THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Every Generation You Have to Win Your Rights All Over Again. It’s Never Given to You in Perpetuity.”
Interviewed by Chris Riddiough at the UCI Richard J. Daley Library, Chicago IL, June 15, 2019
CR: My name is Chris Riddiough and I’m here with Kristin Lems, who’s well known as the songstress of the ERA. I’m going to talk with Kristen a little bit about how she got involved, what her background is and so on. What was your life like before you got involved in the ERA and the Women’s Movement?
KL: I was raised from age 7 on by a single mom. Watching my mom’s struggles in the workplace was very consciousness raising and angering. It got me very interested in women’s wages and women’s rights. In my teens I was not so much focusing on women’s rights really, it was more about the black civil rights movement. That’s what I was active in even as a teenager.
I did actually attend two marches in Chicago with Martin Luther King. I know that because I journaled, and the journals are funny. I remark about how Mahalia Jackson was “boring”. I’m really sorry about that. And my heartthrob with Sidney Poitier. I also liked Martin Luther King quite a bit. But anyway, I was very active in the civil rights movement growing up in Evanston, Illinois in the 1960s.
I think the transition to being interested in the women’s movement really happened in the fall of 1973 when I got back from teaching English in Iran for a year. I was surprised by all the headscarves and women and men being separate all the time. I started thinking about women’s roles. When I came back to Chicago in the fall of 1973, I was just bursting with this enthusiasm for women’s rights.
That’s when I wrote a song, in the fall 1973, called Women Walk More Determined. I literally saw that women between the time I’d left in ’72, when I got back in ’73, we walked with a longer stride. It was visible. It’s funny how you can have more of a culture shock from your own culture when you’ve been out of it for a while. You come back, so women walked with a stronger stride than they ever did before.
I got very excited about my song and about singing songs about women and then I helped organize the first women’s music event at the University of Illinois in the fall of ’73. That tumbled into organizing the first National Women’s Music Festival, which took place in May of 1974 on the campus of the University of Illinois. When you organize a women’s music festival on a national scale, all kinds of new ideas and people and concepts start pouring in. And so then, it was just deeper and deeper involvement and more and more enlightenment about what was going on.
I was in Illinois. Illinois was a state that had not ratified the ERA, so it was just a natural thing that I would start to get involved with the Equal Rights Amendment ratification effort along with other things. There was a Gay Illini and a whole bunch of women’s rights-oriented student groups. One of them was the ERA Coalition of the University of Illinois and I got very active in the ERA coalition.
I was a folk singer and songwriter, so I started writing songs about women’s predicament and our solidarity to change things. As the National Women’s Music Festival grew, I heard more and more women’s voices singing about our rights. I released the Ballad of the ERA as a forty-five in 1977. That song started getting around. I started singing it all over the place in Illinois. Sometimes I was singing it for battered women’s shelters or for the YWCA or for a rally on campus for pro-choice.
So the song really started getting around and started to be sung by singers in other states as well. It was sung in Indiana as they were trying to ratify. I started writing other songs and I started really kind of being the “troubadoura” for the Equal Rights Amendment. It really started gaining a lot of steam. I’ve got a huge file of places that I sang for the Equal Rights Amendment and I can’t even tell you where all of them were. But they’d started out being mostly in Illinois.
I wrote a very influential song in 1978 called Farmer. That was about the specific injustice that women farmers would lose their farms when their husbands died, because they were considered not the farmer, but only the farmer’s wife. Whereas the man farming, if his wife would die, he could continue with the farm and didn’t have to pay any inheritance tax. When I found out about that, I had a great song that could prove that we needed an Equal Rights Amendment. And that song really just caught on like wildfire.
Since I was in Central Illinois singing a song about farm women, it was picked up by the Illinois Farm Bureau. It was in Ann Landers column. It was on Market to Market, which was a nationwide show in Minnesota about farms. It was in Farm Journal magazine and Farm Wife magazine. I truly feel that I moved the needle a little bit, because it was not just, “Of course we need women’s rights but there aren’t any laws that discriminate against women anymore, are there?” and I could say, “Well, listen to this.”
That song really got a lot of coverage. It was sung by some other musicians and it was on my first album. It’s called Farmer and it’s done in a C and W, pure Country-Western style, with the most gorgeous steel guitar in the background that you’ve ever heard. Pure Champaign-Urbana. That also helped, because people realized that my songs could make arguments. I started singing a lot for the ERA in the late 1970s, and into the 1980s.
Then as the campaign heated up, I started singing at a lot of national conferences – National Organization for Women; big ERA rallies – a huge one in Chicago, another huge one in Springfield and then several in D.C. I sang in front of the Mormon Tabernacle when Sonia Johnson had been excommunicated and we were all there arguing for ERA in Utah. That was a lot of fun. I remember singing at the Indiana Convention Center, I think, for either National NOW or a National ERA convention of some sort. That was also humongous.
CR: Very connected to the women’s movement in the ‘70s was the all women’s music movement. And you played a unique role in terms of linking that to the ERA, because the other women singers didn’t have that direct connection with the ERA. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
KL: Actually, I was the founder and I was on the organizing committee for the first five years. I pushed and pushed that we have a rally every year some time during the festival. We had an ERA rally in ’76 and then we had another ERA rally in the middle of the festival, right in the festival, that was not just me singing – it was a whole bunch of women speakers and legislators and I remember very well Therese Edell who was from Ohio wrote some ERA songs and sang in the rally in ’76 or ’77.
I really thought it was very important to have a rally that helped raise political issues connected to our culture and that they were not separable from each other. I don’t know if they had rallies after I deactivated from the festival, but I was definitely really pushing for that a lot. It was inseparable from all the other movements, because Illinois had not ratified. It was just unfinished business.
There was also a lot of creative activity going on, women rewriting pop songs to put in ERA lyrics all the time. I’ve got whole song books of clever rewrites, just like the labor movement used to do. Joe Hill would rewrite songs. There were tons of rewrites of pop songs and folk songs that had ERA lyrics in them.
CR: The ERA campaign in Illinois in general ended in ’82. What were you involved in after that?
KL: It’s kind of weird, I was there on the day that the ERA expired – June 30th, 1982 – at the rally that we had in Lafayette Park in D.C. I realized it was almost like being a pastor or something, because I realized [I] had some role in helping people overcome this horrible defeat and not get suicidal. And feel that it was still worth struggling, that we would have the ERA sooner or later, and it looked like it would be more like later than sooner.
In preparation for that rally, which I knew was going to be like a mass funeral, I decided to record a live album. That seems kind of counter-intuitive, because why would you want a live album of such a downer event? But actually, having this album that kind of captured where we were at also helped the crowd get more positive. I said “there’s a lot of exciting things going on here and one of them is that I’m doing a live album for the Equal Rights Amendment”. I felt that I was moving things in a more positive direction. Also, it was raining that day.
I did this live album. Boden Sandstrom was the recording engineer from Womansound in D.C. It ends up that because the rain was pouring down, we could really only salvage three songs from that live rally. Two weeks later I completed the rest of the “live rally” in Champaign-Urbana at a restaurant. It’s also live and it’s also got kids singing songs about women’s rights, including my song My Mom’s a Feminist and some other very strong songs, and then some ERA songs that I didn’t write too. I released that and I truly felt like it was a bit of a salve for a lot of us that were hurting.
By the end of 1983, I’d finished my master’s degree in TESL, teaching English as a second language, and I got hired to do a Fulbright. I was chosen to do a Fulbright in Algeria teaching teachers about ESL. I left in the summer of 1983 for two full years. That was a big dramatic turning point in my life, because the women’s movement was kind of decomposing on some levels, and I was gone for two whole years.
When I came back, it didn’t take long until I moved into being married and having children. I really never pursued music as a full-time career again after that. I would have been very ready and willing to sing all of these feminist songs anywhere, but there was no longer an audience for them. They dried up and went away.
CR: So, you’re teaching?
KL: Since then, I taught ESL, English as a second language, to immigrant adults for about 15 years. I finished a doctorate in reading, and it allowed me to teach teachers. Now I’m in a school of education and I teach teachers about ESL, bilingual education and related topics. Including cross-cultural education and some things about American history, which do kind of involve the women’s movement, but more tangentially than directly. I also still sing my songs whenever I have an opportunity, whenever I’m invited.
I know that they are a part of history. I know they’re an important part of history, and I’m very proud of that, I wouldn’t change a thing.
The cool thing is, Folkways Records was bought by the Smithsonian organization. They have a record label and they do kind of folkloric American stuff. My song Ballad of the ERA is on two of their compilations as part of American history. The first one is called The Best of Broadside. That was a compilation of songs that appeared in this little mimeographed song magazine out of New York City, which was the first place to release Blowin In The Wind and a lot of other songs, and my song Ballad of the ERA.
I sent it in, and they published it for their audience of 200 or whatever – but Smithsonian Folkways thought this was very important historically. They had a five C.D. compilation with extensive liner notes that actually won a Grammy for liner notes. That includes Ballad of the ERA. And then no more than a month ago – we’re in 2019 now – they’ve released a new compilation called The Social Power of Music, and Ballad of the ERA is on that as well.
I’m very, very happy and gratified about that. It includes many work songs, spirituals, songs of freedom and struggle from a whole lot of different movements – the farm workers struggle and the struggle against dictatorships in South America. They chose my song Ballad of the ERA to be on it and I could not be more gratified to be represented, to have our movement represented in that way in American history. Right on the eve of the centennial of suffrage.
CR: Where do you see things today?
KL: As Charles Dickens said, “It’s the best of times and the worst of times.” It’s terrifying. I really worry about our rights, democracy, and global war almost every morning and every night. I’m terrified. I’m also terrified for the rollback of environmental standards which, if we don’t lower global warming, we won’t have any movements because we won’t be able to live. That is really my foremost concern. We’ve got to lower our carbon output.
The women’s movement certainly has transmogrified in a lot of ways. There are young people coming in. The issues are different. Some of them are the same. Obviously the right to reproductive freedom is still key, more so than ever. I guess we have to win that right all over again. Every generation you have to win your rights all over again. It’s never given to you in perpetuity.
I think the Equal Rights Amendment is going to be an amendment very soon. I have the feeling that there’s momentum, two states left to go as far as I understand, and the centennial of suffrage is important. I think we would all like to see this kicked through the goalpost. In the larger sense of things, I think we’re tiptoeing with very frightening forces. The nation is in danger and I am not a person that thinks that a woman candidate would ipso facto be better. It has to be somebody who is pro women’s rights and that the best woman for the job might be a man.
I really think we have to convey all of these things to the generation that’s growing up right now. I don’t want them to get alienated and not be involved, but the new freshman class of the House of Representatives is just so inspiring. I am a professor at a school that had Representative Lauren Underwood give the commencement address this morning, talking about being the youngest African American woman ever elected to the House of Representatives.
The whole cadre of new women coming into the new class – honestly, all these demure graduates with their caps and gowns were just hooting and hollering for her. I just loved it! I have two grown children who are trying to figure out if there’s any future for them on this planet. It’s hurtful to even have to discuss those things with them. They’re committed to social justice and they just want to figure out how on earth to live.
I’m very lucky to be an educator as well as a singer so I get to talk about important issues with teachers all the time and teachers are so cool. They’re just so wonderful. Teachers are changing their practices to listen more to students and understand where they’re coming from. Not looking at children who come with challenges as having deficits, but having resources that can be tapped. It’s such an important mind change to think that way.
I’m writing a musical about the life of Jane Addams and my great grandmother. Right now, where we’re sitting in the UIC library, we’re about two blocks from Hull House where my great-grandmother came when she was 12 years old. She was begging Jane Addams and Ella Gates Starr and Julia Lathrop to run across the street and help her mother who was in childbirth and being beaten by her alcoholic husband. That is a true story. My great-great grandmother being beaten by her husband. Jane Addams, Ella Gates Starr and Julia Lathrop came across the street to 801 South Halsted where my family lived and rescued my great-great grandmother.
CR: So, you’re writing a musical! It’s something to look forward to.
KL: It’s close to having a draft done and we have written records. My grandmother was one of the children that went to the Mary Crane Day Nursery when her mother, who was a single mom, was working as a laundress. And we have many records both oral and written about my family’s relationship with Jane Addams. She’s been the guiding star of our family for years and years. I love Jane Addams.
I want to channel Jane Addams the rest of my life, because Jane Addams never felt something was outside her domain of expertise. She just looked at the problem said, “Now let’s all sit down and figure out what to do and let’s try this.” She got other women involved who wanted to be important agents of change. Newly educated women who were expected to just go back and run a household, that wanted to do more. There really is a whole historical train of women moving into public life in this country. It’s been remarkable and it’s still happening.
CR: Anything else you want to talk about?
KL: Just never give up, never give in. Keep plugging. Freedom’s voices never die.