Karen Boehning

“The Equal Rights Amendment is Fundamental to the Cause.”

Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA Executive VP, August 2019

KR: Hi Karen. Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed for the VFA pioneer histories project. Can you just start by telling us your name and where and when you were born?

KB: I’m Karen Boehning. I’m delighted to be here with you all. I think what you’re doing is fantastic and important. It took quite a few years to get it cooking along here and I’m so glad that we’re at the stage now.

KR: When were you born?

KB: In 1945.

KR: Good year! Were you born in Chicago?

KB: Here in Chicago.

KR: And what was your family life like growing up, what kind of ethnic background?

KB: Pretty much German and working class, middle class. Nothing very exciting or unusual.  We lived in ethnic neighborhoods on the North Side of Chicago. My parents met during the war. My father was a pharmacist and my mother worked in the insurance industry, which she continued to work in for her entire life. My grandmother was a waitress and my grandfather was a barber. Pretty much your American mix.

KR:  You’ve already told us how you got involved in the women’s movement. You went to your first NOW meeting and you called Nan Wood and we heard that great story. Tell us a little bit about your experience working in NOW. I know you were all in from the minute you joined. Tell us what you remember about your experience there.

KB: Well I found a group of women who were just mind-bogglingly brilliant and brave. I was just absolutely fascinated by all this. I had never met any women who were as brave and courageous and determined as these women. One of them was Mary Jean Collins and one of them was Mary-Ann Lupa, and then a little later on I met you. The longer I was in, the more fascinated I became. Where have all these women been? We don’t see them on television, we don’t read about them in newspapers so much, just when we do something goofy, they’ll be all over it. 

I was completely all in. I think it took me two weeks to decide that I was a lifelong feminist and that I was going to do everything I possibly could to advance the cause. I was so grateful for finally having an opportunity to express my longstanding frustration and disappointment with the status of women. I mean it was basically horrible. I mean we’re talking about the late ’60s early ’70s. Come on, we could barely go to the store alone unescorted. It was kind of a big learning curve. And you had to of course keep helping yourself adjust to the new realities and the new options in life. Who had these kind of options before?

KR: So, you mentioned that you liked protesting.

KB: Yes. I did. Well I think I was born that way. My mother says, “Well I’m not surprised, when you didn’t like something you made it perfectly clear that you didn’t like it” and I thought, well that’s it. I said to myself, this is a good thing. I’m not upsetting anybody and I’m expressing myself, so this has to be a good thing.

KR: Did you like being out on the street and handing out flyers and posters and marching?

KB: Yes and talking to people. I would get into conversations with people on street corners. My favorite place to do this was Marshall Fields on State and Randolph. I was always chit-chatting with the ladies over there. In the beginning, before the women’s movement was more accepted – I suppose, that’s a relative term – you could get yourself into a lot of trouble by talking about this stuff.

I think that I found my place and my comfort level very quickly. I met some wonderful women who were like minded and so off we went into the great unknown and it was the great unknown. I loved every minute of it. I knew that this was the right thing to be doing. I knew that I had found what I wanted to be doing, which was standing up for women.

KR: And do you feel like it changed your life?

KB: Absolutely.

KR: Some of the people we’ve interviewed have said “the women’s movement saved my life.” So, you’re a natural leader and you became president of the Chicago NOW chapter really quickly.

KB: Yes, after tutelage under Mary Jean and Mary-Ann. I was like a little baby compared [to them]. Both of them had already been through race discrimination demonstrations and were very astute about the complexity of these matters and they had experience and they would lead a group of people out there. “We’re going to go and we’re going to march and we’re going to get this straightened out today and then that’s it.” And I would just say, “Okay fine let’s go!”  I mean, I didn’t even question it.

KR: But then after a pretty short period of time you were the one leading it, you were inspiring other people.

KB: I realized that that was the engine of the women’s movement. The enthusiasm and the courage to go out there and put yourself on the line for your cause. And ours was not the first cause that had learned that lesson. We had a lot of examples of people who had been courageous enough to go out there and state their case and had made change as a result of stating the case and so we were like, “OK, let’s do that.”

KR: One of your big issues was the equal rights amendment.

KB: I had to be tutored. I had never heard – and I consider myself fairly well informed and well-read politically – I had never even heard of the Equal Rights Amendment.

KR: Most of us hadn’t.

KB: So that became my cause “celeb”, after the image of women on television and in the media. That was my whole thing. The way they make us look is half the problem. I think that once that all got squared away in my head, we were off and running. Then of course, I was fortunate enough to land in a chapter that had fantastic leadership. Both Mary Jean and Mary-Ann were leaders. Every day they were coming up with something that had to be done and had to be taken care of. A letter had to be written or somebody had to be called. I was never bored.

KR: Do you remember the Virginia Slims campaign?

KB: Yes. It was “slimmer than the fat cigarettes men smoke” that was their advertising. It was stupid.

KR: So here it is, 2019, and there’s still no Equal Rights Amendment. How do you feel about that?

KB: It’s totally outrageous and inappropriate and I don’t know how in the hell they’re getting away with this. Everyone that I’ve ever run into in the women’s movement has done their level best to get the thing passed and been very clever and courageous and making every effort possible. And nothing seemed to work, and you just wonder what in the hell is that strong that you can stop something that simple from becoming law? I mean this was not rocket science, it was not complicated, and I never really did understand it. I think they just kind of wore us down. That’s really what happened, we tried everything. 

KR: But it became such a political football in a lot of the states, particularly Illinois. I understand you have quite a collection. Do you want to talk a little bit about your collection?

KB: Yes, I have a collection of a lot of different stuff. Some artifacts, papers, documents, artwork and it’s a voluminous collection. My hope and dream is that I’m going to find somewhere to display it or get it together and put it on the road and take it around the country to use it as an educational tool. I think lots and lots of women don’t realize how long women have been fighting for equality. I really stay away from it because I get all worked up when I start working on the collection. I get all worked up and I want to go out and demonstrate.

I want to: “All right let’s take a look at this.” I really have to keep myself calm down because what good does that do? We’ve been through it all. We’ve gone out there and we’ve expressed ourselves in great numbers and we’re still without constitutional equality. And this is the 21st century. I don’t get it. I don’t get it. I know that I’m not stupid and I know most of the people that I know are not stupid and everybody I know agrees that we should have an Equal Rights Amendment. I just don’t get why we don’t. And the truth is what is the problem? I almost said effing problem, but I didn’t want to go there!

KR: But it did pass here in Illinois. Finally, after 40 years, so maybe there’s hope. Anything else that you want to talk about from your women’s movement experience that we haven’t covered?

KB: I’m still hopeful. I don’t feel that being up against all the resistance has lessened my resolve or my commitment or my desire to keep working. I think the Equal Rights Amendment is fundamental to the cause. Without that we won’t have finished the job; no matter how many things we get accomplished, without that full equality under the Constitution.

KR:  It’s too easy to take other stuff away if you don’t have it. Karen thank you so much for your time.

KB: Thank you for your effort and reaching out. I’m just thrilled, and it re-inspires me to say “OK, I got to get back on the road here, you know, and finish it up.” Let’s get it done.