THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“The work we do on the local level is as important as what happens nationally.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, February 2021
RS: My name is Rebecca Anne Sive. For the earliest years of my women’s movement engagement I used this hyphenated name: (Rebecca Anne) Sive-Tomashefsky.
MJC: That was the name you had when I met you. So tell us about your early life and what kind of growing-up you had.
RS: I grew up in a suburb of New York City, Pearl River. I was born in New York City and my parents moved to the suburbs when I was quite young. I was born in 1950. In 1958, my father ran for Congress. He was a young man at that time, and he and my mother had both been active in Democratic Party politics in this very Republican, four-county Congressional district, which was largely rural. He ran as a young man on the move with lots of wonderful ideas. He lost, but he also did better than any Democrat had (perhaps) ever done.
Interestingly, the District was at that time represented by a woman, Katherine St. George, a Republican from an old New York family (her mother was the younger sister of FDR’s mother); elected in 1946. The point here is that I grew up in a very political family. This was also true for my mother because her father was a socialist and editor of a socialist newspaper in Austria before World War II. The commitment of my parents in terms of the external world was really politically driven. That remained so throughout my growing up years and into adulthood.
MJC: Where did you go to school?
RS: I went to public school in Pearl River, New York. Then, I went to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, which was a really good choice for me: strong academically, small, and without sororities or fraternities. My father picked it out; also encouraging my sister to get beyond the East Coast. My family took a lot of camping trips when I was a kid, including out west a number of times. My parents were very committed to the idea that we should know our country, in part because my mother was an immigrant.
I attended Carleton from ’68 to ’72; so, I was in college at a time when so much was going on politically. Sometime in my sophomore year, one of my friends, Jane Pinsky, who was later a staff person for NARAL, and is still one of my best friends, gave me a copy of Sisterhood is Powerful by Robin Morgan. Around the same time, I found The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone on my own. When Jane gave me Sisterhood is Powerful, I got my first deep reading on feminism and what it’s about. In Firestone’s book, I really had my eyes opened to radical feminist thinking and its ideas about sex and sexuality.
My mother had five children, was very well educated, and went back to work outside the home when my youngest brother was three or so. She was, and remains, very independent, a great editor and writer, still active at 97. She was a really great role model for me and my sister (who’s about 22 months younger than I). I don’t ever remember hearing about Betty Friedan, and I don’t know that my mother would have particularly identified with Friedan or the feminist movement as it existed in the 1950s and 60s. But, as I’ve mentioned, she was quite political: she was the first woman president of the Pearl River school board.
After college, I moved to Chicago, where I’ve lived since. However, in the spring of 1971, I lived in Chicago while participating in the Associated Colleges of the Midwest Urban Studies Program. There are many people, mutual friends of ours, other activist Chicagoans, who also participated in the program. It had been designed by Paul Wellstone (later a US Senator from Minnesota), a Carleton professor and my college advisor, for students interested in politics and cities and social policy matters.
We lived and worked in the city for a semester. I learned about Chicago at a time when the first Mayor Daley, Richard J., was mayor. I also learned about left wing politics in a way that I hadn’t previously. My parents were pretty left wing in their thinking, but really committed to the Democratic Party and that kind of a process. When I got to Chicago, the people around the Urban Studies program were much less so. That’s when I first started thinking about being a community organizer. I read Saul Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals. (Alinsky remains a formative influence for me. I’ve always referenced his books in my teaching, writing, and speaking.)
When I returned to the Carleton campus in the fall of ’71 I did my first women’s organizing project. This is before Roe. I was 21 and the campus health center did not offer birth control pills or any kind of reproductive health care for girls, whereas the male students could get whatever healthcare they needed or wanted. By contrast, women students were going to the St. Paul Planned Parenthood, which was about 40 miles away, to get reproductive health care.
Planned Parenthood was then−and remains−an amazing place. But we decided, a small group of us, that having to go elsewhere for health care was not right. We organized; we passed petitions; and we demanded and got an opportunity to have an all campus meeting with the board of trustees. I spoke. Shortly thereafter we won this campaign. That was just a few months after I had left Chicago, where I met many organizers, including members of the Black Panthers, Rising Up Angry and the Young Lords.
I didn’t meet anyone from Chicago Women’s Liberation Union that I can recall. You were there then; Heather Booth was there then; certainly, there were other feminists around who were great role models. But when I returned to Chicago after graduating, in December of ’72, I knew about the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union and got involved.
MJC: What brought you back to Chicago in ’72?
RS: It was that political engagement that we had had during the Urban Studies semester. I still consider myself a New Yorker: I get to LaGuardia, or I used to pre-pandemic, and jump up and down. But Chicago was such a vibrant place politically. I had stayed for the summer of ’71; my then boyfriend, now husband, Steve Tomashefsky, and I worked in Chicago that summer. For the summer, I got a job at the YWCA, across the street from the Newberry Library.
It’s long since been demolished in favor of a very fancy apartment building. But at that time it was a residential YWCA. It was an amazing, beautiful place where I taught swimming and lifeguarded. I had been a competitive swimmer at a YMCA when I was in junior high school, so that was my first exposure to the YWCA, which has remained a constant in my Chicago life in a variety of ways. We decided after that summer – he went back to Harvard, I went back to Carleton – that we were going to move to Chicago after graduation. As much as we loved New York, we wanted an independent experience far from home.
MJC: So he’s a New Yorker also.
RS: We grew up in the same town and went to school together. We also both love the Chicago blues. So, though we didn’t have jobs we packed up our Toyota and drove out to Chicago. That was the week between Christmas and New Year’s, December ’72.
By March of ’73, I had gone to several of my women friends to talk about a project I wanted to propose to Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. I had met Chris Riddiough and Jenny Rohrer, who were the co-chairs of CWLU, at their offices on Belmont just west of Clark Street. The idea for the project stemmed from the prior summer. During the summer of ’72, Steve and I lived and worked in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While there, I came across the Boston Women’s Yellow Pages. I also came across Our Bodies Ourselves, the first newsprint 25-cent edition.
I was taken with the idea of doing something in Chicago. I asked several girlfriends, who I knew from Urban Studies and from Carleton, whether they were interested in forming a collective to write and publish this book, which we then did do. I took the idea to the CWLU and made a presentation about it. They told me the project wasn’t radical enough. They turned me down flat. Chris deserves credit, though; she was very supportive. She said, I’m paraphrasing here: “I know you’re disappointed, you thought this was a good idea, but I’m guessing you’ll probably do it anyway,” which we did.
From that point until March of 1974, the six of us researched, wrote, published, distributed, and promoted the book, the Chicago Women’s Directory: Guía para los Mujeres de Chicago. We formed s collective called Inforwomen. A member of the collective, Marilyn McKenna, went on to run Salsedo Press, the nonprofit socialist press in Chicago, which just recently closed. Another member, Jennifer Moyer, who died way too young, a few years later started her own publishing firm. And Jane Weimann, another member, later wrote an amazing book about the women’s building at The Colombian Exposition in Chicago.
There’s a list of about 15 or so other people who helped us in various ways. For instance, a woman named Pat Speir did this woodcut image on the directory’s front cover. We spent lots of time trying to do things politically correctly, so to speak, and we wanted an image that wouldn’t be ethnically circumscribed. There are all kinds of drawings and photos in the book. There’s a lot of discussion these days about intersectional feminism and the women’s movement of our generation being white-run. I’ve had a few occasions when I’ve spoken recently at which I’ve said it’s not nearly as simple as that.
When we did the women’s directory, it was a guide to services for every woman. It’s not about how white middle class women at home can volunteer somewhere, it’s about where you can get free health care and childcare. The directory reflected a deep commitment to social justice and to an infrastructure and society that supports helping women of every kind and serving women of every kind. Every generation of organizers has its faults or its oversights but we did work hard on that and I think were successful. That was the first major women’s project I took on as an adult woman in Chicago.
MJC: How long did you function as a collective? Was that your one project or did you do other projects as well?
RS: We did not do any other projects. But we all did go off and continue doing women’s work, albeit of different types. I did this while I was in graduate school and I finished graduate school.
MJC: Where did you go to graduate school?
RS: University of Illinois (at Chicago) in American History. I worked as a file clerk, tour guide, and secretary while I was in grad school, at the Jane Addams Hull-House on the UIC campus. I wrote my master’s thesis on the relationships among the women at Hull House. It examined the relationship between Jane Addams and her partner, Mary Rozet Smith. It lasted 40 years, until Addams’s death.
Learning about Addams and the women of Hull House and in other settlement houses around the country was really formative for me. These women weren’t called community organizers; they weren’t called feminist activists; some of them were even opposed to suffrage, but they were amazing equal justice and women’s advocates. They were organizing; they were speaking; they were advocating. I’ve written a lot about Addams since then in various places. She and Ida B. Wells are my two Chicago heroines. What they were doing 120 years ago was spectacular.
MJC: What comes next?
RS: I needed a job. Also, The Chicago Women’s Directory was published while I was in graduate school. I worked hard on its promotion so I actually knew a fair number of people. I was 24 when it was published.
MJC: How did you make the book available to the community?
RS: We went everywhere: I bicycled books to Marshall Fields on State Street when Marshall Fields was Marshall Fields; they had an amazing bookstore. We went to Kroch’s and Brentano’s and said we’ve written this book and we were able to get reviews in the major newspapers. We published 6,000 books and this all came out of the pockets of us kids. I was making $2.50 an hour at Hull House. We published the 6,000, and this is also part of that whole idea about our intersectional feminism, we decided we would give away a quarter of the books for free.
In part, we did that through Mujeres Latinas en Acción, which had just been formed, and also through Casa Aztlan. A woman named Maria Mangual, now deceased, was a spectacular organizer. She worked at that local settlement house in the Pilsen neighborhood, Casa Aztlan. I went down there with boxes of books. Remember: The book was bilingual. Maria and I became good friends and we worked together on a lot of feminist projects after that. We also distributed books via the Chicago Urban League, and The Chicago Defender newspaper. Jenny Moyer had met Connie Seals, an amazing African-American feminist organizer, who helped us with this.
MJC: We actually have a page for her in the VFA.
RS: Oh, good. Jenny met Connie and we all met at the Urban League. We gave away a bunch of books there, so I guess the point is that we had great distribution. We did what book publishers do. We weren’t paid, we all had other jobs. I wasn’t the only one in school. We all had families of some sort. The irony of it is I’m still doing the same thing fifty years later. Some people might say I haven’t progressed much, but I’ve decided to look at it (writing books) as a good thing.
MJC: You had to get a job. So then what happened?
RS: I realized that I wanted to do this feminist organizing as a job, if I could. The notion of being a corporate woman, or an academic, was not for me. I look at Janet Yellen: she’s 74 and talked in an interview about how, in her economics class, she was the only woman or, perhaps, the story was she was the only woman to get a Ph.D. She chose the route of academia and government service.
Though I was also interested in government and politics, my idea was to be a feminist organizer. I had been fortunate to meet Saul Alinsky while in college. Paul Wellstone brought Alinsky to campus when I was a junior or senior. That was kind of my stake in the ground. I sent out a lot of resumes. In the spring of 1975, I sent one to the American Jewish Committee. I was fortunate because the head of the Midwest AJC at that time was a man whose wife had been my high school gym teacher.
He recognized my name when the resume crossed his desk and he called me in for an interview to talk, not for a specific job, there wasn’t one. I had never met him but I knew her, and he knew my parents. Eugene Dubow is his name. I told him about the Chicago Women’s Directory because I was very proud of it. The AJC national office had started a program, the Institute on Pluralism and Group Identity, formed in the early 1970s when Richard Nixon was president. He went on a campaign to convert white working class Democrats to Republicans.
Since AJC’s primary focus is on intergroup relations domestically, it was concerned about what Nixon’s organizing portended. Now, looking at Trump and what that era has led to, they were exactly right. AJC formed this policy center for exploration of, and doing research, on these matters, and also to do related feminist organizing projects. They realized the women’s movement was out there, which was to their credit, and I was offered a job for $300 dollars a month, which I gladly accepted, and the opportunity to write proposals to raise more for my salary. We started a women’s project, and it was ultimately very successful.
One of the most significant activities was a partnership with the Women’s Action Alliance in New York, which had been founded just a few years before. The director at that time was Ruth Abram. Ruth had not really come out of the feminist movement, but was shaped by the social justice commitment of her family. Her father was the head of AJC, among other things. Ruth headed the Women’s Action Alliance. Another staff person, Madeline Lee, was running this project called the National Women’s Agenda.
The idea was that organizations from NOW to the Junior League, to the National Council of Negro Women, would come together under the rubric of the National Women’s Agenda, here in Illinois in the Illinois Women’s Agenda, to develop a common women’s agenda platform and lobby for it. At the time, Jimmy Carter was president. Ruth and I connected, and my boss at the Midwest AJC office, David Roth, sanctioned the project for AJC as a way of furthering its commitment to pluralism. Women leaders in Chicago came together and organized under this rubric. We issued a platform, published a newsletter, lobbied in Springfield for various issues. There were a lot of different activities.
I had a chance as the spokesperson and leader to meet many great women, some of whom were a generation older, like Connie Seals and Gail Cincotta. Maria Cerda was another older woman who was particularly important to me. She recently died. I learned so much from these women, notwithstanding we came from vastly different backgrounds. We just did a lot of great work and AJC supported it. I was making $13,000/year doing this. I met Heather Booth and Karen Fishman, and Susan Davis, when she and Karen were publishing The Spokeswoman. I asked Heather to do training for the Illinois Women’s Agenda members. Midwest Academy had just been formed. This may have been the first time when women from the Junior League and others were trained in community organizing.
By August 1977, a group of us decided to form a women’s center: Karen, Heather, Susan Schwerin, who then changed her name to Susan Stone after Lucy Stone, Carol Silverthorn, then head of the Illinois Women’s Political Caucus, and myself. Susan and I worked together at the Agenda. When we formed the Midwest Women’s Center we sent a survey to all the Agenda organizations asking them what they wanted/needed. This project was preceded by International Women’s Year and the Houston IWY conference. Susan and I were hired by the IWY commission. I had been appointed to the commission but then withdrew.
Susan, Luellen Laurenti and I worked together on organizing the Illinois IWI conference, which happened in the summer of ’76. I did the PR and Susan did the programming. We decided that we wanted Bella Abzug to be our keynote speaker, and we got her. At the last moment, I got a phone call from her advance person, who told me she wasn’t going to be able to show up. It was statewide; it was several thousand women; we’d done lots of press.
Senator Percy was attending, though Senator Stevenson, who was anti-choice at the time, wasn’t. My parents were rock-ribbed Democrats, they voted for Stevenson, the father, in two presidential races. The Stevenson name was greatly revered in my family and here was Adlai who couldn’t get his head around the fact that women deserved equal rights. He didn’t show. There were a couple of subsequent occasions when we went to him to ask for help when I was running the Midwest Women’s Center. One was for a federal grant under the Women’s Educational Equity Act. By contrast, Chuck Percy was supportive.
But anyway, the staffer said Bella couldn’t show and I said: that’s just not happening! She made a commitment to us; we have two thousand women coming; we have all this press. He told me we were going to have to hire a private plane for her. I don’t think I even knew what private planes were. I said: that’s not happening either, it’s like $35,000 from Brooklyn to Bloomington, Illinois. Finally, he backed down. Bella showed up. I have great photos of her in one of her hats.
Recently, someone asked me what Betty Friedan was like to deal with. She was no picnic either, as I’m sure you know. Many good qualities, but a few troublesome ones. They were both queens with all the good and the bad that come with that.
I also did work for the National Women’s Political Caucus at that time when the ERA ratification campaigns were going on in Illinois. That would have been 1975-76, and that was the context in which I met Marlo Thomas, who was supporting the Caucus at that time and was also very difficult. By contrast, the Caucus convinced Carol Burnett to come to Illinois, and she was just terrific – in every way. She came to Springfield and met with Governor Thompson, and we did some activities in Chicago. I was the staff person for all that. She was a dream: gracious, kind, hardworking. Subsequently, her PR person said: why don’t you come work for me? I turned that down because the commercial PR they did wasn’t of interest to me.
So we started the Women’s Center, though we had no money. I was the youngest. The idea was building on what Chicago Women’s Liberation Union had done, though we wanted to be more comprehensive. We also wanted to be downtown, to serve women from all over the city on a basic human services level as a women’s center. We also had an advocacy program, primarily through the Illinois Women’s Agenda. So we did all kinds of great projects. This was around the same time that Women Employed was coming into its own. Anne Ladky and I had a difficult relationship at the time. But, later, I worked for many years with her at Women Employed as a consultant. I consider her a dear friend.
The reason I bring that up is because I’m grateful for the fact that I remain close and engaged with so many women I’ve known for so long, but the other thing about this is the fact that women compete just like men do, and it was a competition—especially for funding. The resources for women’s organizations: it’s bad now- it was worse then. I went to the Chicago Community Trust in 1978 and demanded a meeting with Bruce Newman, who was then the executive director. He was a friend of one of our donors to the Midwest Women’s Center.
I asked for the meeting with him because the staff kept turning us down for a grant. I got all dressed up and went over there and met with them. I told him we deserved the money; we were doing really good work. By that time, we had grants from both the city and the state for the employment services work we were doing. He said: if you get the Junior League involved, we’ll give you money. Bruce was a fine person and all that, but resources were scarce and we were competing for them.
The National Organization for Women was also very strong under your leadership at that time and then under Karen’s leadership. Chicago Foundation for Women, a different kind of organization, came along about five years later. Mujeres was out there, as was another important organization, which is now gone, Southwest Women Working Together. Phyllis Kinnerk, the founding director of it, is also now gone. I had met her while at the AJC. We became good friends. I think I attended every baby shower or wedding shower of her girls. The family lived on the southwest side and was involved in an interesting piece of Chicago history about social justice, the Christian Families movement in Chicago.
One Midwest Women’s Center activity I’m particularly proud of is when we went to the State of Illinois; Jim Thompson was governor then; and I give him full credit for this: he was pro-choice, he was sort of pro-ERA. But his Department of Commerce and Community Affairs gave us a grant to set up a program to train women in apprenticeship occupations: plumbing, electrical, and so on. I believe that was one of the first programs like that in the country. I went to the Chicago Urban League, which was run at that time by Jim Compton. The project became a joint program of ours and the Urban League’s.
Nothing like that had happened previously in Chicago, for sure, i.e., a women’s center and the Urban League collaborating in that way. And here we are all these years later, still struggling with the low percentage of women in the blue collar trades. We then went on and formed a partnership with Sears to train women as auto mechanics. We published a book, The Illinois Women’s Directory, and we ran an 800 phone number/helpline for the whole state.
On the advocacy side, one of our early efforts was to get Governor Thompson to appoint a women’s advocate, which at that time was a revolutionary idea. After a while, we showed the work of women artists. The woman on my staff who organized that project was Venus Blue, an African-American artist.
MJC: And how long did you do that, the women’s center?
RS: Four years. Our early funders were the city and the state for the employment and training programs. I had met Christie Hefner in 1976 when I was brought in by the National Women’s Political Caucus to do work on ERA ratification – PR and fundraising. At the same time, the Caucus had asked Christie and Marjorie Benton to be on its national advisory board. I met Christie and we became friends. We’re close in age and have the same ideas about many political matters. So, then, the Playboy Foundation became a funder.
A woman named Margaret Standish was running the Playboy Foundation at that time and she was giving grants to Women Employed, the MS Foundation, various women’s organizations nationally and locally, and then to the Midwest Women’s Center when we came along. When Margaret decided to leave, there was a job opening and I applied for it and Christie hired me. It was a controversial choice on my part, for which I took a lot of flak. Yet, I had been raising money for women’s projects in Chicago at that point for about seven years and I knew how hard it was and I knew what Christie’s and Margaret’s commitment was. I felt like, I can build on this.
I accepted the job and was there for another five years. That was sort of the next phase of my career; as director of this foundation, which had a very deep commitment to social justice causes and women’s rights causes. One of the most controversial things I did early on, which relates to this history, is that while Margaret had been happy with organizations that didn’t like Playboy registering the contribution as anonymous contribution, I wasn’t. I took more flak for that. I say these things because I think that there are still concepts about “dirty money” and “clean money” that float around in the community in which you and I work and live. I felt like, you can turn down money, turn down whatever you want, no one’s forcing you to accept a grant. But, if you accept it, you should be willing to acknowledge it. That incident was a biggie in terms of my own feminist credentials.
I think we were the first corporate foundation to fund the Gay Men’s Health Crisis Center in Manhattan; that was in the fall of ’81, I think. The first major project that Christie assigned me had been to research and write a white paper on HIV and AIDS. As a result, we started a funding program in that area; we also expanded our funding to NARAL, to Planned Parenthood, and other women’s health and reproductive rights organizations. We did a lot of funding of anti-capital punishment work with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other anti-death-penalty litigation projects primarily based in the South. We also did lots of free printing for organizations.
While I was at the Playboy Foundation, Christie and I maintained our connection to the National Women’s Political Caucus and began giving a significant amount of time to supporting women candidates. I had advanced Barbara Mikulski for her first trip to Chicago for her first run for Congress. (I had met her through the AJC project that I mentioned earlier. I think Mikulski was the first candidate I ever worked for and I’m proud of that.) But then, two years later, while I was still at Playboy, EMILY’s List was founded by several of my friends from Washington.
I had been invited to be on the national board of NARAL in ’78 or ’79. I became the chair of the NARAL Foundation at that time, chair of its development committee; I was very heavily involved with NARAL. In that context, we were funding political candidates through the NARAL PAC. In the fall of ’82 Harold Washington decided to run for mayor, he had run in 1977, but he decided to run again. Harold Washington was the Democratic sponsor of the Human Rights Act. I had been appointed by Governor Thompson to the Illinois Human Rights Commission in 1980, to its founding board of commissioners.
Judge Rovner, Ilana Rovner, who was the first woman on the 7th Circuit, was Governor Thompson’s counsel. I had gotten to know her in the campaign to encourage him to appoint a women’s advocate to his staff. The Governor had formed a blue ribbon committee to implement the Human Rights Act. I was appointed to it, and then I decided I wanted to be on the commission. So, I resigned from the blue ribbon committee, was appointed, and was far and away the person furthest to the left on that commission.
I had a hard time getting confirmed because of my history as a progressive political activist. The appointment was subject to confirmation by the Illinois Senate. Steve and I lived in Chicago’s 47th Ward, at that time run by Ed Kelley, a well-known Chicago Democratic Machine politician, and we knew each other. An acolyte, who was the state senator of the district we lived in, refused to sponsor me to the Senate hearing because of my not being a regular Democrat. Under the guidance of Jim Edgar, who later became governor, and was then Jim Thompson’s legislative affairs liaison, I had to go around and ask people for support. Then Illinois state senators, Dawn Clark Netsch and Harold Washington, were the people who sponsored me in front of the Illinois State Senate.
I couldn’t be more honored when I think about it. I just have chills. During the course of the confirmation process, Harold said to me: you’re my person; I want you to keep me posted on what’s going on. I shared his politics and that was really the reason for that. So, when he decided to run for mayor in ’82, I received a phone call from Renault Robinson, who we were funding with the Afro-American Patrolman’s League, through the Playboy Foundation. Renault asked me to get involved in the campaign. That was October of 1982. This is while I was at Playboy, and I say that to say that the commitment on the part of Hugh Hefner and Christie to civil rights was profound.
I told Renault I would love to work on that campaign but being the person I am, I want to talk to Harold. I was going to Washington a lot at that point for NARAL meetings, and I went to Washington and went to Harold’s congressional office in October of 1982. Bill Ware was there, who was his first chief of staff, and was his congressional aide. Bill drove us to some restaurant, where I met with Harold and discussed the campaign and getting involved. A few weeks later I came back to Chicago and met with Harold again.
We went across the street from his place to this little restaurant to meet. Harold had this little cocktail napkin underneath his glass, and I told him I don’t really care if you win or you lose because I’m committed to what you stand for. But he was a hard-nosed, successful politician and he looked at me and said: Rebecca, I’m going to win. And he took the cocktail napkin and he started listing out the then 16 majority Black wards. He said if I get 95% + turnout in each of these wards, it doesn’t matter what white people do. Harold was also avowedly pro-choice and pro-ERA. There was an organization called Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance, which Susan Stone and I had started a few years before. Annually, we would give an award to a pro-choice advocate. And Harold was one we gave an award to.
RS: I tell you this story to say that was really a formative lesson for me about thinking politically, organizing, what minority and women candidates have to be prepared to do. It was just eye opening. I was fortunate to co-chair the Women’s Network for Washington for the 1982 campaign with Addie Wyatt, Nancy Jefferson and Willie Barrow, three distinguished African-American leaders. I go back here to this notion of interracial working relationships. We worked together as intimately as anyone, as you do in any hard-fought political campaign. I learned a lot from them.
I took pennies home from rallies and counted them and deposited them in the local bank in my neighborhood. I got all kinds of experiences of grassroots work and also leadership work. I was the spokesperson and I did a lot of press. That was all done with the support of Christie and her father. I obviously was working during work time doing that. I say that because it’s a good thing when employers do that. Harold was elected in April of 1983. He invited me into his administration, but I decided I wanted to be an appointed official as opposed to full time. All in all, of course, Harold was a great mayor.
MJC: So what were you appointed to?
RS: There was a proposal to have a world’s fair in Chicago in 1992. Harold was not a fan of it, but it was an existing project and they were going to try to see if they could make it happen. I was appointed to it. I was on the executive committee, I worked with CEOs of major companies: Tom Ayres, who was then the head of Commonwealth Edison, and Frank Considine, who was another well-known Chicago CEO at that time. The younger CEO, who is still active politically, who was involved is Ron Gidwitz, who was President Trump’s ambassador to Belgium.
The world’s fair wasn’t a women’s project. It was to be a huge economic development project for the city – although I didn’t think it was the only way to create economic development opportunities. But I was glad to be part of it to advocate for Harold’s agenda, for had it happened, it could have been helpful. Ultimately, it did not. Harold and Illinois Representative Mike Madigan had a meeting of the minds about it and decided to end its state funding. Subsequently, I was appointed by Harold to the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners.
My appointment ran into trouble because the Chicago City Council at that time was in opposition to Harold. One of Harold’s aldermanic opponents even claimed that I was going to advocate for abortions in Park District field houses. Harold said to me you have to go around and talk to people and my staff will help you out. Ultimately, we switched a couple of votes in the city council so I was confirmed. I was there for a couple of years. I chaired the Finance Committee, and I learned a lot. I certainly advocated for women as a general principle.
At the time, I was doing a lot of work with women candidates; for instance for Harriet Woods, who ran for the US Senate in Missouri. We all did what we could. EMILY’s List, as I started to mention before, was formed and my friends from NARAL and the National Women’s Political Caucus were the key organizers. So, they asked me to be the first EMILY’s List organizer in Illinois, which I did. I still have a file of the letters I wrote to women in Chicago about joining: Christie Hefner, Marjorie Benton and Bettylu Saltzman were among them. EMILY’s List was a brilliant idea.
Then I decided that the route up the corporate ladder was not for me. I had asked Cleo Wilson, who I had hired to work with me, to be the director of foundation. She was probably the first Black woman to run an important foundation in Chicago. I’m very proud of that. So I left and started my own public affairs practice in ’86. I had this idea to work with corporations and help them do things that were good for women. But that’s not what happened. What I did was what I had always basically done, which was stay in the public interest community and in this instance, as a consultant.
I had a long list of clients, knock on wood, over a twenty-five year or so period: a lot of women’s organizations, a lot of civil rights organizations. I did work for the City of Chicago and State of Illinois on women’s health, and AIDS and HIV work. In 1986, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Midwest Women’s Center at a big, fancy dinner. Harold spoke and we gave awards to a number of amazing Chicago women leaders. Pam Anderson, who had been a board Center member (and I mention Pam because she is a former nun who became an active feminist), did amazing work, unrecognized for it. Later, when CFW was being formed, she became the founding director, so she left the Center. Pam was great at Midwest Women’s Center.
There was another woman who was executive director, Susan Dunlap, who was also terrific. But then another woman came along who was not a hard worker from what I could tell. I think she thought that if she just went out to lunch a lot with people, they would raise the money. That’s not how it works. So the Center died about a year after this 10th anniversary celebration. That was a hard moment.
About a year or two later, I wasn’t giving up trying to form women’s organizations. I met with Christie, Marjorie Benton, Bettylu Saltzman, and Julia Stasch, and we formed an organization called Women’s Issues Network: WIN. I became the director. The idea I’d had was to emulate the Hollywood Women’s Political Caucus: wealthy women who cared about progressive politics would coalesce and do good projects. Maybe they’d fund them; maybe they’d do them. Both Christie and I knew some women in Hollywood who had been involved with HWPC. WIN had a $500 annual membership.
My thought was I want women who have means and influence to be espousing feminist causes publicly in an organized way. So then the idea was to identify a project that would be important and a value-add to what else was going on. At the time, people were talking about RU486. The short version of this story is that a national campaign on RU486 became our first project. We had hearings on Capitol Hill with Senator Paul Simon; we produced a film which Cybill Shepherd narrated. Bill Clinton ran for president at that time and I got a call from one of his women staffers in Little Rock: please send me the tapes so I can show it to the candidate. Later, we did a voter registration campaign.
At some point subsequently, the board of directors to whom I reported decided they could do it without paying me or my staff. The organization died about a year later. They had no idea about the amount of work/quality of the work we did. In terms of lessons for younger women, I probably didn’t handle this in the best way that I could have in the sense that I was incredibly angry. 90% of the connections were mine and the ability to get large grants was via people I knew who spoke up for us. Not to mention my organizing abilities.
I don’t think I handled it well. I’m a proud person, and I was busy at the time with other work. I thought maybe they’d come back, but they didn’t and, as I said, the organization died. That’s a real shame because we still have this challenge 30 years later of getting women of means and influence to really step out on tough stuff. It’s a lot easier now than it was then because of the work that so many of us have done and the leadership of some women in that community. But it’s still not easy, many of them don’t want to wreck their country club circle or whatever it is.
MJC: Each generation has to be cultivated anew.
RS: That’s exactly right. In terms of the data side of it, it’s only in this last presidential election and in the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign that women of means have really stepped up in the same measure, or almost the same measure, as men of means in terms of political giving to candidates that support women’s issues. It’s taken a long time and all these women who ran in the ’90s and in the 2000s for Congress, for governor, for mayor, were pretty much dependent on the male-dominated fundraising circle and the fear of not being able to raise the money was historically one of the reasons why many women who have wanted to run have not. They didn’t think they could put it together.
Had WIN survived, I could have kept doing these national campaigns. It wouldn’t have had to have been confined to Illinois women. On the other hand, sometimes organizations have their life, but that one ended prematurely. In Illinois, we haven’t had a woman governor, only two women mayors, one woman AG; this is not exactly a great track record for a state of Illinois’ size. If you think about the potential of the women in Chicago and Illinois to have been supportive, there hasn’t been anything like WIN since it died. There are organizations of women executives, but you have to be a C-suite person to be a member of it, or an equivalent. My thought was: if you have the money, you have the influence, help us and come together with us and do this work.
MJC: Beyond that you’ve been working as an educator over these many years. And what other things did you want to highlight before we have to conclude here?
RS: I went on to do my consulting practice and work with all these organizations and the women leaders of organizations. That was a continuation of this idea of helping women find a footing, advocate for an issue, get out there. I continue to work for candidates. I decided to do that primarily as a volunteer. I’ve been involved in I don’t know how many campaigns these three decades. After Hillary was defeated by Barack Obama in the 2008 primary, that was the next big turning point for me. I thought: what’s this about?
I have a lot of respect for President Obama, I’ve known him a long time. But in terms of qualifications, she was significantly better qualified yet she couldn’t win, and in my view, she couldn’t prevail because she was a woman. I started thinking about writing a book of lessons for women leaders based on my work all those years. I tossed around a lot of different ideas and then finally in 2011 I wrote a book proposal; took it to some of my girlfriends in New York who are very sophisticated women and know about publishing; and I asked them what do you think about this idea?
I got a book deal and wrote a book titled: Every Day Is Election Day: A Woman’s Guide to Winning Any Office, from the PTA to the White House. It was published in 2013. It is built around interviews with about 30 women leaders, many elected, but also, for instance, Cecile Richards, who at that time was the head of Planned Parenthood, and Francis Beinecke, who was then the head of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The idea was there were lessons for how to run, how to be an effective candidate, how to be an effective public advocate for women. So that book was published in August of 2013, and it did very well, I’m glad to say.
I spent the better part of two or three years promoting the book, speaking, and at the same time teaching on women in politics at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. In 2016 I started thinking about another book, after Hillary lost the presidential campaign. I realized women were making progress in the political realm and the elected realm, but primarily in legislative office, not executive office—mayor, or governor, or president. I was really, really taken with studying and writing on the issue of women in executive political power. So, I wrote a book published in 2018, titled: Vote Her In: Your Guide to Electing Our First Woman President.
At the time, four women, four incredibly-gifted US senators said they were running, and where did we end up?! That’s still a project, and obviously Kamala Harris is well positioned at the moment to be that first woman president. But who knows what’s going to happen with this? No one does.
Rounding up here, this issue of women in executive power remains, among other issues like abortion becoming unsafe and illegal on a federal level, one of the primary issues, for feminists today. It’s all well and good that Harris is swearing in all these department heads, but that’s not the same thing as sitting in the Oval Office and deciding what Joe Biden is deciding. And I’m not being critical. That remains a big issue and I hope that we can really break through. There are more women mayors now – significantly more than there were even just five years ago. But governors are really far behind. That’s what Vote Her In is about and I obviously continue to write and talk about that. Do what I can do to help younger women as much as I can.
MJC: Anything we’ve left out that you want to close with?
RS: I’ve been married this whole time. I don’t have children. I’m often asked by these young women: how did you manage to stay married? Or: why did you get married in the first place, wouldn’t that have limited your options when you were in your 20s? And it did. There were points at which I could have gone to Washington or New York and chose to stay in Chicago. And Steve made compromises too because we both wanted to stay in Chicago, living together.
The reason I raise this is because I have always been saying to my students, and I want to say to other younger women, that the work we do on the local level is as important as what happens nationally. Your girlfriend who went to Washington and you didn’t because you were home taking care of your mother, or living with your partner, or whatever you were doing is not more important than you. I think that, as the political and civic arenas open up for women, we so desperately need women to be active in state and local politics and state and local government. To my point earlier about Illinois never having had a woman governor, nor have many other states. An important point to me as I look back is to underscore the importance of this local work that a lot of us have done and remain committed to. It’s just vital.