Veteran Feminists of America

Jane and Dennis Blanchard, Feminist Couple

Dennis and Jane were born in Connecticut; he in 1947 and she in 1950. Dennis was the first son of Maureen Murray Blanchard, a British veteran war nurse who came to the states to marry "Sergeant Blanchard" after WWII. Maureen was a strong feminist influence for Dennis, teaching him the importance of equality and respect for women.

Jane's Story

Mine was a parochial upbringing. My neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut, was working poor, predominately Catholic, and French Canadian. I did not speak English until I started school. A shy child, taught by nuns to be submissive and respectful of the Catholic teachings, I did not start questioning authority and my beliefs until I was ten years old. Because of my inquiring nature, I was called the "inquisitive quackerbox" in high school and considered a nerd. Not wanting to be dependent on anyone, I started working the day I turned 16 years old and paid the last two year's tuition to South Catholic High School.

My mother worked piece work in a factory. Though my parents sheltered me and my younger sister from "adult" burdens and topics; I recall my mother's speaking about pay inequality: she made less money than the men who did the same work as she. At the time, I was fourteen years old and did not understand how universal this problem was for women; nor did I care. The extent of my tribe's political discussions centered around the War in Vietnam, Civil Rights, and taxes.

I was the first child in my extended working-class family to attend college. Since I shrugged the traditional female careers of nursing or teaching, my father questioned why I wanted to go to college only to "learn to change diapers." I did not know how to verbalize to him my desire for independence and freedom or my need for fulfillment other than motherhood. Determined and without financial assistance or aid from my family, I worked and studied, graduating three-and-a-half years later from the University of Connecticut with a BA in Spanish and French.

Following graduation, I left for Spain with a hundred dollars and determination to live on the economy and practice Spanish. Two days after my arrival, I was working as a tour guide in Madrid. There I saw first hand the effects of machismo and the confines of living in a culture that did not respect women as equals. My Spanish female coworkers could only work as a tour guide if they were unmarried. I did not realize at the time that the US also had such limitations: until the late 1960s married women were not allowed to be airline stewardess. Additionally, though this was 1971, I was unaware that in the States, women were earning 66% of what men were earning or that women still needed permission from their father or spouse to apply for a charge card or checking account. No one in my circles was talking about this: they perceived the new women's movement as militant and felt removed from the cause; but, I was starting to take interest.

I returned home in January 1972. With the first issue of MS Magazine, I found the words I needed to express my angst and a whole new world of possibilities. How could I have been so sheltered during the sixties not to have been exposed to Feminism? Equal rights for women, pay equality, Title IX, class ceiling, sexism, and patriarchy-finally I had the words to express my discontent. With each edition of MS Magazine and each "click" moment, I began to see the world with feminist eyes. It was like taking blinders off. For the first time I was seeing the disparity in the way men and women were treated, injustices to women based solely on sex, and the wrongness of social mores that promoted this inequality. Though my way of viewing the world shifted, I did not see myself as a feminist, nor call myself a "women's libber." I continued to see myself as an independent and determined woman, capable of achieving whatever I wanted, if I tried hard enough.

In 1974, having found my equal and partner, Dennis and I married. In the recession of 1975, we moved to Winchendon, Massachusetts, and lived in a tent while we built a log cabin; we were off the grid for several years. Too consumed with surviving, neither of us was political. Eventually we bought a farm and found work. In 1978, Dennis' parents moved in with us, I joined the National Organization for Women, and my mother-in-law and I marched in Washington, DC, in support of the ratification of the ERA. I started writing letters to Congress, but my involvement with the Feminist Movement was sporadic .I paid my dues and rallied when necessary, but left the leadership and activism to others.

In 1982, I filed a suit with the EEOC against my employer (Kollsman, Inc. in Merrimack NH) for its failure to promote women to leadership positions. At that time, women could only aspire to supervisory levels (and only over women). In 1983, because of the stress from continuing to work in a now unfriendly environment, I went into premature labor and dropped the suit. The company was not fined, but it did eventually change its policy toward promotions for women.

With our first child, Tom, born at 29-weeks gestation and weighing only three pounds, nine ounces, my energies shifted to caring for our tiny, but healthy, son. The following year our daughter, Áine arrived. Dennis and I were the quintessential models of feminist parents - sharing equally in parental and household tasks. We raised our children to be independent thinkers and to treat others as equals. During their formative years, Dennis and I continued to work full time, started an Amateur Radio business, and were coaches for various youth academic and athletic programs. I was on the leadership PTA team. I introduced Project Respect into the elementary schools to promote respect and equality. Since my time was limited, my political involvement was restricted to letter writing, though, in 1989, my mother-in-law and I again returned to Washington, DC, to March for Women's Lives. In 1995, my daughter and I rallied for funding for the Violence Against Women Act. In 1996, I was honored with the New Hampshire Excellence in Education Volunteer of the Year Award.

In 2003, I moved to Sarasota Florida and Dennis joined me after retiring in 2004. That year, we both Marched for Women's Lives in Washington, DC. Free from owning a business and childrearing, we become involved in "doing our part" for women. I started to see myself as a "feminist," not merely a vocal independent woman who cared about the plight of women. We both joined the local NOW chapter and took on leadership positions at both the local and state levels. I become vocal, speaking at rallies, marching, lobbying, and writing letters to the editor. I was one of the founding officers of the Florida NOW Education Fund and was instrumental in developing its website, which I maintained until 2010. I published a weekly feminist calendar, NOW Happenings, and blogged about matters that concern women. As a commissioner on the Sarasota Commission on the Status for Women, I co-started the Human Trafficking Awareness Coalition in Sarasota County and maintained the HTAC website. From 2007 to 2010, I hosted a weekly radio program, Women Matters on the WSLR 96.5 FM in Sarasota, FL.

In September and October 2011, Dennis and I walked five hundred miles on the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route across northern Spain. As I walked, I talked with female pilgrims from countries around the world. Subsequently, I wrote the book
Women of the Way: Embracing the Camino. In it, I describe my adventures and the conversations I had with these women. It is a story of sisterhood, camaraderie, and lessons learned.

Now in our sixth generation, Dennis and I continue to be vigilant and not tolerate injustice towards women, to work towards improving the status of women, and to teach younger people about social justice and equality for all. Our feminist point of view is ingrained. We will continue to take steps that lead to equality, to do our share in this fight for women. These two feminists keep marching on.

Dennis' Story

My feminist roots are genetic. My mother raised three boys to be aware of our good fortune, being born as boys. I don't know if the message really sunk in with my brothers, but it did with me. My mother was the strength in our home, the nurturer, provider and guide that made me who I am. Mom had a fiery Irish temper and never backed down from a fight. From her arrival in the United States, she set herself apart as a feminist, even though the term was not yet popular.

My father suffered from maladies incurred as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division during World War II. He was employed full time, but missed work often due to health problems. My mother was a registered nurse and worked to provide sufficient income to maintain our household.

I was born extremely premature. In1947, the American medical procedure was to put preemies in a very high-oxygen content atmosphere, which caused blindness. In Europe, they had already found that they could achieve better survival rates and avoid blindness with lower oxygen rates. My mother, having trained as a nurse in Ireland, was aware of the risk of using too much oxygen. Since she could not convince the doctor who delivered me nor the hospital staff not to put me in a high-oxygen content incubator, she put on her clothes, grabbed me and took me home. I survived, and my vision is normal. I grew up with this lesson that I could see because of my mother's fighting the system. It was apparent to me early on that a woman could make things happen, but she usually had to fight to make it happen.

Over the years I've been involved in many causes to further advance the rights of women. I've never been as flamboyant about it as my mother, but I think I've been able to make a difference in some small ways.

I've always watched for subtle inequities in the work place. As a successful electrical engineer who designed communications products, such as telephone modems, I worked with other engineers and technicians. Female electrical engineers in the 80's were uncommon and I felt fortunate to work for a progressive company that actively sought to hire them.

On one occasion, my manager asked me to take on a calculus-intensive project. I loved the challenge but realized that a recently hire Cornell graduate would do a much better job than I. I convinced the manager that, as much as I relished the work, she was a better candidate for the job. That judgment was correct: she took on the work and did a much better job than I would have. This ultimately benefited the company, and her career. It may have been one small victory for women, but I'm convinced that is how the battle is won.

Since retiring to Florida, I have been involved in the National Organization For Women (NOW) as a local chapter officer and web master and at the statewide level as State Secretary. Of course, that meant taking part in protests, activist gatherings and other grass-root activities. I feel that perhaps my most effective campaigns have been writing campaigns. Letters-to-the-Editor and blogging seem to be where the power is these days.

When I reveal that I am a feminist the response is either amazement or puzzlement. How can a man be a feminist? I then explain that feminism isn't about being a female but believing that men and women are equals. I think the best gauge to determine equality is the pay gap.

A few years ago I was a guest on Jane's radio show, along with a few other male "feminists." We all agree that without men participating as feminists the movement will never succeed. Men, as allies, are a necessary component to achieving equality for all. This should be obvious, but I think it is sometimes overlooked.

I'm always looking for ways to promote the feminist movement. I recently published a book about my hike of the Appalachian Trail (and surviving a six-artery heart bypass in the middle of it!) and I managed to get a few plugs in there for feminism as well. I'm convinced, when it comes to activities such as long-distance hiking, women are far more capable than men. They control their weight loss better, they carry more weight for their body size, and they're tough. I make those points in the book. I also mention the feminists I meet along the way.

I firmly believe that small acts, such as a letter to the editor, a mention in a book, or comments on a talk-radio show are what will ultimately achieve equality. Big victories are rare and often don't last.

As I progress in my years, I'm hopeful that a new generation of feminists will take up the gauntlet and finally achieve gender equity. I think when both men and women are paid equally we will know have reached that point.

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Comments: Jacqui Ceballos