Charlotte's Web

At the Routh Street Women's Clinic, Charlotte Taft created a controversial feminist enclave and waged war with anti-abortion zealots. Then she questioned her movement's gospeland it all fell apart

At least once a month in staff meetings, according to the document, everyone would be given the opportunity to "speak from the heart about what really matters to her." A "Talking Stick," a ritual taken from Native American tradition, would be passed around a circle, and the person holding it could speak uninterrupted. There were no rules about what was shared. If a woman wanted to talk about why she was distracted at work, fine. If she wanted to share what she had learned at a weekend workshop on the healing power of crystals, fine. If she wanted to reveal that she had come to the sudden realization that she was a lesbian, that was fine too.

But sharing feelings and power came easier to some than others. Some people just wanted to be told what to do. And although dealing honestly and directly was fine as a utopian ideal, as a matter of business policy, it was difficult to enforce. Several nurses on the medical team resented having to hold The Form and objected to the emphasis placed on counseling. Rather than express their dissatisfaction within staff meetings as agreed, they took their complaints to Dr. Braun.

The feminist universe that Charlotte created had never included Dr. Braun. If anything, he was purposely kept out of its cosmology. He was never asked to be a partner in the clinic culture, never asked to sign on to its agreements. One time, a counselor tried to hold The Form with him; he rarely spoke to her again. "Direct communication was never his forte," says Sallie Stratton.

For 15 years, Dr. Braun expressed little interest in the day-to-day operations of the clinic, allowing Charlotte absolute control. He had financed her political causes, her personal growth, her social engineering. But now that these matters had been brought to his attention, he wanted certain things to change.

If he could just figure out a way of telling Charlotte.
Early in 1992, Scott Hudson asked Charlotte to come by his law office. It was his job to tell her: Dr. Braun had commissioned a management study. Outside consultants would be observing the clinic and recommending changes.

What he didn't tell her was that Braun thought the staff meetings were a waste of time, that salaries were out of line, and that the counseling was too expensive. "He wanted to blame the changes on somebody besides himself," recalls Hudson. "He thought the management study would recommend doing away with counseling altogether."

Charlotte felt threatened, betrayed. Any changes that needed to be made should be home-grown, only implemented after input from the staff--not imposed by outsiders. But Charlotte had no choice. The owner had finally decided to assert himself; it was his right.

Beginning in March 1992, two women moonlighting from Dun and Bradstreet spent several months at the clinic, interviewing employees past and present, observing the counseling, the staff, their interactions.

Their recommendations: do away with The Form and the Talking Stick. Staff meetings needed to have a fixed agenda set by the administrators--one that didn't include the venting of personal feelings. Implement a more rigid hierarchy. Cut back on the number of administrators. Restructure their work and salaries. Tie pay raises to productivity, not subjectivity. Implement a dress code to make the clinic look more like a doctor's office. Cut back on political expenses that don't directly benefit the clinic.

Only the sensitive issue of counseling was left untouched: the consultants suggested no changes.

On July 10, 1992, when Charlotte met with Dr. Braun and Scott Hudson to discuss the report's findings, she refused to address its specifics. She believed the friction which gave rise to the report was more about making money than about "personal feelings" in the workplace.

The past decade had been difficult for Dr. Braun. He'd lost money during the real estate bust, been hit hard by managed health care, and the patient load at the clinic had been declining. He was getting older, musing openly about retirement. Often, he talked about just giving Charlotte the clinic outright.

But if this was about turning a profit, she could take care of that. "How much money do you need to make from the clinic?" she asked Braun. "Give us a goal."

He offered no answer. For him, it was enough that he had given her a copy of the management report. That was his answer.

But Scott Hudson didn't insist she implement the study; he had too much respect for Charlotte's vision. "We went into this to help women, not to have this great capital growth," he would later explain.

Charlotte put the best possible spin on the meeting, one that was consistent with her own vision. In a memo to her staff, she wrote, "In our discussion yesterday, it was my impression that Scott and Lea were willing to support my views and not require any changes." She said the clinic had not been asked to compromise the counseling, or to become more of a hierarchy. But she had agreed "to work on" certain streamlining measures regarding overhead, salaries, benefits, cutting away the fat, getting leaner--but not meaner. "I think we can address what we need to do," she wrote, "without it being a terrible experience."

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