THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I gained a sense of myself as a capable individual through the women’s movement.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian
MJC: Tell us your name and where and when you were born.
PC: Pamela Chapman, I was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1948. I was the third of six children and when I was born we lived in East Orange, New Jersey, in a two-bedroom apartment. My two older brothers had bunk beds and I had a bed in one room. Then my brother Arthur was born, and he was in a crib in my parents’ room. When David was born, he was in a crib in the dining room and I think that was probably the impetus to move.
We went to West Orange and we rented a huge house there so there was room for everybody. We ultimately moved to Neptune, New Jersey. My brother Greg was born when we were in Neptune. It was a very family-oriented area – everybody had tons of kids. My mother was squelching her feminist roots to try to be a homemaker, driving us everywhere, being involved in everything. It was a pretty normal, crazy, unstructured childhood.
PC: We were raised Catholic and I think probably there are a few remaining practicing. I am not one of them. My dad used to say they never get the smell of incense out of your nostrils. He had something there, because the teaching remains though I don’t practice.
MJC: Anything that got you thinking about feminism from observing your mother or things that happened to you in grade school or high school?
PC: Growing up, I always used to think that my parents had reversed roles. My mom was huge into sports, she loved it all. On Sundays my dad would ask when’s dinner? And she’d tell him wait till half time, because she’d be watching football. Much later in her life she told me what a great day it was there was football and golf on TV the same day. She, though she never played a sport, was so into it. My brothers all played sports.
Being a girl in the ’60s there were no sports, particularly for girls. I was a cheerleader, which was a pretty typical role. I don’t think I recognized my mother’s independence at that point. Even though she was in a very traditional role, she was fiercely independent, had been raised that way, she did things her way. After we moved to Connecticut, which was the year I graduated from college, we moved to Connecticut and she got me into a consciousness raising group. I was in this group with very mixed ages, mixed religions, mixed economic backgrounds, mixed education.
It was really exciting. All of a sudden I was seeing all these similarities in our lives with these women who were so apparently different from me. It was very exciting. Then my mother invited me to a NOW conference in New Jersey. I remember it was in Atlantic City, because we marched on the boardwalk against the Miss America pageant. I was kind of shy about the whole thing then. We were in a plenary session in a huge room with tons and tons of people.
Someone was ill and they said over the loudspeaker, “Is there a doctor available?” All of these women were doctors and I was stunned. It just struck me that I was surrounded by women who were doing so many things. They weren’t all teachers and nurses and secretaries; they were in every field I could imagine. I got the bug there – that night was the real beginning of my awakening. We went to a dance and the entertainer sang a song called The First Five Minutes of Life, where the woman and the husband didn’t know the gender of the child for five minutes and how there were in those five minutes, no expectations, nothing placed on this child.
I came home and I couldn’t shut up about it, which drove my father crazy. I think my boyfriend at the time wasn’t digging it too much. That got me started and then I started going places with my mother. I went to other conferences and then of course we marched: we went to Washington; we went to New York. In New York, we marched against pornography and it was so ironic because here we are marching down the streets of New York against pornography and on the side of the road, were these men grabbing their crotches and yelling at us. There were some things locally, too. I would march for reproductive rights here, there and everywhere. She got me really immersed in it.
MJC: Do you remember what got her started?
PC: I do remember a couple of things. There’s a story my mother told about being young. She wanted to go to college and my grandfather wouldn’t send her to college, he sent my uncle who was a miserable student. He went to college because he was a male. I think she had the seeds then, but when she got married, she wouldn’t let them say “obey” in the ceremony. I think it was peeking out in those days. She had six kids and got stuck in a lifestyle that while I don’t think it impacted her love for us one bit, it was not what she wanted to do or to be.
I used to babysit for this family, and my mother and the woman were friends. My mother was dropping me off and they hadn’t gone out yet. She and the other woman were sitting on the porch and I’m overhearing them and they’re talking about the panic every month if they don’t get their period. The panic of oh no, is this going to be another? My mother was forty or forty-one when Greg was born. It was the first time in 16 years she had all the kids in school, and she got pregnant. She was right back to staying at home.
She wanted us to go to college and my dad, who was a smart man, was so old school he wanted people to stay home and support the family and do your responsible work. When it was time for my oldest brother to go to college, my mother took a job. But there were six kids, so she took a job at 9:00 at night and she worked till 5:00 in the morning. She’d come home, get the kids off to school, and try to sleep a little bit. She had to drive my father to the station, she had to pick him up at night. I don’t know how she slept, and it went on for years.
She was working at a trucking company doing some financial stuff. And then she got a job at Earl Ammunition Depot with the government and that was during the day and it was a job she really liked. She was doing really well, and my father got transferred. We were to move to Connecticut, and I remember her saying when we moved to Connecticut, I’m going to get involved in this organization called NOW. It’s this new organization I want to get involved in it.
I think she felt she was giving up all the stuff she’d had and worked for and gotten and she knew there was going to be something there for her. As soon as we got here, she looked it up and she got involved. She was very involved in local and state and obviously in the national organization.
MJC: So, you became a teacher, I believe?
PC: I saw my options as pretty wide open. Secretary? Nah. Nurse? Nah. I guess I’ll be a teacher. I look back on it and I really do think it was default. It just didn’t really occur to me to look at other things. That’s the part I don’t quite understand because here I was with this mother who if a job opened as a brain surgeon, she might have said, I can do that, I’ll give it a try, I can learn. I on the other hand had my father’s genes in that respect, very timid and afraid to try anything new and certainly didn’t want to stand out.
I remember my graduation from Kent State College and all sorts of things erupted. A lot of kids wore peace signs on their caps or armbands, and I didn’t want to upset anyone, so I didn’t do it. Ironically, I kind of upset my mother because she would have preferred that I had done it. She was looking for somebody to step out of line and shake things up a bit. I wasn’t a shaker in those days.
MJC: So, when did you get your own feminist portfolio?
PC: I started getting involved in NOW here and I started going to conferences and stuff. I remember going to one where Ellie Smeal was encouraging people to give up their lives for a short period of time and join the efforts to pass the ERA, how they needed people. I started thinking I could try this. My mother was living in Washington, I could go down there, I could try something. I spoke to my principal, who was a woman, and marvelous. She was so encouraging and said absolutely. It would have been probably ’81.
I took a leave of absence; I went in January and I stayed until probably July or August and worked at the headquarters for quite a while. I wrote for the NOW Times, I actually had one article published on the front page. I did all sorts of odds and ends: I went to the Hill and sort of did lobbying, went with other people who were doing lobbying. Then I went to North Carolina for their vote, we worked there for two weeks. I went to Florida for their vote where I was just so disgusted by the whole thing. A man stood up in the testimony and said, “You women are good, but you’re not good enough to stand toe to toe with a foreign enemy.”
I don’t know if it was more depressing or more just disgusting. It was a horrible feeling. The Florida experience was a horrible feeling. I came back shortly after that and we were out of time on the ERA Bill. Though, I guess not, because now it’s being reborn like the Phoenix, the ashes and all that. I stayed a little while longer in Washington and then I came home. Then I got quite involved with the women’s center here, which was not particularly political, but there was a big focus on empowerment of women.
MJC: Would you go back for just a minute to describe a little more of that last year, the ERA when you’re in Washington, D.C. How many other people made the same decision you did and came? Did you have any sense of what the campaign looked like?
PC: She [Ellie Smeal] was firing people up at these conferences and this one in particular. People were getting all in a frenzy about this possibility. I was in such a great position because I could do it, I could afford it. I could sublet my apartment for six months and I had a place to stay. People were sacrificing a lot more to get involved, it was a very, very exciting and motivating time. The cause was so embedded, it seems so simple and it was so simple for so long until it came to this screeching halt. Thank you, Miss Schlafly.
I was one of many, many young women who were like, yeah, I’m doing this. This is my chance to do something that will have an impact. And even though we didn’t pass the ERA, I did feel like it was something that had a tremendous impact in so many different directions. And certainly, on me and others like me who got involved, it changed our view of the world.
I felt like I’ve grown up with a woman who has actually changed the world. She’s done things that have changed the world for us. She was involved in Title IX here in Connecticut, really involved. She was the founder of the Women’s Center; she ran an entire year of a hotline for sexual assault off our phone on an answering machine where she took every call herself. Here I am growing up with this and now I have this opportunity to do something myself and it was amazing. It was truly an amazing and exciting time.
We’d be home at 10:30 at night and the phone rang: gotta come to the office – you’ve got to do a mailing. We were running out and we would do these mailings till 2:00 in the morning. Halfway through, they’d say stop the press, there’s a mistake, and [we’d] start all over. You never minded; I don’t think anybody ever minded. Everything was NOW: we ate together, we socialized together, we worked together, we carpooled together. It was this group of women that you’d spend your life with.
MJC: The Women’s Center, that mother had been a founder of, when you get back to Connecticut, you become active there?
PC: I was an original member of the Women’s Center because my mother founded it and I was there the first day and paid my five dollars. She and these other two women started it as a place for women to go. Back in the early ’70s, women couldn’t even be at a bar in Connecticut, you couldn’t stand in a bar, you had to be seated at a table somewhere. Women had nowhere. Men had different things they could do: they could hang out at the bars. So, she started this and it was almost immediate that people started calling for help. It was help about divorces and it was help about sexual assault, and it was just help and help and help. It really quickly transitioned to a social service agency. The first thing I did was be a volunteer on the rape crisis hotline, and I was a volunteer counselor. Every time I was on the hotline, I got a call and it started freaking me out like every time. I decided to switch off and I joined the board. I ultimately was on the board for twenty-five years, I held various offices and I spent four years as president during which time we bought a building despite a lot of people who didn’t want to buy a building. They were afraid of buying a building. And there was my mother telling me you’ve got to do this. You got to stop being at the whim of the people of the town of Danbury, because right now they’re supportive but what if they’re not? We bought a building and they did a capital campaign to renovate. While I’m not involved physically anymore, I’m a strong supporter of the Women’s Center to this day.
MJC: It still goes on. The work goes on.
PC: Endless, it is endless. They do a wonderful education program and when I was teaching I got them into the Bethel schools and then they were spreading out. I managed to get them into our elementary schools and our middle and high school. With the little kids they do a good touch, bad touch thing, and they do some puppet work. The middle school and high school they talk dating violence and sexual identity. I think that my background was really helpful in my career as well, because I was in a classroom. But when I left the classroom, I became an assistant principal at a middle school. We had kids with a lot of issues. We had a lot of girls sending naked photos of themselves that we tried to work with. We had kids who are not only questioning their identity but changing their identity. I was at least somebody who was open to understandings and had some experience with all different types of people. They could have had a lot of different people in those positions and I think [I] was really helpful.
MJC: That’s just an example of how your experience in the women’s movement changed your life, right?
PC: In so many ways. I recognized that I don’t need to be part of a pair. I’ve never been married, I did have a couple of long-term relationships, but I didn’t feel that obligation to get married and fit into that little mold of twosomes that our world is made up of. I do believe that without my awakening, I could have very easily said yes on a number of occasions, not because I wanted to, but because I thought I should. I gained a sense of myself as a capable individual through the women’s movement.
MJC: What issues were most compelling to you?
PC: Obviously equal rights, but I was always very driven to help in the area of sexual assault. In the old days, we called it rape crisis, until we realized that that was a very narrow view of sexual assault. And battered women’s services, my mother was right on the front line there. But just situations that were so awful and I was driven to things that let people be independent, that help them make those choices to be independent. We dealt with lots of victims of various things, women who were in such bad positions or places where they felt so helpless.
I think the ability to give somebody even a little bit of hope that this doesn’t have to be this way, there are other options for all of us. That’s been a big push for me. The same thing in the schools, even as a teacher I’d have kids come to me with assorted problems and the idea was always to empower them to think about what it was that they wanted. Given the opportunity, what would be the outcome you want for you? Let’s take a step aside from what everybody else wants and let’s see what you want. And then you can think about, can I get this? How do I do this? How do I tell my parents that I’m gay? There are all these kids struggling daily. My experience with the women’s movement and particularly my time at NOW gave me a dialog and the opportunity to share that with students.
MJC: Are you still an activist?
PC: I think I’m still an activist. I don’t do as much, like, I did a little Black Lives Matter thing here, I would like to have done more but we’re in a pandemic and I’m 73. Maybe I’ll be an activist from home. Not as much as I should be, honestly.
MJC: All of our activities were curtailed this last year.
PC: Well this year for sure but this too is going to change. We’re going to get back there.
MJC: Well, it’s a beautiful life, a meaningful life.
PC: It is. I have good friends and I have good family, even though we can’t discuss politics with several of them. My mother called a time out on that discussion a long time ago and she said no more – because you’re not changing my mind, I’m not changing yours and we’re not fighting all the time. So that was that. I know when to be quiet. I don’t do it anymore, but for years I wrote music and I wrote plenty of protest songs which we used here in Danbury at various events, so I’ve done that.
MJC: Alice is proud.
PC: I hope so. She deserved to be proud. She was something else, she was a force of nature. She was an amazing, amazing woman. I will tell you one other funny story. She was going to Washington; it was Mother’s Day and she was going to protest in the National Cathedral for abortion rights. My father was livid, he was the Catholic, and she was not the Catholic. He was like, “I hope you get arrested.” She said, “If I do, I’m giving my name as Mrs. George Chapman!” But even he came around. He was quite impressed with her various behaviors in the end. Took a while.
MJC: I’m so thankful that you were willing to tell your story, and have it recorded for history.
PC: I appreciate it. It’s brought back all sorts of stuff, it’s great.