Interview with May Bennett2020-02-21T14:24:10+00:00

THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT

Mary Bennett

“Reagan Got Elected and I Joined NOW!”

Interviewed by Kari McLean at the UIC Richard J. Daley Library, Chicago, IL, June 15, 2019

 

MB: I’m Mary Bennett and I have been active politically since 1972 during the McGovern campaign.

KM: What was your life like before you got involved in the ERA and the women’s movement? Where did you grow up?

MB: I grew up in Chicago. First generation Greek American, pretty culturally conservative. The dad was supposed to work, the mother was supposed to stay home and take care of the children and that was pretty much the norm. That assumption got blown out of the water in my early teens. I would say even before that. There were things from the culture that [we] came from, I didn’t particularly like. I think the first incident was in grammar school on the playground.

KM: What did you notice?

MB: Why were all the male monitors getting all the privileges while the women were getting the shaft? From there I went to probably the most heterogeneous high school in the city – Senn High School. You name whatever ethnic group, they were there, racial group, they were there at Senn High School. Mind you this was 1966, the anti-war movement was getting active. 

In 1968 the whole campus disrupted over the whole issue of the Vietnam War. So that’s where my political activism began. And then I started getting active with the College Democrats. I was inclined to be liberal in my positions anyway. Come 1980, that horrible man Ronald Reagan got elected President of the United States. There was an old saying, “Reagan got elected and I joined NOW.”

KM:  How did you get involved in the ERA campaigns in Illinois?

MB:  It was pretty late. It was 1980 and I participated in the various protest marches – you know, the last demonstration in 1982 in Grant Park. I was involved in that. I got involved in volunteering for candidates for office. I think the first real experience was when Abner Mikva ran for Congress. I never saw a campaign like that in my life. It was so organized. They would be sending absentee ballots to students who were actually studying over overseas. They had it down precinct by precinct by precinct.

KM: What was your role in that?

MB: I was simply a volunteer. I was in college at the time and so hell bent at the time to check Richard Nixon’s Party, whom I detested since the age of 11. I took one look at that mug and said, “No I don’t want him to ever be President of the United States.”

Just thinking back about the Civil Rights Movement and watching those vivid images on TV of blacks being beaten within an inch of their lives. Martin Luther King wasn’t the only one who got assassinated. There were a whole bunch of other people that gave their lives. Fast forward now to a President who is so bad he makes Richard Nixon look like a boy scout in comparison.

KM: Did that inspire you to get involved in the ERA?

MB: Yes, that really did. For me, it’s a family issue and a personal as well as a political issue. And one day one of my relatives from Greece said, “One day that man will rule everything.” I thought to myself, not if I have my way.

KM: You mentioned that you were in NOW. What was your involvement there as a volunteer? What did you do?

MB: We did telephone banking to endorse candidates and participated in more lobby days than you could shake a stick at. Fast forward when I went to work for the State of Illinois, I went to those lobby days as well. So that was primarily my role in all of this. I’m trying to expand my role by trying to get involved in the more organizing aspects of it. It’s harder than it looks. You can call 20 people and you’re lucky if you can get one to volunteer. I think it’s harder now with caller ID.

KM: Were you doing volunteer recruitment for NOW and the ERA campaign here?

MB: I did the lobbying whenever they would call to go down to Springfield. That was my level of involvement, with a group of other people. Here I am lobbying legislators, not even in my district. Fast forward to now and how do I change the paradigm – so I’m organizing people within their representative’s district and to see what the impact is going to be.

Then I came to a place like Jane Adams Senior Caucus. They are very aggressive in their activism techniques. They actually make news.

KM: Thinking back when you were in college and working for the ERA, what issues were of the greatest concern for you? Were there some specific things that really were triggers?

MB: I think that the whole idea of equal pay and reproductive rights. For me, even though I never had children, the issue is really control. Just the whole idea of somebody else dictating kind of rubs me the wrong way.

KM: And that has been a spark that has been with you since the ERA. What were your major accomplishments in the ERA that you were personally involved with?  

MB: A lot of it was personal development, being able to articulate opinions. That’s something I’m still working on. Listening skills are absolutely critical.

KM: Who was the woman that introduced you to NOW? Do you remember her name?

MB:  Yes. Rosalie. Prior to that, she worked for Leo Burnett, so she already had the general skills. And smart as a whip – that kind of impressed me about her. She was kind of influential. I thought to myself, what about these women who seem to have it all, the spouse, well educated, children? I kind of set the bar high for myself.

KM: When you were working on the ERA, I’m sure lots of things happened. What were your most memorable and important experiences from working on the ERA campaigns?

MB: I would say the lobbying and the demonstration at Grant Park was probably the most vivid from the whole feminist experience. I would say the demonstrations were the most prominent one. Have feet will travel. There wasn’t a conservative Republican president.

KM: Now let’s go back to Grant Park. Talk to me about what that was like for you.

MB: I was just basically experiencing it and the whole totality of this marching.

KM: Talk to me about what you were doing in your life then when you were marching.

MB: I was a case worker working in the Cabrini Green housing project. I have a lot of experience working with blacks and other minorities. That’s why I raise the question about bringing people into feminist campaigns. From the time that I joined, I got the sense that women of color weren’t aggressively being organized. I think that had devastating consequences politically. So that’s kind of my thinking right now.

I kind of see parallels to the ERA and the election of Trump. Not enough focus. I’ve seen this over and over again on economic issues, issues of economic inequality. I remember going – this was after the ERA defeat – I remember going into a program they had about the medical system just in the city of Chicago and how unequal [it was] in minority communities.

I attended another meeting in which the closure of mental health clinics in the city of Chicago was for me a life and death situation, because different gang members would control different areas of the neighborhoods. Why didn’t the city planners think about the neighborhood consequences of that? I sat in on the NOW national board and I would hear Eleanor Smeal scream at the top of her lungs, “You don’t get it. Minority women is the heart of progressive politics!” A big mistake was made in 2016. Blacks voted in lower numbers in 2016 according to an article I read in The Washington Post.

KM: So, when you think back to the ERA and what you learned there and how the women’s movement was for you then in your late 20s and early 30s, how have those lessons brought you along to this time in 2016?

MB: Just being an observer of the women’s movement now, you don’t have to look further than who attended this meeting right now. I know some pretty sharp, savvy black women out there that should have been included and asked to attend. This is a pretty centrally located event. One [woman] in particular doesn’t even have a leadership position, but I noticed by her moves, people listen to this woman. There is not enough listening going on in the organizing that is going on right now.

KM: Is that something you observed back in the day?

MB: Yes, I noticed that from the time that I went to any NOW events. Simply going to a national convention was out of the question. And then someone said, “There’s somebody who is looking for a roommate.” And that’s when I started going to NOW conventions. By the time you add up the car, hotel, registration, fees, things like that…Do I look like somebody who can afford to throw a thousand dollars to go and attend that NOW conference?

And for a period of 10 years I didn’t go to national conferences. I thought, you know this is really too expensive. We need to include people from disadvantaged communities with limited economic resources.

KM: Is that something you observed?

MB: Yes, I observed that, and women were a little bit chintzy with a buck. I attended a liberal conference and they put an expectation of how much each of us should raise.

KM: And when was that?

MB: It happened this year with the usual characters within the labor movement and the women’s movement and we got the money together. I raised a little over $940. We need to look for ourselves to kind of organize. I wouldn’t trust Trump as far as I could throw him on a seat next to me. Every time that man opens his mouth, he lies. What do you think he’s going to do to get himself re-elected? We need to start thinking along those terms. He needs to be beat and he needs to be beat badly.

KM: I understand. Let’s go back to the ERA. When you were part of the ERA and you were lobbying and phone banking, what kinds of practical lessons did you learn then that you can use now?

MB: The importance of face-to-face organizing. It doesn’t stop with the election.

KM: That leads me to this next question. Have you been involved as an activist in the women’s movement or other areas since your ERA experience and what are those things?

MB: I would say issues related to extra funding for the social safety net. I sat in on one of the national progressive radio shows, back in the days [when] it didn’t cost an arm and a leg to get VIP pass. I turned around to the crowd and to the commentator and said, “That social safety net is for everyone. To anyone who finds themselves in that position. It wouldn’t take much, a major illness, job loss. And yes, you too can end up on public assistance or asking for help.” Dead silence, because apparently I hit a nerve. Then they started approaching me as I was walking out of the theater and a couple of them said, “Thank you.”

KM: When you worked on behalf of people that needed a social service safety net, talk to me about the things that you did back in the ERA campaign that helped you be effective now.

MB: I would say just the whole idea of approaching state representatives.

KM: How so?

MB: By example, doing that at the time – getting briefings about different bills. We would go in prepared and we would meet mostly with a staffer. A lot of my development happened with a senior group. Lori Clark had introduced the whole idea of co-governing. The latest housing ordinance that related to seniors, Jane Adams was in the room, helping draft that bill themselves. Details matter. The way I am now versus what I was back then is really a world of difference.

JM: How would you summarize that world of difference right now?

MB: Still trying to work things out because I’m still trying to identify allies between the women’s movement, the labor movement, and yes even the seniors movement. That is the most consistent voting block out there. It isn’t enough [when you only] have two months before the election [and] you’re going to want to hit the phones. What I know is that you have to establish relationships. I’m still trying to work on that. I’m the vice president at the present time and I haven’t quite figured out yet what my role is because the current president said he was not running again.

JM: What organization is this for?

MB: This is AFSME for retirees.

JM: Can you go back to what it was in the late ’80s. Can you talk to me a little bit about that then?

MB: I think when I first went, there were more activists than there are right now. I think in certain ways the women’s movement has become a bit too conservative. I would like to see more interest in some of the economic issues, which is especially critical in the minority community. There was one time I approached one of the contractual workers and I asked what her day was like and she said, “I get up at 5:00 in the morning. I get the kids up and ready for school, get myself ready for work. I go home at 5:00 pm. I go home, I prepare dinner, I help my kids with their homework, and my day ends at midnight.”

How do you pull all those women to be active supporters? I know they’re connected to a lot of churches in the community. If I have one criticism about the women’s movement, we need to pull those women in and start listening to their stories. The big mistake that the 2016 campaign made was that they were talking among themselves. They didn’t go out to them the way that Obama did. They took people for granted.

JM: How would you describe your current activity?

MB: It’s pretty challenging. I want to take a more aggressive approach to organizing. More in your face and make it clear to our elected representatives that we mean business. We will support you, but the relationship is there. This is what I found out throughout the years. I’ve had more phone calls hung up on me because they simply got tired of those robo-calls. There is no substitute for personal relationships.

JM: Is there anything relevant about your experience with the ERA that we haven’t talked about?

MB: I was left with a feeling like why did this happen? Why did the ERA get defeated the first time? And what lessons can we learn from back then, so we don’t make the same mistakes? I would like to find a way where I can connect with activists and other non-ratified states and behoove them to pressure their representatives. I had experience in New Jersey that kind of taught me a lesson. You don’t go into an area and canvas in which you don’t know the people involved. You are not going to come out of [another] state and save them.

Organizing campaigns where you recruit other allies from other organizations, they’re going to go to their neighbors, their friends, things like that and do it in a way that people could do some of the organizing from the comfort of their own homes. We’re going to organize by organizing smart. It doesn’t make any sense to fly down to Florida where I don’t know squat. It does make sense to take NOW, the ACLU and the people who are already living there or know the neighborhoods and do massive canvassing, education campaigns. That I could see.

You encourage the people that they’re trying to organize and tell their stories and their going to tell their stories to their neighbors and friends. No, I’m not going to Florida, I’m not going to save them. You can contact people in those states who you think have the same values, but they [need to be] the actual organizers and that’s what I learned from the whole experience.