Mary Brandon

“NOW Really Was My Springboard.”

Interviewed by Wilma Stevens and Mary-Ann Lupa, VFA Board, August 2021

WS:  Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for the Veteran Feminists of America Pioneer Histories Project. Could you begin by telling us your name and the date and place of your birth?

MB:  Sure. Mary Emily Brandon and I was born January 24, 1950, in Nashville, Tennessee.

WS:  Could you tell us a little bit about what your life was like before you got involved in the women’s movement?

MB:  Sure. I was born in the south and raised in the south and predominantly had no connection whatsoever with the women’s movement at all. I was born in a fairly conservative, let’s say, really conservative family whose modus operandi was: “Don’t ask about anything.” So that by the time I went to college, I was aware that there were issues that I was not dealing with, but I just swept them under the carpet. So it wasn’t until I went to graduate school in 1972 that I was awakened to the reality of women’s positions in society as well as racial issues.

It wasn’t until I was at Madison, Wisconsin, in 1972. You have to be dead or dumb not to be aware of what was going on. So that was the sort of flowering of my beginning to understand what was happening in the women’s movement, particularly.

WS:  Did you have any influence from the other women in your family? 

MB:  No. I knew one woman in my Church who had a doctorate and she was not married. And I thought, that’s interesting; now there’s somebody who’s not married. But I was quiet about that. That was not supposedly a good role model at all. My parents and my grandparents, who also all went to college, were insistent that I would go to college. But the predominant reason to go to college was to find the right kind of mate and to be a good, helpful and educated mate therefore.

So that was pretty much what my reasoning was. And when I went to college, I was thinking about that. But a lot of my friends in college went on to graduate school. And all my professors were women because I went to a women’s college. And that was an extremely important stimulus for me to start waking up to what was going on. I think I had that beginning to be built in college. So that by the time I got to grad school – although I was frankly too self-absorbed, busy, and selfish to get involved in the women’s movement in all the eight years I was in grad school – it was in the back of my mind that there was something I hadn’t done. There was something I owed. There was something that was unfinished about my life.

So I finished grad school in 1980, and I moved to follow my then boyfriend to Chicago in the fall of 1980. At that point, I figured I must fulfill this debt that I feel. But I didn’t know anything about organized women’s movement, except NOW. That was the only organization I knew of, the only organization I had heard of.

I thought, where is this NOW? Where is this? Where am I going to find this? So I went to Chicago NOW. I went to some meetings and was blown away by the women I met, by their smarts, intelligence, the tenacity of their commitment, and by Mary Jean Collins. I had never met anybody like that. So I hung around there all the time. I was supposed to be looking for a job, but I was there all the time. She finally just gave me something to do, because I was there all the time, just hanging around.

So I wrote this (not very good) paper. But I wrote this paper about the history of reproductive rights, and that sort of stimulated me to think about reproductive rights, connection of women’s movement, and what was going on in Illinois at that point in time. And I got involved with the chapter in a more organized way. By ’91-ish, ’92-ish, I was on the board. I was helping run the Tuesday night work sessions. We did districting of membership cards for legislative calls. We did calls for raising money.

We did all those sorts of organizing things. And then I had a little job. I had finally gotten a job; it was a crappy job. I was making $8,000 a year. And then Mary Jean asked me to join the ERA campaign and make $4,000 a year. I thought, wow, now there is an opportunity. And I quit my crappy job. And for seven months I was on the staff of the ERA campaign. And that was a turning point in my life, right there. Bang! Those seven months I met Sue Purrington. I met all those great organizers and learned a lot: lobbying, organizing, talking to legislators, finding my voice. That was key, for lots of what happened to my life later. I would say that was the introduction to political experience, which I had, political organizing as well, which became more and more what I did at NOW. That ended in 1982, the summer of ’82. So, by ’84-ish or ’85-ish I was the President of the chapter.

Also, Paul Simon had picked me to be on his staff because of political work I was doing. I was a Mondale delegate the summer of ’84. I had a lot of experience and I was helping to organize other campaigns. I was very lucky. But every single one of those experiences went back to Chicago NOW. My next job, which was with the Nurses Association, organizing, went back to Chicago NOW because it was the contacts I made at Chicago NOW. It got me the job organizing at the Nurses Association.

The next job I got after Paul Simon, I got through my connections with the ERA campaign in Chicago NOW. So in each successive state, I had a tiny bit more money, but more importantly, more responsibility, more access to fabulous women who gave me a sense of more responsibility and a sense of self-worth that I hadn’t had when I was a younger person. I’ll stop at that point. But NOW really was my springboard.

WS:  Could you tell us how you got connected to Paul Simon?

MB:  Yes, I will. At that point, in ’84 and ’85, I was chairing the Chicago NOW PAC with Sue Purrington, and we were interviewing candidates. Although Simon was running for Congress, he came in to have an interview with us. And I met him, and he asked me to work on his campaign. I didn’t do a lot on his campaign. I really didn’t. But I saw him a lot because I was a Mondale delegate, and I was doing a lot of campaigning.

I ran into a lot of his staff. So a lot of us worked together. We leafleted together. We did political stops. We did talks together. We went out and did a lot of talking out in the suburbs to groups, junior leagues, all that kind of stuff to try to drum up support. I was shocked when he asked me, because he asked me to come to Washington. And I was not prepared to go to Washington in any way. Nor did I want to go Washington.

So I said, “Well, let’s see now.” I try to negotiate. Useless. “Let’s see now. I’ll go to Washington. But can I come back on the weekends?” He said, “There’s no money for that.” So I said, “Well, can I have a job in your Chicago office?” And he figured it out for me. I think it was through the PAC work originally that I met him, but it was more through the fact that I was just doing a lot of political organizing, I believe. Political work, really, with Purrington. Sue Purrington was in many ways my mentor for political organizing in the chapter, and with someone who stayed my friend through to her death just a few years ago.

She was executive director at that point in time, after Mary Jean left, and after Karen Fishman left too, and then I left. I can’t now remember, I think I stayed involved with the chapter into the late eighties, because after I joined Simon’s staff, I joined the AIDS Foundation board. He was one of the founders of the AIDS Foundation board, and I went to the meetings in his stead, and then they elected me to be on the board.

And I was on that board for a few years. Again, that was a direct connection to Chicago NOW. After I got a job at the University of Chicago, I couldn’t make those meetings, so I quit that board. By ’90, I was on the ACLU board, where I was on that board for 19 years as an activist. But between that, I also was lucky enough to be picked as a Fellow in the Leadership Greater Chicago program.

Again, a direct connection from Chicago NOW. That was sort of a year of learning all sorts of things about urban issues. And that came directly through the Simon campaign. And Simon recommended me for that fellowship year. That was a great experience. And I did public policy work for the Ounce of Prevention Fund, too. Again, by knowing Judy Carter, which was a direct connection through my campaign work. All of those connections, all of those activities were based, in my view, in the growing nexus of women who I got to know in politics through NOW.

WS:  What was the Ounce of Prevention Fund? Could you tell us a little about that?

MB:  The Ounce of Prevention Fund still is a public private partnership between the State of Illinois and private funding. It was set up by Irving Harris, the philanthropist, to provide head start support for children at risk and support for mothers at risk. It sets up clinics in low-income communities, and there is also a piece of it that does public policy work. And I was involved in that for about a year.

WS:  I think you’ve touched on this a little bit, but could you tell us some of your most memorable and important experiences?

MB:  I think for me that public service business with Simon was really a good one. I had never worked in politics; I didn’t know what it was like. I also made the mistake, as many of us do, of  putting liberal politicians on pedestals. It’s a good thing to be knocked down. And it’s a good thing to have public service under one’s belt. You find out how difficult it is and you find how important it is and how hard it is for compromise to work in this country even then, so many years ago. That was important.

But I think the most important thing for me really was meeting those women. Meeting those women who came from so many different kinds of backgrounds. Some of them had high school educations, some of them had graduate educations. But yet they all were working in a communal way. I didn’t like them all equally, but I respected them all, because they were smart. Even now it still sticks with me. It’s a great reminder, and it has stuck with me in that it makes me feel….I carry a lot of that sense of being a more resilient person with me because of those experiences.

And even though I don’t do political work anymore, I got burned out. By 2000, I was burned out and doing the work I did with the ACLU by 2010, I was burned out. So I don’t do that anymore. But at least I’m at the point where I can give money to those causes. And I feel very grateful for that. And I think that’s what I remember the best.

I wanted to say a few more things about Mary Jean. I had never met anybody like her. And even now, it’s hard for me to talk about it. She was, besides Purrington, such a mentor. I never will forget when I first met her, and she stood in that doorway, with her hands on her hips. She said, “Well, now who are you?” And I was sort of taken aback.  And she said, “Come in here. Let’s have a talk.’ And from that minute, I just thought, that woman really knows what it is to be a leader. You just knew, she knew what it was. The only other person I felt like that with was Colleen Connell with the ACLU. She knew what it was to be a leader. And knows what it is to be a leader. But Mary Jean, she was and is, something special, even though I never saw her [again] until that ERA reunion.

WS:  How do you feel the women’s movement has changed you?

MB:  Well, as I said, I definitely feel more resourceful. I feel more resilient. Even though I taught both at Roosevelt and as a teaching assistant, I was very uncomfortable in terms of speaking. I was forced to have to speak in front of crowds. And when I was on Simon’s staff, I had to speak in front of some big crowds and that I had experience finally doing it at NOW, and I got to do it. And it didn’t bother me anymore. And that was good, because at the ACLU, I chaired the development committee for a number of years. I had to talk in front of all the board members. And sometimes that was difficult.

I felt a resilience and a strength that I certainly didn’t have before. You don’t learn that in graduate school; you don’t learn much in graduate school, but you don’t learn any of that. It was really a remarkably good thing to learn. Empowerment, that’s the other thing. The empowerment that I felt doing that political work, being able to speak to legislators is the other thing that I was scared to death about. I remember the first trip to Springfield. I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was dreading the whole thing because I was going to have to speak to one of my representatives, and he was very rude. And after that was over, I said “Fuck that. This guy is not going to treat me this way.” And that was the end of that.

WS:  You have a PhD. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

MB:  Yes. I have a Masters and a PhD in physical anthropology. And the reason I did that was because again, in graduate school, and in college, it just felt like I had to do something else. I’m not going to get a job; I’m not going to get married. This is not in my future. This is just not something I’m going to do. And I wanted to take care of myself. And I was interested in science, and I wanted to be a scientist. Some kind of science. I thought I’m going to be a scientist and I’m going to teach. I’m going to have a little job teaching in a little northeastern college where I will have a cozy little cottage.

I had this whole vision that I was going to do this. The only place that offered me five years guaranteed support was the University of Wisconsin. And I thought I’ll get out of the south.

In 1972, I graduated from Agnes Scott College, which is in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s a women’s college. Now, if I had to do this over again, would I go to a woman’s college? At the time it was right for me, because I was taught by almost all women. And a lot of these women, almost all of these women had doctorates. And I thought, that is something women can do. I’d never seen that before. And I thought, that is cool.

Not only that, they have really good robes, too. During commencement, they had great robes with the three stripes. And that looks nice. I thought “I want a robe.” So how do you get one of those? You got to have a doctorate. So that was one thing I was thinking about. My degree was in biology. And I decided now I’m either going to be a zoologist or I’m going to do something else. And I thought, maybe medical school. So maybe I’ll get a Masters in physical anthropology. I’ll decide whether I’m going to medical school, which is what my sister did eventually.

So I went to graduate school, and I finished my doctorate. I had a lot of opposition from the faculty about it. It was a very sexist place to be. And it was a horrible Department. And I just felt I needed to keep going because there was a lot of opposition. It was a terrible time. The first few years were okay; the last few years were horrible. And after I finished my degree, I actually went to the Dean of the Faculty to file a formal complaint about the Department. There was some faculty who were sleeping with students. And it was the ’70s.  It seemed to be what they thought they could get away with. It was miserable.

I put the higher education behind me, and I thought, I can do other things with my life. I didn’t get a job when I got into Chicago. There were very few positions for physical anthropologists anywhere in the world, anywhere. So I didn’t do anything with it. Ironically, I might not have had the job at U of C without having a doctorate. But whether I had to have that doctorate, I don’t know. So, who knows? Anyway, it gave me a background in research, which was good to have, because I knew how to do research.

I took the job at U of C because I was 40 years old, and at that point, I was at the Ounce of Prevention Fund, and I really didn’t have a pension. And I saw that job was going to come to an end, as it did. And I thought, I don’t have a pension. I don’t have much savings. I might have to do something else. I had a friend who was working there, and she said, “well, there’s a position opening as an Assistant Dean, and you look like you’ve got the qualifications, administrative qualifications for it.”

So I applied, and they only wanted to know if I had a doctorate – that’s all they wanted to know. That’s all they cared about. So I got the job, and I was promoted to Associate Dean. And for a while, I was the Associate Dean of the law school, which was a nightmare job. And I went back to the Social Sciences division, and I had some good experiences and some bad experiences because I dealt directly with faculty. But I think because I had a doctorate, though it didn’t matter to me, some of them didn’t try to tear me apart. That’s just the way they are.

You just have to have a sense of humor about it. And because I had this background of being resilient and standing up for myself, I could give it back. So, there’s a little bit still that I carried over, even into the last job.