Veteran Feminists of America

 

Dr. Eleanor Pam: Women and Violence--a Life's Journey, VFA Board Member, Feminist Icon.

Baby Eleanor


Born to working class parents, I grew up in a slum in Brooklyn, a neighborhood in which Murder, Incorporated flourished. My father, Simon, was often out of work because he regularly challenged his union's leadership's corrupt practices. They punished him by giving him just enough work to prevent us from starving. He supported us by playing pinochle and poker with burley men in stained undershirts who sat in our kitchen day and night, none of whom had his extraordinary memory for recalling every card played. This continued until he had enough money to go into business for himself.

Although funds were tight, my three brothers were expected to go to college and become professional men. I, the only female, was programmed to become a secretary, get married and procreate promptly.

I was an excellent student, skipping grades three times. In high school I was placed into an Honors Program for Intellectually gifted students. Proud of this academic achievement, my mother, Berta, still preferred that I be tracked into a course offered typing, bookkeeping and shorthand. I would also be expected to contribute to the family finances and help put my brothers through college. My dad, an intellectual and a political activist, stayed out of it, just as he never attended parent-teacher nights or graduations.

Mom and I clashed over my going to college, in the same way we differed over other basic things. In fact, when I was born she took one look at me and burst into tears, then handed me over to the nurse, who was her cousin, and would not touch me again until we left the hospital a week later. This pattern of rejection never changed -- until I married a loving and supportive man (Robert Juceam) with a promising career in law and gave birth to three children (Daniel, Jacquelyn & Gregory).


Actually, I was a battered child. But my mother was an outstanding grandmother, which redeemed her and allowed me eventually to lay down the toxic burden of memory and childhood trauma, and to put the past to rest. Through our common care and love for my children, we had finally become friends and I was able to love her. Now a wife and mother myself, I had miraculously morphed into the daughter she wanted and she became the mother I needed.

But growing up with a rejecting parent was hard. My brothers were spared. Their mother was warm, giving and fun-loving; mine was volatile and dangerous. I imagined it was because I was a girl. So I became an athlete, better than my brothers actually, and the closest I could get to being a boy. Eventually, I became strong enough to stave off the attacks and beatings.

 

Eleanor Pam in the early years

But in those earlier days, when I was a skinny and vulnerable kid, everything I did and wanted seemed to anger her, even reading. When my mother saw me with a book it became another sign of my deficient character, this one signaling indolence. My sentence was immediate; I was assigned to dust, iron or wash dishes. It was clear to her that I was just hanging around, doing "nothing". I felt like Cinderella, getting all the chores while my brothers were allowed to go out and play. But books were my sustenance. So I read secretly, ingesting them furtively, guiltily, hungrily-often in the dark with a flashlight--and whenever I heard approaching footsteps I'd fling the book out of our 3rd floor tenement window into the filthy alley below, hopefully to be retrieved the next day.

In resisting the vision my maternal parent had in mind for me, a future that most of my friends seemed to happily embrace, I confused us both; I didn't seem to be like everyone else. But my mother yearned for the respectability of being just like everyone else. This was her fantasy of a mother-daughter relationship when one day we would shop together in perfect companionability. She was constantly telling me who to be. I didn't have the answer yet, but I knew I could never be the person she envisioned.

In the end, I won the battle over college. Somehow, I convinced her that I should continue with my academic studies and not become a secretary. Feeling guilty, I mentally compromised and got a part time job in Manhattan as a filing clerk, working four hours each day, five days a week, for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. This entailed a daily subway commute that ate up another two hours of my overcrowded day. Such a grueling schedule of mindless work, plus the rigorous curriculum at school was punishing. But although I was always exhausted, somehow I managed to squeeze in time and energy to write for our high school literary magazine, serve as its editor-in-chief, maintain a respectable grade point average, and receive medals for academic excellence at graduation. Ah youth!


It was understood that I would attend tuition-free Brooklyn College, the place where all in the neighborhood who were college-bound went. And everyone I knew did go to Brooklyn College. I went to Brandeis University, a small, intellectually competitive private school outside Boston, and majored in Philosophy on a work scholarship. I hadn't said a word about my plans to anyone in the family until the acceptance letter came in the mail. As I read its contents I knew my life was going to change dramatically and permanently. I had altered my fate and was getting out. It was the happiest day of my life.

After graduating in 1957 from Brandeis with Honors in Philosophy, I moved to New York's Greenwich Village, raising eyebrows from the folks back home. It also raised suspicions that I was up to no good. In those days, females lived with their parents until they got married. Once again, I was out of step. Still, I acquired three graduate degrees from New York University, including a doctorate.

 

Kate Millett and Eleanor Pam
at Kate's "Farm"

It was an exciting time to live in the Village. I mingled with many people who were later to become legends, acquired a circle of unique friends and led a free spirited lifestyle that popular parlance dubbed as "bohemian." One day I was introduced to an unusual woman. Her name was *Kate Millett and she lived on the Bowery.

She dragged me off to organizations and protests which espoused causes of every kind and stripe-civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, pacifism-many of them fringe groups too bizarre even for my unformed tastes. On a cold evening in 1968, Kate took me to a meeting that resonated in a way the others had not. We sat in a room with passionate and argumentative women who had recently formed an organization called NOW. I joined, and my life changed again.

My own career had taken off. Although only in my early 30's, I was a full professor and dean at a college at CUNY (City University of New York), and an adjunct professor at New York University's Graduate division. Given my background, it was logical that I co-founded, in concert with Kate--NOW's first Education Committee. She was Chair and I, Vice-Chair. A committee of two, we elected each other. Together, we tackled the daunting job of analyzing curricula and pedagogical trends across the country, K through graduate school.

Kate and I took turns presenting our findings and recommendations in a report that we read at a NOW meeting. Our work later became the foundation for many studies and a raised national, even global consciousness about the systematic bias against girls and women that infected our entire educational system, resulting in dramatic changes to gender based educational practices in this country and others. It was also the precursor for Title IX.

I took feminism to work with me, learning and relearning it each day. Looking at everything through its prism changed my perspective, choices, and values.

By then I was the one of the highest ranking female administrators in our university and felt it was time to use my clout to make some much needed changes. I went to bat for individual women on the faculty and staff, especially those who were being unfairly denied advancement, tenure, promotion and other basic rights, but I had a more ambitious agenda and wanted to extend its reach into the community as well. So I convinced the president of my college--and I still can't believe that I had the nerve to even suggest it--to purchase a large private home in the neighborhood which I staffed with women from different offices and departments. This became the first Women's Center.

We offered counseling services, legal assistance and help in areas of finance, health and mental health, employment, divorce, custody, sexual abuse, mortgage applications, etc. At the opening ceremony for the Center, many politicians, dignitaries, and civic leaders were in attendance, including the Chancellor of the University. The media also showed up. It was such an impressive concept that newspaper articles heralding its existence were read into the Congressional Record.

But I also utilized the Center for more subversive purposes. It became headquarters for feminist political activity within the university, a centralized communications system. We supported and financed a coalition group of female faculty that spanned all the colleges within our university and printed and distributed its newsletter. We were the support apparatus for disaffected and disenfranchised women whether they came from the custodial or clerical staff or held high academic or administrative rank. Females in our workplace were discriminated against, whatever their level of employment. Eventually, we escalated to a class action that cited CUNY for discrimination against women. It took ten years of contentious litigation but the lawsuit, which was the largest and most complex of its time, was finally settled on terms highly favorable to the female faculty and staff.


My advocacy was problematic because technically I was management, not labor-and thus considered by some as a traitor to my class. But feminism trumped it all and I brushed off the criticism.

I had moved on to another college and was elected the Department Chairperson of Behavioral and Social Sciences. In this capacity I was exposed to the wide-ranging problems of student/teacher sexual harassment within academia, i.e., coerced sex in exchange for a passing grade. Far too often, I received shocking complaints and requests for intervention from students about male faculty who were under my supervision.

Eleanor Pam with Jean Harris after her release from prison for killing the
Scarsdale Diet Doctor, Herman Tarnower.

There were parallel issues just as troubling, I was learning, on the faculty/staff end-about supervisors who forced sexual favors from subordinates, rewarding or punishing female employees in proportion to their cooperation and using job security and career advancement as chips on their board game. This went beyond abuse of power; these were the tactics of bullies and predators, those who profited from the vulnerability of others. I understood vulnerability very well, so inevitably, sexual harassment became my next feminist cause.

In partnership with a like-minded colleague, I went after these men, some of whom had positions at the highest echelon of our academic world. We exposed, and then forced a vice-chancellor and the comptroller of the university, among others, from their jobs. But a case by case offensive was not enough. We needed the central administration to bless our point of view and formally make it theirs; so we lobbied for a university policy against the pernicious practices we were uncovering.

A sexual harassment policy was a relatively advanced idea for that time. Most corporations, agencies and bureaucracies did not have them. The issue itself was not a popular one, but was trivialized and mocked as an invention of man-hating feminists who were deliberately misrepresenting normal, innocent flirting. However, as a result of our passionate insistence about the need for an overall, preemptive policy, the Chancellor's office eventually set aside their hostility to the idea and capitulated. And they gave us the assignment of drafting the framework, a task we happily embraced as we set about creating hearing and disciplinary procedures, careful to include due process protections for the accused.

After vigorous resistance by the faculty/staff union (which had a vocal majority male membership), a strong university policy against sexual harassment was adopted and is still in place today. Subsequently, I was appointed as a hearing officer to investigate and make determinations in such cases. In a really sweet side victory, I also managed to convince the union leadership to adopt a sexual harassment policy for its own paid employees.

But all this activity was tame compared with what my life segued into afterwards-a journey into a world of blood and tears as I took on the weightier issues of domestic violence and women in prison.

The Mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani invited me to join his Commission to Combat Family Violence, offering me the chance to do work that was especially meaningful to me because of my own history as a battered child. I stayed with the Commission in this non-paying position for eight years.

My next professional step was a natural one. I accepted a position as Visiting Professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, another school within the CUNY system. Within a year I had founded a Domestic Violence Center and became its Director. This Center was vibrant and the first of its kind. Also a first was a University Domestic Violence Policy that I proposed, wrote and implemented.

Each day at work I was baptized anew in a sea of tears. The traffic into my office was unending as stories of beatings, threats and terror poured in. Each tale was more unthinkable than the last. I struggled to find options for these tormented victims, but solutions were elusive. Even more unfortunate and invisible were the women I hadn't met, the ones who didn't come into my office--because they could not, and would never summon up the courage to come forward and identify themselves as victims of abuse.

It wasn't just ideology that plunged me into increasing activism about domestic violence. It was rage. Here was a problem so pervasive and cruel that no one seemed to have the tools to address it adequately. Perhaps my early life predisposed me to indentifying with wounded women, but I prefer to believe it was also an ordinary sense of mercy.


An important goal was to get an anti-stalking law for New York. Shockingly, our state did not have one. Together with a coalition of determined advocates, we finally succeeded in persuading the state legislature to pass such a bill. But it took us ten years to overcome ferocious resistance from opposition groups and politicians.

Increasingly, I began to speak out in the national media and in lectures around the country about the problem of domestic violence, giving newspaper interviews and appearing on network radio and television. I was on fire. The tabloids pursued me every time a celebrity assaulted a woman and his bad behavior became public knowledge. Apparently, there was commercial, perhaps even entertainment value in domestic violence, and I was always good for a quote. As my advocacy increased, so did my visibility. This noise eventually led to an interesting invitation by the FBI.

They asked me to come to Quantico Virginia and participate in a think tank at their Behavioral Sciences unit. There was an epidemic of intimate partner abuse by law enforcement officers across the country and the FBI was taking this problem very seriously. They thought it would be useful to bring experts and professionals together so this issue could be studied and addressed. I agreed, arrived at the marine base by train, was appointed as an Honorary Member of the Advisory Board, delivered a paper about cops who batter in intimate relationships which they later published, and appeared on a panel which was beamed to every police precinct in the country via the FBI closed circuit television system.


The following year I was invited back to deliver another paper. This one described the dynamics of law enforcement officers who killed their spouses and/or children and then committed suicide, i.e., police homicide-suicide, an area which few knew anything about. Thereafter, I found myself in hot demand by the media whenever a story like this broke.

Inevitably, my outspokenness got me into trouble. One article containing many critical quotes from me about the New York City Police department landed on the front page of the New York Times, Sunday issue. The story--and my name--could not have been more prominent. The mayor was not pleased as he was very fond of his cops. Nor was my boss, since he was the president of a criminal justice college that specialized in the education of police officers--who were also the majority cohort of its student body. I offered no apologies or regrets.

One evening, watching television, I was shocked to see a woman I knew casually being led away in handcuffs. A retired police officer, ex-nun and a parochial school teacher, Sheila had just been arrested for the murder of her rapist, kidnapper and torturer. Despite her credible background, the jury convicted her on the prosecution's theory that she had been a scorned woman who murdered him after a date gone wrong. This was patently absurd, especially since Sheila was a life-long lesbian. In fact, she had killed in self defense, but the judge gave her a sentence of 25 years to life.

In those days the bar for proving rape was very high. The public also had a bias and aversion towards females associated with violent acts. The criminal justice system gave them heavier sentences than men and treated them disparately and with gender prejudice. I was to see this first-hand over the next several decades.

Ten and a half years after she was first convicted, Sheila reached out from prison to ask for help. I gave it to her, launching an intense media and public relations campaign to tell her story. Within six months a federal judge vacated her sentence and she was released. That was the beginning of my interest in the plight of women in prison.

I met many inmates during my visits to Sheila. Since she had been incarcerated in a maximum security facility, the women I encountered were serving heavy time for serious crimes, primarily homicide. After Sheila was released I began receiving requests from her former "colleagues" to review their cases, speak out on their behalf, advocate for their freedom. After listening to their stories I came to believe that the issue of women in prison was a cutting edge feminist problem. I discovered that most of the female prison population had been battered in their earlier lives. In too many instances they seemed to be serving excessive or unjust sentences, especially compared with their male counterparts and often because of their male counterparts.

Eleanor Pam, Pamela Smart's mother, Oprah Winfrey

I could not help everyone, but did what I could with varying degrees of involvement and success. There were so many, and so few of us to doing this kind of work. Before long, I was visiting and corresponding with them, some of whom are so high profile and famous that popular books and films were based on their characters and crimes. I advocated for several of them in the print and electronic media-and still do.

There is one mountain I am still climbing with an uncertain prognosis for success. For almost than 20 years I have been heavily invested in the case of Pamela Smart, a woman so vilified by the press that her innocence, as well as her image, has been fatally compromised and poisoned. I believe she is a loving, caring person who did not and was never capable of the crime for which she was incarcerated, and I agreed to act as her academic mentor helping her achieve two Masters Degrees. I am also her legal advisor, advocate, counselor, public relations guru, media spokesperson, and concerned friend. I accept every press invitation and opportunity to espouse her innocence and promote her freedom including an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show in October 2010.

Six years ago I introduced Pamela Smart's case to filmmaker Lori Cheatle who subsequently produced a documentary, CAPTIVATED: THE TRIALS OF PAMELA SMART.  I appear in the film which is currently being shown in Film Festivals all over the country, beginning with Sundance.  CAPTIVATED will have its television debut mid-August 2014 on HBO.  They have asked me to be part of their media blitz to publicize the film.  In Fall, 2014 I will be spearheading a political campaign to lobby for Pamela Smart's freedom.  She is currently serving a sentence of Life Without the Possibility of Parole.  I am hopeful that the documentary will eventually create a new path to her release.

I have been lucky to know and work with many of the pioneers of the women's movement, the giants of my generation who changed the world. Original, generous, brilliant and courageous, these women have touched my life and enriched it beyond measure. I am humbled and grateful to have been in their company and to have witnessed the miracle and the revolution as it was taking form.

Eleanor with husband Robert, grandson Ezra

I've also had the singular privilege of serving on the Board of the Veteran Feminists of America as Executive Vice President and now as its incoming President.  This is the organization which honors and acts as the institutional memory of the feminist movement. I am moved and  and impressed by those excellent women of the next generation who are carrying on the work for gender equality with integrity and passion.

Feminism has been my North Star and the lens through which I view the world. I was honored to be a pioneer during those early days and to witness how our feminist agenda rapidly evolved, ignited into a blazing passion for gender justice-and then into a movement, later consecrated by the exhilarating and unforgettable march down Fifth Avenue in August 1970, another highlight of my life. Because of our Sisters in the movement, my grandchildren, Jordan, Jake, Ezra and Sarah have inherited a kinder and more equitable world in which to work and love.

When I look through my life in feminism I realize that I have been guided and centered by the eternal question: Am I my sister's keeper? And the answer--ever and always--is unconditionally yes, yes, and yes!




Contact Eleanor Pam: Eleanorpam@aol.com

Comments to Jacqui Ceballos: jcvfa@aol.com

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