THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“The Work I Did Early, It Just Gave Me A Feminist Lens“
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Board, January 2019
BL: My name is Barbara Laur. One of the things you asked was whether I had another name that was important and actually during the time I was most active my name was Barbara Cameron.
MJC: That’s important for historians to know. Thank you. Can you talk about your early life and your background before you got involved in the women’s movement?
BL: I grew up on a farm in northwest Missouri. I had nothing about activism or politics in my background. I did know what parties my parents belonged to or had an affinity for – and my grandparents. But we didn’t talk about politics much. They weren’t activists. They were active in the community, helping people and serving on boards and things like that. But they weren’t active in any kind of issue oriented way.
We just didn’t talk much about politics or even issues of the day. We were just kind of living our lives in northwest Missouri. I almost went to a one-room schoolhouse, which was right across the road, where my dad had gone to school but that school consolidated into a small town school. The first year I went to school, there were 50 in my high school – all grades. I loved school and did well at it. It was very small class. I was actually in the first year of the baby boom generation.
There Were 20 People in My Class in a High-School of 50.
There were 20 in my class and nine in each of the classes around because we were the year that everybody came home and started having kids. So we had a good class. I had some great friends in high school and I loved school. I was good at it. In a small school everybody has to do everything – or the majority of people do. I was better at some things than others. I was in the band and the chorus and in the school plays. Everybody in the class had to be in the play. And I played sports. I did play basketball – I wasn’t very good. But you needed that second team and I got to play. We were either very far ahead or very far behind and then helping scrimmage all the rest of times.
I always thought that I would go to college and I always thought I would work full time, which is interesting because my mom was a full time homemaker. I think she had mixed feelings about not finishing college herself. She had quit college to get married to my dad when he came home from the war. She worked a little when I was growing up but she had plenty of work to do as a homemaker on the farm with four children. When I was younger we had a ringer washer and hung clothes on a line. There were no dishwashers so everything you did around the house was more effort. So there was all that and there were four of us kids. But she did work periodically. She worked a little as a substitute teacher. She’d gone back to school a little bit and she worked a little bit. There was a local nursery not far from us where she worked in the spring with plants. So she did a little bit of that but mainly the work that she did was on the farm.
MJC: A lot of work to do.
A Nurse – A Librarian – A Teacher
BL: Yes exactly. Helping us all grow up. But I always for some reason, I think maybe it was that feeling I had with her, that [she had] some disappointment at not having the opportunity to work, to make her own money – that was something that I would always do. I think I was part of the generation of women that were going to mostly work. So when I was trying to decide where to go to college I chose the local state college, it was close by – Northwest Missouri State College. And I thought there were three career options I had. Those were nurse, librarian and teacher.
MJC: Sounds right.
BL: That was about it. I didn’t even know about the jobs I’ve had in most of my life. I didn’t even know they existed. I had fainted once when I was getting a shot at school so I figured I’d better not be a nurse – I couldn’t stand the thought of blood. A librarian sounded interesting, I loved to read but it sounded a little dull. So I decided I would be a teacher and I liked music, and math and English were my favorite courses. I started out as an English major and switched to music. I went to school at Northwest Missouri State – this was a time of activism. This was 1964 to 1968 but there wasn’t much happening in Northwest Missouri State College.
The year before I came there was a demonstration about food on campus – how bad it was, people wanted improvements in it. That was kind of the extent of it. I don’t remember anything going on at all. I might just not have been connected to it, but I don’t remember any activism when I was that age. I met my first husband when I was a junior in college and I got married right out of college.
I remember at the time not being sure about getting married that young but it was something that people did. In fact one of the stories I remember from college is that the dean of women came to give us a talk – to the girls in my dorm and she said, “I know you’re all here to get a husband but you should also be serious about getting an education.” On the one hand it was a good message to care about your education, but I didn’t relate to that at all actually at the time.
I Didn’t Think I Came to College to Get a Husband.
But again that was more of the thinking at the time and I think she was trying to do a good thing. I remembered that comment for many years. It was not a hotbed of activism there in Northwest Missouri. I got married right out of college and I did become a music teacher – the vocal music teacher for seven years. I moved around because of my husband’s work so I taught in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Nebraska and I only remember one thing. Actually the Vietnam War was going on at that time and I do remember – we lived in North Manchester, Indiana and my husband was a teacher there at the time at Manchester College. There was anti-war activism there. I wasn’t involved in it, but it was going on and I was in a consciousness-raising group when I was in North Manchester too.
I don’t remember much about it. I remember just one thing about it. There was a woman in the group who had children and she said she loved her children and she was certainly glad to have them, but if she had to do it again she might not have had children. And for me – that was like – I never heard anyone say something like that out loud. One – who wouldn’t want to have children and then who would think later maybe they didn’t want to have them? It just wasn’t something I ever heard a woman say. It really stuck with me and it’s the single thing I remember from that group. I ended up myself not having children and I think that part of it was that feeling that it was a choice that we could make – not something that you had to do.
MJC: That’s interesting.
BL: I think that’s the kind of thing that happened in those consciousness-raising groups. My last teaching job was in Nebraska. My teaching career was just a bad choice of a career I think.
MJC: What level did you teach? You were in Music.
BL: One of the problems with music is that you teach multiple grades. I taught K through sixth a couple of times and I taught seventh through twelfth a couple times. It’s hard to teach that range. That’s a big range of development. I appreciate special teachers who are able to cover it because you literally have with K-6, you have little kids who have no control whatsoever, just learning to be social and learning to have some kind of order. And then at the other end you have kids just approaching junior high. The whole junior high period was a hard period for me just in general to work with kids that age. I have a lot of appreciation for people who do – it wasn’t a good fit for me.
I heard about – from my husband, actually – about a doctoral program at the University of Nebraska, in Adult Education and I could go there; I could do that. By this time I had a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Music Education. But you go into Adult Education without going back and getting another Master’s and it’s still education, which seemed like a good fit. So I decided to go back and get a degree in Adult Education and I did. I did all the coursework. I took my comprehensives at the University of Nebraska. It was wonderful to be back in school. I made new friends – I got confidence back that I’d lost when I was teaching, which wasn’t a very good fit.
Lincoln, Nebraska – A Hotbed of Feminism
And toward the end of my time there I took a job at the Lincoln Nebraska YWCA and that’s where I really started getting involved in the women’s movement. Even at the University of Nebraska there were some very active feminists at the University but I didn’t have a connection with them when I was there. But the Y was becoming – shortly after I came in – a new director came who had a more feminist orientation – younger – kind of that old style YWCA director was retiring and this new person came in who turned out to provide great leadership for the Y.
The Y became very active in a lot of ways to help a lot of innovative programming and also a lot of programming that was more for contemporary women. So it was great. And in Lincoln, also a hotbed of feminism in other ways, there was a great State Commission on Women. There was a great local Commission on Women and there was a statewide group called the Nebraska Coalition for Women, which was really a very effective activist group that was active all across the state of Nebraska. I was on the local Women’s Commission for about a year just before I left Lincoln but I also got very involved in the Nebraska Coalition for Women. And so most of my activism – I did some things after leaving Lincoln, but this is the period I know that we’re looking at in terms of history. And so really most of my activism was at the Y and through the Nebraska Coalition for Women.
MJC: Talk about your life after that. Other women’s rights issues and how they intersect and how your life might have changed.
BL: That whole period changed my whole life in virtually every way. I got divorced. I met my second husband in Lincoln, Nebraska and whom I’m still married to who’s from another generation of men who didn’t have as much baggage. It’s been a much better fit for me. It changed my work, which was mostly – in the future – was all women associated with women. I work mostly in women serving organizations. I stayed in the nonprofit world. But I work mainly in women’s serving organizations. So that was cool and I did that in three different places. I worked in those and mostly with all women or mostly women, which was something I did at the Y. The Y had one male employee, the janitor, and everybody else were women.
MJC: And the board too right?
BL: The board yes. I don’t know if it held to that or not do you know? Still today?
MJC: The board I just left.
BL: All right. Yes, that was a unique thing and there weren’t really any other nonprofits that I know that held to that.
MJC: What issues were of greatest concern to you in that period and then evolving?
Everything is a Feminist Issue
BL: I got very involved in the issues around women and weight and eating. And that happened at the Y, but it was interesting. I was getting involved in feminism and thinking of myself as a feminist. The Lincoln Library was right next door to the YWCA. I went over there one day and there is this book called Fat Is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach. And I just laughed. I thought – my God is everything a feminist issue?
BL: I took the book out and it turned out to be a book that really changed my life – behavior – relationships with my mother. But also it was something of interest to the new director of the Y. She and I ended up teaching a lot of classes based on Fat Is a Feminist Issue. And it was really fun. We did it for a few years and then we handed it off to someone else. It was good. We did another thing at the Y. We had helped to organize a fashion event that celebrated women of different sizes and abilities. You know, women of color, different kinds of clothing choices you could make. Buying things thrift or handmade, all these different kinds of things. It was interesting. It was an event that I think didn’t work real well as theater – we didn’t do it like it was on a stage – it moved all throughout the Y, but it was cool. It started out with the presentation with a couple of women talking about women and body image.
MJC: Sounds like it could be a contemporary program.
BL: Yes. We’re still working on these issues. But that book really – you think of all the books that you might read – feminist books – and that’s the one that made the most difference to me. It sort of changed my life. Choice was a big issue always in women’s groups. I actually did a lot of work around gay and lesbian rights, which I think flowed through the women’s movement. It was part of inside organizations and outside. In 1979 Lincoln elected a very progressive city council and they had passed a gay and lesbian rights initiative on the council level.
MJC: Do you remember what year that was?
BL: That was 1979.
MJC: That’s early.
BL: Yes. But there was a backlash against it and there was an initiative to put it to a vote. I did work on that also. There were a lot of problems with the way the campaign was put together. It was a great group of people working on it of course but it went down – 76 to 24 percent. That was a lesson for me. I didn’t know enough about organizing to know what was wrong with the campaign. I thought about it since then, but I think it was a lesson to me in prejudice. I just had no idea that it would be like that. We had this great group of people working together – we had religious people – it was a wonderful group and a great effort. And I was so shocked when it lost so badly and it was a message to me.
MJC: Do you think it helped the right get organized in Nebraska?
BL: It might have. There was actually a local man who was just terribly anti-gay named Paul Cameron. He and I had the same [name]. I actually had a bunch of friends who did a little piece for me – a testimonial that said that I was in no way related to this person.
MJC: That’s amazing.
BL: Just as a joke. He was awful and he was there and I don’t know.
Nebraska is an Interesting State Politically.
Because you never know quite what Nebraskans are going to do or think. The other thing on the whole gay and lesbian rights issue, was inside organizations. One of the things I remember from Nebraska Coalition for Women – there was a controversy – well it was and it wasn’t. There was a debate about whether we should have our annual conference, if we should have a panel or some kind of program that was specifically about homosexuality. One idea was to include it on a lifestyle panel or have more of a separate thrust for it. And that was a discussion within – I don’t remember what we ended up deciding actually, but it was quite a big discussion both with the local people who were organizing it and people statewide – that kind of thing.
Nebraska is a conservative state – as you know. My brother in law is a Minister in downstate Nebraska for some time and he tells a story about when my husband Mike (Laur) went to work in the Clinton White House – he was out in Nebraska somewhere and he said in his sermon – he didn’t know what people would think about it – but he was very proud of his brother who had just become part of the Clinton White House. And after the service a couple of women came up to him and just kind of whispered, “I’m a Democrat too.” So that’s what we were talking about in terms of Nebraska. The women who had organized across the state, which were kind of the generation ahead of me, were anxious about the gay issue. They had worked hard to build this network of women that were pretty feminist and pretty progressive. This was an issue that they were afraid would be more difficult for women.
MJC: And more so than the abortion issue.
BL: Yes indeed. Yes it’s true. That was an issue that ran through that organization.
MJC: So what did that Coalition work on?
BL: They did some great work on financial issues and went up against the banking industry and won on some issues giving women more financial rights. They worked on just a range of issues affecting women.
MJC: Were they actively working the legislature?
BL: Yes they definitely were. They had a program that had been developed by this earlier generation. One of them particularly – Rose Meile developed an “Adopt a Senator” program. Every senator, and Nebraska is a unicameral so we have one house, but every senator had one woman, at least, [who] was an advocate for him for the agenda, which was great. It was great. And they coordinated closely with the State Commission, which also was pushing certain legislation. So it was a really good time for getting things done.
MJC: And then you went from Nebraska to Iowa?
Young Women’s Resource Center in Des Moines
BL: Then I went to Iowa. I didn’t work for a little while and then I wound up not too long after that as Executive Director of the Young Women’s Resource Center in Des Moines. In contrast to the Y, because the Y is a 100-year-old organization and the Young Women’s Resource Center was 10 years old and founded by local feminists.
MJC: So it started out with the feminist background, which was excellent?
BL: Yes and they had their central program. It was actually a counseling program for young women that was not family counseling. There was just a feeling that a lot goes on in the family. It’s not always best to have your family involved and that young women needed separate place so that they could talk to someone.
MJC: How was it financed?
BL: The usual ways – individual donors – foundations – a few corporations. We got some state money close to the time that I left for a teen pregnancy prevention program actually. That’s one of the things I’m really proud of. It was called “It Takes Two”. The emphasis was on both men and women being part of these kinds of actions and decisions. It had a male / female co- facilitation. After I left it got some federal money as well and became a nationally known model program. So that’s kind of cool.
MJC: Does it still exist?
BL: Oh yes. It’s still around. It’s interesting – the Lincoln YWCA if it exists – barely at this point – it’s really gone down.
MJC: The Y has had some challenges.
BL: They really have.
MJC: Re-identifying themselves and continuing their work.
BL: I was also active in Nebraska and Iowa NOW. That was the only time that I had been active with NOW. I was part of the Cedar Rapids chapter, which was a great chapter and also was active a little bit in Des Moines.
MJC: I know some folks in Des Moines.
BL: I imagine you do. So we talked about issues earlier. So that whole issue of sexuality and comprehensive sexuality education that’s something that I was very involved with later. Not so much specifically the Choice issue but more around just knowing what you’re doing – being educated. So that work still needs to be done today. I was involved in that in multiple places.
MJC: It sounds like you’ve begun to identify this, but [what about] your involvement in the women’s movement and how it influenced your professional life.
The Movement Made all the Difference.
BL: It did and it totally influenced it because I did work for other organizations that were women serving and all women’s staffs or almost all [women] on the staffs. They were both all women’s staffs, so it followed in that way and certainly where I was in organizations that weren’t all women I still was attentive to those issues. So it definitely affected me in that way. Certainly ever since – I’ve been a more political person and not necessarily real active, but just attentive to political issues and also not just traditional politics, but movement issues and following and thinking about the different movements that were happening then and have happened since then.
The YWCA had an Imperative and I think they still have it – the elimination of racism by any means necessary. That’s where I learned about institutional racism. So that’s been applied to some other areas as I’ve moved through my life. I think that concept of how institutions can be set against us is something that really stuck with me and became part of my understanding of how the world goes. I think the work I did early – it just gave me a feminist lens. It gave me a feminist identity.
I was surprised just recently – when I was thinking about this interview, I was talking with a good friend who’s been very active. I’ve always thought of her as a feminist – done a lot of things for women in the organization she was with – definitely has feminist sensibilities. I said sometime we should talk about how we became a feminist because I’ve been thinking about that. And it’s kind of interesting. She said, “You know I didn’t think of myself as a feminist until just a couple of years ago.” I thought wow – I’ve been thinking myself as a feminist forever. So it isn’t how everybody thinks of themselves, even though they may have been involved in issues that might make you think that way. But I’ve always been proud of that and always thought of myself as a feminist.
MJC: That will be an interesting conversation.
BL: Yes it will be. She told me her part and it was pretty short. It’s interesting that what has influenced her more were some contemporary writers who are writing about feminism and saying – hey what’s your deal. If you believe this, this and this, you should be a feminist. Including writings by Caitlin Moran Roxane Gay. I think having that identity – I didn’t realize that it’s something a lot of women that I expected would feel that way.
MJC: Yes. So your activism rather than being directly feminist related or women’s related has become more political as you move through life.
Always Active – Always Supportive
BL: That’s right. I think also, you can change the world in lots of different places. I really think my work in the nonprofit world has been where I put a lot of my energy and where I think I’ve made a difference. I’m interested in human organizations. And I do think that there’s something about creating an organization that is effective and can get things done; where people treat each other well – fairly. And that’s been more [what] my work has been and I was at the Y, The Young Women’s Resource Center, Crittenton Services of Greater Washington and I worked for the National Toxics Campaign Fund for a while. And in all those and even in the more like – the Nebraska Coalition for Women, I think that interest in developing the organization and making it effective and helping people work together – those are all things I’ve done throughout my career.
MJC: Some would say [a] very feminist pattern.
BL: Yes I think so. That is how I see it.
MJC: Anything you would like to add?
BL: I’ll just say everything right? How you want to be in relationships – everything – everything. I think that time in my life when I was active and really discovering feminism, that shaped my whole life. When I was looking back on it, I felt really strongly – wow, what a time that was! How lucky I was to have lived in that time and I think there’s a couple things when you become an activist. There’s what you bring to it. But also sometimes you just get lucky.
I Landed in a Really Vibrant Place at the Right Time.
And I’m thankful for that, because it really changed my life. I’ll say something else that I think feminism did for me is to help me understand my mother. It happened for me kind of starting around the food and eating issues because my mom cooked three meals a day. She was so focused on food and feeding us. If people came over for dinner she was all about them – filling their water and doing all kinds of things and irritating me with it all. Her kind of obsession, it seemed like, with food. I realized when I got involved in that work how important a function that was for her as a woman.
Fortunately my mother loved to cook and she loved company. There were lots of women who didn’t care for it so much. But it did help me understand why she was so focused on that and it helped me understand how the life she had lived created who she was and helped me see the strengths that were in that and why there was the complication. It helped me think about mothers and daughters – how we value our mothers less until we start really thinking about it. It really helped me grow into an adult relationship with her. She was never a feminist by definition. She wasn’t against any of these things, but she was just unaware and uninvolved with them. She was a pretty amazing woman. But it took me quite a while to get there on that and I think feminism had a lot to do with me understanding who she was.
To Those Who Came Before
One thing that was interesting at the time I was with Nebraska Coalition for Women was that dynamic between women of the past generation and women of my generation. I think that one of the things that I did as part of the Coalition was to be the bridge. I was the Chair one year and I was the bridge-chair – between the two generations. I was thinking about that and why was that so complicated. It did seem like those relationships with that group, which has been so amazing – they had started the Nebraska Coalition for Women and they were tough women. They were so good in so many ways. But working with them could be very complicated.
They came out of the period that they had lived through with a lot of frustration and anger at how their lives have been. And I do think that was part of it. I also think they came out of a period where there wasn’t much sort of sanction for more direct communication and those kinds of feelings. You saw a lot more passive aggressiveness and that’s hard to deal with when you’re trying to build organizations or relationships. There were still some lingering things they were holding on to – some of the traditional women kinds of things sort of over caring for people.
I remember once we were an hour late going from Lincoln to Grand Island for a meeting because we were waiting for the pumpkin soup to be done that we were going to carry out to the meeting. So people were still hanging on just those kinds of things. I think to those of us who were now working full time and had some different options and weren’t thinking of the world or our role quite that way – we didn’t have to deal with [those things].
MJC: They almost had a foot in both worlds.
BL: Yes they did. They did. There were quite a few women who came out of the Catholic Church who were involved. And so a lot of stuff going on there with women that were disturbing. It was an interesting time and I am glad I had the opportunity to work with those women who really were – they were why this stuff got started – they were the beginning. There were other people who joined in and carried on, but it was a privilege to work with them – but not always easy.