THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“ Equal Rights Amendment Activist All My Life”
Interviewed by Suzanne Doty, VFA Board, October 2018
SD: We’re going to begin our interview with Sandy. Would you please give us your name and where you were born, your family background? Just to give us a little background on you?
SO: Sure. My name is Sandy Oestreich. And basically I was born Jeanne Klarman and Sandy is a nickname. I was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. Did you want the birthdate?
SD: If you would be so kind.
SO: Sure. 1934. I am 84 years old.
SD: Bless you. So what was your family like before you got involved in the women’s movement?
SO: I had been a housewife pretty much for a long time and then I became an associate professor at Adelphi University teaching nursing at the graduate level. I was born a single child – solo – a mother and father who were very loving and caring. And we moved over the country because my dad was in the Coast Guard. And so I lived in some 13 states before I was maybe 10 years old. Those were the days when we made a – when you went anywhere thirty-five miles an hour in the car.
And then after getting out of school and getting a master’s degree and attending a post grad school – then I became a professor at the University – Associate Professor, rather, in nursing and worked there for 14 years and meanwhile got tenure and so forth. And then my husband got cancer. He’s still alive now – he’s wonderful – but got cancer at that time and so we decided to retire.
I had always been interested in the women’s movement.
Women’s equal treatment really. As a child I asked my mother why was it that [they] just called on the boys – and when they were disruptive they did not get punished. And my mother said – honey that’s just the way it is. And I said – well when I grow up I’m going to change that. So I guess I was about maybe 10 years old at the time.
SD: How old were you when you got married?
SO: 18 years old.
SD: And then you went to college after that? Good for you.
SO: Yes – well it was very unusual in those days to have a married woman in class – I hadn’t grown up yet. So I went ahead and got a free degree at Queens College – a bachelors – later on I got picked up and got a master’s and started my doctorate. By then we had two children – two daughters.
One of them has since died just a couple of years ago, which is quite a tragedy for me and our family. But the other one is now a neurologist in Birmingham, Alabama – married to a neurosurgeon. They are both wonderful people. We have since forcibly adopted unofficially our daughter’s husband – he’s such a saint. So we now have 4 in the family again.
SD: Are you a grandmother?
SO: No. Neither one of them ever had children because they found that their jobs were all encompassing. And I write articles paralleling that. I write articles about how work/life balance for women isn’t balanced – can’t be balanced if you want to do a good job or both. So I’m kind of sorry that I worked all those years. Nowadays it would have been nice for them to have had children, but they worked as hard as I did it at what they did.
Our daughter, our deceased daughter, was a school bus supervisor for a large district in New York – a large school district in New York – and she worked very hard at that for a long while, didn’t take vacations. But now here we are with the four of us back together again. And we have just moved from our wonderful little house. My mother died in my arms in that house in North Redington Beach, Florida right on the water where I could wind surf right off the dock. And it was lovely.
But we have just now moved to a condo because living on the water turned out to be too stressful when it came to be hurricane time and flood insurance was going to go up and I’m sure now with all the floods in North Carolina the flood insurance would be horrific. So we’re very happily ensconced in our condo in Clearwater Florida, about 15 minutes from our previous residence.
How Did I Start with the Equal Rights Amendment?
Like I said, I always felt like women got the short end of the stick. And little girls – I began to worry about too. So I became aware that the Equal Rights Amendment had never passed. I had marched in protests in the 1970s as well. But of course it never passed and it laid fallow for 36 years – still with three states ratification outstanding. We worked very hard and I have worked very hard 18 hours a day seven days a week for almost 18 years now and back to 12 hours a day seven days a week to get Florida – where we live – to get Florida legislature to ratify in those fallow years.
And the noose became tighter and tighter as it became a more partisan issue and more difficult. But I have hundreds of organizations and it’s just grown like topsy and we now partner with four other nationwide organizations for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. And in just the 14 months that we’ve been working together we’ve gotten – we’ve achieved two more ratifications. So now we’re down to just one more in all six of U.S. states – they’re vying to be the one to put the Equal Rights Amendment over the top.
One of the problems is that it still carries [for] some people the onus of being just pro abortion and some other 1970s lies, like the four dreaded: abortion; women in the military; unisex restrooms; and same sex anything. And it’s much more than that. Women are much more than their uterus. We recognize the wording which is “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or by the United States or any state on account of sex”. That means simply and straightforward – it means that sex discrimination would become a violation of the Constitution of the United States. So there would be equal treatment across the nation.
It’s Not Just a Women’s Issue, It’s a Male Issue Too.
Men don’t realize that completely, but of course women take the brunt of sex discrimination. Even the men recognize that. It seems to be OK with too many legislators. So we’ve been working very hard. And like I said, we partner with three other huge organizations. One is Equal Rights Coalition and that proposes the start over amendment that has been viable since quite a few years back. But it would mean we start all over again and we haven’t even passed the one that needed only three states. And now only needs one state. For almost a hundred years we’ve been waiting.
None of Us Have the Time to Wait Another 100 Years.
We are in solidarity with them and work with them very nicely. It’s very important that we stay in solidarity and not be in competition, because legislators would then say – “these women can’t even decide for themselves what they want, so why would we bother?” So we forge on and that means that I give speeches all up and down the East Coast and particularly in Florida, [in] every county. Every Fall I write a three-minute monologue for constituents in each of the counties in Florida before the county legislative delegation here that they provide.
I make the arrangements, write the talk and gather the constituents and they go all over the state and give it in their own county. Rallies and speeches and all kinds of events – I’m speaking everywhere and lobbying nonstop by phone. I help out with the other states when their ERA resolutions come up and they experience the same problem I do.
The Florida state Senate has no problem whatsoever with it and passed it out of committee years ago overwhelmingly. But the House refuses to hear it in any sense. So I have been before the Ethics Committee of Florida to object to that and got nowhere. And I spoke and actually wrote the addition to the Florida Constitution when the Florida constitutional revision committee met. It meets every 20 years. It was an exciting opportunity to change the constitution to make sure that the decision to hold voting hearings and votes on bills – particularly the Equal Rights Amendment – was assigned to a panel, a nonpartisan panel rather than a very partisan Senate president and House Speaker. And that also went nowhere.
The basis for that – for both of those really was that it seemed to us and our attorneys to be an abrogation of the right to free speech. If we didn’t speak then we were gagged before the legislature who had no idea of the tenets of the Equal Rights Amendment and could protest and withhold hearings so that it never got voted on, never made progress – [for] all of this time in Florida, for 18 years going on 19 now.
But There Does Seem to be Potential Change in the Tide.
So perhaps we will get this one last one over the hill; then we can all rest a little bit; but we expect a big pushback from the other party – political party. But we’re ready, because our constitutional lawyers, our team, understands and is backing us. So we have plenty of substantive legal arguments to turn that away and then move right into the Constitution.
I just hope I live long enough. The last time I spoke before Florida legislature I said at one of the legislative delegation meetings [a statement] that somebody else couldn’t make – I said, “I’m going to be 84 years old. Don’t make me die before you do this. You’re going to do it anyway. So do it now.” We know exactly where we’re coming from. We’re ready for their push back. Bring it on we say – so that’s good news.
SD: Do you think that the potential new governor is going to help it all? I know that you’ve got an African-American young African-American man is running for governor. You think that’s going to help your cause?
SO: I’ve spoken to him – [Andrew] Gillum is his name. He hadn’t thought about it but people said they would imagine he would. Unfortunately the female opponent that we really wanted to go in – had been full swing for the Equal Rights Amendment. Of course the governor doesn’t get a chance to vote on it. It is entirely up to the legislature of each of the states since it is a federal constitutional change. So it doesn’t make an awful lot of difference. You know a voice speaking up from the governors seat would be helpful and if Gillum does win – maybe so.
We’re just delighted that so many women are running this time and they all seem very competent, so that may help all of us. And then of course the MeToo movement has pushed the equal rights movement to the top of everybody’s agenda and that’s why I’m so busy giving speeches everywhere and interviews everywhere. High school students often write me with questions and interview me so we do anything that will help publicize the Equal Rights Amendment because not everybody knows it didn’t pass.
One woman who was going to speak on another topic became speechless that it hadn’t passed. It’s something like 72% of the public believes that it’s in the Constitution – that we’re treated equally – but of course we’re not. At our website we have a list of the kinds of things that will be either obliterated or made better when the ERA passes.
And one of them is that “strict scrutiny” – a tradition that makes it such that people who protest against the Equal Rights Amendment or any other bill I guess – if it is signed [as] “strict scrutiny,” it gets a much higher standing before the courts to the effect that people who do bring sex discrimination cases are more likely to win, since they don’t have to prove why they need it. Others have to prove why we don’t need it. And so that’s a big standard to move forward constitutionally too.
So There Are a Lot of Things Going for us This Year in Particular.
We have just relocated our office and our home to a condo. So we’re kind of squeezed for space, but our seven banners we still carry and they’re antiques for the first time. And we’re just proud to be part of – by the way did I tell you we have 300,000 members? Perhaps I did. We’re just proud to carry on and be so close. There are still people who say – you’re never going to do this, look at who’s President.
Well of course he doesn’t have a say about it either. I mean he has no legal say. So we are forging on and it looks more likely than ever since we just need one more state to ratify coming up. So we work very very hard. It’s been years since I’ve seen a movie or read a book. I haven’t had time. I’m busy sending out newsletters to people so they continue to be involved. So other questions?
SD: What was the most memorable experience that you have had in the fight to pass the ERA? Can you think of one specific time or something that happened?
SO: Well, I can think of a couple. One of the things that is not pleasant is that I’ve been run off the road and issued public death threats by the other party. Yes, and it’s quite cruel – this whole thing and it’s very very tough. And it’s very unreasonable to know that we have 51 or 52 percent depending on what you read of the population a certain majority. And yet we’re treated like second class everywhere.
We Lose 20% of Our Wages on Average – Just Because We’re Female.
And another example – rape is not treated like the soul scorching crime that it is. And men don’t seem to realize the invasion and the loss of courage and empowerment for years that rape does and entitle us to. Just a couple of examples. I get angry just thinking about that. I write on all the blogs online and so forth that my hair is on fire – and it is. I just keep on going and we keep on gaining members.
We’re in financial straits all the time. I was able at our home up until last year making enough by garden sales here in Florida to get myself to Washington to speak before Congress on the bill that Carolyn Cook out of Maryland – and [I] have written together. And I guess it’s been repeated for nine years something like that and it has more cosponsors to it than the started-over one does. People are beginning to realize it would be too tough to just start over again from scratch. So if we just have one more state that’s a lot more alluring. So people are piling on board. Get me back on track here because I think up wandered off a little bit.
SD: No I think everything that you’ve talked about is absolutely relevant. I know I was working on [the ERA] right back in Illinois in the 70s and luckily they just passed it and Nevada’s passed it.
SO: We were very instrumental – I’m pretty sure in Illinois in particular. Illinois quite unusually – quite uniquely requires a two thirds vote of their legislature not just the majority to pass something like this. If they passed it, I think it should pass almost anywhere. However the states that are predominately run by the other party are the ones that are the tough nuts. We believe we’ve got the rationale, though they’ll never tell us why they won’t to hear it.
We think that party is wary that their heavy donors – the corporate donors fear having to face the 20 percent increase in our salaries to bring [them] close to male salaries for the same job, same hours and maybe even better credentials. So they absolutely are adamant against it. Nevada was heavily Democratic and Illinois I don’t think was terribly bipartisan.
But the rest of the states I think most of them and Florida are run by the other party and they don’t seem to understand that the Equal Rights Amendment talks about the United States in any state related to salaries. So the truth of the matter is it seems likely that the courts will find those states that are split – partisan wise will be the last to manage to ratify – vote to ratify with enough votes.
SD: Of course one of the problems is the implementation of something once it passes. That’s probably the next fight once we get it passed is the implementation – and needs to follow the law.
SO: Well once it passes of course it has two years to be – that will have been voted in – it would take two years – it should be made a violation of the U.S. Constitution not to treat the sexes equally male and female. And yes there will be pushback and there’s argument that then it will go – or prior to that once in the operation of passing – that it will either be brought before Congress or before the Supreme Court. I’ve had opinion – legal opinion – that it will land in Congress as it is seen as a political argument rather than a judicial one.
So I Think It Will Probably Go Before the Full Congress as They Push Back.
But like I said we have constitutional lawyers – just fine people who are willing to work with us on pushing it into the Constitution. We just need to get the House in all of those states to hold hearings. Once it’s heard it passes, because the staff analyses in the Senate and we presume in the House too – will find absolutely nothing jarring about the equal rights amendment – no cost to it – nothing.
Though one of the things that we do stress now, at least “we” being my organization – the National Equal Rights Amendment Alliance that is nationwide – we see that it will manage to pull itself over the top as soon as we can get it heard. We see that once heard, it passes overwhelmingly – but it’s just the block. That’s why I went to the Florida review commission and the ethics committee based on the first amendment rights that we’re being denied by blocking hearings of the equal rights amendment.
One more state – that’s all. We did two of them in just 14 months [after] 36 years of nothing at all so I think we’re on a roll. We’re going to do this. I just have always – I’m not a terribly a wonderful person in any way – it’s just that I’m persistent.
Persistence Wins When You Can Present the Arguments.
What I was going to say is that the big new item or act our organization uses is that respected economists now predict that once the equal rights movement is passed then our gross domestic product will soar by 15 percent. That was the thing that I stressed before the Illinois Congress by phone. I do a lot of lobbying by phone of the various states when it comes up.
So then there were a couple of other economic issues that will be improved as well. It uniquely requires no funding. So there’s economic things [that] seemed to – rather than say why women need equal treatment – that isn’t just art but money. Yes they’re interested. We’ve got things under our hat and we’re ready to go.
SD: Well thank you so much, Sandy. This has been an education for me to hear you speak. And I think what we can say about you is that nevertheless she persisted.
Additional Information Contributed by Sandy Oestreich
When I was 6 years old and asked my dear Mama, “Why do boys get called on in class so much and act up but don’t get punished?” When she said, “Honey, that’s JUST THE WAY IT IS.” I responded with, “When I grow up, I’m gonna’ change that.”
I was always a girls’/women’s advocate without realizing it. I marched everywhere I could in 1970s protests for the Equal Rights Amendment; I remember especially in NY and N Carolina (the latter is now one of 6 state legislators we lobby for ERA, as well as our headquarters state, Florida). Other states vying now to push Equal Rights Amendment over the top by ratifying it: VA, AZ, GA, MO. We WILL do this. Absolutely. ERA lay fallow for 36 years, but in just the past 14 months we and our partnering huge organizations (ERA Action; Equal Means Equal; and ERA Coalition) have achieved two more of the 3 required ratifications (NV and IL)
I am now 84 years old and working in other campaigns too numerous to count: for improved environments, with EPA against cancer-causing toxins; Concerned Scientists; Doctors without Borders; American Nurses Assn and Florida Nursing Assn; the 3 other ERA organizations listed above; Indivisibles; AAUW; Adelphi U, NY Alumni and faculty; ACLU Women’s Rights Chair; was on Florida Board LWVoters. I am president-founder of National Equal Rights Amendment Alliance (300,000+ members), and a long list of too numerous to count am very active in, sorry. (If need a full accounting, will take me several months of important lobbying time for women and girls..and our fine males.) Do take a quick tour of our www.2passERA.org.
I am in marvelous health, working 12/7 (WAS 18/7 two yrs ago), for free, year-around now going on 19 solid years for ERA passage – fundraising via FL garden sales, honoraria, and a few incoming dues, traveling, speaking ERA in FL, NY, US Congress, lobbying, writing op-Eds and Letters to Editors nationwide.
*Was honored past July 2018 by Democratic legislators who came to MY office with full staff to learn more about ERA as they plan to sponsor or vote for Florida’s ratification in 2019.
*We spearhead Florida, mentor 5 other state legislatures, and shepherd cosponsors to our own US Congressional ERA-facilitating bills (gaining more co-sponsors than the other Start Over bill, though we do work for that one, too, of course).
Our Goal Is Full Equal Treatment of Males and Females in USA via Wide and Deep Solidarity with Proponents
*See our evolving web site (previous one crashed by GoDaddy’s error): www.2passERA.org, which includes a long list of those organizations endorsing our own work for the Equal Rights Amendment for male and female alike and a large survey of Americans of all stripes denoting 94% of Americans WANT the ERA passed, finally, after nearly 100 years of waiting.
When Asked If I’m Still Involved as an Activist
ABSOLUTELY: Told Florida legislators, “I’m going to be 84 years old – please do not let me Die before you pass the Equal Rights Amendment. So, do it now.” Endlessly lobby everywhere. Deeply concerned about the America voting climate and Supreme Court of USA.
I speak ERA everywhere I’m asked: Florida, DC, NYC, Missouri, Louisiana etc.; next week local League of Women Voters and another new local ERA group. My/our National ERA Alliance Papers are located at Rutgers Library, Harvard University.
AAS from Nassau Comm. College, NY; MS Adelphi University, NY(for Clinical Nurse Specialist) +14 years nursing faculty there; AllButDoctorate, Hofstra U, NY. ; State U of NY for Nurse Practitioner, still licensed 35 years; co-author, internationally distributed pharmacology reference texts, many articles; former elected official
Former elected official; Prof Emerita, Adelphi U, 1986; awards or membership in 2020Vision; county LWVoters; “Best Business”, city of St Petersburg FL; US Summit; Biographied in Feminists Who Changed America
Adelphi U.NY faculty 1972-1986 as Assoc Professor to 250 nursing students; developed learning tools for student clinical and for theory learning including Badge of Honor Certificate once student successfully gave first injection(as rite of passage); coauthored their textbooks; Nurse Practitioner at Long Island NY Hosp. clinic; Nurse Practitioner at free indigent Senior Citizen clinic in next county (78 miles/day RT); Physical assessment for County School Board’s bus drivers). Still with active RN-ARNP licenses. Absorbing health research daily. Unpaid ERA lobbyist in 1970s, much moreso now from year 2000 to current year as 501c3.
Happily married to brilliant, caring husband Charles. 2 daughters: Cheryl (died 2015–have gotten past it, never OVER it). She was Supervisor of School Bus Transport in NY. Lisa (b 1958, now a fine Neurologist in Alabama – so far away, married to Neurosurgeon).
Again, my bucket list will be completed once the EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT is codified in US Constitution so that all American little girls and women are guaranteed protection from sex discrimination (males, too, but we females take the brunt of it, though we fight for males’ equal treatment too)* and thus enjoy equal treatment under our Constitution. We females constitute at least 51% – a majority of the population. “Fair’s FAIR” in a democracy. We want to be At the Table and OFF the menu! (to quote Gloria Steinem).
*I heartily recommend the paperback, Hazards of Being Male, as it presents the other side of sex discrimination as endorsed societally for a balanced view.