THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Activism is a collaborative effort. Nothing I have done, have I done alone.”
Interviewed by Karen Fishman, VFA Board, VP Membership & Development, January 2022
KF: I’m Karen Fishman and I’m here with Sunny Fischer, a friend and colleague for many years. Sunny, I’m delighted to be doing this. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Just can we start by your telling me your full name and when and where you were born?
SF: My real name is Sonia Kabakow Fischer. I’m called Sunny Fischer, and I was born in the Bronx in 1944.
KF: And tell me a little bit about your family and ethnic background and what your life was like before you got involved in women’s issues.
SF: My father was a veteran and a mailman. We were, I guess, working class and I was born in the South Bronx. And then I think partly because he was the veteran, we were able to move into the first public housing, one of the first public housing developments in the Bronx, and we lived there from the time I was about five to the time I was 14.
My stepmother went back to work. My mother died when I was five when we lived in the projects. And my stepmother went back to work, and we went into private housing, such as it was. A “two-flat” as they say here in Chicago. I went to public schools, went to one of the city colleges, I went to Hunter, and my sisters also went to city colleges.
My parents were very involved in a Jewish fraternal organization called the Workmen’s Circle, and that was our background really. It was not at all religious. It was very much social justice, kind of quasi socialist, very involved in the Union and labor movements. And I learned from them, I think, a sense of social justice and a sense of giving back that was always important. In my parents’ lives, almost more important than their jobs.
KF: When did you sort of become conscious of the women’s movement and women’s issues, and what were the circumstances surrounding that?
SF: I think having two older sisters, powerhouses in their own right, and a mother who was very, I still remember actually, one time she signed her name, and she signed it, her name was Gussy, “Gussy Kabakow.” And I said, shouldn’t you write “Mrs. Ben?” And she said, “No, my name is Gussy.” And I remember thinking how extraordinary that was at the time, particularly watching TV in the 50s, and you saw how women always deferred to men. And I think that it was kind of in the air in my home.
I think the movement – and my mother was also a very active volunteer besides the Workmen’s Circle in several other organizations – so that sense of activism was also in the home. I was always recruited to lick envelopes and put stamps on envelopes and things like that for various causes. My husband went to graduate school, Paul went to graduate school, and I was teaching in a girl’s school, which was also a sense of more focus on what young women were going through.
And when we came back to New York City, I became very involved at the time in Women Strike for Peace. I worked in Bella Abzug’s campaign a little bit for Congress and Women Strike for Peace was more than a peace organization on the Lower East Side where we had moved to. We really got involved in community issues, but all of us were women who were involved.
And then we moved to Lake Forest from the Lower East Side of New York for my husband’s job. And it was a very difficult time for me. I thought, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” I really felt completely out of place. People would say things like, “What church will you belong to?” and when I said I was Jewish, they would say, “Oh, you’ll be very happy here. There are 39 other Jewish families in Lake Forest.” Or somebody said, “I’ve never met a Jewish person before.” And so it really was, I was in a strange land. And we went back to New York for the winter break and met up with all my Women’s Strike for Peace friends, and they were at that point getting very involved in the movement.
I remember somebody, and I wish I could remember the name of the organization. It had red in it, but they were women on the Lower East Side of New York and an organizer came to talk with us and it was eye-opening. It was really very, very important. I do remember one thing, though, that has stayed with me because they were talking and a particular group was very involved in working with low-income families, and they were putting together Christmas presents.
And so they were told to put “girls presents,” “boys presents,” and “anybody’s present.” And she said she got a football and she put it in “anybody’s present.” And then one of the women who was very involved in Women Strike for Peace said very quietly and very politely, “Some little girl is going to be pretty upset when she gets a football.” It reminded me of something. It reminded me that there’s just not one answer for everybody.
SF: We have to take people where they’re at and try to work with them from that perspective. But when we came back to Chicago after that break, I talked to some of my friends. We were called “faculty wives.” In fact, I was invited to serve tea at one of the department luncheons. And it was so out of my experience, so uncomfortable. I think it strengthened my sense of feminism and what women go through, even as privileged as we were.
And so we started, the women, and they were all married to faculty at the time, there were not that many women faculty, we started a consciousness-raising group. That’s a story in itself, but from there we decided to organize, and I was one of the main organizers of a conference on women’s issues because it was four, three or four I think, and we called it A Woman’s Choice. We got a lot of women from Chicago to talk about what was happening in the women’s movement.
The irony of all of that was that I was pregnant at the time. We had the conference on March 8th, which was the day my daughter decided to be born. So I missed it. It was a really important experience. Interestingly, it was the first time that I wrote a grant and got it. And so it just kind of instilled in me the need for organizations that helped women, that moved us along, and that challenged women as well as everybody else.
KF: And then you taught Women’s Studies at some point, or hadn’t you?
SF: I did. I started; I partly had a bad experience. A colleague of mine and I, I was teaching in a private girl’s school, which then eventually merged with a boy’s school, and we started teaching a Women’s Studies class to high school young women. And again, these were mostly very, very privileged young women. I remember we had to, the headmaster at the time, who was very sympathetic in many ways, he said, “We have to present this to the families, to the parents first.” So we did.
And we were talking about women’s liberation. And one father raised his hand and said, “My work is to make sure that my daughter and my wife are liberated, meaning they don’t have to work.” So it was still at that time, I don’t know of any person who would actually say that now, maybe they would. That also connected me to the feminist issues and the things that I read, things I had my students reading. We did sex education within that course. We also did violence, or what we were hoping were violence prevention techniques as well. This was before 1976, I think.
KF: Have you been in the Chicago area the whole time since then?
SF: We were in Washington, D.C. for two years.
KF: So tell me about what was going on, what you did there?
SF: I had decided that I wanted to do something else besides teaching. And I got more interested partly by reading Robert Coles’ book on the children in crisis. And I read the book about children of privilege. And it was really interesting. And I started understanding better what those kids were going through, and I thought that I would be interested in a social work degree to become a therapist.
When I got to Washington, very quickly after we moved there, I started volunteering, got trained, and volunteered in the community crisis [activities] to decide whether I wanted to do this kind of work. It was fascinating to me. I volunteered probably about, I think it was about 10 hours a week, on the crisis lines. And then one of the counselors asked if I would be interested in training as a rape victim advocate. And that’s really what changed everything. I did get trained. I worked with women who were assaulted. I worked in the hospitals, and then I eventually became a community educator.
We did a lot of work in that area. The Bethesda Community Crisis Center was one of the first programs that actually had a shelter. The NOW group actually, it was they who, when they just were going to build this crisis center, really pushed to make it focused on women. And it really was all due to NOW that that happened. And that kind of radicalized me to see what women went through to try to get back to the root causes of that kind of violence.
I did go back to school. My first year was a Catholic University. And then almost every paper I wrote that I could I wrote about issues on women and violence especially, and then transferred to the University of Chicago when we did come back to Chicago after Paul’s fellowship was over. That [was part of] the SSA, now called the Crown’s Family School of Social Work. My placement was with the Chicago Law Enforcement Study Group, and we did a study of police response to battered women’s complaints.
I got more involved in the policy end of this, particularly policy affecting institutions like the police departments. And that study got published. I graduated. I was volunteering at the time at the Evanston Battered Women’s Shelter, and I actually then was hired as their first counselor, their first paid counselor. It was a very new shelter, and I was somewhat involved in the formation. Then about that time, I guess I worked in direct service for three or four years. And then I met Lucia Woods Lindley.
KF: So tell us about Lucia. That’s the sort of beginning of your work as a feminist philanthropist.
SF: Lucia was part of the Woods family. The Woods family was a very prominent family in Chicago, also in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I think that the grandfather made a lot of money. I think that the story is that he developed the dial telephone. They also had a lot of coal mines, and that’s where most of the money came from, Sahara Coal. Her brother was supposed to be the person who kind of inherited the work, the philanthropical work, but he was tragically killed in a car accident.
And her father turned to her and said, “Okay, you are the one.” And so her work – she had always been a contributor to women’s issues. She funded the Midwest Women’s Center. She funded a bunch of others – very involved with choice as well. She funded the Guttmacher Institute, and she would give fairly large grants. When she hired me, she was trying to find other women like her who had money, who had resources, to maybe come together as a group, five or six women each contributing $100,000, which is what we were giving away through what became the Sophia Fund.
And then to make it into a small foundation. There were only seven women’s funds in the country at the time. There are now over 120, I believe. So I started doing research. I started talking to people like Tracy Gary, who had started the San Francisco Women’s Foundation. And I got a sense of what else was happening in the country. There was a Women’s Way, an alternative to United Way in Philadelphia. There were individual donors like Lucia. And then there was this public foundation starting in Dallas and then the one in San Francisco.
So let me step back for a minute. I had never even sold Girl Scout cookies, much less tried to raise money for much else except one grant that Bob Johnson from the Wieboldt Foundation gave us. But there was something about this work that just spoke to me. I have no idea – [I’m] this kid from the projects kind of trying to work in a field like philanthropy. In fact, in my interview with Lucia, I looked up philanthropy in the library. And it said, “See social work.” I said, “Oh, okay.” I’ve got a degree now.
And really, though, the most important thing was that we liked each other, and we got along. And Lucia had a home in New York, loved New York, we had those kinds of things in common, despite the very, very vast differences in our backgrounds. Interestingly, too, she was always sort of fascinated by Judaism. She was a different experience from the experience I had had in Lake Forest, where she grew up. I got really interested in this idea of a public foundation where people could give $2 and could also give a million dollars when they had those kinds of resources.
And we got connected with Iris Krieg and Marjorie Benton, who are also interested in how to support women’s groups. The four of us became the founders of what is now the Chicago Foundation for Women. That was what we started organizing it in 1983. Karen, I think you were one of the first people I spoke to about the foundation.
KF: Yes, I remember. I can sort of see us. I don’t know what we talked about, but I can sort of see us sitting across from each other when you were doing that. But the Sofia Fund, I mean, Lucia’s own philanthropy was ongoing through this period, right? And you were working for her while you were putting together the Chicago Foundation for Women.
SF: It was indeed. To give away $100,000, although we gave it away in very small amounts just to make sure that, well, partly to get to know the organizations. And we also, by the way, funded, at first we funded choice and we funded issues of violence against women. And that was, Lucia said to me, “That’s your background. That’s your greatest concern. Let’s do that.”
And then choice was hers. Eventually we added economic justice. And Lucia said to me, “Well, how does that fit?” And I said, “We’re talking about women’s control over their own lives and their own bodies. And without an economic piece of this, then it’s missing. It’s really missing.” So she completely agreed immediately, and we added that later. We did, I think, go up to $200,000 in funding.
KF: But it was a lot of money. And I mean, getting $2,500 from the Sofia Foundation or the Chicago Foundation for Women was a big deal in those days. It was an important imprimatur, but also no foundations were funding advocacy or activism of any kind, and it was hard to get anything. Women’s services weren’t being well funded, but at least that was more in the philanthropic, the foundation mainstream. So this was a huge departure in philanthropy, I think, in general. And my feeling is it sort of led the way toward, and we haven’t gotten where we need to be, but to the idea that foundations could fund advocacy without losing their privileged status.
SF: Exactly. And that’s exactly why we did focus on advocacy and policy. We funded some research projects as well, knowing that that’s so connected to advocacy. And it was exactly that. I also felt it important that I take on the role. And the Sofia Fund was independent for nine years before it got merged into the Chicago Foundation for Women. But I felt like I needed to be an advocate in philanthropy for women’s issues. It got to the point where I would raise my hand at some kind of meeting, and they’d say, “50% of the people we fund are women.”
They’d know immediately what I was going to be saying. But it was important, I think, to just have a voice in every aspect of philanthropy. And I said yes to everything. I got on the United Way board, I got on the Donors Forum board. I got just everything where there was a space to talk about women’s issues and the importance of funding them and so on. And then when the foundation got up and running and eventually it far surpassed what the Sofia Fund could do.
That’s when Lucia said, “It kind of makes sense to incorporate the Sofia Fund with CFW,” and she was moving to New York at that point anyway. So that’s when I became a consultant and tried to bring a lot of that experience, perspective, feminism with me wherever I went.
KF: And you stayed involved in anti-violence work, I mean, you still are. I know you’ve done national boards and important work in that area as well throughout. So your early experiences in Bethesda have carried through here.
SF: Yes, it certainly has. I’m still very involved in the Futures Without Violence. It’s an international organization doing violence prevention. And wherever I can, that’s the issue that’s, I think, closest to my heart still.
KF: And I mean, it’s not specifically about women, but I just want you to talk a little bit about your experience with the National Public Housing Museum and that work because it’s so interesting and is related to everything else. I’m sure you can say how.
SF: I think it is, especially because of the impact on women that public housing has had and the impact on public housing that women have had. And we will do even more exhibits about women who are involved in public housing. It started when I was working with the Richard Driehaus Foundation and I was approached by some of the residents about a public housing museum. And ever since I saw the Tenement Museum in New York City, I’ve been thinking, “Chicago needs something like this.” We have as diverse a population as New York.
It’s changed museum practice around the world. They’re called “museums of consciousness,” in fact. And they have the Tenement Museum, which is something that I learned also in philanthropy as well as in social work school, is that individual’s experience, and in feminism, individual’s experiences are often political experiences. We need to make that connection.
And the stories that they tell about individual lives at the Tenement Museum, they were startling and compelling, and just really you leave that place changed. And especially for people who don’t know a whole lot about immigration or the policies that were so anti-immigrant in the early waves of immigration, we felt that the next story to tell would be the story of public housing.
When the Tenements closed, that’s when public housing began to grow, began to be important. And of course, my own experience in public housing made it even more compelling personally. And the residents were, somebody once said to me, “You grew up in public housing? How did that happen? You’re Jewish.” Crack that one, and you see that’s why we need a public housing museum.
It is about class and it’s about poverty and it’s about race and it’s about stereotypes, and we need to confront them all. And we need to do it in a way that’s entertaining, educational, and as compelling as we hope that it will be, as is the Tenement Museum. So I have been involved since the beginning in 2006. It’s been an interesting struggle.
People kept saying, “Well, who would go to a public housing museum?” Now, very few people say that now. We’ve had some great exhibits. We have a new executive director, Lisa Lee, who has been doing some really remarkable work in integrating the arts of social justice into the museum’s efforts and the planning for the building that we are now trying to raise money for.
KF: If you think back sort of all the way, what are your most memorable experiences, accomplishments? What are the things, in the various periods of your life, what would you name as the most important things you’ve done?
SF: I find it’s such a difficult question to answer. But when I think way back and I’m living on the Lower East Side and getting involved and seeing Bella Abzug get her best and her worst, I think something switched on for me about how powerful women could be and how as a group, too, how much change you can make. Even on the local level, like making sure that garbage is collected, to big changes, because that was about the time that Roe v. Wade was passed as well.
That was passed earlier in New York, but that was stunning to me. That that really could happen. You could make a difference. You can make a difference as an individual and even more so as making sure that other people come with you. I think that was the kind of epiphany at the time. The other thing that was important is that I liked it. It meant something to me. It moved me. It gave my life an additional kind of meaning besides my family and literature, which is what I studied in college and which I had always loved and which always gave my life meaning. But I guess that was one thing that was very, I think that was kind of the spark.
And then another thing, that I still remember the feeling I had when I heard about Lucia’s plan to create this foundation or some way of funding. It was almost like a grand passion. When you fall in love, there’s something that happens to your body and to your mind, and you can’t think about anything else and you figure out ways to make it happen. And I don’t think I ever wanted anything quite so much in my whole life. And I remember writing to Lucia after the interview, trying to express to her what I thought it could be. And then the accomplishment of getting it because she was interviewing other people. And it certainly did change my life.
And to go back a little further, I still remember this one particular woman who came into the Crisis Center after being terribly beaten up by her boyfriend. I can still see her face. I can still see the bruises and her response when she looked in the mirror. I was with her in the bathroom trying to help her with the bruises. And she looked in the mirror and she said, “Oh, my God, I look like a monster.” And that really affected me because the women, again, take it on themselves. And I just said to her, “He was the monster.” And it was, again, that moment that kind of solidified my commitment to the issue.
KF: Anything that we haven’t talked about that we should? You’re still an activist. What are you doing right now?
SF: I just finished mailing 300 postcards to Florida. Saying thank you. I am working in a nonprofit search firm as a consultant, just helping them out because there’s so much change in the nonprofit field right now, so much transition and overwhelmed. So I’m taking on a couple of searches there. I’m chair of the Board of the Public Housing Museum. We do get involved quite a bit, like in the anti-eviction campaign and other policy issues.
I’m also on a couple of other boards, a small family foundation board and then the Richard Driehaus Museum board, which is my way – sadly, Richard died last year, and it’s kind of I’ve been on the board forever – but it’s my way of thanking him for everything that he has done. This was something close to his heart, and it’s also a way of again bringing some of my background and experience and beliefs into what could be just a very flashy museum.
KF: Well, it’s been great catching up with you and especially hearing about your earlier life, which I missed, but your work had a lot of impact on me and on the organizations that I was involved in and I think all of us in women’s activities in Chicago and actually in the country as a whole, because I think the women’s funding movement grew and got to be more and more important and had a huge impact on the ability of activists to do the work that they do.
SF: That’s one of the things actually I forgot to mention – The Women’s Network, which is an organization that I helped develop and I chaired and that network was really, really important to growing this movement, the women’s philanthropy movement as well. So I needed to mention that. And Karen, you have been so important to me and to so many women in Chicago. You really were one of the first people I talked to and got a better sense of maybe how to do this work.
KF: Well, it’s been great. It’s good to get older in the company of people who keep doing good things. Take care, Sunny.