Caroline Swinney

“They Took a Chance on Me at Chicago NOW.”

Interviewed by Karen Fishman at the UIC Richard J. Daley Library, Chicago, IL, June 15, 2019

KF:  Tell me a little bit about your life before you got involved in the women’s movement. Where did you grow up? What was your life like?

CS:  That’s a good question. You know I am a first urban generation in my family. My parents were from rural Tennessee. I grew up on the south side of Chicago, which at the time was known as the “black belt”. It was an area with great performers and black businesses like Madame C.J. Walker hair products. It had a lot of history. I grew up on South Michigan Avenue, which is where the new police station is now.

KF:  Were you conscious of that history as you grew up?

CS:   Not so much. We were in a tenement. And for those who are not aware, a tenement is the building where there are only a handful of washrooms. The sense of having a toilet in your own apartment is not something I grew up with. We had to share it with everybody on the floor. There’s a lot of waiting for people to come and go, but it was different. I knew that that was different. I didn’t realize it until my family was selected to move into CHA (Chicago Housing Authority) housing and that was a major upgrade.

KF:  How old were you then?

CS:  I was going into the third grade. My dad really wanted us to move away from what CHA housing existed as, which was Gateway Gardens. He didn’t want us to be there, even though it was nowhere near what Gateway Gardens had become. By the time it was, that was still a step up.

But we moved to the west side and then I went to Chalmers High School. I started my elementary school career, 3rd – 8th grade in that part of the city, then went to Manley. My parents were then able to earn and save enough money to get the first little bungalow on the Far South Side in Roseland. I grew up in Roseland, went to Harlan High School and then I was off to college.

KF:  Was Roseland then mostly African-American?

CS:  It was mostly African-American and an interesting thing too about our particular block or two is that a lot of people I grew up with in the projects, they all moved to Roseland. I think that many of us have a lot to do for black folks for the most part, as opposed to people who think that the people who had the liberty,  particularly [in] Chicago – we all moved to Roseland.

KR:  What did you think at the time you might become or want to be?

CS:  I wanted to become a doctor. That had a lot to do with the family I grew up in. I’m the oldest of four, of which two of the three youngest siblings had congenital birth defects. I spent a great deal of time in the hospital waiting rooms waiting for my mom to settle whatever matters that day she was trying to get resolved with doctors and primarily at Michael Reece.

A result of being around the hospital so much [was] I thought I really wanted to be a doctor. Plus, you had these TV shows on at the time that I watched like Ben Casey.  I loved Ben Casey. He was my favorite. He was it. That is what I wanted to be until I became older and realized I didn’t want to live a life where I was on call. At the time, there were very few women role models other than teachers.

KF:  Did your mother work?

CS:  Not initially, but she eventually got a job at the post office as someone who worked with the big mail bags. She wasn’t a delivery carrier, but she was somebody who had worked on a [mail] chute. My dad always worked in a box factory. Yes, both parents worked, Mom usually worked during the day and Dad at night.

KF:  You were saying there were not women professional role models.

CS:  Maybe nurses for the most part. And then my sister, who also had a congenital birth defect, she was incontinent from the very beginning. Mom eventually – before she went to the post office – she got a job working at Mount Sinai Hospital. She learned how to take care of an incontinent daughter.

At that time, it involved using catheters, which were not readily available, that are now in medical supply stores. She had nurses who would give her saline solution and hypodermic needles and then as a result, mom taught me how to use that equipment when she was not around and my sister would go into crisis – that I would be able to change her catheter.

KF:  That is a lot of responsibility.

CS:  Yes, for a kid who was eleven or twelve years old. I didn’t have very many role models per se. Any role model I saw was on TV, but that was far and few in between, especially African-American role models.

KF:  You graduated from high school.

CS:  Yes, Harlan High School and then went to Elmhurst College. It was one of those schools where I didn’t give it a lot of thought, but I had a girlfriend and the two of us sat down and we just kind of looked at the college books and said, “Let’s see, why don’t you go here.”  Not knowing any better, I applied and got in. I think I could have gotten into a much better school if I had known better, because there was no help with that process. I was in the top 25% of the graduating class of five hundred so I could have gone to a better school. I had good test scores.

KF:  Had your parents been to college or were you the first generation?

CS:  I was first generation to go. My mom and my dad both had rural high school diplomas.

KF:  But they supported the idea that you get an education?

CS:  Yes absolutely. That was something they wanted to see happen, although they couldn’t contribute much to that happening. That is what they wanted, and I was able to get into and graduate from Elmhurst College before I ended up getting married. 

KF:   Did you have a career objective while you were at Elmhurst?

CS:  I was still looking at medicine, although I shifted towards the end of my career in college and was looking more at Psychology and the arts. I loved the arts. I enjoyed it immensely. I actually thought I could become a muralist. In fact, I painted a couple of murals with a Professor that are still up at Elmhurst College. As far as the psychology part, I wasn’t sure. I probably wasn’t given the best advice in terms of how do you get a master’s degree.

KF:  You got married and then you went to work.

CS:  At that point I started working in a factory. I was married to a labor activist and I thought that was something I wanted to do. My parents of course were horrified and disappointed because I had gotten my college degree, but I was looking for something that would energize me. I think that one of the things I learned immediately as a union organizer was that I was not respected because I was female. My husband had far more respect. But I also felt that I had a good way with people.

This is when I was working at Zenith at the time and it was a company union. I believe IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) was trying to get in. As opposed to the company union, which essentially sold people out.

I got my first job making three dollars and something cents an hour on the assembly line. I became very good at my assignments on the assembly line. 700 chassis were rolling off that assembly line a day. I got very good at it. When I first started, my co-workers, who were women, would take various parts, screws and bolts that I had to put on the chassis. They’d take them home and they would do hundreds of them at a time and then they would sneak them back and put them in my little box. 

KF:  Why do you think they did that?

CS:  I think they wanted to see me succeed.

KF:  How did your experience at the plant inform your activism – your desire to continue to be an activist?

CS:  I learned to rely on people in a good way. People were eager to help regardless of what they looked like. Also, women. I learned to deeply appreciate women. What they did for me I can’t imagine them doing for me. I had some problems on the line with men who were just ridiculous – wanting to hit on you and all that kind of stuff. I found my voice in that situation.

I had one guy who came in just ripped drunk. He was trying to talk to me and was insulting me because I wasn’t paying attention to him. I finally decided I’d had enough, and I remember picking up my stool and throwing it at him and everybody was like – oh my gosh. I wouldn’t have done that unless I felt confident and he was stunned. He left me alone after that. I think that becoming empowered and feeling that I’m not alone – that is one of the big lessons that I learned and also [it had] given me a sense of pride in my ability to do the work. Nobody was giving me anything.

KF:  You left that job because?

CS:  Because of the pregnancy. I had my hands in silicone grease all day and I was breathing in soldering smoke. I decided that it’s probably safer for me to not be there during the pregnancy.

KF:  Did you work again after that?

CS:  Yes, I did briefly. That’s when the women rallied and gave me baby clothes that they had. That was just a wonderful feeling – being part of sisterhood.

KF:  How did you get involved in the ERA campaign in Illinois?

CS:  It was towards the end of ’81. My son was born in March of ’81. Thanks to unemployment insurance I was able to collect, I had some time and I wanted to get out of the house. I decided I really wanted to work on something that I was passionate about.

I actually went to the NOW office and said, “What can I do? I’m not expecting anything or to be paid. I went to Chicago NOW. I knocked on the door and said can I come in and do some volunteer work a couple of days a week? I was licking stamps and stuffing mailers/flyers. I did that for a while and again not with any anticipation of getting hired, but when they got extra money that’s when I was brought on staff.

KF:  That was at the time that the National Organization For Women was targeting three states with money and people into Illinois. What drew you to the ERA? What made you want to volunteer in this particular campaign?

CS:  I knew it was historic. I knew it was the final push. I knew some of the difficulties and it was something that I felt that I needed to be a part of. While I was certainly concerned about being the only black woman in the office at the time, that didn’t bother me as much. Being a labor organizer, you may find more black men, but not necessarily black women. I was fine with that and I’m the kind of person who has been, since that time, in many situations [where I’m] the only one, but not the only female. 

I think that just being around people, treating people as people, I gain a lot from those kinds of interactions. It was important to do that. They are the other people I need to do a shout out to. At the time my sister-in-law was very much involved in the women’s movement. She’s no longer with us, but she was involved in a Washington DC organization and was doing public relations and fundraising for them.

When I would visit family, I was aware of what she was attempting to do, and I would go to their meetings and national meetings. I met Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem. It was a true honor to be around people like that. I wasn’t friends with them, but just observing them from afar. It was fun to watch.

KF:  Do you remember when you started thinking of yourself as a feminist and interested in feminist issues?

CS:  I can’t say that I ever viewed myself as a feminist. I just didn’t see myself as a feminist. Maybe that’s a racial thing. But I did see myself as someone who believed in equal rights. That was the hook for me. I know my sister-in-law definitely saw herself as a feminist and we would have conversations about that, but I just never said I was a feminist.

KF:  What issues that the women’s movement was addressing besides the Equal Rights Amendment were issues that you cared about?

CS:  I think in terms of equal pay and the need for families to be supported. Those are important issues for me. They were very relevant because I had a very young [child] and I had the costs of child care problems.

KF:  Personal experience.

CS:  I was facing that on a daily basis and I’m sad to say that a lot of those problems have not been resolved over the years.

KF:  Tell me about the scope of your work while you were employed in the ERA campaign.

CS:  The scope of my work had a lot to do with trying to figure out ways to influence people. I did not have the freedom to go to Springfield, although I did go down. Looking at the movie, Lynn Kanter’s Fighting for the Obvious, I remember being horrified when I went down to Springfield and looking at these State Representatives essentially throwing spitballs at each other down there. They could care less about what was being talked about. I developed true disdain, you know, going there.

KF:  What sort of work did you do?

CS:  It was to get people on the street. I referred to it and I don’t think we’ve talked about them as this – guerilla demonstrations – walking down the sidewalk and all of a sudden people will come along and walk with picket signs and chanting. It was on Michigan Ave. or other areas. People would chant. I remember calling people up for those kinds of things, recruiting or talking to other organizations to get them involved with the bigger demonstrations.

I remember the media work that we did where we sat around a table to figure out which talk shows we should call up and determine what questions we wanted to impose. Particularly if we knew the speakers in advance and who’s going to ask which questions. When I think about that, that was pretty far sighted at the time.

We would all be sitting at a phone bank and on hold for this particular talk show. We would have one person that would speak with the host, then another person’s call would be picked up because we essentially flooded their lines. It was a way that I discovered that this is how you can influence public discussion, because you give the impression that the public is thinking about these issues. That was the other thing I felt pretty proud to be a part of. And the camaraderie that I experienced working in that office.

KF:  It sounds like it was a good experience.

CS:  Absolutely. It was very much a good experience. Like everyone else, I was sad when the ERA did not pass and I held a lot of resentment towards George Ryan. I felt he single-handedly blocked the whole thing. I thought it was just ironic that he ended up becoming governor. He tried to change his stripes during that time, but wasn’t able to and ended up going to jail.

KF:  I thought he redeemed himself a little on capital punishment, which was an important thing for him to do.

CS:  I agree with that. I think he knew what he did, and I think that that could have been resolved.

KF:  I presume you lost that job at NOW when the National resources disappeared. Did you stay involved?

CS:  I stayed involved with not-for-profits. In ’82 I decided to go back to school get my master’s degree in ’87. That was really one of the best decisions I made. I ended up working for Sara Lee Corporation and I worked in their Philanthropy Office and my job was to give money to women’s organizations, since Sara Lee is named after a woman.

They wanted to make sure that even though the local foundation gave to local charities, I had the freedom. I had a line item to give money to national organizations and since I had some experience with that, I did it and I enjoyed it. I think that the proximity as far as the timeline with Sara Lee and leaving the women’s organizations as I still have some familiarity with that and made sure that they got nice grants.

KF:  What would you name as your most important accomplishments during the ERA campaign involvement?

CS:  That’s a tough one. Being part of a team, I don’t know if my work stood out. I’m one of the foot soldiers in many ways. I’m not a Mary Jean Collins who was the leader, a great one at that. I think trying to influence public opinion was probably the one I remember the most.

KF:  What do you feel that involvement accomplished personally for you?

CS:  It gave me a lot of confidence and I felt I was empowered. I was talking to Lynn Kanter, who did the movie Fighting for the Obvious and she said when I knew you back in those days you were known as Carol. Now you’re known as Caroline. I said. “That’s the difference.” Caroline is the name that my mom gave me and a name of empowerment. Before I was kind of like –  just call me Carol. I was small and now being larger, I decided now’s the time for me to use my full name.

Some of the memorable moments were meeting people like Gloria Steinem and being impressed with her fearlessness. I was just someone who she had just met and didn’t have any particular relationship with her. I remember trying to figure out where I was going to stay at a national conference in New York. She said, “You’re welcome to stay with me.” And I’m like, “Oh my gosh.” I did not stay with her, but I was impressed that someone felt confident enough to have someone whom she did not know who was part of the “cause” [and] make that offer.

I think that the biggest thing is I became empowered. I went on to do things of leadership that I just wouldn’t imagine myself doing, such as speaking on television when I got my job with the city. Representing the Mayor and with confidence. Managing the summer jobs program for 24,000 kids and being the point person for that and running it successfully.  

I always felt when I was married that my husband was the one who had all the knowledge and the know all. I developed that on my own and became that fully functional leader personality. It happened when I was in that NOW office, it fully bloomed.

KF:  It’s interesting isn’t it? I always felt that if you had an organization behind you or close behind you, you would get out there and do things that you absolutely didn’t believe you could do. Somebody pushes you and you just do it. 

CS:  They took a chance on me at Chicago NOW. They didn’t know I could do anything. I didn’t know I could do anything. In that time becoming leadership in the city. I’ve spoken in front of 2,000 people on the podium, but I felt like I can do this and did it and began to sort of shape what the message should be. The seeds were germinating at Chicago NOW.

KF:  Have you been an activist since then or think of yourself as an activist? Are there other areas of activism that you’ve been involved in?

CS:  Sure, but not like Chicago NOW. More so with education. I found that when I was in leadership positions it’s difficult to be on the activist scene. You actually have some power to shape policy. Now that I’m reaching a point in my life where I’m looking around and thinking where’s the best use of my skills, I’m looking at perhaps doing some work around ageism. I think that that’s kind of another frontier.

I’m looking at doing work around not only ageism on a local level but globally. I think that it affects particularly women who bear the brunt of being dismissed and diminished because of age. I am in the process of trying to think through what my next act will be as I am riding into the sunset.

KF:  Not yet Caroline. Anything else relevant that we haven’t talked about?

CS:  I’ve been fortunate to travel and, a lot of it by myself. I’ve spent time in places that a lot of people have not been. I was one of the early goers to China back in the ’70s. I’ve studied adult learning with post development. I’m proud of my accomplishment as a mother. Both of my children are activists and I think that is a wonderful mirror, because I gave a lot of myself to them as they were growing up.

It’s fun to hear my son talk about feminist ideas and trying to be sensitive. My daughter of course is a leader in her own right. Not only has she been doing a lot of activist work by going into the Peace Corps, but she saved my life. We were passing the border when we were in Brazil and we were stopped by the border guards with machine guns pointed at us. My daughter talked them out of it in Spanish and I was thinking – that’s my girl. I’m very happy with how my children have grown and I see it as a wonderful legacy.