THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“My greatest contribution was to prevent divisiveness.”
A Conversation with Robin Kaufman, April – May 2022
RK: My name is Robin Kaufman, and I was born in November of 1943. The hospital was in Cambridge, but my parents were living in Boston, Massachusetts. I lived with my parents and my brother, who was two years older, and then sometimes there would be somebody else staying there. My mom’s good friend was also staying there, in a tiny two-bedroom apartment. We had an empty lot nearby where we could play. I liked playing in the lilac bushes, which was my fort, and there were a bunch of other kids who lived nearby that I would play with.
When I was in third grade, we moved out to Newton, a nearby suburb of Boston, which had an excellent school system, which is probably why they moved there. And then we had a house with a backyard and a street where we could play, because there wasn’t a lot of traffic. We could play baseball in the street and go sledding in the street. We had a lot of young kids in the neighborhood that we used to play with. I graduated from junior high and then Newton High School, and then I went off to the University of Chicago.
Both me, my mom and my brother were always involved in other activities. My mother was a den mother, a Brownie leader and a Scout leader. Every summer, my brother and I would go to camp for the whole summer, eight weeks, living out in the woods in a camp. The camp was run by a leftist, an ex-Communist, so we got introduced to all kinds of interesting ideas there. And there were a few Blacks there. Not a lot, but some. I was one of the few kids in my school who socialized with anybody Black. I had one Black friend, only when we were at school, but a lot of people didn’t talk to her because of that. But I was raised in a household that didn’t believe in discrimination, against Blacks, at least.
Now, my mother had a little problem with Germans. We were Jewish. The whole neighborhood was Jewish. At my elementary school, everybody was White and everybody was Jewish, with one or two exceptions for children whose parents were professors at Harvard, and came to school with us. My mom headed up the AFSC, American Friends Service Committee. We had exchange students and I was active in that, and I was active in chess club.
In college, I participated in what was the first northern student sit-in. We were sitting-in against the University of Chicago’s discriminatory policies in off campus housing that it owned. The co-chair of CORE that ran this sit-in, was this student from Brooklyn by the name of Bernie Sanders. Now, that was not my first civil rights activity. When I was still in Newton, I participated in the Woolworths boycott.
The college students in the south were sitting-in at Woolworths to integrate the lunch counters, and in the north, there were people picketing in support of them and calling for a boycott of Woolworths. That was when I got called the N word, an N-lover. Boston, like Chicago, northern cities, but everything wasn’t cool for Blacks.
Anyway, so I went to the University of Chicago. At some point I crossed paths with Heather Booth, who was a little younger than me, and she took a group of students out to a mental health facility where we talked with people and just visited with people. While I was at the university, I was an editor of the Chicago Maroon, which at that point, came out four days a week. We formed a national press service which gave a lot of coverage to what was going on at other schools, because there was a lot going on in those days with the civil rights movement, eventually the anti-war movement. This was kind of like an Associated Press for college papers, and I was involved in establishing that. I got some kind of an award in college, an alumni award, for my participation in varied campus activities. Despite the fact that a lot of my campus activities were challenging the university administration.
At some point when I was in graduate school, I attended a meeting where they talked about various aspects of being a woman. It was kind of like what grew into what they called, consciousness raising groups. Before that, most of my friends had been men. I had grown up with brothers and male cousins, and when I got to college, most of my friends were men. There were very few women that I really liked or felt comfortable with. A lot of women were interested in clothes and makeup and things like that, and those were not the things that interested me. With the exception of a few really dynamic women, I didn’t have that many women friends.
But my eyes opened up when I went to this meeting, and started to meet other women who were more like me and had the same kinds of interests as me. That’s when I sort of came into being, and eventually got involved in the women’s movement. I remember that meeting, up in Ida Noyse Hall, and there was talk about abortion. There was a collection for people to donate towards abortion. Abortion was illegal everywhere except New York. If somebody needed an abortion, when it was legal in New York, if they had enough money, they could go there and if not, there were networks.
Heather had hooked up with some clergy people who had contact with some doctors in the Chicago area. Actually, one of them, I certainly can’t mention a name, but one of them had a son who became a politician. Anyway, you could call this number and get a referral for an abortion, and if you didn’t have enough money, they would help you with paying for the abortion. I donated money, and I kind of thought it was like insurance. If I gave money, if I needed an abortion, I could go to them. Eventually I realized, well, no, it wasn’t like that, but it really was. If you needed money, they would help you get an abortion. That’s what grew into what was later called, “Jane.” My first involvement with the Women’s Movement was attending that meeting.
WS: What year was this, Robin?
RK: My guess is probably 1967 or ‘68.
WS: How did you get into the Chicago Women Liberation Union?
RK: Beats me. I don’t know. It just happened. I assume that Heather invited me to a meeting at some point. I knew Heather Booth. She was one of the founders of CWLU. She’s convinced that I’m one of the founders, so I must have gotten involved very early on. I was looking for a job, and she was teaching high school at a place called Central YMCA High School. She told me about an opening there, and I got hired at Central Y, so I was teaching with her. I was a co-teacher with her at Central YMCA High School, and that would have been the beginning of ‘69.
She lived about a block from me and I would ride with them to work. She didn’t drive then, so her husband would drop us off at work. So, I was teaching with her, I was driving to work with her, and somehow or other I ended up at Chicago Women’s Liberation Union at the very beginning.
The earliest meetings, I remember there was an office, but I can’t believe they had an office from the very beginning, so I don’t know. Although there was this guy with left wing politics. I think his name was Johnny Rosen, but I’m not sure, who owned a building on Belmont Avenue in Chicago. We were up on the second floor above the stores. I do not know how they were paying the rent from the very beginning, but those are my oldest memories of these meetings that would last very long. Most of the people didn’t have jobs that they had to get to. Some of us did have to get to jobs. I remember one year for Christmas, giving them a clock for the meeting room so everybody would be aware of the time, because these meetings would go too long. But somehow, I got involved in Chicago Women’s Liberation Union.
They started a liberation school for Women, and I was a teacher, so I said, “Okay, I’ll teach.” I expected to be teaching either some kind of history class or math, for people with math block. I taught a class like that because I was really a math whiz. I had been an incredible math whiz all my life. So, I signed up, and then I got a call one day saying, “We figured out what you’re teaching, Robin.” I said, “Great. What am I teaching?” And she said, “Auto mechanics.” I said, “Auto mechanics? I don’t know anything about auto mechanics.” She said, “You know how to change a tire. It’s more than any of us can do”, because I was always interested in those kinds of things. I used to help my dad fix things around the house, so I knew how to change a tire.
I had this Volvo, and I would park it in the parking lot outside Ida Noyes Hall. For those of you who know that area, it was a parking lot, and that’s where we would meet in Hyde Park. And the first thing we did was change a tire. After we changed the tire, I decided the next thing was going to be to change the oil and do a tune up. I had a boyfriend at the time, Dave Strauss, who worked with a group called the Revolutionary Auto Co-op. They had a garage with tools, and you could go there and learn how to fix your car from other people, or just work on your car and have help from other people. So, David kind of coached me.
Now, you have to understand, you folks who are younger, we did not have computers. We didn’t have YouTube; we didn’t have Google. We didn’t even have all these books on do it yourself. We didn’t have any of that stuff. If you wanted to spend a lot of money, you could get a manual for the car that you had, maybe, for somebody who already knows about cars. So that’s where we were standing. Most people, including ourselves, didn’t really think women should be fixing cars or were competent to fix cars. Men would come by and laugh at us, and give us funny looks or insult us. But there was this one guy that would get off work as a janitor in Ida Noyes Hall, and he would stop by and be friendly to us. Not condescending, but ask us if there’s anything he could help us with, or show us. And so, we had a little coaching from him. I think his name was Jimmy, but he was very helpful and not insulting, which was great.
After teaching that for a while, I realized that when we as women had trouble doing something with the car, we would think, “Oh, we shouldn’t have been doing this, we shouldn’t have even started this, we don’t belong here.” When my friend David would have trouble on the car, “God damn” swearing up and down, at whoever made the car. That’s how the men took it. It was not their fault. So, we had a lot of stuff to overcome.
After we finished learning how to do a tune up, I don’t remember if we did break work or not, we took stuff one step at a time. And then we finished. Our eight weeks were over, we were done. That’s good, I don’t have to teach auto mechanics. Then, I taught the Fix It class. How to fix things in your house. How to fix your toaster, how to change a light bulb. We had to start with the basics, and again, figuring out what was broken and how electricity worked, and how to do those things. So, I taught the Fix It class, and one day I had to sub, and I had to teach the Our Bodies Ourselves class, and I had to teach people how to do self- examination. That was something else. Luckily, I think there was someone in the class who was able to help me with it.
But that’s an interesting thing in terms of contributions. There was a collective in Boston, the Our Bodies Ourselves folks, who put out their book. I think that the approach towards health care, and patient involvement in their health care, and more respect for the patient; there were a lot of changes in medicine that came, I think, as a result of work that women did in trying to understand better our bodies, and trying to get more responsive health professionals. I think we’ve gone a little bit too far now. I think a lot of the responsibility for care is put on the individual, which is fine, and good for the individuals who have the time and the knowledge and the confidence to get really involved in their health care. I think that’s great. You have to be involved in your care. However, it shouldn’t be only that. The health profession should be doing more. And I think some of the racial disparities that people are becoming conscious of now, I think some of it is because too much may be put on the patient and so that needs to be corrected.
I recently underwent therapy for cancer, which fortunately is going very well. They gave me a wonderful, wonderful book to read that has a lot of information. At the beginning it was the Bible, and I would read it. I opened it up recently. I finally finished my surgery and my chemo and my radiation, and I’m doing very well. I open up the book to a section on, ‘Now that your treatment is done, these are the things you should be doing.’ And there’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about, and that I missed, because I didn’t read the whole book. It’s a very dense book. I’m glad I have the book to help me, but at some point, somebody should have said to me, “You know, you got to watch your Lymph nodes.” There were things I was not told that I should have been told, and this is at one of the top hospitals for cancer in the country. So, I don’t know. I digress. I have trouble sticking to the topic.
We had some very cold weather, and so when we had a meeting one day, I had to start the meeting by teaching everybody how to get their cars started in the cold weather. And then, we had a newspaper called Woman Kind. I wrote a column for Woman Kind about cars, or about Fix It, one or the other, or both. Because, again, this was all a new concept, the concept of women doing these things. So, I had had those things. Eventually, people have written books, and as I say, now we have YouTube.
Fast forward about 30 years, and I’m at a benefit for funds for making abortions safer and more accessible. We all have name badges on and somebody approaches me and says, “You changed my life.” I said, “Okay. I’m afraid I don’t recognize you.” I look at her name badge. I said, “But you know, your name looks familiar to me. How did I change your life, and how do I know you?” She says, “Well, you recognize my name because I’m a lawyer. And I took the case against Scheidler. Schidler was this guy that was trying to close down abortion clinics. “I took the Schiedler case to the Supreme Court, and that’s how you know my name.” I said, “Okay, what’s my role?” She says, “I took your class.” And I said, “Auto mechanics?” And she said, “No, Fix It. My dishwasher had broken, and normally I would wait for my husband to fix it, and I was getting pissed off because he hadn’t fixed it. So, after a while I took it apart and I fixed it. I fixed the dishwasher. When I finished fixing the dishwasher, I thought, I can do anything. I don’t need this guy.” So, she went to law school, became a lawyer, left her husband, and got involved with protecting women’s rights. I think Faye Clayton is her name. We believed we could do anything, and because we believed it, we did. It sounds absurd to me; I don’t think I was 30 yet when all this was happening. Right now, I look on them as babies.
WS: After the Fix It class, what was your next role in the Women’s Liberation Union?
RK: Well, I had to go to steering committee meetings. I think maybe I was on the steering committee. I remember we had these general meetings, where we talked about all the different things that people were doing. And the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union had an assortment of groups. I mean, we had people who worked in different neighborhoods, with high school kids, with dropouts. We had Direct Action for Rights of Employment, which is what my partner, Lida Carter, was chairman of. And they were working with City Janitrices to get better working conditions. We had all these different subgroups and we all met together. One of them was Action Committee for Decent Child Care. I remember taking a group of kids to a luncheon that the mayor or governor or somebody had, and they had an action there. There was a Hyde Park chapter, and the Hyde Park chapter was working on a paper called, Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women’s Movement.
I was less interested in the theoretical aspects than I was in the practical aspects, which is how to go about organizing people. Heather Booth was a major player in that. She always had three points. When you had an action, you would have three demands. One of which you thought they might meet, one of which, well, maybe they would meet it, and then the third one, they’re not going to meet it but let’s ask for it anyways. So, I was very interested in the strategy aspect of it, and then some of the theoretical aspects of it. This paper became kind of known throughout the independent women’s movement. There were things rising up in cities all over the country. Usually big cities, Boston, San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, had women’s groups.
There was a rock band. Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band. The concept of females running a band as opposed to just being a singer with a body, was a new concept. Naomi Weinstein was one of the founders of that. The rock band was great because when we would have a conference, and we’d all be angry at each other and arguing about all kinds of things, which to us, were very, very, very significant, we would fight tooth and nail, and then nighttime would come and the rock band would come on and we would all dance together.
I used to get bored with all these long meetings, so I would always volunteer to do childcare because then I could get off my butt and have fun playing with the kids. That actually turned into a role for me. A group of about eight women, mostly from the leaders of the Women’s Union. Well, we didn’t talk about leaders because we were all supposed to be equal. But anyways, people who are active in the Women’s Union. There was one on the north side and one in Hyde Park, set up little small co-operative childcare centers, because in those days, there were not many childcare centers. I mean, I don’t remember child care centers in those days, and not for kids as young as some of these. So, they set up co-operatives, and each person was going to do one day a week with the kids, but they felt there needed to be some continuity.
I was hired to be there every day, and then over time, they decided they were too busy. They didn’t really want to have to do their shift. So, we hired a wonderful young man, Jimmy Jones, who was my assistant. And anybody who didn’t want to work, could hire Jimmy. So we had this child care center in somebody’s home. It was basically underground. I don’t even know if they had regulations then, but if they did, we probably didn’t meet them. I worked, caring for these kids.
I recall going to meetings of a citywide coalition to work on gay and lesbian rights. We eventually got an ordinance introduced, which didn’t pass, but we worked on it, so I went to those meetings. That was another part. There were a couple of lesbian groups in the CWLU, but I wasn’t involved in those. I didn’t have time for that because they met on Sunday mornings, and I wasn’t about to go to a Sunday morning meeting. Incidentally, many years later, when my kids were in their 20s, my son’s girlfriend approached me and wanted to know if I was the Robin Kaufman who had authored this paper that was in her textbook. So that paper was well known.
At some point, I guess, when the childcare center closed and I got fired from my next job, I was good at losing jobs, incidentally. I wasn’t very good at the paperwork that many jobs required or towing somebody else’s line. Now, I did not get fired, I will tell you, from Little Porcupines, is what our group was called. I never got fired from the Little Porcupines. I want to tell you that I kept that job for two years until it closed, because the kids we were caring for had gotten older. There were now, as a result of Action Committee for Decent Child Care and other activities, there now were childcare centers that kids could go to once they were two years old. So, eventually that closed, and I got a job teaching. But I was a little too unconventional for their tastes. So that didn’t work out.
At some point in there, I started working for an outfit called CR Office Products. They did mailings, and their main contract was with the National Organization for Women. And so, I was sending out mailings, collating things, with stuff that couldn’t be done by machine. I thought I knew how to do that really well. And I said, “Oh, I’m a pro at collating mailings.” And Jim Robson says, “Let me see you.” And he watches me work, and he says, “I’m going to cut the amount of time it takes you in half.” And so, he gave me a few hints about how to have them all in a row, and first open all the envelopes, and a fast way to get the envelopes all open, and faster ways to do everything. So, he turned me into a better machine that could do all these things and convinced me that know-it-all Robin, could still learn something.
Many years later, when I decided I wanted to work full time as a community organizer, I went for my first interview. It was with a group I had never heard about. I didn’t give a damn about it, or what they did. It was the Regional Transportation Authority, but there was a political campaign. And the first question they asked me was, “What other paid organizing experience do you have?” And I said, “Well, I don’t have any paid organizing experience, but I’ve been working in organizations as an organizer. I’ve got this experience in this group, and that group, and I’ve been doing this for years.” They said, “That doesn’t count. What paid experience do you have?” And so that convinced me that I was going to take his job so I had a better answer next time. I learned what they did, and I did care about it once I learned about it, and that was my first organizing job. But I think that fit with what I had learned with CR Office Products, which is that pros know something more than amateurs.
So, I worked with CR Office Products, and we were sending mail about NOW, and about feminism, to people in North Dakota. I’m a map freak, but I didn’t even know where North Dakota was. I mean, we had the East Coast, the West Coast and Chicago. That was kind of the extent of it. And certainly, there weren’t going to be feminists in North Dakota. So that got me kind of interested in NOW. My friend Heather had already started working with NOW, and so I gradually moved in that direction. Somewhere in this time frame, Roe versus Wade was handed down. And so, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, which had had a very active group dealing with the service end, helping people find abortions, eventually performing abortions, there was very active group. But now, abortion was legal, and now we had to deal with getting clinics open. So, after Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision came down, legalizing abortion throughout the country meant states could no longer make laws prohibiting abortion.
Abortion had been legal in New York for a while, so after the Supreme Court decision, I was still in CWLU, our emphasis moved away from fighting for abortion rights and providing referral service and procedures for women who needed them. We then had to concentrate on getting the ordinary clinics and the city health department to provide abortion services for those who needed them, and this did not come easily. So NOW and Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, formed a joint task force called the Abortion Task Force, to work on making abortions safe and accessible in Chicago. Safe, in that we wanted the abortion clinics to provide good services.
I think I talked earlier about the women’s movements’ emphasis on more client involvement in decision making, and better services, more holistic services. So, we wanted to work with the clinics on that. And we needed to prevent the Board of Health from having too many regulations that made it hard for clinics to operate. I’m kind of creative, and one of the neat things about being involved as an activist when you’re not being paid, is you get to use your creative talents as you wish. So, I liked writing. I was a folk music freak, and when we were having a demonstration, I would frequently come up with my own lyrics. I don’t have a voice, never did. But what I had, eroded over the years. This is to the tune of the Midnight Special. Some of you know it, some of you don’t. But in those days, we all knew folk music, like people now know rap or whatever.
Well, I woke up one morning, feeling kind of blue
The doctor says, you’re pregnant, I asked what can I do?
He sends me to a clinic, way on the other side of town.
But I find out when I get there. The Board of Health has closed them down.
Don’t let the Board of Health rule, all over our lives.
Don’t let the Board of Health rule, all over our lives.
So, I have to go to county, Lord, they’ve got me in a maze.
Say you better think about it, for another two days.
I finally see a doctor, feeling kind of me,
He says, I cannot help you. I only do two a week.
By now it is my 12th week. The risk is up for sure,
But the Board of Health is happy feeling ever so pure.
Don’t let the Board of Health rule, all over our lives.
Don’t let the Board of Health rule, all over our lives.
So, that was my song. Now, at that demonstration, I was on crutches because I had sprained my ankle. I was leading a demonstration on crutches. Somebody from the Service Employees International Union, who, as a union for some of the healthcare workers, was at the demonstration, saw me there. I met him later and he said, “Aren’t you the cheerleader from that demonstration?” Well, to me, that was an insult, because when I was in high school, the cheerleaders were a totally different crowd than me. I was not into sports. I was not into cheerleading. I was a nerd, full-fledged. I played chess, and I was an activist.
Anyway, I was insulted that he called me a cheerleader. He explained that he did not mean it as an insult, he meant it as a compliment, and he wanted me to come for a job interview to be a union organizer. Maybe that would have been a good idea. That might have been a better fit than trying to fit in with the Chicago Board of Education as a teacher. It probably would have been a better fit for me.
But anyways, I was working with NOW. I was working with the CWLU, and I got more and more respect for what the NOW folks were doing. The CWLU was starting to get into all kinds of faction fighting that I wasn’t particularly interested in. And so, I gradually morphed from CWLU to NOW. I have trouble remembering the things that I did in the NOW chapter. Initially I was doing the same stuff, I guess. I was still working with the abortion task force, and I was still going to the meetings of the citywide coalition that was working on the Gay Rights Ordinance. I would go to meetings, and help watch the kids because that was more fun than the meetings. It’s hard to remember the other things I did.
What I remember most was the conferences. We would have conferences, and some of our Chicago NOW members were very active in national NOW. I remember going to a conference, and we were pushing the Sears campaign. I’d forgotten that I had gone to a Sears action. I’m good at going to demonstrations. I like demonstrations. So, I did go to actions when they were happening.
In addition to my fondness for writing songs, I was a math whiz. I didn’t know anything about finance, really, but at least I could look at things, and numbers didn’t scare me. I understood numbers. And so, I sort of did backup. Mary Jean was on a slate, and I think Judy Goldsmith was running for treasury. I don’t know. I just remember analyzing the NOW budget and sort of doing the technical backup for our slate. When you went to a conference, it was like a political campaign, lobbying other groups. I ended up becoming chapter development coordinator for Illinois NOW. I don’t know whether I was involved in forming Illinois NOW or whether it already existed, but there was an Illinois NOW organization, and I would travel around to different cities, talking with them about how to build your organization, and I would go to Rockford or different parts of the state. And then again, this helped to broaden my approach to the world. And my previous urban, I don’t know if there’s a word for it, but sort of thinking that urban folks were more important than other folks. So, I learned a lot about things in other parts of the state, and learned that there were wonderful, wonderful people, doing wonderful, wonderful things, in other places. And a lot of times, they were really the radical ones of their area.
At the same time, at some point, I started getting paid jobs as an organizer, and I went out to Aurora. There were civil rights activists out in Aurora. And women’s activists, feminists. I also got to use my artistic talents occasionally, which sort of was funny because we had a lot of professional artists in NOW that you could give stuff to. I ran across a flyer that I had done back when I was with the abortion task force. You know the cut and paste that you young folks do on your computer? Well, that’s based upon how we used to cut pieces of paper up with scissors. We would have some lines of type that we needed, and we cut it with the scissors, and we had a picture, and we literally had paste and we pasted up the pictures that we then took to our Xerox machine. But then we also had, before the Xerox machine, we had Mimeograph machines. Your fingers, your hands got all filthy with this purple ink.
Making fires was a totally different kind of project than nowadays. I would sometimes do press. I had experience with press because in college, I’d been an editor of my college newspaper. So whatever organization I was working on or working with, I had some skills in the press area.