THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“No One Was Going to Stand in My Way”
Interviewed by Kathy Rand, Executive VP, VFA, May 2018
KS: Hi Suzanne – thank you for agreeing to be part of the Veteran Feminists of America Pioneer History’s Project. We’re delighted to be talking to you today. Can we start by you just for the record giving me your name?
SD: My name is Suzanne Doty.
KS: Great. And today we want to talk about your experience working in the second wave women’s movement. Where and when were you active in the women’s movement?
SD: Well I first started in the women’s movement in the early 70s. I think it was around 73 when the N.O.W. National office was opening in Chicago. And I lived in Chicago. And my mother was the one that sent me the job openings – the announcement. Because she was a NOW member and I was not yet. And she gave me the job interview information and I applied for an interview and got hired as the executive secretary.
My Mother Was A Member of N.O.W. Before I Was
KS: Great. How many employees were in the office at that time?
SD: I think at that time, I was I think there were two or three. It was Jane Plitt who was Executive Director and I think Marian at that point had been hired as a receptionist. And then I came in as the executive secretary and then we hired two or three other people after that and a couple part time people over the years.
KS: And how long approximately did you work in that office?
SD: I worked in the office until it was closed. So that must have been two or three year’s maybe. I’m not quite sure. I know that I ended up at the YWCA after that and then I went into graduate school where based on you – actually – Miss Kathy Rand – that must have been around 75 – 76 I guess – when they closed it.
KR: Right. OK. Did you consider yourself a feminist prior to working there?
SD: Yeah I had a – I went to an all women’s college in upstate New York and graduated in 1971 – Wells College in Aurora, New York, which is now coed – coed for about 10 or 12 years. But the only upside to that from my perspective is that my son got to go there and graduated from there.
It that was pretty cool. But I was not an official card carrying member of N.O.W. when I joined the office – was hired- but joined right after and then became very active in the Chicago chapter.
KS: And what kind of things did you do when you were a member of Chicago NOW? What issues did you work on what roles did you play? What did you do there?
There Were So Many Wonderful Things
SD: I was – I joined the ERA committee and rising to the rank of chair of the committee. So and marching in St. Patrick’s Day parade with the moms for ERA posters and organizing marches down in Springfield Illinois to try and get the ERA past and all of those wonderful things that we did. But it was mostly the Equal Rights Amendment and – I think credit issues – the bread and butter issues that we were facing. Not being able to get credit in your own name and things like that. And all of our actions against Sears, things like that.
KR: Right. And are there memories that stand out as – sort of most outstanding. I mean things that you know all these years later – stick with you one way or another.
I Called Her Phyllis
SD: Yeah I think the one that sticks out the most is debating Phyllis Schlafly on WLS radio one evening from midnight until 3:00 a.m. Yes. I remember that none of our supporters from Chicago could get through on the lines. And that most of the callers that called in at that time of the morning or evening, whatever you want to call it – were anti-ERA. But they were really crazy people. That’s probably politically incorrect – but they were – let’s say – unmoored from reality and totally on Phyllis’s side.
But that was one of the things that I realized early on in the debate was that if I called her Phyllis instead of Mrs. Schlafly that she became a little unhinged which was fun. So I called her Phyllis. And I remember one gentleman calling in from Tennessee when she was talking about – oh women will have to serve in the armed forces and they’ll be killed in combat and all these horrible things that were going to happen. And he called in and he said “Mrs. Schlafly, I’ve been listening to you for over an hour now and I’d like to understand why you think your life is any more precious than mine.” I thought that was the best thing ever.
That was probably the most memorable time.
But I think that all of the things that we did as a chapter – I know we all had started savings accounts at Sears Bank and Trust so that we could go to the stockholder meetings and we had all of those actions outside of the Sears meetings in the Prudential building and then – then when we did our August 26 review. And I remember skulking around in Chicago one night plastering posters for our August 26 event on the site of a Sears building and I drove the getaway car.
We had a lot of fun
We had a lot of fun they always said this Feminists were angry and unfunny and humorless and we just had a wonderful time. We had fun.
KR: And was this new for you? Was this something that you had done before or was it exciting?
SD: No – It really wasn’t. It was really- it was new. It was – I’d never been involved in – well I’d been involved in college and protesting the war in Vietnam. But never in a leadership position or anything like that. But I do remember when we – when Kent State happened. I was in college and we were so devastated by that that we went on strike and being a woman’s college of long standing, they were horrified that we would defy the administration and walk out of classes. But we did because we felt very strongly about that. So that was probably the beginning of my activism but never really got that involved until I joined N.O.W.
KS: And do you think that you gained skills from your experience in the movement that affected your later life both professionally or personally?
Being An Activist Served Me Well
SD: Absolutely. I think that the leadership skills that we were forming at the time served me very well throughout my life. And knowing you – actually – as another member. And when you started graduate school at Northwestern and encouraged me to do the same. So I went in and got an MBA. And I think that helped my business life because – well yeah – it did a lot because I met a woman who was working at a company that then hired me to work in the company.
And I ended up moving overseas and living overseas for four years. And that was a highlight of my professional life because I gained a lot of experience and knowledge of the world and how business works and then moved back to the states. Moved to California and started my own company with my now ex husband at the time – that we had for 25 and a half years. So I think that all of that pretty much stems from being in the women’s movement.
I Had A Voice
And learning that I had a voice that I could use – and I had skills that I could use. And that no one was going to stand in my way.
KS: Interesting. Are there other – other than the Phyllis Schlafly debate – other things that stand out in your mind as memorable or important or unusual?
SD: I think the big rally that we planned for Springfield Illinois when we went and met with all the legislators and the big – I don’t know how many thousands of people were down there but we organized it throughout the state. We hired buses and bussed everybody down there and just – it was a momentous day I think to apply that kind of pressure. Unfortunately the ERA didn’t pass in Illinois. Although it’s teetering on the edge right now.
KS: It just passed the Illinois Senate.
We Need A Shift In Washington
SD: It passed the Senate but I think it still has to pass the House right? So and then we just need one more state. So until we have a seismic shift in Washington and we have a Congress that will extend the deadline, we still are not equal under the law. And that’s – that’s a concern. People think we are. Young women think we are. They don’t quite appreciate I think what the society was like when we were working as when we were working with N.O.W. and things. I recently got my hands on a copy of Shana Alexander’s book. It’s been out of print for a while but she had details every state and what the laws the discriminatory laws were in every state against women. Fascinating.
Giving Back To Community
Later on – I mean – since I’ve moved back to America from overseas and I got involved with several organizations. The first one was the National Association of Women Business Owners or NAWBO. I helped start the chapter in San Francisco and then the one in Silicon Valley. And then I went from there to being a Soroptimist for many years. About 20 years because I thought – I felt very strongly about giving back to the community.
So I really wanted to do service work. And I did that for a long time and then I joined – I was appointed to the Commission on the Status of Women for Santa Clara County. And I’ve done that for about ten years. I just got turned out last summer after 10 years but that was really there. Well we worked on equal pay. We worked on healthcare issues – reproductive rights.
All the same issues we’ve been working on since the 70s, which is very sad.
But the one thing that I have gotten involved with is the Cities For CEDAW. You know – I’m sure you’re aware of the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. That is voted on at the U.N. and we’re one of maybe four or five other countries in the world that haven’t signed on to this. Among such illustrious compatriots as Iran and things like that. But we – you know now the push is to do it from the grassroots level up.
So I worked on getting the CEDAW ordinance for the Santa Clara County. And also getting a CEDAW ordinance for the city of San Jose, which is the 10th largest city in the state. So that’s one of the things I’ve been working on but until we get the ERA passed we still don’t have the kind of protections that we need. These can be taken away and that’s disturbing.
KS: But it sounds like you’ve sort of maintained your activism even after leaving NOW that you have involved.
SD: Oh yeah absolutely. I just I can’t say no anymore. I just – I feel that you know I gained a lot of knowledge when I worked at NOW and my eyes were open to a lot of discrimination that I hadn’t really thought about as a white woman – an educated white woman. But I think that there are so many issues that are still unresolved and it’s our –
It’s our duty if nothing else to change the world for our children and grandchildren.
KS: So you are a fellow member – a new member of the VFA board.
SD: I am. I’m very excited about that – getting back into all of my wonderful friends from long ago.
KR: Exactly. So are there other people that you can think of that you know we’ve tried to reach out as much as we can – but people that maybe we haven’t thought of who we should interview?
SD: Well the women that I that I am involved with now are not second wave feminists – they are brand new feminists. But for example, Kamala Lopez, who is behind the ERA, the push to get the ERA ratified. She – you know she made that movie – what’s the name of that movie? You know the movie – and I have to tell you I saw that movie about two years ago – three years ago on August 26, which is of course the anniversary when women got the vote. And I broke down in tears. I was so upset that we still seem to be somewhat in the same spot. We’ve made a lot of advancements I think. But there’s so many more to be done.
We Have Come Far
For years went down to the Mount St. Mary’s University release of their report on the Status of Women in California. And that is – in fact – that’s a that’s a woman that should be interviewed – the president (Ann) McElaney who’s the president of Mount St. Mary’s University. She’s a really wonderful woman.
And I think she would be – I don’t know what her history of involvement is. I know she came from the east coast but I know that she’s – Mount Saint Mary’s University is just a wonderful place and they have really good work. They have a center now that is working on all of the same issues that we are.
Rosie The Riveter
There’s a lot of women in Sacramento, California. Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson I can think of right off the top whose very strong feminist and a leader in the legislature. She was the one that spearheaded the Fair Pay Act that Jerry Brown signed. I’m saying two – three years ago now. It was signed at the Rosie the Riveter Museum in Richmond, which was – a lot of the Rosie’s were there. And in fact there is a woman who is the oldest living full time employee of the U.S. Forest Service. I think it’s the forest service that runs the museum at the Rosie the Riveter place. I’d have to find her name for you.
But she is – these women are incredible. The kind of discrimination that they faced. Because not only were they women, but they were black women and a lot of those women I think are worthwhile being interviewed just for their historical perspective if nothing else. So Hannah-Beth I think would be a really good person to interview. I could get you in touch with her. Of course Gina Davis who was the chair of the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls for many years. And she works with a lot of – she’s working down in – her nonprofit is based at Mount St. Mary’s University as well. So she’s – she’s been in the fight for a long time. I’ll have to put my thinking cap on.
A Break In Leadership
KR: That’s great, that’s helpful. Before we wrap up is there anything else about your experience, your life in the women’s movement or stories – untold stories or anything like that you would like to cover.
SD: Well, you know, when we had the NOW national office, one of the things that was very disturbing was when we had the break in the leadership between the Midwest people and the East Coast people. And I’m not – I don’t quite remember why it happened. I think a lot of it had to do with where they thought the national office should be housed.
And they subsequently moved it to Washington, which I can understand but I also think that Chicago was such a wonderful place to be an activist that it should have at least had a presence there. And I do remember when they went after Jane Plitt, the Executive Director. That was very disheartening to see that kind of divisiveness and unpleasantness directed at other women who were supposedly on the same side.
But you know – those sorts of things happen. I think that that one of the things I’ve been involved with now is the recall of the judge up here in Santa Clara County who sent – the woman who was unconscious and sexually assaulted. Aaron Persky. And the sexual assault issue is something that’s very disturbing to me that women still – we always focus on the women – you know don’t wear that – don’t wear – you know don’t walk here – don’t you know be provocative – when I think we really have to be focusing on the men.
And that’s the issue. They’re the ones that are perpetrating all of these things. There’s a man you probably know, Dr. Jackson Katz who gave a TED talk. If you reframe some of these issues as men’s issues then people will pay attention. But he’s really an interesting character he would be interesting to talk to as well. But you know the Title 9 – the assault on Title 9 is very disheartening. I’m also involved with now the Association of American University Women the AUW. I serve on the public policy committee and I’m on, I’m the Treasurer of the local branch.
Our Rights Are Fragile
And we’ve had a big uptick in membership based on the women’s march. And being involved in the women’s march is something that – it just brings me back to the days when we marched in Chicago for women’s rights and you know some of the things have been changed. But so many – especially in the political climate of these days it’s just – they don’t understand how fragile those rights are. And that’s unfortunate.
KS: You know and we’re trying to do this history, so that people understand.
SD: People will know exactly –
KS: – how hard we fought.
Raising A Feminist Son
SD: My greatest achievements I think is raising a feminist son. He has told me some stories about things that – situations that he’s been in and he said you know I knew that you wouldn’t want me to do that. You know – so that made me feel good too. So and a lot of his friends – I have a good feeling about their age group in terms of the acceptance of equality. It’s more the people in power that I’m afraid of.
And I hope the students down in Parkland Florida – I have such respect for those kids. They are just awesome and they’ll be voting and hopefully they will turn the tide and then we can – maybe not relax, but we can maybe breathe out a little bit easier now and they can take on the fight. I’m all in favor of them taking on a fight and letting us be their mentors and having their backs. It’s been a long time. It’s been a long time.
I think we’re all tired.
KR: I think we need a new young – a young new generation.
SD: That’s correct.
KR: Suzanne Doty, thank you so much for taking your time to talk to me and to do this interview that will be part of the VFA Pioneer Histories Project. And we’ll be in touch with next steps.
SD: My pleasure. Thank you so much. Appreciate it. It’s really fun getting back in touch with you.
KR: You too.