THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Ann Frank Lewis
“Lift as you climb and teach as you go and in the end you will be stronger and more powerful.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, September 2022
AL: My full name is Ann Frank Lewis. I was born in Jersey City, New Jersey. Actually, I was born at the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital. Named for the mother of the boss of Jersey City, Frank Hague. What’s the sense of being a boss if you can’t do something nice for your mom? Went to Bayonne High School. Went briefly to Radcliffe College, and I guess that would be the background.
MJC: Tell us about, I think you were in a Jewish family? You want to talk a little bit about the origins of your family?
AL: Fairly classic. I guess I’m second-generation. My grandparents were immigrants on both sides. My parents were born in the United States, but had older siblings who had been born in the old country. So, very conscious, both in childhood and of course now, about what it means to be an immigrant. How fortunate we were to have come to this country. And the fact that there are immigrants still, and people who need to be immigrants today, it’s a similar experience.
So, yes, Jewish immigrants. My mother was born, I think, 1912, maybe? So, they had probably arrived in 1906, 1910, around then. Again, the large wave, which of course gets stopped by the immigration bills of 1924, when people, especially what were then the dominant WASPS, looked around and said, “Oh no, we don’t want any more of these people. They’re too different.” But born into a Jewish family that therefore took very seriously our good fortune in being Americans.
And for this I am particularly grateful to my parents. They would talk about government. Maybe not in those words, but they talked about what was happening. And what I heard from listening to them, was that the decisions that we live by, the way people live, the direction our country went, all of that, was decided by people who got elected to office, who got chosen to govern. Boy, I thought, if you could be one of those, if you could get in there, that would be great.
And to this day, I do not understand why – knowing how porous the system is, not that you always win, not that you get everything you want, but that you can get in, but you can make noise, you can make trouble, you can make a difference. Why many more people, that everybody, doesn’t try to get in. So, yes, American Jewish family. Strong commitment to democracy. And by the way, the Democratic Party. That was pretty easy, too. It was the Democratic Party that was on our side.
MJC: I believe you have a rather famous sibling?
AL: I do. So, there are four of us. And next is my brother Barney. Barney Frank, who was until recently, a member of Congress. Who is, by the way, now the subject of a very good book. A graphic biography. Never read a graphic book in my life until this one, but it’s called Smahtguy, which is the Boston pronunciation for smart guy. We just did a Zoom for Moment Magazine with Barney and the author of the book, Eric Orner.
Barney again, right behind me, comes in the same family, the same commitment to democracy, to getting engaged politically, to making a difference. And I would say, and we talk about this later, for him, the possibility of running and getting elected to office comes a little earlier. Now, he thinks that would be really hard to do if anyone knew he was gay. So, for more than half his life, he’s going to deny that part of him. But the fact that it is a possibility comes early. I’m two years older, in the same family, very much the same goals and ideals. But the thought of running for office did not occur then. If you can’t see it, you can’t imagine it, you can’t dream it.
MJC: That brings us to the topic of feminism, I think. When did that thought enter your mind? Or was it in your family?
AL: I think it was in my family because we’ve sort of talked about everybody ought to have a chance to do their best. But the idea of feminism, as exemplified by the Women’s Movement, I don’t meet up and engage until 1971. By then I’ve been married, I have children, I’ve been divorced. I’m now living in Boston, and I heard from a woman I know, who I think, was working for the legislature at the time.
She said she was going to this first meeting of the National Women’s Political Caucus. It was an organizing meeting, and would I like to come along? It was a friendly curiosity. I thought, all right, let’s see what this is like. But expected just to be an observer, if you will. There’s something going on, a lot of people cared about it. I was then working for the mayor of Boston. Again, I cared a lot about what was happening politically.
I walked into that room full of women, and right away I knew what they were talking about. I was listening to people who knew what I knew, about what it was like to be in campaigns where you talked a lot about equality. But when you went into the campaign headquarters, it was the women in front doing the work, and the guys were in back having a meeting. And there was a stratification by gender then. You talked about it. You tried to overcome it. I often talked with other women about doing more, and tried to. But being in a large room of women, [who] could have the same experience and we’re now determined to change it. That was empowering. So, 1971, National Women’s Political Caucus, I was signed up for life.
MJC: So that meeting was in Boston?
AL: No, that was in Washington.
MJC: It was in Washington. Okay. So first let me go back and ask what the name of the mayor was?
AL: Kevin White.
MJC: Kevin White. Okay. So, this was the convening of the National Organization in Washington?
AL: Yes. And if you think a moment about my working for Kevin White, remember 1968, that awful year. Assassination of Robert Kennedy, of Martin Luther King. Boston, like many other cities, faced a real possibility of violence and anger. Kevin White very successfully dealt with it. Barney, then at City Hall, was working on it.
Boston did better, ironically, given some other issues, than some other places at that time. Being then in City Hall, working in the city of Boston, and for the issues of civil rights and of urban politics, and how you make people’s lives better, was so large and overwhelming that what I had read about the Women’s Movement seemed smaller. I went to that meeting in Washington and saw it for myself and felt it for myself.
MJC: How did that change what you were doing? Did it change your work, or did you just get involved as a volunteer?
AL: I got involved as a volunteer. I came back and said, “Okay, we will form a Massachusetts caucus.” I cannot even now remember the reasoning so much, but the consensus was, we wouldn’t have just one leader. That was hierarchical and male. That was a mistake. We would have three co-leaders, which is just not a very good way to get things done. But I met wonderful women that way.
We went to a meeting at Simmons College, and encouraged people to come. And I figured, okay, we’re going to elect three co-leaders. I’ll be one of them. A woman friend, Lena Saunders, who is African American, who worked for the city, had this wonderful program about, My Friend the Policeman, trying even then, to do better with police community relations. She’s going to be second. And the third will be, what I then called the grassroots granola crowd. Somebody from Western Massachusetts, which had a significant, almost countercultural, if you will, presence. And instead, we get to the meeting and the votes are counted and the third co-leader is a woman named Elaine Noble, who has been elected by the Daughters of Bilitis.
MJC: Oh, that’s amazing.
AL: They came, they organized, they did it exactly right. And they won. So, I got to meet Elaine and work with her for the next four years, five years. A great experience all the way around.
MJC: Was she elected at that point?
AL: Oh, no. Elaine didn’t get elected until ’74, I think. I’d been watching the redistricting in Boston, and saw a district that I thought was made for her. I think we probably met at the Parker House. That would be appropriate. I sat down and said, “They just drew a district around you,” and that was when she ran. But she began organizing politically, through the Mass caucus. So, ‘71 is the National Caucus and I come back to Massachusetts and organize.
The second thing that happens is the National Convention. First National Women’s Political Caucus, I said, “We’re going to have a convention.” And I met, I think it was in Dallas, Texas, at the Rice Hotel, I met a city councilwoman from Baltimore, Maryland, who, like me, also cared about local politics. We were a minority in those days. People were thinking larger, they were thinking intergalactic. We were thinking about cities. Her name was Barbara Mikulski and we became friends. I would say that was the second great connection I made through the movement in those days.
And when two years later, Barbara Mikulski, an interesting combination of circumstances, finds herself the Democratic nominee for the United States Senate and doesn’t know a lot of people with direct campaign experience, I went down to Baltimore and managed to campaign for her in ’74, for the United States Senate. We didn’t win, but nobody thought we were going to win. She wound up getting something like 43% of the vote, which was twice what anybody thought she would have. She was already a city councilwoman.
That was the start of her career. It was an example of what she could do as a candidate. And then of course, two years later, she gets elected to Congress. All of that is through the connection. So, with the Women’s Movement, I would say with the caucus, it was twofold. It was the organizing I was doing in Massachusetts, and we got some interesting things done, and we talked about that. But it was also the people, the women I connected with, I would not otherwise have met and gotten a chance to work with.
MJC: Remind me, Elaine Noble, I believe, was the first elected gay [woman]?
AL: We think so. The first openly.
MJC: Openly gay. Yes.
AL: The more I know, the more I realize you would have to say openly. There was a lot more going on. But the first woman, because everyone knew that about Elaine already, so that wasn’t an option. If she was going to run for office, she was going to run as who she was. And she did. She was just a brilliant natural organizer. This was a small enough district. That’s one of the keys, that she was able to connect with people personally.
MJC: She did that skillfully, and served a long time. So, then you went to DC.
AL: I went to DC in ’75. Birch Bayh was running for president. I knew of Senator Bayh. He’d been as you will remember, the original sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment, a lot of really good legislation. I thought he was a terrific candidate. Went to Washington for his campaign as, I think the title was, Deputy Campaign Manager, but in those days, trying to get things going in early states.
The campaign did not go very well. It was coming out of Indiana. It was just too narrow of a base. When he dropped out, [I] moved over and had the chance to be Chief of Staff for a new member of Congress from upstate New York named Stan Lundine. Stan Lundine for the history books, very good Congressman, was the first Democrat elected in his district since the Civil War, maybe. Then goes on later to be Mario Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, and is never heard of again. It’s sort of like that old story, the mother has two sons, one went to sea and the other became Lieutenant Governor and disappeared.
MJC: The original Cuomo.
AL: Right. There was a lot of shade, and hard for other trees to grow. But I was in Congress, as Stan Lundine’s Chief of Staff. Moved then to be Chief of Staff of Barbara Mikulski, who has gotten elected to Congress.
MJC: So, you were her Chief of Staff when she was in the House.
AL: Right. But just for a two-year term.
MJC: So, she served two years and then went on to the Senate?
AL: No. She got elected in ’76. She doesn’t get elected to the Senate until ’86.
MJC: Oh, okay.
AL: But I had moved to the DNC.
MJC: Okay, so now you stayed with her and then got her set up and then you went to the DNC.
MJC: And what was your job title there?
AL: I was political director of the Democratic National Committee. I was the first woman to be political director of the DNC. Fairly big deal.
AL: I would say it happened because the new chair Chuck Manatt was from California and therefore a lot more used to working with women. Like Nancy Pelosi, Northern California chair. He was from Southern California, Los Angeles. And so, it was easier for him, I think, now that I think about it, to understand this new Democratic Party and how important it was that women would be among the senior officers.
MJC: So just for our audience, talk about how you think the existence of the Women’s Movement influenced their decision to put you on there.
AL: Let me go back to talking about the connections I made through the Women’s Movement. So, 1972, we’re going to go back two years now. We’re going to go back to 1972, Democratic candidate George McGovern has lost. And it’s typical with a national political party, when your candidate loses, it’s sort of like the movies, where you throw somebody in the volcano to appease the election gods, they were going to dump their chair and elect a new chair.
There was going to be an election, and so we called a women’s caucus, and that was a new idea. This is December, 1972. And we called the caucus by the, let us say, low tech way. You would run up notices and use scotch tape, put them in the elevators. The hotel would take them down when they saw them, but you always had more tape, you always had more paper. And so, we had a room of women, and the candidates for chair showed up, and one of them was Robert Strauss. And Robert Strauss was asked in this room how he felt about reform. Reform meaning, in that context, reform of the delegate selection process.
Strauss, who never met a questioner he couldn’t charm, said he was a great fan of reform. He was absolutely committed to reform. Maybe not a word he’d heard until the day before. And that he called Leonard Woodcock, who was the chair of the Commission on Delegate Selection and said, “Leonard, I’m with you all the way.” At that point, Barbara Mikulski, who’s in the back of the room, gets up and says, “I’m the co-chair of that commission. Why didn’t you call me?”
Thunderbolt in the room. She was then, city councilor, up and coming representative of the neighborhoods, and that’s why she was selected as co-chair. Not with the assumption that she would actually do anything. A few months later, Leonard Woodcock, who was then head of the UAW, steps down because they’re getting ready for a strike, and Barbara Mikulski becomes the chair of the commission, because what could Strauss do after all those flowery words?
He then said, “Ma’am, I didn’t know about you, but now that I’ve met you, we’re going to be great friends.” She became the chair of the commission. I went down and helped her out on that occasionally. But again, it was an example of how that networking enabled us to show up in the right place, at the right time, and make some things happen.
That was my introduction to the Democratic National Committee. To Strauss. And I got a few appointments after that. I was one of the people who would be part of a working group here or there, so not totally strange that I’m now the political director. But I do know that Manatt had been told, and had agreed, that he would have women among his senior staff, and I was a pretty logical one because I was both active in the Women’s Movement, and knew politics at a pretty professional level.
MJC: So, the Women’s Movement is having an impact on their party of choice and the larger reform movements for equality were impacting the women’s activity as well. If you want to talk about that a little bit, and the coalitions that came about as well.
AL: If you think about, again, what were the issues that we were talking about? There was first, and still, choice. Again, in a different way, but we were organizing for choice. We were talking to candidates about how to address this issue, how to work with it, how to move. Yes, Roe was settled law, but of course the day after the decision came in, it was now the subject of constant attacks.
And we were working closely. We had Roe. We had ongoing organizing for the ERA. Whereas you’ll remember, we came very close, within the party, we were working on issues like equal division. Making sure there are an equal number of delegates, making sure the party committees would be half and half. If you saw that from the inside, it really made a difference. That is not cosmetic. Because once you had those thoughts that women could serve it, a whole lot more women got to know one another, and got to show what they could do, and what they knew how to do.
It was striking later, reading some of the histories. Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, fighting for equal division in the early days of the Democratic Committee. Making sure, not just that there was a committee-woman from each state, but that women would choose their own. That it wouldn’t simply be the designee of the guy who already had the job. She understood it then as well. So, yes, we worked on equal division. We worked the on the Equal Rights Amendment, and we worked on supporting women candidates.
MJC: Do you remember, at the time, that you were building your campaign on the shoulders of Eleanor Roosevelt? Or did that knowledge come later?
AL: Some of that knowledge came later. It is only during the last 20 years. But now, as I read history, it’s with a much more critical eye, about where were the women, and what were they doing? And the good news is, there’s a lot more good history now being written. But in those days, you had to search it out. I didn’t start by searching it out, but when I stumbled on it, I would think, “Aha, now I get it.”
MJC: I think it underscores the importance of having history available.
AL: Absolutely. Collecting my particular interest now, has been on the fight for suffrage. How did women use the tools of democracy, to win the right to vote on it? Think about elections, and this is a personal frustration, the fight for suffrage is too often seen as a movement with parades. Isn’t it wonderful, they demonstrate outside the White House. What’s wonderful, is that they won a majority of votes, state after state. And bluntly, that’s a hell of a lot harder than pulling off a demonstration. You had to figure out where your votes could be, and what were the messages that would get them.
How do you persuade men to share power? To open the doors to the polling places? Looking at what those women did and how they learned. Having been barred from politics all their lives, how they learned to put together campaign after campaign, lose and come back, and do it again. Really important to me. The more I learn about it, the more I think there are lessons for us now. There’s a lot to learn in watching the history of the women that came before us. And then you think, well, if they could do that, there’s nothing we can’t do.
MJC: Exactly. I can remember when I got involved in the Women’s Movement. I knew almost nothing about suffrage, and there were hardly any books about it. I was just struggling to find anything.
AL: There still aren’t as many books, perhaps, as I think there should be, but there are some really good ones. Elaine Weiss’ The Woman’s Hour, which came out in the last year, is just terrific. And we have a collection. I don’t know if you’ve seen my suffrage collection online.
MJC: I haven’t, but I will look for it.
AL: Lewissuffragecollection.omeka.net. It’s one of the largest collections of paper in private hands. It’s looking at, how do they do it? How do you win a campaign? How do you walk up the steps of six flights, in a tenement, and ask the woman inside to sign her name, that yes, she wants to vote, and she will tell the men she knows. Because this is an election where every swing voter is a man. What are the arguments they use? How do you reach people? And so, examples of the flyers they use, the literature, and then how they do it. For me, again, I learn every day.
MJC: Right. I mean, you’re just reinforcing everything we know right now about grassroots organizing.
AL: And it has to be at the grassroots. You have to do it person to person. You’re asking people to change what they always thought all their lives, that Politics was something for men, that women had no part in it. That was first. You have to ask and encourage and persuade men, that they will make this change in the political system and open the doors to women. I do a lot of talking to classes. Donna Brazile is a friend, and every year I come in and do the suffrage piece for her class at Georgetown and say, “What would you do? Look around. How would you make that argument? What is it you would say to the men you know? About here – vote to open the ballot to women.”
MJC: Right. Which might not be obvious to them why that would be a good idea.
AL: No, it’s usually met with a kind of stunned silence when you have to think about it. So, yes. There’s a lot to learn from our history.
MJC: So that was 1972, you’re working at the DNC. What happens after that?
AL: I’m at the DNC as Political Director from 1981 to ’84.
MJC: So where were you from ’72 to ’81?
AL: I worked for Barbara Mikulski for a while. One member of congress, I worked for Stan Lundine. Went to the DNC for four years. Then, I think that may have been when I went to ADA for two years, Americans for Democratic Action. I went on to be a consultant. And then went back to the DNC eventually, to head the women’s vote but then not as staff, as a volunteer. We had a women’s vote center the second time around at the DNC. Turning out women voters, reaching them through the women’s vote center.
MJC: I think we met in a common campaign in the ’84 Mondale campaign.
AL: That’s right. And that was when Ellie Smeal was talking about the gender gap in the women’s vote. And we worked with Ellie to put on some events to raise the visibility of the women’s vote and set the example for state Democratic structures and chairs, about how important it was to reach women and women voters, and here are some ways to do that. And the way to get their attention, is to talk about the numbers. And the numbers were impressive.
MJC: They were impressive and still are. So, ’84 was not a good year for Democrats, obviously. So, you were working, but you’re a consultant in this period, and so you’re working with Democratic campaigns?
AL: Some democratic campaigns. I worked for Planned Parenthood as a consultant for a while. I worked for the Modern Language Association as a consultant for a while, which was great fun. And as you said, campaigns. Now that I think about Planned Parenthood, there’s a theme through there of choice, and reproductive choice. We had a referendum in Maryland, for example, adding reproductive choice, putting it on the ballot and winning at that period. So, some of this comes back. Yes.
MJC: The Women’s Movement is central to your experience as an individual and as a political activist and in your work through your entire life, basically.
AL: Being a woman is central to my identity. It follows naturally. Both in my work vocation and avocation, I’ll be looking for ways to improve, expand the opportunities for women, to build networks of women, to learn from other women. Whenever I can, to pass on what I know.
MJC: How would you describe your major accomplishments? Or do you want to not favor one of your political children here?
AL: The word accomplishment sort of stifles me for a moment because it’s an ongoing process. A year or so ago, we could have said, “Well, look what we’ve achieved for women’s lives.” And then comes the Dobbs decision. We’ve got to fight it again. I will talk about accomplishments and I will say we, and here it’s a collective “we,” have changed the world for women and girls. We have opened the doors of opportunity. We have expanded the ways women think of themselves and their future and their choices. We also have to be realistic. The next steps are always up to them, how they take advantage of it, how they use it and move through it.
MJC: How would you say your involvement in the movement has impacted your life? Obviously, it has.
AL: I can’t answer that question because I can’t imagine not being part of that movement. It’s who I am. That’s central to my identity. So of course, that’s going to be part of what’s most important to me in terms of what I do and how I do it.
MJC: So, if the movement hadn’t come along, you would have had to invent it, along with the rest.
AL: I hadn’t thought of it that way. I suspect if the movement hadn’t come along, I would still be finding ways to network with other women, but not on such a scale. I would not have met Barbara Mikulski at that convention. I wouldn’t have met Donna Brazile because I wouldn’t be sitting at the DNC when she is a young college graduate, comes to DC to see what’s next and what opportunities are there?
MJC: I was at the NOW office as vice president when Judy Goldsmith was the president, and Donna came to our office on that same visit. That’s when I met Donna Brazile. She was just out of college. We were doing a march, I think, and she came to work.
AL: Was that a march for Women’s Lives, I wonder?
AL: So, choice has been a thread, right?
MJC: It has been a thread. And we can’t say we’re not disappointed in where we come in this recent decision.
AL: I’d say it is a stark reminder that victories are not final, and you’ve just got to be prepared to get up the next day and fight again. But what’s important is, we are so much better prepared. And stronger. We will take it on, if that’s what we need to do, and apparently, we do. When I think about victories are not final, there was a moment, Denny Hastert becomes speaker, right? And he’s trying to roll back Title IX.
If I recall, he was a wrestling coach. And he thought it was unfair that boys’ sports were not getting, he would say, they’re fair share. We know it meant a sizable majority of the funds, and therefore he thought he could repeal Title IX. And we were all organized to fight back. And what happened is the suburban parents said, “Hell no.” Their daughters were out there playing soccer and they weren’t going backwards. So while I thought on something like Title IX, we might have been vulnerable, turned out we weren’t.
But on choice, which seems so much larger, more fundamental, more built-in along the way, we’re now dealing with a Supreme Court that is determined to go back. Okay. You don’t always know where the fight will be. You just know you have to be prepared, and don’t be surprised. There are no permanent victories. Especially when you’re talking about the reallocation of power. Especially when you’re talking about who has power over others. If we, as we are, determine that women will be able to make decisions for themselves, girls who have these wide-open opportunities, we just have to be prepared every now and then to get up and fight back.
MJC: Would you have thoughts for younger women and how they might do that or would you leave it up to them?
AL: Anytime I can, I tell them, “You have more power, more opportunities, than any generation of women around the world. How you use it is going to be up to you. You better make the most of it for yourself and for other women. Don’t think that you can succeed while all your sisters slip back, because that won’t work. Ultimately, it’ll catch up with you.” The way to move forward, “Lift as you climb,” as they say, “Teach as you go along.” And you will be, in the end, stronger and more powerful.
MJC: What are you up to these days, Ann?
AL: Well, let’s see. Mostly political, you will not be surprised to hear. Mostly working on helping Democrats get elected. I’m an officer in several organizations. I am co-chair of the board for the Democratic Majority for Israel, which was formed a couple of years ago because we expressly wanted to be sure that the Democratic Party continues to support values that include a strong US-Israel relationship.
Unlike some other organizations, we do engage in primaries, we do support candidates, we do work a lot with state parties and with members of Congress. So, that’s one, as I say, I’m co-chair. Second, I’m on the board of a group called Zioness, where I think I’m the board grandmother. Every board should have a grandmother. This is a group that works to ensure that young, Jewish women especially, participate in progressive politics. It really began around the reaction to the Women’s March, where there were some examples of Jewish women being excluded.
I’m very proud of this group because it didn’t exist four years ago. Seeing what they’ve been able to do, organizing during a pandemic when nobody can get outdoors, doing it all on Zoom, that can be a struggle. So, I signed up, and said, “I’m on the board, I’ll do whatever I can to be helpful.” Which means I’m now the treasurer, and get regular calls about what has to be done.
I’m on an informal working group. In 2016, we had Jewish Women for Hillary, and we went around the country organizing, and encouraging women to get out, to speak, and to campaign. It was such a success, and so highly regarded, that in 2020, the Biden campaign asked for a repeat, and we had Jewish Women for Joe.
To my delight, Jewish Women for Joe transformed themselves into Jewish Women for Georgia, because the Senate races in Georgia were still going on in January. The phone banks that were working then, became everybody calling from all over into Georgia. It worked, as we all know. So, I’m still doing that.
MJC: You just mentioned Hillary’s campaign, and I know I think we haven’t discussed sufficiently your role in Hillary’s campaign, so let’s go back and pick that up, if we could.
AL: Well, in 2000, I was at the White House. I was Communications Director. In 1995 I go to the White House to the campaign to reelect Bill Clinton. I was, at that point, vice president for policy at Planned Parenthood. I thought I had a great lifetime job. I really loved the women at Planned Parenthood, what they were doing. But I got a call from Harold Ickes saying he was, “Putting together this blankety-blank campaign. Every blankety-blank person I know is already working at the White House, so we need you to come to work for us.”
Now, it’s not the most flattering offer I’d ever heard, but it was true. And this is ’95. Newt Gingrich, he was, like, 10 feet tall. The Republicans had won. Time to get back, suit up, and get back into it again. So, I joined the campaign as Deputy Campaign Manager through ’96, and then in ’97 went to the White House as Director of Communications.
Now, in 2000, I’m Director of Communications, and I have by then, in terms of White House geography, I’ve moved from a basement office and literally, Director of Communications, the office was in the basement, although it was referred to as the ground floor. I’ve gotten up a floor, so I now have a window, which was a big deal. But Hillary was running for the Senate, and she was getting beat up and I just couldn’t stand it.
Younger people have to take my word for it. You didn’t know what was going to be in the paper until the night before when it got printed. Right at midnight, the New York Post would come out with an attack on her. It was just making my stomach hurt. So, in the summer of 2000, I left the White House and went to join the campaign. And I guess I’ve been part of her campaigns in one form or another ever since. Speaking of making history, and I’m really proud of what I was able to do there.
And now, we’re doing an exhibit as part of my suffrage memorabilia program, working with my friend Allida Black, on an exhibit that has just opened at the Clinton Center. So if you walk through, there is suffrage. It’s Women’s Voices, Women’s Votes, Women’s Rights. It starts with suffrage and examples, and then goes through women’s campaigns and winds up with Hillary in Beijing, and now the international voices of women, like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Malala, and women around the world. It’s been great fun to watch this come together. It’s another way to tell the story and to pass it on, and I hope lots and lots of young people will come in.
But in terms of therefore, what do I do? I was just trying to think how to describe it. So last week, for Democratic Majority for Israel, I introduced Val Demings. We had a Zoom fundraiser for Val Demings, just terrific, and I introduced her. This week, I did the lead up to a phone bank for people who are calling voters, Democrats in Ohio. What’s curious is, I do less. But because it’s less, it takes longer to get ready. When you’re doing campaigning 24 hours a day, doing a phone bank and sort of shout out, it’s easy to just roll out and do it.
I had to spend half the day thinking about what was I going to say and how was I going to say it, and what were the best messages. I had to look up Val Demings biography. And yes, the campaign sends you something, but you want to make it yours, in a way. So, I continue to do these kinds of individual projects, but all with a similar goal. Especially in campaign season. How do we move forward?
MJC: Right, absolutely. I mean, one of the things that occurred to me as we’ve been talking, and because I work on this project and have for a couple of years, the presence of Jewish women in the Women’s Movement is a story in itself.
AL: The story I like to tell now is about Jewish votes in the suffrage campaigns. Because if you go back and look, 1915 is a tough year for suffrage if you think about it. It goes across the country like most social advances, West Coast moves towards the East, but in 1915, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, all have referenda and all lose.
You’re not going to win a national amendment if you can’t win in the east. There’s only one state, based on state law that you can go again in 1917 and that’s New York. The other states have individual rules. If you bring something like that up, you have to wait. In New York, you can go again. And the women think, we’re looking at war, we’re looking at a changing world, we better take this opportunity or we’re going to lose momentum.
But New York then, as it is now, New York had a lot of immigrants. New York had a lot of Jews. There was nervousness, if you will, inside some of the suffrage ranks. Harriot Stanton Blatch was not happy after 1915. She walks away from New York and goes off to the women’s party because she just wants to deal nationally. She’s definitely not happy with asking immigrant men for the right to vote.
So, they organize for the 1917 campaign. First, talk about multi-ethnic organizing, you have literature in every language. Carrie Chapman Catt, who is a brilliant organizer, she has now moved up, somewhat against her will. She had organized in 1915. She’s now president of the national organization. But Molly Hay, her dear partner, is running New York. And one thing we know, is that the level of enthusiasm and excitement in the Jewish precincts was highest. In fact, of the 100 most pro suffrage districts, 78 were Jewish.
Given the way people lived then, not too distant from where they are now, they sort of knew who lived where. When the vote comes in, suffrage loses in the state outside the city. But the city of New York carries by 1000 – 1500 votes, and that is the winning margin. Suffrage loses narrowly outside on that 1500 – 1600 vote margin in the city, which comes out of the Jewish districts. It’s enough to carry it. So, New York carries it and of course, New York is then the largest state. It’s the most, in terms of the Electoral College. So you get that leverage has shifted in the Electoral College.
Now, having said that, the national suffrage leaders, again Carrie Catt, very smart, good, vote counting women. They’re now going back to Congress. They want a national amendment. The way to do that is not to say, “Look what the immigrants did for us, look what the Jews did for us.” Let us say, they just didn’t discuss that. So that does not become part of the story.
But in fact, I guess partly because thanks to Covid, I spent a lot of time inside. Two years, and a lot of time reading, including election returns. And when you look at suffrage as a political campaign, the numbers leap out at you. It was the Jewish precincts in New York that delivered for New York State. And it was New York State, that made the difference nationally. But I think if you go back and look at the Jewish experience, the excitement about being a citizen here, as you couldn’t be anywhere else, the enthusiasm with which Jews adopted and carried forward those national expressions of goodwill, this would be an example of it.
MJC: Because there is somewhat of an evaluation, at least that I’m aware of, of how the suffrage leaders dealt on race. Not always appropriate, not always progressive. And here’s another example that needs to be included in filling out the story. We have the actual history.
AL: Right. And the second point about Jews is, because I did do this, in the zoom with Barney about his book, and one of the questions I asked Barney and Eric Orner, again, leaders in the Gay Rights Movement, were so many of them, let’s say, disproportionately Jewish. And Barney said, “You know, I think when all your life is that you have a slightly different story than everybody else, that makes it easier for you to look at what should be changed.”
MJC: Good point.
AL: Right. A difference in viewpoint when you grow up. Just knowing that the majority isn’t always going to be right, or being conscious of yourself as part of a minority. What makes you more open to change, and organizing for change.
MJC: And your parents, to keep your kids safe, have to teach the reality of how they are perceived or understood in the society, I would guess.
AL: Yes. They teach. In the best way, and in a loving way. That’s what they do. But this is what we know. This is what we believe. So yes. And I thought hearing him say that, that made a lot of sense.
MJC: It does make a lot of sense.
AL: One of the questions you said, are you currently involved as an activist?
AL: How could you not be? I don’t mean to be patronizing or anything, but how could you go through this, be part of what we were all part of, and again, we changed the world and we changed it working with one another. It’s hard to imagine people would say, “Oh right, that’s it, it’s done.” Either you think the world is now perfect, or you just shut your mind to it, but surely what we learned, is that we can make change. Frustratingly sometimes. In large ways sometimes, but yes.
MJC: Does that keep you hopeful?
AL: Oh, yes. The alternative to hope is despair. And I do not despair. It’s not hopeful. It is knowing. I know that we can do better if people choose to. I know that we can reach the goals we set if enough people will get together. Whether it is electing Tim Ryan as senator, I don’t know if that’s going to happen in Ohio. Or Val Demings in Florida, and she’s fabulous.
If we can turn out the vote, I know that we know how to do it and we will win some this time. We will make change. And look at the women who have been reacting to the Dobbs decision. We will keep going forward as I say, not always as fast as I want, not always in every direction at once as I would like. But if we work at it, we will go forward.
I don’t know what an alternative would be, except to give up. We started with my understanding that there are people who make the rules that everybody else lives by. Well, if I give up, if I go home, those people are still going to be there. They’re still going to be making rules. And let me tell you, if women are not there, I have seen those guys, and I’ve heard them, and we would all be worse off. So, whatever it takes and however hard it is, it’s always better when women are at the table, on the phones, in the room.