating to education that were important to both the NOW legal defense and education and the Detroit area. One of the issues that I worked on was in Detroit there’s been a lot of problems with education. How do you improve the quality of education? What do you do to bring the scores up? What do you do to help children in their academic pursuits? During the time that I was on the NOW LDF, we were working on education issues.

There came up an issue in the city of Detroit where the power structure fell. One of the ways that we can do something about education is to have all male academies. We can separate the boys from the girls and give boys a quality education and that will improve our academic scores. This will improve the scores of our young men. I was quite concerned about that approach because as a feminist, I was having difficulty understanding how we could take one segment of the population and provide education for them. Then we would say to another segment of the population, we will take care of you later. And that’s essentially what the male academies were going to do.

This was beginning to be a national drive to say that we’re going to put money in the education of African-American boys. And although I can appreciate the interest and I can appreciate the idea that that is something that needs to be done, I maintain that African-American girls also need an education. I maintain that this is something that both boys and girls can benefit from. If we’re going to put money into education, if we are going to strengthen the curriculum, if we are going to bring forth our best educators and try to provide a course of academic improvement, that has got to be for both boys and girls.

That was really hard for a lot of people to understand and it seemed to pit African-American interests against those of the feminist movement. I didn’t see it that way. I felt it was more of an issue of quality education, that it was more of an issue of what’s right to do by the children of Detroit and not just taking one part and segregating them out. A while back, there was the whole issue of quality education where there were some people who felt that separation of blacks and whites was good. We fought that and we said, no, if you’re going to have quality education, you educate all the children the same way – you do not have one set of criteria for white kids and another criteria for our Black kids.

And this was essentially the argument that I made here in Detroit: that we could not have a separate but equal. It was quite a contentious argument. I took a lot of heat for that because people assumed that I did not care about African-American boys. That could not have been farther from the truth because I did care. I cared a lot, but I just didn’t feel that that was the way for a public school to use its dollars. We had already fought this battle of separation and now we are saying it’s okay to be separate because they’re both African-Americans and if we put the money into young males that it’s going to improve things all around.

We ended up with a court case around this issue and the judge ruled that all male academies funded by public funds are not acceptable and they could not proceed. If you wanted to be a private school and do that it would have been all right. Some then decided that they would establish the male academies and they would be private. But as far as public schools were concerned, we were able to focus on quality education for our young women as well as our young men.

CK:  The Equal Rights Amendment. The campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment took a lot of energy.

JW:  That’s true. I was a strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. Still am. I hope they bring it back. But as I said earlier, we were able to work on that issue here in Michigan early on. And because of our strong efforts on their behalf, Michigan passed it early on, which meant we weren’t spending all of our capital working on the ERA. It left us a lot of time to do some other things. I think that was a good thing.

I observed, both on a national level and in our neighboring states, they would ignore a lot of different issues. It was so important they were raising money and also recruiting people to work on the cause of the Equal Rights Amendment. They forgot to continue to build on the other issues that are important to women. Maybe forgot is too strong a word, maybe they didn’t have enough energy to go around to continue to do the traditional work of the women’s movement and the Equal Rights Amendment, which was very, very demanding. We found that there were many people who were drawn to the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment without understanding that there were many other things going on.

You can’t stop the fight against prejudice and just work on the legislative issues. You’ve got to work with the grassroots. You have got to continue to try to educate people on issues that women are facing on a day to day basis. In Michigan, we were very fortunate because we were able to do that, there were task forces of NOW that we’re still working on those issues that had to do with women and women’s rights.

The reason we began to lose people after the ERA failed to pass, is that people came into the movement thinking that that was the movement. That was one cornerstone, but it was not the entire movement. So when that didn’t pass, people were disillusioned, they were disappointed, and they felt there’s no need in staying around because the fight is lost. But that’s not true. There were many other things that we needed to continue to fight for. Michigan was a case in point.

We have had a strong, strong feminist movement fighting for many different things: getting women elected to office, issues that had to do with discrimination in employment, a wide variety of women’s issues which made us stronger here because we didn’t have to continually work on the ERA. People from Michigan continued to go to neighboring sister states whenever there were rallies and marches. We were very, very supportive of that but that did not become our full time preoccupation.

We were able to continue to work on some things that were local issues and child care was one. Choice was another issue. We continue to work on those. We became stronger as a result of working on that and are still trying to get those issues resolved because we didn’t have the ERA as something that we had to work on day in and day out.

CK:  Very good. Just in closing, what do you think are the biggest challenges for the third wave?

JW:  It’s hard to pinpoint one issue, but the thing that disturbs me more as we move into a third wave is that there’s not the memory among many of our young women. They think that these things have been there all along. When I talk to young people about issues related to domestic violence and the fact that there haven’t always been shelters or that the law enforcement agencies look at domestic violence in a different way, they are amazed. They don’t have an understanding of the work that has gone into this to make a change.

When they see that there are women who are television anchors, which is a very visible thing, they can’t go back to the day when that did not happen. They don’t understand that there were many jobs in the past that women could not attain because of societal issues or pressures that kept them out of that. They don’t remember when women couldn’t work when they were pregnant, that as soon as they found out that they were pregnant, their employer told them, we can’t use you anymore.

The things that our young people take for granted are there as a result of the work that has been done. So if there’s anything that we need to do as we move into the third wave of  feminism is to continue to keep our successes out in front so that we don’t backtrack. We need to help young people understand that being vigilant is one way that they can keep from going back to turning back to the way that it was before, because if they don’t, then we’re going to lose all of those gains.

So I don’t know that one issue is any more important than the other but what is important is maintaining those gains that we have made, maintaining the memory so that people can be proud of what has happened before and continue to join in the struggle. I know that there are a lot of people who say feminism is a thing of the past – we don’t need it anymore. So it’s up to us to help the next wave understand that, yes, it is important. There are always battles that need to be fought and women are going to have to be as vigilant as ever. Men are going to have to join with us as we keep on moving to maintain equal rights for women.

CK:  How do you respond to people who say, I’m not a feminist, but-.

JW:  I’ve heard that so many times and over the years. They don’t realize that they are feminists, they don’t realize that when they say, I believe in equal pay for equal work, they are responding to a need for equal rights for women. Many of those people who say I’m not a feminist will take advantages of the gains that have been made. And you will hear them advocate for many women’s issues. So whether they identify themselves as being a feminist, they really are much more of a feminist than they ever think they are.