THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I’m Not Afraid to Say What I Believe.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Board, September 2018.
MJC: Good morning Judy.
JN: Good morning Mary Jean.
MJC: Nice to see you.
JN: Great to see you.
MJC: For the tape could you start by telling us your full name?
JN: Judith Nedrow.
MJC: And Judy – where are you from?
JN: Washington DC.
MJC: And what about in the former life – when and where were you born?
JN: I was born in Wisconsin but I was raised outside of Chicago in Aurora, Illinois.
MJC: And what would you like to share with us about your family background – ethnic – religious or whatever you think is relevant to you as a feminist or as a person?
JN: One of the things that I use to tweak my partner is to tell her that I’m working class and she’s not. She’s a been a socialist forever and I’m a socialist also but I was raised working-class. My father was a painter – a house painter. And he was president of his Union which when I was working on some of this – it occurred to me that some of that activism – his activism – informs mine and I have a very strong Union – Pro Union bent.
MJC: What about your mom?
JN: She was stay at home. She was frustrated. She did projects – she was involved in church activities and then she would make flowers or then she would do this or she sold Avon. She wanted to do something. And she was very bright and had four children and so she couldn’t get out of the house essentially.
MJC: You had three siblings?
JN: Yes – a brother. One brother and he had his own bedroom. And the three of us had to share our bedroom and a lot of resentment because he was the boy. I was the oldest and then my brother and then the two younger girls.
MJC: Your religious background was?
JN: I was raised Catholic. My father was like born again – something or other – his mother was a minister of some sort. A real Bible banger. But he converted when he married my mother.
MJC: She was a Catholic?
MJC: So you grew up in Aurora, Illinois. And then I think there was a point at which you were making a college decision and you had to make a life decision as well?
JN: Yes when I was a senior in high school – I along with a couple of my friends decided that we wanted to be Franciscans. We went to an all-girls Catholic school with the Franciscans from Alverno. And we decided that we wanted to be nuns because we admired the nuns and we thought we had vocations. When I told my parents this – my father went crazy because he thought that a woman could not be fulfilled without a man.
And also he said that it would make my mother crazy. Because when I was 8 years old she had come down with meningitis and it was undiagnosed for a long time. And she was in the hospital for a long time. And when she came back she was not the same person anymore. So essentially I lost my mother when I was 8.
I used to make fun of my younger sister who was a baby at the time that my mom got sick and said she was changeling because my sister was raised by the other mother. So that’s how different the environment was. And it was very important to keep things level at home and not upset her because she would go off.
MJC: So that was a difficult situation for the whole family.
JN: Right. And that’s what he used to keep me out of the convent.
MJC: And that was persuasive at the time.
JN: Yes it was very persuasive.
MJC: So what was your option?
JN: There was no option. The only option I had was to go to school in Chicago and I commuted. I took the train the first year and then finally persuaded them that I could move into the city to attend school.
MJC: Tell us about Loyola – a little bit about the location.
JN: The campus I went to was Water Tower campus. And that’s where the dorm was too. And there was a dorm and there was a building where our classes were but there was no real campus. I joke that my campus was Rush Street. And to a certain extent it was when I got older. It was a commuter school essentially and I didn’t make friends the first year I was there because I was taking the train. I was rushing back and forth to the train.
And so I didn’t get involved very much until I started living on campus.
And my roommate and I tried to go up to the north side where Loyola had a campus. And it was the lake and it was wonderful. And the Dean of Students – a priest – a Jesuit said that we were lucky to even be attending Loyola because they only just allowed women in.
MJC: Oh, really.
JN: Yes, and for us to think that we should go up to the North Side campus when we weren’t wanting to be doctors or scientists or anything. We were only English majors then. That was too much – just out of hand.
MJC: So you got educated near Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
MJC: What involvement in politics or the women’s movement happened at that period of your life?
JN: Well that was a wake up along with just the gender inequities at home. And when I got to live on campus my father had – this was back when women had hours and there was dress codes and everything – it was 1964 and he had to sign a permission slip for me to sign myself out. Perhaps to go home for the weekend or whatever – that I didn’t have to wait for his permission.
And his stipulation was that I not engage in any civil rights demonstrations because he knew that I would do something. And so I said – okay and the first picket I went on was a woman’s rights picket. I rationalized it because it was civil rights. I mean it was women’s rights not civil rights – not Martin Luther King. He hadn’t gotten specific enough – and here I was at a Jesuit school and I am very good at getting around things that way.
MJC: Yes. So do you remember what the issue was?
JN: There was a women’s dorm type situation for working women to live. And it was one of these Elizabeth house things where girls could live safely. And they were doing something – I don’t remember exactly what it was but we were supporting the women and what they wanted to do.
MJC: So going on from there – when you graduated – what to do with yourself and did you get involved more with the women’s movement or what was kind of activities at that time?
JN: Mainly anti-war. A friend of mine went to Canada and the FBI came banging on the door and wanted to know where he was. And I didn’t know because – I didn’t know. But still it’s terrifying to have this bang – bang – bang. You know the bang – bang – bang when you hear it that it’s you know big men. And of course they were big men in black suits and here I was a little 21 year old lying to them. Mainly it was anti-war stuff. I didn’t go on any pickets or anything. But I went to a meeting at which tax resistance was discussed.
And it was appealing to me because I had been objecting to the phone tax.
There was a surcharge during the war. And so I would write a letter every month and say I’m holding back five dollars or whatever the amount of it was. And I did this every month. And at one point there was – for all the utilities – people would not put postage on the envelope because the pre-printed envelopes had the address of the utility and the post office would deliver the mail. And now they put this notice about the post office will not deliver the mail without postage. And that was because of what we did. Yes.
And then I didn’t pay my income taxes for a number of years and it is just alarmingly easy not to do that because there is no stipulation on how many withholding allowances you mark off. People usually only just do one or if they have children – they figure it’s dependents – how many dependents you have. You can put down ten or twelve and that means that more money comes to you. It doesn’t go to the Feds. And there was evidently a formula and I knew how many withholding allowances to write down so that I was under the poverty level with my income. And so I didn’t have to pay taxes.
But what I did instead was I gave money – the equivalent amount of money to other organizations. To ACLU – to Native American organizations – to NARAL which at the time was the National Abortion Rights Action League when I joined it and then the name was changed later. But then I chickened out after a couple of years and paid my back taxes.
MJC: Did you let the IRS know you were protesting or you just protested?
JN: I just filed and didn’t say anything. It was hard enough having to tell my father that I needed him to co-sign a loan because of this.
MJC: So – another movement you forgot to mention when you left home.
JN: Yes. He was appalled. Totally appalled.
MJC: And what kind of work were you doing at the time? Were you into your career at this point?
JN: Yes. When I graduated from college my first job luckily was as assistant production manager and so I was the assistant. I was hired as the assistant to the woman who was in charge of all the journalists for the American Veterinary Medical Association. So I got my medical – my technical – my interest in in medicine and science just by doing that. And it was a great job. I was very fortunate.
MJC: I bet. You got off to a good start.
JN: Right. And I remember in 1968 when the National Guard was downtown in Chicago – one of the other women and I, at our lunch hour – we went and walked in the park because we worked right across the street on Michigan Avenue and were just – you know –
MJC: You had your say.
JN: Yeah right – anyway.
MJC: So when did you start becoming more active in the women’s movement?
JN: That happened – you know I’m very hazy on that. I did a lot of reading. I subscribed to a bunch of different publications and I was exploring sex and trying to figure out who I was.
MJC: Your own sexuality in addition to the topic in general?
JN: Yes. And then I started coming to NOW meetings. I don’t remember specifically. But then I got involved with Chicago NOW and that was about it. I had been like peripherally – I would give money.
MJC: So what was going on in Chicago NOW when you got active? Do you remember?
JN: Well I remember one abortion rights picket that I was on and the ERA. A lot of post carding and doing – not door to door but trying to get people to sign-up.
MJC: To support the ERA.
MJC: And at a later time you became a staff member to Chicago NOW is that right?
JN: Right – I was volunteering. I think I went into the office and I don’t remember you offering me the job. Remember Sally – I can’t remember her last name – she was – her position I got eventually. But she and I got to be friends and then all of a sudden I had her job and I’m not sure how that happened. But it was wonderful.
MJC: So Chicago NOW had a paid office?
JN: Yes. You were the director.
MJC: Right. Do you remember what year it was?
JN: It was the early eighties. It was before the [ERA ratification] deadline and then the extension so it was like 79 or 80. Because I was doing freelance work at the time so I was able to arrange my hours. I could do essentially whatever – I had a waitress job that I used for groceries and things and I could just do whatever.
MJC: You ran a lot of phone banks. There was a lot of activity, day and night in those days around the equal rights amendment.
JN: Right – a lot of phoning.
MJC: So what were the issues of most concern to you in that period? Abortion you mentioned.
JN: Right, the ERA and abortion rights were up there neck-and-neck but the ERA was what everyone was focusing on at the time because of the deadline.
MJC: So in 1982 when the deadline did expire, then I moved to Washington and you did eventually. Can you tell us about that period?
JN: After you moved?
MJC: When I moved and then how did it happen that you also came to Washington?
JN: Oh well I had met Chris Riddiough who is now my spouse and I was like – people have likened me to a groupie because I knew of her. I had read a lot of her stuff in In These Times and I felt like I was meeting a star when I met her at first and she was with Helen at the time. And they both – and Helen was the director of some gay and lesbian organization I can’t remember what right now.
But they broke up and Chris and I became closer friends. And then Chris was a tad unemployed at the time. Because she was doing what she believed and she was working – not really much for no money and she didn’t really have a job. And so when you offered her the job –
MJC: In Washington D.C..
JN: Which I could have killed you for – she just jumped because it was her ideal job for lesbian rights. And there was nothing I could say about it. So this is still in Chicago and she moved in February and it came about – I mean we visited back and forth – traveled back and forth – had a relationship.
And then I knew that it was right for me to move. There was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to be in Chicago and that’s where I lived and that’s where I wanted to be – like I couldn’t get out of Aurora fast enough. I left when I was 19. But then when Chris left there was no hesitation – I just knew that I would move and so I moved in August I think. No, I moved in December.
MJC: So in terms of the history, I was elected vice president in 1982 and I took office November 1st 1982 and I was the action vice president and so I hired Chris to run the lesbian rights program for NOW. That’s the background on that. So when you came to Washington you –
JN: I needed a job!
MJC: You continued to work in the women’s movement but you also needed to be employed. So what happened there?
JN: I got at national NOW and I’m not – once again – I’m not sure of all the details but I was on Judy Goldsmith – the president’s staff. And I think I got the job because of Chris.
MJC: Because you knew people.
MJC: You knew everybody.
JN: Well, there were quite a lot people from Chicago NOW.
MJC: And you had experience with the organization and that was good. So what else do you want to talk about in terms of – so that was your involvement in the women’s movement until probably until 1985 when the changes were made in the leadership of NOW. And then did you stay active? I think you and Chris were active then in the gay and lesbian movement.
JN: Right. The Gertrude Stein Democratic Club here in DC that’s where we switched our activities and our political activities through the gay and lesbian movement. And working for delegate’s people running for delegate. I was the treasurer for a candidate – stuff like that.
MJC: So it moved you a little more into – was activist politics but more into the electoral arena at that point.
JN: Well I had been in Chicago I had done a lot of Democratic work. And I’m not sure if it was only when I was involved with NOW – but I remember a lot of going door-to-door in primary season in February in Chicago and I’m not sure what organization – might have been NOW.
MJC: So then what would you say in terms of your involvement in the women’s movement – and you can continue to talk about other activities as well – but what do you think of as your major issues or major accomplishments as a feminist? Or maybe that’s not the way you see it. How do you think of yourself as a feminist and the contribution you’ve made?
JN: I just wanted to do my best to work on the issues that I felt were important. And it got really boring working for presidential candidates who lost. But we kept at it and it was stubbornness and it’s being active and trying to make a difference. And I think that’s where I’ve been. And supporting Chris who was much more active and much more public and supporting her in her efforts.
MJC: Can you just – I think you’ve laid out the details – but could you kind of talk about how being active in the women’s movement actually changed your own personal life and how do you think about that?
JN: I’m stronger. I’m not afraid to say what I believe. I’ve struggled with depression all my life and doing something positive is a good way to work against that and those negative feelings. And it’s been hard work but I think a lot of what I’ve done – what I’ve been able to do as far as overcoming some of the depression is because of working for what I believe in and for women’s rights.
MJC: Very Positive. So your current involvement as an activist is with?
JN: Mainly with Democratic Socialists of America. And Chris is the chair of the board there and she’s been involved with DSA for millions of years – since the eighties. And was on staff earlier in the 80s and was not paid. And I was the sole support of our family and very disillusioned with the organization and wanted her to disassociate and to do something more positive. A lot of my life has been it seems like I’m just following her and doing what she needs. But why not? I joke that I’m a good wife – well – I think I’m a good wife. Even though I’ve only been a wife for six years.
JN: For 30-some years we’ve been together and I’ve been a good wife. But I’ve supported her as much as I could. But I couldn’t support DSA until lately when she got back involved in it. But I’m drawing back again – so it’s the activism part of my life has gotten superseded by cynicism and by just being sick and tired of seeing how hard she works and how hard we’ve all worked. And the women’s march in 2017 – The sign that said – I can’t believe we’re still doing this.
We still have to be fighting the very same fights.
And I will march in defense of women’s health issues in a minute. I’m not so sure about socialism.
MJC: So we have a good summary of your involvement and the outlines of your life. Have we missed anything are there other topics that you would like to cover? Comments of any kind?
JN: Not that I can think of. My initial response when you said you wanted to interview me was that I was not worthy. I am not worthy. You know here I am – being a Catholic. Because it’s not really dramatic what I’ve done and a lot of it has been just having a job and being able to contribute financially. And I think that’s not bad.
MJC: It’s not bad and that’s what the Pioneer Histories Project of the Veteran Feminists is all about. It is finding women like yourself who made the movement happen. Not just a handful of people but thousands of people across the country. So I want to thank you for being a part of this project.
JN: And thank you for being you. So thank you.
MJC: Okay. Thank you. Bye bye.