Interview with Judith Lonnquist2020-09-21T14:57:06+00:00

THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT

Judith Lonnquist

“Those Who Don’t Know History are Doomed to Repeat It.”

Interviewed by Victory Lonnquist, August, 2020

VL:  Hi, what is your name?

JL:  Judith Alice Lonnquist.

VL:  When and where were you born?

JL:  I was born November 3rd, 1940, in Evanston, Illinois.

VL:  Excellent. Can you tell us a little bit about your family background, especially your ethnic background?

JL:  My father’s father was from Sweden. My father’s mother was from England. My mother’s parents were Northern Europeans. My father met my mother when he was at Princeton. They fell madly in love and got married and raised four children. I was three of four.

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

JL:   It’s interesting, I have two older sisters and my parents always said we could do anything we set our mind to. I came in as a feminist, my mother had been active in the suffrage movement, as had her mother. I took an interest in carpentry when I was maybe nine or ten and I worked on my father’s construction site swinging a hammer. I did nontraditional things for a little girl and I really enjoyed that. Then I went to an all girls high school. I went to Mount Holyoke College, which is the oldest institution of higher education for women in the country. We were referred to as uncommon women and we were told that our life in college was not the end all and be all, that we needed to contribute for what we had been given when we graduated.

VL:  How did you get involved in the women’s movement?

JL:  Mount Holyoke has a big sister and little sister program where if you’re a big sister, you’re assigned a little sister when she’s a freshman. When I graduated from college I was practicing law and my little sister said to me one day, “I just was at a meeting of an organization you should belong to. You really have to come to a meeting.” It was the National Organization for Women. I attended my first meeting in 1967 and I ran for Chapter Legal Counsel and was elected. Then I ran for the NOW National Board in ‘68 and was elected. Then I ran for National League Vice President in 1971 and I served two terms until 1975.

VL:  Wow that’s excellent. And what would you say was the greatest concern to you?

JL:  Bread and butter issues: the ability of women to earn a good living, to get a good education and achieve justice in the courts. Those were the three big items as far as I was concerned. I talked the Chicago chapter into suing the Chicago Tribune to eliminate sex segregated warrants. We noticed that business people downtown were able to get a quick lunch if they were a man, because there were all these men’s grills around the downtown area that wouldn’t allow women in. We took that on as a task and we beat them and we made them open up the restaurants to women as well as men on an equal basis.

We talked about curriculums in the schools to educate young girls and young women in women’s history because those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. And so we wanted to make sure that all little girls and young women had a good grounding in the really rich feminist history that this country has.

When I became national legal vice president, I set up a system of participating attorneys across the country. We joined with the NAACP Fund, Inc – it’s their litigation arm – and MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Foundation. We brought class action lawsuits to open up opportunities for women of color. And before I left Chicago, I started a class action lawsuit against the city of Chicago because they were paying janitors more than they were paying cleaning ladies, that was the terminology, for doing the exact same thing. The men cleaned the men’s rooms and they got more money than the women who cleaned the women’s rooms. That was carried on and ultimately won after I left. We were actively using the courts to accomplish the elimination of discrimination.

VL:  Excellent. Looking back in your history of being a feminist in Chicago, Illinois, as you’ve spoken to, and in Washington State and nationally, what would you say some of your greatest accomplishments have been?

JL:   I mentioned a few of them. NOW was very active in negotiating consent decrees with various corporations. We sat at a table with the board of directors of the Xerox Corporation to make sure that women were given equal access to good paying jobs at Xerox. We did the same with Sears Roebuck Co. Those were very successful. NOW was really kind of middle of the road activists and one of our bargaining tactics was to threaten Xerox or Sears if they didn’t deal with us and reach agreement with us that they’d have to deal with the really radical women that were active in the feminist movement. It was a really good tool to get those accomplished.

Also, as I said, I set up this nationwide network of attorneys to work on NOW cases. Each chapter was incentivizing people in their local community to challenge discrimination wherever they found it and then they go to lawyers and there were no lawyers that would handle civil rights cases. So in 1974, I took a nationwide whistle stop tour and spoke to Bar associations across the country and taught lawyers, mainly men at the time, but taught them how to make money bringing Title VII cases. It really expanded the ability of women to have redress in the courts.

VL:  Excellent. What would you say have been some of your most memorable experiences?

JL:  Well, 50 years ago on August 26th the Chicago NOW chapter planned a huge rally across from City Hall in Civic City Center Plaza. And we’d gotten a permit to do so. We were authorized. We were approved. And part of the permit would give us a sound system. So we had all these wonderful speakers lined up and we had a huge crowd and took up the whole plaza and one of the speakers was my friend and colleague Linda Hirshman.

Linda Hirshman got up and she started talking about how the Illinois courts had just invalidated Illinois’s anti-abortion law. And the state’s attorney, Mr. Hanrahan, had filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court to reverse that. Linda was talking about this and how important women’s choice was and why it was important to prevent back-alley abortions and that sort of thing. And when she got to the name Hanahan, who was an ally of Mayor Daley, Richard Daley, the sound went out. Whoever was running the sound for the park department cut the sound and Linda doesn’t have a big booming voice and she said “there’s no sound, they can’t hear me”.

I said, “well, they can hear me” because I have this big voice. I often spoke to lots of labor rallies and everything. I got up and I said, “I want to say something about free speech in the City of Chicago. There isn’t any. And the person who’s responsible for that is sitting right there in that building, so let’s go talk to him.” I stepped off the stand and I didn’t know if anyone was going to follow me at all. Linda and I walked up to the doors of City Hall and in the glass I could see all of the thousands of women and men who were behind us. We went in and filled up the lobby of the city hall. Seven of us got to talk to Mayor Daley about how when you express rights in the City of Chicago, you shouldn’t lose your voice.

VL:  Wonderful. So that leads us into the next question, which is how would you say that this has affected your life personally as well as professionally?

JL:  I’ve spent fifty-five years practicing employment discrimination law because I’m still pursuing the rights of women to have fair assessment in wages and opportunities in the workplace. So it’s really created a lot in my life. The activism in my early days has empowered me with the ability to be successful in preventing discrimination by suing bad guys in court. Also on a personal basis: when I came out to do those speeches to lawyers, one of the places I came was Seattle. It’s really what got me to move to Seattle because I found a home here. When I was in a stable family relationship, I decided to have my beloved daughter. So all of that I attribute to Mount Holyoke and feminist movement.

VL:  Have you been involved as an activist in the women’s movement or other areas since your second wave experience?

JL:  Yes, I was one of the founders of the Women’s Political Caucus in Chicago. I worked very closely with Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Gloria and I were on a Democratic platform committee. I can’t remember which year it was, but we put the entire plan of action from the Houston conference into the Democratic platform between Gloria and me. I was the Washington state chair of the delegation to the Houston Women’s Conference where we adopted twenty seven planks, a woman’s plan of action. That is a very historical document.

And the whole women’s conference was just a phenomenal experience. I think it was the first time that women were really taken seriously as a political force. I’d continued to be active in the Democratic Party and the Women’s Political Caucus. I helped found the Northwest Women’s Law Center, which is now called Legal Voice, to champion the rights of women. I continue to run for political office as a delegate to various Democratic conventions where I take women’s platform to the platform committee. I support women candidates: I ring doorbells and give money to women candidates. It goes on and on and on. I’m still very active.

VL:  Anything else relevant that we haven’t covered so far?

JL:  Oh, well, I’m sure there is.

VL:  I am clearly your daughter, Victory Lonnquist, and you always raised me in the same way to believe that I could set my mind to anything and to do it. And as a result, I’ve traveled around the world by myself, I’ve been a firefighter, a medic, a chaplain, I taught children. I’m now the director of sales for the United States for a local corporation. And I really attribute that to you and to many of the feminists that I was so blessed to be around growing up. And I think one of the biggest and most painful things for me and being a younger generation is that a lot of these young millennials and my friends have this idea that feminists aren’t and the women’s movement isn’t inclusive to people of color. And that feminist means that women that hate men.

I try to explain to them that’s not true and that it really is equality for women and men. You really have to explain some of the history, like the credit card that you own, the driver’s license that you have, the right to own property, the right to have a job, the right to play sports is all because the feminist movement. I would love to hear your perspective, especially on people talking about intersectionality and that the women’s movement is really only for white women. What would your response be to that in your experience with the women’s movement?

JL:  In the early days of the women’s movement, it’s true that it was mainly white, affluent women. We tried to outreach and bring in women of color. We had an African-American national president of NOW at one point in time. I wasn’t particularly a big supporter of Ailene Hernandez, but she was certainly a woman of color and brought her own issues. I think it’s understandable that when you have white privilege you have the time, and you have the money and educational background to be able to contribute as a volunteer. It was a big, time consuming requirement to get some of these accomplishments.

I think women of color who don’t have that same privilege supported us but didn’t have the wherewithal to participate in the organization. I think that’s less true in other organizations like the Democratic Party. We’ve accomplished a lot of gains for women through the political process and, of course, women of color are definitely part of that. My experience with people who don’t think they’re feminists is right up until the time they lose their job because they’re a woman or they’re denied maternity leave or they’re not hired when some incompetent man is hired, that’s a radicalizing experience. And boom, all of a sudden, you’ve got yourself a baby feminist.

There’s the #Metoo movement, the more modern, evolutionary movements that we’re seeing like the Black Lives Matter. The fact that the WNBA, 144 women who are professional basketball players, mostly women of color, are taking a stand about the police brutality we’re experiencing in this country. These are the kinds of movements that I think once people begin to get involved with them, they begin to see how important the women’s movement has been and will be to formulate the democracy that I hope we maintain after November 3rd.

VL:  Excellent. Being your daughter, I was raised around strong Native American women, strong, intelligent Black women, Jewish women, women of all backgrounds and men. I think it’s an important part that my dad was a feminist.

JL:  He was, part of his charm.

VL: That’s exactly right. What would you say to the men out there that either are in judgment of the feminist movement or would be curious about what it would be like? Do you feel that they would be included in the feminist movement?

JL:  Oh, absolutely. The National Organization for Women is “for” women rather than “of” women because from the very beginning we had men on our national board, we had men who were very much activists along with us. My own father, because he raised three daughters, saw the importance of feminism. I think any father, husband, or brother who has a sister, a wife, a daughter who has potential, is automatically a feminist, even if they don’t realize it, because those people that they love should have the same opportunity just because they’re a woman that somebody would have just because he’s a man.

When we had this national conference in Houston, we had women of every color, every religious background, in every category possible. The plan of action covers such things as women in poverty, women of color, trans women, lesbian women. It’s a proclamation of the rights of the entire spectrum of women in this country from birth to death.

VL:  Well said, thank you. I’d like to just finish out by asking you how you feel about Kamala Harris.

JL:  You go, girl! Obviously I was a big supporter of Hillary in 2016 and my heart broke when she didn’t get elected. So it’s been my lifetime ambition to have a woman in the White House. I think Kamala is probably on her way when she and Joe Biden are elected on my birthday on November 3rd. He’s not going to run for a second term so she’s the logical choice and I think she’s got the ammunition to do it. She’s very well spoken, she’s extremely bright, she’s a lawyer, she’s practiced law in government. She’s a woman of color and a daughter of immigrants. I mean, she really is the American representative of what this country is and is becoming.

VL:  Wonderful. Thank you, Judith. And as your daughter and certainly your biggest fan, I just want to thank you and all the feminists out there for all of the work that you’ve done that have paved the way for women like me to have the opportunities that we do.

JL:  Well, you know, we stand on the shoulders of the women who’ve come before.