THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I Was Born a Feminist.”
Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA, Executive VP, April 2019
KR: Thanks so much for agreeing to do an interview with us today. Can you just start by telling us your name?
JM: Sure. My name is Jill Miller.
KR: And when and where were you born?
JM: I was born in 1945 in Brooklyn, New York. I only lived there very briefly. Our family moved to Long Island and when I was five moved to Greensboro North Carolina. That’s where I grew up and went to school.
KR: What was your family life like growing up?
JM: It was probably described as pretty traditional. My mother stayed home. She was a volunteer. I was a happy child that had a lot of freedom.
KR: What was your life like before there was a women’s movement, before you got involved or knew about it?
JM: I went to college. I traveled and spent a year travelling in Europe. I went to graduate school. Then I got married and worked for a while. I think [my life was] pretty traditional during that period of time. A couple years after I got married we moved to the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. I did a couple of different jobs when I worked there, including working for the tribe’s division of education.
There was a consulting firm from Washington D.C. that did a lot of work for the Tribe and the head of that firm was a woman. It was a woman owned firm, which in the 70s was unusual. I decided to move back to D.C. where the firm was based. I talked to them about a position and since they did work on Indian issues and specifically on Navajo issues, they thought it was a good match. At the same time Roz Kane was doing some of the first research involving what motivated women to go into non-traditional jobs. There were not very many in those days.
KR: Do you know what year this was?
JM: This was 1976, 77 or 78. I got involved in that project. Following that, we also got a grant to study programs that were preparing women for jobs in nontraditional areas, to go into apprenticeships. I worked on that and I met with program directors from around the country who were involved in training women for non-traditional jobs. I was born a feminist when I came out of the womb. This really appealed to me. Plus, I continued to work with Navajo where I lived for four years, so I could travel there. But the research on women’s issues really sparked me and inspired me.
KR: Was it eye opening in any way or was it what you expected?
JM: I think what I learned from the study, which I wouldn’t have anticipated, is what motivated these women was not money. Even though these jobs were higher paying than traditional wage jobs, it was their interest in the work. And that it suited them to do the jobs and it wasn’t the money.
KR: That’s interesting. So then where did you take it from there in terms of your involvement in women’s issues and the women’s movement?
JM: After working for this firm and then for a few years on my own again, both consulting on women’s issues and Indian issues, I was asked to apply for a position as Executive Director of the National Network for Displaced Homemakers. I applied for that job and I began working there in 1983. It was a pretty young organization at the time. It was a volunteer board, it was awaiting a grant from the Department of Labor and was not ready to hire me until that grant came through. I basically said you need to hire me because I can make the grant go through. You don’t hire me, the grants never going to happen. We came to an agreement that I would start to work. And in fact three weeks later we got the grant.
KR: Tell me about your life there.
JM: It was fantastic. I felt the work was so important. At the time, we were working with programs around the country. It grew to 500 – 600 who were helping women who had been out of the workforce – who had been homemakers. And whose life situation changed – either through divorce or widowhood or they were on welfare and wanted to go back to work, or their husbands became disabled and they needed a job. They were terrified.
They felt they had no skills to bring to the workforce. And these programs were life changing for them. They helped them look at the skills they developed in a non-work environment and how that could be translated into the work environment. Many of the programs were located at community colleges or vocational training centers, so they were able to help women get training for jobs. And counsel them about how to make this transition. Over the years I never ceased to be inspired by the changes that women made and how they grew and how they overcame obstacles in their life. It was work that was important and that I cared deeply about.
KR: How long were you there?
JM: I was there over twenty-five years and I grew professionally in so many ways. I hated public speaking and was very bad at it when I began and in the end it was a piece of cake. I learned how to do advocacy, how to lobby. I testified on the Hill. I hated fundraising and I learned how to do fundraising. I got many corporations involved in financially contributing to our work. It was a very fulfilling work over the years and I worked with wonderful people who were doing God’s work.
KR: Are there any particularly memorable experiences or meaningful things that stand out to you?
JM: One of the biggest things happened early on, the first year or so, I was at the organization which was to get legislation passed that directed all states to go through the money they got through vocational education grants. They had to utilize money both to provide services to displaced homemakers as well as to establish programs to encourage girls and women to enter non-traditional jobs. It was the largest investment of federal dollars towards these efforts ever and as a result there were hundreds of programs around the country that either continued or got started or got expanded. It was a major deal in this area.
KR: That’s great. Did employment issues continue to be most of the focus of your work?
JM: That was certainly core. And the reason we changed the name of the organization, realizing that all kinds of women faced challenges in their working life. There was a decision to bring ourselves up to more current times and we changed the name of the organization to Women Work! the National Network for Women’s Employment. That was an effort to address the wide range of issues that women faced in the workforce. Whether it is sex discrimination, sexual harassment, wage discrimination, a much broader range of issues that affected women in the workplace.
The programs continued and from primarily even with a broader focus. The majority of women were women who were divorced or widowed. The focus, though, it probably grew to ways for women to move up in the workforce. But our advocacy expanded to issues like the National Committee on Pay Equity, health issues, and minimum wage issues was always a big focus of ours. In that sense it was the things that we worked on.
KR: What was your experience like doing advocacy work and lobbying? Was that interesting?
JM: Absolutely and it changed over the times. When the legislation I mentioned before came up for re-authorization – renewal, we organized the massive national campaign to get women who were in programs that benefited from programs to use their voice to communicate how important this issue was. And it was extremely effective.
Our programs got letter writing campaigns going. We had calls going into key members of Congress to the extent that they said please have them stop calling us. So, you knew you are on the right track. The re-authorization of that was successful in continuing the funding for these programs. We learned early on that these women’s voices were the most important, more than ours and our statistics, was mobilizing that population.
KR: Is the organization still going on now?
JM: It isn’t. I think there are a number of reasons. There were political reasons beginning in the 90s where politicians and policymakers shifted their focus. It was really a way to show their lack of interest. I think also that because of a lot of advancement by the 90s, professional women had made significant advances in terms of law school, medicine, accounting and that there was a sense that this was less of an issue. They thought that women were in the workforce, they were advancing, and this wasn’t really an issue anymore. I think that that made it difficult to make the case.
KR: What made you decide to leave? Was it sort of all of this that you’re talking about?
JM: Well actually I had a health situation that forced me to take off a year on disability and although there were a couple of grants that were teed up to get funded, it just didn’t happen. About a year later the organization decided to disband.
KR: Have you been involved in any activism since then?
JM: Not really. I’m not sure I’m proud to say this, but I felt like I did my time. I don’t know if other people you interviewed had similar responses, but I worked very hard. I loved to work. It was challenging, the ups and downs and I felt when it was over I just moved on.
KR: A lot of women that we’ve interviewed were active in the movement in a volunteer way and not in a paid career way. They were then able to transfer some of the skills from the movement to their career, but you actually were able to have a career that was in the movement. What other things have you done?
JM: Early in my career I taught adult education while I was living on the Navajo reservation and that was fascinating work. I think I learned more from my students than they learned from me. I also taught head start teachers and aides and traveled to very remote communities around the reservation, which was very eye opening. I really got into this work in my thirties and when I got the job with the Displaced Homemakers Network, I was 39 and the president at that time was a little bit younger than me.
KR: Anything else that we haven’t covered?
JM: Actually, your question about what I felt were significant accomplishments while working. A couple of years after I began at the organization, we contracted with the company to create a statistical report on the status of displaced homemakers throughout the United States and looked at data nationally as well as in individual states. At the time, one of the women who founded the organization was still alive and we released this report at a press conference and got significant coverage in papers all over the country.
So that really had an impact in terms of making people understand the extent of the situation and the need for services. Many individual states were able to use that data to get support for state legislation, providing state dollars for programs in their state. We saw an expansion of services and expansion of legislation to over 20 states that funded these programs through state dollars. So that was that was a really important project to make people understand.
KR: Thank you so much for your time. This was great.
JM: It was a pleasure. Thank you for bringing back all those memories.