THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Dr. Marion Wagner
“I Was Raised With Values of Social Justice.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, September 2022
MW: My name is Marion Wagner. I was born in Oil City, Pennsylvania, on June 14, 1943. My parents were working class people. My dad worked oil refining construction. He was of German and Irish heritage, and my mother was mostly of Irish heritage. I was raised Irish, even though I’m not totally Irish. They traveled all over the country with him doing his construction work. But when I was four or five, we settled in a small town in downstate Illinois.
I was never sure why they settled there. I used to say, “You used to live near New York City and you settled here.” They thought it would be a good place to raise kids. My mother would always tell me stories, like about my grandfather being refused employment in northwest Pennsylvania because he was of Irish heritage. He wasn’t from Ireland. My dad always made sure he patronized the Jewish businesses in town, although there was a lot of anti-Semitism.
I was raised with values of social justice. I was fortunate to have my parents. I was unfortunate because they both died when I was a teenager. But they raised me with these values and so I always had a strong feeling about social justice. I know when I was twelve, I discovered that my small town had an unwritten, but kind of a 6:00 pm law where people of color were made to leave.
I always thought that Black people weren’t there because why would anyone want to live here? But actually, it was because they were pushed out, I guess. I wrote a letter to the Illinois State NAACP when I was twelve, so I was kind of an activist. I went to the University of Illinois for a couple of years and then I moved to Los Angeles where I lived in California for eight years.
In LA, I got involved in the Civil Rights movement, the grape strike and anti-war. Usually, I did most of this as part of the Methodist student movement. The Methodists had a little connection to my college campus, which was Cal State Los Angeles. I would do demonstrations and things with them and we went to a national meeting one time and had the great opportunity to see Dr. King, who gave us a speech. I was always an activist in the 1960’s.
MJC: Did you have siblings?
MW: Yes, I have a sister who is eight years older. She was raised with the same values and we both kind of ended up in some leadership positions. She stayed in Illinois, and she was very active in the Methodist women and I was always active in little more radical groups than that. Unlike me, I had a sister who traveled around the country when she was a little kid. I mean to move from place to place. When my parents moved into the last house we lived in, it was their 40th permanent address in their marriage. When I say moved, they really moved.
MJC: Let’s talk about your time in California.
MW: I was active in a variety of movements. At some point I heard about Betty Friedan and all, but she didn’t speak to me because I was very different than that. I was a different class. It was just a different group of people. She wasn’t speaking to my group of people. But I became a little frustrated. I remember in the ’60s, because we do these actions, different activities.
I know with my college we did an activity where Black people went from door to door trying to rent, and then white people would go behind them and try to rent, and they would turn down fair housing, that kind of thing. The guys always got all the credit, and they didn’t do all the work. It was very interesting to me, and it didn’t matter whether it was a Black organization or a white organization. It bugged me.
At some point a friend of mine showed me this article by Robin Morgan, who was writing in New York, called Goodbye to All that. She wrote exactly about my experience, although she didn’t know it. She wrote that the guys [were] getting all the credit and being so sexist and offensive, and she was calling them out on it. I thought, oh, I must be a feminist, because she was. That’s how I knew I was a feminist.
This is not part of the political story, but I ended up living in Oregon for four years from 1971 to 1975. I was raising goats in the country. It was one of those things. I remember going to a supermarket in 1972, and there was the first Ms. Magazine, and I bought it. I read Ms. Magazine, and someplace in that magazine there was this ad that said, “Now that your consciousness is raised, join NOW.”
So, I joined NOW. And that kind of took care of the rest of my life. We didn’t have a chapter. I was in eastern Oregon. I went to a meeting in Portland. I was there for a work meeting, but I did join. At that point there was a newsletter called something like Do It NOW. Before there was the National NOW Times. Of course, I would read that. It would come in the mail, and I would read that with great interest.
MJC: What took you to Oregon?
MW: It was a romance. I had come out a little earlier, and my new partner and I moved to Oregon. The relationship didn’t last long, but because we wanted to move there. I don’t even know why, but it was something that many of us did at that time. Not moved to Oregon, but did more rural things.
I am a social worker, and I was practicing social work then, and I became very concerned. I was paying a lot of attention to the Equal Rights Amendment. Oregon was so pro-ERA that the state legislature passed it twice because they were so pissed off that nothing else happened.
There was a woman who I think ended up in Congress from Oregon named Betty Roberts and I became aware, of course, of what was happening, and I began to feel like I should be doing something. I shouldn’t be sitting out in the country raising goats, even though I was doing my work. I decided at some point, it must have been late 1974, that I would move somewhere and do what I could for the Equal Rights Amendment.
The two states I knew the best that were not ratified were Illinois and Indiana. I remember thinking, I want to live in a city. I thought I needed to be near the capital. In Illinois, of course, Chicago is a city, but the Illinois capital is quite a ways away. I decided Indiana would make more sense. I wanted to get a doctorate because I was thinking about teaching at college at some point.
I thought, okay, I don’t even know why, but I ended up moving to Indiana in January of 1975 because I wanted to do what I could to help pass the ERA. I felt like I had not been doing enough. Earlier, I had done a lot more and I wasn’t doing enough. I moved there in ’75. I looked up NOW, because NOW is the organization I knew.
Indianapolis NOW was probably the most radical NOW chapter anywhere near, I mean, not just Indiana. It was the only chapter in our state that knew they had lesbians. I remember going to a regional meeting in Michigan, and we were pushing for vegetarian options. I don’t know how that happened. Maybe because in a place like Indiana, you had to stick together.
MJC: Do you remember who the leadership was in Indianapolis when you arrived?
MW: Yes, there was a woman named Karen Williams who was the president, and Sydney Goddard was vice president. I don’t know where they are now but I knew them then. The first meeting I went to, they thought I was an FBI plant because my story was too good. Don’t misunderstand me. I didn’t do this. I had to get a job. I had a job at a child welfare agency in Indianapolis. It isn’t like I was independently wealthy or thought I’d be paid to do this work.
But when I went to my first NOW meeting, it took me a meeting or so to have them realize that I was just this person. I think by the third meeting I was vice president because that’s how it was and it probably still is. I got involved in Indiana NOW and was working on the ERA. I think I moved there in January ’75, so it would have been probably February or March that I first went to the meeting.
MJC: I want to hear more about exactly what you did. I mean, you became an officer, because we drafted people into leadership all the time. But what was the chapter like in the state? Was the state organization even established at that point? How did they see their major work?
MW: Indiana saw their major issue as the ERA. For us at the time, if the ERA passed, everything else would follow. That’s what we believed. Women needed to have equality, so we supported the other issues. Unlike what is still taught, NOW supported lesbian rights by that time and certainly supported abortion rights. We were concerned about racism. We added a few over the years, but we felt that the ERA was the umbrella issue and if we could ratify and Indiana had not ratified, and it had come up several times and hadn’t ratified, so we were committed to do that.
Over that year, and the next year, I got to know the Indiana NOW people. We had quite a few chapters in Indiana at the time, and we didn’t have a lot in common, so we didn’t get together a lot until maybe early 1976. Our chapter did what we could, but our legislature, the way the Indiana legislature was at the time, the House, this was before Reagan, so it was before the ERA was partisan. In other words, Republicans supported the ERA. Dwight Eisenhower supported it, even Nixon supported it. It was not divided like it is now.
Both Houses were Republican, as was the governor, but the speaker of the House was pro-ERA. His wife was good friends with a woman who was one of the leaders in Church Women United, which also supported the ERA. The House was no problem, but the Senate was very anti-ERA, and in fact, we used to say the leadership should be in jail, and later some of them ended up in jail. But that’s a whole different story.
By 1976, we realized that the only way we were going to be able to ratify the ERA was to make the Senate Democratic, which wasn’t something that generally happened in Indiana. I remember having a meeting that must have been like May of 1976. We had a state meeting of some kind, and everybody who was there made this commitment to each other.
We knew we disagreed on almost everything except the Equal Rights Amendment. I mean, we agreed with NOW issues, but we didn’t agree on a lot of things. We had socialists, capitalists. We had all sorts, but we said, it doesn’t matter. We’re going to put all that aside and focus on the ERA. We’re not going to care about internal politics. We’re not going to care about external politics, except the Equal Rights Amendment. We’ll do this and then once it’s done, we’ll go our own way. But we made this commitment.
We had had several people who had been to some feminist collectives. I know one of our members had been to some kind of feminist gathering in New Hampshire, I think, and they came back with feminist process ideas. We decided we would use feminist process, which I’m always willing to talk about, and that we would not allow ourselves to disagree.
We would not let those disagreements we often would have, tear us apart, that we would have a plan, we would follow that until we ratified. And that’s actually what we did. I think we were the only place that really was able to live up to that commitment. I don’t know who made it, but we’re the only ones able to live up to the commitment, to not have divisions that tore us apart.
MJC: There were quite substantial divisions in the national organization at that point.
MW: There were. In a lot of the states. Later, I volunteered in Illinois. We came up with a plan. What we had to do was mobilize people to work, and we had to change the senate. Our focus had to be in the state senate. Nothing else mattered, because if the state senate didn’t become Democratic, we wouldn’t have the ERA, period. That was the whole thing.
One of the philosophies that we followed, which was often hard, we called it the worker theory, although it’s not a theory. The people that do the work make the decisions, which meant you don’t spend most of your time arguing with people about what they say you should do. It’s not that you don’t question stuff, but we don’t rethink it.
The hardest thing for us about that was really the first thing that happened. We were very fortunate, had some very bright women in our state who worked on targeting. In other words, in order to change the Senate, we had to know which districts were most likely to change from Republican to Democratic. We also needed to know which districts to hold on to.
They targeted, which was hard for us because we had a person in Indiana who was like a clone of Phyllis Schlafly in the state senate and she wasn’t going to lose, you know what I mean? Most of the targeted districts, I don’t remember now, but there were six or seven were outside Indianapolis and so that was hard to swallow, but we really had to trust the people that made the decisions. And this is before all the computers, so it was hard to follow the data.
MJC: In general, Indianapolis legislators were on your side already?
MW: No, some of them were not. But the way it was districted, we couldn’t change the ones that were not. Some of the Indianapolis people were on our side. We helped one person get into the Senate, a guy who we really liked. Our chapter did this before we realized we shouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. I’m not going to talk about that. We didn’t have a PAC doing it. We just did it. But we could not target the people in Indianapolis who were Republican, who were anti-ERA because we couldn’t change that district. That was the way they just wouldn’t work. We realized we had these areas outside of the state.
So, the first thing was targeting. Then we had to figure out how to organize people. We set up something called the ERA caravan where we would go from place to place. I’ve got to go back for a minute. First, we would contact NOW members and put notices up in the libraries. We didn’t usually have meetings in libraries and so we wanted to get people organized to work in these Senate campaigns. I was a big part of that.
One thing we did, we called all around to every NOW leader we’d ever heard of and asked them to come help us, and most people didn’t, some of them because they didn’t like our politics. The one person who did agree to come and send some people to us was a woman from Pittsburgh named Eleanor Smeal.
None of these people were paid. She sent some of her NOW activists. Alice Cohan was from New Jersey. Jane Wells-Schooley from Pennsylvania. Martha Dickey was, I think, in Texas. Five or six people came to meet with us at one point. We had been to the Springfield march, which was, I think, in May of 1976, and that got us all excited, too.
These people came out and then later more came out. Ellie later came out, and she helped us a lot. She still is. She was so committed to the ERA. I’ve never known anybody who could be as committed and as focused as Eleanor Smeal. I always said she’s the smartest person I’ve ever known. We would put up these notices and send these mailings to people, to NOW members. We had the membership list, which we had to cut up, use glue sticks and put the labels on the envelopes.
Ellie had told us this story about Alice Paul and how she had met Alice Paul when Ellie was in Washington working on the ERA to pass the Congress. PBS had had this special called How We Got the Vote that included Alice Paul and other feminists. And it was about the suffrage movement. We would go to the library or wherever our meeting place was and we’d show the film. We actually had it on a reel.
Then we would talk about the commitment they had and that Alice Paul was still alive and how we had to honor them and we had to get the ERA through, because Alice Paul had first proposed the ERA, I think in 1923. If Ellie was there, then we’d have Ellie tell her story about meeting Alice Paul and she went to this house where Alice Paul and some other old suffragists in Washington, DC were. And when her friend knocked on the door, Alice Paul came.
She rang a bell and all these women came down. She rang a bell saying “They’ve come. They’ve come.” And all these women came down, and were so glad to see them. It could be pretty emotional. And she’s really good at telling that story. If she didn’t tell it, whoever was there would tell it. We say it’s interesting because Ellie was Chair of the National Board.
It was a different structure then. But even though they weren’t famous people or from the national office or anything, the fact they weren’t from here, they were celebrities. I like the way it happens to be. It’s interesting. It’s funny you have some of them from somewhere else come and listen to this person because they’re from New Jersey. We went around and we organized people to work in the elections.
We worked in the elections and we would travel. I would get home from work and then get in my car with friends and we’d drive to all these parts of the state and do this evening stuff and then come back. I was much younger then. My boss who I really worked for, at one time asked me who I really worked for. I still have papers I need to give to our local historical society and I’m sure that there are unpaid electrical bills in there as well because I did nothing but ERA and my job.
People stayed with me. I had cats and a dog. It was a mess. Ellie stayed with me, and Ellie is a neat freak, but she didn’t care at the time. It was interesting how we were so focused. It was a mission. We had a movement then that was strong. We worked at all these campaigns and we won enough that the Democrats won the Senate. I don’t remember the number, but it wasn’t by very many. And one of the campaigns we worked in, the Democrat won by nine votes. Birch Bayh always gave us the credit for him winning that campaign.
We would make sure they were committed to work for the ERA before we would work for them. But after the election, and again, some states didn’t do this, we realized that we had to hold on to them, just because they committed before the election doesn’t mean they would still vote the same way.
The insurance industry was opposed to the ERA at the time and other groups, that we don’t think about now. And they of course have money. And several other groups were opposed to it. We thought we have to hold on to these people. So, we organized it. After our legislature meets, they have one organization day in November and then they meet starting early January.
We did some other activities. We did a vigil. We had banners. We’d stand in the rotunda in the State House with our banners every lunchtime. I would go over there at lunch from my job and to remind them to vote for the ERA. We would talk to them all the time. On January 9th, I think, and I ended up being in charge of this, although I didn’t mean to, we had a march and a rally for the ERA, downtown.
It was ironic because a week before, the anti-ERA people had had an event, but they canceled most of it because of the inclement weather. There was like an inch of snow. The day we had our march and our rally, fortunately, was in the convention center, there was almost a blizzard. We were marching in a blizzard again, which of course, made for great press and great visuals. We were in their face all the time, so that we ratified in mid-January. Well, the House passed it right away at the beginning because we knew they would.
MJC: Remind us of what year this was.
MW: 1977. The House passed right away. So, we were bugging the Senate, of course, and they did vote to ratify. We ratified the ERA of Indiana 26-24. It’s one of those things where every single person, and it wasn’t just NOW. NOW did the election thing. Some of the other groups asked, “Why would you choose a side politically? People on the other side don’t like you.” And we said, well, we don’t care about alienating our enemies.
It was before the things were so political in a lot of ways, with a lot of groups, partisan, maybe. But I know that without any of the people that worked on it, we probably wouldn’t have ratified. I mean, think about it. One guy wins by nine votes and then he’s one of the 26 votes. Just really amazing.
I have an Ellie story. I think Ellie was at the march, but she was here during the time it was going through the Senate. Ellie knows a lot about parliamentary procedure. She ended up advising the majority leader on what things the “antis” might do in the Senate to stop it. We wouldn’t let her leave. She had kids but we made her stay anyway. Charlie, her husband at the time, was so good. He saw his job as taking care of the home-front so Ellie could go out and organize.
We ratified it. It was just a supreme moment. The first thing I did, I was in the gallery, and if you went in the morning, you couldn’t leave, because the “antis” would take your seat. People ask, what’s the first thing you did? Go to the restroom. But the second thing I did was call the nursing home where Alice Paul was to make sure she knew we’d ratified. We had to because she had said to Jane Wells-Schooley, “bring me Indiana.” She was very pleased.
Unfortunately, we were the last state to ratify for a long, long time, but we did ratify and NOW had a lot to do with it. I learned a lot from that. But the downside of it is, I never meant to stay in Indiana. I don’t like the climate. I don’t like the geography. But I got connected to all these people, and some of these people that were going to go our separate ways.
One was this woman from Muncie named Sue Errington, who’s in the legislature and who’s one of my very best friends. You make those connections. You work together, you eat together on the road. You do all these things. They’re the people I trust the most in the world, the people I did that work with. That’s my ERA story.
MJC: You become like family in a certain way.
MW: You do. Even those of us who disagree in other ways. It’s a very Irish thing, too. You may disagree with family members, but if anyone attacks the family, you’re all united. It’s very much like that. In fact, some of us, including my spouse and another person or two, but four of us, Sue and Victoria and Jill and I and three other people get together for dinner every month when we’re in town still. We still have that connection. We were all part of that organizing.
MJC: Why don’t you state their names for the historical record?
MW: Sue Errington from Muncie. She’s in the state legislature. Victoria Rose from Muncie. She did a lot of our lobbying. Jill Chambers from Indianapolis. She did a lot of the work, and she also did most of our graphics. We had artwork that would be on the flyers we would send out to people to come to our meetings, and she did that. Those are the people that I get together with most now.
MJC: Great. So, the ERA got ratified. By the way, did you pick up a PhD somewhere along the line here?
MW: Yes, in 1982, I was asked to go to the School of Social Work, actually, it’s in Indianapolis at Indiana University, to join the faculty in an adjunct role. I liked it so much, and I always wanted to get a PhD, so I got a PhD later, by 1991. I got my PhD in Illinois in Urbana in social work. Except for the brief time when I was in Washington, DC, I was at the university until I retired in 2007. I was in the School of Social Work, did a variety of academic roles, and ended up directing the MSW programs for Indiana University.
It’s interesting, there’s a lot of skills you learn in NOW that I use. One of them is certainly the parliamentary procedure that you learned from Ellie Smeal. And NOW meetings used to be so contentious, national conferences, and we never really followed it in Indiana because we were consensus. But the place that did Robert’s Rules and I’ve been on a variety of boards in my life and I was on the University Family Council and knowing a little bit about Robert’s Rules, you could stop some BS in meetings.
When I was an administrator, when I could work at it, I tried to use the worker theory as much as I could. The people who do the work make the decisions, which isn’t the way folks usually do things, and I didn’t always do that. But all of a sudden it hit me I should be doing that and it makes a difference. I could teach a whole seminar on that.
There were a lot of things that I was able to learn and certainly how to speak in public, because I had to speak in public a lot, of course, about organizing and how if you feed them, they will come. All these little things that you learn. I learned most of that through NOW. I have stayed involved in NOW to some extent since that time. I was on the national board for a total of six terms and state president on and off a bunch of times.
I’m still on the state board and the chapter board, but that’s just because they asked me to do it, but I don’t do much work anymore. I’m in Key West four months a year, so I keep saying I don’t need to do this and I may not do the state board anymore, but after the next election. I still stayed involved and I go to national conferences. For me, there are a lot of people there that I go way back with, and it’s like a family reunion. Last one was in Chicago, actually, at the Palmer House.
MJC: After the ERA passed, did you go to other states to help try to ratify?
MW: Yes, I went to Illinois a variety of times. I was working full time, so maybe took off some time, but I went to Illinois some to try to do something. I spent some time in Chicago. We also supported Sue Errington who went to Oklahoma and several other places. Utah, even, to work on it. We would do a lot of organizing at home to help support sending some of our sisters. We had brothers who were active in the movement, too, of course. I worked with that.
Most of what I did, we still tried to do what we could about ERA. As you know, Illinois, because of the three-fifths rule was such a problem. Did a few other things during that time, like, I helped found our first women’s shelter and stuff like that. But again, it’s all feminist stuff. Everything I do is somehow connected to feminist activity.
MJC: How would you say that being part of the women’s movement affected your life?
MW: It changed it. First of all, it gave me a family I didn’t know I needed. Most of the people I trust the very most are in NOW, and I connect with people. Some of us get together at NOW meetings. The National Conference is one place, but we do other things. Some of the people I’m very close to who live in other parts of the country aren’t people who do NOW stuff anymore. I’m the only one, really, who does much.
I think part of it is because of the connections we formed here, locally. It’s always like a place of refuge when you’re with these people because you know you share a set of values. If we got together for dinner, we know we share belief systems. We don’t have to tread lightly on topics, etcetera. So that’s the way it works.
My spouse, Gail, and I, in the last 10 or 15 years have become Unitarians, which focuses on social justice. There are pros and cons about Facebook. But I like to do it because I have connections in a variety of ways and all over the country. But if there’s a NOW person on there that ever mentions church, they’re always Unitarians.
MJC: Did you meet Gail, your spouse, in NOW or through NOW or through the woman’s movement?
MW: No, I met her through work, but we’ve been together 41 years. We’ve only been married eight years, but we met through work. She’s a social worker.
MJC: Another benefit, right? And being able to be out and be in the world the way we are able to be now.
MW: When I joined the faculty at Indiana University, some of the guys assumed I was a lesbian because I’d been in NOW, which is funny, because I was in NOW and the majority of NOW people aren’t lesbians. There weren’t lesbians, but they just made that assumption, so I never had to come out. They just outed me, even though it wasn’t something we really thought about doing at the time.
When I worked for the Child Welfare Agency, I wasn’t out publicly because I didn’t want to damage the agency. It was a United Way Agency. Jill Chambers, who I mentioned before, got pregnant right after the ERA. She was married and still is and got pregnant right after the ERA and named her daughter Alice Paul. She was very pregnant. She was our “lesbian liaison,” so she would talk to the press about lesbian rights issues. That really startled them. We were always able to pass that around.
But once I got to university, even though the university didn’t have protection, social work has a value that supports LGBTQ people. They would have stood behind me. And so does NASW, National Association of Social Workers. I’m lucky. I’m in a profession that was always supportive. I generally never had to worry about that. Since I’ve been really aware of a lot of this, it’s been a profession that’s very supportive. I’m lucky because a lot of people aren’t.
MJC: It’s true. What have we missed? What else do we need to talk about?
MW: I regret that we haven’t done more to spread the feminist process idea. I used to try to talk to national NOW, about doing these in a more consensus way. People say, we don’t have time to deal with that now. You will never have time to deal with it if that’s how you look at it. But because all of our organizations are based on a hierarchical model, and I understand it. It’s true in NOW and probably in a lot of organizations, people who become leaders that somehow believe their own legend, if that makes any sense.
I remember that happened to me at one point after we ratified the ERA, and people come up to me at NOW conferences, people who liked me, and I had this reputation of being part of the ERA ratification, which I was. And we bragged on it because we did it. We were proud of it. And they’d say, how should I vote on this issue? And I would say oh, you should…. And then I realized, wait a minute, that’s not very feminist.
If I can convince them with my arguments, that’s a whole different thing. But they shouldn’t do it because of who I am. I’m a social worker, and you’re supposed to be self-aware. But if you’re in a leadership position in your small little universe, you’re going to become a star. People get a little full of themselves, sometimes. And then it’s hard to think about doing things by consensus because people defer. I think mutual respect is a really good idea, but that’s different than deferring because of a position. I mean, I would defer to someone because of their professional expertise. That’s a different point.
In the ’70s, there was a whole feminist culture, philosophy that people used to talk about and try to encourage. There’s consciousness raising, lots of other things, and most of the philosophical basis for that is lost right now. It’s there. It underlies a lot of things we do. I think every generation has to figure it out for themselves.
I hope that in the future there’s more looking at being a cultural feminist as well as a political feminist. And that doesn’t always happen. Not that I’m always good at it, but I certainly have tried, and I’ve known people who are politically feminist, who are discounted clerical staff, the kind of things that folks do that isn’t very feminist. So that’s something I wish I could change the world about, but I haven’t been able to do that yet.
MJC: Have you written about your experience?
MW: Not really. I intended to, but I haven’t, and I still have papers on it. I’ve talked to people about it and people have done dissertations on it and stuff, but I haven’t really. The philosophical parts, the process parts, are important. The important part of the details of it is how close the outcome was, and we won, so that the process worked.
MJC: You described some of the changes that were necessary in order to have a strategy to win. It’s very important information and wasn’t able to duplicate it in some other places.
MW: We were fortunate because we had the people that did the analysis of the districts. They were brilliant. There’s no question. And we were lucky to have the right people. The other thing I didn’t say, I missed the part, we called it the ERA Committee that met about what we were doing. We met every week on a Friday night. In order to be part of this, you had to commit to meet every week. And we did it from July until November 1976; we met every week. We made a commitment.
We also kept track of each other, supported each other, etcetera. The funny thing is, everything we did was by consensus, except for one thing. Our chapter board used to meet in people’s houses, and we had a rule. People wanted a rule, which totally makes sense. Again, this was the ’70s. No smoking in the meetings. They wanted the rule. Well, we had a member who said, NOW supports the rights of people with disabilities, and I’m addicted to tobacco, so you can’t stop me from smoking in the meeting because it’s a disability. So, we voted.
The only time we had a vote was on whether you could smoke in the meeting. They lost that one. There was no consensus on smoking, but otherwise we were able to have consensus on every single thing. It takes a little longer at the beginning, but it actually speeds stuff up later.
MJC: That is an important story, because that philosophy is not necessarily associated with NOW. It’s important that the Indiana experience get described. So that’s good. That’s something to write about. What else do we need to cover that we haven’t covered?
MW: Between that and ’82, most of what I did was NOW or social work things. I did work on things like child abuse legislation and that kind of stuff. I’ve always been a macro person concerned about organizational change. When I taught social work, I taught social policy and organizational behavior kinds of things. I used my NOW connections, and things I had learned through NOW, and I took things to NOW.
There’s no question that my ’60s experiences taught me about organizing, like how to do marches and things. That was very helpful. The interesting thing is, even when I was teaching, I would talk about some of these things. You can use analogies. It’s like when you plan a march, I call it “walking the route.” If you’re in charge of a march, you actually walk the route in advance to see if you have a permit.
First of all, learn how to get a permit. Is there construction on the street? Are there bricks that are torn up? Have you walked the route to see what might come up? When you plan an activity, walk the route, go in the room and look to make sure the mics are where they’re supposed to be, the chairs are where they are supposed to be. It’s a good practice for anything you’re doing. I used to be able to bring those experiences to other parts of my life.
I’ve seen a lot of people who don’t, and then they’re surprised. It’s like if I was presenting at a conference somewhere, I’d go in and look at the room first. I would just get a sense of what I might have to think about, even this silly thing like, is there water up there? There are a lot of things that I was able to learn and pass on in different ways.
Working in government with the legislature is not unlike working with the board of directors. The processes are similar, so there’s a lot of transfer of competencies that you could use, if you think about it in that way. I was on the board of my church here for a while. I tend to be asked to be in those positions or maybe because I talk so much and I’ve been able to use a lot of the things that I’ve learned that way.
I feel like our organizations become more institutionalized and less of a movement at this point, and people have a lot of other things in their life. I certainly value technology, being able to use it. It’s like this. We’re doing Zoom, and that’s good that we have this opportunity. It doesn’t replace meeting in person. Now we do our chapter board meetings and state board meetings by Zoom. And there have been some conflicts between people. I’ve noticed that.
I think if we were sitting around a table and broke for lunch, eating together, having the conversations on the way to the restroom, I think a lot of these disagreements would be resolved because we would be more human to each other. There have been some issues. I know there was an issue a year or so ago at the national NOW.
I think a lot of these people only know each other from Zoom. Covid precluded it, but it would have been better had they been able to meet in person. That’s the informal networking that is so important for the other stuff. I think that the technology is a good addition, but I don’t think it’s a replacement for the in-person contact.
MJC: So obviously, since the ratification days and the immediate nowadays, lots of your NOW experience and your women’s movement experience has shaped your life, and you’re still making a contribution. What are you up to right now?
MW: In those groups, we’re trying to figure out what to do with the election. I don’t have real great knees. Instead of working on campaigns, on election day, seeing if I can actually work in the polls, because I’m worried about voter suppression. I’m not doing a lot politically. I’m in these meetings, I’m on our state PAC. I vote on that, but I’m not doing as much.
People say do you want to pass the torch. First of all, newer people need to learn the skills, and if we hold on to these positions, you know what I mean? I’ve never had a need to do that, at least not in a long time. But I’m involved in the social action committee in our church and those kinds of things. We’re at a food bank on Saturday. I do things that are part of social justice to me.
MJC: Good for you. Any final thoughts, Marion?
MW: It’s kind of like coming out. I was always a feminist, and I didn’t know it, until Robin Morgan wrote about it. It’s like, oh, that’s what I am. It’s good to feel totally connected to your identity. Of course, we all have things we regret. But I don’t regret the feminist stuff I’ve done. I’m proud of it. I’m glad I was able to be part of it. I cherish the connections I’ve been able to make.
And the thing about NOW, in my history of NOW, which is a long time, which is 50 years, I realize, there are probably only one or two people I met in NOW that I wouldn’t have voted for, for public office. Everybody else, even if we totally disagreed about all sorts of other things in NOW, I would always have supported them for public office. That’s a way that I think about it. If I made a disagreement with somebody, it’s like, now, wait a minute. But I wasn’t in Congress. I’m fortunate to have been able to be part of groups that I can say that about.
MJC: That’s a very good point. Excellent point. I thank you very much. It’s just a pleasure to see you, and we go back 50 years ourselves. Thank you for that, and thank you for doing the interview.