Interview with Linda Ginenthal2020-01-16T16:13:54+00:00

THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT

Linda Ginenthal

“Organizing Is In My Blood!”

Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, at the UIC Richard J. Daley Library, Chicago, IL, June 15, 2019

MJC:  Linda, so nice to see you again.

LG:  It’s great to see you.

MJC:  Thank you so much for doing this interview for the Veteran Feminists of America. You barely make the timeline – you’re young. We are really glad to have you and capture your story.

LG:  I was a young thing.

MJC:  Let’s talk about that period. Let’s talk about an even earlier period. When and where were you born?

LG:  I was born in New York City in the Bronx and I grew up the first 20 years in New York. There were seven of us. Four from my parents, two step-sisters from my father’s wife’s previous marriage and then I have a half-brother. It’s a big crowd. We moved around quite a bit. We started in the Bronx and then moved out to Long Island and then moved back into Queens, then I moved into Manhattan. My mom left when I was 10. I grew up with my dad in the house.

MJC:  What’s the ethnic makeup of this crowd?

LG:  My dad and that side of the family are Jewish. Eastern European Jewish. And then my mom’s side of the family is First Nation Cree and Métis in Canada. So that’s an interesting mix and different culturally. My mom was converted to Judaism before I was born.

MJC:  Your parents are divorced?

LG:  Yes, they got divorced when I was 10. Somewhere in there my dad converted to being a Jehovah’s Witness and so his new family are all Jehovah’s Witnesses. My twin brother is a Jehovah’s Witness; I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness. It was kind of a crazy upbringing – it was chaotic. I felt the way that I had to deal with it and struggle with it was to be very organized and planned like I have to be in charge, I have to be independent. It makes you a little crazy, but it served me well in figuring out how to get things done.

MJC:  What was your life like before you got involved in the women’s movement?

LG:  I was young, so I was mostly just kind of growing up trying to figure out how to get out of the house – how to move out. When we moved back into Queens, I went to my regular high school, Forest Hills, five periods a day and then in the afternoon I would take the subway into Manhattan and went to Talent Unlimited High School. It was a performing arts school and I was a voice major. It was super fun.

I was the only white kid in the school. It was really helpful, because when else as a white person are you the only person in the room in the United States or in a public institution? That doesn’t happen very often. It was a really good learning experience. I was terribly shy, so I didn’t really hang out with that many kids, but there were a few and it was a really good experience. And then I went to college for like 20 minutes and didn’t want to continue it because I had this great opportunity to work on women’s rights.

MJC:  Did you have any feminist moments in high school?

LG:  Yes I did. I don’t quite know where the whole women are people thing came into being. But I had a high school English teacher and he was a pig. He was awful. He told us that he had never met a woman who was smarter than him. He actually called me out. From a very early age I figured out that women are people. I was kind of not happy that we weren’t included. But I really came into feminism when I went to college.

I took a class called Feminism in Theory and Practice in 1979. I needed to get a job and there was one advertised to work for the Equal Rights Amendment. I went in for the interview and they said it was a canvassing job. I went to the first day, the training day, and we all got into the car and went out to the suburbs of New York and all of these people were let out one at a time in the different neighborhoods and I didn’t know what was going on. It was just me and the trainer and then we got out of the car and went up to the door. She’s giving a schpiel and then she’s asking for money.

I had no idea what the word canvassing meant. I was terrified. I was so shy, I could not do my practice runs in front of the trainer, but I needed the job. I also wanted to do this. I just plowed through and went to doors and I made money that first night. It helped me throughout my career, because I would never have been able to get up and talk to anybody otherwise.

There was a high school, and nobody wanted to talk to the high school, because those kids don’t vote. I went to this high school and gave a speech in front of the entire student body. It opened a whole bunch of doors. It was fun.

MJC:  So that was your canvassing experience and then what came on from there?

LG:  I did that canvassing in 1979. We started with Women’s Resources for Action, which was an organization that was started just to do canvassing. We worked for the Women’s Political Caucus and raised funds for candidates who were Pro ERA. And then somehow…I don’t know the story, but Heather Booth talked with Barbara Helmick, because Chicago was the center of the universe at that point with trying to get the ERA passed.

They worked out how they would bring some people from the canvassing operations in Philly, New York and Washington D.C. to come out to Chicago. We called it the Van Plan. The six of us went to Chicago in February of 1980 and canvassed. It was very cold. It was very nice, it was super easy, like taking candy from a baby. Everybody knew the Equal Rights Amendment and had an opinion on it.

MJC:  Were you in the suburbs of Chicago?

LG:  Suburbs and the city. One of my favorite stories was when I had already made my quota. We had to raise one hundred dollars a day, which at the time was a huge sum of money. I was in this great neighborhood, so I went to my last door, the woman invited me in, and she seemed a little unhappy. She seemed a little pissed. She signed my petition for the ERA and then she wrote a 50-dollar check. I was over the moon – that’s a lot of money.

She looked at me and said, “I don’t know why no one has ever come to my door before for the Equal Rights Amendment.” And then she put a one in front and gave us one hundred and fifty dollars. You’re having a one on one conversation with these people and you get really deep really fast. You made a difference and people remembered when you went to their door. It carries through being able to connect with people on that basis and I think we made a huge difference. And it was fun. The six of us, we were a rolling party.

MJC:  Let me just step back for a minute. This was the ‘70s. Were there other issues of interest to you in addition to the Equal Rights Amendment?

LG:  Well sort of, but all the women’s rights stuff was packaged together. I was 13 when Roe v. Wade came out of the courts and I lived in New York. There were clinics and everything, it was never an issue for me, because it was always available. It didn’t have the same urgency, because it was a non-issue. I came out when I was 19, the gay and lesbian rights stuff was very intense.

MJC:  So, you did the canvassing in 1980. Are there other impressions you might have had of the 1980 campaign for the ERA in Illinois?

LG:  Mostly we were cogs in a big operation and didn’t see very much of it, because we were canvassing. We would get in later in the day and then we were out till 9 o’clock at night. I remember the stories you would tell about Jane Byrne and that she was going to get the ERA for us. It was my first office experience. After the canvass left I wanted to continue, and we stayed for a little bit longer to see the rest of that year. It was eye opening to see this big operation led by all these women. I caught the bug; now I work for women’s rights.

MJC:  So, then you went back to New York and how were you politically involved?

LG:  When I grew up, my dad was politically active and  my grandfather was instrumental in starting the plumbers union. So, all the organizing stuff is in the blood. It is very much a part of the tradition of being Jewish to do community organizing and be involved in your community and give back. It was natural to get involved.

My first political action as an adult sprung from hanging out a lot with the Gay and Lesbian Center at my college. One of the folks who was organizing the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights was there. She lived in this district and her representative said that there were no gay people living in his district, which was ridiculous. We went to picket at his office in the district. I’d never been to a picket before, but the local guys in Queens were not happy to see us, a bunch of gay people.

They started to throw bottles at us, and we had to hide. The police were called. It was like a little mini riot. We had to hide in the doorways and stuff, because they were after us. I didn’t know that that wasn’t a point of political action that was normal. I thought that’s what it was like. I was young enough and stupid enough not to be incredibly afraid and intimidated. So, [for] the ’80 campaign I didn’t do much more on that. I came back to New York and got another job.

Then I moved to Washington D.C. and I wanted to work for the Women’s Community Bakery, but they didn’t hire me for some reason, which was a blessing in disguise. I had been volunteering for NOW and I had a great time and there was a job opening. I was making $125 a week when I was living in New York. I was gonna ask for $150 and she said, “Do you think you could live on $175?” I got the job at National NOW, smack dab in the middle of ERA work.

I had some experience in Chicago, so I went back and did volunteer coordinating – it’s kind of a blur. I remember the file card boxes, because we didn’t have a computer. We had an electric typewriter at some point, but that was later. We had two thousand people in a card file box, and they were tabbed with little colored sticky things to figure out who would canvass, who would phone bank, who would do mailings. There were thousands and thousands of people that came in to volunteer. It was an amazing experience.

The ’82 campaign was so emotionally absorbing. Women are people and we deserve equality. How simple is this? How ridiculous is this that we have to fight for this? Some of the legislators were dumber than a bag of rocks. They didn’t know what they were talking about. They were going to be voting and they had the power and it was astonishing to see something so simple and straightforward not make it. I believed that everyone should be supportive of equality and fairness. It’s baked into the bones of who I think humanity is. And they didn’t support it. And we couldn’t move forward on it.  Women are still treated differently and then we’re treated the same when we shouldn’t be treated the same.

MJC:  So, when the ERA went down June 30, 1982 did you leave Chicago, or did you stay?

LG:  I left Chicago on the bus to go to the National March, it was an overnight bus. I was going back home, because I moved from New York. I was going back to work for NOW and do other things. You sort of get rocked back on your heels when you lose. I got used to losing, because we’d lost the presidential election with Carter and Reagan in 1980 and we lost the Equal Rights Amendment and didn’t win a presidential electoral vote until Clinton and I sort of didn’t know how to act.

I worked on the Stevenson campaign. NOW decided there would be a campaign to get the governor out of Illinois, Jim Thompson, who could have gotten the Equal Rights Amendment passed but did not. We worked for Adlai Stevenson III on his campaign and he was not the most stellar candidate. He wasn’t that dynamic. He was down by 20 points – it was pathetic. But on election day I’m driving back from the district I was working and I’m listening to the radio and we were ahead. How is that possible we were 20 points down and now we’re ahead?

He lost by a fraction, he lost by almost nothing. Never trust the polls. The only poll that matters is the one on election day. Chicago people knew how to get their vote out dead or alive. I learned a lot about electoral politics and what it means to work for a candidate. Working for a candidate is a whole other ball of wax, because it’s personality and good and bad, but with issues it’s a lot easier because it’s more value driven.

MJC:  So, 1982 you’re back in Washington.

LG:  I’m back in Washington with you in the national office. I did a campaign for NOW membership. We did this phone bank. We had reverse directories, because everybody had a landline. There was no such thing as a cell phone at that point. I hired seven or eight people and we raised a half a million dollars on the phone cold calling for a membership for NOW. Again, astonishing that you could just cold call them and they would join NOW. It was such a popular organization at the time.

We were doing a lot more at that point after the ERA campaigns: Judy Goldsmith became the president of NOW and we got much more involved in mainstream political organizing work and less of the advocacy and activating, which is a different strategy. And then NOW took a turn and wanted to go back to the more activist realm. I got involved in the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club in Washington D.C. as the secretary and it was a great experience. I got to work with men, a different set of activists.

They recruited me to run for delegate for Mondale in Washington D.C., which was all at that time for Jesse Jackson, which was great – but I learned how to run for office a little bit. It was a caucus state. All of the organization had done this great campaign to get gay people to the caucus, so they bused them in and nobody knew me at all, but I came in behind the City Council member with the number of votes, because they bullet voted for me and they mobilized. It was an amazing campaign. Jesse Jackson got almost all of the votes and delegates, but it was a great experience and thrilling to work.

MJC:  Did you go to the convention?

LG:   No I did not go, I wasn’t a delegate and I couldn’t afford to go on my own. Geraldine Ferraro was on the ticket; it was exciting like a woman could do this, which of course she can, but it doesn’t happen.

MJC:  Where do you go from here in your organizing and work experience?

LG:  I left NOW and went to work for Mayor Berry in Washington D.C. I worked there for two years, running his phone banks for re-election. It was an incredible experience to work for a man who was revered by the African-American community. I learned a lot. You don’t see the discrimination against African-Americans – as a white person you don’t see it. A lot of it is coded. It was so eye opening from my high school as the only white girl to being in this office where I was one of very few white people.

I worked for that for two years, but working for a candidate is a whole different animal. I really wanted to work for women’s rights, but I did not want to work for an organization that was as intense as NOW. I went from that to Barry and then I was looking for an organization that was more of a sleepy women’s rights group. I interviewed with NARAL: National Abortion Rights Action League. There was not a lot going on for abortion rights at that point.

I joined the staff and had just finished the Bork nomination and then NARAL was shot out of a cannon. We quadrupled in membership. I had six or seven state affiliates that I worked with. I was the Western Regional Field Manager – so all of the states in the West – which was fascinating. There’s the politics of Utah and the politics of California and the politics of Oregon and Hawaii. I knew local politics at the national level, which was also incredibly fun and important.

It was at least as intense if not more so and I had a more important job, so it was much more consequential. I learned a ton about organizing, about strategic planning. I didn’t finish college, so I did a lot of training on how to plan, how to work with boards, how to do media and fundraising, working for abortion rights. It was exhilarating work, hard work. We held the line pretty well for those number of years and now we’re back to really fighting.

MJC:  What happened from there?

LG:   I lasted longer than every staff person except the executive director and the receptionist at NOW. When I went to NARAL, I was there for six years and I outlasted everybody except the president and the receptionist. After eleven years, stick a fork in me I’m done. I got to go. I took a year off and moved to Oregon to be with my new sweetie and that was lovely. I met her at NARAL. 

I stumbled into working on transportation. Portland Oregon is known for transportation. The Carter’s transportation person came from Oregon. I rode a bike for getting around in D.C., which was weird at that time. Everybody in Portland that I met rode a bike. They wanted to do a strategic plan for the bicycle master plan. I had done all this planning work, so I helped them and tripped into this transportation career.

I took all of the things that I learned on advocacy for women’s rights and gay and lesbian rights and morphed that into how I was going to talk about encouraging people to bike and walk and take transit and carpool and car share, because it’s just a different topic. You use the same skills, the same ways that you encourage people. It comes from a place of positive interaction, what problems are you trying to solve? It’s the same kind of stuff. I couldn’t leave my civil rights and women’s rights stuff completely behind.

Women don’t bike as much as men, because it’s sweaty and it’s not built for you, it’s a jock thing and what do you do with your hair? Figuring out ways to encourage women to do it, my staff started the Women on Bikes program to get them to figure out what would make it positive. I started this Open Streets program – that was started in Bogota. They’ve been doing it for 40 years. They close down streets every Sunday and open them up for people to bike, because there are no parks. It’s a way to recreate, but it’s also a way to show people in a place like Portland, here are some great places to ride your bike. Once a month, five times a year we create a program where we close down nine miles of streets in different neighborhoods.

It’s not enough to just close a street for me, I wanted to bring the community building and political activism to it. We started in an area that was gentrifying and figured out how you could get these new white families and the older black community playing together in the streets. We brought in a lot of the African-American organizations and closed down a street and everyone poured into the bike lane to bicycle and you couldn’t stop them.

The first event in this black neighborhood we had 15,000 people. At some point I had said we’re going to have 3,500. We didn’t have that many African-Americans in Oregon and Portland, but now the program grew to five events. We’ve roped in the Immigrant and Refugee Community. It’s based off of bringing your culture to Portland, but you also want to figure out how to become a part of the community. And everybody bikes. We had women’s rides on these courses.

There was an immigrant-refugee walk, because every time they get together for an event it’s usually a protest. I wanted them to have a place where you could come and celebrate and that we are immigrants and refugees and we are a part of the community. This is about having a good day together. We’re not going to go and protest, and that’s valuable. All of this stuff I learned as a women’s rights activist threads through everything I did.

The stuff that was hard about NOW and just working with women’s rights is that we are angry women. We are angry women and that is what fuels us; and it’s what fuels activism. You have to find a problem that you’re solving. No one gets off the couch and does anything if everything is comfy cozy. All these angry women get put in a room together and then they get angry with each other, so there’s a lot of infighting. It happens in every movement, but with women it’s a learning process of how do we disagree without being personal. 

We can come at the same issue with the same set of actual facts, as opposed to what we have now which is fake news, and how do we disagree and be respectful of somebody else who has a different opinion? Some of these thread through my Jewish upbringing. When you look at the Torah, there are questions that are asked and then you have four to ten different answers to the questions from different Jewish scholars. Jews spend their whole day arguing with each other about everything. Part of what makes you Jewish is that you question everything.

Passover is one of the high holidays and during Passover the youngest child in the room who can read asks four questions. You are asking questions of adults as a young person. You are challenging and asking questions. It is bred into you that you are challenging authority in some ways. That’s why Jews are so wonderfully a pain in the neck. But that’s part of how you have to challenge things. There’s not one right answer. So, don’t tell me this is how it goes, because that’s not necessarily how it goes.

There was a man I worked with at the City of Portland. He’s a longtime bureaucrat. He did this program. He was sort of coming out of his shell as a gay man. But just in general he talked about what do you bring to the table. When you meet somebody, what is it you’re going to bring to them? You have a choice. In working on women’s rights, I started off coming from a place of wanting people to love me as a woman and to respect me and you’re angry about it. We’re such wonderful creatures and we bring such great things to the world.

It’s such an amazing perspective. It is about bringing forth, if you are missing an opportunity without involving women, involving gay and lesbian people, involving African-Americans, involving people of color, involving the immigrant and refugee community you are missing an opportunity. You can’t just rely on one perspective. It’s boring and it doesn’t work. You leave everybody out and you’re leaving so much at the door.

59 years is a long time to figure it out. It’s not like I was always joyful, I can be very tough. I’ve had my share of tough interactions; you don’t get to be a leader without pissing a few people off. It’s not my proudest moment, pissing people off, but sorry it happens, and you have to find forgiveness. Growing up in New York there’s a million people and you feel like you can piss people off because you won’t see them again. I live in Canada, in Victoria, which is five times smaller than Portland. Portland is like 10 times smaller than New York. Canadians are very nice, and you can’t piss anybody off because you will see them again. Like tomorrow.

MJC:  That’s the wisdom of your age.

LG:  Yes, thank God.

MJC:  What do you think are your major accomplishments in the women’s movement part and some of your most memorable experiences?

LG:  When I worked for NARAL, the Colorado affiliate was led by these two very young women and they were completely inexperienced. And there’s a ballot measure. They are needing to get up to speed on reproductive rights, abortion is on the ballot. I needed to work with them every couple of days. I would get on the phone with them and work through what they were going to do and how they were going to be successful and how they would do media. Their learning curve was really steep, and they met the challenge. It was watching them grow and develop into these strong, powerful women.

I feel like I was a big part of that, but it was so behind the scenes and I really enjoyed that. I liked being able to shape it. The other accomplishment I created through my bureaucracy in Portland, Oregon was the Open Streets movement in Portland. I wanted to work behind the scenes to get more cities within the world and in the United States and Canada to do more open streets events and follow the lead of doing community activism as part of closing the streets down.

Most of these guys wanted to have their spandex riding groups and I wanted them to do more organizing. I organized an international summit for open streets, and we were represented by every continent except Europe and Antarctica. Nobody from Europe came. Well they don’t need to in Europe – they have bicycles, so they go everywhere. We had 200 people and I was the architect of that. It was thrilling and to be able to bring the equity lens to something that is not something that people think of as having anything to do with equity. It was one of my proudest accomplishments. It was really fun.

MJC:  Are there things that you want to make sure the industry knows of you that we haven’t covered?

LG:  The stuff around the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club and working for them. It was mostly all white men and integrating that with Chris Riddiough and trying to get more women involved. It was a bit of a struggle. The guys didn’t really get it. They just didn’t understand, you know, they’re white guys  – they don’t know. They understood how to get to the political power, the city council and Mayor Barry at the time. They knew how to get there, but they didn’t understand how to do grassroots organizing.

Chris and I, with her now wife Judy Nedrow, figured out how to get more women involved, but it was tough. We got some more women involved. When Chris became the chair, it became apparent that we needed to have more women. It’s a tough sell.  That was a critical part of the organizing work and I wasn’t paid…it was a volunteer gig.

MJC:   Remembering back, the male gay rights movement and the lesbian movement really did develop on different strands.

LG:  Yes, just going to the Michigan women’s music festival – that was wild. I went for a couple of years. At the time it was fun. It was fun to be open and out and I was young and physically able. It was a great experience to be surrounded by women who cared for and loved women. But then it becomes this sort of insular thing and the opposite of coming together. It’s excluding other people and that was the not positive part about women coming together in these different gatherings.

I was always a little uncomfortable with that aspect of it. But there’s not one way to go. When I was in elementary school, my principal was a woman and I just thought it was a girl’s job. I thought men didn’t do that. The same with nurses. I’m of this culture and this is what it looks like.

MJC:   You’ve talked a lot about how feminism affected your later work life. Any additional thoughts on that?

LG:  Given where we are today, women still don’t understand how unequal we are. The inequality is invisible and it’s not like opening the doors but just the idea that you would need to treat a woman special. I like getting the door opened for me, but every time I’m the first person to go through a door I keep it open. It’s not because I’m female.

That invisibility of how we’re not respected and the kinds of collaborative ways in which women work differently than men is seen as less valuable. It’s becoming more [understood], but this idea that our strengths are invisible and have been invisible in so many ways. I just talked to folks at my former job about how you can’t talk about anything other than just parental leave, you can’t talk about maternity leave or paternity leave, you have to talk about parental leave, which is perfectly fine. But you couldn’t talk about pregnancy with pronouns. And I’m thinking we’re not pregnant, she’s pregnant. Biologically it’s a girl thing. There’s one man that was pregnant, he was biologically female, he transitioned but hadn’t done any of the surgeries. He was pregnant, but the female part of him was pregnant.

MJC:  We don’t have to become the same to become equal.

LG:  Exactly. This is the one thing that we give that men do not do. Why does that have to be equal when everything else is not equal? There’s an invisible inequality. And now that we’ve got this current administration, they are just hitting people on top of the head with you are not equal. It’s a rude wake up call that we’ve been more complacent thinking that progress only moves in one direction and we’re moving in a different direction.

I live in Canada, so I’ve sort of escaped a little bit. When you’re in the ballpark, you’re not always going to win – it’s going to go this way or that way. We are not in a ball field right now. We are outside. We are way outside the ball field. We are not anywhere on the playing field. Nobody is playing by the rules:  there are no rules. It is not just the president. It is all of the Republicans who are in lockstep. And the bottom line is 30 to 40 percent of the people are just are OK with it. They’re OK with it.

And this is the place we were 40 years ago, [when] they were OK with women not being equal. They were OK with that. And now it’s just much more stark and in your face; so women are waking up and communities are having to wake up, because they’re actually taking away rights. I’m hoping I can be hopeful and I’m hoping that this is the last gasp of the patriarchy. I don’t know – we could be just moving towards fascism. Living in Canada, it’s not a wonderland, but they have an equal rights amendment in their constitution.

MJC:  Almost every other country does.

LG:  It feels a little different. I’m proud and happy to be in Canada. I’m sad for my country. I’m sad for my U.S. citizenship.

MJC:  I want to thank you very much for agreeing to be a part of this collection. Your history and all the contributions you’ve made to the feminist movement in 20th century will be recorded. And we appreciate it.

LG:  Thank you very much for asking me. I think it’s been a long time since I thought about my work at NOW and NARAL and getting to meet you again and pay attention and work together has been absolutely delightful. This has been so fun. It hurt my brain to pull these memories out because I hadn’t thought about it in a really long time, but it’s been really delightful.