Hedy Ratner

“The Empowerment of Women is the Raison d’Etre of My Life.”

Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA Executive VP, October 19, 2019

KR:  Hedy, thank you so much for agreeing to do an interview with us for the VFA Pioneer Histories Project. Please start by telling us your full name and when and where you were born.

HR:  Hedy Ratner. I was born August 29th, 1941 in Chicago.

KR:  Great. And what kind of family background did you have?

HR:  My parents were immigrants from East Europe. My father was from Minsk, in Belarus. My mother from Benjn, Poland. They escaped the pogroms, separately. They met and were married in Sioux City, Iowa, then they moved to Chicago. My father was a socialist, my mother was a Zionist. Zionist at that time was defined differently than today. I was very involved with issues of social justice, from a relatively secular Jewish background.

I became very involved in issues of rights and peace and social justice pretty early on in my life. I married very young. I’ve been married three times – now I’m a widow. After my first divorce I moved to California. My father was involved in issues of socialism. His brother was actively involved in peace organizations and civil rights organizations and I lived with them for a short time in Los Angeles.

I got involved in various peace movements, anti-war, and civil rights movement pretty early on. I’d been to nine colleges and universities. Everybody asks me why? I kept changing my interest in my location. I came back to Chicago and met the man who was the love of my life. I got involved with Operation Rainbow PUSH. Willie Barrow, Jesse Jackson and I were very close friends and we worked together on civil rights issues.

The man who I eventually married was a P.R. consultant to the YWCA. At that time, which was about 1969/’70, the YWCA was the only social service agency for women in Chicago. His claim to fame with the YWCA was creating the fundraising event The Leader Luncheon, which became the major fundraising event for YWCAs all across the country. He thought I might be interested because I had a history of being involved with civil rights and human rights, but not women’s rights at that time.

It was pretty early on in the second wave of the women’s movement that I became chair of the YWCA. My mentor at that time was a woman by the name of Diann DeWeese Smith who was executive director of the YWCA and we hired another great feminist, Heather Booth, to help us organize and train me to be a feminist leader. I remember one of the first things she said was that I did not know how to run a meeting.

Most of Chicago’s feminist activist organizations emanated from the YWCA. I became chair of the Illinois Women’s Political Caucus founded originally by Maya Friedler – another wonderful feminist who was also on the board of the YWCA with me. She encouraged me to become more active, so I founded the new Illinois Women’s Political Caucus, which became a very active activist organization to support women candidates in Chicago and Illinois.

I got involved with an organization that fought for the Equal Rights Amendment and with Women Employed, which was just beginning from the YWCA with Day Piercy. I was involved with reproductive rights organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL, which was more active in Chicago. I was a teacher. I graduated with my master’s degree in educational administration and worked as Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Cook County.

There was a little Italian guy in the mailroom who printed for the county superintendent’s office. He didn’t realize it, but he supported the women’s movement with postage and printing and paper. Everything we did emanated out of the mailroom at the county superintendent’s office. I did major mailings and flyers and printing. 

I’m from a family of people committed to social justice and equal rights. My mother didn’t quite understand the women’s movement, but she supported it. My father thought it was terrific but died in 1968. I came back to Chicago because he was ill and died. I was later appointed by the Carter administration to be Assistant Commissioner of Education at the Department of Education in Washington DC at the end of his administration. The first International Women’s Conference was in Copenhagen and I worked for the State Department for regional women’s conferences in about five different states. The regional conferences  prepared women’s organizations for the initiatives, issues, and challenges that needed to be addressed at that conference.

We did an Illinois Women’s Agenda here in Chicago and I was one of the leaders to come up with initiatives, challenges, issues that needed to be addressed on a statewide level. We worked with all of the women’s organizations at the time to develop an Illinois Women’s Agenda and came up with a report. Jim Thompson was the governor at the time and was very receptive. He was a moderate Republican governor who was also pro-choice, pro-affirmative action.

I also started an organization earlier in Chicago called Women in Film.  It started in L.A. as a way to deal with the challenges women faced in the film, video and movie industries nationally. I worked with a number of unions including AFTRA and SAG to facilitate more women involvement either as interns or mentors and women as directors and cinematographers – opening doors for women in film and video industries.

I was working on Women in Film right after I came back from Washington, in Chicago, and put together an organization called the Chicago Film and Video Foundation to build a film studio in Chicago. The goal was to get more women and minorities involved in those industries. Most of the women were involved in traditional roles: makeup and costumes and production assistants. So that was another area that I was involved with.

I almost got them to build the film studio, but then some very powerful male politicians got involved and killed my project and tried to establish their own. I killed theirs by exposing what was happening. As a result, there were some reports done and Oprah opened her studio here in Chicago in one of the facilities we were looking at. Women in Film precipitated that work on the film studio project. They’re still trying to do it in Chicago, but it’s been undermined by people who have different goals.

Ann Marie Lipinski was a new journalist at The Tribune. She later became the editor and publisher.  Ann did a story about the Judy Chicago Dinner Party exhibit. We were part of a group at Diann Smith’s house called Roslyn Group because Diann lived on Roslyn with Diana Beliard. It was a feminist book group; we read books by and about women. She brought the Judy Chicago dinner party article and presented it to the Roslyn Group, and we said this seems like something we should have in Chicago. It was a very controversial feminist art exhibit called The Dinner Party.

We put together this group and raised the money to build a museum in Chicago in the South Loop to house the Dinner Party exhibit. We tried to get every art museum in Chicago to house it. They said it wasn’t real art, it was too controversial, and it was done by women and didn’t have much of a role. It was probably one of the most successful art exhibits ever in Chicago. We found a property in the South Loop; Bette Cerf Hill was head of the South planning board at the time.

She found a building that was going to be converted into condos, but nobody was interested in the South Loop, it was still an industrial area. It was a perfect space for the dinner party. We had the exhibit on the first floor and then on the top floor we blacked out all the windows. We put this fabulous exhibit of women in history on plates and triangles which was the symbol of the vagina. It lasted for a year. It was enormously successful.  

As a result of that we had a bookstore that was enormously successful and when we closed the exhibit, we paid all of our expenses and we had $25,000 left. Several of us were on the preliminary board of the Chicago Foundation for Women and one of the first major contributions to the Chicago Foundation for Women was from the Dinner Party. We lost interest and faith in Judy Chicago as an artist because she wasn’t a feminist in the way that we all were.

We continued on as a group and decided we wanted to have a women’s club in Chicago. It was practical and reasonable and should have been done. A place where women could meet, get together with our organizations, where we could even stay if we needed to, we could have fitness programs for women. We raised a lot of money from people who wanted to be a part of this women’s club, but we couldn’t get anybody to do it.

I gave back the money. Christy Hefner, who was then president of Playboy and the Foundation was willing to give us the Playboy Mansion on North State Street to be a women’s club for us. But the maintenance of that enormous property and the renovation would have been too expensive. She gave it to the Art Institute, and they sold it and made it into condos.

Once [we] started the Women’s Agenda Project, one of our major initiatives was that Illinois needed to establish a commission on the status of women. A group of us started lobbying with Jim Edgar that it would be to everyone’s advantage if we had a commission on the status of women that reported to the governor as well as the legislature.

We were successful and this is interesting, because most of the women’s movement was supported by Democrats in office. These were major issues and programs supported by Republican governors in Illinois. Illinois has always been very unusual with its Republican governors because they were moderates and for the most part pro-choice and pro affirmative action.

We established an Illinois Commission on the Status of Women. Jim Edgar appointed a number of us do it. Paula Wolf became chair and it provided a report every year to the governor and the legislature on key issues like reproductive rights, affirmative action, Women’s Economic Empowerment, Health Care. Jim Edgar also established an Illinois Women’s Business Ownership council. But Governor George Ryan expanded and funded the Commission to be very successful.

In 1986 Carol Dougal and I established the Women’s Business Development Center and we folded the Chicago Film and Video Studio Foundation. We were motivated by how Italian, Jewish immigrants who couldn’t get work and didn’t know the language, emigrated to the U.S. and started small businesses. Those small businesses often became very large businesses. My father had a little grocery store on the South Side and then had a cigar store. It was a paradigm we reflected.

These immigrants helped support themselves and their families, sent the kids to college and often they became large businesses. Scrap metal firms became steel distributors so scrap steel – it started out with pushcart. Carol Dougal and I felt that with business training and financial support, women could have a major impact on our economy locally, statewide and nationally. We felt that with training and financial support they would have a huge impact on society.

We were the first to establish a women’s business assistance center in the country; there was one in Minneapolis that was micro lending started by Kathy Kiely. We went to her and got an idea of what could be done to finance women owned businesses. But there was nobody doing business assistance. We wanted to work with economically disadvantaged women to give them the training to be successful and support themselves and their families through business ownership. Also, to provide economic impact in the communities.

My major issue was advocacy around public policy around women’s economic empowerment. If women were in business and were successful, they would begin looking at running for office and supporting women running for office. We were so right. The small business administration became interested in what we were doing and asked us to replicate our program in eventually nine states. We found existing women’s organizations who were interested in diversifying and expanding to provide economic impact for women and their families. It was a very important area.

The WBDC gave me the forum to do more with the issues of affirmative action for women and minorities both in employment as well as business ownership. We were able to have an impact because we had more support in Congress, the Senate, state legislature, city council, on the county board to do more to empower women.

In 1996 in Chicago we did a women’s economic summit to deal with women’s business issues. There was a national women’s business council appointed by President Clinton. I was appointed to it. Our organization and others were working on reports and initiatives to encourage women’s economic empowerment and impact through business ownership. That was an enormously successful event and was replicated in other states as a result of it.

In 1998 there was a national summit that was hosted by the National Women’s Business Council under Clinton. [It was designed] to precipitate some major legislation to support organizations that provided women’s business assistance across the United States – to look at ways we could change some of the regulations so the banks would begin investing in minority and women owned businesses. We changed the community reinvestment act dealing mostly in housing. We said it was something that could be amended so that business ownership and economic empowerment in communities would be addressed.

KR:  You’ve used the whole employment business umbrella for bigger women’s empowerment.

HR:  Yes. In 1993, Mayor Daley approached me. His sister had just died of breast cancer and he wanted to know why we in the women’s movement weren’t more outraged about the disasters in women’s health. He said I want you to look at the ways we can address women’s health issues. He appointed me co-chair with Sister Sheila Lyne to the Women’s Health Task Force. I said that’s not going to work. I’m going to talk about abortion and reproductive rights and birth control, and he said just meet her.

She had been CEO of Mercy Hospital; she was a Sisters of Mercy nun. Sheila and I met on a holiday. She was then head of the Chicago Department of Public Health. She probably had more impact and support for gay rights, programs and initiatives for AIDS and AIDS victims than anyone in the Chicago area and worked with gay organizations. Sheila was pro-choice.

We worked to develop a women’s health agenda for Chicago and Cook County and provided a very significant report which had national impact. It was replicated in other cities to address inequities in health care for women. I was very proud of that. Sheila and I stayed friends, we worked very hard together and it was a very successful project. When she was no longer part of it most of those initiatives fell by the wayside. But the issues were at least in the forefront.

’95 was the 75th anniversary of women’s suffrage. It certainly is significant and important, especially since women’s vote will make all the difference in the upcoming elections. In 2020 it will be the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage.

When I was involved early on in the women’s movement I was assistant superintendent of schools and I was assigned the job of implementing Title IX in the county schools.

KR:  It was probably newly passed.

HR:  Yes. I had to work with coaches and superintendents and principals of schools on the legislation, explaining the legislation, saying what was required. The changes that needed to be made in vocational education. I had changes in sports and athletics and the funding. I don’t think I’ve ever been met with as much hostility. All of the superintendents and almost all of the coaches were men. They were very traditional with what you provided for women and girls and boys.

KR:  So today you’re still involved with the Women’s Business Development Center?

HR:  Yes, I’m semi-retired from the WBDC about five years ago and the CEO today is a woman by the name of Emilia DiMenco, a strong feminist and a reformed bank executive. She spent 32 years at Harris bank and went in the first training program for women as a result of the work of Women Employed suing Harris Bank.

She was in the first class of women involved in training to become managers and officers at Harris bank. Thirty years later, we worked with her and Harris Bank to get her to be a loaned executive to become our Chief Operating Officer. Our board appointed her as CEO and president when Carol and I retired. Carol retired entirely and I remain on as a consultant to work on advocacy issues and government relations. The things that I love and do best.

KR:  You have an amazing story. I am so glad we’re getting to hear it. You’ve been involved in so many different things that touched women in so many different ways.

HR:   And still am. I’m very involved in getting women elected. I’m very involved in Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights issues. I’m involved with Chicago Foundation for Women. Mujeras Latinas that was mostly domestic violence issues in the Latino community but not now – it’s beyond that. And I worked with Access Living with Marca Bristo on disability rights and especially women with disabilities. The work continues.