THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Mary Jean Collins
“A movement like this can empower you and give you a community that is with you for the rest of your life.”
Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA Executive VP, July 2021
KR: Hello, Mary Jean. It’s nice to be talking with you today. Thank you for finally agreeing to do your interview for the Pioneer Histories Project. There’s a lot to talk about. Start by giving your name, date and place of birth. And for context give us a little bit about what your family was like, what growing up was like, and schools.
MJC: First I want to say hello to you and to thank you for our many years of friendship and working together on this project, and to say that our friendship and other friendships that came out of my involvement in the women’s movement, especially now, were the prizes that I got out of all my involvement, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that. I also want to mention Mary Jean Tully, who created the Tully-Crenshaw Project at the Schlesinger Library and did interviews for a lot of the NOW people in the early ’90s. Our work builds on what she began so I want to thank her as we start today.
KR: Just to put in a plug for the Veteran Feminists of America Pioneer Histories Project, which this is a part of, we hope anybody watching who was active in the second wave movement if they haven’t been interviewed, that they’ll let us know because we’re trying to do a complete history of everybody who was involved.
MJC: I second that tremendously. I started my life on earth in Superior, Wisconsin, on December 8th, 1939. I was born into a family of mostly Irish Catholics and one French-Canadian grandmother and that was part of our identity growing up. I lived in upstate Wisconsin until I was seven and we moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I went to grade school there at Holy Redeemer Catholic school. The school sisters of St Francis were the nuns who taught in my school, and I mention them specifically because they’re part of my history.
The other identity in my family were being Democrats. My parents were very active Democrats, active in the Democratic Party. As soon as I was able to participate, I was given leaflets for some candidate to go out and leaflet voters on Saturdays or the weekends. I learned from that both to identity myself with the Democratic Party and the principles of the Democratic Party, but also that you should be active in your community. Those were important values that were communicated to me within my family and I appreciate that.
I graduated from high school when I was 17, and I didn’t go to college right away, I got a job. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to College, but my father was quite insistent. Most of the kids in his family were college graduates. He went to college, he didn’t graduate, but education was a high value for him. I finally got around to going two years later in 1959. This is where the school sisters come in again, I went to Alverno College, which is a women’s college run by that order.
That decision had a huge influence in my life for a couple of reasons. It was easier for me and inspiring for me to be around women who were capable and who were running an institution. There were virtually no male teachers, they were all female. They ran the place, they did the science and the math, and they did everything. That really helped me to understand that women could be capable of doing anything.
I graduated with a history major and a theology minor and planned to be a teacher. I went to a Catholic school to teach 7th grade history. I was terrible at it; I didn’t know how to control a classroom. I got fired from my first job and that was demoralizing. I went back to the company I had worked for and was working there and active in the community. At this point, the civil rights movement had started, I was paying attention to Dr. King’s activities in the south.
KR: This is the mid to late ’60s?
MJC: Yes. I graduated from College in 1963, so it was earlier than that that I was paying attention. In Milwaukee the civil rights movement came a little later. Father James Groppi was a priest at St Boniface Church in Milwaukee and helped to organize the Youth of the NAACP into an open housing project. There were massive marches and all kinds of activity and I participated in that. Let me go back a little to Alverno because I forgot to mention I was active in the student government and that helped develop my leadership and organizing skills. That was another important value that I got out of my time at Alverno, just active in my community.
Then 1966 came along. I had stayed in touch with Sister Joel and Sister Austin Doherty over the years because we had become friends as well as their being my history teachers at Alverno. In 1966 Sister Joel went off to a meeting in Washington and down the hall was another meeting that she popped herself into, which happened to be the founding of NOW. She got pulled in and Betty Friedan was very happy to have a nun in a habit at her meeting.
She joined NOW and became a founder of NOW so when she got back, she called me about her experience and said that we needed to start a chapter. That’s how I got to know NOW really early, and I feel very fortunate that that happened. And again, that was tied to my Alverno experience. We started a chapter in Milwaukee and we met at Alverno College. In the beginning, Sister Joel was the President of the chapter, I was a treasurer. We had all these committees on various areas of concern and one committee was on religion. Because we attacked every problem that was related to women regardless, the Church was no exception.
Catholic women were required to wear hats at Mass on Sunday. We decided that that was unacceptable so on Easter Sunday we went to a Parish and we did a “hat action.” We brought hats, kept them in our lap, and then at Communion time we went up and put them on the Communion rail. That was incredible. A couple of important things: we had leaflets, we called the press, we did all these organizing things.
One interesting thing is the leaflet was run off at my Parish, which is just a notion of what the ’60s were like: that the priests in my Parish were Liberal in many ways and so they helped us get the activity to go attack another Parish. We got lots of press. The Italian papers carried our actions, so that was fun. I always remember that action as an example of how there were no limits on what institutions NOW was willing to attack, or the scope of our feelings of the need for equality in every institution in America. As the statement of purpose stated.
KR: Would you say that in the founding and the early days of NOW, it was an activist organization, that actions like that were fairly commonplace?
MJC: The women who founded NOW were almost a generation older than me. From the beginning, most of the founders spent their time thinking of things to do to challenge sexism. We would receive information about what we were supposed to do. For instance, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the EEOC, was not moving fast enough to enforce the law, as our founders thought, so we did a three-state action with representatives from Indiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois. We went to the EEOC office in Chicago, and we banged on the door and asked for a meeting and told them they weren’t doing their job right.
The instinct from the national level was absolutely activism, the statement of purpose was clear: equal opportunity in all segments of American life. That was our mandate, and we should just get going and that’s what we did. Amazing, right?
KR: So then when did you get to Chicago?
MJC: I want to talk about the ’67 conference. I met Catherine Conroy through the nuns. Catherine Conroy was an international rep for the Communications Workers of America, a labor person. The other important person I met at that time was Dr. Kay Clarenbach who was an educator at the University of Wisconsin and also was the chair of the Wisconsin Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women. Catherine Conroy invited me to come as her guest to the national conference in 1967 at which NOW would adopt its basic position statements on issues and activities NOW wanted to do.
We went off to Washington to this conference. It wasn’t a huge meeting, I don’t think it was more than a couple hundred people, but most of the founders were there. They had individual people assigned to argue a position on each major issue. A presentation was made followed by a vote of the members.
KR: Where was the conference?
MJC: Washington, D.C. The conference went on and these presentations got made: a bunch of issues on education, equal opportunity, child care. Two issues that were the most problematic to the group that had assembled included a discussion of the ERA. I had personally never heard of the ERA, I didn’t know what it was, and I certainly didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. The Equal Rights Amendment was debated, and it caused a lot of response in the people who were there. I didn’t know [then] but know now that the ERA was opposed by the labor movement.
The labor women in the room basically walked out when the ERA platform was adopted. Importantly, the NOW office was headquartered at the UAW in Detroit, Michigan so the people who walked out included the people who were running the NOW office and I thought that was kind of bold. Also, Pauli Murray, who was one of the founders of NOW, an African American Woman, who is very famous in her own right, also opposed the Equal Rights Movement because she believed that women’s rights should come from the 14th Amendment. She quit NOW also.
Then we went on to the next difficult issue, abortion, that plank endorsing a woman’s right to abortion got adopted also. Now this is 1967. Then all the Ohio people left and they formed WEAL, the Women’s Equity Action League, because they didn’t like the abortion platform. It introduced me to the idea that there were conflicts, that this was not just a simple thing to assert that women’s equality was necessary, but that there were conflicts around it.
KR: Were you concerned enough to think, should I still be in this organization? What was your reaction to all these people walking out?
MJC: I was a Catholic and the abortion issue came about in 1967 and I was like, Holy Moly. If I hadn’t been there with Conroy, I don’t know what I would have done because I would have been totally confused and alarmed. But because Conroy, who was also from the labor movement, said, “Oh, for God’s sake, you can’t walk out every time you’re having a disagreement about something.” She was critical of her own people, so I thought, I’ll stay too. I took it all in is what I did and I learned so much at that meeting.
I was a 29-year-old office worker in this room with all these women who were very, accomplished. Many of them had very high positions in their field including Conroy and Kathryn. But they were so welcoming of me and so supportive of young leadership that I learned a lifetime lesson. I’ve been trying to do that with the next generation myself, because what a privilege to be mentored by these people. That meeting changed my life in a very real way.
I mentioned that I was involved in the civil rights movement, at that time. And then I met my future husband, Jim Robson, in the civil rights movement. We decided to get married and in 1968 we did that and moved to Chicago. That was a big change for me. We moved into the Hyde Park area of Chicago. We decided we needed to try to live our own principles and moved into a racially mixed neighborhood. I immediately got involved in the Chicago chapter of NOW.
By this time, Catherine Conroy had moved back to Chicago, which is where her office was, so she was involved, she has founded the chapter in Chicago. I got involved in the Chicago chapter immediately. We went to Chicago in June and it also happened to be the week of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 where there was a little bit of trouble. First week we were there we were in the streets trying to deal with the Chicago Police Department so that was quite a baptism, too.
Anyway, I got involved in the Chicago chapter of NOW and I was partly ambitious and partly I didn’t like the President, so I decided I was going to run for President the next time it became available. I did that and was elected in ’69. By this time, the national organization had formed national committees of people. NOW was activist from the start; they understood that the chapters were the ways in which they would get activity going that would help pressure Congress or whoever we needed to influence.
There was one committee on public accommodations that borrowed directly from the civil rights movement demonstrations where Black people couldn’t eat at lunch counters. We were angry because all women were barred from certain restaurants in Chicago. Carson Pirie Scott had a “men’s only” lunch. And Berghoff’s restaurant, which was a very famous Chicago restaurant, had a men’s bar where women weren’t allowed. Everything that came at us we came back at so we did a demonstration at Berghoff’s and I think we did at Carson’s too.
United Airlines had a flight that was for men only, so one Valentine’s Day, we picketed United Airlines with signs that said, “United Doesn’t Love Women.” Judith Lonnquist was the lawyer in our chapter, she researched the law, and it was against the law to segregate public accommodations, so we filed a lawsuit and eventually we won and all of that went away. The energy and the belief in our cause and idea that we needed to point this out to people and they would change it, that’s how we felt.
The other big issue at the time was the Want Ads which were segregated by gender. We went after the Chicago Tribune, we picketed the Tribune, and I argued with them and eventually that cause also was successful nationwide. We had Dr. Elisabeth Farians, who was a theologian at Loyola University and she started a religion committee within our chapter. I think there was a meeting every other night and the nights we didn’t have a meeting, we had an action.
It was the most invigorating time and with a relatively small group of people, so we got to use all of our energy and all of our ideas in short order. Women were so under-utilized in the workforce that they had all this talent and energy that they were willing to put into the women’s movement, we had a tremendous resource there.
In 1970 the chapter had great ambition: we had a January employment conference where we had Shirley Chisholm keynote and we had 300 people show up. Then in March, the national conference of NOW was going to be outside Chicago on March 30th and 31st. This conference was the one where Betty Friedan, the original President, was going to step down and a new President would be elected. Also, there were bylaw changes that added regional positions that we hadn’t had before, so there was a lot of activity at this conference.
NOW’s tradition still is that anybody can come and pay dues and vote so you could recruit people right up to the last minute. We had a really good turn out and these new elections were going to be held with the new bylaws. In Betty Friedan’s closing speech, she got up and said to all of us that there would be a national strike of women on August 26th, 1970, which was then four months away. We would organize in cities and towns all over America and people would walk off their jobs and take their kids to work.
It was kind of shocking because it was the end of March, and we had this mandate from Betty to go do this thing. Lots of people were aggravated that she had done that on the way out of leaving office since she didn’t have to do any of the work, but we all did it in all of the cities. August 26th, 1970 was a huge launching of the modern second wave women’s movement. The press were being nasty and critical of us, but because they were talking about us, they got people to these rallies. We had 15,000 in Chicago, they had 25,000 in New York, and all of a sudden the women’s movement was on everybody’s television set. It was a transformative day, and we got you that day.
KR: August 26th, 1970 was an incredible day. And you were one of the main speakers at the Chicago rally that day. How did that feel?
MJC: I don’t know where I got the strength to do these things, because I had never spoken at a rally. I ran the rally, and it was amazing. When I got up to the podium and looked out at the crowd I just couldn’t believe the number of people that were there. We were in Daly Plaza for those in Chicago. We were very coalition oriented, we invited people to speak from other organizations, other women’s rights organizations. Heather Booth spoke for the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union on child care, and there were a variety of organizations that were represented, not just NOW, because we were not the only organization in the field.
The rally was at noon, so people were on their lunch hour. There were a fair number of men in the crowd because they had to come and see the “Nut Bars” “act out” here. It swelled the crowd, all the things that happened swelled the crowd. In addition to which we had gone out at night skulking, we would put leaflets up in the middle of the night on traffic polls or whatever. At the end of the rally, there was a woman who had taken Betty seriously and taken her child to work, and she was fired. She came to us and said, “I was fired.” So, Judith Lonnquist, our wonderful lawyer in the chapter, said, “Let’s go over there.” So over we went and demanded that she get her job back. And she did.
That was August 26th, 1970. I was elected Midwest regional director and fortunately, you (Kathy) followed me on that so you know that story. We had 13 states and $100 budget a year. That would be to travel to organize chapters in the 13 states we were responsible for. That was quite a busy year, so I stepped out of the presidency. The Chicago chapter is a very strong presence for NOW in the city of Chicago, it did a lot of excellent work.
KR: Do you want to talk a little bit about Betty Friedan and the relationship you had with her?
MJC: I met Betty at that 1967 meeting. She’s from Peoria, Illinois so she’s a little partial to the Midwest because of that. But we also utilized her willingness to travel around, and she came to Chicago, and we did events with her. Meanwhile, the office was in New York, and Delores Alexander was the Executive Director of NOW. There was a lot of conflict that I started to hear about between Betty and Delores. The lesbian rights issue had become sort of volatile within the New York City chapter, so I was aware of that.
I felt at the time and still feel that it wasn’t that Betty was opposed to lesbians as much as she felt having the lesbian issue would make organizing in the Midwest more difficult. That turned out to be a short-lived belief of mine. At the time that was part of the volatility within NOW. Even as the organization grew, it had growing pains in quite a few places. At some point, Betty suggested that she wanted to get the office of NOW out of New York.
Jim, my husband, bid for a contract to do the printing and mailing of NOW stuff; not to be the executive director, but to be the printing house and work with the President, to be able to get mailings out and keep track of people and all that. That contract was accepted so we had the office on the South Side of Chicago after that. That was another thing I did at that time. Jim was paid, and I wasn’t paid, deliberately.
I did a lot of volunteer work for the national organization while I was doing the regional NOW director work. And the regional director position included service on the NOW Executive Committee. That also introduced me to doing more national work on national issues and working with people on task forces or committee people who are doing their work.
Just to complete this discussion on lesbian rights issues and to bring some facts to the matter, there’s a lot of conversation about Betty Friedan calling lesbians the lavender menace, which now was obviously a bad thing, and NOWs alleged anti-gay activity. However, in 1971 at the national conference of NOW in LA a resolution was offered. Judy Lonnquist was one of the people who worked on it and in fact NOW embraced a pro-gay, pro lesbian position saying that feminism should include lesbians and lesbian rights. This is probably earlier than any other organization that I’m aware of. Historically there’s a little bit incorrect belief that NOW was this anti-gay organization for years, it wasn’t – it definitely wasn’t.
In the ’73 ’74 period in Chicago I was regional director for part of that and then I was also on the board. I was on the national board between ’70 and ’75. The Chicago Chapter was very interested in learning to be the best organizers we could be. At that time, there was a new school of organizing: The Midwest Academy, being organized by Heather Booth and her husband Paul, and Day and Bob Creamer, and Nancy Shier and a couple of other people. A bunch of us went to the first class of the Midwest Academy.
The Midwest Academy described itself as an activist training session and to learn to take on the power structure and describe more the people that were in charge of the society, including the corporations and major political people. We thought that their training added to our natural resources as organizers so we tried to convince the board of NOW that they should also take advantage of the Midwest Academy. I don’t think we realized that that upset a lot of people.
Now it’s 1973, the national board made a decision to establish an executive director position in NOW that would be based in Chicago that would give an Executive Director power to run the organization along with the President. I ran for President in 1974 in Houston.
Meanwhile let me go back and explain what was going on nationally with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. So, the EEOC was established to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In the early days of NOW, we were mad at them because they weren’t moving fast enough. At some point they took initiative to go in another direction. They said to the public we can’t eliminate discrimination in America by taking one case at a time, so they came up with a program called “Pattern and Practice.” They came up with a formula to take action against major employers in the United States. The top ones were AT&T, Sears, they also picked a Machinist Union, a major Union, US Steel.
They looked at companies where they had the worst record of race and sex discrimination. They would go after them as institutions to try to come up with massive programs that would change the way they operate their businesses so that race and gender discrimination would be eliminated. We were aware of this program that the government was doing, and this is a period where the government was actually on our side, I know it’s hard to imagine.
The government was actually trying to eliminate discrimination, that was their mandate, and that’s what they’re trying to do. Anne Ladky had been President of the chapter and was active in the chapter, and she and I became the co-chairs of the Sears campaign. We looked at what the government was doing and there was a couple things that converged. There was a group called Women Employed that was organized to deal with the employment issue in Chicago. They had people leafletting the loop and they were getting tons of complaints from the women at Sears in addition to the other companies.
We formulated this idea of trying to have a NOW program to try to also pressure Sears so that the government would be coming from one side, we would be coming from another side, and that we would put pressure on them to actually respond positively to what the government was trying to do. They were perfect because they were in every town and city. We had over one hundred chapters who agreed to participate in this activity and picket series.
Coming back to my story in 1974, I’m running for President. I’m running partly on the employment issue, because the kind of work that I have done is why I want to be the President of NOW, I want to bring some of these programs to the national organization, as we have done through the task force, to be able to make NOW as effective as possible at the national level. We had our little T shirts that said “Sears, $100 million and nothing less”, which is what we wanted Sears to give up in back pay.
We built a campaign around Sears that was part of my campaign going for the presidency in Houston. We were organized and for the first time in NOW we had organized a slate of people running on what we consider a very progressive program to get the organization to be even more effective in this way. I didn’t understand the level of opposition to what we were trying to do. NOW’s way of voting is questionable, and anybody can vote. If they come to a national convention and pay their dues at the door, then they can vote in the election.
There were 34 people who were employees of Sears, Roebuck who came to the conference, paid their dues, and could vote. We’re taking on a major corporation in America, and we have the door open to allow them to come in and vote however they want, to vote down the project. Anne and I ran this workshop on Sears and it was full of hostility. We were like, what the heck is going on here? As it went on, the convention became more and more acrimonious. Karen DeCrow was my major opponent, but two other people ran: Anne Lang and Marceline Donaldson in what seemed to be a strategy to get me to lose. NOWs bylaws required that you get a majority of votes to win.
KR: They were really aligned as part of the different factions.
MJC: They were. Factions really were emerging in ways that I don’t think any of us understood at the time. The bylaws required that you had to win with a majority vote, so you had to keep voting until you got a majority. Running two additional candidates against me made sure that I didn’t get elected on the first vote. As I look back, if I wasn’t going to get elected on the first vote, I wasn’t going to get elected at all. We had three or four votes that went on till midnight, everybody’s tired, half the people were drinking, it was a miserable night. I lost, everybody else on the slate that I ran with won. Karen DeCrow was the President and the majority of the board were people from the faction that I was part of.
I was on the board. And I don’t exactly know how I could be on the board since I didn’t win for President, I haven’t figured that out. But I think I was on the board. There started a period between ’74 and ’75 that was extremely disruptive. There was so much disagreement between Karen and Jane Plitt who was the executive director, among board members. The President was Karen DeCrow, and the board chair was Judy Lightfoot and two different factions.
A total fight for power erupted. Then ’75 came, I for whatever reason decided to run by myself without a slate. In the second slate Mary Lynn Myers led the slate of the faction that I had been with. Both of us ran. The only thing worse than ’74 for the convention was ’75. It was full on hostility and again the election went on half the night, and there were multiple votes. Karen DeCrow won a second time. So then a group formed from the faction that I had been a part of to see if they could form another women’s group and break off from NOW or create a new organization. None of that actually worked and I left the organization. Most of the people in the Women Surge group left the organization.
KR: Do you want to talk about the Now Orleans board meeting?
MJC: That happened sometime between ’74 and ’75. Between the Houston convention and the Philadelphia convention that happened. There was a meeting in New Orleans of the board and one faction walked out and notified people that they were a group called the Majority Caucus. Then the faction fight became open and public and it went on from there. When we went into Philadelphia, the Majority Caucus had their position papers, I don’t know if we had our position papers, too. But it was ugly. It was a very ugly, ugly, ugly experience to be there. I left the organization at that time.
KR: How did you feel? How devastating was it that you had put nearly ten years into this organization, given it your everything, thought you were doing everything you possibly could, how’d it make you feel?
MJC: It was lousy, it was very painful. I’m sure other people would have a different view of that and just see it as a normal political battle. I think I had thought and hoped that the women’s movement wouldn’t pattern itself as much as a normal male political model as we actually were capable of doing. I didn’t totally realize that, and I was very disappointed by that, and naive I would say about that. In the strategy of running multiple candidates and preventing somebody from getting a first ballot victory was a pretty sophisticated strategy.
I have to briefly go beyond the second wave and talk about when I got re involved in NOW. In ’75 I left my marriage and came out as a lesbian. That was another big change in my life. Then I went to work for the Illinois Nurses Association in their collective bargaining Department. I had the happy, happy opportunity to work for Anne Zimmerman, who was the head of the Illinois Nurses Association and during that time became the President of the American Nurses Association. She was a really wonderful woman.
In 1980 NOW, led by Ellie Smeal, had managed to get an extension of the deadline for passage of the ERA from ’79 to ’82 through Congress, which is amazing. They were putting major money into a major campaign in Illinois. I decided that I would run again for the President of the Chicago chapter and try to be a part of the campaign to pass the ERA. I made up with Ellie Smeal and was part of a major campaign in 1980. I ran the ERA campaign with Linda Miller who was the state President of NOW.
We had a major campaign with almost 100 people involved, either paid or volunteer, that we’re working tremendously over that year to try to pass the ERA. We didn’t. On June 30th, at the end of the Illinois legislature, we failed to pass in ’80, but we kept up until ’82 because we had to. Most of us understood that it was a very difficult challenge. But we kept up and we ran campaigns in three States. At the end of ’82 I wanted a national leadership position. Ellie Smeal asked me to run for Action Vice President of NOW which was a paid position in Washington.
What had happened between ’75 and the ’80s is that the model of organization that Ellie wanted, which was paid officers running the place in an office in Washington, DC, had been implemented. This was a paid position in Washington. Ellie wanted me to run because the most popular person running for Vice-President, Ginny Foat, was running. Ellie thought that she would be elected, she really didn’t want elected, so she asked me to run. The conference was in Indianapolis and I got a lot of people to come and vote for me in Indianapolis.
I won by four votes, and Judy Goldsmith was President, Alice Chapman the treasurer. The other two people were from other factions, there were four slates that ran in Indianapolis. Kathy Webb was from one slate and Barbara Timer from another. That’s how I got to Washington. It was a really interesting and powerful and important experience for me.
First thing that happened when we took over November 1, 1982, it became obvious that our direct mail guy, Roger Craver, expected that NOW would continue to do the ERA, we would reintroduce it into Congress and that’s what we would work on. In direct mail terms, that was our “issue.” We couldn’t do abortion because NARAL had that, from his fundraising perspective, that taught me a lot about Washington politics the first day I got there. I said no and there was some conflict over that.
It was a challenge to take over even as one of five people in an organization that had worked on the ERA almost exclusively for the last five, six years. We had a challenge, but we were up to challenge. We did a variety of issues, including abortion. The major thing we did was endorse a presidential candidate, Walter Mondale, and help to get Geraldine Ferraro on the ticket as the Vice-Presidential candidate. Then it was time to run again and sure enough, my life repeated itself.
The Bylaws had kept Ellie from running the year that we ran so she wanted to take over again, so she ran and beat us in New Orleans. That was the end of my NOW experience. But I was in Washington, and I was fortunate to be hired by Frances Kissling, who was director of Catholics for Free Choice. I went there from ’85 to ’93 and was a deputy director and field organizer for them. It was a really good experience, there were some great people there.
Then Carol Blum, who had been in NOW, worked at People for the American Way, and she asked me to apply for a field director job, so I did that in 1993. Fortunately, I was hired there and did some really, really good work there over the next 15 years and I left there in 2008. In that period after I came to Washington, I was on the board of Choice USA and worked with many women over the years on that. I’ve kept my hand in the women’s movement.
VFA is the crowning jewel working on this project with you, Kathy, and trying to really record this unique history of many women working in local communities to create a movement that still is assisting women to grow and change and reach for the goals that we had back in the day. It’s been quite a ride.
KR: Thinking back on it when you think of the so-called majority caucus versus our faction, do you think that there were differences, philosophical or priority differences, or do you think it was really just power?
MJC: I think it was more power than any other one thing. There wasn’t as much support for employment discrimination. The ERA has been an issue in the women’s movement for 100 years, basically. I didn’t realize until I learned my history better that back in the day the women in the labor movement were opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment because it was mostly the upper middle-class ladies who wanted the equal rights amendment and more the working-class people who wanted equal opportunity. There were differences way back then, I didn’t even know that.
In ’74 when we had that awful convention, we were accused of being conservative and socialist, which is a little contradiction, because the part with Heather in the Midwest Academy they thought was too far left and we were not openly supportive of lesbian rights which was too much to the right. There was somewhat of a geographic battle between the Midwest and the coasts that is still going on today, and somewhat of that being as anti-corporate or willing to take on big institutions was a little frightening for some people, and they didn’t see it as their job.
I think there’s more there than just power, though it is a big part of it. There were more substantial issues underneath as well. I’m not bad mouthing anybody who worked on the ERA including myself, but neglecting the employment area and particularly working class women, meant that our movement didn’t grow as richly as it could have in that time. We still face some of these problems.
KR: Something we didn’t focus that much on at the time was Chicago itself has this reputation politically of the “political machine.” They thought we were basically trying to do the same kind of thing, and we just thought we were being good organizers.
MJC: The geographical issue is real in politics. When I look back at the ERA, we thought the Phyllis Schlafly housewife thing was kind of crazy because we weren’t against the housewives. I don’t think most people understood how the right wing was growing in this country and how much she wasn’t just a little housewife; she was part of the growth of the right wing which we’re still seeing the results of in our time.
She wrote A Choice Not an Echo about Barry Goldwater, she was of the right, and we didn’t understand the right enough to really understand what she was up to. Being the anti-women’s movement became her ticket to power within the Republican Party and she was very effective at it. We just kept saying “all the women are for us; all the women are for us.” And we didn’t really get how many women are really invested in another approach of having their power come indirectly through their husband and their family. I don’t think we got that.
KR: I think you’re right. And I also think we were naive. The reason the ERA didn’t pass in Illinois at that time was all internal stuff that had really nothing to do with us in a lot of ways.
MJC: In the early days the Cardinal didn’t really want the ERA and Mayor Daley was listening to the Cardinal. There’s a lot still to be investigated about that. We were partly a joke at first and then we were becoming more powerful. It’s not a simple answer.
KR: Anything you think we haven’t covered?
MJC: I want to say how much I valued my experience. Whatever I’ve contributed, I got so much more from my experience. Those early founders and their openness to bring in the next generation was admirable, and I’ve never gotten over the thankfulness I have for their behavior. The extent to which a movement like this can empower you, but also give you a community that is with you, I wouldn’t have been able to anticipate having 50-year friendships with my friends in NOW, but I’m grateful for that.