Interview with Pam Ross2019-03-27T09:16:40+00:00

THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT

Pam Ross

We Have to Learn Our History, or We’re Going to Repeat It.

Interviewed by Maureen Zegel, September 2016

MZ:  My first question is really a general question about where you grew up, where you went to school, what was your family life like. Talk a little bit about yourself?

PM:  I was born in 1950 and I grew up in a household which in those days was referred to as a mixed marriage. My mother was Jewish, my father was Lutheran and he was from Wisconsin. My mother was raised in St. Louis. My mother was a great intellectual who had a political science degree from Washington University in the war years and she did her senior thesis on the Holocaust in ’39. She was really aware of what was going on. My father was so attracted to my mother because of her intellect and because she was a woman of the world, in his opinion. He had great social skill and she had great intellectual heft. We had perfect grammar because my mother was always telling us – No that isn’t correct and it’s not an advertisement it’s – an advertisement – so it was a lot of things like that.

Growing up my parents included us in watching television and at that time was a lot about the Holocaust and we saw all those movies with the piles of bodies – all the concentration camps – so as a kid I had a couple of recurring nightmares. One was that I was taken to a camp with my mother to take food to people. Then the guards would open fire with machine guns and I would wake up at that point. The other recurring nightmare was – because in the summertime we were sent to our family’s farms in Wisconsin, which were dairy farms – at that time they had chickens and hogs and dairy cattle. The hogs and the sounds had an open field and they had sow huts.

So in my child mind I was in this field in a dream and I was leading the Jews away from the Nazis, hiding in those little huts and telling them stay here and I’ll go forward and clear the way. So I think those two dreams particularly impacted on me emotionally in such a way that I couldn’t look the other way when something was happening to other people. Our parents told us – this is what happens when nobody says or does anything. So you have to intervene.

Taking Responsibility

It’s your responsibility as a human being. Hence – a political activist is born. Our school was integrated in the third grade so that would have been ‘58 or ’59. I grew up in Brentwood. It was a small school and we all knew each other’s families even our grandparents, our siblings and we’re still very connected because we have reunions there and it’s a big deal. There were only 125 kids that ever graduated when we were there. Now it’s only about 60 kids. So it’s a small little environment where everybody knows everybody and I think we’ve learned a lot from that experience and being connected so long to people that we grew up with. They can validate a lot of things in our lives that we couldn’t have remembered on our own.

 

MZ:  So your school was integrated by the ‘50s?

PR:  Yes, and their parents were blue-collar workers. My dad was an electrician. So you know they didn’t make a lot of money then and we weren’t particularly different economically than they were – slightly better, but not significantly better. Some kids had lived on the other side of Brentwood – lived on lower Brentwood as they used to laugh. Some of those kids had lawyers for parents and accountants. But that wasn’t the norm. As I grew up – my father died [when I was] 15 and that pretty much was a really significantly bad event in my life. And I think because of that I was at high risk. My mother – that was her second husband to die. And so she was pretty much a basket case at that time.

MZ:  When was that?

PR:  He died in about ’65-’66, early ‘66. I was the last daughter at home. I have two older sisters and they were pretty much – not really gone, but much more adult than me. I got pregnant as an 18 year old. And it was someone I didn’t love and it was a rebound relationship. And I ended up in 1968 married or ‘69. You married someone in those days. My sister had given a child up for adoption the year before and I knew I wasn’t ever going to do that because she was a wreck because of it. And that was a horrible situation for all involved. And so I was married to a dangerous man who tried to kill me twice when I wanted to leave when my daughter was nine months old. It was strangulation with an electric cord and it was two different times.

And the second time his family wanted us to stay married because they liked me and knew that I would be a good influence on him. Well, he wasn’t a great influence on me. And so he went to – I don’t know what they call it – but then it was referred to as Arsenal Street – the psych unit. One of the most important things was that the psychiatrist who ran the outpatient – as you’re exiting they had to come and talk to us. And he asked my husband – So you think you’re ready to leave? Oh yeah. Well I’m looking at your wife’s neck and I can still see the bruises on her neck. So I really don’t think you’re ready and I’m going to tell you this – if you’re ever back here again you won’t get out. I don’t ever want to see you back here for any kind of violence like this.

That Was Shocking in 1969 to hear that from a man.

A doctor in authority really recognizing how dangerous that was. And I only found out later that it’s the most lethal form of abuse next to a gun, because women are so easy to kill with strangulation. So I was a single mom for seven years and I worked in [different] jobs. In those days those good – easy to get – you know not really good jobs including 40 hours a week. They had vacation, you got two weeks vacation; you had sick days. And I think about that now – our wages were much better in the 70s.

MZ:  Can you talk a little bit about that?

PR:  I think the attitude was that they could hire any woman for any job because all women were all alike. They weren’t all that bright. So a lot of times I would get a job and at 10:00 in the morning after starting at 8:30 I’d be done and I’d ask – what else can I do, because I’m bored.

MZ:  What kind of work?

PR:  Oh it was mostly bookkeeping kind of work. And I got asked about what kind of birth control I used. And when I would leave the job somebody would say – hey you know what they said about you after you left? They said you had great boobs. And so you would just learn – all these jobs are nothing – they’re not going to get you anywhere.

MZ:  Had you gone to college?

PR:  I never went to college and that was a stumbling block in many ways because there were so many jobs I couldn’t apply for because you had to have a degree. And so if you’re smart, you figure out what you can do. And I could get jobs very easily because when they’d ask, “Why should we give you this job?” It was easy: “Because I’m smart and I work hard.” Now that got me more jobs than I can tell you. And if you believe in yourself, they believe that about you. And you know it was that presence that my mother really gave me, and a few high school teachers.

I remarried at 25 or 26, I can’t remember now to an older man who is 23 years older than me. And honestly men my own age weren’t interested in dating me because I had a child and an older man was – “It’s only one kid – that’s OK.” And he taught me a lot about self-esteem other issues but because of his age there was a power imbalance in the relationship and eventually I left him. But during that time that I was married I became a dressmaker so I could be at home with my daughter and I’d always sewn as a kid and I always loved making doll clothes. So every day I would turn the television on while I was sewing and I’d watch Phil Donahue.

Phil Donahue Taught Me Everything I Needed to Know.  

He brought on Albert Speer to talk about Nazis. Of course I was interested in that and then he’d have Susan Brownmiller on, talking about rape. He would bring on people who had children by priests and even talk about the abuse of priests – abused by priests – altar boys – and he was Catholic with five kids.

MZ:  What was the era?

PR:  That would have been in the mid 70s. And about that time I would occasionally work temp jobs to pick up money to pay bills. One of those jobs turned into a permanent job, which I worked for a trust company. And every time a woman would get pregnant, I would get her spot because they would always quit. I loved it – this was in the mid 70s and I’m using a big mainframe computer and I got really good at it. I was watching other people get rich. I understood Wall Street because I was reading The Wall Street Journal every day and then somebody quit and I took their job and then that woman made coffee every day and I said – I’m not making coffee. And they said – well you have to. I said, “I just called the EEOC and they said I don’t have to.  It’s not in my job description. I don’t drink coffee. I don’t make it at home. I’m not making it here.”

The next thing I know, everybody’s over at the big bank and meeting with their lawyers and they found that I was right. So what did they do? They classified my job. The only people who weren’t officers had to make coffee. I was the only person that wasn’t an officer. And one of the women who was a secretary for the president of the Bank of the trust company said, “You know Pam, you make a really good man.” I said, “You know Doris, coming from you that’s a compliment.”

I Quit and I Joined NOW that Night.

MZ:  The National Organization for Women?

PR:  And I eventually became the chapter treasurer, then the state treasurer and then I became the state president and I then became a lobbyist for NOW. This is while I was married. So I had some economic relief. I was out there trying to earn a living doing it. But it was the best education you can imagine because I was their lobbyist so I was in Jeff City three days a week while my nine year old was home with her father who had adopted her. My second husband adopted her. And I learned a lot about parenting at that point too. About sort of neglecting your child for the greater good. And what does a child learn from that. My daughter is an airline captain now and I think that may be the benefit of having a feminist activist mom who wasn’t afraid to be in a position with mostly men. So I then worked on domestic violence because we just lost the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982 and I’d been down there during that campaign. It was horrible. It was a nightmare.

SZ:  Talk a little bit about the Equal Rights Amendment, being an activist and working for NOW.  What was that like?

PR:  We knew from our financial explanations that the insurance companies were really involved in that, because they didn’t want to lose their advantage that they had gender discrimination in insurance. So women paid for childbirth, they paid for their husband’s heart attack, because their rates were so much higher than men’s. And that was one of the key things and they said, well women live so much longer. That’s why their insurance is so much higher for life insurance when you bought it by the thousands. You know we did all of that. And they said, well, the thing that [women live] so much longer. We said, well they don’t want a third world, so it’s not genetic. It has nothing to do with genetics and this is a red herring.

And really in those days the Democrats were frequently Dixie-crats and they were very chauvinistic and they would ask me the most hideous questions. “Well what do you lesbians do at the party with the NOW dance and stuff?” I would say, “Well we don’t let guys like you watch, first of all, and secondly, I’m here to talk about the rights of lesbian mothers who have been horribly treated by judges who will rip the infant – the nursing infant – from the mother to give to the husband because they think that the mother is a lesbian. And I’ve had a phone calls from women who say, ‘How can I stop my milk, because the judge took my baby away?'” That’s what I came to talk to you about today.

How smart do you think that is? You have to come up with the comebacks to the incredibly rude and mean and awful statements that were made to us. “Oh Pam, I see you must be really conscious about your height.” I’d say, “My height – you’re talking about what?” “All you always wear flats.” “What are you doing looking at my legs? Excuse me. These are marble floors. I’m not going to be crippled with heels. And again you don’t vote my issues!”

You Shouldn’t Be Looking at My Legs.

No more conversation. These were Democrats from St. Louis County – labor guys. They never voted my issues – so it was a really uphill battle. There were so many men in the legislature and some of the women were, you know, not much better. But what I did find with women – Republican women senators – you could talk to them about domestic violence. And then when you went to talk to the black state reps and state senators about domestic violence they would have all these conversations and I’d say you know when I talk to that Republican woman about domestic violence she starts to nod. But when I talk to you about it you start talking about police violence.

And I would say, “Could you tell me what the difference is? Because nobody deserves it, do they.” Oh yeah. It was a really difficult conversation that you had to be ready for some logical answers back to them to make them stop arguing with you and think and that’s not so easy. So I once called a state rep named Glen Binger who said on the floor one day he wanted a measure that would outlaw gays teaching in the public university system. And he said, “I don’t want him in school – hell I don’t even want him on the face of the earth.” And I went on the floor and I called him out to go to the hallway and we had this argument in front of many lobbyists about what he said. I said, “You know your people shoved my people into ovens with statements like that. The first people they shoved in the ovens were the gay men. So just remember what you’re talking about here – you’re a brown shirt!”

I Wasn’t Allowed on the Floor for the Rest of the Season.

But a lot of people applauded when I was finished, so I really didn’t care. I didn’t need to be on that floor to be effective. As time went on I went to national NOW several times to ask for project money to do certain things in this area, usually about domestic violence. And they never sought to give us the money, because they didn’t have a lot of money at the time and also because we were Midwestern they figured we were just hopeless. Then Missouri ended up passing really great domestic violence legislation that was very helpful. And when Judy Goldsmith became president of NOW she put me on the national NOW PAC board. So I was in D.C. once a month for about four years, which was an incredible experience.

And what I learned was the strength and brilliance of some of those feminist women who had more guts and more brains and they were so confined by society that thing just kind of burst into the scene. And I would stay with the greatest – like I’ve joked about writing a book – Famous Feminists I’ve Slept With.  It wasn’t sexual, it was you sleep over at their house because NOW didn’t have the money to put us in hotels, so we would stay with Molly Yard and Ellie Smeal and Judy Goldsmith and all of the leadership and some of them would get up and make great breakfasts. So there are a lot of good stories there.

I got divorced in ‘83. I was living again as a single woman.  So seven years between the first and the second and seven more years before I ever got married again.  And I broke into management in ‘83 at work, because I had to go back and get a real job and earn my own money. I got a job in a marketing company. Before the days of MasterCard and Visa they used to have a thing for blue collar people where you had this catalog and you could buy a whole bedroom set of pillows – just everything for that bedroom or an entire toolset or a sewing machine. Very practical items; and then the finance company would take back the paper. It was a lot better than the payday loans are today. And then when they hired me and I was the first executive in this company, there was a lot of hostility about me being the executive when all the secretaries thought they should have been promoted.

Finding the Right Job 

MZ:  Because of your financial background?

PR:  I think mostly because of the leadership in NOW, they thought it was a good idea and because they were progressive. And then [they] moved to American Express, Diners Club and they started selling furs, which I was completely opposed to and diamonds from Harry Winston and all this craziness. And I got sent to New York one December because there was a big problem with some of the furs that were coming out of New York. I went out there and it was very strange to be the only woman on the street. The fur district in New York at that time was completely male dominated and the people who were there first were all mafia.

And so the catcalling on the street was unbelievable. And I would go into a restaurant in the fur district and be the only woman in that restaurant except for the servers. So it was really weird and isolating and I remember standing at Herald Square in a new pair of Ferragamo shoes that I got at Neiman Marcus – I was so happy to be in management. And there I am in a puddle in my new shoes thinking, “This is not glamorous. This is shit. How do I get out of here?”  I had a variety of corporate jobs and that really sucked for me.

I Had to Really Hide Who I Was.

And it was difficult. And then I started a company and it didn’t work out very well. I started a group of therapists. The only thing we dealt with was child sexual abuse and that was a whole education and some of the greatest therapists I’ve ever known were not traditionally trained, because nobody really talked about how to deal with incest survivors or the subject in general. And so I really learned so much about [what] your core is – you know your sexual identity and that’s like the most private thing about you. And so what they taught me was when you teach a child prepubescent child how to climax. What you’ve done is rewire that kid’s brain in such a way that they cannot marry intimacy and sexuality because to them sexuality is a drug because many times the abuser will tell that kid – you liked it too.

And it sets them up for drug abuse and prostitution and crazy sex and just horrible things. And so I worked a long time on child sexual abuse and I had been a survivor. A cousin in Wisconsin had been sexually inappropriate with me. And I finally found a therapist when I was 37 who helped me clear a lot of that. And so often we try to minimize [it by saying] “Well it wasn’t really touching.” Well actually, it was. And when you sit in “group” you realize it’s all the same thing – does [the] same damage – some is worse. Oh it wasn’t my father – my parents were loving and supportive, but he was 10 years older than me. He was a very exciting person , you know…blah blah blah. He did [it to] a lot of other cousins, I’ve learned. It’s something that I don’t consider unique. I used to talk about [how] feminists should be wearing armbands.

All Women Should Wear Armbands.

Sexual abuse, domestic violence, job discrimination, sexual harassment on the job. I mean I came to the women’s movement with so many of those shoes that it was the perfect place for me and I wasn’t there to fight really for myself because I felt like I was OK. I was fighting for my kid, for my weak sisters who couldn’t speak for themselves for a variety of reasons. Other women who were not capable. And I knew that I was in no way a typical teenage mom and I decided very early on I could only have as many children as I could personally support. And I was only doing one because that’s all I could really do.

I fought against mandatory joint custody and divorce. And now we’re sort of back again with the shared parenting, which Eagle Forum and I testified on the same panel. They called it the King Solomon Bill. It was cut the kid in half. We said we want to protect the women who have been the caregiver inside that marriage because she’s got to be the caregiver outside that marriage. He’s going to say he’s going to be more of a parent but that’s not really what’s going to happen. So one of the people that I fought at the time was Claire McCaskill. She was a state rep at the time and she was in favor of mandatory joint custody because she was at that time a divorced mom with kids. Well she married and she became prosecutor in Kansas City and he got caught – after they had three kids together – smoking pot on the gambling boat in Kansas City. So she probably doesn’t feel the same way about joint custody anymore. I haven’t asked her – because that might be kind of rude. 

Fighting Corporate America 

MZ:  Talk a little bit about Eagle Forum if you would. Who were you fighting in the ‘70s?

PR:  In some ways we were fighting corporate America because they kept projecting all this craziness on us, like women should be cleaning their houses, should buy all this stuff and wear these clothes etc. They had us pigeonholed so tightly and [to] sort of break out of that we would confront a lot of it with humor frequently. But I think the people that gave us the most trouble were the Eagle Forum family. They said they were about families, but really they were about those 15 percent of families that had kids at home, a homemaker and a dad who worked outside the home – which 15 percent even in the 70s was a small number. Most women were in the workforce and they didn’t have kids at home anymore. So Phyllis Schlafly was really the champion of white male privilege because at that time I felt like she was a lobbyist for white male privilege and she had supposedly – we always heard – seven live in servants at her giant mansion in Alton, IL. She said – “Well my husband wanted me to do this.” I guess he did. He got a lot of benefit out of the free labor.

MZ:   She had six children?

PR:   Yes, six kids and she was never home. She was out on the road and writing books and promoting them. She wanted all the other women to stay home take care of their kids, but she wasn’t doing it. And so it was all these fights about what women should do. Well, women wanted to feed their kids and have a place to live and not be abused at work or at home. And those were the things that they seemed to have the most problem with. Divorce is bad. Well domestic violence is worse. And so it was always kind of those crazy conversations about what should women do.

And it was almost always white men telling us what we should be doing. I think that we had some squabbles inside the NOW chapter about lesbian rights. And this was at the same time when we were doing clinic escorting to abortion providers. And so they’d be screaming at us, “You never do anything about lesbian rights.” This is when I was president of NOW and I said, “I didn’t see you out there at the clinic either.” So we all have our issues don’t we? And I’m not unsympathetic, I’m just not I’m not in it.

So you know this is a problem. We need to talk about it. But you can’t just keep telling me that I’m not doing anything. So what do you want me to do? Well they gave a speech to read at the Gay Pride Parade. And there were probably 50 people at that parade in the early ‘80s. I looked at it and I said – I can’t read this, this isn’t me. I can’t speak as a lesbian. That makes no sense. So I said – “Listen to what I’ve got to say. You know the people that I really applaud here today are the parents who have come here to help their kids who may or may not be accepted. Their partner may or may not be accepted by them but these parents do [accept them].” And then I said, “You know really and truly if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem – and that’s why I’m here today.”

I Want to Be Part of the Solution.

“I want to see people live a happy healthy life without being labeled and fired and having their children taken away from them while they’re nursing.” I mean just all these crazy things that went on. And then a very domineering lesbian mechanic activist came up and started doing this on my chest – pointing her finger in my chest and thumping me and saying, “You better do something about that Miss Universe contest that’s coming. I saw you down there at the mayor’s office talking about that.” And I was kind of like, “How would you know that, and how do you know what I said to them?” I said, “There’s a cop over there who’s watching us and if I just tell him that I’m got a problem with you, I’m pretty sure you’re the one who’s going to get in trouble because you’re the one that keeps thumping me. Now step back and don’t bully me. I’m not going to be bullied.” And because I was on a Domestic Violence Hotline and several women had called in to complain about her, I felt a lot of indignation at her.

And when I was 23 my first husband never gave any child support money to me. And I got kind of mad about it at some point watching Phil Donahue. I’m thinking the Catholic Church is paying child support so he could pay child support. And so my second husband and I went to Indianapolis and I found him and I went to see the prosecutor and he said, “I can’t get any back child support for you, but if he doesn’t pay in the future we can we can jail him.” So I went to see him. And he was in a little Radio Shack store working as manager. I said, “I just came from the prosecutor’s office and I want you to pay child support; if you don’t, you’re going to jail.”

And he pulled open a drawer, there’s a bunch of bullets in the drawer and he says , “Bitch, you don’t know how close you came to me shooting your face off.” And I reached over with my foot and I slammed the drawer closed and I said, “Well I don’t care what you were going to do. What you are going to do to pay my child support today?” And he wrote me a $200 check. And I walked out of there and thought, “Oh, OK, I get this.”

You Just Can’t Let Bullies Run Your Life.

And you know the next day I had some issues. It was pretty unsettling as you can imagine, but he never bothered me again. He followed me around for quite awhile after I left him. He was a dangerous person when he had come home from Vietnam. There were a lot of problems. As I got older and I went through a series of jobs I worked on political campaigns. My third husband – and I was his first wife, which was funny – he never had kids. So we started our married lives as thirty nine year old adults, a very different kind of marriage. Twenty-six years later we’re still married and you know reasonably happy most days.

Because of my work as a lobbyist I met a lot of lawyers and some of them were young women lawyers and they introduced me to Mike Wolf who was running for Attorney General and I started working for him as a fundraiser and that campaign – Mike said, “What do you want out of this campaign?” I said, “A nice husband.” I knew what I wanted. So Pat Deaton shows up and we eventually got married because of that campaign and he ran for Congress in 1990 and 1992 and I was his fundraiser and it gave me a whole new career, because now I could say, “Hey, I’ve raised this much money and win lose or draw I still don’t have a track record [that] includes money.”

People Always Want to Talk to a Fundraiser.

So I got a lot of jobs and I ended up working for Jim Shrewsbury who was a longtime Alderman in the St. Louis Hill’s neighborhood and he eventually ran citywide a few times and at some point when Francis Slay became mayor, Jim was the Senior Alderman and he became President to the Board of Aldermen and Jim hired me as his chief of staff. So for six years I was in City Hall. It was a great job for an activist. I crafted some legislation to provide a medical fund for battered women that would pay for things such as the glasses that got broken or dental repair or frequently women would leave home – they wouldn’t have the pharmaceuticals that they needed. So it was to pay them back.

So we set up this fund. Everybody loved it. It was really difficult because a lot of the women distrusted me in the domestic violence movement and I found that to be very bizarre because I’ve been involved in domestic violence for years and years. Before I was married I worked for Wightman and Palmer who were also OBGYN’s and who did high risk pregnancies and a lot of sterilizations, but they also had an abortion practice inside that business. And I built their practice and we became very good friends. We had fire-bombings in the West County office. We had a priest coming in and beating up our receptionists. I mean we had a horrible series of violence around that.

MZ:  Talk to me about what era that was.

PR:   That would have been in the mid ‘80s. Operation Rescue was very active. And they were out front of the doctor’s homes a lot. I got hate mail at home, postcards that my daughter would see saying things like – you lesbian bitch killing babies every day. Aren’t you proud of yourself? That’s the kind of mail I got. We were schooled by ATF Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco about what mail to open and what not to open and not touching the mail and trying to give it to them untouched. It didn’t scare me, it made me mad. I didn’t take them very seriously, kind of like I didn’t take my first husband very seriously. And he was you know really close to killing me twice. So I think in some ways people who have an agenda that they feel really strongly about don’t perceive the fear in the same way that other people do. I think that was my parent’s constant nagging me not to stand by while others are being hurt.

I Loved the Work at City Hall.

The workforce was pretty much 50/50 black and white and you formed relationships in both racial groups and very strong ones. And the conversation was much more nuanced. When elections came around that didn’t matter, you voted. They voted along racial lines. But the conversations inside the city hall were not like that. They were much more open and reasonable. And then Jim lost the election and fortunately it happened right before the Great Recession and I got a job in a bank. It was so boring – so boring. It was just dreadful. But you know it was health insurance, a regular paycheck. My husband does criminal defense so you don’t make a lot of money doing that. We were careful people and didn’t drive fancy cars or any of that kind of thing. So we’ve done fine.

There Used to Be More Freedom

I think a lot of people my age remember a time when kids had a lot more freedom in the world. The back door was open and you were out the door; or after school or during the summer, you were told when the streetlights come on you better get home. And our mothers would yell out the back window our name when dinner was ready; we could hear it and we got sent home. So there were always a lot of kids in the neighborhood – it was the baby boomers sprouting everywhere. And we lived in a Catholic neighborhood. So my father, being a Lutheran, he wasn’t very good about [it] – the Lutheran church kind of teaches you what’s wrong with the Catholic Church. So of course you know that plays out on the street.

But my oldest sister was a genius and taught herself to read at three. My oldest sister was the one whose father died in the Second World War. My mother was pregnant [at the time], so she never knew her father. And my father was always trying to get her to be more social instead of having her face in a book. So there was a lot of stress. And I think in many households in those times it wasn’t a divorce, it was the marriage and the re-mixed thing. You know the widow would marry a man and she had kids and they had kids together. So it was a blended family – it wasn’t about wartime death. And so there was some clashing there because my sister was arguing with my dad a lot.

When We Sat Down for Dinner We Talked About World Issues.

It wasn’t about sports and junk like that – it wasn’t what did you do with soccer today? That never came up.  It was more – what did you learn in history class today? Let’s talk about that and I don’t know that that’s correct because I think that teacher doesn’t have a fuller view. This would be my mother who was probably much brighter than all my teachers and she was fighting for my sister to have advanced chemistry and math in high school and four years of language. She knew what a college needed. My father ran for Alderman and there was a lot of corruption in Brentwood and there continues to be corruption in Brentwood – it’s not new. So you know we were not the typical…

MZ:  What about grandparents?

PR: My mother’s mother died when she was four and the only grandfather – my mother’s father – never remarried. So he was kind of the bachelor grandfather and he would go to Havana Cuba and come back and start telling the stories about stuff and then my father would say, “That’s enough!” Because he would start talking about the gambling casino or something like that and my father would go crazy. And then when he would leave, my mother would start to cry saying, “Well you know your grandfather is a nice man, but he was no father and what he said was inappropriate.” So you’re kind of like, “OK, we’re buying that.”

They were very moralistic in some ways – but in a positive way, I think. The kids that I grew up with I knew from the time I was four years old till we graduated from high school. In fact one of my closest friends from grade school I came home and told her about the sexual abuse I had experienced. And about five years ago she said you don’t remember but told me everything. And he did touch you. And this is how he touched you. And I was like, “Oh.”

So I find that growing up in that kind of a community where we all knew each other, we could run inside of other homes and ask for food if we were hungry. It was like a communal playground in some ways. We all had bikes and could ride a long way – we’d go to Maplewood and go to the swimming pool. We just had a lot of freedom as kids and we didn’t start socializing with the black kids that we went to school with until we were out of high school. And that became very meaningful to many of us because we knew them very well. We just didn’t know enough to eat lunch with them and they ate by themselves.

There Was Just a Lot of Self-segregation.

And I remember in grade school watching the principal take a pointer stick and beat one of the black male students who had eye problems. He probably couldn’t read and the principle beat him in front of us and my mother went to school and said you can’t do this to any kid and you certainly shouldn’t be doing it in front of the other kids. So she was a great example. Another issue that came up – we lived on Manchester because my mother had a catering business and mostly with her Jewish friends at Washington University. They were all very elegant affairs and the food was fabulous. Saturday morning we’d just jump up and see what mom brought home from the party and I remember as an adult going to somebody’s wedding – and saying “It’s going to be catered.”

MZ:  What about the dichotomy between religions between your mother and father?

PR:  Well my mother was raised with my grandfather and he took my mother and my newborn infant sister to his sister’s house and she was Methodist. There was no drinking no smoking, but my mother’s aunts and uncles on her mother’s side would take her on vacations with them – would spend a lot of time with her. They weren’t practicing Jews but they were very “Jewish”. You know – the food, the conversations and the arguments – you know the kind of Woody Allen conversation we all knew about. We had very wealthy Jewish relatives in St. Louis who had live in servants, spiral staircases and so we would go to the farm and see the cash poor ignorant farmers who were Lutherans and very narrow minded. And then on Christmas night we would go to the rich relatives here in St. Louis and it would be Merry Christmas – Happy Chanukah – Merry Christmas as people were coming in.

We as adults identified as Jews even though we were all raised in a Lutheran church. We’re like – No we’re not that – no we’re not doing that. We all claimed to be Jews and really feel that from our mother and I actually think my father – he left the Lutheran church. He didn’t become a Jew but he just said they’re just too narrow-minded. We would have black people in our home to eat dinner with us, which I think was also pretty unusual in those ‘50’s and early ‘60s when all the turmoil in the south was going on. My father was really negative about the outside agitators but what they showed us was the friendships that they had with black people.

So There Was That Mixed Message.

And what I took from that was that my father felt that he needed to judge each person individually – not white people – but that black people needed to be judged individually because there was so much racism. He wasn’t raised with black people. He was raised in Wisconsin with all white Lutherans just like him. I just think that we had a more unusual childhood. We had a lot of freedom. In high school I had a couple of male teachers. One was world history and the other one was economics. The economics teacher had been a Baptist minister. So he was a really interesting character but he was an excellent teacher and there weren’t many girls in the class but he never ever said anything that was inappropriate.

In the trigonometry class, the coach who was the math teacher said, “I don’t know why you girls are even in this class  – you can’t really do the work.” And one of the smartest math people in the class was right behind me – a woman – and he made life very difficult for us in that classroom. But those two male teachers really inspired a lot of confidence in their teaching ability. And I think that I was really drawn to them and was very appreciative even in high school which I think is kind of unusual because a lot of them were just so so – my mother used to say – they came from Cape Girardeau what do you expect? They weren’t from Washington University; she was kind of a snob about that.  As I got into politics and in corporate situations a lot of men helped me and they taught me so much.

They Had Power and I Didn’t.

But they saw that I was smart and that I was prettier. And I think I got attention because of my appearance and I felt like because I was disadvantaged for not having a college degree that I had to use what I had. I didn’t trade sex for a job or anything like that. But if somebody was going to be nice to me because they liked my looks I wasn’t going to say, “Hey I think you’re too interested in looks.” What can you do for me and what things can help me be a better leader? And they were good – some of them were labor leaders at the Legislature.  A few State Reps – Sue Shearr, the Sheila Lumpe – those early State Reps were extremely valuable to us because they would say to us, “You have what it takes – you can make it.  Now go down and talk to Bill Webster right now.”

They Were Really There for Me as a Lobbyist.

And then I went to National NOW. I would see these incredibly brilliant women making arguments that were much better than the arguments I heard at the legislature. Even in committee hearings where they were pretty good. These were much smarter women and they were also telling me, “You really have great leadership qualities.” That’s what I do with younger women now is to identify – that they understand, “You’re smarter than they are. You get better experience. You get a better understanding of all people, not just other white men. You see it from the bottom up.”

I think one of the reasons that I was successful at management in corporate America was because I started at the bottom and I knew what it would take to motivate women who were at the bottom of the wage scale and give them some hope and give them some advances in salary and advances in position. And a lot of times if they didn’t get what they wanted or if I had to fire them because they were consistently late, they would scream at me about what a bitch I was. And I would say, “You really disappointed me. You came in late five days in a row after I talked to you about it. And I mean that’s too many. I’m sorry we don’t operate that way. You’ve got to find another job because somebody else out here will show up on time and do their work and they deserve that job. You don’t right now.” And so you know you kind of get a thicker skin, but some of those women expected me to be their mother and nice to them.  They were being like children. So I think that was a learning curve for a lot of women.

MZ:  So your management style sort of adopted a combination of a lot of different – you had a lot of experience to go by.

PR:  Marcia Klein as a friend of mine who I’ve known for years she was a labor organizer and she just said, “Pam is there any place you haven’t worked?” I said, “Well it’s pretty hard.” I worked the auto industry, car dealerships; tire stores, plating companies down on South Broadway. I worked at Monsanto for temp jobs for months at a time. I worked a zillion jobs. And so it really gave me an understanding of all sorts of different management styles and what doesn’t work.

It Was a Huge Education.

So Jim Shrewsbury’s wife has a Ph.D. in curriculum. She’s very well educated. She said, “You know, Pam, you’re not very well schooled but you are very well educated and I think I identify with Eric Hoffer who is a writer who you know was a philosopher without formal education. And I went to a lot of conferences where I met famous writers. I mean so I’ve had incredible experiences as kind of a freelance activist. Just get your own education and use it. So NOW and Veteran Feminists – I feel like I’m still in the national feminist movement because of them and I know so many very famous and brilliant feminist thinkers and activists that it’s been a very fulfilling life in that regard.

MZ:  That’s where you are now?  Talk a little bit about that. So you haven’t given that up?

Still Active 

PR:   So you know oh my gosh no I still get active on local causes. I went to bat for a young mother who left her kids alone and a fire started and the kids were saved but she was charged with a felony. We raised money for her, got her out of jail with bond and I probably got about 50 people involved in helping her get past that. And it’s not the happy ending we all hoped. She did go to prison five years and lost her kids. So you kind of take your wins where you can. And with Veteran Feminists – I’m the Treasurer. Oh you were a banker. All right. You are a bookkeeper. All you can do this. Well you know yes, OK.

So the first year is pretty simple and I just had written you know I was an old bookkeeper so I just put it on paper right. Oh my God. The next year I called them and I said – I think we’re running out of money you guys got to do something and I planned in 2014 a big two day conference in St. Louis about – Veteran Feminists job is to honor feminist activists and also to record their history to not let that history get lost. So we have movies, we have this book, we do conferences – so I planned the one in St. Louis and it was about the labor movement and the women’s movement. How those two movements helped the other and what they did. And so it was great. We had a wonderful conference but keeping track of all of that raising all that money for that.

And then when I told them we’re about out of money, they did a big event in New York City at the same time. I’m like, “This paper isn’t going to work. I got thousands of dollars hundreds of checks coming and so [I had] to learn QuickBooks right away. It was the worst campaign I ever tried to do, because I cared so much about what was going to go on. So it was very successful. And we are planning another event in March to honor Southern Feminists at Duke University where a lot of our archives are. So it’s a fabulous experience in a later part my life.

MZ:  Is there anything you forgot?

PR:  I’m not very convinced that 50 years ago I would have survived, because there was no birth control. There was no safety against domestic violence. There was so little regard for women in general. If I had the same kind of, you know, entitlement I would have been hurt. I mean I can’t imagine having too many children. I mean it just sounds like such a nightmare. I can’t imagine that there were very many happy women 50 years ago, because I mean if you’re a pioneer wife you’re left in the middle of nowhere. He goes out to get groceries and three months later [when] he shows up, you’re crazy from the isolation.

I mean it’s hard to imagine a life for women – the gilded cage wouldn’t have been very good. The psychological damage that [they] could do to women and walk away from. I mean they were discarded – they kept the kids and threw out the wife. I mean murdering your wife wasn’t particularly a big problem. “Well she was sleeping with another man.” No proof of that. But you know there really wasn’t any protection for women in those days.

MZ:  But there existed a lot of women who fought back who championed women’s rights before 1900.

PR:  Oh sure.

MZ:  I can see you be one of those people. I can see you marching down Market Street.

Revived by the Women’s Movement 

PR:  Yeah, I can see the marching, but I’m not so sure I would have had the same kind of bravery that I had borne 50 years later, because you [didn’t have to pay] as big a penalty. I’ve paid a penalty, but I was revived by the women’s movement in terms of my ability to earn a living and have custody of my daughter and all sorts of things like that, so I can only see the cruelty of 50 years ago. I don’t think there was – I can’t imagine trading that life at all. And so I’m really happy when young feminist women thank me – which happened at the NOW conference, which was quite amazing, because they realized that we had to deal with the male and female. And guess where the good jobs were?

They know a lot of that was changed. They don’t really understand what it was like to be pregnant when you weren’t supposed to be. That it was a total panic. I had friends who had watched friends bleed to death at the college campus prior to legal abortion. I mean my sister gave a child up for adoption, which she didn’t want to. I mean that was just terrible behavior that went on when I was a young woman. So to be born 50 years before that is almost incomprehensible.

MZ:  Talk about the future, we have a few minutes.

PR:  I think we’ve been very successful because young women don’t always see how much progress we’ve made. In 1972 there was the lawsuit against Newsweek about the women who were never allowed to be writers. They were all researchers. They won that lawsuit 40 years ago. And a few years ago the same problem happened at Newsweek and they didn’t know anything about that lawsuit. So they did write a book together. We have to learn our history or we’re going to repeat it.