Maya Friedler

“There are still voices in this country trying to send us backwards.”

Interviewed by Julie Hamos, March 2019

MF:  I remember my mother gave an interview. My parents were communists and that made us feel like we were outsiders. We came to Philadelphia from Russia when I was seven years old. It was during the Depression. It was a strange time in Russia because they came in the 20s to Philadelphia. The migration of Jews at that period were all the left wing and socialist Jews that settled in New York and other areas. My mother didn’t spend one day in school. She was a dressmaker and ended up a couture dressmaker in Paris and my father was a carpenter. They were working class.

JH:  Talk about how from your roots you became a feminist?

MF:  Primarily my mother, because she would say things like, if they had listened to the women, it would have been a different revolution. My brother who is 11 years younger than I, had to go to college and my mother insisted the girls have to go too. Part of the feminist movement, when I was in the 60s proselytizing for the Equal Rights Amendment, I was a legislative aide for Senator Esther Saperstein. I started in the peace movement in the 60s.

We had an organization in Evanston that was called Evanston Peace and World Affairs Center and I was the coordinator. And we were getting young men to go to Canada. I can tell you the day I switched from peace movement to the women’s movement. I was coordinating Moratorium Day against the war in Vietnam and one of Chicago Seven who were on trial came to talk at the event on Moratorium Day. He stood up there, and I had all the Peace and World Affairs Center women and men, and he said, “We are all acting like menopausal old women.”

I said, “I’m in the wrong movement.” I’ve never really lost that concentration of non-violence and a world without war. That was the basis for the kind of revolutionary and radical[ism] that I had. It always was underpinned by non-violence. And that is where the switch was to the women’s movement. There obviously were more women than men that were objecting to the war in Vietnam and war in Iraq, to all the wars that we were going through.

And we were always being accused of being too idealistic – too unrealistic. And it’s true, we’ve never figured out how to confront evil. And the only way we figured out how to confront it is by killing people. We were trying to say – you have got to start having another way of dealing with people – whether it’s diplomacy in negotiating or talking, whatever it is we have to go toward. But that speech made no inroads in any group at all.

JH:  Tell why the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago became a hotbed of feminist activity that was confronting people by doing good.

MF:  Absolutely.

JH:  Talk about how you saw the role of the YWCA with some of the other organizations that you helped mentor.

MF:  I saw the role through Dianne Smith who was the executive director of the YWCA. I came to her not for political reasons but because we were both tennis players. Once we started to talk, she asked me to come on the board for the Loop Center YWCA and I said yes. Next thing I knew I was chairman of the board. All those women on the board had outside interests. Whether it was employment issues or wage issues. Every one of those women on the board of the Loop Center YWCA were working in the women’s movement. That is what we coordinated and developed. When NOW broke into the scene, I had to go out and proselytize for NOW.

JH:  We were able to really change social policy and public policy absolutely through our feminist organization.

MF:  I wrote Esther Saperstein’s speech when she was in Springfield for the Equal Rights Amendment. We lost.

JH:  Yes, we did.

MF:  It took 40 years to get the Illinois legislature to vote for the Equal Rights Amendment. When I went out to speak for the Equal Rights Amendment from the Loop Center YWCA, and when I say that Dianne Smith was my mentor – Dianne Smith was a mentor for a lot of these women from emerging organizations. This is how she did it for me. We had a lunch meeting every Wednesday at the Y. Some of the lunches had a hundred women come to discuss issues. We invited Bella Abzug and all of the leading feminists of the time.

One of the radio stations called us to see if they would be able to broadcast these luncheons. We said of course. Dianne started a lot of things. Of course, she wanted them there. She let them come to our luncheon. For the first time they were going to show up – I can’t remember who our guests were – she said, “Maya, you will interview the people who are talking, the experts.” We had someone who wrote the book, the leader of the moment, etc.

She said, “You will interview the people who come to the meeting and I will take care of the questions that come from the audience.” And I looked at her and I said, “I can’t do that.” She said, “Of course you can.” And she walked away. She said that to every woman [who] had an idea. She said, “Do it.” I said, “I can’t.”And she said, “Of course you can.” That’s all she had to say. She was so instrumental in making us feel capable of doing the things that she knew we were capable of that we didn’t know.

On Meeting David Friedler

I lucked out. There are so many stories. He asked me to marry him when I was seven. And if I went out with anyone else when I was 16 or 20 he would bounce up the stairs and say, “I’m going to marry her and get out of here.” At one point, I said I will never talk to you again as long as I live. You know how long that lasted?  We were married in 1951 and he always described our marriage as, he took care of the little things and I took care of the big things. World peace, equality for women.

He was supportive when I got  involved in the women’s movement. He understood what I was doing, and it was OK. He was a very witty, bright man and he was wonderful to be with. How many people luck out in their first marriage?  He was handsome, he was bright. All he wanted to do was take care of his family and make a living and make a lot of money.

When I started to work for the equal rights amendment and went out to speak about it I went in to groups with Phyllis Schlafly and the Eagle Forum. I lost every debate that I was in with the Eagle Forum. They were doctors wives; they were lawyers wives. They didn’t want to give up the kind of world that they lived in.

I would say, “But there are women crying themselves to sleep because they are educated, and they want careers and they want a life of their own.” Being identified only as a mother wasn’t enough. Phyllis Schlafly was the best in the world in her field. She would say to me, “Oh Maya, you don’t really believe that do you?” And she said everything with a smile. She would say, “Oh you’re my favorite person in the world.” She was really the top of her field.

JH:  Well, she beat us.

MF:  She did.

JH:  For 40 years she beat us.

MF:  The biggest thing that I had to convince the women in the groups that I spoke to, that I did not succeed was that equality did not mean sameness. I remember going on retreats with the Loop Center YWCA women at the time.  The feminist movement was never monolithic. There were some feminists who were Republican. The only issue that I felt was across the board was the right to control your own body. We didn’t care about the politics or about what you did for a living.  We had to agree on that issue to be identified as a feminist. I had to have that argument in a lot of groups. Did you have that argument in a lot of groups?

JH:  We’re still having that argument in a lot of groups. Think about that. That today all these many years later, the right to control your own body is still as contentious. It’s unbelievable and we fear losing this one too.

MF:  Absolutely right. I don’t know why I was so optimistic. I think because I was younger, and I thought all these women identified as feminists.  They were spectacular women and they were changing the world. And we did.  Look at the Universities now.  I don’t think you can find a veterinarian who isn’t a woman.

JH:  In every sector.

MF:  In every sector.

JH:  Except corporate boards of course. Where the rich men are.  We are still not allowed in those areas. 

MF:  That’s true.

JH:  Tell us about Women’s Media. How did that come about?

MF:  That came about from WBEZ bringing their cameras and recording what we called Talk-In. That was the name of our luncheon meetings. When I left the YWCA, I wanted to continue being on the air. And started an organization called Talk-In.

JH: You were thinking about how you were able to use broadcast as a way to get into a lot of living rooms. A lot of people’s hearts and minds.

MF:  Right. I always thought that I should be in PR. When I would go and talk to a feminist group I would tell them that we had issues and we’d sat in a meeting. The issues were all there, but we didn’t have the way to get them out at all the groups that I would go to. And no one was assigned to PR. Who was going to call the newspapers? Who was going to get the media? No one in these groups had anyone involved with PR and I think that’s what initiated the idea for Talk-In. You’ve got to assign someone so that this issue doesn’t stay in the living rooms. You’ve got to get a bigger than that. And that’s what we did.

We started doing The Feminist Lense at the time where women all over the world are a fulcrum for social change. Feminism is no longer seen through the lens of separation and women around the world are no longer the marginalized story in the news. When Dianne and I stopped doing Talk-In we wanted a way of keeping women together. We started an organization called the Roslyn Group of Arts and Letters so that we could invite the women that we had already met and these leaders of organizations into the Roslyn Group of Arts and Letters. And that book group has been going on for 40 years now.

JH:  What’s so interesting listening to you is that you took all these leadership responsibilities and roles.

MF:  And very feisty too. I couldn’t run for office because I was too radical.