THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Use Your Passion and Never Give Up.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, at the UIC Richard J. Daley Library, Chicago, IL, June 15, 2019
MJC: Good afternoon Mickey. Nice to see you.
MB: Always good seeing you.
MJC: Thank you so much for doing this interview for the Pioneer Histories Project and the Veteran Feminists of America. We are proud to have you as part of the collection. Why don’t we just start out by you giving us your name and when and where you were born.
MB: Mickey Beil and I was born in 1952 in Chicago, Illinois.
MJC: Can you describe your family background, ethnic background?
MB: I’m a first generation American. My dad came from Germany and I was raised in the Chicago area. My family moved out, like everyone did in those days, to Niles, which was a suburb by O’Hare Airport. That’s my background.
MJC: What was your neighborhood in Chicago?
MB: It was around Lovejoy and Elston.
MJC: What were things like after that, before you got involved in the women’s movement?
MB: I used to be a teacher. I graduated from college and never went back to the Chicago area after. I was a teacher, I taught high school in Freeport and Sandwich, Illinois. This was before the teachers had collective bargaining rights. My last teaching [job] was in Sandwich, Illinois and the teachers went out on strike and because they had no rights – they fired all the teachers in the district.
MJC: Do you remember what year that was?
MB: ’77 maybe, something like that. It’s not like you were paid a lot of money as a teacher in those days. I picketed by myself. To make a long story short, all the teachers went back. They had you sign documents saying it was illegal to strike and you promise never to strike again. If you signed those documents you were hired back at a salary that the board saw fit to give you without any collective bargaining.
I said I’m not signing anything; I was a non-tenured teacher. They gave me a trial because I refused, and I was at least entitled to a hearing or trial of some kind. Around December or January, I found out about an internship at the Illinois Education Association, which I applied for and got. This is where I received my training in campaign tactics and experiences in lobbying and how the two were interrelated. That was my first taste of politics and I thought, I want to do this for a living. The purpose was to educate teachers and then they go back to their district and recruit their colleagues to get involved in campaigns.
MJC: They didn’t even call it a union.
MB: No. But the purpose was to get you involved in visible campaigns, especially school board elections and school board referendum. I decided no to that. I went through this internship and I eventually ended up as a grassroots organizer for the statewide effort to pass merit selection of judges. And then from there I was a lobbyist for the Illinois Environmental Council and moved from being the lobbyist to being the organizer. So, I was organizing communities against hazardous waste landfills and all kinds of stuff so that eventually led to me being the lobbyist of the Nurses Association.
MJC: Let’s go back a little bit for a minute. You got trained by the IEA. What was it like to go to Springfield in those days?
MB: There were not that many women. There were some staffers, but in terms of the lobbying corps and the press corps, when you went in there were all these white men and maybe three women.
MJC: And this is the statewide press corps?
MB: They had their own studio. Our Capitol was amazing the way they had that whole wing for the press. There weren’t any women. I worked with Paula Johnson Purdue who was the first woman lobbyist for IEA, the Illinois Education Association. She was very involved: besides her regular duties as a lobbyist, she always felt it was important to be mentoring and to help shape young women of the future. And she still does it to this day.
I had the privilege of experiencing that and her wisdom and knowledge. She was a lobbyist for ERA. She helped educate me about the ERA, because coming out of teaching we were focused on the collective bargaining aspect. I started learning about ERA from Paula and my internship at IEA and from there I went to the Nurses Association.
MJC: Who was your boss at the Nurses Association?
MB: Anne Zimmerman was the executive director and then the head of government relations in Springfield was Deb Smith.
MJC: And what year was that?
MB: That was 1982. I came in the last year of ERA.
MJC: So that’s how you learned about the ERA.. And what else was the experience like of working for a women’s profession?
MB: It was great. We were in Springfield; the main office was in Chicago. There was support you always felt. You would have a backup or someone watching your back, whether it was somebody on the board or the executive director or staff person. But the most fulfilling point in working with women was that they wanted to be involved in ERA. They wanted to be involved in pay equity and equal pay. They wanted to be involved in women’s health issues.
They wanted to be involved with people being allowed to go to the E.R., even though they couldn’t afford to pay, because at the time Chicago and large city hospitals were turning away people at the emergency room because they couldn’t pay, and they had nowhere else to go. This still goes on today, where people do not have regular doctors and the emergency room is their health access. Getting involved in issues like that, I was like who are these people? The issues were huge.
It wasn’t just one issue, I really respected that. It was a priority and I really admire and respect that battle. With the ERA, we brought in student nurses; Springfield has a large population of nurses, St. John’s Hospital, all those health care facilities. This is before the days of social media or the Internet, so we would be on the phone. It was great that we had in that regional area a large population of nurses that you could draw on to bring to the rallies and so forth. I was really proud of that.
I mentioned last night that Springfield was the only capital that had a nurses station and there was a full-time nurse named Dorothy Ferguson- she was the registered nurse of the capital. If someone had food poisoning, they would go see Dorothy, she was right between the two chambers. If you were a staffer or lobbyist, if you weren’t feeling good, you went in to see Dorothy.
She became more phenomenal when the hunger strikers came into the Capitol and we were able to petition to get chairs for the hunger strikers. They were not going to let them sit in the rotunda, because they were afraid of setting a precedent. Through Deb’s assistance, we were able to get those chairs and that allowed Dorothy to do regular checks to see if there was anything she could do to help.
I don’t think the public really understood. Every day they were getting weaker and weaker. One woman almost died from a collapsed lung. They were in very serious conditions. It wasn’t like they were on a diet – they weren’t eating anything.
MJC: Were they just drinking water?
MB: Just drank water.
MJC: Can you remember as best you can to set the context, this is at the end of the year?
MB: I think it went from like the mid-May, the 18th or 19th of May to almost the end.
MJC: This is 1982 and we’re coming to the end of the ratification period.
MB: It was a long time.
MJC: As far as you know, they decided not to arrest them and drag them out of there?
MB: I think they were looking at doing something, but when we petitioned the secretary of state, who has jurisdiction over the buildings, about the chairs, then that freed them up. We had the paramedics alerted about the hunger strikers; we’d call them every day to let them know that they’re in the capital. We were in communication with them, because that’s how seriously ill a lot of the hunger strikers became.
MJC: They came during the day and then they went away at night.
MB: They put them in a van and if they were in bad shape, sometimes an ambulance, but it generally was a van. They were escorted back and forth.
MJC: Remind me again when you started in the capital?
MB: February of ’82.
MJC: What was it like to have all these demonstrators inside the Capitol?
MB: I loved it. The echo of the voices brings such power and strength. I thought it was very powerful and strong when you could hear everybody’s voices chanting with each other. I always love protest and protesters, even today. I was very proud and they filled every floor, protesters on each level. The bulk of them were outside the chambers of the House and the Senate. But they were everywhere. It was phenomenal. It was one of the largest protests – the “stop ERA” people would protest, but I don’t remember them being that big.
MJC: What was the reaction of legislators to the strikers and protests?
MB: People were shocked and horrified with the hunger strikers. There were legislators who were not used to having this. Nothing like this ever happened in the building. Women chaining themselves to the speaker’s podium. No, it didn’t happen. Having a legislator stomp on them? No. That never happened. Chaining themselves in front of the Senate? Never happened before.
This was all new to this legislature. They brought in the Capitol Police. Once again the legislators thought this is so extreme: “I can’t lend my support to something being represented like this.” It just escalated from there. I remember being in front of the governor’s office and that whole fiasco with the writing in the pig’s blood, this was a whole new thing.
MJC: June 30th came and there was a rally in the capital.
MB: Yeah there was. Everybody was in the gallery.
MJC: Were you in the chamber?
MB: No, we were being lobbyists. We wanted the people to see everything. It wouldn’t feel right. We were helping get people up in the gallery. That was more important than getting the seat in the gallery. We could hear some of it from the side or in front.
MJC: What impact do you think the women struggling for the ERA had on the General Assembly?
MB: I think people were waiting to see what the next election would bring. For all of us who were involved in it, it was like driving 600 miles an hour and throwing yourself in reverse. That’s what it was like for us. In terms of the nurses, we used those roll call votes from ’82 in the endorsements. They had not only the ERA vote, but the Senate vote that ultimately killed it when they would not withdraw it from committee. It fired up nurses more than ever to look at pay equity, because with nursing it still is a monumental disparity in terms of salaries.
MJC: There was pretty universal support in the INA for the Equal Rights Amendment.
MB: Because we were involved in these electoral activities, we would have fake nurses who would say, INA doesn’t speak for nurses to offset our endorsements of people. The docs would hire somebody to do things like that, the Illinois State Medical Society would hire people.
MJC: They were opposed. How was it working with the opposition lobbyists?
MB: First of all, the stop ERA people did have some contract lobbyists, but not people I was dealing with, so it wasn’t like it was a hardship. There were a couple people – you would just look away. Most of the people they had were contract people.
MJC: After the ERA went down, did you view yourself as a women’s rights activist as well as an INA lobbyist?
MB: Not until later. It just happened that a lot of the issues that the INA was involved with were women’s issues. Gradually I began seeing how everything’s connected: the respect in the hospital setting and there’s only two ways to correct it: collective bargaining or legislation of some kind. If that doesn’t happen, nurses will never be on the same playing field as other health care professionals. It kind of switches your view of things.
MJC: How long did you stay with the nurses?
MB: I left Illinois in ‘88 and was with them six or seven years. I went to lobby for the Milwaukee public schools in Wisconsin.
MJC: Did you lobby in Madison?
MB: Yes. We called ourselves commuter-lobbyists. We commuted in from Milwaukee every day to Madison and I continued to build on the women’s rights aspect, because I’m working for the school district and probably 80 percent of their employees are women, because it’s the teaching profession. I got involved with the city of Milwaukee commission on domestic violence and sexual assault. This was a commission that had the public schools, the health department, the police, the fire department, the county social services, human services, domestic violence providers, sexual assault advocate and advocacy groups. All of this was on one body to work together to try to prevent any of this taking place.
I eventually became the chair, which helped me continue that women’s rights aspect. Under one of the Superintendents, there was no prohibition against protesting or picketing or anything like that. The Promise Keepers came to town, it’s an all-male group and it was formed by a football coach with the purpose for men to be the strength and core of a family so their children and wife can feel free. They came to town twice when I was living in Milwaukee.
The first time, I connected with a group of UW students and did a training workshop on how to protest. I did it the second time with more of a focus on Promise Keepers, because I’d experienced the first one. It is all male dominated and you see people from all levels of life walking into this huge sports arena in Milwaukee and the people outside in tents selling things are all women. At the first one, no women were allowed in the arena. The second time they came, they did allow some women. I don’t know how they decided who could come in or not. It’s a very shady, right wing, male supremacy promoting group and women are not up to the superior level of men. I just loved picketing them, because they didn’t expect it.
MJC: So how long were you in Milwaukee?
MB: Thirteen years and then I moved to Madison.
MJC: Were you continuing to lobby for the teachers?
MB: No for Dane County. I was in the county executive’s office, but I lobbied for the County Executive and the County Board. Trying to get them to agree on things was always a challenge. But it shows a unified front, because opponents will try to dismantle unification faster than anybody. The last thing you want is to not be unified walking into something. I learned that lesson very well. I worked with Dane County for 17 years.
Dane County was involved in access to health care for women, child protection, child support was big. Most of the time what we’re doing is fighting off attacks on Dane County, because we happen to be a very Democrat leaning county. As time went on they could define out through statutory language Dane County/Milwaukee County. The Republicans controlled the governor, the House, and Senate through the help of the Koch brothers, Americans for Prosperity, the Heritage Foundation, all these conservative groups. American for prosperity has branch off groups you don’t know are connected back to them. The Koch brothers helped fund all of this.
MJC: Pay equity was a very substantial issue in the ’70s and ’80s. Can you talk about what we mean when we talk about pay equity?
MB: Illinois looked at Wisconsin with a study comparing a boiler operator to a registered nurse. INA put together and did cross comparisons of the skill sets and used them in our lobbying and pay equity issues. Now women earn 78 cents on every dollar. It’s an ongoing issue. Women are still underpaid. There’s no question about it.
MJC: Pay equity is interesting, because it’s been almost 20 years since we tried to argue about it because the courts shut it down.
MB: And then your only other avenue is legislation. There was some rally going on in Washington D.C. for the ERA and the American Nurses Association had their convention in D.C. at the same time. Ann and somebody else got the INA leadership to send all 700 registrants of the convention to the ERA rally. Ann Zimmerman was this phenomenal, first of her kind, strong woman leader of the nurses association. She was also a mentor, but she was a leader in Chicago, which a lot of people aren’t aware of. You’d want her on your side. She could work a meeting like nobody. And whether it was an INA meeting or meeting of doctors sitting at a table. She ruled the meeting. She was a total confident and she was a great role model for all of us.
MJC: She went on to run for president and win for the American Nurses Association. Any other issues that you worked on in your women’s experience that you want to talk about or highlight?
MB: Currently I’m more involved in domestic violence and sexual assault and the importance of pay equity when it comes to single female headed households. I would venture to guess in Chicago and several of the cities in Wisconsin a large population of households are single female headed and they deserve the same pay as men who are working at similar jobs. It would help keep them solid and stable.
MJC: Do you think your working in women’s issues had anything to do with your commitment or increased ability to lobby?
MB: Oh yeah. There were so many different flavors in the ERA. It was a whole unique lobbying experience.
MJC: Are you involved as an activist in any issues now?
MB: No, not at the current moment. I just retired so I’m detoxing, figuring out where I’m going to go from here. In terms of the lobbying corps, I’m sure there’s more women now in Springfield than the original four. In Wisconsin it’s not much better, we have about eight hundred lobbyists and less than 25 are women and out of that maybe twelve are full time in the capital. That’s the one thing that I see changing in lobbying, in the era of computers and phones, less and less people come to the Capitol to lobby, because they can watch everything online. In Wisconsin everything’s online now.
They have a paperless legislature. Everything’s paperless. Whenever they’re on the floor, you can watch them, so if someone’s messing up, you can just call them. That’s been a real change. We thought beepers were like this modern thing and then think of where we’ve progressed from there. People thought the fax machine was the new miracle. And then the portable phone.
Probably the one thing that I saw in Wisconsin that I’ll probably never experience again is the destruction of the labor unions when the Republicans took control of the House and Senate and the governor’s office. Governor Walker’s first pronged attacks were on women, the ultrasound bill that he had. The big hit on women was Act X which eliminates all the local government and state employee labor unions. The only way you could have a union is by impossible standards that no one could meet.
To watch that destruction in front of your eyes was shocking and horrific. Apocalyptic is the best way to describe it. The teachers union, majority women. Local county government employees, mostly women. The state employees, mostly women. Total attack on women. No one in the press noticed. The whole campaign, funded by the Koch brothers, was about the resentment of local government. It was no longer that the local government and state government employees are public servants. The resentment that was fed into the public about the state, county and local government employees and teachers was about the insurance they get. And the pensions they get. The whole resentment approach to conquering those issues.
MJC: As the private sector got stingier, they turned the disadvantaged employees against the private.
MB: And the rural farm and agriculture communities. Wal-Mart in the past used the state insurance program to pay their employees, because their employees had no insurance, so they were on badger care. Most everyone knows that when you have labor unions setting these standards for pension, insurance, whatever the case may be, it influences other areas of private sector and arenas. They did away with it. The concern was the impact it would have on the middle class and we’re still seeing all this evolve.
MJC: We always said the public employees are the standards and then pull everybody else up to meet the standards of what a decent employer pays. That’s totally been turned on its head.
MB: Another thing they went after is living wage. Dane County had a living wage ordinance and it stated that anyone who contracted with the county had to pay their employees a living wage. Our formula deduced their living wage was $13.82 or something – it started out at $11 and then it built up through the years.
The first thing the House and Senate and governor did was prohibit local governments from having a living wage. They allowed the landlords to have rights over tenants. They took away all the tenant rights on everything from security deposits to access to your living space and adding all these new rights to evict criterias.
MJC: Anything else we haven’t thought to ask about?
MB: I feel really honored and privileged that I had the chance to experience ERA and all the positions I’ve had through the years, working with INA. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience what went on with the ERA. Before ’82 I did have involvement in ERA, but ’82 was the final push. I’m just grateful for you and all that you’ve done. You have been a great leader and inspiration for women around this state, I’m sure around the country. And I just really consider myself lucky to be in the right place at the right time.