THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Laura Carter Callow
“Laura Carter Callow is the Susan B. Anthony of Michigan” – Helen Milliken, First Lady of Michigan
Interviewed by James Callow Jr., January 2021
JC: This is an interview of Laura Carter Callow for the VFA, and I’m the interviewer, James F. Callow Jr. Mom, to start out, tell the audience a little bit about yourself. Where were you born?
LCC: I was born in Detroit, Michigan, on October 20th, 1927, to Clementine Rankin and Richard Carter. My birth mother became ill shortly after I was born, and she died just before my third birthday. Soon after, my father remarried Doris Meyers, who became my stepmother and the only mother I remember.
JC: And you grew up in Detroit as well.
LCC: Yes, I grew up in the shadow of the Fisher Building in what is known as the New Center Area. My mother’s family was quite well-to-do and she inherited my childhood home, a grand Victorian house filled with mahogany furniture and Persian rugs. But this wealth was lost during the Great Depression, and our family constantly struggled to make ends meet.
JC: What do you remember about your mother and father?
LCC: Their marriage was not a happy one, and my father abandoned our family when I was seven and a half. He literally disappeared. This happened to many families during the Great Depression, and it was known as a poor man’s divorce.
Prior to my mother’s marriage, she had been a teacher with the Detroit public schools. She had to resign when she married my father because the School Board had a policy of hiring only single women. When my mother tried to be reinstated after my father left, she was told she would have to get a divorce. This left her truly distraught. I can still hear her cry. She was a deeply religious woman who thought divorce was a sin and that she would burn in hell. Lucky for us, our Pastor found a verse in the Bible, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s…” This gave her comfort and permission to get a divorce and support our family.
JC: This must have had a profound effect on you.
LCC: Very profound. When my mother explained this to me, I asked if married men could be teachers. She looked surprised and said, “Of course they can.” I was shocked and puzzled by this unfairness. Clearly this is the event that set me on the road to feminism.
JC: Were there other events growing up that shaped your thinking?
LCC: There were several incidents that made me aware that the world treated men and women differently. And by and large, men were the privileged. As a seventh grader, I wanted to take a woodworking class. I was denied because the class was only available to boys. Years later, as an Art Education major at Wayne State University, I was required, like all Art Education majors, to have a knowledge of woodworking in order to graduate. Intuitively, I had known what I needed to learn at age 12. However, I paid college tuition for a woodworking class that seventh-grade boys were being taught for free.
JC: Where did you go to high school?
LCC: I attended Cass Technical High School, one of the premier high schools in the nation. Students had to have a B or better average to be admitted. While there, I won a national poster contest.
JC: How were you able to attend Wayne State University?
LCC: I needed to work. Our family had no money for my college education, so I applied to Michigan Bell Telephone Company and was initially offered a job as an operator. I asked if they had other jobs because I didn’t like the operators’ hours. The recruiter said, “We have this other job of Frame Girl”. And then lowering her voice as if she was going to tell me something shameful she said, “You will have to wear slacks.” But I didn’t care.
JC: Now, what is a Frame Girl?
LCC: The job of Frame Girl involved soldering wires that came in from the outside cables and were connected to the switching equipment that made phones work. It was a dead-end job. The company refused to promote women because they claimed the men refused to work with women. This policy was subsequently challenged by the National Organization for Women and struck down in 1980.
JC: Was it difficult to attend college while working?
LCC: I was lucky. There were two male supervisors who were very sympathetic to my desire for higher education. They arranged for me to work part time during the school year. With their help, I was able to attend Wayne State University while living at home. I didn’t work as a Frame Girl the whole time. I was soon transferred to an office job where I tele-typed orders for new phones.
JC: And it was about this time that you met Dad?
LCC: Yes, I met your father, James Frederick Callow, working at Michigan Bell Telephone Company. He was also a student at Wayne State University, and it was almost love at first sight. As you know, we were married one-month shy of sixty-five years. I was fortunate. Your dad was very supportive of my activism.
JC: Yes, he was. What did you do after college graduation?
LCC: I was hired by the Detroit Board of Education to teach art at a K-8 elementary school on Detroit’s Lower East Side. I taught there for two years. When I became pregnant with you in , I had to take a pregnancy leave because the Board of Education did not allow women to teach past the fourth month.
After Bruce was born in October of 1954, I planned to go back to teaching when you were three [and Bruce was two]. Unfortunately, daycare was so expensive it would take all but ten dollars of my weekly salary. Monetarily it wasn’t worthwhile. Instead, I taught adults in night school, mainly ceramics. At various times, I also taught macramé, jewelry making and silkscreen printing. I continued teaching night school after Rebecca was born in 1965. Following my diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis in 1983, I stopped teaching altogether. Subsequently I found work as an interviewer for the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan. I worked there for another 14 years and retired at age 70.
JC: You’ve often mentioned that women and credit was one of the issues that helped turn you into an activist.
LCC: Access to credit was a particular problem for my mother. She eventually remarried a man we called JD. When she asked the J.L. Hudson Company to put her married name on her department store credit card, the store demanded that JD’s name be put on the card as well. Although JD was a very nice man, he refused to sign. He didn’t believe in credit because of his experience during the Great Depression. The company took away my mother’s credit card. They claimed she would resign her job because she was now married. But she told them, no, this would not happen because she was too close to retirement and did not want to lose her pension. However, this made no difference.
JC: How did this affect you?
LCC: Frankly, I was frightened. If something happened to your dad, I could see myself in serious financial trouble. When I learned that the women’s movement was working to change credit laws, I helped form the Northwest Wayne County chapter of NOW to participate in that effort. I’m very proud of having played a small role in changing credit laws. This is one of the great achievements of the second wave of feminism.
JC: Is it fair to say that your efforts to change credit laws was a springboard to your broader role in the women’s movement?
LCC: Yes, it began when our NOW chapter received a request for a speaker on the women’s movement. Since I had had some previous experience speaking for the League of Women Voters, I agreed to give the speech. That said, I knew next to nothing about the women’s movement, other than that women have struggled for the right to vote.
JC: So, what did you learn? What did you say to your audience in that first speech?
LCC: In preparing for the speech, I realized that I was a feminist. I hadn’t really known what the word meant, but it became apparent that I was one and had been for many years. But I also learned that women were working to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Michigan had ratified it in 1972 and I had never heard of it.
My speech focused mainly on the struggles for suffrage. I also discussed how women worked to gain property rights, the right to speak publicly and the right to higher education. And I ended up telling them that we were working to put women in the Constitution by ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment. The speech went very well, and word spread. Soon I was being asked to give speeches to many groups, including high school and college classes.
JC: After learning about the ERA how did you become active working for it?
LCC: I became active in 1976 when Stop ERA took root here in Michigan and they mounted the first of three attempts to rescind Michigan’s ratification of the ERA. Organizations supporting the ERA were not prepared for this onslaught.
In response, a meeting of these organizations was convened in April of 1976 by First Lady of Michigan, Helen Milliken, a Republican, and Elly Peterson, who was the first woman to head a national political party here in Michigan. Elly had just been named the Republican co-chair for a national coalition, ERAmerica. I was invited to attend. The coalition, Michigan ERAmerica was formed, and I was elected co-chair. I continued my public speaking, but I also researched many of the false claims made by the opposition. This took a great deal of time and effort because we did not have computers or the Internet. One false story took six months to debunk.
JC: Tell me about the time you confronted Phyllis Schlafly about Stop ERA misinformation.
LCC: I was able to confront Schlafly when she appeared on a Detroit area radio phone-in show. When I called in and was connected, I pointed out that the Supreme Court had struck down women-only alimony laws and that alimony could be awarded to either party. Schlafly had just received her law degree and she was sort of going along with me saying…uh huh, uh huh. Then I asked, “Why is Stop ERA claiming that the ERA will cause women to lose their right to alimony – that’s a lie.” Schlafly sputtered momentarily because she knew what I said was true. But then she had the gall to lie again and claim that she was not responsible for what Stop ERA printed in Michigan.
JC: At some point in your advocacy for the ERA, you became a radio commentator. How did this come about?
LCC: WJR Radio, one of the biggest radio stations in the nation, had a program called “Point of View.” Each day of the month, a different commentator presented a one-minute point of view. The state ‘Chairman’ [her word] of Stop ERA was one of them. Michigan ERAmerica requested equal time and I was given a monthly spot on “Point of View.”
JC: In 1982 the ERA time limit ended. What happened then?
LCC: The National ERAmerica Coalition disbanded and leaders of ERA supporting organizations decided not to start a new fight for ERA ratification. I believe they were burned out and out of money. Instead, they decided to work to change discriminatory laws, one law at a time. I, and other like-minded supporters, believed that efforts to revive the ratification process would start much sooner than it actually did. But given this belief, we decided to keep Michigan ERAmerica intact and active.
JC: With little progress toward ratification what did you do to continue the fight?
LCC: Michigan ERAmerica remained active first by lobbying and also by publishing the Michigan ERAmerica newsletter Coalition Update. I continued giving speeches on ERA and women’s rights and seeking support from elected officials. In 1990, two remarkable women, Dr. Allie Hixson of Kentucky and Flora Crater of Virginia convened an ad hoc committee that they called the ERA Summit. The committee’s goal was to find a way to jumpstart a new push for ERA ratification. I received an invitation. There were about 15 representatives from nine different states, and we met at the Sewell Belmont House in Washington, DC.
JC: Tell me about the role of the ERA summit in advancing the ERA ratification.
LCC: For almost two years, we could think of no way to launch a new ERA effort. Then the 27th Amendment concerning congressional pay raises was ratified. This amendment was first introduced in 1789 and was ratified two hundred and three years later in 1992. By contrast, the ERA time limit was initially seven years. Congress extended the [ERA] time limit three more years for a total of ten years.
Members of the ERA summit were stunned and angry. Dr. Hixson suggested maybe we could just ignore the time limit. The ERA summit decided to seek a legal opinion. Flora Crater contacted the dean of the law school at the University of Virginia at Richmond. Three women law students researched the issue and produced a legal brief entitled “Why the Equal Rights Amendment Remains Viable and Properly Before the States.” Their brief concluded that there is no time limit in the Constitution. The ERA time limit is in the proposing clause, not the amendment. And Congress has already extended the time limit. Thus, the time limit is flexible.
JC: Did this legal opinion prompt new efforts for ratification?
LCC: Yes, very much so. US Representative Rob Andrews, [a Democrat from New Jersey], introduced legislation asking Congress to accept the ratification of three more states. We called it the Three State Strategy. At the national level, our excitement was not matched by the leaders of the various ERA supporting organizations. Most were politely disinterested. However, I was most disappointed by the reaction of National NOW leadership. They were hostile, because they wanted to start over with a new ERA.
However, the reaction in the non-ratified states was polar opposite. There the Three State Strategy was embraced wholeheartedly and ERA advocates in Illinois, Virginia and Florida immediately sought to have ratification bills introduced into their state legislatures. The ERA summit had accomplished its goal of jumpstarting the ERA.
JC: Did the summit remain active?
LCC: Change came to the ERA summit. Allie Hixson and Flora Crater were up in years and in ill health. Leadership was assumed by Jennifer MacLeod of New Jersey, who renamed it the ERA Campaign Network. She greatly expanded the membership by meeting via teleconference calls and communicating through emails.
There was also new thinking. During network conferences calls, activists in unratified states mentioned the difficulty of persuading legislators to support legislation, ratifying the ERA, they kept hearing the same objection. “How do we know Congress will recognize our ratification?” One activist, Carolyn Cook [of Washington, DC,] said, “Why don’t we just get rid of the ERA time limit altogether?” Pursuing her own suggestion, she formed United for Equality and successfully lobbied to get legislation removing the ERA time limit introduced into the US House in 2011. In 2012, she convinced Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat of Maryland, to introduce this legislation into the Senate.
JC: Were you ever discouraged? Did you ever give up hope?
LCC: No, not really. I just kept channeling Susan B. Anthony, who said, “Failure is impossible.” Actually, federal legislation removing a time limit improved our efforts to promote ratification. [Legislators seemed more willing to accept removing the time-limit than they were with the previous legislation].
But there were years of disappointment. In unratified states, sometimes one legislative chamber would pass an ERA ratification bill, which would then fail in the other chamber. Despite these setbacks, the women in these states never gave up.
I believe that the 2016 presidential election and the rise of the #MeToo movement generated widespread awareness and support for these efforts, and it resulted in a critical mass of support leading to the ERA ratification of Nevada in 2017. In 2018 Illinois ratified and Virginia in 2020.
JC: Virginia was the 38th and last state to ratify. Why isn’t it now part of the Constitution?
LCC: It’s a bit complicated, but the ERA opponents never gave up. They sued the National Archivist to prevent him from publishing the ERA as ratified. In response, he sought an opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department. That opinion claimed that the time limit had long ago expired and that five states had rescinded their ratifications.
The archivist now says he will not publish the ERA without a court order. Attorneys General for the three newly ratified states, Illinois, Nevada and Virginia, have sued to force the archivist to do his duty in accordance with the Constitution. Another suit brought by Equal Means Equal, an ERA supporting organization claims that time limits are unconstitutional. So, at this time [January 2021], the ERA is in a legal holding pattern. But I firmly believe that we will prevail because our cause is just.
JC: In addition to the fight for equal rights, you were involved in other activities supporting women.
LCC: Yes, I was appointed to the Women’s Advisory Committee at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan. Women faculty members expressed concern that the college faculty, including the school of nursing and the student body were two-thirds male. At their insistence the Women’s Advisory Committee was formed. The first order of business was to have the college hire more women and enroll more women students.
JC: What did the Women’s Advisory Committee do to help women?
LCC: The Advisory Committee’s research suggested that women most likely to be available to attend college classes were homemakers whose children were in school full time. We realized that these women would be older and probably uncomfortable arriving on a campus swarming with 18- and 19-year old’s. And so, we proposed to the board of trustees the establishment of a Women’s Resource Center, which they did approve.
JC: Earlier you mentioned that you helped organize the Northwest Wayne County chapter of NOW.
LCC: Yes, my NOW chapter formation was inspired by Barbara Seaman, the author of “Free and Female.” On a book tour at Schoolcraft College, she told us about being pregnant with her first child. Prior to delivery, she learned that her doctor intended to induce her labor and that of all of his other patients because he was going on a world cruise.
Inducing labor is very dangerous for both mother and baby and Seaman found a different doctor. She was a science writer and decided to investigate how doctors were trained. She discovered that most medical textbooks were very demeaning of women. The only quote I can remember is that “Women are like children, treat them kindly but firmly.” When Seaman finished speaking, the room exploded with women telling story after story of how badly they had been treated during childbirth. I thought the bad experience that I had had when my first child was born was unique. I now realized it wasn’t. From that talk, a group of us came together to form the Northwest Wayne County chapter of NOW.
JC: What issues did your NOW chapter become involved in?
LCC: My NOW chapter consisted of women with many different concerns, but we helped each other to work for change. One member, an OB nurse, wanted hospitals to allow fathers into the delivery room. She claimed that things go on there that should not and would not if fathers were present. We learned that hospitals had a nonsensical idea that men would pass out when they heard their wives cry or moan, but we helped pass legislation to allow fathers into the delivery room.
Another woman sought to have Title IX enforced at the local high school where her daughter wanted to take shop just the way I had. The teacher had declared that he had never taught girls and he wasn’t about to start – law or no law. Surprisingly, his principal backed him. Our NOW chapter appeared as a group before the school board. They [unanimously mandated] compliance with the law.
There were two members who worked with other organizations to establish First Step, a battered women’s shelter in Northwest Wayne County. These are some of the issues important to women which I worked on in addition to credit and the ERA.
JC: Any other notable appointments or community involvement?
LCC: I was appointed to the Livonia Human Relations Commission and served for a number of years and as president for three of those years. I also served as president of the Northwest Wayne County League of Women Voters and the Livonia branch of the American Association of University Women.
While I was very active in my community, I never stopped working for the ERA.
[In 1980, Governor William Milliken appointed me as a delegate to the White House Conference on Families that was held in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In 2005, Michigan ERAmerica initiated an annual Women’s Equality Day luncheons. Speakers included authors of books about notable women, elected officials and activists from unratified states, among others. Prior to the featured speaker, I gave a 10-15 minute ERA Update. Funds raised were contributed to ratification efforts in unratified states.]
JC: You have so much to be proud of, Mom. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
LCC: I believe that maintaining public awareness of the need for constitutional equality is my most consequential achievement.
Michigan ERAmerica has been continuously active since 1976. The Coalition Update newsletter regularly informed members of the ongoing struggle to ratify the ERA. [Our Women’s Equality Day luncheons helped maintain support for ERA ratification.] Without Michigan ERAmerica and its networking, we would never have been invited to the ERA Summit. Fortuitously, the ERA Summit was in place when the Madison Amendment was ratified, and we supporters were immediately able to take action by developing the Three State Strategy.
In short, Michigan ERAmerica served a prominent role in supporting the struggle for constitutional equality through education, networking, lobbying and monetary contributions to ratification efforts in non-ratified states.