THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I was a feminist before I knew that word existed.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, May 2021
MJC: To start out with the basic questions, please start with your name.
PCM: Peggy Conlon Madigan.
MJC: Talk about your life, the kind of family you were born into and what your life was like as a kid. This is life before feminism, including some of the things that might have led you to that.
PCM: I am third generation Irish immigrant on both sides of the family. It was a delight for both my mother and father to find out at my mother’s father’s funeral that it turns out that both the Conlon side, my dad’s side, and the Grace McNamara side, my mother’s side had people from Cashel in Tipperary. The Conlons come from Kiltimagh, Mayo.
One of the things that I appreciated growing up is having parents who wanted us to understand our heritage, but not to be so taken with it, not to be “wearing green and swilling beer” only understanding of Irish. They wanted us to know the history of the civilization, what happened in 1066, the Normans come and it changes things. It was really useful and helpful in terms of creating one’s definition and understanding of self and family.
I am my parents third child, the oldest daughter. My parents had eight children in 11 years and it was a busy crowd: five boys, three girls. I was born and raised overseas to a great extent because my father was a career foreign service officer. My two older brothers were born in Havana, I was born in Surabaya on the island of Java which is not the principal city but it is the largest port commercial city. I have a sister who is 11 months younger who was also born in Surabaya. Then we moved to Singapore, where another brother is born, and we then moved to the States.
It’s the first time that we as a family are living in the States. My mom and dad and my two older brothers lived in New Haven for a year because after Havana my dad was assigned to take a year at Yale in Indonesian language, training, and cultures, hence the transfer of the posting in Surabaya. But it was the first time we were going to be with Conlon and Grace and McNamara family and O’Haire and family. These people loved and adored us and it was very wonderful and overwhelming all at the same time.
It was so overwhelming that my sister, just younger than I, refused to speak English to them. It is so interesting the way the human psyche helps itself survive: in order to stop the attention, she would only speak through me in Mêlée to them. My mother and father were very clear on that happening, and it just delights and amazes me. We’re then in D.C. for the late ’50s and I start grade school there, of course, Catholic grade school education. We all go to the parish school and then we move to Saigon, Vietnam in 1960 for two years. My youngest sister was born there after the two youngest boys had been born in D.C.
Now we are the family of seven, which we became because we lost a little guy when we lived in D.C. and unlike many of the Americans who were living in Saigon, my parents wanted the four older kids to have the benefit of French language. They sent us to French language schools, Catholic, all boys and all girls. Initially it was cloudy but one day the clouds parted and it was a fascinating experience. We didn’t understand all of what was going on with Vietnam at the time, it’s early 1960-62 but still we had an awareness. This was special and unique as we couldn’t drive out to the countryside as we usually did because of Viet Cong activity.
We next moved to Normandy. Amazingly enough, after two years in French schools the four older kids just slipped right into French schools. That was a fascinating thing for us to be one and a half hours from the landing beaches of D-Day. It’s not like we went every weekend, but we would go for picnic lunches and run on the beach and toss and have our salami and cheese sandwiches. My parents didn’t have to say a thing to us when we went up to the cemetery, it was a completely different feel. Anyone who has seen that site in any movie, much less those fortunate enough to go to it, knew how amazing it was.
We spent a year in a French town and then took the SS America across and sailed into New York Harbor. I looked at that Statue of Liberty and I thought, I’m home in America, I’m an American. We then moved to Washington, D.C. for three years and a few weeks after we were there, Martin Luther King gives his I Have a Dream speech. A few months after that, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. We’re talking Washington, D.C., in the middle ’60s, home of soul music, it was the best music scene for young people with their own little radios and that kind of thing, and exploring all that the nation’s capital has to offer in terms of free museums.
Then we move to the Philippines and I spent the next two years back in D.C. Then my dad was assigned as American consul general in Nice my senior year of high school. We did a lot of traveling, had a beautiful home overlooking the Bay de Villefranche just outside of Nice. I learned how to drive on the second-hand car my mother had bought on the hairpin turns of the romantic French Riviera, my father teaching me to drive.
We moved back to the States and I began college life in River Forest, Illinois at the last place in the world I was ever going to go to college, Rosary College. Despite my misgivings, because my mother had gone there, two of my father’s sisters had gone there and I had a great aunt who was now a Dominican, I received the best education. What a strong order of religious women. After their names are the initials OP, it stands for Order of Preacher. And these women were very clear about their mission to be training communicators with an eye on service. Ever since then, I have lived in the greater Chicago area, River Forest, Oak Park especially, since 1973.
MJC: How do you think your life experience up until then affected your willingness to accept or to be a part of feminism?
PCM: In moving to these greatly different places, although many of the postings were in different Southeast Asian countries, one of the constant things for my family was the Roman Catholic Church. My parents were practicing Catholics. The rules in the United States with regard to covering on the head or fish on Friday was not the rule in Vietnam and there were different rules in France. Especially because my parents were people of faith, having the consistency of the church and the mass, and the routines, and the ceremony was comforting to them.
For me it showed it is not a black and white world. It is not. Killing someone is wrong, yes. Stealing someone’s property is wrong. But there was a lot of gray for me in my life. I remember asking my father after seeing a movie in seventh grade, it was a war movie with a mortally wounded soldier. His buddy is tending to him and the other wounded soldiers and the guy’s dying and he’s asking to be put out of his pain.
After the movie, I remember walking the dog with my dad and saying, Dad, why was he not put out of his pain? That would have been the right thing to do. My dad said, “No, that is not the right thing to do. That is God’s decision.” That so clearly was not my point of view, because I saw that man suffering and the guy was going to die at what benefit to anyone? There were those kinds of things.
When you use the word feminism, I know I was a feminist before I knew that word existed and that is a wonderful pathway. It has been a very comforting pathway for me over these years to know that there’s something intrinsically in the world that I saw and the world that my parents created for me allowed me to process things in that fashion. The traditions at what is now Dominican University are quite remarkable.
MJC: When did you first take part in some activism related to women’s rights?
PCM: The first thing I did was attend a big ERA rally downtown Chicago. I did not belong to NOW; I was not an organization member. I was doing other things in my life.
MJC: What was your life like at that point?
PCM: At that point, I was working in the savings and loan industry. I was getting promoted, I was enjoying problem solving, I was enjoying discovering the city of Chicago, the film center of the Art Institute, the lakefront.
MJC: Were you married?
PCM: No, I was not married then. But I was with “he with whom I fell in love” and did eventually marry. We just explored. My dear friend Mary, who was also a Rosary College grad, we had first laid eyes on each other the first week we were there and despised each other. It took all of our friends going out of country our junior year and for her to be assigned two doors down from my room to discover how amazingly wonderful we found each other to be and we are lifelong friends. As with any friendships there’s some peaks and valleys but we know each other’s stories like the back of our hands and it’s been really wonderful to have that.
When we went down to the 1978 rally, she brought her husband, and I brought my guy and it was just amazing and thrilling to see all kinds of banners. I took a picture of one of them, and those who were holding the banner were delighted that I wanted to. “Southern Baptists for the ERA.” I was shocked they existed. It’s good to know these misconceptions about religious fervor don’t necessarily exclude progressive thinking on all things, what I think of progressive. Took the “L” down and came back to Oak Park and that evening I was told that she received discouragement from pursuing that kind of activism their friend Peggy was beginning down a pathway towards.
In ’81 ’82 when I did become involved in the Illinois ERA Countdown campaign, she was right on it with her then daughter, Mary and Colleen in the stroller. We were picketing Thompson at the Drake Hotel. She remembers up and down and the empowerment that she felt with that. She was full time working outside the home as well as the mom at home, and she made time for that. That that is still a very strong memory for her delights me.
MJC: Describe how you got more involved from ’78 on.
PCM: I saw a little clip in our local newspaper in Oak Park about a presentation at the local National Organization for Women chapter called West Suburban NOW (Oak Park, River Forest, Forest Park, North Lake). There was going to be a presentation called, “The good news about the ERA.” And I read that and thought, there’s good news? This was fall of ’81, I thought there’s good news? I got to go to this and find out because it’s not looking good in June 1982.
It was Linda Miller and she talked about the gathering of the forces and applying the knowledge and making it happen, and there was a pathway to this. All the steps needed to be taken, it was not rocket science, but all the steps needed to be taken and because of you and you and you we’re going to make it happen. Won’t you join? At the same time at that meeting, an amazing woman by the name of Lynn Kanter announced that she was going to be running a feminist CR (consciousness raising) series in her home.
In for a penny, in for a pound, I’m doing this. I jumped in and I got so much out of that. I was manager of the Savings Customer Service Department at Oak Park Federal Savings and I looked myself in the mirror and thought, I’m going to continue to get promoted either here or if I continue to stay in this field and I’ll continue to earn pretty decent money and it’ll be more money. Except I don’t care about this mission of this organization, I care about the people with whom I interact, the staff that I guide, I care about identifying what the problem is and finding the solution. That means this is not my future.
When the call that Linda Miller put out was “join us,” I went through Lynn Kanter and I said, “Lynn, how do I get involved?” She goes, “I know Mary Jane Collins down at the ERA count down campaign. Contact her.” So I did and the rest is history and my life. I left at year seven in a minimum eight year pension vesting, only twenty seven and twenty eight year-olds do that kind of thing and not all of them wise ones necessarily. But I used to say to myself and others, I don’t care down the line if I am eating the same brand of Purina cat tuna as my cats because of missing that pension, because this was the right thing. It was happening now; it was happening and there was going to be a deadline and there was a focus.
MJC: Talk about your activity in the campaign.
PCM: In the campaign I used many of the skills that I had learned while I was one of three central organizers attempting to organize the first union within the financial industry. It was the summer of 1974 after I had graduated with my history degree from Rosary. There was one union bank in town at the time, the Amalgamated. After the crash of 1929 it was the only place that working people could go without property as collateral to get loans, and their collateral was their labor and they got loans. Eventually when the owners were ready to retire a group of doctors bought the place and one of the terms of the sale was that the staff at the bank would become union members and there would be a contract.
It was a sweetheart deal, there was no drive. We were doing the union drive and the three of us were inside. It all happened because we went down to an anti-Nixon rally in early spring of 1974. I met and ran into Mike Cavanaugh, my organizing mentor. He had worked on the FERA pants strike for those who know their labor history and was working at Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union headquarters on Ashland in Chicago. They were looking for where the next organizing was going to take place.
We described to him what was going on as we observed it and worked it, and his higher ups had some concerns about 22-year-olds being committed for the long run. There was money and personnel they were going to be committing and Mike assured them and brought us down to talk to Saul Brownsville, the vice president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. With regard to his concerns about commitment, I said, “I have put my graduate studies in library science on hold because I know that I cannot do an excellent job in this class and an excellent job being an organizer and learning how to do it. I hope that helps you with the understanding of this.” It was agreed, and so it happened.
I learned a lot of things about organizing and I brought those skills to the 53 W Jackson on the ninth floor to the amazing group of staff and volunteers in that huge big phone banking room. The meetings would start at about 5:30 when all of us who were full time unpaid organizers would have been there from maybe late morning or early afternoon, depending on when those who worked in the loop or in the area would be able to come down and we would go over the script and get to the phones.
It was so interesting reading the same thing when door to door work in DuPage County as well as Springfield was taking place, as well as in the city of Chicago. Knock on the door, identify yourself, and we have just a few questions if we can ask you. Have you ever read the Equal Rights Amendment? Do you agree or disagree with the following: equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex? Ninety seven percent of them agreed with it and then we would tell them that is the Equal Rights Amendment. With the addendum that Congress shall have the powers of enacting, and it shall take effect within two years.
People’s eyes would get big and they would be amazed by this. One of the times we went down to Springfield we were doing door to door work in a mobile home court and we reached a young father who was almost at the point of a divorce settlement and had a young daughter. He was delighted to see us. He said, “Based on what you’re telling me, the judge is not going to automatically give every right to my daughter’s mother just because she’s a mother, I will have equal access? Is that what you’re telling me?” We said, “Equality of rights means equality of rights for women and for men.” This was powerful for this young man, and it was powerful for us to be able to process it in that fashion.
The vast majority of us in the phone banking rooms, as well as the door-to-door work, were women. There were a couple of really outstanding guys who were there. The thing that made them “offensive” to the group of the rest of us who were different kinds, they weren’t looking for limelight. They weren’t looking for attention, and they weren’t looking to tell you, “if you just did it this way, and my idea,” this was a very cooperative group of men. Those of you who did the screening of the men who would become part of this, did an excellent job. Tom Church was one of them, rest in peace.
MJC: What was the period of time that you were in involved with the campaign?
PCM: Until the end of the campaign. During the course of the campaign is when Lynn Kanter, Pam Hughes, the wonderful Marzullo sisters Teresa and Mary Sue, filmed a 30-minute documentary on the struggle for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Illinois. It is in Smith College’s archives. It was interesting for those of us who were doing the work to be watching their commitment to this.
We were made to feel that our work was very valuable. We knew that, but to have it being documented really solidified that view. And towards the end, as it became clearer and clearer that it didn’t matter how many constituent visits we were going to be doing with the representatives… God bless Mary Brandon the goddess for her comments saying, “I used to think they knew everything, but I will never in my life have any hesitation to be making a visit to an elected representative and give them any credit for thinking that they know more than I know, because my experience is it’s quite the opposite.”
It was very discouraging having “leaders” in Illinois, like the governor, who gave a lot of lip service but never turned a vote. The president of the Illinois Senate, a Democrat who talked big and I believe never turned a vote, Phil Rock and Jim Thompson, the governor, a Republican, turned a vote over. Then it got to be clear that it wasn’t going to happen. We needed three more states, there were five states where there were active campaigns, but clearly it was Illinois, North Carolina and Florida if it was going to happen, that’s where it was going to happen.
It really seemed like it was quite possible in Illinois. Thank goodness that big rally in Springfield with she who brought us such comfort and balance but motivation, the wonderful singer songwriter musician Kristen Lems. She was at so many of these concerts and rallies, the ballad for the ERA. That last hurrah at the capital where so many of us are gathered, not just the Illinois ERA Countdown campaign but people who came from Chicago, from Peoria, from far southern Illinois and the rest of it all committed and angry.
I remember your diminutive stature but your powerful voice saying, “We’ve gotten the message, vote them out.” And Ellie Smeal saying, “You want to see a movement move, vote them out and you’ll see a movement move.” And Monica Faith Stewart gave a great speech on the floor of the Illinois legislature where she gave credit where credit was due and identified the group that had held us back and that was going to be our focus. June 30th 1982 – that was the end. I went, as many did from Illinois, to Washington, D.C. for the closing rally.
Again, Kristen Lems was there and lots of us were there and happily for me, I was then hired in the fall to work in the campaign. I was given a desk and I had all the cards that various NOW groups such as DuPage as well as Cook and non-Chicago, to put into the campaigns of those who had voted with us to reelect them and to put in the campaign of the opponents of those who had voted against us to elect their opponents. I can’t give you a tally right now, but I can tell you that it was satisfying for me to be able to take that next step.
This is ongoing, this didn’t just stop, this will continue. It’s not just the ERA, it is any number of things: it is reproductive rights, it is the earliest stages of talking about gay and lesbian rights and for some people it had been talked about for a long time but in a broader sense. One of the big issues for me was also reproductive rights and that remains the case.
MJC: So that had an amazing impact on your life. And you then had the job post ERA and then how did it influence your life going forward?
PCM: An Oak Park attorney was shot aboard the “L” train riding home by the soon to be ex-spouse of his client. His dear friend and wife and other friends dealt with that by having a referendum on having a handgun ban in Oak Park, because it was a handgun that was used. They called for volunteers in the Spring of ’84 and I thought, I know how to do precinct level work. Although I’ve not been materially impacted by this, I understand this and the society. So I signed up to be a precinct coordinator for my precinct and I’m very proud to say I brought in the second highest vote in a precinct that was mostly apartment buildings. It is tough work but there was also neighborhood work. I found out one of the names on my list was Joe Scheidler, Illinois Right to Life. I did go to that door, it was not he who answered the door, so that was an interesting process as well.
MJC: That was your next campaign?
PCM: That was the next campaign.
MJC: How were you involved in civil rights and women’s rights going forward?
PCM: I was trying to decide what I was going to do “when I grew up” and having all this travel in my background and interest in cultures and being a history major and wanting access to travel, I decided to go to travel agent school. When I finished, they sent me out on two different interviews with two women. One was an agency located in the Marshall Field’s building. She wasn’t sure if she was going to invest in getting the new computers or hiring a person such as myself. This was handwritten tickets, this is 1983. I thought to myself, she seemed very interesting but was having a problem deciding if she was going to go with computers.
My second interview was with a very distinctive and amazing woman who is also a mentor in my life and a dear friend, Cynthia Marquard, owner of Envoy Travel. It was a good interview and she said she would get back to me but after five days she hadn’t gotten back to me. I wanted to work there, that’s a good vibe going there. She and I could communicate with each other, we didn’t talk about politics. So I called and I said, “Hi, how are you? I just wanted to know if you’ve made a decision?” She said, “No, not quite.” I said, “I would really like to work there.”
She later told me that is what clinched it, because I said I wanted to work there, so she knew she would get somebody who was ready to roll up the sleeves and go, even though it was going to be my first job out of school. Obviously, I’d done other kinds of work and took things seriously and then began an almost 10-year employee at Envoy Travel. At the time, I did not know that Cynthia and her partner, the Great, the Amazing, the late Darlene Stilie who was the first board president of Women Employed.
The connections in the gay and lesbian community, as well as the women’s community, one of them ended up working at the White House under Valerie Jarrett. And one of them worked for Michelle. She’s an amazing person, an accomplished person today, and it was wonderful doing personal travel for her family and for her. She always appreciated the ideas that I came up with. We landed being the travel agent for the 19th annual conference on Women in the Law, that was way cool. All these feminists and making all their travel arrangements and then all the people who are listed on the program, knowing representatives from not so far back in the day: 1983, 1984, 1985.
I started part time and then went full time and started doing some great traveling. A safari to Kenya with Lindblad, top operation, and going to all these different places and cultures and being out in nature and holding on to the rollbar racing across the Serengeti Plain. There was the Mount Kenya Safari Club and just all these wonderful, wonderful things. Time marches forward and in 1987 in November I have Joanna, my first daughter. Then I went back to work part time, that was the decision that her dad and I had made that we wanted for our family. Some women stayed at home full time, I could never do that, I would not have been a good mom doing that and I would miss the socialization with adults, much less a feeling of creativity, contribution, accomplishment, all of those things. So, I worked part time for the next three and a half years.
Then Fiona makes an appearance and a year after she was born, it was time for me to be located closer to Oak Park so that I could shoot over to Joanna’s school and be helping out in the classroom and that sort of thing. I began working for Marilyn Pollock, co-owner with her husband of Crossroads Travel, then affiliated with American Express. The period of community involvement of a feminist on downtown Lake Street and as a mother at school really came into play in any number of ways in the classroom.
That was a delight to be jumping in the water, not forcefully but clearly, of advocating for things when they did not appear to have been considered either cluelessly or in some cases with intention. There are people who become involved in PTO with not having been a feminist or not having done political organization, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the experience that I had brought that which I did do in a much more powerful way. At the same time, I was being involved in community and was asked if I would join the Oak Park Community Relations Department.
I was very glad to be asked to do that. But inasmuch as my daughter’s father had a position where he was going to not only monthly board meetings, but subcommittee meetings, I thought this is going to have me having to hire a babysitter in order to do this. It’s not that we don’t hire babysitters and go out socially every once in a while, but having two parents away from the home for the benefit of the children, it seemed contrary to the system that he and I had decided we wanted for our family.
I declined that position but did any number of other things. The time finally came when I wanted to increase my part time hours at the travel agency, but not become full time and my employer said the numbers don’t justify it. When you’re here, you produce and the numbers show it, but a little bit of production isn’t going to cut it for me. Needs to be full time, I can’t do additional part time. At the same time a position became available in a school system as a teacher’s aide.
A neighbor said, “Boy, I wish I had someone like you,” at a block party observing me with children, working in my class. I said, “Really? Talk to me about that.” I was at the pre-K special ed in River Forest and then the next five years in the middle school for the most able special ed students. The first two years, especially being a one-on-one aid to a remarkable young woman, who taught me as much as I taught her.
They wanted me to be with her because they believed that she needed a one-on-one aide who was going to help her fly from the nest. The previous years one had done such a wonderful job and had kept her safe and protected and those in the special ed department thought she needed someone who’s going to help her fly. They didn’t use that word but that’s clearly what it was. It was a wonderful opportunity teaching her about feminism and teaching her about options so that someone who has mobility issues can overcome them. It was a gift to be underpaid, to help someone become all that she could be.
MJC: Your feminism and your activism carried on throughout your life. Are you doing anything now?
PCM: Absolutely. I continued working in electoral and issue campaigns. I think I’ve worked in every single presidential campaign. It was very exciting when Geraldine Ferraro was named as the Vice President. She was there and we were terribly excited by her. Unfortunately, her husband’s business dealings kind of affected the tone of things a little bit but nonetheless, it was worth getting involved in. John Kerry’s campaign, it was wonderful going through the League of Conservation Voters, with a good friend going up to Milwaukee. That outfit is very well organized and really makes the job going in that it was very well set up.
All these other campaigns, I was involved in the Oak Park Regreening Committee when DuPage County was installing big water pipes going right through Jackson Boulevard and beautiful tree canopies that affect the coolness as well as property values. One morning we wake up and two whole blocks of trees have been sheared to the curbs. This ad hoc committee just grew and we said no more of this and it was stopped. But then we took it to the next step, which is and what are you going to do village of Oak Park, not having overseen this, to address the loss of the greenness and the property values? And contrary to what the Traffic Planning Commission recommended, berms were installed in the middle of those blocks that the trees had been sheared to, and there is greenery and trees there.
So there’s that kind of thing. There’s any number of things, including working on the District 97 local kindergarten through eighth grade school system, a big picture plan for the next five years. I’ve had kids in the schools, it’s my turn to do this, it doesn’t look like fun and I stupidly said, whatever committee you want me on. They put me on personnel. The way I raised my daughters was you respect your teachers and if there’s a problem or you don’t understand, you go to the teacher and explain yourself and ask. I wanted to have them be empowered from a young age. If the solution isn’t found, then the parental units get involved. And if it’s not found that way, then we go to the principal. There’s a reason for doing it this way, everybody gets respect.
Fast forward the year that John McCain chooses Sarah Palin. When she was going to speak that night before the Republican National Convention. Grace appears on the scene four years after Fiona. I said to my three girls, I want you to come and sit and listen, you’re going to be talking about this in school, all of you, this year. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I think I know what your opinion is, but I want you when you’re engaged in conversation with friends or your classroom to have processed it in your own head, having heard it yourself.
So we sat down and listened and then she was done. I said I want you to watch what I’m doing, I’m going upstairs to the computer, and they are tracking the Republicans and the Democrats. They are tracking what kind of contributions to McCain’s campaign, to our guy Barack Obama’s campaign, they’re tracking that. I’m going to give what I have very little of, five dollars, but I’m signing up for get out the vote campaign that weekend before. When you got to turn out those who have been already identified by the earlier door to door work.
It’s not that they had never heard this but they hadn’t seen it quite in this way. I wanted them to understand that. They watched over the summer as I would get the update, you’re going to go to Michigan, Iowa needs you, we’re going to go to Indiana. It was interesting for them to do that as well. I ended up spending that last weekend in Indianapolis and the vote in Indianapolis was exceedingly close. I’m not saying because of us but it was a group of people caravanning down from the Seventh Congressional District, which had been Curtis Collins’ district. That was empowering.
Fast forward I’m folding laundry with my daughter Fiona and the TV is on and here’s someone named Tammy Duckworth. Fiona looks and listens and says, wow, that’s a powerful story. I said, it seems to be. I said, you want to work on her campaign? She goes, would they let us? I smiled and I said, “Fiona, get on the campaign website, sign us up.” We went out to DuPage County, the then 6th Congressional District. It was eye opening, the list we were working on, they didn’t know it was an A plus list.
The very first person sees us, we have the buttons on: very non-threatening looking 15 year old Fionna and me, the silver hair and non-threatening. The person was looking up and down like come on in and were like, “Oh yeah, we are going to vote for her, we’re probably the only people on the block.” We said, “Make sure you actually go to the polls and know where it is.” The next person, same thing: “I’m probably the only person…”. The third house in a row, the same thing. Fiona turned towards me and she says, “Mom they don’t talk to each other much around here. They must not have block parties like we do in Oak Park.”
I said, “Fionna, DuPage County is changing, the face of DuPage County is changing and we’re seeing it.” She lost that first election, much closer than even we hoped for was going to be, and the next time she ran, she won. Tammy Duckworth, our U.S. senator and our Asia Pacific right person, half Thai, and our first sitting U.S. senator to give birth and have her family born while she’s in office. She’s such a leader and so inspiring.
MJC: And had a long-term effect.
PCM: It did, and it continues to. There is another way that that plays out in terms of people taking control and doing small, achievable things, it isn’t just the big picture things. A former teacher’s aide who then had become employed by CPS was assigned a classroom for kids with autism. She emailed everybody she ever knew saying I’m getting $25 bucks here to make this classroom, if anyone can do anything. I saw this and I showed a daughter and I said the easiest thing would be to write a $25 check. Everybody on our new block and on our old block, if they were informed that they could buy supplies off of this supply list, people love making a difference. We love making a difference.
She said, that sounds like a good idea. So we leafleted the block we had moved to, leafleted the old block. If you would like an acknowledgment letter with your name, we would be glad to give it to the teacher, if you prefer to be anonymous, you don’t have to. There was a pouring of stuff. She had to make two trips to pick up the stuff and that’s the other part that I wanted her to see. Little things can happen, we can make those things happen.
MJC: So this involvement impacted and continues to impact your life. Are there any final thoughts you have before we close?
PCM: My mother, may she rest in peace, Mary Joan Grace Conlon, born and bred, City of Chicago. When I became active in the Illinois ERA campaign and when I would send them some of the material that we were looking at and then that last big turnout rally in North Carolina, my parents had retired to the original Washington – North Carolina on the Pamlico River. There was going to be a big rally in Raleigh and I gave them the information. I said, “I hope you guys are going to go.”
My mother was like, “Peggy, your dad would never go to something like that, and I wouldn’t go by myself.” I said, “Why wouldn’t Dad go?” She said, “His views as a Catholic is it’s going to enable the entrenchment of legal abortion.” I’m like, “Mom, these are separate.” She said, “Not in his mind.” I couldn’t believe my dad, who was so empowering of women, who thought pantsuits on us in the late ’60s was the best way because you didn’t have to worry about crossing your legs when you’re in airports and all these things and women with short hair are great not just long hair, he was so progressive in my mind.
One of those brochures put out by the EEOC or booklets, for Father’s Day I inscribed it, “Dad, because I believe in my heart and mind that you want the same rights for your daughters, your granddaughters yet unborn, your nieces as you do for your sons, your nephews and your yet unborn grandsons.” And as my mom would hear more of what I was doing with regard to that, she gave me the greatest compliment: “You remind me very much of my father.”
Her father who died too young when she was a junior in college, and he was very involved in the struggle for the Irish nation, a great supporter of Michael Collins, came back from World War I, Chateau Cherrix captain even more convinced of the attempted genocide of the Irish people by the British Empire. And became forever committed to the rights of veterans and was an activist in that way. In pre-World War II US involvement in the war, he had a lot of questions about that and was fearful of supporting the British Empire. Not the opposition to Nazism and fascism and Hitler, but the British Empire ultimately all of that colonialism and stuff. Receiving that compliment, as I took it from it, you remind me of my father, William J. Grace.
MJC: Thank you for your service.
PCM: Thank you. What a pleasure this has been, thank you for taking me down this memory lane and keeping it alive for me.