THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Know Your Past to Understand Today.”
Interviewed by Mary-Ann Lupa, VFA Board, September 2019
MAL: Hi Sue. Thanks for coming in to do the oral history for the VFA Pioneer Histories Project. Give us your full name.
SS: Arlene Susan Strauss.
MAL: Where and when were you born?
SS: I was born and raised in Chicago.
MAL: What year was that.
MAL: Tell us a little bit about your family and ethnic background.
SS: We’re Jewish. My parents were both born in Chicago. My dad’s parents came from [the] Russia empire now known as Latvia. My mom’s parents came from Poland. My brother is two and a half years older than me. He was born in November. I was born in August. My mom gave birth to another boy, but he only lived for twelve hours, so I grew up with one older brother.
MAL: What was life like for you?
SS: We were middle class. My mom and my dad both worked. My mom worked for Montgomery Wards as a clerk and my dad worked for the post office on the night shift. My brother and I shared where we were going to sleep. Sometimes in the sun parlor and sometimes the dining room. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment with a sun parlor in Albany Park.
MAL: You said your dad did what?
SS: He worked for the post office on the midnight shift. He took care of us during the day and my mom’s job was part time, so she would get home around 1:00 and we’d all have lunch together and then he would go to work.
MAL: You said your family tradition was Judaism.
SS: Yes, we were secular. In my neighborhood my mom was a very happy woman and she worked. A lot of my friends had mothers who did not work outside the home and they were not as happy as my mom. My dad did a lot of the housework. I lived in that kind of environment and I thought that was pretty normal.
MAL: What high school did you go to?
SS: I went to Von Steuben, which is in Chicago. I graduated in 68.
MAL: You had indicated that your first calling to activism was in high school. Tell us about that.
SS: We were going to go out on strike, the girls, and I think we were juniors. I think it was 1967 and it was to protest not being able to wear culottes and we won. We always thought people would take our action for granted. Even though we could have been suspended or kicked out of school, but we took the action to do that and we won.
MAL: I understand that you also were quite active at Northeastern where you went to college.
SS: Yes, I was involved in the peace movement club and also the women’s liberation club and we were instrumental in getting Northeastern to institutionalize the women’s studies program. And that was throughout the educational system. It was happening all over and we were part of that. And through the women’s liberation club – our sponsor. We had to do it formally. We had to meet, we had to vote, and we had to propose this action to change the curriculum.
MAL: When did you start getting involved in some of the organizations?
SS: After I was about to graduate college I wanted something that would help me to continue my interest in women’s rights. I had friends who belonged to NOW. They were Darlene (Kem) Kemmerer, who I knew from the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union and Judith Earle, who was her girlfriend at the time. I knew her from Northeastern. She was in the women’s club as well. She helped formulate the women’s studies program and she was an artist, so they invited me. I was already a member of NOW, but I was not active in the local chapter. They invited me to a play they were doing, and I thought this is really cool, it’s fun. So, I became a member from that.
MAL: What committees did you get involved in?
SS: At first it was ERA and then I was doing research on women in the military. This was in 1975 when I first got involved and was also interested in consciousness raising. For me, that was a great experience. Another friend of mine did not have such a great experience. It was a matter of who your mentor was or who the moderator was in those consciousness raising groups. I think that is something we’re missing today, because we’re so busy that we don’t have time to think – and that has to do with philosophy as well as policy. And I think we’re missing the philosophy part.
MAL: You also became involved in the Women’s History Project.
SS: I came in around 1995 to 1997 and then when our founder stepped down, I became president. Yolanda Hall was her name.
MAL: What was the goal of the Women’s History Project as opposed to what you were doing in Chicago NOW?
SS: Chicago NOW is more contemporary and trying to deal with six main issues. Lesbian rights, abortion rights, other health issues that women face. Racial discrimination is also really important. And violence against women is also important. Economic rights. But with the Working Women History Project, that’s to stop women from being erased from history. You could see it in what women get awarded for, how women are treated in any industry they’re part of, in leadership roles, that sort of thing. Working Women’s History Project talks about women who have achieved a lot in the past and how that influences today.
I’m reading a book about Sylvia Pankhurst’s two trips to America that she did in 1911 and 1912. That book is by an English woman, Katherine Connelly. She put Sylvia Pankhurst’s overview into a book and it talks about Harriet Stanton Blatch, who was the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and how she passed the torch on to Alice Paul. And I know for a fact that Alice Cohan, who was with NOW at the time for ERA and organizer, took that torch from Alice Paul, who helped influence the direction that we were organizing for the ERA at that time.
And at our ERA reunion in Chicago that we had this summer, Mary Jean Collins who was president of Chicago NOW and a very active woman, passed the torch on to the Chicago NOW President Paloma Delgadillo and she is 28. I don’t think she’s even 28 yet. So that’s kind of interesting historically.
MAL: You decided to stay in Chicago NOW from 1974 till the present and did you have different roles while you were there?
SS: I did. I was in the speaker’s bureau and also the newsletter committees when I first started. And like we mentioned before, I worked for the ERA and I also did economic rights. I took some time off, but I came back and I was president of the Education Fund of Chicago NOW. I became vice president of Chicago NOW in 1998. I’m on the board currently, which I have been on since 1995. And another level of NOW, I was president of Illinois NOW.
MAL: And were you lobbying for various women’s legislation?
SS: We have a lobbyist who lives in Springfield, so she’s our lobbyist. When we decide to do a lobby day, we organize each chapter within the state to come down to Springfield to do in-district lobbying for our own senator or representative, state or federal.
MJL: The chapters in Illinois NOW, did you add more chapters to Illinois NOW over the years?
SS: I think we’ve had problems maintaining chapters around the time Reagan became president. I think that was a really bad period. I think after the defeat of the ERA that year it really deflated a lot of people. And also, a lot of people want to do actions on their particular issues and a lot of organizations developed afterwords. Women Employed came in afterwards, Chicago Abortion Fund came in afterwards. I think one of the only organizations was probably Planned Parenthood. And at that time, they did not do politics. Now they do but at that time they did not. They were only a service organization, so we ended up working with them.
We also worked with unions over the ERA. They were kind of conflicted, because of protection laws that were in place by unions and they thought that was in conflict (such as how many hours they worked or the type of work they did, how much weight they can carry – that sort of thing). But then we opened up careers like the mining industry, construction to make it open for women. And that came by lawsuits. There’s a book by Lois Herr about AT&T and it is a fascinating book and NOW is very prominent in that book. And there are other books also where NOW is prominent in getting women’s rights.
MAL: What would you say would be your greatest concern or issue?
SS: Right now, it is maintaining our rights and getting people to realize [that]. It’s like the union’s slogan, each generation has to win it for themselves, and we have to continue that, because in the past things we’d say OK we accomplished that, we don’t have to do this anymore and organizations fall apart. We have to continuously make sure you maintain your rights.
MAL: Do you have any specific accomplishments in your role in the women’s movement that stand out for you or with other people?
SS: I think working with others like with the Working Women’s History Project. We received awards through that and working with unions and working women. And through NOW it’s the continuation of the fight for struggling for our rights and making sure we keep what we already have and make sure that the laws on the books are enforced and improved upon. And also changing the minds of people.
MAL: You’re right. I know that in the Working Women’s History Project you worked with Addie Wyatt and then several creative women where you developed plays about significant women. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
SS: [In] the Working Women’s History Project, we honor people by doing a play that either talks about them or talks about their involvement and their accomplishments. With Addie Wyatt, she was a remarkable woman dealing with all kinds of different issues. She was a reverend and so she deals with religious women and was prominent in labor movement. She started CLUW, which is the Coalition of Labor Union Women.
She was a founding member of the National Organization for Women – I think the second wave of the creation of it. I think the first was twenty – one people and then they had a meeting and then she was part of that, and she was very prominent in combining the African American women with the fight for the ERA. She was a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King. And so she was prominent in the civil rights movement as well. And one plus is a photo of her that was exhibited at the Woodson library in Chicago. And this is of Ellie Smeal and Addie Wyatt with a banner which is really remarkable. I could go on and on about Addie – she was just such a wonderful human being.
MAL: Did you find that your work in the women’s movement affected your personal life with regard to your work life?
SS: It really just helped me ground myself into what I thought was important rather than my work. I feel that I could contribute to people by working on women’s issues.
MAL: Have you found that in your work life you haven’t necessarily experienced personal discrimination?
SS: I have been sexually abused on my job. And this man, not my boss but another man in power grabbed my shirt and pulled it in front of people. Everyone was kind of like what the heck’s going on? And my boss at the time was just like – his eyes bugged out of his head. I couldn’t believe someone would do such a thing, but no one really said anything because you know – why would you? But he was also using the system because he was 1 – 1,000 percent Native American. When they were doing their data and they looked at people of color he went into that demographic.
MAL: Was any action taken with the employer?
SS: No, they were just stunned, and no one did anything.
MAL: How old were you at the time?
SS: Probably about twenty-seven; it was my first real job. They just had been talking around my desk and he just said, “Oh you’re so pretty.” And just grabbed my top. I was a member of NOW, so I felt I should do something but I’m not going to. I’m sure they had an HR person, but I was too stunned to really do anything about it, so I didn’t. But that’s part of growing up and continuing our growth. Today I would definitely do something about it. But at that time, I didn’t know what to do.
MAL: Have you been involved in women’s movement activities since?
SS: Basically, those are the two things that I’m involved in. There are other organizations I support, but those are my main focus.
MAL: What is your role now in the Women’s History Project?
SS: Right now, I’m vice president of outreach and on the board.
MAL: And do you find that [there is] more interest in women in history?
SS: I think there is. I think people recognize that if you don’t know your past, you’re not going to be able to formulate ideas to help you in today’s situation.