Veteran Feminists of America

FEMINIST of the MONTH - MAY 2010


I was born on December 31, 1944 in Cambridge Massachusetts of a "mixed" marriage (WASP mother and Irish Catholic father) in a "hurried" manner (my mother was quite pregnant, which I discovered in later years). I was an only child, but never felt oppressed by this.

My dad was in the Coast Guard and later worked a variety of jobs; my mother never worked outside the home. She was the book-intelligent person, he the people person. They were wildly mismatched, and although they stayed married until I was in college, I wish they hadn't. If there was violence in the marriage other than emotional, it was kept from me until my mother was in her 70's and 80's, and then only intimated. Both my parents were polio survivors with various degrees of impact from the disease. I myself had every vaccine that ever was.

My mother wanted me to attend a university and "be somebody." My dad wanted me to be a secretary or maybe a nurse or teacher so I would have "something to fall back on."

I was a voracious reader and an organizer; the Busy Beavers crafting club comes to mind. My rebellion began in 1964 at Brandeis University with the Northern Student Movement and spread to Boston University, where I organized a union of graduate students.

As a child I'd spent summers in Maine. When I was seven I told my mother I was going to move there. She suggested I wait until I grew up. So in 1968, after four years at Brandeis (where I learned to think) and Boston University (where I learned again to memorize), with my marine biology degree in hand I moved to Portland.

I got a job teaching marine biology at Southern Maine Technical College "because they couldn't find a man to teach it," I was told. School had already started and they were desperate. I was part-time and teaching more than the regular faculty, but was paid only $129 a week. The men all worked full time and were no doubt paid substantially more. I was one of three women faculty in the school and there were eleven women students. After a year they didn't renew my contract, I'm convinced, because I was a troublemaker. For example, there was a very tight dress code at the school. Men's hair couldn't be any longer than the middle of their ears, that kind of stuff. Officials came into my classroom one day and took everybody out except for the women and one man. The students were told they couldn't come back to class until they got haircuts, so they went into the men's room and trimmed each other's hair. There and then I gave the students a lesson in civil liberties, and sent them to the Maine Civil Liberties Union. The subsequent lawsuit broke the dress code at SMTC.

In the fall of 1970 I became the swimming director at the YWCA in Portland. For nine years I taught hundreds of children and adults to swim until I became bored and discouraged by the low pay. When I started college I'd been a math major, and I've always been fascinated by math. I talked the Y into letting me help do a cost analysis of the agency and taught myself social service management in the process. They sent me to a very good training for staff with executive potential, which was helpful in many ways.


In 1971 I was an activist looking for a movement. On November 13
Wilma Scott Heide, newly elected president of NOW, spoke at the then University of Maine at Portland/Gorham. My life has never been the same. Her inspirational and somewhat foreign words and ideas have stayed with me.

NY lawyer Brenda Feigen w. hand raised arguing about candidate support while MS editor Gloria Steinem (L), NOW Pres. Wilma Scott Heide (C) & feminist/author Betty Freidan (2R) look on, during meeting of Caucus's National Policy Council. In this photo: Gloria Steinam, Brenda Feigen, Wilma Scott Heide, Betty Friedan. Photo: Leonard McCombe
June 01, 1972

The next day we had a meeting of people who were interested in starting the first Maine chapter of NOW. We had the ten people required. I volunteered to be treasurer, and for 16 years I was in a
NOW office-as State Coordinator for three years, then running Maine NOW out of my dining room. In 1976 I was elected to the national board.

At a women's conference at the University of Maine in Bangor in 1974 or '75 we refused to allow male reporters to attend, which created quite a stir in the press (there was then only one woman reporter in the state). At the first session a woman in the audience stood up and said, "You know, there is a real problem in Maine. When women are hurt and they have to flee their homes there is no place for them to go. So if you're willing to take somebody into your home in those circumstances, sign here." And so I signed and I sort-of feel like that was my signature into the battered women's movement.

In 1983 I was elected Vice President Executive of NOW and moved to Washington in January 1984. I hated Washington--it was unbearably hot and way too big--and to give up the ocean for any amount of time was difficult. On a positive note I was able to work with Ellie Smeal, who has the most incredible insights and political mind of anyone I've been around. For domestic violence-related concepts, Phyllis Frank later was my mentor. I was reelected in a rancorous election in 1985 and served until 1987. I left Washington in 1989.

During those five years in D.C. I worked my butt off, four years with NOW and one as the Deputy Director of the
Human Rights Campaign Fund, a political action committee I cofounded in 1980 to lobby for gay and lesbian rights. I worked 80 hours a week and was exhausted. I had disengaged from the Family Crisis Shelter in order to give the directors who followed me full reign, but on my return to Maine I was asked to come onto the board of directors. I was on the verge of applying, when the agency director resigned, and I applied again once again to be Executive Director. So began my second tenure at Family Crisis Services in 1990.

John Lewis, U.S. Representative from Georgia’s 5th District, who once marched his heart out with Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, and who was viciously beaten by police (left) for doing so, was once again victimized last week. On his way into the Capitol, Tea Party members demonstrating against the soon-to-be-voted on health care bill yelled, “Kill the bill, nigger.”

I returned to what was clearly my life's work, and frequently took the words of
Representative John Lewis to heart. Clearly now, it was "time to get in the way" of those who would oppress victims of violence. Often called "one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced," John Lewis has dedicated his life to protecting human rights securing civil liberties, and building what he calls "The Beloved Community" in America. His dedication to the highest ethical standards and moral principles has won him the admiration of many of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the United States Congress.

In March 1998 I was inducted into the Maine Women's Hall of Fame for my work in the battered women's, general feminist and lesbian/gay rights movements. In a bit of clairvoyance, I wrote 20 years ago "The convergence of the advances in reproductive technology and the emerging conservative consensus on the Supreme Court may soon bear restrictive and tragic consequences for American women."

In my life as a feminist, whether talking about the
Equal Rights Amendment, reproductive rights or domestic violence, people always knew where I stood, and I never played games with anybody. It hasn't always been easy. I have always felt that if we were going to get to where we needed to go, we needed men with us. I think it is important for people to see both faces; those who have been harmed by this crime, and those of us who have been fortunate enough to not have such a harsh experience. I have been able to say to men, "I know you believe this is wrong. I know you want to help. I know you're terrified that you're going to say the wrong thing and upset someone. So tell me what the law ought to say in order to do what we want. But let's do this together." We need men with us, not to bolster us, but to stand beside us and to use their power to get this work done.

My work over the last decade, whether with the Performance Council of the Courts, the Justice Assistance Council, the Maine Commission on Domestic Abuse, the Homicide Review Panel or the Maine Criminal Justice Academy Board of Trustees,
has been building bridges between the domestic violence movement and those with the power to make change for victims and survivors of violence. One of my proudest moments was sitting in the gallery at the Governor's State of the State in 2000 with First Lady Mary Herman, and hearing Governor Angus King declare violence against women and children Maine's Public Enemy Number One - and knowing I had been a part of the movement that made that declaration possible.

New York: American Feminist leaders hold a press conference 7/15 to tell what "really happened" at the International Women's Year Tribune in Mexico City. Betty Friedan (2nd left), founder of the National Organization for Women said the "women of the world did unite" but the union was not accomplished until the Tribune overcame an organized plan to frustrate their means of communication. Other leaders who spoke at the news conference are; Dorothy Haener (L), of the United Auto Workers; Carole DeSaram (3rd left), Pres. of N. Y. Chapter of NOW.; and Wilma Scott Heide, (R), director of NOW. advisory council

And so we have grown from a $75,000 budget and five staff people to a $1.4 million budget, 30 staff people, three outreach offices, a residence, an education and prevention initiative and myriad programs for elders, people with disabilities, incarcerated women and new Americans.

The greatest challenge has been to maintain a cohesive agency in seven different locations, and to find an effective structure that can support so many people doing such intense work. My main focus remains supporting the mission of the agency: providing programs that focus on individual advocacy for battered women and their children, institutional change to assign responsibility for battering to the perpetrators, and community education on the abuse of women.

I have also been privileged for the last two years to be the President of the
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. I see my role as a consistent, visible face and voice in the community for the Family Crisis Services. I'm the lead fundraiser and the lead money manager and the one who makes certain that we do what we say we're going to do with the money we raise. And I'm a dreamer for the agency.

Family Crisis Services has been the constant thread in my life now for more than 30 years. I was born to do this work and I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity. I am still working as Executive Director of the Portland - based agency. In the last six months I have managed to purchase a new and beautiful six-bedroom emergency shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence. Purchase price was $526,000 and we are within $60,000 of paying for it. We continue our groundbreaking work.

I just turned 65--although I am not sure how that happened. My new left knee is one year old and doing fine - as am I, despite a multiple sclerosis diagnosis nearly 20 years ago. I'm president of the
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. My partner, Lyn Carter, and I were desperately upset when Maine voters denied our right to a wedding in 2010, but we persist. Lyn has two wonderful daughters and we have three grandchildren.

In the great drama and occasional comedy that has been and is feminism in America sometimes I've had bit parts, and sometimes I've been one of the lead players. My entire adult life has been a tablet on which NOW and domestic abuse has left its mark. The experience has been sometimes joyful, sometimes painful-but never ever dull.

In my view, one of the great historical movements of our time is and has been what each of us as activists has chosen to make it. Yes, the world has assaulted us with its own agenda, but when we have been faithful to our vision of the world, the promise that is truly in the ideals of feminism--if not always the practice--we have succeeded. And ultimately we will triumph.

Please send your comments to and

Back to Table of Contents

Comments to Jacqui Ceballos:

Back to VFA Fabulous Feminists Table of Contents