An Interview with Phyllis Frank: Equality and Justice for All2018-08-13T15:27:24+00:00

THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT

Phyllis Frank

“Equality And Justice For All With No Exceptions”

Interviewed by Muriel Fox, January 2018

MF: Phyllis Frank, you are a famous leader in the domestic violence movement. What is the name of your book on this subject?

PF: The book that I have never written, but that I have considered writing is called – But He’s Such A Nice Guy. It’ll take some time if I ever fill in with the chapters. In the early days – in the very early days through my organization – VCS where I was working – we created what was the first so-called batterer program in the state of New York. And it was also the third oldest – the third in the country.

And two  – three years later I put together a semi book called The Spouse Abuse Educational Workshop. Which was the name of the batter program during years when we were afraid to talk about who was the perpetrator and who were the victims – survivors. It was the same time that the local domestic violence program in Rockland County where I live was called Rockland Family Shelter. It was for that same reason we were not yet ready to come out as women and say that women were at risk of being harmed by the very men who are our partners.

Treat Women Respectfully

MF: You directed a batterers intervention program in a maximum-security prison. Do you believe that men batterers can be reeducated or do you agree with those who say throw away the key?

PF: Big question. The program that I continue to work in – which was the template for the New York model for Batterer Programs deeply believes that all men – bar none – are competent to treat women respectfully. We also believe that men who do treat women respectfully do so by choice. Because given the societal structure, given patriarchy, given male supremacy, men literally absorb a sense of callousness about women.

And many see the light, see that it’s wrong and interact respectfully. So do I think that men are capable of becoming respectful to women? Absolutely. I’m not sure they will – but they can.

National Organization for Men Against Sexism

MF: Well tell us about your work in NOMAS.

PF: Early on – again we’re going back to the early 1980s, I heard about an organization, which eventually has been called the National Organization for Men Against Sexism. And because so much of my feminist ah-has came from very early feminist women conferences that I went to in Rockland County and beyond – I had the idea that if only men heard the same information they would have the same ah-has.

So I traveled to Washington D.C. to meet the National Organization for Men Against Sexism to invite some of them to come to Rockland County. And I created what was called the first Rockland County Men’s Conference. This was in 1982. And there were subjects like – men and their fathers – men interacting with women – men as friends – etc.

And though we did have ongoing annual men’s conferences for nine years, it didn’t cause the men’s feminist movement to come alive in our community as I had hoped. So now I belong to the National Organization for Men Against Sexism – all these many years later – because it puts me in touch with men around the United States who are doing work to deal with the issues of male supremacy and patriarchy and encouraging more men to see through this particular lens.

The Challenge For NOW

MF: When did you join NOW?  And what do you see as its most important goals for NOW in the future?

PF: I joined NOW very early on and in I believe 1972 or 3 the first Rockland County Chapter of NOW was born. At the time I was involved with a different radical feminist women’s organization in Rockland called Women’s Way. So though I joined the local chapter of NOW I wasn’t active in it, I was more active in this other organization. Our goals were pretty similar.

MF: And what do you want for NOW to accomplish in the next few years?

PF: I’ve always believed that the passing of the ERA is an incredibly important goal that has not yet been achieved. And I also think that the current structure of NOW worked very well in its early days. And I think the challenge is for NOW to find ways to become relevant to the very young women. Many of whom don’t understand the struggles of our generation. So I’m really looking for NOW to find a way to be relevant in 2017 and I think with its current leadership there’s every possibility that that will happen.

Inspiration On Becoming A Feminist

MF: Can you recall when you first became a feminist and what was the inspiration for that?

PF: You know I’ve looked back and said you know when did it happen? I think when I was pregnant with my first child and I went to see an obstetrician and he handed me a book called – Thank You Doctor Lamaze. So this was in the 1960s maybe 1965. And what I remember from that book is that the author said in France, the doctor called her Madame so-and-so, and she called him Dr. so-and-so. And that when she moved to the United States she called him Doctor so-and-so and he called her Sally.

And she exposed the difference in power when you are being called by a diminutive name and you’re referencing someone else by honor. And that really struck me. Added to it – I said that I was happy to see this particular doctor because he was going to deliver my baby and he said no – you’re going to deliver your baby, I’m going to help you.

Those two moments were clicks for me. Clicks about the difference in power. Clicks about how it was a man who said to me – no you deliver the baby I’m the support. So that’s just one of many small things that happened that were the beginning of my going – wait a minute – this isn’t quite right the way it is.

Also remember much earlier that as a schoolgirl I had to wear a skirt. And it was cold and I would ask my mother why can’t I wear pants like my brothers wore pants. Well [there was] a different dress codes for little girls and little boys in the New York City public school. So again looking back – these are all things where I had a sense of – kind of my mantra when I was a child – that’s not fair. It’s not right – that’s not right.

Working Against Oppression

MF: You’re a leader in the gay pride movement. When did you realize that this issue was important to you?

PF: I think in the early days of the feminist women’s movement – really with the National Organization for Women and the Lavender Menace and are lesbians women? And when you have an organization that stands for women – do we mean some women – do we mean middle class women – do we mean all women? That means lesbians – that means black women – that means – all women.

And it seemed to me that I had the proverbial blinders on and I kept moving. You know I always thought I saw everything until – click – I see it through another lens. And it became kind of my decision. And I did have to figure it out. Were lesbians women like me or were lesbians a group that I should not be a part of?

When you make that decision and you realize that like Jews in some places were not considered real people. Working against oppression and for social justice is a slippery slope because once you say it you have to fight for the rights of everybody. So lesbian rights – gay rights – eventually transgender rights – are as important as any other rights.

Children Learn From Watching

MF: What have you said to your children about the gay pride issues?

PF: You know my children – I remember when I was a little girl and my cousin was told he was adopted at age eight and it was rather shocking. And when I was an adult my cousin raised her child knowing that she was adopted the whole time. It’s not so much what I’ve told my children – I think our children learn far more from whom we are than from anything I’ve ever tried to teach them.

So I don’t know that I say much, but I live a lot. And they are part of it. They’ve watched me and you know I’ve dragged them to marches and had them holding signs and they’ve absorbed a lot of who they are from the way I have been and their father has been.

Rockland County Pride Center

MF:  Tell us about the Pride Center you organized.

PF: You know it’s one of the proudest things that I -that has really happened to me and that I’ve done. It was again through VCS, this wonderful organization that I worked for that has completely supported my work on social justice issues that we began through my agency developing programs for the lesbian gay bi and trans community.

And about four or five years ago we have a new executive director, who created beautifully – a certified mental health clinic within my agency. And it began to feel wrong that the lesbian gay bi and trans programming were in the same organization as a mental health clinic. It’s not the correct message. And both she and I believed that we should not only spin off the lesbian gay bi and trans programming, but that we really did need a Pride Center.

And two of the wonderful young women who worked for me at the time who worked with me at the time – we were going to spin them off to become the new directors of the Pride Center. So it feels like something that I began will go on way after me and I’m really proud of the Rockland County Pride Center.

MF: You’ve won many awards. Which awards are you proudest of?

PF: It’s always you know a little stunning to have someone you know say, can you – will you accept being honored. And you know it’s a wonderful honor and it’s at the same time a responsibility. The most recent award is probably the most exciting because I was given a Pioneer LGBTQ award at the first Rockland County Pride Center Gala. But what they did – while they were presenting me the award was to tell me that the award from this point forward is going to be the Phyllis B. Frank Pioneer LGBTQ Award so it will go on in perpetuity. That’s pretty high. That’s really exciting.

MF: That’s wonderful. You were active on National NOW’s committee on pornography. Do you still believe that feminists should fight against pornography?

The Global Issue of Women and Children

PF: You know I attach pornography, prostitution and trafficking – it’s really part of the same issue. And the issue is women’s bodies and women being used for sexual gratification particularly by men. And I think until we expose the global issue of women and children being bought and sold which connects in very many ways with pornography, we will not have equality for women.

Women need to be safe and respected as full and complete human beings. So I believe that it’s an important issue for us to be addressing along with the many areas in which women are discriminated against by patriarchal systems. 

Pushing The Envelope

MF: You’ve been a supporter of transgender people. Where do you believe the laws for and against transgender people will be moving in the next five years?

PF: I believe that transgender people are pushing the envelope not just for the transgender community but also for the entire community. The reality is that lesbian and gay and bisexual people know no more about transgender than the heterosexual population.

Transgender challenges the entire issue of gender. And if there is any issue that we as a community are hard wired on – it’s gender. You’re either a boy or a girl. And the trans movement is saying – not so. Think again. And that you don’t always know that your assigned sex, which you get when you’re born matches who you know you are.

And it’s a head banger for a lot of people and where do I think it’s going? I think in the same direction we all have to go. Equality and justice for all with no exceptions.

Feminist Icons

MF: Looking back is there a memory or moment that gives you especially great joy in all the work you’ve been doing?

PF: You know there are so many I don’t even have one that jumps out. I think that there are two women in my life who have really pushed and helped me to become the woman who I am. And I’m saying this in addition to my own mother and my second mother who was a great help to me.

But I had two feminist icons in my life – one of them Simona Chazen and one of them Lee Sennish. Two women who are a little bit before me, but who have stood behind me, beside me, and in front of me. Always there to share the joys and the challenges and the sorrows. So I think my relationship with them is probably the highlight of my feminist life.

Without Financial Independence – There Is No Independence

MF:  What advice would you give today to young women who are just beginning to enter on their adult life?

PF: You know about 10 years ago I was asked what would I say to the girls who are graduating high school that I wouldn’t say to the boys. And it probably still has some traction today. And I said – back ten years ago – make sure that as you go forward with your education that you build a life where you can be financially independent. Where you will be able to take care of yourself and perhaps several others.

Because going back to the very beginning without financial independence, there is no independence. So I think I would still give that same message. It’s critical. And demand respect. I think as women – young women – older women – we’re kind of used to a level of callousness. Being interrupted more, being touched when we haven’t invited it – to really expose yourself to what true respect means in interactions and stand up for it.

MF: Perfect.