Veteran Feminists of America 



Pam's Mom, daughter Sara and Pam

I was born December 20, 1950 in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, during a terrible snowstorm and arrived home as a family Christmas present. My two sisters, Lorry, then six, and Yvonne, three, still feel cheated. In 1951 we moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where my father was offered a better job. My parents had a mixed marriage; my maternal grandmother was Jewish and my father was German Lutheran. 

My parents’ marriage was a good one. They loved each other, loved us, and discussed world politics at dinner. My mom, Ethel Burns, who had a B.A. in political science from Washington University, raised us and ran a catering business for the Jewish community. The first thing we did the morning after a catering event was to raid the refrigerator. My dad, Alex Plagenz, was a union electrician. He taught us about electricity by building a board with a buzzer on it so we could see how it worked. He also built an incubator and we raised chickens and ducks from eggs. 

Life was sweet for us every summer.  My sisters and I spent many of our summers in Wisconsin on family farms. Our large extended family in St. Louis was Jewish, wealthy, loving, and sophisticated. The Lutheran Wisconsin family was hard working. Most lacked a wide view of the world and were cash-poor farmers. We saw life from urban and rural vistas, a huge advantage to me. My parents had black friends during the 50s and 60s.

It wasn’t by accident that I became an activist. My parents taught us all about the Holocaust, which made us aware of life’s inequities. We watched documentaries showing concentration camps and the millions of victims murdered by the Nazis. We were taught that “we would never walk by someone in need of defense.” They made it clear that the German people did nothing while Jews were killed in front of them.

Tragedy struck our lives when my dad was killed in an auto accident in 1966. He was 42 and mom was 44. Mom was a warm and patient mother but my Dad’s death took so much out of her that I sort of got lost in her misery. My sisters had left home by then and I became her wife, doing the cleaning, cooking, laundry and shopping while mom sold real estate. 

I was lonely and fell in love with a high school classmate. Like many boys his age he was confused and left me for another girl. I was heartbroken but he soon returned. Shortly thereafter he enlisted in the Marines and was sent to Vietnam. We wrote to each other every day. Almost a year later I received a Dear John letter; he wanted out of the relationship.  Once again I was heartbroken. 

One of my sisters had a friend just home from Vietnam and he became my rebound relationship. I had no access to birth control and my mother had never talked to me about it. On my 18th birthday, during my only semester at St. Louis Community College, I became pregnant. We married quietly and began a mostly unhappy marriage for both of us.

We were poor and lived in the crazy era of the late 60’s when drugs were everywhere. My husband did a lot of drugs with neighbors. I got a job at the county police department after my daughter, Sara, was born in 1969. She was the best thing I had in my life. She made me realize I needed to end the marriage.

My husband had been verbally abusive but I didn’t love him and just ignored it. When I told him I wanted a divorce he strangled me with an electrical cord. I blacked out but survived. He promised to grant me the divorce. A couple of days later he trapped me in the bedroom and strangled me again. I seduced him into having sex in order to save my life. My nine-month-old daughter was in the next room and I knew I had to save both of us. I was able to get the divorce but didn’t get any of the ordered child support.

During the next four years I had a series of pink collar ghetto jobs--the gender opposite of the blue collar jobs that pay much better--almost always the low wage clerical ones that women do. I experienced a great deal of sexual harassment. I was asked what kind of birth control I used, had unwelcome kissing and groping. I did well though because I was smart and hard working and had the advantage of being from good schools and a good home.  

I job-hopped to get small wage increases whenever possible and learned business management from the bottom of the wage scale. Those different jobs helped me see good and bad management. I could motivate women to be more productive because I knew what their real needs were.

In 1974, I married again, to an older man who adopted my daughter. During that time I became a dressmaker so I could stay at home with her. As I sewed, I watched Phil Donahue on television and read the books he showcased. Donahue was a big influence on me; he tried out a new format promoting a more progressive view of politics, economics and women that had never been seen before, with content aimed at “women who think.” His devotion to addressing the taboo issues of the time, particularly women’s issues, was a big influence on me--I was being home-schooled on feminism. It was a great time for me to think and learn. 

I found a good job in a trust company and learned about Wall Street while counting rich people’s money. The job was an education and taught me how to use a computer but ended over a command that I make coffee. That was the day in 1976 I joined my local NOW chapter.

Speaking at Missouri NOW

NOW was the perfect place for me. Attending rallies, walking picket lines and talking to reporters gave me the sense that I wasn’t a bystander, but that I was doing my duty as an American. I was elected chapter treasurer in 1977, president in 1979 and had to fight to win Missouri State Coordinator in a serious race in 1981.  The State had just passed an adult abuse law. I had been volunteering at our first domestic violence shelter for a year; women were having problems getting orders for protection so I spent every Friday advocating in court for them.

The ERA campaign was my first legislative battle. I was the lobbyist for MO NOW. Losing was painful so I turned our attention to battles we could win. We fought against mandatory joint custody in divorce, for domestic violence funding and for sexually abused children. We won the first State funding for battered women’s shelters and a pilot research program on the sexual abuse of children. Missouri is a backward state--even when we had a Democratic majority they were terrible on women’s issues—and we didn’t pass much legislation to brag about.  We were there to raise our issues and find more women to be elected.

MO NOW asked me to go on the road to form new chapters. It was surprising to me when 40 or 50 women would show up for a convening meeting in places like Springfield, Kirksville, Rolla and North Kansas City. We had an agenda that women responded to and the new chapters gave us more support for legislative goals. We started a State Political Action Committee and our fundraising was pretty successful. The chapter leadership supported my attending NOW PAC meetings in Washington D.C., which were great places to see powerful women supporting and promoting our issues. 

Pam and Judy Goldsmith

Judy Goldsmith was elected NOW president in 1982, the last year I was State Coordinator. She requested women to apply for appointment to the PAC board. Their meetings in D.C. were big ones with dozens of women, but I didn’t realize that only nine of them were voting members. If I had, I would never have applied, but lucky for me Judy gave me one of those nine seats. The four years I served were thrilling and the basis for a friendship with Virginia Watkins, current VFA Secretary.

Virginia and I had been friends since she was our regional director.  When our appointments to the board ended, we stayed in touch.  We visit each other and traveled together to Europe and around the U.S. She also urged me to join Veteran Feminists of America.  We now both sit on that board as directors and officers.

 After I divorced my second husband I found my first management job at a marketing company, where once again I experienced sexual harassment. When the company closed I took a job managing an OB-GYN physician practice, where they performed abortions and needed a strong advocate and P.R. person to handle the ongoing tensions. I expanded the practice to two locations. One was fire-bombed while I was at a national NOW conference. 

We had Operation Rescue nuts shouting at patients and asking them why they would kill their babies.  Sometimes the protesters would shove or try to stop the patients from entering. Police didn’t respond to our calls for help until we experienced violence at the hand of an older priest, who shoved and bruised the receptionist. I still had to call the prosecutor and had a screaming match with him to get the police to arrest protesters who had resorted to violence.

Pam with husband, Patrick Deaton

I moved on to Democratic politics as a fund-raiser and met my present husband, Patrick Deaton, a criminal defense lawyer, while he was on a campaign for MO Attorney General.  We married in 1990, the year he ran for Congress. During the day I was his fund-raiser; evenings I accompanied him him to events. He lost by only one percentage point on a $60,000 budget.

I continued to raise money for Labor-endorsed Democrats including Alan Wheat in his run for the U.S. Senate. Eventually I was offered a position as Chief of Staff at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen. I wrote and helped pass legislation to fund medical care for battered women and to arrest the men who paid prostitutes. I spent six years loving the job and feeling I was making a great contribution to women.

The job ended in 2007 when my boss lost his election. Fortunately I was able to find a banking position just before the Recession hit. I spent another six boring years as a banker. Now I am retired and returning to political action. I sit on several boards for women (many of whom are coming out of prison) including the St. Louis Community College Foundation, Let’s Start, Cornerstone Center for Early Learning, LERA (Labor Employment Relations Assn.), MO NARAL PAC and now I am the newly elected VFA treasurer.

I fight for women because I experienced so many of the problems faced by the Women’s Movement, including sexual abuse as a very young child at the hands of a Wisconsin cousin ten years my senior. I was 37 when I realized what had happened to me. I have spoken openly about my personal story of sexual abuse and domestic violence during my political life to show people that victims can recover and feel no shame about it.

I am helping my daughter, now an airline captain, to raise her daughter. I am quite proud of Sara. She spent many of her early years at NOW conferences.  Sally Ride came to one and Sara was thrilled to meet her. My granddaughter, Emma Martin, was born in December 2005. NOW changed my life for the better. VFA is lighting up my own second wave of feminism and connecting me to women I deeply respect.  I look forward to many more years fighting for women’s rights.



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