It’s nearly impossible to discuss women’s rights in the North Brooklyn community without mentioning Jan Peterson. But despite her far-reaching activism and international impact, at the root of it the idea is simple: bringing differing groups of women in the community together in a way that supports their nuanced identities.
Peterson, who originally grew up in Wisconsin, had already been involved in the growing women’s rights movement when she moved to Williamsburg in 1969. And it was her exposure to and activism with the diverse factions of people fighting for their rights that ultimately led her to found the National Congress of Neighborhood Women in 1974.
“There was a cross-section between community development movements and civil rights movements, which I was also in,” Peterson explained. “So what Neighborhood Women is is bringing together those threads into one place … Why should a woman who’s a poorer, working-class woman have to choose which of her identities she’s going to stand by? For most women who care about family and community and who are also deep into their ethnic diversity, race and ethnicity, how are you choosing just the woman part when you’re all those things? So Neighborhood Women really was an effort to not make women choose, but to still have a voice for women that’s grounded in community.”
The National Congress for Neighborhood Women was specifically founded in response to working-class women feeling underrepresented in conversations concerning their livelihoods and neighborhoods, which resulted in Barbara Mikulski, Nancy Seifer, and Peterson calling for a conference of neighborhood women leaders and community organizers in Washington DC. After a vote at the conference and funding from local bake sales, Neighborhood Women was born with its headquarters at 249 Manhattan Avenue.
Neighborhood Women also offered a community-based college program for local women reexamining their roles in society, which were often met with ire from men in the neighborhood at the time.
“Why do people have to leave the neighborhood to go to college?” Peterson wondered. “Why can’t the neighborhood be the campus? We offered credits out there so that you didn’t have to leave your children and your family and it was very threatening in the Italian neighborhood for their mothers and grandmothers to go to college. We had then come and peek in our windows when we were running classes, it was a really big thing.”
As the organization continued into the ‘70s and ‘80s, another large undertaking (and one of their first) was opening a senior center and daycare facility at 211 Ainslie St., which at the time was largely opposed by many men in the community. In 1975, the Small World Day Care Center and the Swinging Sixties Senior Center opened and are still in operation today.
“That’s what Neighborhood Women was doing, we were about ‘How do you support the women who are doing all this work in the community; volunteering and holding everything up that people don’t even know exist?’ Women who are taking care of the mentally ill, who are taking care of the seniors, who are supporting the male candidates for political office, who are running the political clubs and church societies. They’re all women.”
The organization also is also responsible for the opening of the city’s first battered women’s shelter in 1977, as well as giving women who’ve suffered abuse a voice on the national stage. But Peterson’s impact extends far beyond just North Brooklyn or even the United States – she’s also responsible for GROOTS International and the Huairou Commission, which work to provide more of a voice to grassroots women and local leaders to this day. GROOTS and the Huairou Commission, along with the National Congress of Neighborhood Women, all have consultative status with the United Nations, and Peterson was awarded the UN-HABITAT Scroll of Honor in 2009.
What drives Peterson’s decades of work? Curiosity and the desire to keep fighting once she’d been exposed to injustices.
“My beginning of standing up personally was the March on Washington in 1963, so that certainly put me over the hill, and once I was there with the war on poverty, it gave me great flexibility because I was working across the sectors,” Peterson explained. “So we asked a lot of questions and we kept creating things that excited us.”