Gail Gabler

“We are going to keep organizing and fighting, and we demand our equality and we will one day win it.”

Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, at the UIC Richard J. Daley Library, Chicago, IL, June 15, 2019

[Edited Transcript]

MJC:  Good morning Gail. Thank you so much for doing this interview with the Veteran Feminists of America. We’re pleased and honored to have you as a part of our collection.

GG:  I’m thrilled to do it.

MJC:  Tell me your name and where and when you were born, please.

GG:  I’m Gail Gabler and I was born in Elgin, Illinois in 1959.

MJC:  Talk about your family background, how you were raised, ethnic background.

GG:  White and middle class. When I finally read The Feminine Mystique in college I thought, this is my mother’s life. She was a college educated woman who married my dad, they had their first baby when he was in law school. She loved her job before she had a baby but then she didn’t work again. She was at home and raised five kids.

MJC:  Where are you in the birth order?

GG:   I’m the third, the middle.

MJC:  Describe what your life was like before you got in the women’s movement?

GG:  I got involved in the women’s movement in college. My life leading up to that was gradually becoming a little bit political but not until the 1976 Carter elections, I remember those very distinctly.

MJC:  Were your parents politically involved?

GG:  No, not at all. We didn’t talk a lot about politics. My mother and sister watched the Watergate hearings and we all watched Nixon resign. There were those kinds of political memories. I was watching Bozo Circus when John F. Kennedy was shot, don’t remember that at all, so not particularly political. I wrote a paper during junior high about the women’s lib movement and I read it years later and saw that it said at the beginning of this I wasn’t sure how I felt about it but now at the end I have to say I support the women’s lib movement. And part of it was going around and interviewing my mother and neighboring women about how they felt.

MJC:   Did you get an affirmative response from your mother?

GG:  She was a little bit more mixed I think because she didn’t want anybody in the family to know how she felt about it. At some point after that she would sometimes talk about male chauvinist pigs, that moniker definitely came out of her mouth more than once.

MJC:  Where did you go to college?

GG:  Harvard. I wanted to study government (political science).

MJC:  So, this would have been?

GG: ‘77 to ‘81.

MJC:  That’s a pretty political time in American life.

GG:   Actually, on campus it was the anti-apartheid movement. I participated in some marches on that. There were also some issues around diversity of the student body, so I got involved with the Democratic Club on that. I campaigned a little bit for Ted Kennedy when he was running against Carter.

MJC:  What would you say constituted getting involved in the women’s movement or in politics generally? What did you do when you graduated from Harvard?

GG:  I was getting a little bit political and thought I would go to graduate school. There was an interview on the radio in ‘81, I was going to be graduating a few months later and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I thought I would go to graduate school; I wasn’t involved yet in any feminist organizing. The woman on the radio was talking about the threats to abortion rights of the new Reagan administration. She was talking about how she wished these young women would understand that their lives are at risk here. It was a plea from someone who’s clearly dedicated and sounded a bit beleaguered and anxious. That plea for help was a real call to arms for me. I called NOW, the Boston chapter, right after that and started getting involved with them.

MJC:  What did you do in the Boston chapter of NOW?

GG:  I graduated a few months later so mostly attending marches and maybe helping with leafleting and that sort of thing. I didn’t take on any huge role, I just started volunteering, but to their credit when somebody new comes in who’s got a little fire in their belly, they’re like, “Come on in and get involved!” that was definitely the case.

MJC:  And were you working at that point?

GG:  I was still in school. I was writing my senior thesis. I was also temping, that’s the other thing in terms of my background involvement. My first jobs were as a secretary because I learned to type in sixth grade. So I never went the retail route or waitressing. It was always office work. In the summers I had that as my side job and to help pay for some bills during college and like every typical woman’s job you feel the sexism. Definitely as a secretary I felt it.

I felt it even more so when I was a Harvard student, because somehow people would say “Oh!” And then I was up here. But if I was just temping, and they say do this, do that, go get my coffee, and people who would make these silly spelling and grammatical mistakes that I would have to correct, but somehow they’re up here.  But then if I’m going to a good school I was somehow above these other women who were doing the same work full-time for their careers and doing it better than I could do it coming in on a short-term basis.

MJC: You were conscious of that.

GG:  I was very conscious of that and I bristled at it.  It was very unjust to me. I really resented it. That you didn’t respect me yesterday. Now you respect me a little bit more. 

I actually had an interesting experience with John Kenneth Galbraith. When I was temping I never wanted to be sent to temp at Harvard because that’s where I’m a student. I don’t want to be a temp there because I had experienced this other thing in my summer jobs et cetera. But one time they said, “We really need somebody. He’s finishing a book, he needs somebody to transcribe his ramblings and put it into written form and you’re the fastest, you’re really good at transcribing. Please will you do this?”

So, I went, and I helped transcribe one of his books. He wasn’t in the office all the time, he was coming and going. He learned I was a graduating senior and I was invited to go to the graduation party at his house which usually has the grad students – it doesn’t have too many undergraduates there, but I guess he thought it was appropriate. I show up at his house. He’s welcoming everybody as they come in. So, he shakes my hand. “Oh hi. Hi. So, what are you going to do when you graduate?” And I say, “I’m going to New York. I was going to go to graduate school but I’m still thinking.”

He goes, “Well you know, you’d be a great secretary.” Here’s this guy who’s this Democrat, liberal guy and a professor at Harvard. I just graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard and you’re telling me I should be a secretary? And sure enough, I went to New York and signed up for different agencies and they wanted to keep sending me for secretarial jobs. That would never have happened to a man.

I got my first job in New York at a city agency and I got it by networking, because that’s what women do. Folks in Boston NOW recommended that they probably have a Commission on the Status of Women. Good idea. I got an informational interview with a person from the Commission on the Status of Women. And she got me connected and I got a city job. And I quit it like four months later to work full-time for NOW New York City.

MJC:  Excellent. So, your first paid job in the women’s movement was working for NOW. Was that a paid job?

GG:  It was a paid job. The president was Denise Fuge. And behind the scenes, always very active was Noreen Connell. The two of them had the vision of we need a full-time organizer working on ERA and abortion rights et cetera. But particularly on the ERA ratification.

MJC:  Was that when you became aware of the ERA ratification?

GG:  I knew about it already. I don’t remember when I learned it. I don’t think my involvement in Boston NOW is when I first heard of it. It’s when I first did anything about it. And then coming to New York it was clearly something that I should be involved in and they wanted an organizer.

MJC:  This would have been 1982?  And the ERA Countdown Campaign was going on around the country. Talk about the role that New York played and maybe other states, too.

GG:  It was late ’81. Although I was definitely not the mover and shaker of it, I was literally the full-time person on it. So that’s where I really cut my teeth on it. We came back from the NOW convention in 1981 with this mandate that we’ve got to pass this, time is running out. We have until June 30th of next year and it wasn’t just a job for the unratified states, it was definitely the entire country.  So NOW New York said we were going to mobilize to send people to Florida and Illinois and raise money to do it. We were going to train people and call it Equality Riders. And we did.

We recruited people from the chapter, they had to put in a certain amount of time volunteering first so they would do some phone banking. They would do some canvassing; tabling is what we really called it. You went out and just did different street corners to raise money for ERA ratification. You had to do that because we’re not going to send you somewhere when you’ve never volunteered a day here. You had to do that real work. We also had other folks who would host house parties to raise money for the ERA. We had a campaign and we sent dozens of volunteers to the unratified states and then after we had it rolling for a few months and it was pretty successful, we had a template on how to do the different pieces, I was like “I’m from Illinois – I should go.” So, somebody else took over my role at the chapter and I went home for Christmas and then stayed through the duration of the campaign in Illinois.

MJC:  Did you live at home?  Did you stay in Elgin?

GG:  My family had actually moved to Wheaton at that point, in DuPage County and yes we did campaigning in DuPage County.

MJC:  That was hard.

GG:  Yes, that was hard, so I didn’t stay there. I stayed for a little while in one of the near western suburbs, I can’t remember which one, with a family, but then it just made more sense for me to be working out of the office, so I stayed with my sister in Chicago.

MJC:  Tell us about working out of the Chicago office. What was that experience like?

GG:  It was great. It was fantastic. It was a terrific community of women. It was always buzzing with activity – either the folks who were there full-time, Illinois people or folks like me who came from out of state who were there full time, but also others who had day jobs and were coming in after work to do that. There was a sense of purpose. A lot of it was clerical and tedious and looking up in those reverse directories, those old things you have to look up. A lot of it was that and figuring out voters and how to reach them and then a lot of it was just get up and go. We weren’t sitting around the office all the time. We were going out and the postcard campaign or going down to Springfield to lobby. There was a lot of activity. 

MJC:  There were regular trips to Springfield, right?

GG:  Yes, and organizing other volunteers. Those of us who were working full-time were trying to get other people to do letter-writing parties in their houses. It was organizing, and it was really exciting.

MJC:  Can you talk about what skills you really developed across that campaign?

GG:  I think both in New York and Illinois definitely the volunteer recruitment and delegation of tasks to them, the political lobbying I had not done that in college even though I was a major in Political Science. Actually, doing that and doing it to both sides of the aisle.

MJC:  You met legislators?

GG:  Yes, for sure.  We did lobbying there and bringing people in for visits with the legislators which is even more critical of a skill as an organizer. We did a couple of marches, participating in those.  I did some press, particularly in New York when I came back, I did some interviews on that. So I really learned – you know that “everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten”: I feel like all my organizing I learned on that campaign.  With the possible exception of technology tools! 

MJC:  Well, we didn’t have many.

GG:  I do remember my first visit being walked through the Chicago NOW office in the old Monadnock building and being walked by this big machine. “This is a facsimile machine, we call it a FAX machine, and they can send something – look, something’s coming out!” It was kind of fascinating to see that we had these earlier tools you could use in the movement.

MJC:  So how long did you stay in Illinois and then what happened?

GG:  I stayed from the holidays until June. I don’t remember what day it was but a lot of us left on a bus to go to Washington.

MJC:  I was on that bus, overnight. I think it was June 30th. By that time the last vote had occurred in Illinois. 

GG:  Illinois’ vote was like June 22nd. I think we lost Florida before that. We may have already known even before the Illinois vote. I have to say I thought it was one of the most important rallies to have. It wasn’t like “Okay, you defeated this, so we’re defeated.” It was like, “No, we’re not going away. You may have done this, but we’re coming together to say you haven’t heard the last of this movement.”

MJC:  So, people came from around the country to that rally?

GG:   Yes, absolutely. There was a bus load of people who were from Illinois who had just fought for it and were going to D.C. to gather with others – it helped us to feel not so defeated. To feel that this movement goes on and we’ll remember in November.

MJC:  After the rally did you return to New York and what were your next steps?

GG:  I went back to NOW-New York and I was once again hired as an organizer to work on our new Woman Power PAC.

MJC:  So politics. More direct political activity. 

GG:  Yes, exactly.  It was specifically to support candidates who would support women’s rights. That would have been ‘82, there was a lot of turnover that year, because it was the midterms after Reagan’s election. I think it was the election where Jerry Nadler was elected. I remember working on his campaign, but I don’t know if he went to Congress then or if it was some other position that he had before.  I remember his name being on our palm cards to take to the polling place.  

We didn’t just help the candidates in their campaigns, we had our own thing. We printed our own palm cards, thousands of them, and we had volunteers going out as NOW volunteers to say these candidates are endorsed by the Woman Power PAC of NOW-New York City. And Mario Cuomo was running for governor against Ed Koch. We endorsed him and afterwards we were looking for quotes to support our PAC and his campaign gave us a quote saying he thought that NOW-New York City made the difference in his campaign for governor. We’ll take it!  There were some wins and we got some good candidates elected. At least we felt like in New York that the women’s movement could make a difference in politics.

MJC:  So a good lesson out of the whole experience.

GG:  Yes, or at least a good pick-up from that, that you have to bounce back.  Though we didn’t get Reagan out two years later. 

MJC:  Did you do any work in the ‘84 campaign?

GG:  I did. I actually worked in the NOW national office. I worked with you [Mary Jean Collins]. There was a whole crew of us. Many of us were assigned to different states and coordinating within NOW chapters in different states. 

MJC:  And our ticket was…

GG:  Mondale-Ferraro of course.  I remember the day that he announced her as his running mate and the tears flowing in that office, the exhilaration.

I had worked for a woman running for Congress in New York first in the primary campaign, Betty Lall. We supported her in ‘82 against a Republican congressman. She narrowly lost so she ran again in ‘84. Not that this ever happens, but because a woman Democrat had challenged this moderate Republican and had given him a run for his money, two years later, of course a man ran against her in the primary. She lost in the primary. She would have been a terrific congressperson. For the general election, I came to work for the NOW office and then left shortly after the election.

MJC:  Then where did your life take you?

GG:  Then I started working on Central America work. I had been down to Nicaragua in ‘83. That was part of my journey to see a country that’s actually wanting to do more for women’s rights instead of suppressing women’s rights. A revolutionary country that was encouraging and supporting its women’s movement. I spent four months down there in ‘83 and I made other trips afterwards to help organize work brigades of Americans to help. I was going from New York and then Boston, too, I was moving around a little bit. 

MJC:  But you had cast your lot with progressive social change.

GG:  Exactly. And as an organizer.  In between campaigns I would do my secretarial temping to pay the bills. Gotta have that day job.  But otherwise it was campaigns. 

MJC:  And how long did the Nicaragua campaign go on?

GG:  I had a full-time job in there with the group that was sending brigades down there but mostly that was volunteer work.

MJC:  Not the highest-paid job you ever had.

GG:  (Laughs)  Nor was NOW, for the record!  I wanted to do something – although the solidarity work was really important, and I kept doing that for years on the side – in terms of my career and what my day job would be; I didn’t want to be temping or just one campaign after another campaign. I wanted to have some stability at some point. I was thinking about what that would be that could have an impact and actually give me some stability in my life and realized that part of the women’s movement that really called to me was about the way women office workers are treated, because I had experienced that.

I also saw that being half of the country and not having any power is partly because it’s hard to organize half of the world. Where are they? They’re everywhere! That actually made it harder, not easier to organize. I realized that the answer to both of those things was union organizing for women office workers. So I asked people I knew in NOW, and I remember Noreen Connell saying 925 is a group that is organizing women office workers. It started as 9 to 5 the Association for Women Office Workers with Karen Nussbaum and others and then gradually became a union allied with the Service Employees Union.

I did an informational interview with Jackie Ruff who was running 925 in Washington.  Happened to be in her office on the day she got a phone call about the Equitable Insurance Company boycott having been successfully won. So needless to say, I had to sit there and wait for a while as she was managing all this. 

MJC:  What was that campaign about?

GG:  When District 925 was organizing office workers, the insurance industry, the banking industry and a lot of those industries that have big money and depend on women clerical workers to do all of the work were totally non-union, just unorganized. Partly from the Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton movie, 9 to 5 had gained some fame. There’s something out there to help support women office workers. Some of the clerical workers at Equitable Insurance Company in Syracuse, New York organized with District 925 and the company had refused to bargain. Even having a union, they were like, no, we’re not talking with them. 

So there was a boycott that unions and progressive organizations across the country supported. Some of the unions were talking about – we have pension money – so there was a serious boycott.  It wasn’t just individual people saying I’m not going to get my life insurance policy. It was corporate, actual funds that were at risk there. It was a great job that those women in District 925 did and it was a small office, not a big group of women.  This is what we mean about women taking power. That we are going to use our solidarity across the country and our relationships and make sure that you have a right to sit at the table.

MJC:  That was a wonderful victory the day you were there.

GG:  Yeah that was very exciting. I wasn’t even looking to get hired. It was an informational thing; she didn’t have a job. I was just asking, how do I get started?  I went from never having belonged to a union, my parents not being union people, but I’ve got this background, I’ve been organizing, and I’m really interested in it and I’d love to get involved. She suggested an internship in Boston with District 925, I did that while I was learning Spanish to go down to Nicaragua. Temping, Spanish and an internship. For a year or two we were always in communication when there was a job opening. I finally got a job in ‘85 with them and I ended up working 19 years with SEIU and have been in the labor movement pretty much ever since.

MJC:  How would you say that your women’s movement activity influenced that job and how were you able to shape SEIU as well as being shaped by the labor movement?

GG:  As one of the people who came in as District 925, I think it definitely did shape SEIU. There were a lot more women leaders coming in that way and bringing in women office workers as rank-and-file leaders. Paying attention that it wasn’t just here’s this other workforce where there happen to be some women in it, but this is a workforce primarily of women. And since there was a lot of public sector organizing as well that was happening, not just through District 925 but a lot of women in the public sector as well, it really helped to have that burst of energy.

I wound up doing a lot of public sector organizing. I also did health care organizing which had a lot of women in it.  I was always drawn to the campaigns that had a lot of women workers in them. I think it helped to empower those workers to see women organizers and it helped to empower me to see them willing to risk their jobs to fight.

MJC:  You’re in Boston. How long do you stay in Boston?

GG:  Not that long. I was pretty fluid in those days in terms of Chicago, New York, Boston, Nicaragua; wherever the campaigning took me. Once I joined SEIU I moved around a lot depending on what campaign they had for me. One of the campaigns I was sent to was the contract campaign for Equitable in Syracuse, when it came time to negotiate a new contract. 

MJC:  Oh, how wonderful. You got to be at the table. To see the fruits of the labor.

GG:  Yeah, fruits of the labor. Unfortunately, though, this is why this is a movement, not just a single campaign:  the company announced at the bargaining table after we had done our work to bring the workers together around our bargaining demands that they were closing the branch.

MJC:  It is not an unusual tactic under these corporations. That must’ve been devastating for the workers.

GG: It was really tough. The union leadership was willing to fight, we can boycott this again, and the workers said, “We’re tired. We just don’t think we can do that again.” So instead we negotiated a generous severance and job training, placement. Having a union, they were able to have a better situation, but sometimes when women stand up and ask for their rights they get slapped down and if they don’t get slapped down right then, sometimes it’s the day after. That was not a great lesson to learn. But it was a real lesson to learn.

MJC:  How did SEIU take that? They didn’t have a negative impression of that?

GG:  No, they supported it. That’s one thing about being run by women. They supported what the women wanted to do around that.

MJC:  So then what happens next?

GG:   I kept organizing and moved a little bit out of some of the District 925-specific organizing to do health care. I organized the first union hospital in the state of Nevada.

MJC:  You got around the country.

GG:  Yeah I did and was in on the ground floor for home care workers in Los Angeles which was one of the breakthroughs for that sector, also mostly women.

MJC:  It’s still an important sector, still fighting. 

GG:  Yes, very important.  And then I’ve worked for a couple of other unions since. That’s been a lot of it. I took a little bit of a break during the time I was having kids. I have a lot of accomplishments I was part of and contributed to. I do feel like being part of the political campaign right after the ERA was important in New York. I think we took some of that momentum of women being disgusted by Ronald Reagan’s stance on women’s issues and helped to parlay that into more victories at the ballot box. That one in particular stands out as something I was part of and proud of.

In terms of organizing women workers, public sector workers that I’ve organized, and getting hospital organizing going in the state of Nevada, which I think is part of the reason it’s a little bit more blue than it used to be – it’s got a strong union presence there. As well as organizing home care workers who really deserve it and need it. I’m proud of those accomplishments. And although other than public-sector workers it wasn’t so much office workers, which was my personal entry into it, it’s still the same way of “Oh, that work that you do – that’s not as important somehow.”

Until women really are organized around their workplace rights – it’s all of it: it’s our rights in the home, our rights in the workplace, our rights politically. All of those are important spheres, but having that power, that unity that comes with a union and being organized as working women is really important to me so I’m glad to have participated.

MJC:  We’re currently planning an ERA reunion for the workers and the people who worked in Illinois. So, talk about that if you would just a little bit.

GG:  I’ve been looking forward to that for a long time because it was kind of a seminal moment in my life. It’s hard to think of a defeat as a seminal moment in a movement. I do think that at least it’s a moment in the movement that did take a lot of women up in terms of hope and activism and unity and “it’s a no-brainer” and slam them into the wall of their actual lack of equality in this country. In a way that did not devastate most of us. For most of us that was a wake-up call – we gotta get busy.  Looking at it in that way and just personally knowing for me it gave me all these skills and launched my career as an organizer, it was important at this moment to come together, when the ERA just passed finally and was ratified in Illinois last year. (A little late!)

MJC:  What are you working on in addition to the reunion as an activist?

GG:  I mostly work as an organizer right now in my day job. I haven’t given as much time outside of that. In my younger days as a union organizer I did work in the Solidarity movement on the side and then occasionally would do homelessness organizing. Now it’s pretty much my union job and go to rallies. Spend time with my kids.

MJC:  How old are your kids?

GG:  My kids are all grown, but a couple of them are still at home.

MJC:  Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t covered yet? 

GG:  Women being able to take defeat and interpret it for younger women – interpret it as: this is not surprising that you, from this position of power, would do this, but we are not going to let you get away with it. We are going to keep organizing and fighting, and we demand our equality and we will one day win it. And that inspiration was really important to me. And I think it’s important for all of us, maybe more now in the Trump era than ever. It’s easy to feel defeated when something goes so wrong. But we can’t afford to. We have to pick ourselves up and say ultimately justice is going to triumph and ultimately we’ll have equality, but only if we join together and fight for it. It’s the real warriors of the women’s movement who came before me that I owe a real debt of gratitude to. That’s why I’m here. So thanks, Mary Jean. 

MJC:  Thank you very much.