Audrey Denecke

“I believe too in the often-invisible value of women who lead from the middle of movements.”

Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA Executive VP, October, 2019

KR:  Thank you so much for agreeing to participate in the VFA Pioneer Histories Project. Do you want to start by telling me your name and when and where you were born?

AD:  Audrey Denecke, and I was born in Chicago in June of 1949.

KR:  Tell me a little bit about your family background: where you were raised, what kind of family background you came from, what was your ethnic background?

AD:  For the first three years of my life I was raised in Chicago. My parents lived in a three-flat with my grandparents. My mother’s family comes primarily from Poland and my father’s family is German, Polish and Irish; primarily German and Polish. My dad fought in World War II and my mom’s brother died in WWII in France. Those were important aspects of life to them, my father’s military life and family in general.

KR:  Tell me a little bit about what your life was like before the women’s movement.

AD:  First of all, I was the oldest of 12 children. A lot of my early life was taking care of the younger six and helping my mom. The older six helped with the younger six. I had a lot of early parenting experience like making formula and taking care of babies, etc. We lived in the country in Lake County, Illinois which I loved, however it was majority white and not very diverse at all, even in religion. It was Catholic and Protestant. That was about it. It was positive in many ways but also limiting in some ways.

I remember my pastor in seventh grade talking to our class. He had a career talk that he did every year. He had the girls and boys separate and he offered to girls three life paths. The first one was you can be married. And the purpose of marriage is to have children. Or if you have a vocation you can get into the religious life. Or if your parents are elderly and sick you can be single and take care of them. Those were our three choices. He said women could work up until they got married but the choices were either be a nurse or teacher.

I had been reading the lives of the Saints, all these powerful women, and his view of what was possible really didn’t resonate well with me. My parents were very young, and they didn’t need any help. I had a boyfriend in high school who was a few years older than me, lovely guy, but he wanted to get married and I was thinking about all those children I was taking care of and I didn’t want to go back to that. So, I said no to marriage and then I did explore religious life with the Adrian Dominican sisters who ended up being a golden thread in my career and my activism actually.

I always thought I wanted to be married at some point. That didn’t happen for me. I’m single, I have always been single: when they were ready I wasn’t, when I was ready they weren’t. After high school I wanted to go to college but at that time there were no government funds for education support. I ended up going to community college at night and working as an Accounts Receivable clerk during the during the day.

KR:  You had mentioned a story about when you were 10 and your grandparents lived on a farm. Do you want to talk about that?

AD:  I was about 10 and I was going on a vacation with my grandparents to friends of theirs who lived in Porter County, Wisconsin and I loved the farm. I worked with my grandmother and her friends doing the household tasks as well as the farm duties. This was harvest time on the farm, so all the women gathered in the kitchen and they were making this amazing meal with Kielbasa, potatoes, and all kinds of vegetables and homemade bread that they were baking.

The men had been out in the field and all of a sudden we started to hear them coming back and washing their hands in the basins outside.  The dining room table was laden with food. They came in, I was hungry- we had been up since dawn, I started walking that way and my grandmother pulled me back and said no we have to wait. I was very disturbed. I didn’t understand that.

All the men came in, sat down, started eating and all of a sudden I started to hear these spoons clinking on cups. This was the men asking the women to come in and bring coffee or additional platters of food. That clinking of the spoon really disturbed me. These women that I had really gotten to know and love in the kitchen were fluttering out there with their aprons in the wind taking care of these men. We’re sitting in the kitchen just waiting.

The men finished and all the food was gone so the women had to prepare yet another lesser meal for us. It left me with this thought that over time if somebody doesn’t sit at the table, inequality sits there. It really unnerved me.

KR:  The seat at the table is a great metaphor but also a true, real experience.

AD:  A real experience for these women and apparently it wasn’t just at harvest time that this happened. Women never sat at the table. That was quite disturbing. One other story from when I was in high school: My mom was having babies almost every year, sometimes two years in between and she would get heavy veins, her veins would burst.

One time on a Sunday night we were all sitting in the tiny living room watching Bonanza and I heard her scream “Audrey, come here!”. I ran around the corner into the bathroom and she’s sitting in this empty tub. It was red with her blood. The vein had burst very severely. She asked me to get towels, my other sister came in and my mom said call the doctor. This is a time we didn’t have cell phones. My sister got a hold of the doctor who said bring her into the emergency room.

My father wasn’t there, I had a license but no car. Eventually we got my father by calling various places and he had to take her to the emergency room. She could have died from the severe loss of blood. This was her eleventh pregnancy. The pill had just been approved by the FDA. She and my dad talked about it and they were thinking OK after this pregnancy she would go on the pill.

She went and met with the priest in the confessional and the priest told her no. Those kinds of experiences really stay with a young girl. I ended up joining a consciousness raising group in 1972. That was my entry to the movement. That was a good experience too, because the personal is political and I already had some of my own personal experiences. Many of them were happily married but they were not satisfied with their options, I mean think back to the pastor. Some of them had jobs but they were passed over for promotions, they didn’t get the same pay.

KR:  This was around when?

AD:  1971-72. At that time the women’s movement was just building up steam. I became a lot more aware of the reality out there in the world for women at this point.

KR:  How did you get involved in NOW?

AD:  In the consciousness raising group somebody was telling us about the Lake County chapter of NOW. I started going to meetings and before I knew it I was an officer of the Lake County chapter and then I became the treasurer and then LSC Chair of the Rape Task Force. It wasn’t because I was greedy for power. People were leaving, moving on and they needed a volunteer. And that’s the story of movement life.

KR:  Tell me about your big experience at a stockholder meeting.

AD:  Jane Paxton was chapter president. There was a request for a NOW officer to go with the Adrian Dominican sisters to a special stockholder meeting of a major pharma company in Lake County. The issue was infant formula and unethical practices of marketing in third world countries.

KR:  Which since, has become a huge topic.

AD:  Major church groups across the country and social justice groups and legal groups took on that issue. Stockholder actions were one of the major vehicles we had for addressing social justice issues and because it was a woman’s issue, the Adrian Dominican women went over there but also they wanted NOW’s clout to be there. I was told by Jane to just go and accompany the sisters.

We’re sitting there, I’d never been in a major corporate stockholder meeting and the room was packed with people. First there was the reports and then the major stockholders talked and then it was our time to talk. We’re sitting there and the sister said maybe you should look at this before you read it. I looked at her in shock and I’m quickly reading through this, it was really well crafted because they had sisters in third world countries and were gathering facts on the ground and also in coalition with all these other religious communities and justice groups.

I got the microphone and my voice was shaking. My knees were knocking. But within a few minutes I started to think about who I was there for and it was these women who were in these third world countries who were convinced by these pharma companies that the infant formula was better than their breast milk and the antibodies of the breast milk. But the problem was the fact that the pharma companies did not provide any education on use of the formula. Things were written in English but not in any of the native languages. But even so, most of the people at that time were not literate even in their own language.

Then women were trying to extend the use of the formula because they were so expensive that they started to use less of the powder formula than was healthy. Babies were getting sick and weaker. They weren’t taught about needing to have pure water so they’re using unsanitary water. They’re doing the best they can with the resources that they had available to them and the companies were really at fault for not examining that and making sure that proper sanitation was available. Babies actually died.

After I finished my statement it was very quiet in the room and the chairman stood up and said that they would take this under advisement. They did ask to talk to the Adrian’s after the meeting, they didn’t want to talk to NOW. The Adrian’s joined with other groups and negotiated, this was like a multiple year process and was in all the national headlines at the time. It was new to me, but they were successful in changing those.

KR:  That was quite an experience for somebody young.

AD:  I was twenty-three, twenty-four. Maybe less.

KR:  So then what happened to you and NOW?

KB:  I was working as a para-professional teacher at the time and that job dried up. I was telling Jane Paxton about this and she had read that a new national office was opening in Chicago for NOW and they needed a bookkeeper. She got me an interview with Jane Plitt who was the new executive director at the national office, and I was hired pretty quickly there. I was a bookkeeper first at the national office and within months I was very active in Chicago NOW.

Jane Paxon was a wonderful executive director but when I moved to NOW it was like the big fish becoming a little fish. Really seeing the national movement in practice and leaders at the local chapter. First Mary Jean Collins was our executive director and then was a national board member. And Anne Ladky and a number of other leaders who were quite sophisticated and had been involved in change initiatives and led the chapter in quite an extraordinary way.

Many of the issues that were Chicago NOW issues became national NOW initiatives like the Sears Roebuck employment issue and the City of Chicago issue. All of these things became more broadly adopted and models for other chapters.

KR:  What issues were you most interested in or involved in?

AD:  Employment became one of my major areas of interest: employment equity, issues of discrimination, equal pay. When I was with NOW they needed somebody to lead advocate corps. Women from Sears started calling the national chapter office and Advocate Corps would have interviews with these women to find out their experiences, how were they being discriminated against.

If they were interested in filing charges we would help them to know how to go about that as well as collecting data for our own discrimination charge that we were going to make as a chapter. Then I became the chair of the employment committee and that became a major accomplishment, the whole Advocate Corps and Employment Committee work.

I also was very interested in the Equal Rights Amendment and then later in my career in non-traditional employment opportunities for women. I also worked with the Justice Center on poverty and hunger issues. Women were of course the largest number of people in poverty and therefore lack of food in their homes.

KR:  Tell me a little more about your experience on staff for national NOW in the office.

AD:  I loved being there. Jane Plitt was such an amazing leader, I enjoyed working with her and she nurtured us there. NOW itself – I found [that] as social change organizations grow, people who’ve never had power want to be more powerful; and there started to be factions within the national organization which were painful for the whole organization, the whole country really, within all the chapters in NOW.

Jane Plitt, a Cornell educated woman, had been a chapter president. Prior to coming to the office, she had a lot of corporate experience. There was a faction on the board who really started to attack her. I remember reading some board minutes and there was no foundation when it came to Karen DeCrow, who had the problem. When she was asked by the board to give her side of the story about what her complaints were, she and a number of other board members walked out of the room.

The rest of the board continued to meet and unpacked the story and found no cause for any kind of employment action against Jane. It continued to get worse,  this factional fight. And when Karen DeCrow was president one of the things that they planned to do was close all the national offices. There were some budget issues, it was a big expense to have offices but we were pretty frugal, our salaries were minimal.

Her plan was to close all the offices and terminate all the staff and it was a pretty painful time for us after they won. Not only to us in the office but the whole organization was in chaos. We the staff were sitting there trying to figure out –  how do we take care of ourselves. We decided that we needed to form our own union. Initially, we thought we could join another union, but nobody wanted this stuff. I think we were too hot or too much meat and potatoes for other unions.

We decided to create our own union called The Organization of Social Change and I became the president, kind of by default again. First of all, before we even did the union we asked NOW to work with us and the only thing they wanted to do was give us an opportunity for new jobs – they would create a new office on the East Coast. We were all in clerical jobs, we’re not going to move across the country for another clerical job and they knew it. We wanted to be protected in the process and take care of ourselves.

I became the president and we filed the charge. We formed a union. We went to the National Labor Relations Board and filed charges against NOW for unfair labor practices because we really didn’t have a voice in this process. It was quite a disturbing process. Once we filed, it was in the national newspapers: Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, some places in California, all over the country. For me this was quite painful because I loved NOW. I didn’t want to be the face of the opposition, but on the other hand, the majority of the people in our offices were not active in NOW. A couple of us in the Chicago office and a couple in Washington D.C. were women who needed work and needed a job.

It was very distressing and ultimately Karen DeCrow and Eleanor Smeal did not meet with us ever. And [they] filed some legal papers with the NLRB and the National Labor Relations Board did not recognize us as a union. I went on behalf of the staff to the national board meeting – I think it was in Pennsylvania at the time – and appealed our case to the national board. They did try to recognize us, but it was too late in the process.

If we can’t stand up for ourselves, we’re standing up for women in other situations, other employment situations. We ourselves deserve better and we only ended up with a pretty meager two-week severance package, which was the basics. This was an opportunity for NOW to demonstrate how to treat your staff in times when you’re making changes in your organization. They failed at that time.

KR:  When you left that job, where’d you go from there?

AD:  I was pretty destroyed after leaving that job. I didn’t know what I could do but I was asked by another Adrian sister, she was a part of the 8th Day Center for Justice, which had a hunger project and they needed staff in that. I worked there for a couple of years on a range of hunger issues and it was a good fit for me, because these were poor women. I grew up in a lower-middle class kind of environment. I connected to their cause and women are the majority of the poor and especially women led households and their children.

It was a healing role to have because I could see results from our actions. I also learned a lot about community organizations in the Chicago area and in coalition building at the ground [level]. We built a strong hunger coalition there and one program spun off and became Food Justice Programs and the leader of that group was among the first to start a food bank in Chicago. It was one of the first national food banks and was based in Chicago.

Through them I also did more legislative action. In this role I was working very closely with a group called FRAC: Food Research Action Center in Washington, DC. I learned a lot about legislative action. Every step along my activist path was new learning, new roles, new risk. That was a very healing place.

KR:  Overall, how has your involvement in the movement affected your later life?

AD:  I worked in another women’s group after called Midwest Women’s Center – a lot of non-traditional employment agencies. At the time the Women’s Bureau Department of Labor was trying to address discrimination for women gaining access to skilled craft jobs. There was less than 2 percent of women in skilled craft jobs, I’m talking about carpentry and electricians and operating engineers who run the equipment on the roads.

I worked in coalition with the Women’s Bureau and the Chicago Urban League. Our task was to help young minority women 19-21, in mostly the south and west sides of the city of Chicago to get into really high paid, high benefit, skilled craft jobs. Most of them were working at minimum wage jobs and we were able to really open the door to that. I worked for about five years on the whole issue of non-traditional employment opportunities for women. We did educational efforts like conferences, we did training for the women to help them with their math skills and their physical fitness skills to get into the firefighters unions and things like that. I was a producer of a videotape, we wrote a high school curriculum and we did a whole number of things none of which were apart of my experience level before then. After five years we had maybe gotten up to 5 percent of women, but now you could you can go down the road and see a construction crew and not only do you see the flagger as a woman but the woman running those heavy equipment jobs. Those are huge dollar jobs. That was exciting.

KR:  Are you involved as an activist right now?

AD:  More as an individual activist on women’s issues. I’m very concerned about the domestic violence arena. I’m always calling for legislation on women’s issues. But for the last 10 years now I’m really concerned with environmental issues and conservation issues. I was part of a group that worked to get the Interior Department to create a Wisconsin-Illinois bi-State Refuge. We were successful in 2012. The Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge was established and that was another coalition building effort.

One thread of my career is you don’t try to do things alone, you always do them in coalition with other groups. With the refuge, you have to keep buying land and adding to land, it’s not like a national park where you have one main area. You’re building land, we have a set footprint we’re trying to create; we have nearly a thousand acres already. What I’ve brought there…

The other benefit I got from the women’s movement was learning about change. I graduated with my masters and that was actually going back and taking care of myself and getting my bachelors and my masters as an organization development. I’ve been an organization development consultant who works on plan change within organizations both corporate and nonprofit. After a few years as an organizational development consultant I went back and was certified as a leader coach. I’m working with leaders on change as well. I guess that’s the golden thread in it, having a career related to change and making things better.

KR:  Anything else that you think we haven’t covered that is important to include?

AD:  I wanted to talk about this new wave of activists and how impressed I am with them and how exciting it is to see these new activists. My only worry for them is that I think they rely heavily on marches and I hope that they start to see the broader spectrum of ways to create change. I am writing a memoir on this period of my life. 13 years of social justice change around women’s issues and I think that’s another medium people should keep in mind. Writing for change, because writing is another powerful tool that we have to influence people and to create change.

KR:  Memoirs particularly today are popular but they’re meaningful.

AD:   My idea to do that came from my nieces during the 2016 election cycle when I found out they didn’t know we didn’t have credit until the 70s. They didn’t know the things that we fought for, that’s kind of been lost as new generations come out. They were my inspiration for writing this.

KR:  Audrey thank you so much for your time. This was great.

AD:  Thank you. It was really an honor to be interviewed by you Kathy. I appreciate all your work and remember you as both a national board member and as our Midwest Regional Coordinator. It’s a privilege.