THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I Became A Feminist in Vietnam When The Officers Invited Me to Dinner – But Not To The Front Line”
Interviewed by Penny Stoil, September 2018; Dave Sperling, Videographer
PS: 70 years ago, when you were just a little girl you and your parents became refugees when the Soviet army began to move toward your home in Lithuania. You wound up in Germany and you spent three frightening and chaotic years in a displacement camp before you finally arrived in America. How has this family history, which is your history, shaped your life, your thinking and ultimately your work?
JK: Oh my goodness.
Well You’re Always An Immigrant.
You’re always not quite 100 percent American even though I feel totally American. The history of the World War II – and what my family went through – has really been an enormous part of my life because my homeland Lithuania was under communist Soviet occupation for more than 50 years. And my father was very active in the Independence Movement to try to get independence back.
My whole childhood was really framed around – we’re Lithuanian – we have to get our homeland back – one day we will return. To say nothing of the fact of my name -every time I introduce myself people would say what kind of name that – where are you from – were you born here – oh my goodness – it’s so interesting.
So I had an opportunity too – I didn’t want to talk about myself but I did want to talk about my country and make sure that people were aware of what happened. Because those three Baltic countries that were occupied in 1944 – Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia – were basically taken off the map.
We weren’t even – I mean sometimes there were little dotted lines around the countries. I think that kind of refugee mentality – which is you never know what the next day will bring – slight feelings of insecurity and especially since I was with my parents – they were a tremendous security for me. But we didn’t know where we were going.
We Didn’t Know Where We Would End Up.
And this has made me extremely sympathetic and empathetic towards anybody else who’s lost their home and their homeland and have had to flee violence or economic deprivation. Anybody who has had to give up their land – their home and often their families because of world crises lead me to get involved in refugee work over the years. So that was one way – a very big way – that it impacted.
After independence in 1991, my father went back. He started a business, he bought a home and we started a family foundation, which I am the president of. So I am going back to Lithuania a few times a year. We’re very involved in educational and cultural causes. And it is now my life’s work to run this foundation – do what I can to help Lithuania with its economic stability and the young people who are there now.
PS: But your work with refugees is taking much further than in Lithuania. Where around the world had this commitment taken you?
The Women’s Refugee Commission
JK: I was fortunate to go on the board of the Women’s Refugee Commission, which started out as part of the International Rescue Committee IRC. We obviously operate all over the world on behalf of women and children whose needs are very often overlooked as men have the power structures in a lot of these third world countries. So I’ve been to Rwanda shortly after the genocide. To Bosnia after the Dayton Agreements. Afghanistan when the Taliban were in power. To the Congo to assist the women who were survivors of terrible rapes that occurred there.
The World Now Is Fraught With So Many Problems.
Most recently I went to the eastern countries of Europe where the flow of migrants was coming from Syria through Greece and all the way through Europe through Serbia and Slovenia on the way to Germany. Everybody wanted to go to Germany. And even my small country Lithuania -less than 2 million population – we have had several hundred Syrian refugees come through our borders as well.
PS: Working in so many dangerous places – what are some of the conditions and the obstacles that you faced working in those countries?
JK: Well let’s not overestimate the dangers. I mean when you go with a group like the Women’s Refugee Commission or the IRC or the United Nations groups you have wonderful security and you live in a nice hotel and obviously you go out during the day to the camps and meet with the refugees. But there’s really limited hardship.
Though I must say that going to Kabul at the height of the Taliban power was an interesting experience.
We had to cover up and hide in the back of the jeep as the Taliban were going around with their guns and searching for any women who were exposing their faces or being seen. So even I as an American had to follow the regulations of the Taliban.
PS: Can you feel that some of your work has made a real difference to make a lasting change especially in the lives of the women and children?
JK: You know I worry about that. I’ve been involved in this work now for 25 years. And we go to a new place and it’s just like we have to reinvent the wheel. Women need separate showers and latrines. Especially Muslim women who have such a sense of their privacy and their modesty. There need to be special places for women to go and nurse the children. And the children need diapers and formula. And the women need sanitary products.
And it just seems that – here we go again – why are people overlooking these very basic needs of women and children.
I should probably be a little bit more optimistic. Let’s put it this way – the WIRC is an advocacy group.
I think people are waking up more to the problems facing women and children in these situations. And obviously in our own country – the most recent example of children being separated from their parents at the borders where we have been very, very active especially on gender based violence. There are things going on at the border where women really are at risk. And as you know a mother will do anything to save her child and if she has to sell her body they will do it. And we have definitely been looking at situations like that which persist.
A Defining Decision
PS: I’d like to look back at your life. You graduated Trinity College – you became a magazine researcher. But at the age of 24 with the war raging in Vietnam you made the decision – an amazing decision – that changed the course of your life. What was it?
JK: Well I don’t know whether it changed the course of my life but let’s put it this way – it certainly is one of the defining characteristics that people seem to find very interesting – like how could you do that – I mean in the middle of the war – and started me thinking – was I just plain dumb. I mean how could I? My parents were horrified everybody was horrified.
I had a good job at Look magazine and I just announced I was going. I did try to affiliate with Newsweek – I asked Look to send me – I went around to all the big news agencies and they said – who are you. You don’t have enough experience. It’s too dangerous, so I decided to go on my own.
Why did I go to Vietnam – because I knew that I wanted to be a journalist. And this was the biggest story of the day. I mean it just dominated the newspapers – we’re talking about 1967. Day after day – after day.
And it was my generation that was fighting the war.
It was 18, 19, 20 year olds going over there – drafted and being sent over. Not really understanding the politics – not understanding why. And people killing each other. And I was so fascinated by this concept of war. Why is it only men really fighting the war? Why is it only men covering the war? Why are there so few women writing about this really rather horrendous reality of our life? So that’s kind of what motivated me to go.
PS: How did you actually get the money to get there?
A One Way Ticket to Saigon
JK: Everybody loves this story. I mean you know I was only earning 60 dollars a week at Look magazine and my parents just said – you’re on your own here. So I went on a quiz show called Password and I won five hundred dollars and that was enough for a one-way ticket to Saigon and off I went. And I had a little bit of money saved up and it was not expensive at all to live in Saigon.
I crashed with some people that I met. And then I started basically going out into the field to do combat coverage and would go for days without having to pay for a hotel room or food or anything like that.
PS: But how were you received when you arrived?
JK: I was a freelancer and I was female and that’s like a double whammy. You know – get out of here. The male press corps did not really show any kind of respect -understandably. I mean you know what are your credentials. And I had to – you just don’t show up there. I had to apply with the American officials and the Vietnamese officials to get my press credentials.
I had letters from kind of obscure little publications and story assignments that got me over there. And once you got your press card and the American military learned their lesson from this – once you got your press card you had carte blanche to go all over the country. You could go on helicopters – you could go on bombers – you can go on aircraft carriers – you can show up anywhere.
There were very very few women – full time – occasionally celebrities would come in like Oriana Fallaci – she came for a month or so. Renata Adler came from the New Yorker for a week or two.
So it was an interesting challenging and extremely difficult time of my life.
PS: I’d like to quote you. You said you became a feminist in Vietnam when the officers invited you to dinner – but not to the front line. What did it take to overcome the antagonism toward women so you finally got these frontline assignments?
JK: You could backchannel – in other words – the commanding officer say at Khe Sahn said you had to be on a list, the New York Times has priority and you’re standing in the airfield and you see a helicopter and you say to the pilot – where are you going and he said – well actually I’m going to Khe Sahn and helicopters empty and you say – can I have a ride – and they go sure – you know some 18 year old – it’s kind of cool – this girl coming on my helicopter. I had been there for a while so the other journalists knew me. But it was not easy and I wrote in a book that I wrote with several other reporters from Vietnam –
It was a very very lonely time.
We didn’t really bond as sisters except for one moment when Westmoreland decreed that women could not overnight – at the front lines which of course basically said you can’t get a story. You fly in, you interview some people and you leave – you want to walk with them you want be on patrol with them – you get to know the soldiers. And we lobbied the Defense Department with letters and complaints and we got a little publicity and the ban was rescinded.
The Battle of Khe Sahn
PS: If you don’t mind telling us – tell us about the big one – the battle of Khe Sahn.
You did arrive there on helicopter as well. How were you greeted when you arrived there?
JK: The young Marines were fine with it. I think most of all we have to know – they’re doing their job. They’re focused on their job and I was always very very sensitive about not intruding. If somebody is digging a trench and not going to bother them. And I had gotten an assignment from WOR Radio to interview some New Yorkers because the siege had been going on now almost two months and it was day after day after day of rocket attacks from the North Vietnamese over on the other side of the DMZ.
So I was walking around my tape recorder – anybody here from New York and what have you – and the guys were extremely gracious and kind and they were just lovely. And the commanding officer was not happy that I was there, but he said well you’re there – I’m going to have to put up with you. Unfortunately on March the 8th – it had been quiet for three or four days – meaning they were getting an isolated rocket here or there it wasn’t a barrage of sometimes 50, 75, 100 rounds of artillery coming from the other side.
It had been quiet. The weather had lifted – It was a sunny day – everybody was shedding their wet clothes. People were kind of feeling – maybe the siege is over and then all of a sudden I’m interviewing somebody and we heard that whistle – that tell tale – coming in from all different areas. And I made a fateful mistake, as did several other guys of running to the nearest bunker.
What you’re supposed to do – for those who want to know – when you hear incoming atyillery is to flatten yourself on the ground. Because the likelihood of a direct hit on your body is really minimal but the likelihood of a rocket or artillery exploding with the shrapnel going 45 degrees in all directions you’re going to get hurt. So four of us did get hurt. We did get pieces of shrapnel. One was quite seriously wounded in his foot. Then they did some surgery while I was there and I was evacuated that evening.
Pioneers In A Small Way
PS: Well you did help make history in Vietnam. You became one of four women whose reporting from Vietnam became truly iconic. 40 years after the war all four of you were interviewed at the News museum here in D.C. Who were the other women?
JK: These are my co-authors – I believe would be Laura Palmer who worked for ABC, Edie Letterer who covered the war for the Associated Press, Tracy Wood who was there for UPI, Kate Webb who was working for Reuters and UPI and Ann Mariano – I forget precisely which four were there because we did a lot of panel discussions when the war came up. But I would not use the word iconic – I was not Marguerite Higgins.
We didn’t achieve any kind of status. But I think we were pioneers in a small way because we were determined to do a job – we didn’t let our sex interfere. We lobbied to get these assignments. And I think now while we were these rare birds – now – nobody even bats an eye when they see a woman with a flak jacket in a helmet reporting from -whether it’s Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria – it’s just taken for granted. Now more than half of female – of the journalists who are covering combat and crisis situations around the world are female.
It’s taken 40 years to get to this point so I do think we started a little bit of equality among war correspondents.
The War At Home
PS: And you did it in a war that was one of the most unpopular wars in history. How did you as a group of women look back on that experience?
JK: I can only speak for myself. I think that I’m very glad I went to see firsthand the brutality of war – and never wanted to cover another war – I had no interest – I said I am done. I came back and I covered another war between men and women as women fought for their equality. But I think that it was very very difficult in the kind of things that we saw and it was really kind of hard to live with.
Coming back and encountering the very vocal antiwar movement and hearing people chanting – Ho Chi Minh will win, and being so hostile towards American soldiers was very very painful for me because so many of these young people lost their lives there – more than 50,000. They didn’t know what they were doing there. They went because their country asked them to serve. And they went willingly and they died for it tragically never really understanding what they were fighting for.
It just made me very sad that there was this – they were spat upon when they came home. There were no parades. There was no welcoming. I mean how many stories have we heard of soldiers taking their uniform off in the airport bathroom being afraid to walk through a terminal wearing their uniforms in the late 60s and 70s when the anti Vietnam movement was at its height. Though I understood. I understood the passions of those people and I think now we know that our government did lie to us and we were even aware of that when we were in Vietnam.
You’d be out in the field and then you’d come back to Saigon the next day and they would report on the battle that you witnessed. They always exaggerated the number of enemy killed the number of weapons captured – minimized American casualties. And it just didn’t fit. We had some very very brave reporters from the New York Times and other prestigious newspapers being relentless about getting the truth out.
A Country At Peace
PS: Vietnam of course now has opened up not only to tourism but also as a financial hub in Asia. Have you gone back there since?
JK: Yes. I went back in 1995 on the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon with about 60 or 70 journalists who covered the war. I even went back to Khe Sahn, which was a very emotional trip. Everything that remained of that incredible Marine base was gone. There was nothing.
It was all coffee. All one big beautiful coffee plantation. There was a memorial there for all the North Vietnamese people who died and outrageous comments about America – American casualties – total lies. But it just made me happy to see the country at peace. The new young generation had no hostility at all towards Americans. They moved on and that’s the lesson for all of us to be able to forgive that way.
Sex, Drugs & Rock n Roll
PS: After the war you returned to the states and you landed a job as a reporter for The Associated Press. What was the atmosphere there for women reporters and what major assignments were you given?
JK: I was very very lucky because I started working at the Associated Press in early 69 and it was the start of the kind of feminist movement – the women’s liberation movement. And newspapers were being sued for sex discrimination. And they were very very sensitive about having women’s pages and doing just weddings and fashion shows and everybody was shifting to this lifestyle coverage.
At the same time my generation was taking over society. Not only with the anti Vietnam movement and the women’s movement but the environmental movement – sex, drugs rock n roll – dropping out – alternative lifestyles. And the Associated Press created this new department, which was called Living Today not the Women’s News – Living Today.
There were six of us who were hired. All under the age of 30 who were hired to go around the country to report on these trends and changes. My colleague Lynn Sherr was there at that time and we just had so much fun covering sex, drugs and rock n roll. And it was a very very exciting time. We were kind of the elite in the AP in the sense that this new department had amazing resources – we could travel.
We had the luxury of doing feature stories.
You could work for two weeks on a story. None of this terrible deadline of having to file two or three times a day. So I never experienced any kind of discrimination or sexism or anything in the department. The AP was nothing but generous and giving us a ticket to ride out there.
PS: Am I wrong in saying that you also did cover the Carter White House. Is that true? And reporting on the Mideast as well.
JK: Yes I did cover the first lady Rosalynn Carter – the East Wing of the White House. And then they sent me to Egypt for the Mideast war and took forever to get there because airports were closed. And when we got there the war was over. The Six Day War was over – but I spent a month in Egypt anyway trying to get to kind of a follow up on what was happening there.
The Liberated Woman’s Appointment Calendar
PS: You mentioned Lynn Sherr who you met and became lifelong friends with. You met her at AP – she was not yet the future TV pioneer broadcaster that she became and together you and Lynn coauthored a number of groundbreaking feminist works. Two of them I have right here as a matter of fact. Please talk about some of your many projects – particularly the Liberated Woman’s Appointment’s Calendar, which is just fascinating, and the research that you’ve done.
JK: Oh yeah that was such a great time. I think the first edition came out in 1970. I think it was February and it was George Washington’s Birthday. We had a holiday for George Washington’s Birthday and we kind of looked at each other and said – why can’t we have a holiday for a woman some time. And as we looked at each other we said well how do we even know what dates are associated to women.
At the same time Jim Fix, the running Guru had released the running calendar, which was amazingly popular. And we said – why don’t we do a woman’s calendar. We proceeded to go through every single book in the library on the lives of women – especially famous women i.e. Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott – those names that were kind of known to people.
And then at the same time the world was changing.
All of a sudden – first female rabbi – first female jockey – first female umpire – first female Airlines pilot. All of a sudden there were these female firsts that were happening week after week so we started gathering – every time we read even in Japan of somebody – you know first female to climb Mount Everest. I mean just getting all those statistics and then we had wonderful pictures and the whole thing.
We did this for 10 years until about 1980 when Lynn went on to fame and you know – a very very busy life as a television correspondent and our publisher just said you know it’s kind of had its run here. Meanwhile then we did the American Women’s Gazetteer because after doing the dates of famous women we said well what about the places where women made history?
We knew a few places like Carrie Beecher Stowe’s house in Hartford and we found Susan Anthony’s house in Rochester – so we proceeded to do a state-by-state guide. Fifty states. Took more than a year of travel and research in reaching out to tiny little county libraries saying – do you have any historic houses related to women who made history in your county?
All this while we had full time jobs.
It was just such a happy time to have this great project. Lynn was always at the typewriter – she was very very fast typist and we would be in the thesaurus grabbing the thesaurus getting another word. You can’t use the word – people and you never say people – you’ve got to use another word. And typing it and putting it together.
And I think we really did a service because after that of course everybody started writing about the women’s movement and history of the women’s movement. But we were definitely the first out there. And I’ll never forget that Betty Friedan loved her women’s calendars. We went from the Liberated Women’s Appointment Calendar and Survival Handbook and Field Manual to just the Woman’s Calendar.
She would lug them all around and I think from what I understand – she donated them to the Schlesinger Library. I’m not sure who has Betty’s papers. But anyway the 10 years of calendars she kept. One of the interesting evolutions was originally we had one page for a week and then people said you know I’m a very busy woman – this is not big enough for me to write down all my appointments. So then we did two days to a page. You know and kind of sensitive to – I do stuff – I just don’t write down lunch. But it was really a wonderful time. And Lynn was just the best partner the best partner.
PS: Well I went through The Woman’s Gazetteer. They are available still on Amazon. I got the calendar on Amazon for 1973 and the Gazetteer and I had never seen more amazing research. I don’t know how you did it in a year, it would have taken most people ten years.
JK: And then when Lynn came to me and she said – Jurate, we need to update the Gazetteer. I said – are you kidding? She said no no no. Plus she said I always hated that title. So we came up with Susan B. Anthony Slept Here. So the Gazetteer became twice as thick because we had more places and it became – the title. It was much more catchy and it was really a lot of fun.
The Battle Never Really Ends
PS: And right now what are you and Lynn working on to publicly honor great women from our own history? The campaign is being conducted right now.
JK: Oh the statue in Central Park. Well Lynn is on the board of it and I lent my five cents to donate to get a statue of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Central Park. Lynn wrote some wonderful op-ed pieces on the need for it – why do we really need a statue for more pigeons to roost on. What’s really important – why that visual concrete presentation honoring a woman is so significant. In other words the battle kind of never really ends.
I think what we’re seeing today with the Metoo movement is just so powerful and it’s a definite outgrowth of the women’s movement where women were empowered to speak out and respect themselves and have a say in their own lives. I must say though it distresses me horribly – when I think fifty years ago – 40 years ago I was writing stories as was Lynn on the need for child care – flex time – flexible work day so women could work four days a week and be home with their kids. Life, work and family balance.
We’re still talking about how do I manage a career and a family.
Can you believe it? We’re still talking about it – to say nothing of reproductive rights. I mean if you had told me that today we would be worried about the repeal of Roe vs. Wade 20 years ago – I would have said no – it’s a law of the land. I mean it’s like a no brainer. People know you can’t force a woman to give up control of her body. It’s extremely extremely frustrating and distressing.
The Real Heroines
PS: Now looking back at the great second wave feminists which leaders, authors, activists, journalists and visionaries do you most admire and why?
JK: Well the list is long but I have to really start with Betty Friedan – I really do. She was a lone voice out there. And she was such a visionary she saw that she captured the moment. And I remember calling her up all the time – Betty I need a quote for my story I was writing. And she would say – Jurate you know what I want to say you just write it.
And I’d say, Betty I can’t do that – I can’t make up a quote and she would just rattle off the most brilliant, concise, compelling argument. I must say that I admire Gloria Steinem a lot. Because she has just been so dignified through all this – she never wanted to be the leader. And the press was always looking for a spokesperson – a leader. And her pithy comments – her one-liners are just brilliant.
And I would say going back to history we have to acknowledge the all the suffrage leaders.
And I’m looking forward to 2020 when we can really celebrate all those women in the 19th Century who were out there trudging from coast to coast trying to get equality for women. I just really have to praise all those unheralded women – those women who work in factory jobs and wake up every day and single moms who have to feed their kids and keep a job and take care of the children sometimes two or three jobs. I mean these are the real heroines of America and the women’s movement.
PS: I was going to ask you what the most important issues were to be fought or probably re fought by today’s young feminists. But I think you really have summed it up. And a final question about the year 2020 when we will celebrate Susan B. Anthony and the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage what do you – (This is our final question). What do you think about the influence of the women’s vote in our next presidential election?
JK: Huge. I think the importance is the women’s vote is huge.
Number one there’s no such thing as women’s issues.
All the things that are important to women like family leave and paternity leave and health insurance – all those are things that are very important to men too. I’m really keeping my fingers crossed – it’s really up to us to get out there and register more women – encourage them to speak out and also to run for office. That is critical. I mean women have to bite the bullet and just start out in the school board – work their way up and get into office so we can really have parity in the houses of – in Congress. I just am really very hopeful that we have seen a really significant change and looking forward to I think a big celebration in 2020. And just hoping that we will get a woman in the White House in my lifetime – which I think we will.
PS: Thank you so much. And thank you for revealing so much of yourself.
JK: My pleasure. And really this is such an amazing project. It’s important that we never forget those struggles of 40 and 50 years ago. And 100 years ago.