Wilma Stevens

“I Went to My First NOW Meeting and I Was Fascinated.”

Interviewed by Mary-Ann Lupa, VFA Board, April 2019

WS:  My name is Wilma Stevens, also known as Willie.

MAL:  I understand you grew up in Myersville, Maryland.

WS:  I did. I was actually born in Frederick, Maryland which is the county seat of Frederick County. It’s in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and I lived there until I was five years old. When I was three my parents bought a lot in Myersville which was a town a little further up the mountain that had four hundred people in it more or less. And they began to build their own house. They didn’t have any money, so they built their house themselves.

One of the great influences of my life was my mother. She was raised in Arkansas, and when she went to high school she was not allowed to take the academic courses. She was a farm kid and back then if you were a farm kid you got shunted into vocational school. This was always something that bothered her. She was very smart. She graduated second in her class and was given a scholarship to business school in Little Rock and was not able to take it because they had no money. And my grandfather did not believe in educating girls. Of course, she had to go to work, but it was one thing that was very important to her, that I go to school, that we all go to school. This was why she was always taking part time jobs and working.

She was very happy, both that I wanted to go on to do what my father was doing for a living and or something similar to what he was doing and that I was able to leave Myersville. She herself took the big leap of leaving Clarksville, Arkansas in 1945.  She joined the Red Cross, and in the 1940s during World War II to be a civilian – a woman going overseas – you had to be 30 years old.  They weren’t getting enough volunteers, so they lowered the age to 25. And when they lowered the age again to 23 my mother signed up. Her mother was convinced she was never going to see her again. But Mom had to get out of Clarksville, and she signed on as a secretary with the Red Cross and was sent to Manila in the Philippines.

The day that she arrived she met my father. A friend of hers was leaving for a different assignment. She said – We all have to go out. It’s our last night together so let’s all go out. And she knew someone from a Georgia battalion. And my father had ended up with the Georgia battalion. She had pulled together a few of her friends, and he got together a few of his friends and my mother ended up in a jeep with my father. They courted in the Philippines for a while. And before he was sent back to the States he asked her to marry him. They came home and got married in Arkansas and then settled in Maryland where his family lived.

I think that’s one of the reasons she was happy for me to come to Chicago – or just to get out anywhere. But she was always very proud of the fact that I’d left town. I think those were things that she would have liked to have done. She would have loved college and she would have loved to have had the opportunity to travel more too. It was something that was definitely a source of pride to her. And she also was very supportive of what NOW was doing. One of the things that actually surprised me was the fact that she was supportive of what NOW was doing as far as abortion rights was concerned.

Her grandmother, who she never knew – this was her mother’s mother, was put in a mental hospital and was committed when my grandmother was probably five years old. According to my mother she simply went crazy from having too many kids in too short a time with no resources.  I mean this was the frontier, this was Arkansas back in the 1890’s. And the fact that she realized what this did to women and how much it had impacted her own mother’s life, that was something that gave her a lot of support for what we were doing. And being in Manila, it was an amazing experience for her. I mean considering she hadn’t been out of Arkansas it was quite a revelation. That’s one of the reasons she was so supportive of me doing something else. Both of my parents were.  My dad because it was very similar to what he was doing, and she was just happy that I was out having an independent life and was happy and had those opportunities.  It was very important to her. 

MAL:  And where did you go to college?

WS:  I went to the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore. It was the same school my father went to. I was really excited about getting to go there and very excited about going to Baltimore and getting out of Myersville.

MAL:  And what did you study?

WS:  I studied graphic design.

MAL:  How did you happen to decide on becoming an artist?

WS:  My father was an artist. He had studied at the Maryland Institute before he went into the war. He was drafted out of the Maryland Institute. He never did get to finish his degree, but he came away with a diploma and then went right into the army. He spent his career as an engineer designing medical labs at Fort Detrick, Maryland. When he came home at night that’s when he would do all of his projects.  He did ceramics and he did silk screening and all kinds of things. He and I are very alike in temperament and in interests and I always saw him as a role model. I really wanted to be a graphic designer and so that’s what I set out to do.

MAL:  You eventually came to Chicago. How did that come about?

WS:  I had done an illustration project in college based on The Immense Journey by Loren Eisley. It was about natural history and evolution and I had just done these four panels as an illustration project. One of my professors, my illustration teacher, at least a year after I graduated, met the Art Director of Science Year which was one of the publications of World Book Publishing, Field Enterprises Educational Corporation at that time, at some convention and was told that they were looking for people, and bless his heart, he said I have a former student who I think would work out for you.

He got in touch with me and gave me the information and I applied for the job. I was still in Maryland and I applied for this job in Chicago. They were very organized. They sent me a copy of the book and several manuscripts and some layout sheets and basically said this is what we need from our designers, tell us how you would illustrate these two manuscripts. And so I did this test and send it back in. I got a communication from them very quickly saying we’re very interested in you, but we have a hiring freeze so please keep in touch.

In the meantime, I still needed a job at that point and I ended up working as an artist at Fort Knox, Kentucky for six months while I kept writing to the Art Director at Science Year asking When do you need someone – Can you hire me now? I think it was January that I finally went in for an interview. They flew me up for an interview, I had a good interview, I was told that I had the job and I started on February 14th, 1972.  I joined the staff of Field Enterprises Educational Corporation.

MAL:  Were you aware of the women’s movement before you came to Chicago?

WS:  Only vaguely. There was no organization, certainly not in Maryland where I was at the time. I didn’t have any argument with any of the ideals, I just had not had any opportunity to join any kind of organization.

MAL:  How did you get involved?

WS:  I met you, Mary-Ann Lupa and we started working at Field Enterprises at the same time. I found out what you were doing and a little bit about what NOW was doing and I was fascinated. I know that I went to my first NOW meeting in either March or April and then I joined the next month. I was fascinated because here were all these amazing women talking about doing some very incredible things that I had never thought about doing. Just the idea of getting on a picket line or talking to my senator or handing out leaflets or anything like that was extremely foreign to me. And the fact that people were doing it and were so incredibly articulate and passionate about what they were doing was wonderful and so that’s why I signed up and joined.

MAL:  Did you start using your art skills for the movement or what were the first couple of things that you got involved in?

WS:  The first couple of things I got involved in were some button designs and I did a button for the August 26th program and leaflets and that kind of thing. It was very exciting because at the time I joined, the ERA had passed in Congress.  In fact, I think that’s what we were talking about the first meeting I went to and there were a lot of activities around that as well. But yes, buttons and posters and leaflets and that sort of thing were wonderful to do. It’s not that we weren’t challenged on doing our artwork at work because that’s what we were there to do. We were designing books, but this was a whole different thing and for wonderful causes that we cared about and that was exciting.

MAL:  Your role in the chapter became what? 

WS:  It evolved. I started out working on the Employment Committee. The first couple of things that I was involved in were the Employment Committee, we were all doing work for the ERA and that was exciting. And then when the Sears program started – the fight to get pay equity for women at the Sears Company started and there were a lot more opportunities to do some very exciting things. Some of my favorite things were done for the Sears program.

MAL: Tell us what that was.

WS:  My two favorites, were a discredit card which we did for a rally right before Christmas. I think it was the day of the Thanksgiving parade in downtown Chicago because we knew we’d have a really good audience and we wanted to bring out the disparity in credit opportunity for women offered by Sears. I made a discredit card about three feet or so long which looked very much like the Sears credit card at that time. And we made it out to a Mr. Lou Hall who was the credit manager at that time and it said Discredit Card along the top.

The structure of the protest was that Ebenezer Scrooge, representing Sears, who in this case was Gerry Dahlin, a tall member of the chapter, was going to accept this discredit card from Ms. Claus. And that really worked great. I think we got a lot of attention and a lot of interest and that was a lot of fun. The other one was for the 1975 demonstration outside the Sears Annual Meeting which was at the Standard Oil Building. We wanted to highlight the disparity in the hiring practices and salary practices. I remember standing before a meeting in the Loop YWCA where we met. This was some months before the demonstration happened and I felt something in my pocket, and I looked up and Irene Repa was walking fast down the hallway.

Irene worked for the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) and when I looked in my pocket what she had given us was the hiring statistics for Sears. When we were preparing for the demonstration we tried to figure out the best way to show this. I put together a seven-foot model of the Sears Tower. It took me awhile to figure out how all those different angles went together. And then a group of us, I think we were in the basement of the YWCA, spread this big cardboard thing out and spray painted it black and then took it and painted all these hiring statistics all over it. The day of the demonstration we were out there with this seven-foot Sears Tower on a little red wagon and pulling it around in a circle and singing and handing out leaflets. It was a wonderful moment. It was it was just great. 

MAL:  What about press. Did you get press?

WS:  We got press on both of them. But the one in front of the Sears Annual Meeting had national press. And the next morning, I remember one of the announcers, I don’t remember which station it was that was talking about it, and he’s saying – the women were angry – except in the background we’re singing a song. We had a song to the tune of I’ve Been Working on the Railroad. He’s saying we’re angry and in the background you hear – Sears discriminates, Sears discriminates, Sears discriminates in every way. It was great. It was a wonderful moment. It was just wonderful.

MAL:  So now that we’re talking about discrimination at Sears. What was your experience in publishing? Did you experience any discrimination on the job?

WS:  Oh sure. When I started in 1972 at World Book, people knew about the women’s movement. I think there were people who were aware of it, some were just puzzled by it, and a number of people who were probably openly hostile to it but at least it wasn’t a new concept. When I started, there was definitely pay disparity at World Book. I had done OK because I came there from a government agency and my salary had been set by the results of a civil service test that I’d taken. I was able to come in saying I want X amount of money and it wasn’t a lot but, I mean I was only 23, it wasn’t bad.

But I discovered that the other woman on my Science Year staff who had been there for five years, had a larger workload than either of the two men on our staff was paid not only less than they were, she was paid less than I was, and I thought that was appalling. These were the days when if you wanted a raise you went into your boss and made a case for needing more money. Instead of fighting about it she just left the company which I thought was terribly sad because I thought she had a very clear case of discrimination and we realized that was just throughout the company because there was no salary structure.

There was nothing to guarantee that a certain job warranted a certain amount of money. There was no set starting salary. Eventually they came to that, but it was several years beyond then. I think a lot of it was because of the impact of the women’s movement, the fact that they just couldn’t be that blasé about how they offered people salaries at Field Enterprises.  Then the staff included Mary-Ann Lupa who was the former president of the Chicago chapter of NOW at that point, Anne Ladky who was the current president of the Chicago chapter of NOW, I was the vice president of the Chicago chapter of NOW and Darlene Stille was the chairwoman of Women Employed.  We were all there at the same time and they were very nervous about all this.  I think they had to be a little bit more careful in what was said and certain policies. I think it scared the living daylights out of all of them. That was fun.

MAL:  Did you help start Women Employed?

WS:  I was not at the very initial meeting, but I came on very soon after. Chicago NOW provided a lot of talent and experience for the beginning of Women Employed because we had the women who had experience doing demonstrations and leaflets and organizing and we were a wonderful resource to them. One of the first things I got involved in was a meeting with the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry (CACI). We had an initial meeting with the executive secretary. There were two men named Coulter, one was John and one was Thomas Coulter and I don’t remember which one was which. But we had a meeting with this gentleman to get his promise to set up a meeting with the head of CACI — a public meeting.

That was the first focus for Women Employed and a very good way to get out the name of Women Employed and to recruit women to come and join because it covered so many issues. It was an Association that represented all of these companies in the loop. I got involved in sitting with Mr. Coulter along with Kathy Rand, who was of course much more experienced than I was, but because I worked in the Loop, I got tapped to go sit next to her. We had our meeting. I think we had 20 women who met with this man and we requested – demanded – and got his promise of a meeting.

We had a piece of paper that he signed saying he would organize the meeting and then he took the paper and, of course, tried to tuck it under his pile of paper. I was sitting a little closer to him and I get this elbow in my side from Kathy and I knew what she wanted. I just reached over and grabbed the paper and pulled it back out again and handed it to her.  We had our signed agreement, and he didn’t protest because he knew he wasn’t supposed to do that.  When we had the actual meeting, I got to do one of the speeches.

I say a speech, but what we were doing is basically offering testimony either from ourselves or, in my case, I was speaking for a woman who couldn’t be there because she would lose her job, and it was a wonderful moment. We had maybe two hundred people at that meeting it was a great start for Women Employed. And then of course they went on to the Kraft program where they were trying to get pay equity at Kraft Foods.  In fact, I did the leaflet for that initial CACI meeting, which was very nice and had a little man’s face with a dollar bill for a bow tie. It read – Do you recognize this man? He is your employer.

MAL:  You also attended National NOW conferences.

WS:  Yes, I did. The first one was Washington and that was wonderful. It was like going to my first NOW meeting, only 10 times as much.  Very impressive people, incredibly articulate women talking about not only the issues but what can be done about them – wonderful planning. And that was very exciting. And then I went to the one in Houston, which was a shock. A member of our chapter, Mary Jean Collins was running for president and she put together a good slate of very accomplished people and had written position papers and it was really a very well organized and wonderfully run campaign except that we got to Houston and all of that was attacked for being male-focused and unsisterly. Why being organized was unsisterly – it was a total shock to all of us.

Unfortunately, Mary Jean did not win the presidency. What did happen though is we did get passage of a resolution to go after Sears and that was the beginning of the Sears program nationwide and not just in Chicago. So that was one good thing that came out of it. And I know Mary-Ann, you were elected to the board and a lot of good people were on the board. But we really felt the loss of not having Mary Jean as our president. And I think just the ill feeling – that was the shock. It was just a total surprise that that would happen in an organization where we’re all working towards the same goals. That was very difficult.

MAL:   Is this at the time when they did not have a delegate system? 

WS:  They did not have a delegate system and that was part of the problem. Maybe they thought that was unsisterly too. I don’t know. But wherever the convention was held, it was easy to pack the polls because anybody could just come in, sign up and then vote. And that was very frustrating. It was even more frustrating by the time we got to Philadelphia which was just downright vicious. The thing that was the craziest was that the same people that had gone after Mary Jean and her slate of people for having position papers, for having a slate, for being organized, everyone that attacked her in Houston, did the same thing. Not the attacks – they provided the position papers and the slate but even more so. And so, the things that were evil were now “virtuous” in Philadelphia and there was even more bad feeling.

I think some of it had to do with just the difference in approach to issues, maybe on the coasts as opposed to the Midwest. We were a very action-oriented chapter and some chapters were, I think, more philosophical. I think there was a lot of frustration over the lack of passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. There was a lot of blaming people in the Midwest and the South who were dealing with very conservative legislators and the fact that we hadn’t been able to get the ERA passed in our states when it had passed so quickly on the East Coast. Especially in the Northeast and the West Coast, I think that was just not understood what we were up against.

The one good thing though that came out of Philadelphia was the passage of a resolution to hold a national rally in Illinois. You couldn’t fight it, if you’re saying that we need to get together and do more work on the ERA, you certainly couldn’t go against having a national rally. I believe it was the first national rally for the Equal Rights Amendment and it was planned for May of 1976.

MAL:  Were you president then?

WS:   I was chapter president then.  I was elected president right before the Philadelphia Conference. I was president for the National Rally for the ERA. And that was another really wonderful memory. I have several really distinct memories, but my favorite ones were waiting, again with Kathy Rand, on the platform at Union Station waiting for a train to come in and carrying all these ERA supporters from the East Coast. The train comes down the track and there was this huge ERA Yes banner across the front of the train. I have no idea how they did that, but it was amazing, and I just remember getting this huge catch in my throat over seeing this. And then one of the board members from the east got off the train with a bullhorn and started yelling ERA Yes and all of these women just poured off the train. That was a grand moment. That was lovely. And the other memory was actually being in in the rally walking down the streets of Springfield and coming into the area around the Capitol just packed with people, all there for the Equal Rights Amendment. That too was a wonderful moment.

One of the most favorite things that we did in the Chicago chapter was the brainchild of a wonderful woman named Casey Kelly who besides helping us through several great fundraisers called the Feminist Follies, was the inspiration, the brain behind the Chicago Irish Feminists for the Equal Rights Amendment. And we started doing it in 1973 and marched in the Chicago St. Patrick’s Day parade, which was marvelous. We didn’t have any other reason to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, but we all got out there for several years and marched behind the banner of the Chicago Irish Feminists. I know that there were years that I got to carry the banner and I think Mary-Ann got to carry the banner.

And we just had a wonderful time and always had a great turnout because people really loved doing this. It turned out that Mayor Daley’s mother had been a suffragette. We also had signs saying the Mayor’s mom voted for suffrage and the Mayor should support equality. We would get applause for that because after all it was his mother we were talking about. But that was great too. That was really quite wonderful. And the Feminist Follies were great. Casey was brilliant. She’d write all these wonderful songs and we actually put together a chorus one year and she’d have us do these reviews and we used them as our August 26th fundraisers which was really wonderful.

MAL:  With all these experiences that you had in the chapter; how did this affect your work life?

WS:  I’m very shy, so the idea of getting up in front of a group of people and doing anything was pretty much a life changer. It certainly made me more brave.  I think it definitely gave me more confidence. I mean, part of our work involved making presentations. Not just talking about what we wanted to do but then having to persuade people to our way of thinking or be more articulate about our reasoning behind what we wanted to do.  All of that was strengthened from the work in the women’s movement. Getting more organized, being able to solve conflicts, to try to heal differences among people, just being able to do all the things that a leader needs to do to keep an organization going. All of that was very worthwhile.

MAL:  Were you involved in any other women’s groups besides Women Employed and NOW?

WS:  I was the President of Illinois NOW from 1976 to 1977. I was briefly involved in Women in the Director’s Chair. For several years I served on the board of the Loop Center YWCA. And I went back to being an officer in NOW in the early 80s and served as chapter secretary for a year. I think that the extension for the passage of the ERA meant that a lot of us made a new commitment to keep working on it. That was that was probably the last thing I did as a really active member of NOW.

MAL:  So now are you currently involved as an activist?

WS:  Not really. My last involvement over the last 10 years or so has really been with Women and the Arts. I served on the board of Woman Made Gallery and was the Chair of their board for a while. It’s a non-profit gallery that is dedicated to offering gallery space and emphasis to women artists who would not be able to show their work otherwise.

MAL:  Is that a problem?

WS:   It has been in this city.  Certainly, I think it’s difficult to get any kind of gallery exposure if you’re not famous and I do think there’s still the emphasis more on male artists. Woman Made really has worked to get for a lot of women their first opportunity to show work. It was great to be a part of that. They don’t just offer the opportunity to show, they also offer a lot of support in how to put together an exhibition and reviews of portfolios and that sort of thing. All these things, especially for young women, that’s a very important service to get to even be able to get your foot in the door.

MAL:  You also exhibited there did you not?

WS:  I did. I’m mostly a lace maker and a weaver and I have exhibited some lace pieces. So yes, I had my chance. More recently I was on the board of Perceptual Motion Inc. which is a non-profit arts organization. It’s a dance group that that offers opportunities for older dancers. There’s always a mixed age troupe and it was exciting to be part of that as well.