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Fran Leeper Buss

I am an old woman now, and I look back at a life filled with much joy. However, that life has been shaped by a vow I made when I was young, and that vow was based on pain. In the waning days of the eugenics movement, I was on welfare, a divorced mother of three. I had medical problems, and only one gynecologist in our community would take welfare mothers. He lied to me and told me I would have to have a hysterectomy to save my life. High on drugs, he cut me up. He was arrested after my surgery, but I was disabled for life and had six subsequent surgeries. Outraged by my treatment, I dedicated my life to fighting for justice for poor women of all backgrounds. Now nearly 80, I have followed through with that commitment.

I was born in 1942 in Iowa into a working-class family and began helping my janitor father when I was ten, the same summer I wrote a child’s novel about the Revolutionary War. I married young and became a mother to three (Kimberly, born in 1965; Lisa, 1967; and Jim, 1968). Working full time, I graduated from college with a teaching degree.

Fran Leeper Buss and Father
Fran Leeper Buss as a child

After my divorce, I worked four jobs trying to support the children. Desperate for food and nearly homeless, we went on welfare. After the surgery, we lived with other poor mothers and, in 1971, formed one of the first women’s centers in the country. There, we dealt with violence, rape, housing, problem pregnancy, harassment, organizing, and legal issues. I also became an early feminist. I married David Buss, a campus minister, in 1972; continued community organizing; and attended seminary, hoping to work in a church-related social service agency.

Fran Leeper Buss and Jesusita

Together with my husband David and the children, we moved to New Mexico, where I specialized in economic justice and women’s issues. At that time, I met Jesusita Aragon, the last, traditional midwife in the area. Inspired by Jesusita, I hoped to find someone from the community to do a book about her life. Finally, my family was going to move to Wisconsin, and Jesusita asked me to do the book myself. I worked out a oral history method which resulted in La Partera: Story of a Midwife, published in 1980.

In Whitewater, Wisconsin I worked as a campus minister and continued to organize women. I also traveled around the country in an old car with a used camera and reel-to-reel tape recorder as I collected oral histories from white women and women of color. The resulting work was a photography collection called Stepping from the Shadows and a book, Dignity: Lower Income Women Tell of Their Lives and Struggles (1985).

I left the ministry, began to teach women’s studies, and volunteered for the United Farm Workers, especially working with Maria Elena Lucas, a farm worker organizer. I’d been involved with racial justice issues for years, and through Mary Robinson, an African American labor activist, I traced movement work in Alabama. The friendships turned into 40 year working relationships and two books: Forged under the Sun/ Forjada bajo el sol: The Life of Maria Elena Lucas (1993) and Moisture of the Earth: Mary Robinson, Civil Rights and Textile Union Activist (2009).

With the help of Maria Elena Lucas, Salvadoran Daisy Cubias, and anonymous undocumented teenagers, I did background research to write Journey of the Sparrows (1991), a young adult novel about a fifteen-year-old and her family who escaped the killings in El Salvador during the wars of the 1980s, crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without papers, traveled north locked in crates, then tried to build secret lives in Chicago. It won many awards, was translated into six languages, and adapted into a play.

Maria Elena Lucas

After our children graduated from high school, David and I moved to Tucson, Arizona, where I got a PhD in 20th Century American History in 1995. My driving goal was to discover how and why certain groups of people are trapped in systems of oppression. I also taught college-level students in women’s studies and history. My 4,000 page oral history collection was archived at the at the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study with Harvard University and six other research libraries. I also donated my journal from fifty years to the Schlesinger at Harvard. I won the first, annual Prelinger Prize for Outstanding Contributions in the Field of Women’s History in 1998. David and I continued our political activism, especially dealing with border issues.

Grandchildren of Fran Leeper Buss

Retired from teaching, I continue to write today, especially using ideas of resistance, justice, the construction of memory, and redemptive memory when analyzing my 110 in-depth oral histories of poor and working-class women. This work resulted in two books: Memory, Meaning, and Resistance: Reflecting on Oral History and Women at the Margin (2017) and Redemptive Memory: Women Activists and the Search for Justice, which I just completed.


Our adult children and seven grandchildren bring adventures to our lives, and we live in the desert at the edge of Tucson, where we share two acres with a blind dog, coyotes, javelinas, bob cats, and a desert tortoise. I continue to enact my vow, care intensely about politics, and still find meaning in the search for justice.

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