THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Paula Johnson Purdue
“Still Fighting Back.”
Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA Executive VP, June 15, 2019 at the UIC Richard J. Daley Library, Chicago, IL
PJP: Thank you for interviewing me. I am Paula Johnson Purdue and I was born in Raymond, Illinois on a farm and until I was 16 we did not have running water. My background is a lot different than other folks my age.
KR: What year were you born?
KR: Before we get into some of your experience with the ERA and the women’s movement, talk a little bit about your background. Growing up what your life was like?
PJP: We lived in an old farmhouse and my mom and dad were trying to save money to buy a farm. It was a rental house, so nothing was done to improve it. We had a coal stove and we had wood stoves. That’s how we heated the house in the wintertime, and it was cold. We did our laundry on Monday and we carried buckets of water from the pump to the laundry room in the outhouse area and heated the water up and then did our laundry. On Tuesday you would do your ironing and it was very much like a generation before me.
In some ways it was really hard. I bet there is no one that enjoys flushing a stool more than I do. Maybe this is a little gross, but once in a while one can get pig headed about what one has accomplished. When I was 14 or so, I was really angry at my brother and my job had always been to empty the pot. I was the oldest in the family and I really thought he was going to help me out that day. Well he didn’t. I was so angry that I walked out behind the toilet and I threw the pot directly into the wind and it all came right back on to me.
And because we didn’t have running water we had to pump the water and heat it up and so for 15 minutes I’m standing on the porch with shit literally hanging from me. Whenever I get a little pig headed and think you know, “Well Paula, you did something…I think, well, once upon a time” – and I bring hopefully myself back to the earth.
KR: I presume you moved out.
PJP: Oh my gosh yes. When I got out of high school I was lucky in that my mom inherited some money and my mom thought it was good that I go to college. I really wanted to go to college. My mom cut a deal with my dad that if I could go to college he could use the money to buy a tractor. Without that I would not have gone to college and my life would have been so different. I ended up going to Illinois State University. Our choices were a secretary, a teacher or a nurse and I decided that I would be a teacher. I had to choose between a music teacher and home economics.
I had been cooking and baking since I was seven, so I felt much more comfortable being a home economics teacher than a music teacher, even though I loved music. I ended up choosing home economics, which is a dead class now. I graduated from college. I wanted to get away from the farming life. I found it not to my liking. I ended up moving to Battle Creek, Michigan and teaching four years there working on my master’s degree at Michigan State. I moved to Thornton High School on the South Side of Chicago and I taught there for three years.
My seven years of teaching were in primarily schools with high black populations. And because I taught Home Ec, I ended up with more black students than white students. I learned an awful lot, because in my high school, and I don’t even know if there were any black folks in my county. When I was five years old my mother’s mother, my great grandma, gave me a black baby doll for my birthday. I didn’t know what you called a black baby doll. My grandma Johnson gave me a little container of petunia flower seeds. I called my doll Petunia and of course [it was] my favorite doll.
Last year we went to the school in Kansas where the Board of Education was started. Inside the museum was my Petunia and I thought how did this happen? As it turned out – and I had not known this – there was a master’s degree student, who was a female who had given white baby dolls and black baby dolls to white girls and black girls. She then asked them what they thought of the black baby doll and the white baby doll and both whites and black girls in the 1950s said that the white baby dolls were cute and lovable and smart and the black baby dolls were stupid and ugly. That was a really striking, amazing experience for me to see “my” Petunia in the museum.
KR: What did you do after you quit teaching?
PJP: I was active in the Illinois Education Association and a member of the Illinois Education Association. I was at a meeting in March 1976 and I was complaining about not having a summer job, because I always taught summer school if I could. I wasn’t ready to get a PhD. I had just finished my master’s degree and I thought, “What the heck am I going to do?” I was bitching about what I was going to do.
One of my union sisters Pearl Mack said, “I want you to apply for an IPACE internship. I said, “Pearl why would I do that?” Pearl said, “Girl, apply.” When Pearl says, “Girl apply,” you do what Pearl says. I went down to the interview, which was in Springfield, Illinois in April and guess who was the chair of the committee? Pearl Mack. There were three intern positions and I got one of them. What an amazing experience. I had all these silly ideas of what the legislature was like.
In June, it was 10:00 o’clock at night and we’re listening to a debate and the debate had to do something with the bill that dealt with the Civil War. And this Chicago Democratic Senator stood up and started talking about the war of 1812. I’m thinking, “Oh my God. Well, he got confused or didn’t know.” So then I realized – and I later learned more – that we have a representative government, which means stupid people get to be represented too and they’re not necessarily smarter than we are. I mean there are very bright legislators and there are not so bright legislators and that’s what you get with a representative government.
But anyway, I became an IPACE intern. The gentleman who became my boss asked me if I would work on a campaign and so I worked on a Democratic Senate Campaign, which failed. At the same time Jim Edgar was running for the first time for the House of Representatives and Larry Stouffer was running and he was a Democrat. I had really interesting experiences doing that. [My boss] Ken asked me if I would continue on after the internship was done and I said yes, as long as I can get done the weekend before school, get my laundry done and be ready for school.
Mid-August Ken called me and said, “I want you to apply for the IEA lobbying job,” so I did. At the representative assembly in February, my boss wanted another lobbyist. The women in the IEA were not sure that the three male lobbyists were working as hard on the Equal Rights Amendment as they could. They told my boss that he could hire a lobbyist, but she had to be a woman. I was the first woman lobbyist hired. I got hired in September. Who would have thunk. It was total surprise. I moved to Springfield and I started lobbying and of course I was very active in the Equal Rights Amendment from then on.
The male legislators at the time were maybe over 60, I was younger then, so it’s hard to tell. But almost all of them could not accept a woman lobbyist. I was Ken Bruce’s “secretary.” When I would go to them and send in my card they would say – Did Ken Bruce send you? I would say,”Yes.” “Well what does Ken Bruce want me to do?” “Well Ken wants you…” and then I would start off on my own thing. But I couldn’t be a woman lobbyist. There were certainly other men that accepted me as a lobbyist. But if [they] were over a certain age, they just had to die. And great – gently they did.
KR: Talk about your experiences working on the ERA in Illinois.
PJP: It’s been an awfully long haul. I don’t understand why it took so long – because it seems so commonsense – but I know it really did. I worked on it from 1976 through 2018. Thank God, we finally got it done. So that’s good news. But why it took so long is really difficult to understand. Certainly Phyllis Schlafly was a major part and she was a total hypocrite. Phyllis Schlafly’s neighbor in Alton, Illinois was a wealthy woman and because she lived in a wealthy neighborhood, every year she would have fundraisers for the Equal Rights Amendment.
We would all buy tickets and go down to her house for fund raisers. She was a really interesting woman, but she made it very clear to us that Phyllis never cooked or baked. Phyllis would have all of these supporters of hers bringing bread and cookies and pies and supposedly “buying” legislators with their baked goods. All of Phyllis’s kids came to this ERA person’s home to get cookies, because Phyllis never baked. She was a total hypocrite for whatever that’s worth.
I was hoping Wanda Brandstetter would be here today. She was the one that was “convicted” of buying votes. Things have changed dramatically, but back in the day legal envelopes were passed back and forth between lobbyists and legislators all the time and they didn’t have thank you notes in them. They had cash or checks, but probably cash. The opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment passed envelopes back and forth all the time, but they never got in trouble – just us. And our side didn’t give cash, she just wrote a note. So that was extraordinarily frustrating to me too. To see how unjustly we were being [viewed].
I was good friends with the doorman. I’ve always been good friends with the doorman. I remember it was probably the last vote in ’82. Let me go back for a minute. Some of the horrible things that happened – there was the pig’s blood. I understand why the pigs blood was thrown at the Senate doors. I understood it, but it was the worst thing that could have happened to the Equal Rights Amendment because we lost votes. We looked like wild and crazy women and when you are trying to pass something difficult you want to look calm and cool. I know why they did it. I understand why they did it, but oh my God I wish they hadn’t. The other action, the chaining themselves to the Capitol, that didn’t help us at all.
KR: What about the fasting?
PJP: The fasting was wonderful, because it changed votes. It was awful to walk through the Capitol and you couldn’t go anywhere without walking by them and seeing them weaken day by day. They changed a couple of votes. It was awful. I hope they’re all OK. I have no idea what happened to them, but they were Catholic nuns working against the Catholic Church. My suspicions are that they were not treated very well. I hope they’re okay. They were wonderfully strong women.
Anyway, the doorman, after those various events, everybody got very upset and scared about us. One night the ERA was being discussed on the floor of the House and a bunch of women had come in and sat down on the Democratic side of the fourth floor. The doorman says to me, “Paula do you know those ladies up there?” I looked, and I said, “I know those ladies.” He said, “Should we be worried about them? Are they going to do something stupid?” I said, “Well they all have PhD’s and they all work for the State Board of Education, so I think we’re going be OK.” But it was definitely a tense arena with all of that.
Another thing that I would just like to comment on. The NOW organization was very active and sent lots of workers and we desperately needed them. As an IEA lobbyist, I was told by NOW on a repeated basis that we should only endorse ERA proponents and not endorse anyone that wasn’t pro ERA. And that makes perfectly good sense from a NOW perspective and I understand that. But from a labor union perspective, we had a number of members who were opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment. Now our leaders were supportive, but we had a lot of members opposed.
We had many more members support collective bargaining. Collective bargaining was a prime consideration of IEA’s. We also wanted the Equal Rights Amendment. But there’s just no way that we could only endorse pro-ERA people and survive as a union. And that was always a big frustration. We did get some anti-ERA legislators who were pro collective bargaining to become pro ERA. I think two or three. We made we made some progress, but we didn’t do what NOW wanted us to do. So that was frustrating. We had a different job.
KR: What else stands out from the ERA fight?
PJP: I think one of the things that’s been really frustrating through time was that when I started in ’76 and ’77 half of the Republicans supported the Equal Rights Amendment and half the Democrats opposed it. It was not a partisan issue. That was also true of choice. Half the Republicans supported choice and half the Democrats didn’t. It has become so partisan. I think in 2011 we lost our last Republican ERA supporter and pro-choice person. We have no Republicans who are pro-choice now, none – and that has to change.
The other issue is that we just couldn’t count on all the Democrats. One of my frustrations in 2018 was two black women who had been pro ERA every time before, were anti-. They were anti- because the Equal Rights Amendment was only for white women and not for black women. I’ve known Mary Flowers since she started as a representative, and my daughter, who is a lobbyist …When my daughter was 4 and 5 years old, we would go to the Capitol and I’d take Jenni and Mary Flowers would take Jenni onto the House floor and have Jenni push a button. Jenni thought it was amazing that a human could be called Flowers. From a child’s perspective that just was amazing. It isn’t like Mary hasn’t known me forever and a day, certainly we tried different ways.
We had an ERA supporter, Virginia Bowler who worked on Mary Flowers campaign. Virginia worked hard on the campaign and never saw Mary during the campaign or her campaign manager. Virginia came down on the train one day and we went and saw Mary. Virginia told her how much fun it was to work on her campaign and how she had really enjoyed it and that everyone loved her. Virginia did a fabulous job.
Mary said, “I can support the Equal Rights Amendment.” I was like, “Oh my goodness,” and then a week later Mary told me she couldn’t. I can’t prove this, but I hope to. There is a gentleman called Reverend Bob. He is a minister of a big church in Lake County and he started as a lobbyist in the early ’90s, mid ’90s. His business card said, “Hired by God.” All of us other lobbyists thought, “Well what was that interview like?” Because we were just interviewed by humans. He has a Bible study once a week and I know Mary goes to it and I think he convinced her, because he’s anti-abortion or anti-ERA and anti-women, so that’s what I think.
KR: What was it like for you when it finally passed?
PJP: A miracle. I’m not sure I believe in miracles, but it was unbelievable. We did not have the votes. We had maybe 68 or 69. I know Representative Lou Lange had a better count than I did, but I know we didn’t have the votes and he knows we didn’t have the votes, because we talked about it. Saturday night before the vote on Tuesday he said, “You know I don’t have the votes. I think I’m going to call it anyway.” I said I think that’s a great idea, because I think we have as good a chance to do it now as any time that we’ve tried in the past – God knows how many years.
He ended up calling it and Sally Pancrazio from McClean County had convinced a former Republican senator’s wife to be the co-chair of the ERA for McClean County. McClean County is very Republican. They talked to Representative Dan Brady multiple times and Representative Dan Brady became a yes on the Equal Rights Amendment. Representative Dan Brady is a downstater and high in leadership in the Republican House. He’s highly regarded and highly respected. I think their working on getting his “Yes” vote was very important and certainly having a former senator, a Republican who always voted no on the ERA to be co-chair of the Equal Rights Amendment was pretty impressive.
When we had the vote, we had several people stand up opposed and we had several people stand up against. There’s one person I think you really need to know about, and you can get this on tape from the General Assembly. Representative Jeannie Ives who ran against Bruce Rauner in the Governor primary last time had the gall to stand up and say that we would only get the Equal Rights Amendment when men gave it to us. What is that woman smoking? I was flabbergasted. We’ve waited how long?!?
Maybe 20 minutes of discussion had gone on and then Dan Brady stood up and said, “I have been opposed to abortion in the past, I will be opposed to abortion in the future, but I have read the Bible and the Bible says we are all created equal and I am voting for the Equal Rights Amendment. Short, sweet to the point. I am fairly sure we had one Republican who was a yes in November become a no in January and he ended up voting yes and I think he voted yes because of Dan Brady’s comments. I don’t know how many others, but he was a downstater too, he was not suburban.
The Senate passed the Equal Rights Amendment easily and in the Senate all the women Republicans and Democrats except one Republican woman from Quincy voted “Yes.” I was flabbergasted. That’s amazing. In the House, one Republican woman voted “Yes” and there were Republican men who voted “Yes.” Thank God for them. But one Republican woman voted “Yes.” Before the last election in 2018 my daughter called [her] and said my mom would like to walk precincts with you, because you’ve got to thank people that helped you out.
We arranged a date and I took them out to lunch and she was there and her staffers were there and we had an interesting meeting, because my brother has some goofy ideas about what “Deep State” means and they couldn’t believe my brother’s ideas but anyway we go walking door to door and they had picked a precinct that was, I would say, fairly Democratic. It certainly wasn’t a pro-Republican precinct ,which was good on their part.
I would knock on the door and the person would come to the door and I would say this is your Republican Representative Christine Winger and she is the only Republican woman in the House that voted for the Equal Rights Amendment. Jenni and I are Democrats. You can vote for every other Democrat on the ballot, but this woman, we would like you as Democrats to vote for her. She lost by two hundred votes. Her opponent is pro-choice so I don’t think I can go back and do that again, but I would say I had to do something because she really had guts to help us out.
KR: What are you doing now?
PJP: This year I got back in time to find out that we had elected enough Democratic Legislators in the House to pass the Reproductive Health Act. There were some Democrats who decided they didn’t want to be pro-choice, so the folks working on the Reproductive Health Act were quite frustrated. Annie Williams and I – Annie is a strong supporter of the gay rights movement, worked very hard on our behalf and was very important in getting it passed. She is also working with the handmaidens.
The first week that I was back from Florida I was a handmaiden. We were trying to get the House Democrats to figure out that maybe they need to be pro-choice. I was gone two and a half weeks to go to South Africa so, I was not a handmaiden then. I was either a handmaiden or Aunt Lydia. Aunt Lydia is the woman who takes them to the bathroom. We did succeed at getting the Reproductive Health Act passed and I’m ready for what happens next year.
KR: Great accomplishments. Anything else that you think we should know about before we wrap up?
PJP: Can I tell you about a campaign in 1982? Pat Quinn – and I’m not happy with Pat Quinn about this and I will never be happy with him. He passed the amendment to require that we go from three representatives to two representatives in the House and supposedly it was going to be cheaper. It’s not. But it has definitely made the House less democratic and has certainly given more power to the speaker. I was working on the 1982 campaign in Champaign, Urbana. There was Representative Helen Satterthwaite and she was a Democrat and pro-ERA. And then there was, I think his name was Representative Virgil Wikoff, but I’m not sure. He was a funeral director. He was a Republican and he was anti-ERA.
That was one of the campaigns that I was supposed to work on. The amazing thing about that, and I’ve not seen it since, [was that] in a yard would be a Helen Satterthwaite sign and a Wikoff sign. The wife was supporting Helen and the husband was supporting Virgil. I’ve often wondered how many divorces happened after that election. Helen Satterthwaite won, so that was really cool for me to at least know that a pro-ERA woman could win after it had failed.
I think the last thing that is important is that I am so proud of my daughter. My daughter has been working on the Equal Rights Amendment and she’s been working on the pro-choice issues. I think I did a pretty good job as a mom.
Last night we had a reunion dinner and I shared this story and I was asked to repeat it. During the Equal Rights Amendment – and this would have been in the ’80s – ’81. Farley Peters was a new lobbyist like me at the time and had been hired to work full time as a lobbyist. Farley and I took out a representative to try to convince him to be a “Yes” on the ERA. We were having dinner in this restaurant and trying to get him to be a “Yes” vote on the Equal Rights Amendment. And this representative told us that he would be a “Yes” vote if we both went to bed with him and had sex.
And so, it’s like, “Oh shit. What do we do now?” Farley and I go to the bathroom and say, “Well what do we do?” I was not a normal kid, so I’ll say it right up front for the ’60s, but I was still a virgin. And to let this be my first sexual experience was not very good, but if it would pass the Equal Rights Amendment I had to consider it seriously. Farley and I are talking in the bathroom and you can’t take a lot of time because this guy is waiting. We finally decided we couldn’t trust him, so we did not accept his deal.
There were a lot of tough issues, interesting experiences, I learned a lot and I am so grateful to see so many women get excited after President Trump was elected. I go to Sarasota in the wintertime and I know you all had a wonderful March here in Chicago, but the women’s march in Sarasota in January was going to be 200 women. I’m not a resident of Sarasota but I do go down on an annual basis and I got three other women to go with me. None of us lived in Sarasota. We went to the march and there were ten thousand women. From 200 to 10,000 and it’s a very Republican area. It was astonishing. There’s lots of wonderful people, I think, who are fighting back.