Veteran Feminists of America


I was born Barbara Fisher on December 25, 1919 in Rockford, Illinois, where my maternal grandparents lived. Since my father was an educator who eventually went into administration, we moved several times during my childhood, each time because of a better position opening for him. It was the period of the Great Depression, so jobs were not plentiful for those like my father who were soldiers returning to civilian life after WWI.

I remember life in small towns in the Midwest as very pleasant and especially cherish my years from 10 to 16 spent in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in Newberry, a small isolated lumber town. Life centered around the schools and the Community Center. We all learned to toboggan and ice skate and dance.

Football and basketball were highly popular. Most of us strived for good grades in school and were proud when we achieved them. We didn't need to be taught tolerance for other cultures and beliefs because we were all friends: Swedish, Finnish, Catholics, Protestants and Jews, with a few Canadian French mixed in.

With a father who was my high school principal and being an only child, I always understood I would be attending college and that I could choose my own field. However, I also understood that the only fields open to girls were nursing, teaching or secretarial jobs. I chose teaching, which prompted my parents to insist that I attend the University of Michigan, the best school they could afford for me. Happily, I was delighted with their choice. Striking out on my own on a huge campus was challenging but immensely exciting. Best of all, I found that in the 30's and 40's, women there were expected to be as active and live up to the same standards as men, even though there were vestiges of more "protection" for women, such as week-night curfews.

I was even pleasantly surprised when my zoology professor suggested I would be a good candidate for the School of Medicine. (Women physicians were almost non-existent at the time.) Another example of the university's progressive attitudes was evident when my political science professor urged every woman in his class to join the League of Women Voters after graduation. This was 1941 and he expected women to be politically active!

I was tempted by medical school, but realized my parents did not have the resources to help me pursue that dream, so immediately after graduation I took a job teaching. Yet I was still eager to learn more, so I also enrolled in graduate courses on weekends and during the summers, paying my own way, and finishing my M.A. degree in January 1943.

A wartime marriage brought me face to face with sex discrimination and male chauvinism for the first time in the person of my southern-born husband, who had old-fashioned ideas about women's inferiority and a married man's male privileges. We lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when he returned from WWII to complete his residency in surgery.

Two children were born in Ann Arbor from this marriage: Kathleen, who married a Frenchman in France. She is deceased (2002) but her daughter, Elsa Brunet, born in 1980, is an M.D. practicing Family Medicine in Paris, France. My son, Dr. Brian Mahon, is a practicing psychologist, who lives in Manhattan in New York City and is married to Alice Phillips, an artist. They have no children..

In 1950, my husband and I and our children moved to Texas to start his practice in surgery. He was from Texas originally and attended the U. of Texas before coming to the Medical School of the Univ. of Michigan.

After years of trying to make the marriage work, I finally liberated myself in 1964. And that is when I first felt like a real feminist. I was on my own with two teenage children to educate with very little help from him, but I knew I could handle the situation and I did. I returned to teaching, moved into a small apartment and went on with my life.

After a couple of years, I married William J. Materka, who came to Dallas from New Jersey to study at SMU on the GI bill. We met when we were both performing in Kiwanis Club benefit musicals during the late 50's and early 60's. He is deceased (1984) but his two children (my stepchildren) live in the Dallas area and we are very close. I consider his grandchildren to be my grandchildren and they think of me as their grandmother. There are six Materka grandchildren, and as of March 11, 2011, there is a great-granddaughter, Chloe Sunshine Link (pictured left).

This second marriage allowed me to give up my job (1967) and become active in the community. I joined the first women's organization to grow out of the suffrage movement recommended by my political science professor, the League of Women Voters. We were soon involved in the drive for the ERA and on reaching a consensus for a woman's right to decide when and whether to bear children. It was an exciting time for feminists and I remember marching for the ERA in Houston and then celebrating after the state of Texas passed its own ERA. I went on to take a succession of positions with the League, culminating in serving as Dallas president, and two years on the organization's state board.

Our study of reproductive rights led me to accept an invitation to serve on the board of Planned Parenthood of North Texas and five years later to chair that board. During my term there I traveled to Washington with a local group to march for reproductive rights. Locally, we often faced fierce opposition from the Religious Right of that day, with demonstrations outside our clinics and attempts to "crash and disrupt" many of our public gatherings and conferences.

Nevertheless, women's organizations began to proliferate and I became active in the Dallas Coalition for Reproductive Rights, the Women's Issues Network and the Dallas Women's Council. My husband and I performed in a number of sociopolitical satires for such groups as the Dallas Women's Center, The Amigos (a tri-ethnic group fighting racial discrimination), the League of Women Voters and an environmental group called the Texas Conservation of Natural Resources.

All in all, I'm happy that my activist years occurred when they did. Civil Rights and Women's Rights were the cutting-edge issues of the1960's and 70's.They inspired me and many others to work hard and long to help bring about much-needed change. The struggle goes on, but those of us "of a certain age" saw the Movement take hold and were pulled into action. Some of the accomplishments we remember are:

  • revoking the Texas Poll Tax
  • desegregation of the Dallas public schools
  • a woman's right to hold property in Texas in her own name
  • women becoming eligible to serve on juries
  • the Roe v. Wade decision
  • passage of the ERA in Texas
  • some advancement toward equal pay for equal work

My favorite hobby for the last 25 years or so has been world travel. I've been to India, as well as to Thailand and Malaysia, China and Japan, Australia and New Zealand, around South America's horn and the Cape of Good Hope, to Alaska, to above the Arctic Circle in Norway; I'll just have to miss the Antarctic and such exotic places as Easter Island. Glad I traveled when it was easier and cheaper! I have already traveled to most of the places on my dream list, thank heavens! Probably won't do much of it from now on, but I am going on a "People-to-People" Tour of Cuba the first week in March.

We look forward to seeing a new generation of women taking up the good fight for complete equality for Americans of all ethnic backgrounds and all genders.

COMMENTS: Jacqui Ceballos

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