THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Mary Jane Vogt
“I Have Tried to be that Light in the Darkness on Behalf of Women.”
Interviewed by Helen Ramirez-Odell, June 15, 2019 at the UIC Richard J. Daley Library, Chicago, IL
HRO: My name is Helen Ramirez Odell and I have the privilege of interviewing Mary Jane Vogt, who was a very hard worker for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Illinois. We are at the ERA Reunion at the University of Illinois right now. Mary Jane, let me start by asking you, what was your life like before you got involved in the ERA and the women’s movement?
MJV: I was married too young and had six children. I was divorced and making my way in the world as a single woman, a college student when I got involved. I’m from an Irish, German and Dutch background. My mother was an aggressive woman. Both of my older sisters went to college and I was certainly encouraged to go – expected to go. When I didn’t, my parents were very disappointed. I did go in my 30s and 40s and 50s.
I grew up in Chicago and got married. The first 18 years of my life I went to school in Chicago and took lots of lessons outside of school in dance and music and horseback riding and elocution. I worked at my parent’s store.
HRO: How did you get involved in the ERA campaign and do you remember what year that was?
MJV: I remember marching in Grant Park in 1980 with a friend from Waukegan. Her husband brought her, and we went together. He came back to pick her up and she was kind of aggravated with him.
HRO: Where and when were you active in the ERA campaigns and in the women’s movement?
MJV: I don’t know what year. Maybe it wasn’t until 1981. But I know I worked in the 14th legislative district. The district where I lived at that time – Debbie Harvey was doing the organizing. We had letter writing parties. I’m sure I must have gone to Springfield at least once with her. Sue Purrington taught us how to speak to a legislator. What to do and what not to do. For instance, never get in an argument with a legislator. You might lose them on the ERA but gain them the next time around on another vote important to women.
When the house was redistricted, we went from three to one legislator in the district, I then organized the 15th house district by myself. I remember in March of ’82, a small group of us met with Representative William “Bill” Laurino in his office in Chicago on a cold and snowy night. As I was getting ready to go, the phone rang and rang with people saying, “I’m sorry I can’t come.” I kept saying, “I’ll pick you up.”
I picked up everyone up except one person. She managed to get there by herself. That’s the lady doing the interviewing. Her name is Helen Ramirez-Odell. I remember that Representative Laurino called me a “girl.” I told him I hadn’t been a girl in 40 years. I remember that he told us he had promised his mother before she died that he would not vote for the Equal Rights Amendment. He was willing to listen to what we had to say politely, but he made it clear that he had promised his mother before she died that he would never vote for equal rights.
I went to Springfield. I took women to Springfield to meet with him. One of the memorable times was someone I did not know was in a big shouting match with him outside the door of the House. I was just most uncomfortable because Sue Purrington had told us never to get into any kind of a loud disagreement with a legislator. Just then I looked up and there was Sr Catherine M. Krippner and Sr Rose Mary Meyer coming down the stairs of the balcony. I motioned for them to come over.
I immediately interrupted the fight by introducing Representative Laurino to Sr Katherine and Sr Rose Mary. And of course, that cleared the air immediately. And his response was, “What school do you teach at?” Neither one of those nuns had been in the classroom in years. One of them is now dead and when she was cremated it was with an ERA Yes button in her pocket. Sr Rose Mary Meyer today works at Project IRENE working with women and children’s issues in Springfield.
I held letter writing parties within the district. We’d gotten permission to use people’s names to write to our Representatives in their name. When the vote went down in Illinois I went home and sent telegrams, again using the names in that box that I gave Mary Jean Collins today – the people that had given us permission to send telegrams and charge them to their telephone.
It was sent to North Carolina, because that was the next state. There were two more states. North Carolina was next.
In addition to NOW, I belonged to Catholic Women for Reproductive Rights, Chicago Catholic Women and Cook County Democratic Women.
HRO: Were those organizations active working to pass ERA?
MJV: Yes, which was of primary importance to me. And a second concern would have been reproductive rights – for women to have the ability to make their own decision about their own lives and their own reproductive lives.
I think my major accomplishment was to help turn a vote of State Rep. Laurino. On the last vote for ERA in Illinois, June 22, 1982, he voted yes. After the House was cleared and the redcoats had come out I went in by myself. The others went to a rally and I went in and waited to thank him. There were tears in his eyes. I said this meant a great deal to me. And he said, “I know it did.” Carol Moseley Braun was his seat mate.
Since then, in my involvement in the middle 80s, I continued to be involved in several women’s rights organizations as I previously stated. But since probably the late 80s I have not been. I have tried to be that light in the world, that light in the darkness on behalf of women. And tried to encourage other women to shoot for the stars, to be what they want to be, to think about what they want to do with their life. Whether it’s the lifeguard at the pool or my daughter or granddaughter.
One of the jobs I had in the 80s was at an HMO in Hyde Park. I worked with a lady named Bertie Fishman. Her daughter is right over there, who was very active in Chicago NOW.
HRO: What were your most memorable and important experiences from the ERA campaigns?
MJV: Certainly, one of them would be June 21, 1982. That evening a priest and I took a nun out to dinner. She was about to go on mission in Bermuda and we wanted to say goodbye. I got home, and I was getting ready for bed. It was about ten o’clock and the phone rang and the person on the line was Sue Purrington. She said, “If you want to see history made, be on the corner tomorrow morning at 7 o’clock and be prepared to drive.”
I was there. I rode the bus. I was there on the last day of the last vote. As sad as it was to see it go down in Illinois, I was ecstatic that Laurino voted yes. And then I had the privilege of hearing Monica Faith Stewart give her famous “3:15” speech. It encouraged me to go back to school again and get a degree in something I really wanted to do, which was work in my church.
I did so and I’ve done so. I’m not saying there weren’t some bumps in the road, but for the most part happily. Like many, I guess I’ve become pretty picky about who my boss is going to be. If I’m not working with someone that’s pretty compatible and will let me walk and talk at my own pace and respect and recognize my talent and my education in one area…
HRO: Have you stayed active politically?
MJV: No, other than to work as a judge on election day. I quit that when Trump got elected. I just couldn’t take it anymore. My heart almost died that day. I do talk to people. I talk to young people. The lifeguards at the pool, especially, about the importance of voting. I worked for Aaron Jaffe in 1982 and recruited 63 people to work on his campaign. He said he won because of me. He told the Chicago Tribune he won because of me and the people I recruited to get out and work for him.
In 1983 I worked for Paul Simon and I recruited 57 people to work on his campaign, including a nun who leafleted in front of the polling place of the church she worked at on election day.
I also campaigned at the Skokie Swift train station with Paul Simon and his wife Jeanie and Charlotte Jaffe. I had a coffee at my home at which Jeanie Simon came. In 1984 I worked on Aaron Jaffe’s campaign, this time as a paid person. I was volunteer coordinator.
[The only other organizations I worked with are] the ones previously stated – Cook County Democratic Women, Chicago Catholic Women, which was the feminist Catholic women’s group, Catholic Women for Reproductive Rights.
HRO: Earlier, you mentioned the posters you brought today. One says End the Subjection of Women. You got that through an activist friend, and you had some great stories to tell.
MJV: I brought four signs that hang on my living walls to this conference to share with others. One is Monica Stewart’s speech given on the last day of the last vote, June 22, 1982. The famous “3:15” speech that was put on a poster with her face superimposed on it. I had it framed and it hangs in my living room. I brought that and I brought the flyer for the last March in Springfield. I had it framed. It hangs in my living room.
I brought Margaret’s sign. Margaret Shogrun Arena was a woman I recruited to work on the ERA in the 15th House district. The last March in Springfield for ERA and she carried the sign her husband made for her as a replica of the one her grandmother carried in Fowler, Kansas. Her grandmother carried the sign and chained herself to the courthouse saying she would not go home to cook dinner until the grandfather said he would vote for the person that supported women’s rights.
I helped Margaret get up on the Capitol steps with her small sign. Frail elderly Margaret, thin as a rail, stood next to all these young 20-year-old women carrying huge NOW banners. At the estate sale after Margaret died, I asked about the sign and her daughter said, “We knew you’d want that.” I took it home and it hangs in my living room wall along with my accountant cross bridge of Jill Ruckelshaus speech at a conference that I bought from someone in Quad-Cities NOW.
HRO: Mary Jane, are there any other stories you’d like to share with us?
MJV: One would be picketing in front of Joe Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League office with a group of women. I was carrying this large banner that said Catholic Women for Reproductive Rights. His wife Ann came over almost foaming at the mouth wanting to know if the Cardinal knew that I was there and by whose authority I carried that sign. She was clearly very upset.
I feel supported by a fair number of priests I worked with in the Church. I’m 54 years a church musician in the Catholic Church. I just don’t bring up reproductive rights. Their views certainly may be different than mine and since I have experience in the field and they don’t, I don’t care to discuss it.
They’re entitled to follow the party line. I did for a number of years, but as I got older and had more life experience, I have felt different since. I believe strongly that women should have control over their own body and whether they have children or don’t have children. I don’t believe that God gave all women the qualities necessary to be a mother.
HRO: Thank you Mary Jane, I greatly appreciate you doing this.