THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Life Before Feminism Was Pretty Grim for Women.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean collins, VFA Historian, May 2019
MJC: Thank you so much for doing this interview for Veteran Feminists Of America. So happy to have you here. Thank you so much. So, let’s just start out with the ordinary stuff. Tell us your name, where you were born and what year.
JG: Judy Goldsmith and I was born in 1938 in Kossuth, Wisconsin.
MCJ: Could you just tell us about life before the women’s movement. What was your growing up like, what was your ethnic background if appropriate or what prepared you for becoming a feminist?
JG: Life before feminism was pretty grim for women. Especially women of my mother’s class and background. It was difficult for my mother. She was a working-class woman and she was divorced from my father and found it very difficult to manage. At one point she had to go to Kohler, Wisconsin where my father was working in a factory, because we didn’t have money for shoes for the fall. It was just about time for school to start. So, she went.
My timid mother took a bus to Kohler and they sent her to human resources. The man there said, “I’m very sorry Mrs. Becker, I can’t give you any money without your husband’s permission. Would you like me to take you to where he works?” She said, “Yes,” bravely. He took her through the factory to where my father was working, and he said, “George your wife says she needs money for shoes for the children when school starts. Could I give her a part of your paycheck?” He said, “My money is my money and she’s not getting a penny of it.” And that was it.
MJC: Tell us how many kids were in the family.
JG: There were five children at that point. Eleven, twelve, ten and I was seven years younger and my younger sister Carol had just been born. We were a family very much in need. After a period, my parents were divorced. My mother found it impossible to continue living with him or being attached to him, especially financially. We moved into a renovated chicken coop that had been owned by one of my wealthier uncles when it was a hunting shed for our uncles to go and hunt deer.
After some time, one of the uncles said he needed the shed to take to his farm to raise chickens. So that’s what he did. He raised chickens there for a couple of years and then he moved it to Sheboygan Falls, because we needed a place to live. We were staying with some people who helped us out. They lived underneath the first floor of a building and we lived on the upper floor. But the building was condemned while we were in it. They moved out and we had no place to go and they said we could come and stay with them until the trailer was moved to a part of town where we could settle down.
The trailer was small, the converted chicken coop was hardly comfortable. It was very small. There was a bed and there was a dresser and there was a small kitchen table and a wood stove. There was a sink but there was no running water. We had to keep a pail underneath it and we would carry water two blocks from the home of a friend who would let us use their outdoor spigot to bring water. And of course [there was] an outdoor toilet. So not fun in the winter. But it was a situation that even at my young age, and I was 8 at the time, made an impression on me.
I’ve heard people say you know I was poor growing up, but I didn’t know I was poor. I knew we were poor. I could tell. I could see that my young friends lived differently than I did and had things I didn’t have. I didn’t necessarily want specific things they had, but I could tell that we were living in a way that was not as good as they were. I remember thinking at one point this isn’t right. People shouldn’t have to live like this, because it wasn’t a good way to live.
I would sometimes visit my friends at their homes, and they didn’t have outdoor toilets. I mean this was in town. This wasn’t out in the country. Although we lived certainly on the edge of town. That made a powerful impression on me. My mother worked in woolen mills which was a textile factory and did not make very much money. She made forty dollars a week. I remember one time my older sister who often cared for us – she was seven years older than I – was sent to get some groceries and she lost a 20-dollar bill. And that was tragedy at the time.
So, it was a difficult life when we were living there. We did eventually move to Two Rivers to an upstairs apartment in a home that my mother’s father owned. My maternal grandparents lived in Two Rivers. The sad thing about that was, and even before in the trailer, was that we lost our brothers. There wasn’t enough room there obviously for five kids. They had to stay with aunts and uncles and we never did get back together again as a family. So that was difficult.
In Two Rivers we did much better. We had a bathroom with a tub and running water and I had really felt like it was a castle. It was wonderful. It was a small upstairs apartment, but it was marvelous. My mom slept on a hide-a-bed in the living room with my older sister and I slept in a bed with Carol, the baby who at that point was about two years old. The good thing about that part of our life was that mom was in control. She made very little, not a whole lot more than she had in the woolen mills, but the money was hers. The money was ours and she could manage it.
I remember one occasion being able to go and get a hot fudge sundae at the local drugstore for twenty-five cents. And that felt like real luxury. So, it was wonderful. I do remember during those years, the intervening years, I remember some remarkable historical events. I remember Roosevelt dying and my mother crying. When your mother cries you remember that. I remembered the end of World War II because it was a very happy time. Everyone went out into the streets and Mrs. Herber, who owned the drugstore down the corner, gave all the kids free nickel candy bars. That was very exciting.
Back to Two Rivers. I grew up there and I loved school. I’d always been rewarded for school because I was a bright kid. One thing made a real point on me. Not then but later, realizing that I moved ahead quite quickly. Even coming from a background of considerable poverty. In later years looking at the realities of life for people of color, many of them started in similar backgrounds. I mean it was pretty poor back then, but I had an advantage. I was white.
And so, when I got to school in Two Rivers, I just moved right up the ladder of success, because I was immediately recognized as a bright kid. And when you’re recognized as a bright kid, teachers respond to that and help you along even more. I did well in school but there was no question that there was differential treatment of boys and girls. I didn’t think about it a whole lot at the time, but it was clear to me that there was. I just thought that’s the way it is.
That continued in college. I went to college at UW in Milwaukee. First to study music, because I love music very much. I did really well the first semester, but my grade points over four semesters were 3.8, 3.1, 2.8, 2.3. It was downhill in large part because I couldn’t deal with the world I was living in and I couldn’t deal with what I was learning. There were horrors in history classes – I was learning about World War II.
And in the community where I lived in Milwaukee I was starting to see discrimination. My very first recollection of seeing black people was at a state fair when a family took me there – a family of one of my friends in school. I saw two black couples and in those days, which would have been in the early 40s, people dressed up to go to things like the state fair. It seems funny now, but they dressed up and these two young black couples looked gorgeous. They were beautifully dressed, and they were good looking people and I thought, wow isn’t that interesting. The first I had ever seen outside of geography books.
I was very impressed. So it came as a real shock to me and disturbed me greatly to hear about prejudice and about segregation. It bothered me as did a number of other things I was learning about. I experienced something of a crisis at the beginning of my junior year. I quit school, giving up a remarkable scholarship that I’d gotten in Two Rivers from a local manufacturing company: a thousand dollars a year, which at that time paid for tuition, room and board and books with a little spending money left over. I gave that all up and started to explore the world. I worked; and boy that was a learning experience.
MJC: What kind of work did you do?
JG: Factory work, office work, anything that I could do. I didn’t have any degrees at that time, or any skills and I had absolutely no sense of self-worth. I never did up to that point. Being female, and Midwestern and poor doesn’t give you a whole lot of self-confidence. I did those kinds of crummy jobs. Partly it was because I would go to the want ads and the want ads were Help Wanted Male / Help Wanted Female. People today find that funny. When I would teach classes at UW, students would laugh when I told them. I brought them copies of papers.
It didn’t take long to realize that first of all there were way more jobs on the male side of the classified ads and they paid way better than the women’s side. And the women’s side would often say attractive woman wanted for a receptionist position. It was very bad, and I didn’t like it at all. But what could I do about it? I didn’t do anything about it, so I just continued in those lines of work.
At about that time, I met my soon to be husband Dick Goldsmith and he had just gotten out of the Army, having been let go. It was an honorary discharge or general discharge under honorary circumstances or something like that, because he had refused to take part in war exercises. We immediately connected and actually soon started living together, which was pretty remarkable from my perspective and from my background.
Dick was very assertive and very smart, very bright, and I adored him. We lived together and then we got married. He wasn’t working either. That kind of became a pattern throughout our lives. We decided that we would get married and we did. We stayed living in Milwaukee, but then we decided we both needed to finish college. I had quit, and he had quit when he joined the army. We both went to Stevens Point, which was where he had gone.
At Stevens Point did I ever blossom as a student. I had done OK starting out in Milwaukee but in Stevens Point I just exploded and a lot of it, I realized later, was because I was married, and I was older. Older students, sometimes called “nontraditional,” bring a lot of experience that kids out of high school don’t. They have these little spirals in their eyes, and they don’t know much, they’re sweet, but they don’t know much, and you bring that.
I was also married which meant I no longer had to compete. I had not really been aware of competing before that for available guys. But when you’re a heterosexual female you do that without thinking. When I was married and went back to school, that was just not a factor and I hadn’t realized that. It was pretty remarkable, because I just zoomed to the top of the honor roll. Dick did not, he didn’t like school. He wasn’t good in the classroom. He didn’t like taking orders, so he did not do well.
I continued to do well and eventually got a fellowship to University of New York at Buffalo to teach Freshman English as I started my master’s degree. I was focused academically but there was something else going on in the world at this time. There was Vietnam and civil rights. Dick was also very activist oriented. He was similarly inclined in that direction. We went on some demonstrations. I did what little I could do, but I had a problem now because I was in graduate school. And graduate school in English was about 14th century alliterative poetry and a lot of other things but I kept saying why do I care.
There are good reasons to care about those things, but at that time I thought this is totally irrelevant to my world and I don’t feel like doing it anymore. Dick did a really good thing. He did help me get me through my master’s degree and I started teaching at one of the poverty program schools in Buffalo. In the 60s there were some nice poverty programs that had been instituted as part of an anti-poverty initiative and there were some good things happening.
This was a program to help students who had gone to the inner-city schools in Buffalo but hadn’t learned very much. I was teaching them English and my students were mostly from the black communities, but also from the poor Polish communities and other communities – kids with very compromised academic backgrounds – and I taught English. One thing that happened there, [was] I designed a course called The Blitz. I taught all of the English basics about grammar and how the language is structured.
You really can’t learn English if you don’t know how the language is put together and you don’t realize that. I never had to learn it because I grew up speaking standard English. I put together a week long course and I asked the school administrators, “Can I teach this? Can I take the first week of their incoming new students and teach them this?” And we worked it out with the other faculty and they and they let me do it and I did that for a few for several semesters and it was wonderful. The students responded so positively. And I loved that.
That was an important part of my life at that point. It was also changing, in that the ongoing issues with the war and with civil rights were becoming more and more predominant. You couldn’t escape it. Dick and I started to work on housing issues in the black community, because it was really bad there. And we got very involved with the civil rights community. And as that happened, that was the time that Martin Luther King was assassinated.
It shook our world and we pretty much stopped everything we were doing and started organizing for a demonstration in honor of Dr. King. That got us involved with a lot of people who were doing a number of things and there were a couple of women who came to see me at that time who had been involved in the National Organization for Women. I didn’t care for them a lot. I just didn’t relate to them. I had heard of it, but not much. And it just didn’t really move me.
At the time I was pregnant and having my daughter Rachel – which will take your mind off of a lot of things. I had Rachel, which was a wonderful experience, but also a real learning experience in terms of parenting roles. I had been a very independent woman. Now I had a child who I adored but they need care 24 hours a day. I was still working, but this was summer and I had time off [but] I could not get out. I couldn’t run up to the drugstore to buy a magazine. I couldn’t do it because Dick was gone all the time doing I don’t remember what. After all, a man has to do what a man has to do. It was getting really hard for me.
Rachel was an early riser and she was up at five o’clock that morning and I’d gotten up and had taken care of her and fed her and did some laundry and I was exhausted. When Dick got home about 9:00 or 10:00 o’clock I said, “Could you please watch Rachel for an hour because I’ve got to get some rest?” And he said – well there goes my day. Something cracked, and I got to thinking about this a lot more. I’m going to shortcut this because the marriage disintegrated, it did not go well after that point.
I said at some point I can’t raise Rachel in Buffalo. It was not a good environment. It was the home of a lot of mafia groups. It was dirty, and it was corrupt, and I didn’t like it. And I said I want to go home. I want to raise my child in Wisconsin. So, we did. We came back to Wisconsin. We moved to a place just outside of Manitowoc. Manitowoc and Two Rivers being very close together. And my sister’s home was just about a mile down the road. So, it was a nice arrangement.
Something happened during that time. My younger sister Carole and I heard that there was a NOW chapter starting in Two Rivers. And we thought that was pretty remarkable that a NOW chapter would start in Two Rivers of all places. Two Rivers is not a hotbed of anything. So, we went, more out of curiosity than anything. I told her about my encounter with the women in Buffalo, that I was not impressed. Our founding group got together, there were ten of us.
We were astonished that there were 10 women who thought of themselves as maybe feminists. And that night was a real insight, a real understanding of something we’d never understood before. Because you think you’re alone. You think you’re the only person who’s had these problems. Doctors treating you with disrespect and not being able to get decent jobs and all kinds of things.
So many women around the country had that experience in one way or another. And so, we said, we will do this. We started the chapter not having really any idea what we would do but we got materials from the national office. We had a founding meeting, which I could not attend because I couldn’t get childcare. I was home and they called me from a meeting, and they said, “Well we’ve elected you Coordinator.” I said, “I can’t do that, are you kidding?” They said, “You’ll learn.” And I did.
MJC: A feminist endorsement.
JG: The first thing we did was picket Sears. That was our first action. We picketed the Sears in Manitowoc. There wasn’t one in Two Rivers. Before we did, we had to go and see the police and I was elected as president-coordinator of the organization of the chapter to go and talk to the police. I was a little intimidated, but I think they were too. The officer I talked to said, “OK just don’t litter and don’t obstruct traffic and then you should be OK.”
Cars would go by and give us the peace sign and thumbs up and it was quite wonderful. We were very positively reinforced. Our chapter grew and got more and more involved and really loved what was happening and what we were exploring. NOW [was] starting to really look at the issues that had plagued just all of our lives and understanding how that worked and what happened.
We did a leadership workshop. We would get together on a Saturday afternoon and we were learning about leadership, because we were very shy about leadership. I remember one of the exercises was [to] stand in a row and your place in the row should be determined by your position of leadership in the organization in the chapter. If you’re the most important person you stand first and second it so on. We’re looking at each other and the person who’s first would say not me and shift, and then the next person is moving down because nobody wants that position, because that seems pushy. And as we know, girls aren’t supposed to be pushy.
We went through a lot of that and started to get information about the state organization. One of our members whose name was Leslie went. We said she should go to the state meeting because I couldn’t get child-care and find out what the state organization is all about and what should we know about it. She went to that meeting and she came back and our chapter met, and she said it was a really good meeting, but they’re planning the state conference. At that time there was only one officer, The State Coordinator. She said they couldn’t find anybody to run for state coordinator and I told them you’d be good.
It turned out I did in fact do that. I went to the first state conference I’d ever been to, Wisconsin being the first state in the organization that was formed in NOW. That’s not surprising with Catherine Conroy and Kathryn Clarenbach. I started going to the meetings and loved the women – they were so wonderful. I went to my first state conference and it was terrifying.
I have to tell you one quick little story. We hadn’t had a lot of contact with the Milwaukee chapter, but we’d heard that there were lesbians in the Milwaukee chapter. We thought well, you know that’s good. I don’t know anything about that. It was the first night of the conference and these women walked in and they were clearly from Milwaukee and maybe a little bit scary. Leslie and I went to our room because I’d gotten several boxes of stuff I had to go through from the previous coordinator.
After about a half an hour there was a phone call and it was one of the Milwaukee women who wanted to meet me, and I said, “OK.” They said, “Meet us at the pool table.” I said, “Leslie, if I’m not back in an hour, come and get me.” I went down to the pool table and met the Milwaukee women and oh my God did we have fun. We had such fun. I’d never shot pool. They told me I was wonderful. They lied. We ended up literally almost under the pool table singing feminist songs.
And Leslie came down and found me singing songs and drinking beer with the women from Milwaukee, having just a wonderful time. I got to know them all. Many of them became some of my dearest friends in the organization. Sue Luecke was one of them who had chaired the National Bylaws Committee when we changed the bylaws. The other women were just wonderful. The State Conference was scary but also really interesting. I met some wonderful women and had some great programs. At the end of it, I had to sit down and go over all of the finances and be sure everything was reconciled with the money that had come in for the conference. Little by little I grew into the position that they said I would grow into.
I’ll shortcut that a little bit, because there was a lot to it, but it followed pretty true to form with probably most organizations. We grew and we attracted new members and we did some things that raised our visibility in the community and also got more active at the state level. I was now State Coordinator and traveled around the state some, which was a new experience for me. I barely learned to drive. I was all over the state and it was exciting and meeting the most wonderful people everywhere I went. The women in NOW we’re wonderful. I was so impressed with them. They are like a special kind of person. Very positive, very warm, very loving. It was a terrific experience.
I was going to quit the presidency after the end of my first year because it was too much. I was teaching English at UW Manitowoc. And it was all too much. There was a regional conference just before our conference at which I was going to quit. Catherine Conroy was there. And many of the other founding women of NOW. Also, Kate Clarenbach. And at the end of the conference, which was wonderful, we were sitting around the bar and having fun, just talking.
At one point, Catherine Conroy, who was tough as nails and sweet as could be, on the other side of the bar yelled across the bar and said, “Goldsmith, I hear you’re quitting.” And I said, ”Yes I am.” She said, “Why are you quitting?” I said, “Because I’m tired.” She just totally humiliated me into staying. By the time I left, I was committed to running again.
At the end of that there was a regional conference and at that point I actually ran for the first position I ever ran for. I ran for the National Board of Directors and won. I was still active in the chapter, but as you know your life changes. You go to national board meetings and they were at that point still pretty much around the country. That was interesting – I had hardly been out of Wisconsin.
And meeting people at the national level and I liked them. There were some wonderful people. There are some people I didn’t care for as much who seemed to have a different perspective on not so much feminism, but on how you approach it that seemed more hard edged. I was learning, so I wasn’t thinking too much about it. I had at our state conference, the first state conference met Mary Anne Sedey, who was a regional director at that time when I was first becoming coordinator.
I met Mary Anne and said, “Mary Anne, I need you to teach me about what’s happening at National.” We knew there were tensions at National. This was after the New Orleans board meeting. She did something that impressed me so much. It was definitely one of the reasons I decided to stay in the organization. She said, “OK, I’ll tell you about this. There are basically two sides. I have to tell you in fairness that I am allied with one side, so I may not be entirely objective and what I tell you. I will do my very best to tell you as objectively as I can about what I believe is going on.” And I thought, “Wow what a great thing. What a wonderful way to approach it!” I don’t know if she was an attorney at that time or not, [but] she was good. That was an attitude that really drew me in.
Anyway, I did get the board and it was still very unpleasant. There were still tensions. We had a national conference coming up. We said, yes we should go to the conference; we should be represented. There had been no state delegation at the national conference. So, we went, and we’d heard there was difficulty. We heard there was this tension on the board between a group called the Majority Caucus and the other people who weren’t specifically identified. It reflected that attitude I had seen in some people on the board that troubled me. A sort of a different philosophy. A different way of relating to each other.
I had grown up in Wisconsin NOW with a sense of sisterhood that was sweet and supportive and really a very positive thing. I didn’t see that in those people. But we went to Philadelphia. We had a good number of people who went, and we went with love in our hearts and looking for sisterhood. There was a song we sang. Philadelphia here we are, following our woman star. I don’t remember the rest of it, but it was so sweet.
MJC: There was always a song wherever Judy Goldsmith was.
JG: There was, and it was fun. We went there and we said, we can make this work. We got to Philadelphia and we ran into a buzz saw. It was shocking, because it’s like going from tepid water into ice water. It was not pleasant at all. They had treated us like enemies. People we never met gave us dirty looks and we could not understand where that was coming from. There was all of this tension as the conference started on the floor. It was a huge crowd of people, because we were not delegated at that time.
The conference was packed with people from the East Coast, with Majority Caucus people and as naive as we were, we could start to see what was happening. We had some candidates we wanted to support, including Mary Jean Collins Robson running for president. We were pretty new to parliamentary procedure. We studied it and we used it in our meetings at the state level, of course, but there were things going on that just seemed to be really almost hateful.
I hate to use the word, but at almost hateful and not being able to understand it. We kept trying to make contact and we’re not getting anywhere. There seemed to be goings on procedurally with the conference that seemed inappropriate. Problems with credentialing and all kinds of things that just seemed wrong. At one point we held a caucus. People called it Non-Majority Caucus. I said we can’t call it Non-Majority Caucus, because we are NOW – we’re not non anything.
It was Midwestern primarily and we held a caucus and there were a couple Majority Caucus people who came and were invited. It was clear that we were up against something that was not good, that did not align with our sense of feminist relationships, feminist identity or feminist agenda. And we were very upset about that. But the Majority Caucus was not giving an inch in any way. So, there was a whole lot of frustration and there was the election. The election was so mangled, so bizarre. It went on endlessly.
There were things that went wrong. There were things that nobody could explain. We started to get suspicious, of course, in that atmosphere of somebody fiddling with what was going on with the elections. We were all determined. We were going to vote, and we didn’t give a damn how long this was going to take. And it took well into the wee hours of the morning. Towards the end we had to go up flights of stairs. People were literally crawling up the stairs and then crawling across the floor to get to the voting booth so we could vote. It was unbelievable.
When I came home, I wrote a report to Wisconsin NOW about what it was like and I described that. It was just unbelievable. We did get to bed finally, and we got to the plenary session the next morning. [We] got the announcement of the winners and it was not the people we had supported. I don’t remember exactly how it all ended but we left and on the way home, the plane stopped in Cleveland.
We held a Cleveland caucus. We changed planes there. We held a caucus and decided that we were who we were, we weren’t going to be a non-anything. We were NOW and we were going to move forward with our Wisconsin program, which was a good program. We got on the plane and we went back to Milwaukee. We were coming off the plane and we sang another song.
Hey Wisconsin, here we are, following our Woman Star. We went there, we did it, fought for a cause. We’re sisters, still sisters and in spite of all the flaws there. Hey Wisconsin, we’re OK and we want to proudly say – we will do it in our way – hey Wisconsin, we’re okay.
They were standing there with roses for each of us holding up signs, You Give Us Bread, We Bring You Roses. It was amazing. So, in Wisconsin we were good. We were really good. From there we went to the constitutional convention to change our bylaws in Kansas City. Wisconsin played a pretty strong role there. A leadership role in determining how things went and because that conference was not delegated, it was our territory. We clearly outnumbered the other side.
We got what we wanted but I felt really strongly about not gloating. If we won something and our people would start to cheer I would say, no they lost. Have respect for that. We got what we wanted. That’s the important thing. But don’t go hurting them because we need to work with them. So, don’t do that. We came out of that ok. That was followed by the Detroit conference. I was still on the board and the Detroit conference was better, because it was delegated. It was also our territory. And it was a good deal more civil and positive. And we moved forward from there.
It was not long after that, that Martha Buck who had been executive vice president, resigned and needed to be replaced. I got a considerable amount of lobbying from people around the country – from Wisconsin certainly and from people around the country – who urged me to run. And this was going to be a selection by the national board, not a regular election, because it was in between, it was interim. And the other person running was Alice Chapman, who I loved dearly. She was from Connecticut. She was a wonderful woman and she was a finance person. And one of the dearest people in the world. She was terrific.
We both ran for that position and everyone agreed it was absolutely the most civilized election that had ever been held in NOW and I won. Alice and I worked together very closely, because she became the national treasurer at the next election. I was vice president and working with Ellie and working with the other Majority Caucus people in the office, although they weren’t identifying themselves as that anymore. It involved moving physically. I had to move to D.C. and that was really hard, because I loved Wisconsin. It was home to me, and I didn’t want to go to D.C..
Before I made that decision to take the vice presidency, I had to figure out whether I could manage that because it meant taking Rachel with me and I knew nothing about what kind of childcare might be available. It turned out there was nothing and it was really hard. I didn’t want to leave here, and I didn’t want to go to the strange big city. I know big cities, but it wasn’t the city I was worried about so much it was the environment I was moving into. The people who were leadership at that time had all been Majority Caucus and so I was going into a strange environment.
They were decent to me when I got there, but I was given all of the what we called scut work – cleaning out the files and the mailing process and all of that. I did have to raise money for a big fundraiser that we had. I ended up having to raise money for a national march that we were having at that time in Washington D.C. where I’d never been before and knew nobody. I held what came to be known as the great fund losing program. That just did not really work very well.
I had some suspicion at the time that that might have been maybe “managed”. You know, give the kid fundraising. That didn’t matter, because I was very committed because we were working on the Equal Rights Amendment and that was huge. And I never felt that way about anything in my life as strongly as I felt about that. So, it didn’t matter to me really how I was being treated by people in the office. And some of them were decent.
The biggest problem for me personally was there was no help. I had some help promised from some people in the office that when I got there, there’d be childcare help for me. There was absolutely nothing. So, there I was with a job that was at that time pretty much twelve hours a day.
MJC: Do you remember how old Rachel was that time?
JG: She was 7 and in school. I was adjusting to the office as well as I could and trying to learn my role – which wasn’t very well defined – and not getting a whole lot of support for that. It was the Equal Rights Amendment and that was key. And so, a lot of us, regardless of what positions we held, were organizing and that was great. I went to North Dakota. It was great. I loved that. I love being out and organizing. We did marches, we did demonstrations. And I was involved in all of that. One of the things I did was I coordinated national conferences and one was in San Antonio. And that was nice. I loved San Antonio. I organized conferences and I did that sort of thing and I organized some events.
MJC: So, would you just say who the officers are at this point?
JG: It is Ellie Smeal, Arlie Scott and Eve Norman, Sandy Roth and me. So, we’re working on the Equal Rights Amendment and the Equal Rights Amendment goes down, which is a real stunning blow to the organization. I was very angry, because the press kept interpreting it as NOW losing. That the women who were fighting this battle had lost. I said, “No, the women of the country lost, and the system of justice failed because it wasn’t given an opportunity to succeed. We didn’t lose.” But that didn’t matter. That’s the way the political system sees things.
We turned to some other issues. We turned to insurance discrimination and I can’t remember much of the general agenda at that point. But there was an election coming up. There was a national board meeting, not in Washington, and I remember being at that point really disgusted with the way I was being treated by the other officers in the organization and had it.
I was really ready to let it all go. And at this meeting the other officers started being really nice to me. Sandy Roth came over and kind of rubbed my shoulder and said, “How are you doing?” I thought – what is this? Some of the others were being very unusually, uncharacteristically nice to me. And then they started getting really nice to me. It was clear that they wanted me to run again for vice president so that I was part of their “team”. After that, it got a lot better. My focus after that was on direct mail and I did a lot of that. One of our major fundraisers was the national walk-a-thons that happened with our chapters all across the country. That had really become our major number one fund raiser beyond the direct mail for the ERA campaign. That was going very well.
MJC: So then in June of 1982 Ellie’s term was up. There were term limits then.
JG: Yes, there were term limits so she couldn’t run again. And I had decided I was going to go home. This has all been fun. Thank you all very much. I miss Wisconsin. I’m going to take my daughter and go home. I started getting some pressure to stay including from Ellie to run for the presidency. I didn’t want to. I kept getting pressure including actually from my sister.
I asked my sister Carol to come to come to D.C. to get my car and drive with me home because I was all set to go. She came and we had dinner that first night and she said to me, “Are you really content to leave the organization in the hands of the people who are running for president?” And that was a hard question, because I didn’t think I was, and she said then I think you have to think about that really seriously. I decided that I would stay, and I would run. I ran for the presidency with Ellie’s support and with a team of people that included you.
MJC: Do you want to talk about how the presidency ended?
JG: The presidency ended in a particularly unpleasant way. Ellie Smeal who had strongly urged me to run for election to the presidency – because she had not been able to – and who strongly supported my running that first time, decided that she would run against me, because I did of course decide to run again, especially after our great victory in San Francisco. She decided that she would run against me. She would run also for the presidency of NOW, which shocked me.
I am not sure it should have but it did, and it became quite unpleasant at that time because it injected an element of division that we had not had for a while. I mean things came together so strongly around Gerry Ferraro’s candidacy and the march on Washington. Things had come together so strongly for that, that it was starting to feel like a healing time. This really set us back on our heels again. The organization was now divided. An organization that had been coming together was divided and people were taking sides.
Because there is a lot that went on during those brief years, I want to kind of pick and choose what I’m going to talk about and there are two major things I’d like to go over, because I think they were particularly impactful and important. The first one was the 1983 March on Washington. This was the 20th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, which was the great I Have a Dream speech march with Dr. Martin Luther King. We felt as an organization, because there had been difficulty, while we were very strongly committed to rights for all women and certainly women of color – because they suffered a double discrimination – that was not necessarily perceived by black women. They didn’t necessarily feel included.
We said, we need to do something major and devote some resources to it. We decided to become co-sponsors with Coretta Scott King and the other march co-sponsors for the 1983 March and the board determined that we would do that. We made somewhat of a major sacrifice to do that, because it was on the same date as what would have been our nationwide ERA walk-o-thon. We gave up the walk-o-thon and we invested some money in this march, because we felt it was really critical, really important and we needed to be upfront on our commitment to women of color and to people of color.
I talked with Coretta Scott King, which was a wonderful experience, and said we would like to co-sponsor and would like to be involved. And she said I would like to have you as a co-chair of the march – for which I was immensely grateful. We had a lot of planning meetings. Most of them were in Atlanta at the King Center. It was difficult to describe what it meant to me personally to work with Coretta Scott King, because she was a heroine to me. She and her husband were almost mythological characters to us. And as I said, my then husband and I had mounted a big demonstration after Dr. King was assassinated.
So, this was really something to be involved in. And we did work together. We traveled together on buses a few times up and down the East Coast in order to promote the march. I got to know her very well and know that she was more deeply committed and active than I think most people knew. I think it was because she was regarded by some of the men in the civil rights community as being the good wife in the background. And she was an activist and it was really great that she had this opportunity to lead this very important event.
So, we had meetings; we met in Atlanta. I remember that among the people we met with were Andrew Young who I don’t think [was] at that time, but he had been mayor of Atlanta and he had also been U.N. ambassador for this country and was a very impressive man. He came to some meetings and Walter Fauntleroy who was the D.C. representative at that time for the District of Columbia. Jesse Jackson of course was also a co-sponsor.
There were many outstanding leaders who were part of that. One of them, I remember was a black man who had started voting when the Voting Rights Act passed and so he had a right to vote and he lived in the south. He went to vote in his community and there was a group of white men standing in the doorway and they said, “Where are you going boy?” And he said, “I’m going to vote.” And he went and he walked past them, and they came after him and said, “Where do you think you’re going boy?” He said I’m going to vote.
And they knocked him down to the ground and he got up and they knocked him down again and they knocked him unconscious and carried him out. He was a reverend and his name will come back to me I know. He was a wonderful man. [I] worked with him closely. An extremely eloquent speaker. So, these were people who work together, pull together all major national organizations. These were not just typically characteristic civil rights organizations, but women’s organizations, environmental groups, peace group.
There were a large number of groups participating including for the first time, gay rights groups, which was something that we had worked out on a late-night telephone conversation. It was one of those things you can’t describe. First of all, working with Coretta, knowing her, we’d call each other up and discuss these things and to know her personally was so powerful. First to know her as a legendary figure and then as a human being and so very gracious and warm.
I recall vividly one time we were in a black church in Connecticut and after the speeches finished we were down in the basement and there were tables set up and Coretta and I sat next to each other and there were posters promoting the march and people coming along with their posters and [to] have everybody sign the poster. They would come to Mrs. King. I sat next to her, and the look on their faces as they looked at her – it just brought tears to my eyes.
It was wonderful. And she would sign their poster and then they’d start to walk away, and she’d say, “You must have Mrs. Goldsmith sign your poster too.” They didn’t know me from Adam, and they didn’t care. She was lovely and that march was huge. It was remarkable for the commitment that was made. I think for the first time in many ways inter-organizational, inter-issue involvement and understanding that if we were not together, if we were separate and individual, we were vulnerable.
But as long as we could stick together we were a power. We were. And that day, I think, certainly proved it. There were positive effects that came after that, that still in some ways remain with us – but there is always backsliding also. That was a real landmark moment, I think. And NOW’s role was significant, and I felt really good about taking that action and making clear this is where NOW is.
The other thing that I wanted to talk about, which also had major and long-lasting effect, was the presidential election of 1984. The election [in] which Walter Mondale ran for the presidency. We decided that it was important for the organization this time to endorse a presidential candidate. We didn’t previously, because that would involve picking one person who was a member of a party and we saw ourselves very legitimately as nonpartisan. But we also felt that if we didn’t support a candidate, we would be forever on the sidelines and we needed to be in the middle of this.
We had a very extensive process that involved meeting with all of the staff of all major Democratic candidates. We didn’t do the Republican candidate, because that was Ronald Reagan. We clearly did not want him. We worked really well and really extensively with a lot of wonderful staff people. I remember in particular Nikki Heidepriem from the Mondale campaign.
We worked with Ann Lewis, Wendy Sherman from Barbara Mikulski’s office and Barbara Mikulski was a co-chair of the campaign. Wendy was wonderful. She is now of course a highly regarded Ambassador. It was a time when we met and got involved with the leadership of the organizations in a way I think that we really had never done previously. I do remember the one recurring phrase when we would have problems between organizations. Someone would say that we were acting like a firing squad in a circle. That was too often the case, but this really focused our energies and we came together, because we knew how much was at stake for this election.
We worked around the country. As president, I did trips all around the country, supported by our PAC. I went to Alaska. Traveling around the country and with our members and organizations all around the country. Mondale had in fact chosen a woman vice presidential candidate.
MJC: Want to talk about NOW’s role in that?
JG: NOW’s role in selecting the vice-presidential candidate was major. It was significant. We had done a lot of research that indicated that a woman on the Democratic ticket would make a real difference. That it would be something new under the sun – not just two white men together again. That it would bring a fresh perspective to the campaign.
In fact, there was a gender gap in the 1980 election that indicated that women represented a real electoral power potentially and that putting a woman on the ticket would activate that. We worked with all of the campaigns and after extensive discussion and studying, decided that the person we wanted to support was Geraldine Ferraro. That she was strong. She was of course excellent on our issues. She was enthusiastic and in a young leadership, but leadership still in the Democratic Party.
We recommended that to the vice president, still then, Mondale. I was speaking to a Latino group in Texas and when I got to the airport I got a phone call from my office that said don’t come back to Washington go to Minnesota because you’re meeting with Vice President Mondale. I got on a different plane and flew to Minneapolis and because I was meeting with Mr. Mondale in the morning I was invited to go to dinner with some members of the National Press.
They promised that this would be off the record and I could talk freely. I didn’t like to talk off the record because that was always risky. But we had a wonderful discussion. There was actually a cartoon that appeared in The Los Angeles Times of me with spirals in my eyes. And the question was What if Reagan Picks a Woman Vice President? What Will NOW Do Then? That was a question they asked me that night. They didn’t exactly stay true to their off the record comment.
The next day I met with Vice President Mondale, who was wonderful, thoughtful and clearly considering carefully what I was talking about and what our research had indicated. There were other groups as well that had been giving him input. But what we had found and our work on those issues had indicated was something that meant quite a bit to him. That was a great discussion.
I flew back home, and this was pretty close to the fourth of July. I went home late from the office and flicked on the TV as I always did, and a news reporter was saying, “Breaking news: we have just received word that Vice President Mondale will select Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.” I’m quite sure I shrieked. The phone rang almost immediately, and I thought it was one of our people from the office. It was a voice saying, “Hello, this is CBS television – is this Judy Goldsmith?” I hung up the phone. I couldn’t talk to them. I never talked to press without having our press secretary present ,because it just was not wise to do that. I didn’t talk to anyone that night.
The next day our office was just crowded with press and everyone was so excited. And we did a press conference and indicated how happy we were about the decision that we had made and the selection that Vice President Mondale had made. He then stood in the well of the Minnesota State Capital and did his speech and said that he looked for the best candidate for vice president and found “her” in Geraldine Ferraro.
I thought that the word “her” hung in the air like a word that had never existed before. It was wonderful. He said it was a very exciting choice. And the crowd roared and erupted, and he looked at the crowd and he said let me say that again. This was a very exciting choice and they went wild again. It was and it was an amazing moment. And the Democratic convention was held in San Francisco.
MJC: And I believe there is a picture in Newsweek of you and I watching television in the office when the announcement was made.
JG: Yes, there is. There is absolutely in Newsweek. Mary Jean Collins and Judy Goldsmith watching the television with very big smiles on our faces. It was wonderful. There was also a picture I was surprised to see after that and in the international edition of newspapers a picture of me – a full front face with my mouth so wide open you could have gotten a football into it and the headline was “A Wow From NOW”. We were of course very excited, and we worked hard all around the country.
We have to back up a second because there was the Democratic convention and it was a remarkable place to be. The night that she was selected formally at the convention, the delegates had to be 50/50 male/female. And that night because of the importance of that event, the historic nature of the event, most of the male delegates gave up their credentials to a female alternate. So, the floor was almost entirely female, and Gerry got on stage and of course the crowd erupted.
What will always stay in my mind is images from the television coverage of upturned women’s faces with tears running down their cheeks shouting, “Ger-ry, Ger-ry.” Just watching her and enchanted and so thrilled and excited that this moment could actually happen. It was a real turning point. It was women in power in a way that we hadn’t ever seen in this country before. And something that we very much needed. When I was talking to groups of people about the importance of women role models, saying this is important not just for little girls to have models for what they can grow up to be, but it’s important for little boys to understand that these are women in leadership and women can be leaders.
And also, for some big boys to see that women can be leaders, because that had really not registered in the national consciousness at that point. So that was a remarkable and truly historic moment. It was a really exciting couple days. My mother was excited because she saw me on television all the time. And I remember there was a newspaper that did a front-page layout that had important Democratic influences on the election. My picture was first and Lane Kirkland from the AFL-CIO was next and then some Democratic leadership.
It did indicate that NOW had a role, that we had a major role and that we were key members of the women’s organizations community as well as other like-minded people, civil rights groups and peace groups and environmental groups. And gay rights. It was a very important moment for that as well. I spoke to some gay rights organizations in San Francisco and they were very excited about this development as well, because it really meant that there would be a difference.
And we said, what this means is that there will be someone in the White House, a step away from the presidency, who knows what a woman’s experience is. Who knows what it is to fight for a job, who knows what it is to be disrespected, who understands, who knows what it is to be pregnant, who understands those realities and to fight the discrimination. So, this will be very important.
And it was important, but the opposition started almost immediately. They were going back two generations to find dirt on Gerry or on her husband, who was a real estate agent. They finally found something obscure that he had done that was not a terrible thing ,but it didn’t look good and [they] played on that and made the most of that in a very bad way.
But they did one thing that I thought was really the most devastating in terms of shaking up women and making them rethink their support for Gerry. And it was that the message they started to send that I heard every time I turned on the news and heard opposition people talking, they would say you’re supporting Geraldine Ferraro just because she’s a woman. A lot of women would say, well no of course not. They started to doubt themselves, because women have always been taught that we need to put ourselves last.
Are you actually going to do something that would be good for women? Are you actually going to do something that would be good for yourself? Yes, that would have been good for us. It would have been good for all of the women who thought about that, but there was a real guilt that was triggered there. And I’ve always thought that was a major aspect of the opposition certainly, but also the loss of enthusiasm from women for her candidacy.
Of course, we did lose, which was a moment that was hard to describe. In some ways on some level it’s almost worse than the loss of the ERA, but very similar. It did still make an impact. It left a mark and it was something that I think now can feel very proud about in the work that we did. In the leadership that we took and the strong positions that we took.
One last thing. I remember we had a dear friend in the movement who was a singer-songwriter Kristin Lems from Illinois and she had written a song that we quoted a lot over those next days.
Women Walk More Determined than they ever have. Women walk with a stronger stride than they ever have before. Look around sisters and brothers because you’re gonna find you’ve got another kind of woman, who give a lot and live a lot, who ask a lot and give a lot and live a whole lot more.
I love that and I think that was a perfect conclusion to a moment that was the part of my presidency I will never forget.