Judith Knee

“The Women’s Movement Made Me Who I Am.”

Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, October 2019

[Edited Transcript]

 MJC:  Good afternoon Judith Knee.

JK:  Good to see you. Thank you.

MJC:  So nice to see you. So good to see an old friend. I appreciate it very much.  Thank you very much for agreeing to be part of the Veteran Feminists of America Pioneer History Project. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your participation and what great work you did. We are going to start with your literal origin. Where were you born, where did you grow up?

JK:  I was born and raised in Philadelphia. By birth, I’m Jewish, but I’ve never been religiously Jewish. Lots of people, including me for many years of their lives, were what is called High Holiday Jews. You only go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For a long time now I’m not even that. I call myself a “bagels and lox” Jew. I’m a cultural Jew. So that’s that background.

MJC:  How many kids in your family?

JK:  My brother and me. My parents had two gay kids.  

MJC:  And what did your folks do for a living?

JK:  My mother was very proud of the fact that she was the first person in her family to graduate from high school. She got a job as an executive secretary, and she did that for many years. My father owned a series of small grocery/butcher stores, little places primarily in black neighborhoods in Philadelphia. And, my father was a very sweet man but a terrible businessman.

A kid would come in with a quarter to get a loaf of bread. The kid would leave with the quarter and a loaf of bread and five dollars for a pair of shoes. So my father’s business went bankrupt pretty reliably every two years. The interesting thing about that though was that for the first six years of my life, my brother and I were the only white kids in the neighborhood. So, all of my “imprinting” was in that environment, and when I moved to DC and was first in upper Northwest DC I was “antsy” and at first couldn’t figure out why. Then I realized there were no black people, so that had something to do with my start of being involved in movements – civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights.

MJC:  What about education?

JK:   In Philadelphia at the time, I don’t know if they still do this, if you graduated first in your class from a Philadelphia high school you got a full paid scholarship to any of the five colleges in Philly. The University of Pennsylvania, Temple, Drexel, St. Joe’s and Villanova. I chose the University of Pennsylvania.

MJC:  You were obviously first in your class.

JK:  I was. I remember when I was a junior in high school they called my parents in to talk. And the guidance counselor said what are you thinking of for college for her? And my mother said we really haven’t thought about it. The guidance counselor said “she’s first in her class, start thinking about it”.

I actually did something stupid at first. The scholarship included room and board in addition to full tuition, and I decided for some reason to live at home my freshman year. I realized very quickly this is not college. This is high school again. For the rest of my Penn years I did live on campus.

It was interesting because there were sororities and fraternities and people said “rush,” you’ll get to meet people, and so I did. I wound up with the “smart girls” sorority. In fact, one of the women that I lived with in the sorority house years later became the Dean of the University of Pennsylvania. I was an English major and graduated in 1968.

MJC:  So then what kind of work did you get involved in?

JK:  My very first job I worked for Prudential Insurance Company. I was a group insurance contract writer, and I quickly figured out this wasn’t for me. I interviewed with the Bell System, New Jersey Bell at the time, because I was living in New Jersey after I graduated college. My new husband and I moved to New Jersey where he attended law school. In retrospect I should have put me through law school instead of him. I would have been a much better lawyer.

I found out New Jersey Bell was hiring, and they had a job opening for an employment interviewer. I thought good, I’ll get paid for talking. So I went to work for New Jersey Bell in the office that hired operators, clerks and service representatives. There was a separate office that hired linemen and installers, and the men who did that got paid more than those of us who hired for the “women’s” jobs.

One of the things that I like telling people about when I first got involved with the women’s movement is we were the people who got rid of “Help Wanted Male” and “Help Wanted Female” ads. All of my work in the Bell System was in what I call the soft side of the business. I was never in any kind of a technical job. I was in Human Resources, where my job involved managing Affirmative Action programs, a job far more suited to my interests than writing group insurance contracts for Prudential.   And later I was in Public Relations.

MJC: Can we go back and pick up from this period of time? You talked about the consciousness of growing up in a black neighborhood. When did movements come into your life?

JK:  Really it was with NOW. I attended my very first NOW chapter meeting in the first week of January, 1973. And then the women’s movement took over my life.  It was the women’s movement because of the coalition work we did with other social justice movements that then got me involved in the civil rights movement. And then when I realized at age 30, being a “slow learner”, that I was a lesbian, NOW also led me into gay and lesbian rights work. NOW was where it all started.

I was married, and after I had gotten divorced, my life was just sort of the same as it had been while married, so in 1973 I made a series of New Year’s resolutions – which was not my habit. I decided that I was going to join a gym, I was going to go back and get a master’s degree, I was going to join a local political organization, and a local women’s organization. There were a whole series of things I resolved. 

Then I went to my first NOW chapter meeting in Essex County NOW in New Jersey. And I never did any of those other things. NOW took over my life. I’m not sure exactly how chapters function now, but in 1973, if you were interested and had some skills, you were very quickly put to work. By the end of the first year, I was a chapter officer. And then shortly after that I was elected to what we used to call State Coordinator of NOW-New Jersey. Now they’re called State Presidents.

MJC:  What were the major issues when you joined Essex County NOW?  

JK:  The thing that almost everybody was involved in was the abortion issue and reproductive rights in general. My first chapter meeting was in the first week of January 1973. Only weeks after that the Roe v. Wade decision came down. And we naively thought this has largely solved that issue.

But as somebody once said to me, with states each making their own laws and regulations about an issue like abortion, it’s sort of the equivalent of freeing the slaves one plantation at a time. All these years later we are still fighting many battles restricting women’s access to abortion because of the laws passed in the states.

For example, in Virginia they passed a law requiring a woman seeking an abortion to have a medically unnecessary invasive vaginal ultrasound prior to the abortion.   Aside from having to undergo the unnecessary invasive procedure it also meant that women needed to make one trip to have the ultrasound and then a second trip days later to get the abortion.

I don’t need to tell you there are states where there’s one abortion clinic if you’re lucky. If not, you have to travel to a different state. And there are parental consent laws. Any way that they could restrict access to abortion, they have, and this Supreme Court with the additions of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh can’t be counted on to protect women’s right to safe and legal abortions.

MJC:  So, it was quite an optimistic period in 1973 when you joined the chapter and three weeks later a major victory. What other issues were intriguing to you at that time?

JK:  Equal pay. I remember during the time when I was the State Coordinator in New Jersey we did an action all across the state at multiple Sears stores. Sears discriminated against women and people of color in hiring and extending credit. We had big demonstrations at about eight different Sears stores throughout the state.

We got absolutely no press at all, because the opinions of the editorial pages influenced what the media did and didn’t cover. And so that was a shock to me, that we put in all this work, and we just got absolutely no media at all, as if it never happened.

I actually had a personal involvement in the equal pay issue, because there was a six year Consent Decree with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the EEOC, regarding the Bell System, basically because they discriminated against women and people of color. We called them “minorities” then. It’s driving a lot of Trump supporters crazy that collectively they’re not minorities anymore.

When I was hired, they had a management development program, but no women were admitted to it. One of the things that the Consent Decree required was that they give women like me who had never been considered for the management development program an opportunity to qualify for it by participating in an assessment program.  

An interesting aspect of that for me was that in the written report of my performance in the assessment program they said, “She cares more about the work she’s doing than the ‘management level’ she does it at.” They thought that was a criticism. I thought it was a compliment, frankly.

I knew that I was a lesbian, but I wasn’t out at work. It was the only place in my life that I was not out, because I didn’t think it was “safe”. So my plan was to come out at work when I realized they’re not going to promote me again. I came to that realization at the same time there were some employees in the early ’90’s who wanted to start a gay and lesbian employee organization. I could have participated in it without coming out, but I knew I would be more effective if I did. So I came out at work. And, I love telling this story.

My boss was one of the first people I came out to. He’s sitting across his desk from me. And when I tell him I’m a lesbian he said I’m so honored you’re sharing this information with me. He got up from his chair and came around to give me a big hug. One of my co-workers in the department with whom I was not particularly close was angry with me. Why didn’t you tell me this before? My favorite reaction was a person who I was very friendly with but had not had that conversation with yet about coming out. And she said, Tell me something I don’t know. It was a wonderful array of reactions.

MJC:  So that’s the ’90’s. Let’s go back to the ’70’s a little bit. Are there any other ways that had an impact on you personally at that early period?

JK:  That’s an interesting question. I think I was always a feminist, but I didn’t know the word for it.

MJC:  You were not rising in the corporation because you weren’t considered?

JK:  I was, but there was a glass ceiling. I was what was called a second level manager. Originally a first level, then promoted to second. But the first really significant level of management was the third “director” level. For example, directors and above were eligible for the lucrative employee stock option program which lower level managers weren’t entitled to.

The hardest thing for me in the thirty years I worked for the Bell System was that there were about six strikes during that time. And because I was management, I had to be “Operator Judy” for twelve hours a day, six days a week during a strike. To do that I had to cross a picket line. It was so painful to me to do so, but if I had not done that they would have fired me, because I was a management employee obligated to work during a strike.

MJC:  You didn’t have a union to protect you ironically.

JK:  My closest friend from college wound up moving to Alexandria, Virginia years after I moved to DC. Her second husband is a very conservative Republican, and she’s gotten more and more conservative over the years of their marriage. The thing that drives me the craziest about them is not that they vote for Republicans, which is maddening enough especially these days. It’s that they’re anti-union.

I said to them, “Do you not understand that every benefit you had while you were working and every benefit that you have as a retiree is because unions fought for them?” Once unions fought for them and they became part of union contracts it changed the way that they treated both management and non-management employees. I hate something that’s defined by what it isn’t, but that’s what they were called then, non-management.

Because my college friend and her husband are anti-union and on the opposite side of many social issues from me, I still see her, but we don’t discuss politics, and I avoid spending time with him.

MJC:  You joined in ’73 and then you quickly, as you said, became the state director. Could you describe that and what that involved and what things happened as a result of being the state director?

JK:  I was the state coordinator from 1974 to 1976. My skills are largely organizational and administrative. I was a damn good state coordinator/president. During my terms of office things happened when they were supposed to. For example, if we were supposed to have an annual conference and were supposed to ask chapters to bid on hosting it, that process happened when it was supposed to.  When I was state coordinator things worked the way they were supposed to administratively.

MJC:  Do you remember how many chapters there were in New Jersey at that time?

JK:  There were close to 20. And so anyway those were my skills. I’m not Ellie Smeal. I’m not the most passionate of speakers. I’m not the most strategic of planners. My skills were administrative, but I was darn good at it. That continued, too, when I became the Mid-Atlantic Regional Director. 

MJC:   You did have rapid increase in your responsibilities within NOW. How big was the region?

JK:  It was a seven state region – New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland and West Virginia. We were very fortunate as a region because in some regions people lived hours and hours away from each other. You would need to take a train or plane to get to regional meetings. With our six Mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia we could have real regional meetings, and we did three or four times a year. The poor people from West Virginia had to be in a car forever to get to our meetings. But, ours was a very active region because we had the good fortune of our geography.

MJC:  What did you do?

JK:  From an administrative stand point, the regions elected the members of the National Board. The regional director was on the National Board in addition to several other regional members, and we were all elected at regional conferences. And so that was one very important part of what they did. We also did actions, again because we were geographically able to.

One of the things that we did was an action where we demonstrated at the Vatican Embassy in DC, because they were having a very negative impact on issues like abortion and gay rights. The Catholic church is extremely conservative about many issues, so we had a demonstration there. And that was very successful. It was in Washington DC.

MJC:  But all the people came from all over the regions. That’s a period when the ERA was in the ratification stages. Did the Mid-Atlantic region play any role in that?

JK:  We were fortunate that all of our states were ratified except Virginia, so we got very involved when the Equal Rights Amendment time limit for ratification was about to expire. There were two key things we needed to achieve. One, we needed to extend the deadline for ratification. And two, there were five states which had ratified the ERA, which were subsequently taken over by right wing Republicans who voted to rescind their ratification.

Since there is nothing in the Constitution about rescission, our lobbying of Congress focused on both getting the deadline extended and the rescissions not to count. And it was the ERA that actually brought me from New Jersey to DC. There was a very dear friend of mine who was a programmer at IBM, and she convinced IBM to give her a personal leave of absence for a year so that she could come and overhaul NOW’s membership system, which was desperately needed at the national office.  

She lived in California, but she moved to DC for a year, and I thought I wonder if I can get AT&T to do that for me. By then I was no longer working for New Jersey Bell. I had been transferred to AT&T in New Jersey.

MJC:  Did the breakup of the Bells affect your job at all?

JK:  It affected everybody’s job in that the Bell System phone companies were at that time a regulated rate of return utility. That meant the PUC, the Public Utilities Commission in each state, set the rates which guaranteed the company a profit. When the Bell System was split up into AT&T and the regional companies, each regional company consisted of a number of state companies. Prior to the break up they cared about customers, and they cared about employees. The only stock was AT&T stock.

When they split us up, each regional company issued its own stock for the first time. At divestiture, that’s the legal term for what the break up was called, it only took about 48 hours for the stock price to become the only thing they cared about. And it then became a very toxic corporate environment, which it had not been before. So, it affected me. It affected everyone.

I decided that I wanted to try and see if AT&T would do the same thing for me that IBM had done for my friend and give me a personal leave of absence so I could work full time for NOW on the ERA.

AT&T would not be paying my salary, but I would have a guarantee that there would be a job waiting for me at the end of the year when I returned. I was trying to be smart about it, and I was. I wrote a letter for Ellie Smeal, the president of NOW, to send to my Vice President of Human Resources at AT&T. Trying to be clever, I wanted to give them something to turn down so they would give me what I wanted –  a personal leave of absence.

There is something called an executive loan. It’s not just something the phone companies did. All sorts of corporations would loan an executive to some sort of organization. They would pay that person’s salary while they worked for the organization. They were in effect making a donation to the organization by paying the person’s salary. What kinds of organizations got executive loans? The United Way, the National Association of Manufacturers, not a political organization like NOW.

I thought there’s no way that they’re going to give me an executive loan, but the letter said you have the perfect person on your staff. She’s a member of our Board of Directors who has the skills that we’re looking for right now. She’s an excellent writer, so it would be wonderful if you could give her an executive loan to come and work for the National Organization for Women for a year. If you can’t do that, could you please at least give her a year’s personal leave of absence where you would not be paying her salary the way you would for a loaned executive, but she would have a guarantee of a job after the leave.

Off the letter goes to AT&T where I was working in Human Resources on affirmative action plans. The EEOC consent decree was about to expire within a month of when the letter arrived. What I’m imagining happened – and I wasn’t a fly on the wall in the room – is somebody said the consent decree is about to expire, and NOW and the NAACP, they’re going be looking hard at us to make sure that we don’t backslide in any way, and they may put a darn picket line up here if we say no to this.  Give her the executive loan. And that’s what happened.

I was smart enough to say “here’s something you can turn down”. What I didn’t realize was that the imminent expiration of the consent decree was going to have the kind of impact that might cause them to say yes to the executive loan. I remember calling Ellie and saying, “Ellie, you’re not going to believe this, they said yes to the executive loan. You’ve got me for a year. And you don’t have to pay me at all.” I was actually earning more than the NOW officers, because I was earning a corporate salary. I was earning around eighty thousand a year.

Another aspect of the executive loan was that a friend of mine who was on the Board of Directors who Ellie hired to come work at NOW had to resign from her National Board seat because she was working for NOW and NOW was paying her salary. So she had to give up her National Board seat when she went to work for NOW because it would have been a conflict of interest otherwise. You can’t be a voting member of the Board that is setting your salary. So she had to resign her Board seat. Because NOW was not paying my salary, AT&T was, I was able to keep my board seat. It was just a marvelous situation.

There was a guy whose name was Bill Sharwell who was a vice president at AT&T. He had recently been added to the NOW Legal Defense & Education Fund board, which was our sister organization. Why was he put on that board? Because he’s a corporate vice president who would have a positive impact on fundraising. That was the primary reason.

I didn’t know this man. But since he worked in the same building that I did for AT&T in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, I got in touch with him. I said you don’t know me, but I know you are on the NOW-LDEF board, so I thought you would like to know that I’m going to be working for NOW for a year on an executive loan from AT&T.

He got back in touch with me and said let’s get together, and we did. He then became my biggest booster in the world. At the end of the one year executive loan, and he didn’t talk to me about this, he went to my vice president of AT&T who was not happy about this whole executive loan to begin with. I mean not happy in that it was up to him whether or not they would pay my moving expenses from New Jersey to DC.  He saw to it that they didn’t, because he wasn’t going to do anything to make it easier or better for me.

Bill Sharwell got in touch with my vice president at the end of the year, and he said, “I’ve never seen anybody so happy doing what she’s doing in my life. Give her another year.” And they did. So one year became two years. They’re paying my salary and even gave me raises during the time I worked for NOW. At the end of the second year, I figured I’d better get myself back to the Bell System or there’s not going to be a job waiting for me.

The only place that was obligated to take me back was New Jersey Bell. I didn’t want to go back to New Jersey, because I was living in DC where the heart of politics for the nation is. I wanted to be here and to be able to continue doing that kind of feminist work. So again, Bill called the vice president of Public Relations at C & P Telephone company in DC and said I have this person. She’s wonderful. Can you make a job for her here in DC?  

And they did. They actually made a job for me by moving someone to a different job, a good job, but moving her opened up a slot for me. Bill Sharwell was the gift that kept on giving. He’s no longer with us now. For an AT&T vice president, he was pretty feminist.

I moved to DC in 1979, and the big thing that we were doing was trying to get the extension of the Equal Rights Amendment timeline and also to see that rescissions would not be counted. NOW members were lobbying their Congress members all across the country. That’s part of the wonderful strength of NOW is that we did have real grassroots organizing. So, if the National Organization adopted a certain policy you could work on that in your state or in your region.

And so, a lot of our members were lobbying members of Congress in their home offices or if they came to DC in their Congressperson or Senator’s office on the Hill, lobbying their people to support the extension of the deadline, but also to vote that the rescissions should not count.

I was the person who maintained the national vote count based on the lobbying reports of NOW members. When they lobbied somebody, they would get in touch with me by phone or by writing with their lobbying report. For example, a member might indicate “You know Bill Smith. He’s good on extension, but he’s going to vote yes that rescissions should count.”

So, there were 435 members of the House and a hundred members of the Senate who were getting lobbied, and all of that information was coming into me, and I would maintain the vote count. We would meet every week or two and I would give the NOW officers the updated count. A funny thing that happened regarding the vote count involved Elizabeth Holtzman, who was the main sponsor of the ERA bill in the House of Representatives. She was keeping the vote count for the legislators.

The very first meeting when we got together to compare what she knew in her vote count versus what we knew from my vote count all of my records were organized by state and by congressional district within the state because that’s how you lobby, in your district. Elizabeth Holtzman came in to this first meeting, and her vote count was organized alphabetically. What are we going to do? Lobby the “M’s” or the “P’s” ? That was just hysterical. We got Holtzman to change the organization of her vote count. So that was one thing I was working on.

Also, our attorney, Tom Hart at the time, was writing our legal amicus briefs that were being submitted to Congress as to what NOW thought should happen regarding the ERA and why. Tom Hart wrote the amicus briefs from a legal standpoint. My job was to read what he wrote and make sure that in any legal argument he was making he was not saying something that was not in keeping with our feminist philosophy. He was the law guy, and I was the feminist “voice”. Before it ever got to Ellie Smeal, who would approve the brief or make changes, I was the person working with the lawyer on that, which is part of why I said I should have put myself through law school.

I also ordered all of the ERA supplies. Large cardboard “rounds” that said “ERA YES” for use in demonstrations. Buttons that said fifty-nine cents because that’s what women were earning at the time compared to every dollar earned by men. It’s better now, but it’s still not equal. I also wrote various brochures about how the ERA would impact various issues such as insurance and equal pay. That’s why Ellie said in the letter to AT&T “she has the skills we need”. She meant I’m a writer.

Primarily the work that I did was regarding the Equal Rights Amendment, but because I was working in the NOW Action Center, I got involved in all sorts of other issues. But, my primary responsibilities had to do with the ERA – the vote count, the amicus briefs and ERA supplies of various kinds.

MJC:  And in the same period, you served on the board. Can you tell us about your board experience?

JK:  I joined the board in 1977. Initially board terms were two years. Because we were in the middle of the all important ERA campaign, we decided we didn’t want to change leadership in the middle of trying to save the ERA. We didn’t want Ellie Smeal, our leader, to time out of her four-year term as president in the middle of the ERA campaign. We didn’t want Judith and other board members to time out of their two-year terms. So we passed bylaws changes to extend the terms of office, because that’s how we had to do it.

We couldn’t violate our own bylaws which specified terms of office. So we adopted bylaws amendments so that instead of a two-year term it became a three-year term, and then we extended the terms of office a second time. I wound up on the board for six years instead of four years because of those extensions. I was put on the Budget Committee, and Ellie realized after a while that I didn’t know the difference between a profit and loss statement and any other piece of paper that had numbers on it.

She said, “I don’t think this is your strong suit. How about you become the Bylaws Chair?” I wound up being the Bylaws Chair for NOW for about 20 years. And somebody at one point in time dubbed me the Bylaws Queen, and if I ever remember who that is, I will hunt them down. But, I was the Bylaws Queen, ask the Bylaws Queen – she’ll know what to do. When I retired from the Bell System in 1998, I decided to also retire as the Bylaws Chair. As I said, I had been doing it for over 20 years.

After I was no longer working in the NOW office, and I was no longer on the board, and I was no longer the Bylaws Chair, NOW members would still call me from all over the country with parliamentary questions. NOW officers in the national action center would also contact me with questions. When I was the Bylaws Chair I had the ability to issue parliamentary rulings, in effect. But once I had resigned as the Bylaws Chair I was still getting all these calls, and that continued for a good ten years at least.  

When contacted for my opinion I would say, “Okay, I will research it, and I’ll tell you what I think our bylaws and our parliamentary authority, Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, require. I will do all of that and tell you what I think the answer is, but I am no longer the Bylaws Chair. Whatever I say has absolutely no weight as a ruling the way it did when I was the Bylaws Chair. The reason that members and officers would still contact me is because they never wound up replacing me as Bylaws Chair.

I was pretty well known in NOW as the parliamentary authority, so I would say, “If you’re going to use my name and say this is what Judy Knee says, you have to say to them what I have just said to you. She is no longer the Bylaws Chair. She’s very happy to give us counsel. But, we have to understand this is not any kind of official ruling.” Those contacts continued for a long time. So again, I was not the speaker, the strategist, I was the organizational administrator.

MJC:  Are there any other issues or insights that you want to talk about in that period?

JK:  Lesbian rights became something that was very important to me. And one thing I remember that I felt very good about was that when the whole transgender issue started emerging, some members felt it wasn’t a lesbian rights issue and therefore not part of our mission. But I and others felt that transgender rights should be our issue, too.

I think it was in Texas at one of our national conferences during which I was one of the people who was advocating for us to pass a resolution that we do support transgender rights. That was an important thing to me, so being part of getting that resolution adopted was very significant.

MJC:  Were there things that disappointed you?  And then I’ll ask you what you think your greatest achievements were within the women’s movement.

JK:  Not so much disappointments. NOW, as you know, had internal political issues as many organizations do. While concentrating on the changes you want to make in the world, disagreements arise as to the best strategies for achieving the goals, and sometimes things got a little heated. In the mid ‘70’s the west and east coast NOW states and regions had our opinions of strategies and tactics which differed somewhat from the rest of the country, especially the midwest. The national office at that time was in Chicago, not in DC, and we were having a pretty heated battle internally.   

It was when Ellie was elected to her first term as president that we moved the NOW office to DC, because that’s the center of politics in the country. The name of the group that Ellie and Karen DeCrow, who became NOW President after Wilma Scott Heidi, and I, and lots of other members were in was called the Majority Caucus, because we felt that we really were the majority. But we weren’t having as much impact as we wanted to.

One thing we did during this time was some NOW state organizations which supported the Majority Caucus escrowed our dues rather than forwarding them to the national office. We didn’t want to send our chapter and state dues to the national office in Chicago, because we didn’t agree with the strategies the national office was pursuing. But, we didn’t withhold our dues. We legally put them in escrow, recognizing that the national portion of the dues wasn’t our money, but putting the money in escrow was a form of pressure for the changes we sought.  

Individual state organizations decided whether or not they wanted to do that, to escrow the dues. I was the State Coordinator of NOW-NJ at the time and the Chair of our Board of Directors, which met four or five times a year. At one of the board meetings the subject of shall NOW-NJ escrow our dues was considered. Following a vigorous debate, the motion to escrow our dues came to a vote.

Because of my knowledge of parliamentary procedure, I knew that although the presiding chair usually has no vote on motions, the chair does have the option if she wishes to cast a vote to either break a tie or make a tie. If the vote is 20 “yes” to 19 “no”, for example, the chair could vote “no” which would make the final tally a tie. Or if it is a tie vote, 20 to 20, the chair could vote “yes” or “no” to break the tie.

The vote to escrow NOW-NJ’s dues was 20 “yes” and 19 “no”. I exercised my option as the chair to vote “no” to make it a tie vote. A tie vote dies for lack of a majority. So here I am, a very strong supporter of the Majority Caucus, and I voted to make it a tie, which meant that we would not be escrowing our dues. 

My NOW-NJ friends in the Majority Caucus were furious with me. But my office was being the State Coordinator of NOW-NJ, not being a Majority Caucus supporter. I had to make a quick gut decision regarding the vote. As State Coordinator I felt that with such a close vote it would be very divisive and would tear our state apart if we escrowed our dues based on such a close vote. And so, my decision was to exercise my option to vote “no,” making it a tie vote that dies for lack of a majority. That avoided a situation where half of the state is happy that we are escrowing our dues based on a one vote margin and half the state is furious.  

I chose to have my friends be furious at me rather than preside over an organization of members at each other’s throats over such a close vote. That was one of my proudest moments. Even though it enraged my friends, I knew I had done the right thing for the state organization as its Coordinator.

One of the things that I’m proudest about is that in all those administrative roles and as the Bylaws Chair with a lot of power to make rulings, even when it was again something where my ruling was not what my friends would have wanted it to be, I valued having the reputation of being honest. Members said, If she makes a ruling you don’t have to worry that she’s doing it because she thinks it’s politically advantageous to her faction within the organization. She’s going to tell you what she thinks the bylaws require, even if it’s not a ruling her friends will agree with. So that reputation was very important to me.

MJC:  What did the women’s movement mean to you? How did it change your life and affect your life and how has it affected your life up to this moment?

JK:  It totally changed my life. Like I said, I was going to go to grad school. I was going to join a gym. I was going to join a local political organization. I never did any of those things, because NOW took over my life in a very positive way. And my NOW friends scattered all across the country are still an important part of my life. When you work together trying to achieve significant social change, the bonds that form are very strong. I still live in the DC metro area, because although I moved here initially for just one year to work on the ERA, forty years later I’m still here because this where I can have the most impact on issues important to me.

The women’s movement affected really every aspect of my life. And it gave me significant skills that I carried over to other aspects of my life. Because of all the parliamentary and bylaws experience, I approach what we’re going through right now with the Republicans from that mindset, and I don’t need to tell you how totally terrible in every possible way Trump and his allies are. And so when the subject of impeachment came up, I started worrying, knowing how bad Mitch McConnell is based on the Kavanaugh hearings and his refusal to even schedule a confirmation hearing for Merrick Garland when Obama nominated him to the Supreme Court with eleven months still left in his second term of office.

The fact that the majority leader of the Senate has almost total power as to what comes up for a vote and what doesn’t is a huge obstacle for us. So I began to worry when it appeared that the House was going to vote to impeach Trump how that would play out. The Democrats have the votes to impeach him, but then as you know, it goes to the Senate for the impeachment trial. What can Mitch McConnell do to protect Trump?  

So I started researching it. When it comes to parliamentary procedure, if you can use an index, you can pretty much figure things out. And I just happen to have the kind of brain that is good at that kind of analysis. I recently sent out an email to NOW friends across the country, because as I started researching what McConnell can and can’t do, some of the news was pretty good that I wanted to share. My first assumption was that as the Majority Leader, McConnell would be the one presiding over the impeachment trial, which would give him myriad opportunities to protect Trump.

But my research indicated that when it is the president who is being impeached, the person who presides is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Roberts is not good on many of our issues, but he did vote with the liberal Justices to uphold rather than repeal Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act. I knew he had the potential to be a much more impartial chair than McConnell. So that seemed to be good news – although not as good as I had hoped, because McConnell did everything he could to see that Trump wasn’t removed from office. Another piece of good news I found is that if two thirds of the Senate votes to convict the president, he would immediately be automatically removed from office.

There is nothing that Mitch McConnell or William Barr or Trump could do to delay his removal if convicted. That too seemed like good news, until it became apparent that the Republican senators were not going to act to hold Trump accountable. So I sent an email to every political person in my contacts list telling them what I had found out, sharing that information. That came out of all those years of being the Bylaws Chair, which changed my life. It’s part of what has made me who I am. I would not be who I am if I had not gone to the Essex County NOW chapter meeting the first week of January 1973.

MJC:  We’re sure glad you did.

JK:  I am, too. In fact, when I resigned as the Bylaws Chair after twenty years, I told the board whatever I’ve done, all the work I’ve done, I’ve gotten more out of it than I put in. Which is absolutely true. So the whole impact on my life was just very positive. I would not be who I am if I had not ever joined NOW.

MJC:  Wonderful, wonderful. Anything else you wanted to add?

JK:   Some things were just a lot of fun. I remember when those of us in the Mid-Atlantic region arranged a “freedom train” to Chicago because Illinois was one of the unratified states. We arrived very late at night in Chicago, and there was nobody to greet us. So some of us got off the train and we greeted ourselves. There were just all sorts of things that grew those bonds and made things happen.

MJC:  What are you currently doing?

JK:  I am no longer putting in the amount of hours I used to. I don’t have any official role. But one of the reasons I didn’t want to go back to New Jersey and wanted to stay here in DC is that so much in the way of political actions happens here. Marches, rallies, conferences. And so that is pretty much what my involvement is currently. If there is a march, if there’s a rally, if there’s a conference, I’m there. Am I doing the kind of intensive work that I did when I was the state president, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Director, the Bylaws Chair? No, but it still has an impact on my life, and I hope I still have an impact on it.

Even with the internal political battles, those skills that we learned fighting each other were the skills that we took into the world to fight for the things that we wanted to change. NOW politics could get very heated, but the skills transferred. I think of someone like Sue Errington who is a state legislator in Indiana using the skills that she learned in NOW. And there are a number of people like that using what they learned in NOW to change the world.

One thing always very important in NOW is that we were not and are not a single issue organization. NARAL for example did very good work on abortion and reproductive rights issues. But any issue that impacted women’s rights whether it’s reproductive rights, equal pay, transgender and lesbian rights, and so on was part of NOW’s mission. There was no issue that impacted women that NOW did not see as part of our mission.  

MJC:  And trying to change with the times.

JK:  Yes. Like girls participating in Little League. We did that. We had a very great impact on women’s rights in many ways. I think about the suffragists. Many of them died without ever seeing women get the right to vote. We have seen real change in our lifetimes because of the work we’ve done.

MJC:  Thank you so much Judith for participating.

JK:  Thank you for being active in the Veteran Feminists of America and doing what you do. Mary Jean and I have not seen each other in 20 years. We were not in the same internal NOW political faction, but the bond of working together on women’s rights is so strong that it’s wonderful to see and reconnect with you. It’s wonderful to revisit all the things that we did together in the organization, even when we weren’t doing it together. I thank you very much for that.