Tina Tchen

“You Have to Stay Persistent and You Have to Keep Pursuing Justice.”

Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA Executive VP, at the UIC Richard J. Daley Library Chicago, IL. June 15, 2019

KR:  Tina thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed for the VFA Pioneer History Project. If you would start by telling us a little bit about your background, growing up, where you were born, where you went to school and your professional background.

TT: I was born in Columbus, Ohio. I am the child of two Chinese immigrants, Peter and Lily Tchen. These days I actually underscore that they were not just Chinese immigrants, but they were refugees from China fleeing in the post-World War II communist revolution movement and came to the United States in 1949.

My dad settled deliberately in the Midwest where there were no Chinese, because he had heard about the discrimination that his friends and family had experienced in the east and west coasts. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. That’s where I went to elementary school, high school, Beachwood High School. I went to Radcliffe College at Harvard University for undergrad. I met a guy from Chicago and that’s how I got to Illinois. I then got married and fortuitously moved to Springfield, Illinois in 1978.

KR:   Your background is as a lawyer?

TT:  I am now a lawyer; I was not then. I graduated from college in 1978 and moved to Springfield, which is the state capital of Illinois to work in Illinois state government. My new husband and I both worked in the Illinois Bureau of the Budget under Governor Jim Thompson’s administration. 1978 was obviously a pretty key year in the ERA history and that’s why for me it was very fortunate to arrive in Springfield right at that moment in time.

I subsequently went on to law school. After three years in Springfield I then moved to Chicago, went to Northwestern Law School and became a lawyer and practiced law at Skadden Arps – a big law firm headquartered in New York – in their Chicago office for 23 years; then went to the Obama White House for eight years. I’m now back in Chicago at a firm – Buckley LLP – focusing on Workplace Cultural Compliance and working on a variety of other issues including Global Girls Education and a group called the United State of Women that works for gender equity across the board.

KR:  What year were born?

TT:  1956.

KR:  You are a well-known person for your relationship with the Obamas and the role that you played in the Obama White House. Not everybody knows about your earlier background working in the women’s movement. Can you tell us how you got started with that and talk about some of your most memorable experiences?

TT:  My time working on the ERA was incredibly formative, quite frankly, to the rest of my life and the career I have had since then. I arrived in Springfield in 1978. I had actually for part of my senior thesis, being a sociology major in college, had been on the women’s movement, which was my first sort of realizing and reading about the first wave of the women’s movement and the women’s suffragist movement.

I get to Springfield after coming from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Springfield, Illinois, newly married at twenty-two years old. It feels like you’re like in another planet figuring out what to do. I remember somehow figuring out that there were these phone banks that Springfield NOW chapter was running out of the offices of AFSCME in Springfield on the weekends. I showed up one day to start phone banking for the ERA.

We were phone banking for the extension at the time and that’s where I first met Linda Miller who was the Springfield NOW president. We were a very small but hardy group and I just kept coming back. Eventually, pretty quickly – and in those days there weren’t that many of us, so you could become an office holder of the Springfield Chapter of NOW pretty fast. Before too long I was the vice president of the Springfield chapter, than the president of the Springfield chapter when Linda moved on to become the president of Illinois NOW.

And that was the moment from 1978 to 1981 when I lived in Springfield that as I describe it when I talk about this publicly now, Springfield Illinois was the center of the universe for American feminism, because we were the only Northern industrial state that had not ratified the ERA. We were the linchpin in the four-state national strategy to get three states for the final three states.

Ellie Smeal and a whole bunch of people moved to Illinois to make it the national headquarters of this final ratification push and Springfield was sort of the epicenter as the state capital. It was a very heady period of time for someone in their early 20s to find themselves in that moment. It was just fabulous for me to be immersed in this movement of our lives and really have a front row seat to all of it. We all had our green and white outfits that we would wear. And because I worked in the Capitol building my day job office was actually in the Capitol building itself.

We would take our lunch hours, several of us in the office who were activists in our off day job hours, we’d take our lunch breaks and our personal time and go swap out for the vigil folks that were in the rotunda or to participate in whatever particular lobbying efforts were going on that day – you know to welcome people coming in to town who would be coming in from marches or for organizing.

It was really a moment that taught me both about feminism, about gender equity, about grassroots organizing and lobbying and political work. All of that was very foundational for the rest of my life, because I continued to stay in gender equity work.

I was very active in Harold Washington’s campaign. After Harold was elected, several of us, Julie Hamos and Marylin Katz and a not yet political Jan Schakowsky formed something called Jacky Grimshaw’s Cook County Democratic Women that led to women elected leaders like Jan Schakowsky which encouraged her to run for the first time and Toni Preckwinkle and others. I hired Terry Cosgrove to be the director of Illinois Personal PAC. Personal had a huge vision for really changing Illinois from an anti-choice state to a pro-choice state which we’ve now finally succeeded in – many years later.

Working on women and girls has really become my life’s work. When I was first hired to run the Outreach Office for President Obama when that job was offered to me and I was in charge of outreach to all of the organizations and all of the constituency groups across the country. I said to Valerie Jarrett, “I’d love to do this, but I want to keep the women and girls piece myself,” because that has always been my passion and has remained so.

KR:  How did you get involved with the Obama administration?

TT:   Because I stayed active in progressive politics my entire career really having started that coming out of the ERA campaigns, I got to know the Obamas long enough ago that the three of us can’t remember when we first met. Probably either at or before the time he first ran for the Illinois State Senate and then I was always a supporter of his, always stayed involved. I was on the board of the University Medical Center when Mrs. Obama was a vice president there and was part of his early national finance committee when he ran for the U.S. Senate and then when he obviously ran for president.

I had the good fortune to then be asked to go to the White House and was able to not only run the Office of Public Engagement for two years and then be Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff for six years. The entire eight years I was the executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls where we really ran all of the Obama administration policy around women and girls through and encouraged every part of the federal government to work on issues concerning women and girls.

The council consisted of all the cabinet members all of the White House policy offices. Valerie Jarrett was the chair, I was the executive director for all eight years. Again, a lot of that foundational work came from my early days with the Equal Rights Amendment.

KR:  Thinking back on your experience in Springfield with the ERA, were there any particular memorable moments, either good or bad?

TT:  Obviously the failure of [the ERA] to pass was crushing and we worked so hard and the fevered pitch leading up to it. I lived in Springfield full time from 1978 to 81. I left for law school in Chicago in the fall of 1981, but came back. I think my last term for law school ended in May. I came back in May to Springfield to help put together things for the last push.

I was the coordinator for the last March we did and really for that push. It was incredible. It is hard to paint the picture now of how much activity there was. We had all these people coming in for the march. We had Sr Maureen Fiedler and these amazing nuns and Sonja Johnson who had done this hunger strike. We had these activists from Champagne Urbana who’d come in to chain themselves to the rail of the Senate and threw pig’s blood, if I recall, sort of on the floor in front of the governor’s office.

It was a pretty fever pitched time. And I think in the middle of that we all thought we must surely be able to succeed. So not succeeding was hard, but it wasn’t over. There’s that clip in the movie, Fighting For the Obvious, where Ellie Smeal is saying, “Just vote us down and wait to see what happens.” The very next year – and this was during my second year in law school and I attribute this success the next year directly to the loss in 1982 – the very next year a group of us had been involved, including Illinois NOW.

At that point I was vice president of Illinois NOW and Linda Miller was president of Illinois NOW. Julie Hamos who at the time was working in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office under Richard Daley, the state’s attorney. And Barbara Engle who was the head of the YWCA rape crisis center. Barbara Shaw who at the time was head of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Polly Poskin from Springfield, who is the head of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

That group, we decided we would get together and rewrite Illinois’s rape laws, because at the time Illinois was probably the second worst state in the country in terms of its definition. It had never changed its definition of rape all the way back from the Blackstone definition from the 17th – 18th century. It still said rape was by man against a woman, not his wife, by man over the age of 12 or 13 by force and against your will and penetration.  All of these emit elements which really don’t describe how sexual violence occurs.

It occurs within a marriage. It occurs not just by man against a woman. It occurs not just [by] penetration crimes. It occurs not [just] against her will. The whole notion of consent and having to prove consent. And so, we got together, worked with Dawn Clark Netsch who was our amazing sponsor to really do this pretty radical transformation and revision. The revision of the entirety of Illinois sex crimes to be more reflective of child rape and to be more reflective of sexual battery and sexual abuse and put this pretty comprehensive bill –  the Illinois Criminal Sexual Assault Act of 1984 – together.

And with Dawn’s assistance as our chief sponsor, we went through the process starting in 1983 to get that passed. I can remember we had some hearings where you could see the legislators saying – so if I’m in an elevator and I’m actually touching someone is that going to be battery? You could see them spinning on things that maybe they had done in the past and they’re asking us, hypothetically speaking, where this could now be a crime.

Remarkably we passed with overwhelming majorities in both the House and the Senate notwithstanding. Including the marriage piece, which became a really tricky part where people really couldn’t get their heads around that and wouldn’t women just use that as leverage in a divorce? Pate Philip at the time who was the Republican leader, was particularly outspoken about that.

But we nonetheless passed it and I always thought this was kind of their attempt to “get well” after having defeated the ERA. That was OK, we didn’t do the ERA, but maybe we can at least do this for women and children to protect them, so we were able to get that passed. I do think that that success, which was critically important for sexual violence victims in the state of Illinois, was a direct outgrowth both of having lost the ERA but a direct outgrowth of the strength of organizing that we had built up, because we had supporters that we could activate. We actually tapped into that network, because Illinois NOW, it became our priority after the ERA went down to pass the Illinois Criminal Sexual Assault.

KR:  That was a great accomplishment.  So, what was your reaction when Illinois finally passed the ERA?

TT:  Well finally. I talk about that publicly a lot of times where I say 40 years later here we are. And I’m glad that we have finally after 40 years. It’s an example of that arc of the moral universe. Bending slowly but bending towards justice. I do remember –  it brought back a memory of that time. Laurence Tribe came to town and back in the 70s a lot of experts and I remember – it wasn’t Larry Tribe, but it was a different well-known historian scholar who came to town.

He pulled me aside and he said,  “You know this may be hard, but you’re on the right side of history and it’s going to eventually change, and this is the direction that everything’s moving in.” I think it’s a demonstration of that. That you have to stay at it. You have to stay persistent and you have to keep pursuing justice. And it may take a while. But it’s important to keep after it. Eventually that arc does bend towards justice.

KR:  Talk a little bit about what you’re doing now.

TT:   Post Obama White House, I say on a lot of the work that we started there. One important thing that’s directly relevant to the ERA history is within the Obama administration as head of the White House Counsel of Women and Girls I experienced this fragmentation that exists in the women’s movement. We have incredible groups working on violence against women and on equal education and on women’s health care and entrepreneurship for women and anti-poverty work, but oftentimes two groups don’t talk to each other. Even in the same area we’re not talking to each other.

We’ve lost what we had during the ERA movement. In the late 70s and early 80s was this gathering up all of the issues and all of the groups working in different threads of gender equity, pulling together and working in the same realm and they would come to us and we tried to put it back together in the Obama White House. And post Obama White House, Valerie [and] I wanted to make sure that we could continue that. As a culmination of our work in the Obama administration, we held a large summit in June of 2016 called the United State of Women.

We brought activists from all of these areas together, over 5,000 people in Washington D.C. and we kept that brand outside the federal government, so it is a 501C3 civic organization. We have continued that work of bringing all of the organizations that work on gender equity issues together and to bring them and link them together with local activists.

We think it’s important to shine a light and provide resources and a voice to women who are doing things like doing after school programs in their basements for kids. Like little Marley Dias who is a twelve-year-old putting together books around African-American girls to distribute those so that girls can see themselves in the books that they’re reading and really bring those people together.

And so, we’re continuing that work. We hold local galvanized summits around the country. The first was here in Chicago in July of 2017. We held our second summit last year in 2018 in Los Angeles with over eight thousand activists from across the country and we’ll do it again next year. We have ambassadors now in almost all 50 states doing that active work. United State of Women is a place to bring back everyone working together, all of the organizations working for gender equity coming together.

I continue to work with Mrs. Obama on the Girls Opportunity Alliance, which is our effort inside the Obama Foundation to help support adolescent girls education around the world – because we have 98 million adolescent girls around the world right now who are not in school. I believe they’re not in school, because adolescent girls, as they grow and become women, are subject to all of the gender discrimination that women are, and they’re seen as more valuable as child brides or as free labor to their families instead of educated.

And yet we know that the fastest way to solve quite frankly the world’s development ills is to educate women and to empower them. I’ve continued that work. And then finally my day job is working on Workplace Cultural Compliance to really make workplaces better for people of all kinds – it’s directly related to my work with Time’s Up. I’m one of the co-founders of The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund that came out of the wake of the Harvey Weinstein stories.

The women of Hollywood really wanted to do something, knowing that they are women of privilege, to use that position to actually help all women. Especially low-income women who might be suffering from sexual harassment. So we put together the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund that is housed at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington D.C. and is really intended to be a place where if you’ve been a victim of sexual harassment you can call there and get linked up to both legal resources and public relations resources if you need them to assist you.

We’ve raised over 25 million dollars. We’ve had nearly 800 lawyers volunteer their time. We’ve had 5000 people come forward in the last year and a half seeking assistance from 60 different industries. It has really demonstrated what we feared, which is sexual harassment [is] really everywhere. It’s happening at all levels of companies, all kinds of companies, all kinds of workplaces. Not just in the for-profit business but in the not for profit business and governments. I’m really proud of the work that the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund is doing.

KR:  That’s fantastic, really amazing. I was struck this morning by the comments you made about how the second wave women could work with the third wave women. Do you want to talk about that?

TT:  The question this morning was how do you pass the baton from the second wave to the new wave to the third wave. And what I’ve had the good fortune to do – having worked in the Obama campaigns, both the ‘08 campaign and ‘12 campaign and in the ‘16 campaign and through the Obama White House – and what our Obama Alums are all doing in different campaigns and what we’ve done in United State of Women which is really run by millennial women.

Valerie and I advise them, but it’s really an organization driven by and run by millennial women. There’s an amazing group of third generation women who are doing incredible work. They actually came of age during the Obama years. They have a very optimistic view of the world and are working hard to achieve that even in the challenging times that we’re in.

They are forming organizations like She Should Run and The Arena. They are running for office themselves like Lauren Underwood and a whole series of incredible young women who are running for office at all levels – you know state and local. Buffy Wicks, who’s one of my former staffers, is a state legislator now in California. And we have that opportunity to support them. So, the way you pass the baton is we need to support them.

We need to be taking orders from them. Asking where do you want me to go to knock on doors? What phone calls should I be making? And supporting them and helping them now that we’ve both accumulated the knowledge we have, the context we have, the resources and put those contacts and resources to help support these young women and men who themselves are trying to bring about a progressive vision for the country. And are, I think, doing some incredible things.

And I think that’s the best way for us to continue the legacy of what we started in the 70s and 80s around the Equal Rights Amendment. That is the way to achieve that overall vision, because the Equal Rights Amendment, the beauty of it – because it’s so encompassing. I think in a single sentence, [it] portrays a vision of what we want the world to be and the value that we want to hold. That is not just about the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. It’s about so many of the other things that are important.  

It’s about health care, it’s about protecting abortion rights, it’s about protecting immigrants and DACA and the dreamers. It’s about making sure that we’re fighting against detention centers at the border. It’s about making sure that women entrepreneurs have success, it’s about dealing with transgender women who are getting murdered in communities across the country right now. And all of that is under what we were fighting for 40 years ago. This umbrella and a vision of equal rights for all.

KR:  Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you think is important for history to record about your activism?

TT:  I want to acknowledge one person who we talked a little bit about this morning, who I got to know in the 70s and then I didn’t see her again until I landed in Washington D.C. in my job in the Obama White House, and that’s Eleanor Smeal. I remember Ellie when I was just a little 20 something kid and Ellie was national president of the National Organization for Women and she led this overall campaign and she was the leader of the Coalition to ratify the ERA. And she uprooted her life and moved to Illinois and lived here to run the campaign and was so committed and so fiery and I became very active in NOW as a result.

I remember Ellie actually tried to convince me to postpone law school. I can remember her saying, “Wow you’re studying to be a lawyer and wouldn’t it be so much better if the laws you were studying included the ERA when you’re looking in the books?” I said I know Ellie, but I have to go to school now. I won’t be able to afford to take a year off – because she tried to get me to work full time then. And then I didn’t see her.

So, from 1982 until the next time I saw Ellie Smeal was my first night in D.C. going to the Women’s Ball that was held the weekend before the Obama Inauguration Day. Meeting with the women’s organizations in D.C. was my first introduction to them in my new capacity as the director of Office and Public Engagement for the White House and Alice Cohan who is Ellie’s longtime Lieutenant and still is to this day.

We are standing in the buffet line and I said, “Alice, don’t you remember me?”  And she looked at me and said, “Oh you are that Tina Tchen?” And I said, “Yes.” She said, “Ellie and I have been debating since you were announced, could she be the same Tina Tchen…she couldn’t possibly be the same Tina Tchen.” Ellie was convinced that no it couldn’t possibly be the same Tina Tchen, it has to be somebody different. I said, “No it’s me. I’m still that person.”

The amazing thing about Ellie is she has never wavered in all that time in these 40 years. Ellie went from NOW to found the Feminist Majority. The Feminist Majority is one of the best organized groups on college campuses for college women. It’s been the group that’s been most outspoken for Afghan women. Ellie was at the forefront of the Violence Against Women Act. Vice President Biden credits her with that all the time whenever he sees her in the audience.

Ellie has just been that constant and remains that voice to this day. I got to see that firsthand during the eight years I was in Washington. When she and I would be in the same room and I would be speaking, I would introduce Ellie and say she is really the person that taught me all these issues. Ellie Smeal is the person who taught me about grass roots organizing, taught me about coalition building in the women’s movement, taught me about feminism. As we’re thinking about the era, it’s hard to think about that ratification movement without acknowledging the leadership that Ellie provided us then and that she continues to provide today.

KR:  Tina Tchen, thank you so much for a wonderful interview. We really appreciate it. 

TT:  My pleasure.