Karen Fishman

To be socially active was in my DNA.”

Interviewed by Kathy Rand, Executive VP, VFA, September 2018

KR: Hi Karen. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for the VFA Pioneer Histories Project. Good to see you, if you’ll start by telling us your name if you would. 

KF: I’m Karen Fishman.

KR:  And where and when were you born Karen?

KF: Philadelphia in 1948.

KR: OK. And give me a little bit about your family background and your ethnic background.

KF: I am the daughter of working class first generation American Jews with left-wing politics, so I’m what’s known in some circles as a “red diaper baby.” I grew up with ideas about social justice and the imperative to be socially active in my DNA.

KR: So what was your life like before you got involved in the women’s movement?

KF:  I got involved in the women’s movement when I was in college so I’m not sure that there is much of interest to report before that.

Except that my father did give me the Feminine Mystique to read when it was published.

I was 15.

KR:  Where did you go to school – where did you go to college? 

I Was A Foot Soldier 

KF: I grew up in New Jersey and I went to college at the University of Chicago. So I moved here to Chicago to go to school. SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) was active on campus, and there were big draft protests—this was before the lottery was established.

There had been a big sit-in at the U of C the spring before I started there over the issue of the University reporting students’ class rank to the Selective Service System. It was an activist campus– more than at many places. And there was a very early feminist group called the Women’s Radical Action Project that grew out of some women’s frustration with their lack of power within SDS. The group became prominent when the feminist professor Marlene Dixon was fired by the U of C: [she] didn’t get tenure in 1969 and there was a big sit-in to protest her firing. So that was some of my earliest involvement. But I was a foot soldier. I was not involved in leadership in any way.

The Sojourner Truth Child Care Center

And what happened next in my feminist development was that I got married and had a baby and she needed daycare. I was working. I went to work as a secretary at the University of Chicago after I graduated. I was living in Hyde Park, where the women’s rights committee of the established community organization, the Hyde Park/Kenwood Community Conference, decided to start a day care center, which they named the Sojourner Truth Child Care Center. It started in the basement of a church with which I have a much later career connection.– I knew some of the women who had been involved from independent politics in Hyde Park, but I just went looking for day care.

Rebecca was just under three. I went to the center and found out that they had openings, and charged just $16 a week for full time care, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The center was conceptualized (to its disadvantage to some degree) as a model of all things good. So it offered full day, low cost care; trained paraprofessionals in the community to be childcare workers; it was multicultural and parent governed. It was all those things and it also was financially precarious throughout its entire life as a result. But I ended up getting active there and I became chair of the board.

The Spokeswoman 

And one of the women who was a founder of the Center worked at the Hyde Park Bank. Her name was Mary Houghton. And she knew – she was good friends with a woman named Susan Davis who also worked at the Hyde Park Bank originally and then both of them moved to ShoreBank, which was a community investment/neighborhood development bank.

And Susan Davis, before she went to ShoreBank, had started a women’s rights newsletter called The Spokeswoman. She started it out of a generator called the Urban Research Corporation, which published several different newsletters. URC subscribed to almost every daily and weekly newspaper in America, and hired low-paid college students, a kind of human “search engine,” to screen these newspapers, and clip and file stories by specific urban affairs topics.  This enabled them to identify developing trends in urban life. The company was run by a guy named John Naisbitt who later published a book called Megatrends.  Susan Davis was working for Naisbitt and Spokeswomen got started by adding a category called “women” to the clipping operation. And all of a sudden Susan had access to everything that was being said about the women’s movement in 1968 and 1969 in the press all across America. And she started digesting it in this little newsletter.

I went to work for her in late 1972, and she sold me the publication some years later when she and a group of feminist entrepreneurs including the Chicago journalist Koky Dishon tried to start start a national women’s news magazine–a sort of news analogue to Ms. It was going to be called “WomanNews.” There was ultimately a publication by that name, but it wasn’t theirs.

At that point Susan no longer had time for The Spokeswoman  so she “sold” it to me out of sweat equity and I became the publisher. I had been the associate editor earlier – this was then a one-woman operation. She and her group tried to raise enough venture capital to start their news magazine, but were unsuccessful. The bottom fell out of the venture capital market at the time and they were not very well known. . So that didn’t happen and Susan Davis went to work at ShoreBank and I remained editor and publisher of The Spokeswoman until 1978.

When I started at The Spokeswoman, it was an 8-page, not-quite-mimeographed, poorly printed publication. But it was influential.

Everybody read it. It had a subscriber base of three or four thousand people at the time and it cost six dollars a year. It grew while I had it. We expanded the staff – we hired an associate editor – Anne Ladky. We hired a book review editor. We had a Washington correspondent. Nicole Hollander redesigned it and provided humorous illustrations and later created her first cartoon strips for it, and ultimately it became a black and white magazine.

It was a lot of fun to do. Really a lot of fun to do. It was the start of my having the good fortune to earn a living doing things that I cared about and could think were useful.

All the things that it took to produce The Spokeswoman – postage – ink – paper – were going up in cost, and in 1978, I sold the publication to the woman who was then our Washington editor, Susan Tenenbaum, and it survived for several years after that. When I sold it, we had 10,000 subscribers, it was a 24-page covered magazine with a notable subscriber base. It was serious and dry and more legally oriented than most of the feminist publications.  We reported on Supreme Court cases, health care issues, reproductive rights, organizational politics. It wasn’t as much fun to read as Big Mama Rag and those wonderful feminist tabloids that we all enjoyed so much. But it was a lot of fun to do.

After I sold The Spokeswoman I went to work for the Illinois Nurses Association, which is when I got seriously involved in Chicago NOW.

Of course, I had been reporting on Chicago NOW and I covered the NOW national conventions, but while at The SpokeswomanI thought of myself as a journalist rather than an activist.

I worked at the Illinois Nurses Association for about four years, during which I became active in Chicago NOW and in the ERA extension campaign. At INA, I had a very important mentor whose story I’m very sorry will not be included in this project – Anne Zimmerman – who worked for the Illinois Nurses Association for much of her career and was the president of the American Nurses Association earlier in the fight to ratify the ERA.

Anne was a huge feminist and a great advocate for working women and for economic security for nurses, and made an enormous impact on the profession.

At the end of the ERA extension campaign, I followed Mary Jean Collins as president, and later as the paid executive director, of Chicago NOW—another great job.

Because Illinois was one of the three states targeted nationally in the extension campaign, Chicago was a huge center of activity, with lots of national resources and energy. So at the end of the extension campaign, when National NOW pulled all its money and staff out of Illinois, the chapter had to figure out how to adapt and re-build its local presence. 

We were determined to keep some of the staff members that had been paid with national funds, and to have a budget of $100,000 budget instead of the $30,000 budget that the chapter had had before the extension campaign. And we also had to figure out what the focus of the chapter’s activism would be at a politically challenging time. The ERA had been NOW’S  focus to an obsessive degree.

While NOW was singularly focused on the ERA, other organizations continued to grow around specific issues, including economic and reproductive rights. .So we really had to figure out how Chicago NOW would maintain its influence and capacity. And we did figure it out.

We raised  a lot more money locally than had ever been raised before, building the chapter’s annual walkathon and operating a telephone fundraising program. We established a tax-exempt arm, the Chicago NOW Education Fund, and raised foundation money. We tried unsuccessfully to persuade National NOW that chapters should be able to retain a greater share of dues paid by those members we recruited, and when National began recruiting at-large members who paid no chapter dues at all, we established our own category of at-large Chicago NOW members, called “Friends of Chicago NOW,” and kept that money in Chicago. We also ran several important campaigns. For example, we passed a local tenants’ rights ordinance that required landlords to provide window locks and take other safety measures. We were critically engaged in the fight to reform Illinois’ sexual assault laws. We got involved in political campaigns through the chapter’s PAC.

We were instrumental in persuading Paul Simon, who was running for the Senate, to become pro-choice.

We supported Jane Byrne when she ran for re-election as mayor in in 1983 after she agreed to settle an equal pay case involving the city’s water department.  We took quite a bit of criticism about that, because Harold Washington was her opponent. But we had made a commitment to Byrne and we wanted to help elect a woman even though she was a Democratic regular. When she lost that primary, we immediately threw our support to Washington and helped him win. It was an interesting period in Chicago politics and the chapter was a serious local political force during that time.

I left Chicago NOW to work for an organization called the Ounce of Prevention Fund. 

My daughter was going to be going to college and I needed to earn more than I was earning as the executive director of Chicago NOW. So I left paid work in the women’s movement. The Ounce of Prevention Fund works on issues that are important to women, including teen pregnancy prevention, early childhood development and school health care. I was there for four years.

And after that I was the executive director of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago for about eight years. It was an interesting and challenging time in that field as the epidemic was changing from one that affected primarily gay white men to one that affected substance users and people of color. And there was a lot of consensus-building and organizational work that had to be done around that.

And then from 1998 until my retirement last year I did something completely different. 

I was the executive director of a group called the Music of Baroque, which is a professional orchestra and chorus performing mostly 18th century music. MOB started in the basement of the church that housed Sojourner Truth Child Care Center, at the same time that Rebecca was in day care there.

KR: So what’s – picking out one or two most memorable things from your time in the movement?

KF: I would say that covering the early days of the women’s movement for The Spokeswoman was enormously exciting as feminists were figuring out where to stand on the issues and what really matters. I watched the documentary RBG again the other night and I can remember when that first decision about Social Security benefits for widowers came down.  Growing The Spokeswoman was a lot of fun, and I will always be proud of being part of  making Chicago NOW a powerful local organization and keeping it going. I certainly could never have done many of the things I did do without an organization behind me—like being interviewed on national television or speaking to a group of 4000 people during a Harold Washington campaign rally.

But I was able to do these things  because I was representing Chicago NOW – the organization pushes you out there and builds your confidence. And certainly the things that I learned to do while running The Spokeswoman as a small business or raising money for Chicago NOW are skills that I’ve used my whole life. Being part of the women’s movement it in the early days was really very exciting.

KR: You just answered the question I was going to ask which is did you learn skills in the movement that helped you in later life?

KF: Absolutely. The movement gave me enormous opportunities to learn and do.

I didn’t plan the career I had. 

I didn’t want to be a professor. I didn’t think I wanted to be a lawyer. And I just sort of fell into great organizational work with great colleagues and great friends.

KR: Exactly. Are you currently involved as an activist at all?

KF: I’m not – I’m trying to figure out what to do in retirement.

KR:  Anything that you didn’t share that you think we need to know?

KF: I don’t think so.

KR: Well thank you so much. This was great.

KF: It was fun.