Bette Vidina

“It gets to be a part of your life. It’s part of an attitude, it’s the way you look at things.”

Interviewed by Wilma Stevens, VFA Board, April 2021

WS: Start by telling us your full name and when and where you were born.

BV:  My name is Bette Joan Vidina. I was born in Chicago and I’ve always lived in Chicago.

WS:  Could you tell us what your life was like before you joined the women’s movement?

BV:  I was about 30 years old when I finally joined. Before that, I had a pretty ordinary childhood with two parents and one older sister. My father bought the house that I live in now in 1949, I had my ninth birthday there. I went to the school down the block and that was Waters School. I went to Amundsen High School, which I could walk to.

After I graduated, I started working for the Metropolitan Life which had an office in the neighborhood that was close enough for me to walk to. At age 22 I got married and my father didn’t like that too much and he was right. Before too long, I got divorced and I was living by myself. I had this job at the Metropolitan Life, and one could see you weren’t going to go anywhere there. That was when we started hearing stuff about the women’s movement.

I thought about it for a while, called up, and I got Nan Wood’s office. Nan was a physicist who owned a company that manufactured Geiger counters, and she was the vice president of Chicago NOW at the time. A man answered and I thought she had a male secretary, but it was just a man that worked for her and that was one of the things he did. I joined close to 1970. Then I was fearful of going to a meeting because it was downtown, and I never had much to do with going downtown, especially at night. I don’t recall if I drove down or if I took the L down, but I was kind of fearful of going downtown.

Finally, I did and here was Mary Jean Collins, the president of Chicago NOW and it was thrilling. There were people there that I’ve now known for 50 years. One of my main interests was employment but there were always other women’s issues that were being worked on at the same time. It was new stuff, stuff I didn’t know about, and I would go home and not sleep after those meetings because there was so much going on. There were people there – Mary Jean, Mary-Ann Lupa, Karen Boehning – so many people there, it was just exciting.

WS:  What did you expect when you went to your first meeting? Did you have any preconceived notions?

BV:  I seem to remember being fearful, I didn’t go for a while. I joined, I paid, but I didn’t go to the meetings because I was fearful of going. It was a rather lovely bunch of women that I met there, but you’d hear they were all crazy and it wasn’t true at all.

WS:  Was there something in particular with your own employment situation that made you interested in employment issues?

BV:  I was working for an insurance company making no money at all. If you want to pick a thing to not make any money in, you might as well go work in insurance. I had not gone to college, although I did later on, but I was in this insurance office being a junior clerk and then a senior clerk and not making very much money. This idea of equal pay for equal work was something that really appealed to me.

That was a time that if you went into almost any office, there would be lots and lots of women and if it was a sales [office], the sales force would be lots and lots of men. Where I worked there was a bunch of white men and quite a lot of Jewish people. I hadn’t come upon Jewish people too much until I started working there. I worked with a lot of Jewish men, but they were all white men and youngish white women in the office.

WS:  What were you doing for your job?

BV:  I was doing regular office work and a little bit of accounting. I was not doing a lot of typing back then. I started working there in 1958. I graduated from high school and in 1958 and I started working for the Metropolitan Life. Back then we collected up premiums, we did new policy applications, collected money from people who would walk into the office and pay a dollar and a half a week. We had cash money and in long tallies we’d have to write them all out.

After a while we had IBM punch cards, but when I started we were writing them out. We had an office supervisor who was so mean to us, she was so mean. She was a very large woman and I think she made me the very good employee that I turned into because she made us do everything exactly right. She made us balance our cash to the penny. Our checks had to balance to the penny. She would sit in the trashcan next to my desk and check back my work, she was a very large lady for sitting in a trashcan. But she made us balance to the penny and she made us line up all our bills properly, I still do that today.

We learned very good standard office practice, how to talk on the telephone, how to talk to people who came in. I was a new, young junior clerk kid and someone would come in with a death claim. I did all the paperwork that was going on in that office. There was not a lot of typing going on there at that time. If there was, it was a manual typewriter – this is ’59. It was manual adding machines, there were no computers, there were no telephones that you could leave a message on. There were real people that would talk to you and they would write out messages.

WS:  What was the first thing you remember getting involved in in Chicago NOW?

BV: When I finally started going to meetings, the Women’s Strike for Women was about to begin. It was going to be this big rally in the Civic Center. Posters were being designed and passed out, that was the first thing that I remember. I was Elizabeth Cady Stanton in a little costume there standing around in the Civic Center and all of a sudden all these people came. We were thinking maybe twenty, but the whole Chicago Civic Center was filled with people. It was thrilling. People started giving me money and I had like a shopping bag. I don’t know what happened to that money, but I’m sure a treasurer person came and took the money. Mary Jean was speaking as were others. We really hoped some people would show up, but the whole Civic Center was filled.

WS: Why is it that you were dressed as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were other people dressed as other suffragists?

BV:  I don’t remember why I was Elizabeth Cady Stanton; somebody else took Susan B. Anthony, I suppose. There were other early feminists and my job was just to pass out leaflets and be an usher to stand out in the crowd.

WS:  What were your most memorable and important experiences you had with your time in Chicago NOW?

BV:  You want me to talk about when I was arrested, don’t you?

WS:  Yes.

BV:  Ok. We used to do a thing called skulking, which was plastering signs up all over the downtown area. This is after the strike for something else. Me and Gerry Appanaitis were driving their Mercedes Benz that had been built in England and then was converted to be an American car. We would have these signs. Gerry would drive, and she would pull up and I would jump out of the car with and stick a sign on the wall with wallpaper paste and then I would jump back in the car. It was downtown and it was late at night, we were driving all over – it’s a little creepy when you think about it. And then we get caught and I was arrested, the only time I was arrested ever in my life.

We were taken to a police station and we called Judy Lonnquist, who was our Chicago chapter attorney; she came down and she did whatever she did. Nothing ever really happened to me, I didn’t go to court, I didn’t pay anything. I remember sitting there pretending to cry so they would think I was really upset in the police station. I believe I’m the only person in Chicago NOW who was ever arrested (during a chapter activity).

WS: You mentioned earlier about the importance of the New Feminist Advance in your life. Would you tell us a little bit about that?

BV:  Somewhere between the women’s strike, which was August 26, 1970 and pretty soon after that, many people didn’t want to “retreat”; we’re going to advance. So, we’re going to have the New Feminist Advance and we went to George Williams College camp in Lake Geneva. I had never really adventured around too much while driving my car so that was a big thing for me to drive to Lake Geneva. I had some small little car and we go up to George Williams where we had a couple of dormitories. Someone said that the Playboy club was not too far away, and we should go over there and see what would happen. I remember driving on small roads in the dark looking for the Playboy club, but I don’t remember doing anything except being where we weren’t supposed to be.

WS:  Were you having fun?

BV:  Of course, we we’re having a great time. I was with lots of women who were becoming my very good friends. We were on this long pier and it was summer, we’re all wearing our bathing suits and hanging out at the pier. Somebody painted someone else’s toe nails while they slept and awoke in shock.

WS: You had a rather major role in the Chicago NOW chapter for a long time. What was it?

BV:  I was the membership chair and it was always being really nice to anybody who showed up. Perhaps you remember how frightened I was to go after those first meetings. Here in the ’70s, anybody could have lost their job if their boss found out that they were going to these meetings and they belonged to Chicago NOW. They were like sneaking around and if we ever did any kind of an action, at lunchtime, people were wearing dark glasses, big hats, because you did not want it known that you were doing this, or you could lose your job.

We couldn’t figure out a way to have a little directory of our members to call each other if you wanted to do that. We had the list of frequently called numbers that was one sheet of names and phone numbers, not much else beside that, so people could find each other. I tried to make people feel comfortable and made them find something they’d want to plug into. If they wanted to talk about employment, if they wanted to talk about abortion, if they wanted to talk about women’s health, whatever it was that they wanted to talk about, they could find their way to the proper person to do that. People were afraid to go to the meetings, afraid to talk to people, afraid to start doing things. It could have been very serious for them.

WS:  Do you think that your interactions with these people was important to both them and to you?

BV:  I hope so, I think so. I remember a couple of people that I got to be very close friends with that I met in meetings. I think it was important to have those relationships because I remember for myself how difficult and frightening it was to come around and do that.

WS: Your house has played a number of roles in the service of Chicago NOW. Could you tell us a little about the fact that you’ve welcomed people into your home?

BV:  Yes. I came back to this house when my father died. We would have some meetings there but one of the more interesting and fun things was we had a visit from the San Fernando NOW marching band when they came to Chicago for an ERA march. That was toward the end of the ’70s. Maybe ’78, ’79. Wilma Stevens was my tenant and she wasn’t there, so she said, sure, everybody can come in my house. We had about a dozen ladies all over my house and her house.

They brought their sleeping bags; they were just sleeping all over and then we marched down Michigan Avenue and they played. Terry Tiernan, who was a Chicago NOW member, had gone off and learned how to be an archivist, and had gotten a job in California. She joined the San Fernando NOW so that was how they came to do that. Terry was coming back to Chicago and they all came around to go to the ERA rally and march, although it was raining. I was wearing a big, baggy thing over myself and carrying the San Fernando NOW marching band sign with another member.

WS:  You welcomed a number of people to your House to work on either the ERA or to work at the Chicago NOW office.

BV:  The NOW national office was in Chicago at that time. Jessica Crist came one summer to be the intern at the NOW national office. Jessica came and spent the summer with me. The Midwest Academy was in full swing at that time, which Heather Booth was running. Nobody ever had any money so they would try and find places where people could stay. I would very often house people in my extra room when they came for a couple of days or a week to go to the Midwest Academy.

WS:  One instance that I know you remember had to do with a shorter-term stay. Could you tell us a little bit about your experience with Jane?

BV:  Abortion was not legal at that time and there was a service in Chicago called the Jane Service. It was a number of women and some doctors. Some of the women, and we had a few of them from Chicago NOW, had learned how to do abortions. You would call this number and ask for Jane, and then they would know that was what you wanted.

The Jane service moved from location to location, generally houses. We were fearful about this, they could have been arrested, I could have been arrested for letting them use my house, but I did it. I gave my keys over to Madeline Schwenk, we went off to the Midwest Regional Conference, which was in Minnesota, on a bus for the weekend. They used my house and I never really knew what happened there. They left my house a little disturbed, not much. I found a chair in the bathtub. They did their abortions there and then I got a lovely set of towels from them afterwards. This was very frightening for people; we could have been arrested if they caught us.

WS:  How has your involvement in Chicago NOW and the women’s movement in general affected your life both personally and professionally?

BV:  I made friends that I’ve had for 40 and 50 years. Some of my closest and dearest friends are old Chicago NOW people. It gets to be a part of your life. It’s part of an attitude, it’s the way you look at things. I think of commercials and we were working on commercials in 1970 and it has taken this long to get any kind of decent commercials where women are being shown in a very real way. We were asking for it in the ’70s and after that because we all know ladies do not get up and wash the floor wearing high heels and a dress and makeup.

You have your more realistic commercials now and that was just one of the things we were working about back then. It’s a whole attitude about the way you live your life, the way you treat people, the way you look at things. We know right away if something is sexist. I think a lot of things have changed; a lot of things have still not changed. I think it’s an attitude, I think it’s the way you treat people, and the way you live your life.

WS:  There was a major life change you made after being involved in Chicago NOW.

BV:  At the age of 33, I decided I would go to college, so I did. I quit my job with Metropolitan Life where I had worked at up to that time. I started there when I was 17 and I did leave for a couple of years but then I went back. I quit my job and I went to college four years. I had a scholarship from my state representative that covered my tuition. I went to City College the first year when it cost twenty bucks a semester to go to college. And right after that they started charging by the [number of credit] hours.

After that I went to Northeastern Illinois University and had this tuition scholarship which helped me a lot. I started waitressing at night and went to school regular days and I did that for three years. I thought of going to law school, but just didn’t happen. After a while I could get a job because I now had a college degree. I did go back into doing the insurance stuff. I kept on working in insurance for my whole life.

WS:  Have you been involved in the women’s movement since your experience with Chicago NOW?

BV:  I tried to let my feminist attitudes show in regular ways in my regular life. I have tried to do things in my community. I just recently retired from being an election judge for twenty-four years.

WS:  What do you think is your major contribution to the women’s movement?

BV:  Being the membership chair and the welcoming of people. That probably made a big difference to a lot of people; when they came in, they felt comfortable. They joined in. And I’ve continued on doing that with other groups for my entire life. I’m always trying to talk to people and get them to do stuff and mostly I’m pretty successful at it. I realized you can ask people for the most outrageous stuff and if you ask them, they probably will. I have just continued recruiting and asking people to join and to do stuff to get involved in whatever it is, but to get involved.

WS:  Did you go to the march on Springfield in 1976?

BV:  I did!

WS:  What did you think of that experience?

BV:  I can’t remember too much about it. I know I was there, there were pictures someplace. I accumulated a whole lot of stuff in my basement and some of them were the Springfield signs. A couple of years back all that stuff went off to the University of Illinois at Chicago Special Collections. I have papers at UIC. The list of frequently called numbers, I’m sure that is in there, the original of the list of frequently called numbers and a lot of other miscellaneous sorts of papers. I’m 80 years old, I never thought I’d ever be this old. How did this happen? Wow we were doing this stuff fifty years ago and now here we are. I’m eighty. Everybody else is going to be close to eighty. I don’t know how that happened.

WS:  Thank you for your time and for your contribution to the women’s movement.

BV:  Well, this was fun.