Lucy Calautti

“I don’t believe in giving up, and I believe in teaching other women to be strong and to be brave.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, December 2021

LC:  I’m Lucy Jean Calautti. I was born in Queens, New York City, in 1946.

JW:  Tell us a little about your childhood. What was your background and your family like?

LC:  I came from an Italian American and Jewish family. My mother was first generation American, and she only spoke Yiddish until she went to first grade. My father was first generation Italian American. He only spoke Italian until he went to first grade. These were definitely the children of immigrants with a very strong family value system. They also were relatively uneducated. They both worked so hard, and I was really a latchkey child. Along with my two brothers, an older and younger brother, and the three of us grew up in an apartment building in Flushing, New York, and went to public high school and just enjoyed each other’s company. But we missed our parents a lot.

JW:  Were you treated the same as your brothers?

LC:  I was treated very differently from my brothers. My brothers were taught to play sports, and I wanted to play sports. My father was a professional boxer at one time, so he taught my brothers how to box in the ring. I wanted to box so badly; I knew I could box. And then there was baseball. I love baseball. I loved it as a baby when my mother would carry the transistor radio, playing the New York Giants games in the carriage. I loved baseball, but I had to watch while my brothers and my father played baseball.

And I had the indoor chores, and they had outdoor chores, like taking out the garbage. And on Saturday mornings, it was my job to help my mother with grocery shopping and then to get the meals ready for the weekend. I definitely had a very different existence in that apartment than my brothers did. I didn’t love that either.

JW:  Did your parents have different aspirations for you than for your brothers?

LC:  Yes. And again, my parents were not college educated, and certainly they wanted us to go to college. They didn’t have the means to do that, but we were able to figure it out on our own. But my brothers were encouraged to go into my father’s chandelier business. My father was an artist in terms of making chandeliers and sconces and they were meant to go into that. My mother wanted me to be a nutritionist. I liked the entrepreneurial spirit of my father of finding customers, but I was going to be a nutritionist. It’s a great profession. It was a safe woman’s profession at that time. I didn’t want to do it.

JW:  So, you didn’t do that? What did you do?

LC:  I actually ran away from home at the age of 18 and joined the Navy. I certainly was very patriotic, but I confess that finding a way to have a fascinating job as well as have my college education paid for definitely lured me into the Navy. And it was four years, and one of the greatest experiences of my life. I was already a New Yorker, so I was somewhat toughened up. But you did not survive in the Navy without being rough and tumble and tough. For me, going then into the outside world, it was great training.

JW:  In the Navy, were you given different jobs than the men?

LC:  I was not given different jobs from the men in terms of the level of danger, risk, and challenges. But the men did go to Vietnam, and we women sailors did not. I was in the Air Navy. So that the men could go to Vietnam, my shipmates and I were trained to be photographers and to fly over Russian and Chinese ships, to be able to take rather sophisticated pictures of their cargo. And remember, this was immediately after the Cuban missile crisis.

I get why we were called on to do that, and it was very exciting. There was really almost no difference between what we were trained to do versus what the men were trained to do. But they did go to Vietnam, and so many died and we did not go to Vietnam.

JW:  After four years you were out of the Navy. You were about 22, I suppose. Did you then go to college?

LC:  Here’s what happened. And now we can say that the seeds of feminism were sown. I get out of the service. And now I’m going to take advantage of the ability to go to college. And I am told that because I’m a woman, I am not entitled to my GI benefits. Not any, not a lick. And it was so stunning to me because there were thousands of men who had jobs less challenging than mine. My husband at the time, for example, was a dental hygienist and he got all of his GI benefits.

I got none. So, I joined a class action lawsuit to win my benefits under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It went all the way to the Supreme Court. I still get goosebumps when I think about it. And we won. And from that day forward, all women veterans are entitled to the exact same benefits as men veterans. When I tell women veterans this today, first of all, they’re so grateful. But it’s hard for them to believe that not so terribly long ago, it didn’t happen. And it wasn’t flippant. It was just simply, “Oh, sorry. You’re not entitled to benefits. You’re a woman.”

And then I went to college. Let me say that this New Yorker who had also been stationed all over the country, my path took me to North Dakota because my best friend in the Navy was a woman from North Dakota. And I decided that with my GI bill and loans that I would be able to get a Master’s degree. In fact, I got a Master’s degree in English and fell in love with this populist state where women were elected to office, where women had won the right to vote before there was a constitutional amendment giving women the franchise. Women were given equal benefits with men in all areas of work in North Dakota. It was a place where the agrarian socialism of the early 1900’s and 1920’s was still alive with a state-owned bank and a state-owned elevator. And it’s still the only state that has that. And I realized that I could get a job there and I could do well. And then let’s see where life takes me. And so I got educated in North Dakota.

Then I was ready to go into my first job. And because I had a Master’s in English, I decided I would try my hand at teaching high school and college. Well, my first job attempt, I’m turned down in writing because they wanted a man who can coach sports, and they put it in writing. And it’s not a job for sports. It’s a teaching job in English and American English and my Masters is in William Faulkner. So I took that letter to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the EEOC, which had been set up after the 1964 Civil Rights Act and by God, I won.

So once again, I had to fight my way into what should have been a no brainer. And by the way, I would have been glad to coach sports. But I decided that I wouldn’t take that job. I realized there were other things in store for me. And I met the most remarkable man. He was a state elected official at the time, and he was very uncomfortable with the Vietnam War. And he said so publicly, and he was pilloried by many. But I thought this is somebody I would like to go to work for.

And he had no qualms because again, this is progressive at the time, North Dakota. And he hired me as a top executive in the State Tax Department. And from there I began running campaigns because I became very political. But it also was a time in North Dakota and the country where as I’m working on my career advancements, America is topsy-turvy. America is going through a very, in some ways, very exciting time, the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement. And I was being drawn into it.

And it also really affected my politics. And I became very progressive politically. I hadn’t been before, and I got very involved in the women’s movement and also the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement. And in terms of the women’s movement, I decided to start the NOW organization, National Organization for Women, in North Dakota. And I traveled all over the state getting women involved. Not long after that, I became North Dakota’s first delegate to the first national convention of the National Women’s Political Caucus, which was a great way to meet Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem and just all the great women of that era.

Well, now you can imagine, I’m very excited about all the things that we could do. And I realized as I’m doing all this, that I could maybe get more done if I channeled my efforts through a political party and the Democratic Party in North Dakota, we called it the Democratic Nonpartisan League, became the party of choice.

And from there, with so many other women, I worked on ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in North Dakota. That was hard fought. But Republican and Democratic women came together. It really was a woman’s effort with the Republican National Committee women and the Democratic chairman of the party and women like me. And we got it done. And then, of course, Phyllis Schlafly shut it down because the next step was Illinois. So we became the last state in the nation to ratify the ERA. As the war went on, I would say to you that my feminist politics and my politics in general became a little more radicalized. And I became an elector for the Socialist Workers Party.

It’s something you could do in North Dakota and there was some history of that then so it wasn’t beyond the realm. But I primarily did it because they were running a woman for President. And that was Linda Jenness. So I primarily wanted to support a woman for President and Linda was the candidate. But even after I did that, Shirley Chisholm came forward in the Democratic Party. And then I jumped on her campaign, and I became a delegate to the Democratic National Convention for Shirley Chisholm. We won one delegate for Shirley in North Dakota, and I was it. I went to the National Convention. First, my friends and I realized that the Democratic delegations were almost all male. And there had been a movement by the DNC, the Democratic National Committee, to have more equality among the delegations.

So, my friends and I decided to challenge all male delegations. And we won. They threw out the male delegations. And when we went to the Democratic National Convention, all across the convention hall, you could see part of the delegation was female and part was male. And it was just another great victory. But it told me that I was in the right place; channeling my efforts to a political party on behalf of feminism was working.

JW:  And you did some other things in North Dakota, correct?

LC:  During my early years in North Dakota, I married. I had my wonderful son Ivan, and I was a working girl. I needed child care, and we had no affordable child care in North Dakota. With a group of other moms, we decided to take a good look at whether we could get publicly funded preschool for children. It was unheard of. And through this great Dean of Women at North Dakota State University who supported us, we got it. We couldn’t have done it without Republican women as well as Democratic women and we won state funding for kindergarten and preschool. And it was the first in the state. It changed people’s lives. We were able to work and not worry and be right near our children. That was one of the greatest victories of all, because it really made a difference for me as a mom and for my little boy.

JW:  At some point, you came to Washington, correct?

LC:  While in North Dakota, I had a marvelous opportunity to actually run successful political campaigns for candidates, sometimes women, sometimes men. But a man named Kent Conrad, who had been a mentor to me in political campaigns, came to me and asked me whether I would run his campaign for the United States Senate. What an honor. I’d never done that before. I accepted. But we were 38 points behind. And the incumbent was a flowing whitehaired, really marvelous looking guy who had won his last campaign with 71% of the vote.

But we decided we would put everything we could into this. We put my son to work on the campaign. And I was a single mom at this point. We worked our hearts out for a year and we won. And it was written in the papers of North Dakota, it was the story of the century. Democratic-NPL-er Kent Conrad unseated the incumbent Senator. And I say that I rewarded Kent Conrad for doing such a good job and I married him.

I went to Washington as a chief of staff to a House member, as a Senate spouse and as a mom. And I worked really hard at trying to juggle all these things. And I will regress for a moment and say that my family is a very hardworking family. We had to be. My mom, my dad, my brothers and me, because we had no money. And one of the reasons I became such a strong feminist was because there were so many of us of that generation like me who didn’t have any money. We knew that we wanted to be wives and mothers.

We wanted to work but we needed to work. And this took me to very strong career goals. My parents just worked all the time to make a better life for us. And I was trying to do the same thing for my son. In Washington, my career really blossomed, in that I was able to do more in terms of earning a living. But it was a challenge to be all those things. It was definitely a challenge. But it was a relatively serene time of my life in that I found in Washington that if you worked hard and you were smart and you had political savvy, you could go far. Even if you were a woman.

It was a good life for me. And at some point, I was recruited by Major League Baseball. How ironic. How badly I had wanted to play baseball. I was recruited by the Commissioner of Baseball, Bud Selig, to become one of the top executives at Major League Baseball. Now, for the first time, I was in the private sector. I was financially secure, and it made a great difference in my life. I did that for about 20 years.

During that time, I didn’t do as much political organizing as I did before. I was still very involved in the party process of trying to elect women to office. I went on the board of the National Woman’s Party, one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I eventually became the President of the National Woman’s Party, which was not a political party but an organization whose goal through Alice Paul was to win women the right to vote, and she won, and her colleagues won for all women.

Our job on the board of the National Woman’s Party was to keep that legacy alive and prepare for the centennial of suffrage to remind everybody how hard fought it was for women to win the vote and how we must never stop working to make sure that women have their equal rights, certainly their right to vote and their right to be equal participants in society. I think about North Dakota and a saying that we have, which is: “every morning a cowgirl gets up, she puts on her boots and she says, let’s go out there. Let’s get the job done.”

I feel very strongly that we, the veterans of the feminist movement, from the late 60’s and the 70’s just did our best to get the job done. And it wasn’t just for us, even though I needed it so I could have a job. We did it for others. And what a wonderful thing that so many women came together during that tumultuous time to make what turned out to be such a huge difference.

JW:  How did your involvement in the women’s movement change your personal and professional life? Any other final thoughts?

LC:  I’ve talked a bit about how it changed my professional life and that I had to be really strong and fight for everything that I got. It’s just how it was and it’s how I am today. I don’t believe in giving up, and I believe in teaching other women to be strong and to be brave. It’s changed my personal life in that I’m so excited that my son married an exciting woman who is a farmer, a dairy farmer. She is a leader in the sustainable agricultural movement. He learns from her. They are partners and a team on their organic farm. And then there’s my grandson, who is also married to a strong, dynamic woman who speaks out for equal rights, for human rights. And I can hope and I believe that they grew up that way because of the things that we did. And now I’m seeing it in my own personal life, and I can enjoy my daughter in law and my granddaughter in law. I’ve had mentors, and I think I’ve talked a bit about them here.

I’ve had an opportunity to be the best that I can be. And I’m just grateful for all the hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands of women who stood up at that time to make a better life for women and for women who either didn’t have the money or the time or the language skills to fight that fight themselves. I’m proud we fought it for them and with them.