Lynn Kanter

“My Mother Was a Force of Nature Who Had Nowhere to Go.”

Interviewed by Rosemary Trowbridge at the UIC Richard J. Daley Library, Chicago, IL on June 15, 2019

LK:  I am Lynn Kanter. I got involved in the ERA a year or two after I graduated from college and I graduated in 76. I started my first job as an editor at World Book Encyclopedia. I’ve been trying to remember how someone introduced me to this group of sort of radical lesbian feminists on the north side. I got to be friends with them and through them I met a woman that I started dating and I think she is the one who introduced me to NOW. She lived in Oak Park and I after a year or so moved in with her and then I started getting involved in Oak Park NOW. Oak Park being a suburb of Chicago.

Through that I got connected with Chicago NOW and did a lot of interacting with them. I remember all of the Illinois NOW groups were very invested in the ERA campaign. I think the first victory that happened was in 1978, when the extension was granted to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and I remember that in particular because it was a big deal, a big cause for celebration and it also felt like the last victory for anything I was working for, for many years.

I was really involved in Oak Park NOW.  I think I was the president at some point. I actually can’t remember but I can remember leading some meetings at the time. I was leading consciousness raising groups. I heard that National NOW was coming to Illinois to run a campaign there and that they were looking for some staff members. I applied to be the office manager. I got that job and that’s how I got more deeply involved in specifically the ERA campaign here in Illinois.

RT:  Tell us about your ethnic background.

LK:  I’m white. I’m Jewish. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. I grew up at a time when that area was racially mixed because for me, a very lucky combination of the Great Migration that was bringing black people from the south into Chicago and the discriminatory housing ordinances were still in effect that prohibited both black people and Jews from living in much of the city. Many of the city’s neighborhoods and certainly the suburban areas. Many suburban areas had covenants.

There were private covenants but there were also ordinances on the books in the various locales that said nobody black or Jewish can live here. As a result, the neighborhood I lived in on the South Side was largely Jewish and black. For me that was I think a very shaping influence in my life, and I feel very lucky that most white women of my generation grew up in segregated communities and I had a different experience.

RT:  That’s interesting. Part of American history. History that we’re only now beginning to learn more about. How did you get involved the ERA campaign in Illinois and what year was that?  

LK:  I think it was ’77 when I first got involved and there was some inter-movement. A sort of tension about it at the time because there was a more radical element. The lesbian feminist world that I came from and that I had been a part of since college. It felt like oh, the ERA is so bland and it’s so center of the road. A lot of people working on it are just these middle-class white people, which of course I was a middle-class white person. So were they, for that matter. There was a little bit of tension and it wasn’t so much about who’s cooler than whom, but it was like about what is the way forward. Is it reform or is it revolution?

I had a foot in both camps, but I also felt like here is something in the Constitution that would affect so many laws across the country. If we can change all those laws with one action then that is the path we should be taking. And that’s the opportunity we have right now to actually change the legislation that will change people’s lives. Even as the other kinds of work, cultural work and so forth that was happening at the time, and it was a very fertile time for that, was changing people’s minds and people’s hearts and people’s souls. At the same time let’s change laws to make people’s lives materially better or better in ways you could actually feel.  

Because like most women of my generation I saw – I knew my mother was a force of nature who had nowhere to go with all of her energy and her creativity and her brilliance.  And it was also a time when there were all kinds of little restrictions on women’s lives that young women today probably wouldn’t think of.  I just mean every time you turned around. You want to rent an apartment, someone had to co-sign for you. You want to rent a truck to move into that apartment, you can’t. You need a penis to rent a truck. All kinds of things that now seem unimaginable to us. We just hit walls everywhere we went in addition to the larger ways that we knew life was closed to us.

RT:  What specifically was your role as you got more involved with National NOW. You said you were office manager.  What kind of things did you do?

LK:  As the office manager I tried to make sure we had everything people needed. The organizers, analysts, the field staff, what they needed to do their job. That would mean office supplies. It would mean sometimes renting cars for people, it would mean making sure there was coffee.

RT:  Were you based in Chicago?

LK:  Yes, there was an office building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago where the headquarters for National NOW was and there was a lot of interaction with Chicago NOW and with Illinois NOW. I eventually moved from that position into being what they called a Field Organizer. I had a particular assignment to get the gay community involved and get the Jewish community involved. That required going to meetings and holding meetings, having house parties at people’s houses where they’d invite five or six friends and you talk about the ERA and what it meant and how it would affect their lives.

And every activity ended with one of two things, often both. One was we would bring paper and stamps and envelopes and pens to these meetings and make people sit down and write a letter to their legislator at the end of each meeting if they were willing, as Jane Strickland mentioned in her interview. We would ask people to sign something giving us permission to send public opinion messages in their names to their legislators.

These were telegrams that were very inexpensive, two or three dollars. That’s a lot of people and it adds up. You had 15 words to try to make the case. Part of my job was trying to figure out a hundred different ways to say “pass the ERA you jackass” in 15 words or less. It set me up for the Twitter era. I was already ready to write briefly.  

RT:  As a writer you’re restricted to 15 words or less. That’s the genius of saying something short and sweet and to the point. What were your most memorable important experiences from the ERA campaign?

LK:  I remember a lot of the interactions with other people. People just worked their hearts out. Long days every day of the week. At the end of the work day we would all gather to have a briefing. The end of the workday was 11:00 p.m. and everyone in this Chicago Office of National ERA campaign in Illinois would come together and we’d go over what we had learned or what we had done that day. I can’t remember if there were fifty-nine districts, but let’s say I met you at a house party.

I had to figure out who your legislator was if you didn’t happen to know and I’d have to find your house or your apartment on a map and where that dot is where you live. Then overlay it with the district map to figure out what district you were in and who your legislator was.  We would go through fifty-nine three by five cards to say where every legislator was that night if something happened to change.

RT:  It was so labor intensive, now you just look it up on the Internet. I forgot how intensive all that work was going door to door and huge to know how many people it took to do that. 

LK:  I know, and I think it’s important for younger people to know that. 

RT:  Yes, it’s not like push a button and sign something on the Internet and you’re done.

LK:  And yet the fundamentals are still the same. There’s still that going door to door knocking on the door, there’s still that calling people one by one and face to face meetings to organize something. I remember one night I had gone home, and I was in bed and it was eleven thirty. Deb Erb called me and started talking and asking about something at the office and then she realized – “Oh my God are you asleep? I had no idea, it never occurred to me.” “It’s eleven thirty at night. Yes I’m asleep.” Because that was just the ethos. Why are you in bed, which I now think is why there were so many 20-year olds in this campaign.  

RT:  If you had young children, you’re putting them to bed then you’re collapsing yourself. What were the issues of greatest concern to you at that time?

LK:  I just had this very intense feminist analysis that I saw this infuriating injustice against women everywhere and in every way. What was important to me was to get something into the constitution so that women’s rights and freedoms were not dependent upon the whim of whatever man was in power at that moment. That was the main thing I was concerned about.

RT:  That’s a big one. That covers it all. What were your major accomplishments personally that you were  involved in? Something that really stands out in your mind when all your memories are gone, you’re still going to have that one.

LK:  This is not specifically for the ERA; I  think that consciousness raising groups that I led. You could just see women’s minds opening and you could just see women recognizing their bonds with each other. A lot of the people who were in these groups ended up being activists, and the ERA campaign was the biggest thing going on in Illinois at that time. From that non campaign work, it fed – and I don’t mean my personal little groups that I led, but they were happening all over the state and all over the country, and that fed a lot of the activism for all of the issues that were prominent at the time.

RT:  It was so empowering and, so energizing. I was glad you mentioned that because I haven’t heard anyone mention CR groups in a long time. What about the film you made?

LK:  The film I made, that really was the most important thing and I think the most important contribution I made. The film was not my idea. It is called Fighting For The Obvious. So, what happened was my stint working for NOW was I think 78 and 79 or maybe up until 1980. Then I went and started another job. Somebody contacted me and I can’t remember how she got my name but this TV producer/director who was a woman contacted me and said, “I know that something historic is happening in Illinois and I’ve heard that you were part of it and could give us entree into the campaign because we want to interview people, and I’ve heard that you’re a writer and would you be interested in writing the script for us?”

I thought yes, because I thought she had a really good perspective, which was what was happening as part of the campaign, so many women becoming energized and activated and mobilized, was the thing that was happening. It was not the ERA itself, which by that point it was clear that unless there was some miracle it was not going to pass. But it was the process of politicizing and radicalizing so many women that she felt was the important thing that really needed to be documented. I got involved with a small all-women TV production crew who all knew each other but I didn’t know any of them at that point.

I did obviously get to know them quite well. We interviewed a lot of people in Chicago NOW, we interviewed people in Springfield and Peoria. We interviewed legislators, activist nuns and all kinds of people. We went to a lot of the demonstrations, a lot of the planning meetings. Not to be part of it but document what goes into an effort like this. It was just a powerful thing to talk to so many women who had either given up so much or added on so much to their already busy and demanding lives in order to be part of this campaign and make it happen.

We had a lot of experiences that I won’t go into here for the sake of time, but that had to do with what technology was like at the time. Video technology at the time was big and heavy and none of it was built for a woman. We had to do all these very creative adaptations to make it possible for us to do what we had to do with the equipment that existed at the time. Our main camera woman was pregnant and during the course of the shoot, she just couldn’t fit behind the camera anymore. We got another woman to do it, but this was just one example.  

This is not built for us in the same way that the legislative process is not meant for us either and we need to push our way into both of these. The video came out at the end of 1982 and on June 30th, 1982 the ERA ended its time period and did not get ratified. Six months later we produced this video, Fighting For The Obvious. It aired on Chicago’s PBS station. It was in film festivals and it won an award. The main thing it was used in a lot of women’s studies classrooms for years, and so it served to teach people and remind people who weren’t there what a social change effort really takes.

RT:  What exactly was your role?

LK:  I was not holding the camera. I was very often holding the incredibly heavy batteries for the camera which you wore on a vest. I was the writer. That means I wrote the interview questions. I conducted the interviews. I decided what segments of everybody’s interviews would be used and in what order.  

RT:  It sounds like you were the editor too.

LK:  Not the technical editor but the editor of the idea of how the pieces would go together. And I wrote the narration to make the transitions to sew the pieces together.

RT:  Well thank you. I just loved the film. It was very emotional watching.  Even though I was in the Florida campaign, it all translated.  

LK:  Right, I’m sure it would be like every campaign. The four of us on this crew just got really close through this. One of them is my lifelong friend, Mary Sue Marzullo, who was supposed to be here today but her mother is in the hospital so she couldn’t come. A personal thing that happened to me is I fell in love with the director and lived with her for 10 years.

RT:  That’s wonderful. Well those are two big memorable experiences. How has your involvement the ERA campaign affected your later life personally and professionally?

LK:  I actually have more to say about it. One thing that happened during the ERA campaign is I met this woman named Susan Hester who had worked in Iowa and was from North Carolina and had worked on their ERA campaign. She came to Illinois to work on that one and we became really close friends. And to this day she’s my best friend. After all these decades we are still together as friends. Really everything I have today, I owe to her in a way because she connected me to the job that I moved to Washington D.C. for and held for twenty-five years.

She is the one who said, “Hey I hear there’s this writing job at this social justice organization, let me connect you.”  She also introduced me to the woman who would become my wife. That is one really direct way that the ERA campaign shaped my life. It also shaped my life in that since then I have always, with one small and stupid exception, I have always done jobs in the movement. In the social justice movement. I’ve always worked for the movement as a writer throughout my life after this experience.

RT:  That’s wonderful. Are you currently involved as an activist?

LK:  I am currently involved as an activist in addition to my work, which is with activist organizations. I sing with the D.C. Labor Chorus and we sing at demonstrations and all sorts of events and public events. We have a couple of concerts but mostly we’re just at marches, demonstrations, rallies that kind of thing. We sing social justice music, so using collective voice we are trying to do the cultural work of social change.

RT:  It sounds like fun. Anything else relevant that we haven’t covered?

LK:  I do want to say that this reunion has been fabulous to remind all of us what we accomplished and how we changed and how we changed the world but also our own connections with one another. I haven’t seen most people in that room in thirty -five years and yet I felt like that connection instantly sparked and we were sort of in the same place we had been thirty-five years ago.