THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Union Women Needed a Voice”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, February 2020
MJC: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview with the Veteran Feminists of America Pioneer Histories Project. We’re honored to have you as a part of our collection.
SM: Thank you. I’m thrilled to be here.
MJC: We’ve known each other [for] a long time. It’s great to see you again. Let’s start out by saying your name, where you were born and a little bit about how you grew up, those details.
SM: My name is Suzanne Miller. I was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I grew up in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, which is very central America. I grew up in a town that is about 4,000 people and ranged from Brethren to Amish with several sects in between. It was an ideal way to grow up. There were lots of fields, there were lots of cows, and it was ridiculously idyllic.
MJC: Do you have siblings? What were your parents like, and what is your ethnic background?
SM: I have one brother and one sister. I was the eldest. My brother is eight years younger and my sister is 12 years younger. I was an “only” for a considerable amount of my childhood. My father was a lovely human being. He taught me many things, that’s the strongest thing I remember about him. He taught me carpentry, he taught me electrical work, he decided I shouldn’t be dependent on anyone and I should be able to fix everything myself. To this day I am thrilled with the skills that he gave me.
MJC: He didn’t have a gender bias against teaching his daughter the things she needed to know?
SM: Not at all. His children were all going to learn everything, until we got to my sister, who was the baby of the family, who didn’t want to learn anything and was treated like the little princess. She unfortunately had to fight through that, but I was fortunate enough to have learned an awful lot of skills. He was a Boy Scout leader and while girls were not allowed to join the Boy Scouts, I joined the Girl Scouts, he made sure that I got all the skills that I would have gotten as a Boy Scout.
My grandfather was a huge figure in my life. My father was from a Mennonite background. My grandfather was a Brethren and he also was very, very active in volunteer work. He was very big with the scouts, but he also was huge with the Red Cross. He taught classes: all first-aid certification classes, swimming. He took us and my cousins off into the woods and taught us edible plants and how to see all the signs of all the animals that were out there and where everything was hiding and how to be quiet and learn how to pick things up with your hands. He taught me how to catch a frog by being very quiet. He was a huge figure in my life.
He was very religious, and I was raised in that world. I used to ice skate a lot and he was always at our house on Sundays and I was not allowed to do anything on Sunday that was recreational. So with my mother’s back ’round, I would drop my skates out the bedroom window and walk around and say I was going to walk in the fields and meditate and run around and grab my skates and take off for the rink. Whether or not he ever knew, I don’t know.
But he was major in terms of doing for others, taking care of others, and living a good life. Both my father and my grandfather showed by example. They took us along when they went on their volunteer activities and said this is what you do. When we grew up, each one of us got very active in various and sundry things. My brother is very active in conservation. I’m very active in a number of different things politically. My sister is very active politically – it is the way it is.
MJC: When did you become conscious of feminism or come upon its activities?
SM: Well I was very active in the peace movement. I was born in ‘49. The big time for the peace movement was ‘67 to ‘72. And ‘69 was sort of a seminal year. We tried to levitate the Pentagon and do a number of things. I was very active in all of that. The nascent women’s movement was growing at the same time. It was increasingly obvious to everybody who was involved in the peace movement that the true believer males were very interested in running the show.
And bit by bit, the women would start having conversations separately and there would be a woman’s group, a woman subgroup. I attended my first Consciousness Raising Group in 1970 when I was still in college and we all read Germaine Greer and discussed it and said, OK, we still share the same beliefs, but we need to start taking leadership roles ourselves. We need to start looking at this movement a little differently. I was fortunate, being very involved in my Quaker meeting.
MJC: When did the Quakers come in?
SM: My great grandfather had been a Quaker, so I was very aware of this throughout my life. When I hit 18, which was the age of choice in that part of the world, I became a convinced friend. My grandfather was thrilled. And it was a perfect choice because the Quakers were a very active peace church, as most people know, but they were very strong in the equality of the sexes. Women were running meetings and were very active. There was one point at which I was doubting something, and one of the women in the meeting was talking to me and she said, “Whatever you do, remember, Lucretia Mott is on your shoulder.” That stayed with me all my life. Lucretia Mott is on my shoulder. While I am not strong in religion now, the spirituality of it and the meaning of it was possibly the single most defining force in my life.
MJC: Where did you go to college and what did you study?
SM: I went undergraduate to a state college in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, where I studied English to become an English teacher. I taught for a few years and discovered that I wasn’t really fond of teaching children. I went back to graduate school and I studied very “useful” things. I got a graduate degree in Medieval studies and it brought me joy. It was study for the sake of study, the joy of learning, and when I got out I started teaching college. That was a wonderful experience, because when I teach the classics, I get to have conversations about “Why did Clytemnestra kill Agamemnon? Why do you think she did?” It was a way of turning the old vision on itself. I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed that and did it for a number of years during which I was still very, very involved in the peace movement.
MJC: You’re still in Pennsylvania?
SM: I went to school in Connecticut and moved back to Pennsylvania after being in CT for three years at UConn, where the women play basketball. I moved back to Central PA and was involved with my old meeting. I was in Harrisburg for the Three Mile Island accident. If I hadn’t been radicalized before, that would have done it. That coalesced everything in terms of how would we look at movements? How are we going to deal with the government? And now, the growing conservation movement, which got a kick start with the accident. I was unfortunate to live there, but fortunate to be at sort of the epicenter of activity.
We also had the Harrisburg Seven, the Berrigan Brothers and they held all their meetings in my Quaker meeting house. It was an incredible time to be in this little town in central Pennsylvania. I’d gotten married in graduate school as so many of us did. I moved back home and was planning on just being a teacher in central P.A. and then all these things started happening that were bigger than we were, and it just naturally fell to me to participate. That’s what you did. And increasingly, because of the Quaker meeting, I got to play a speaking role and a participant role rather than sitting back and found myself working more and more with wonderful women.
By ‘76 I started becoming a little more involved with my local NOW chapter and by ‘78 I was very involved, and everything came together for me. All the different movements were the same movement, it was the movement for change. It was the movement for social justice. At that point, I was very active with the Pennsylvania NOW and was part of a somewhat subversive subgroup called Ladies Against Women. Ladies Against Women were looked down upon by many of the diehard feminists I will admit. We dressed up as ladies: we had our white gloves and our little hats and our very painful shoes.
And whenever there was an ERA rally or whatever, we would stand to the side and have a counter-protest and we would sing songs like Every Sperm is Sacred. And all the other catchphrases of the Phyllis Schlafly movement with a tinge of Monty Python to it. And we had an absolutely glorious time being Ladies Against Women. We got noticed, our photographs were taken a lot. It was sort of a skewering edge to the whole thing.
As I was doing this, I got to know labor union women and a couple of them reached out and said, we need you, we’d like you, we want you to come and work with us. I found myself moving to New York City to work for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which unfortunately doesn’t quite exist anymore. I worked there. I did women’s committee stuff. I worked in education and training, finding a niche, because of my teaching background, for developing training programs, anything from English as a second language to the language of your trade. How to get your G.E.D.; everything.
After a couple of years in New York, I moved to D.C. for SEIU, Service Employees Union. I worked for John Sweeney, where I did education and training and set up training programs all around the country. I organized women’s conferences. Did a lot of training of up and coming trade union women. When I was retiring, one of them was on the national executive board and came up to me and said, “Do you know you gave me my very first steward training?” I was thrilled. It was wonderful to be in a union which actually allowed that to happen and promoted that.
I set up a number of training programs that were for people to get their G.E.D, to learn the language, but mostly what I got involved with were career ladder programs in the healthcare field. Taking orderlies and housekeeping and folks like that and training them to be CNAs and then LPNs, and then RNs. I worked all around the country with a number of huge systems like Kaiser Permanente. In Seattle I worked with Swedish Hospitals and Boston: Brigham and Women’s; worked all around the country. And we set up a lot of programs that are still operational today.
It was during the nursing crisis and we said, why are you going out and spending all this money to recruit people to become nurses when you have people you can grow? And people who already understand the healthcare system and who already are part of your hospital system? All these largely minority women who would never have thought to go to college to get their RN, we set up a program where they could do it on the job, going to school part time, bringing the training into the building. And it was very, very exciting. And every time I got to go to a graduation I was thrilled, just thrilled. I consider myself ridiculously fortunate. I thought of my grandfather, who would really have liked what I was doing. I thought of myself as ridiculously fortunate. I was paid to do really good work.
MJC: I want to go back a little bit when you went to New York. What year was that? I would like to talk about your ERA work.
SM: There was a shift from about ‘78 to ‘82 – I started getting increasingly involved in the ERA work. Because I was a teacher in writing and doing workshops still back in Pennsylvania, I did not leave Pennsylvania until ‘84. That was my background and my forte and helping women find their voices. Helping them learn how to speak, helping them organize bullet points, helping them think through presentations and I enjoyed it immensely. There were so many women who had something to say. I discovered this when we did the no nukes movement.
In retrospect, it wasn’t great, but we were always looking for the great victim story. There were these women who had so much anger and hurt but they didn’t know how to express it. They felt betrayed by their government. They felt betrayed by the “science”. They were afraid for their children. We were all afraid. We had gotten unknown doses of radiation and we never knew what we’d gotten or what was going to happen. People were afraid and people were angry, but they couldn’t express themselves.
I worked with these angry, scared women and would say, let’s distill your talking points. Teaching them an elevator speech. How do you get out what you want to get out? What’s your main point here? Come to our meetings and get it all out. It’s OK. But when you go to a hearing, that’s not the time to get up and scream like mad, or it might be! But make sure what you say is exactly what you want to say.
I would coach these women and to me, watching them grow and learn and find their voices and not be just hurt and scared and angry went hand in glove with my growing involvement in NOW and the ERA. At the hearings, people from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would ” pooh pooh” these women, just totally ignore their experiences and negate them. And some of the women would break down and cry and we’d say, oh, please don’t cry. But then it was like, you know what? You cry. You go ahead and cry because it’s OK. And because you’re showing the depth of how horrible this experience has been. It grew over those six years from ‘78 with the accident to ‘84 when I went to work for the union.
In central Pennsylvania there was a rap of being a really Republican, really, really conservative area. But these folks had heart and they just needed to learn how to express it. And the beautiful thing that happened was they learned just as we all learned, that we were all in the same boat. And it was us and them and we had to identify what “them” was. We started increasingly using the no nukes platform, using the accident as a platform to get people to start thinking about bigger picture political experiences and where they stood. It was a time of growth for all of us.
My mother was about as Republican of a housewife as you could possibly get, my father was the Republican County Chair. She went to the first no nukes rally with me. She sat there in the midst of a whole bunch of crazy ex-hippies. When the inevitable marijuana was passed around, she just took it, said thank you and passed it on. And I was like, well, haven’t we grown?
That was the experience of many, many people who were involved in all of these movements – that once they came together and we stopped thinking of them as finite movements, we were so powerful, and we grew so much, and we learned from each other. My main passion is that all these things fit together. And unless we can see that, we’re going to keep running off in strange little directions and it all has to be one.
I’m still convinced it’s us and them. Now we’ve got a name for them – it’s the 1 percent, the 2 percent, the-however-many percent and all the rest of us. It’s still the same good fight.
MJC: What were the issues that moved you most?
SM: You have to remember I was in college ‘67 through ‘69. That was a very empowering period of time for all young women who thought at all about what was going on. The issues I was increasingly concerned about were conservation and what we do with the earth and the water, because all that stuff that was dumped into the Susquehanna and all the fish kills were so obvious to all of us and all the cows that died. I grew up in farm country. It’s what I knew, what I thought of. That, together with people having a voice and particularly women having a voice – because as I said in the peace movement, women were so marginalized.
In Harrisburg we got the unfortunate opportunity to be a place where lots of people came who were very strong people. I got to drive Pete Seeger around, which was one of the joys of my life. I also got to be the greeter of Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda. There was an instance in which – and Jane Fonda is a fabulous human being and she found her voice – it was all Tom Hayden. Thank God she got out of that. She was very gracious and lovely, but it was watching an old pattern, unfortunately – that was ‘78.
By ‘82 I realized that fifty-nine cents on the dollar just didn’t cut it at all. It was an equality issue and that unless we had parity for everybody, we weren’t going to have the same kind of voice that I wanted everybody to have. I started working very actively for the ERA in Pennsylvania. I got very involved in Pennsylvania NOW and did a road trip for a period of time and came to Washington where I worked for Mary Jean Collins. It was a fabulous experience. I met so many wonderful, strong, beautiful women and learned so much and could take it back to my little central Pennsylvania experience. I kept in contact with everybody all of these years and took that learning.
When the AFL asked me to join them, I said, “Yeah, this sounds like a really great thing to do.” Because Union women don’t get fifty-nine cents on the dollar. Union women have contracts. What they needed was a voice. They need to lead. All of the leaders are men. So, let’s go there and see what we can do. They had a lot of the people that I had known in Pennsylvania who were working people and blue-collar people who just weren’t making it. And it was a chance to up the scale of what I was doing.
That’s sort of how that transition took place. But again, the skills and the friendships and the experiences that I had working with NOW, that took me to another level. That was the Lucretia Mott on my shoulder. That was women at NOW saying, you can do this, go home and do this. Go off and change the world in your own venue. So, when I was asked to work for the Union, I said, absolutely. I have never worked for a Union.
MJC: Was it a challenge to leave home for New York?
SM: There’s about a million years between the Amish country and New York City. I moved to Brooklyn, which was a smart move, because there’s a very strong Jewish and Orthodox community there and a very strong presence. I joined the Quaker meeting, which was in Williamsburg. I understand the Amish and religious life, I understand Hasidic Jews and religious life. I’m comfy. I can do this. It’s really crowded, but I can do this. And I found a home in the Quaker meeting and I found a home in Brooklyn, adored Brooklyn. And I traveled around the country for them.
MJC: What was it like to be a woman in the labor movement at that point?
SM: Evy (Evelyn) Dubrow was one of the toughest women lobbyists on the Hill. And she was referred to as the girl. That gives you a clue. I did girl work because I did education. I didn’t threaten anyone, but there was a lot of patting me on the head. A lot of “Oh, isn’t that nice?” What I did was seen by some people as valuable. Some people understood education and training as moving our workers along. You give them something that can never be taken back. You change their lives and you change their children’s lives and you change their family’s lives.
The International Ladies Garment Workers was a good place because in the teens, and the 20s, in the 30s they had done citizenship classes and English language classes, because it was a union of all immigrants and heavily immigrant women who were the sewers. They understood and I was just carrying on the tradition. But the big, heavy work such as organizing went to the guys.
When I went to SEIU it was quite different. John Sweeney surrounded himself with smart women, he moved smart women up the chain. We would sit and talk about an idea and when we got to a point he would say, “Is this what you want to do? Is this a good plan?” And I would say, “Yes, I think this is a good plan.” And he was there. Now, I had difficulties with some of the men in the organization. I had a very challenging ongoing argument with one of the major organizers, who can remain unnamed.
In education training, we always tried to get what we call the nickel fund, and that was just because when it first started it was a nickel an hour. Then it grew. And the nickel fund was set aside for education and training. And in New York City, in some of the big, big unions there, they could establish huge training funds and build a training center. That was the example that I took with me and said we need nickel funds in every bargaining.
For as long as I was there I had an argument with one of the organizers who said, “People want that nickel in their pocket. They want to buy a new pair of shoes.” I said, “The shoes will wear out, you teach them English, you get them their citizenship, you give them training to get a better job. And that will never go away.” We had that argument for about 10 years during which I minded my own business. I got grant money. If nobody wanted to bargain me a nickel fund, I’d get grant money.
I got the Department of Labor to pay for a lot of wonderful, wonderful programs in Oakland and in Seattle and in Los Angeles and in Detroit and in Chicago. In Chicago I got over a million and a half bucks from the DOL to pay for janitors in the Chicago housing system to learn the electronics they needed for the new alarm systems, to learn how to use the new chemicals that were coming out for cleaning and were unsafe, some of them. And you needed to know, how do you mix this? Well, you need to know how to mix it in Spanish and in English.
We got a million and a half bucks for the janitors in Chicago. A lot of those were women who come and clean the office buildings at night. That was the major part of my working life. It came together when I finally retired from SEIU, the AFL-CIO called me and said we have this Labor College, would you like to come and play there?
I went to the Labor College and basically continued doing the same thing, but I got involved with the construction trades. Women in the construction trades. It was the good old boys club. There were wonderful small groups of women: women in the trades in Boston. There was a women in the trades in Chicago. There were these small groups of women who had moved up through the trades and who were determined to bring other women along. I got involved with women in the trades.
I forgot one small thing. Way back when I was teaching I went to the local VO tech school while I was teaching and went there in the evenings and on weekends for several years and I became a licensed carpenter. I had a skill; I had a trade which I put to great use for my friends and my house and everything. It mattered, because at one point when they were looking for somebody to work with the building trades, you had to have some credibility. As a woman, I didn’t. I was the girl.
But once they figured out I knew stuff, once they figured out I knew how to use all equipment and I understood the language and I could run wires and I could build steps and I could do all this and I had done it and understood what they were saying. Then the fact that I could write curriculum, they had subject matter content, and I had structure. The guys in the trades had subject matter expertise. I had structure. Plus, I had friends in the women in the trades.
I ended up helping the Building Trades Council build a pre-apprenticeship program for under employed, unemployed, newly returned from prison, single mothers, everybody; a six-week program for them to get their skills up to be able to enter an apprenticeship program. Most of them did not have the math skills, certainly didn’t have the writing skills, didn’t know how to do a resume, didn’t know how to talk to somebody, didn’t know how a union was structured.
They put in the subject matter content in terms of blueprint reading. I put in speaking and resume writing and time management and planning. How do you plan? How do you do a work plan? How do you do an education plan? How do you figure out what you need? How do you do a job task analysis on yourself and figure out what you need and how to get that? We piloted it in Denver, Oakland and Seattle, and we ended up with a big program in New Orleans, particularly after Katrina.
We had to get people back to work, and they had to rebuild the city. I spent a considerable amount of time with the Louisiana AFL-CIO building up programs. And in every program, they had started to figure out that there was a problem with not having enough women. And the question was, how do we recruit women? I said, let’s ask the women who are in the trades. And so, we starting to get more and more involved. We’re nowhere near the percentages that we need. But they’re more and more women. The program is still excellent and operational in many cities around the country.
When I really retired the second time the metropolitan D.C. AFL asked me if I would kindly teach in their program. And so, I’ve come full circle. I am teaching these wonderful people in their 20s and 30s who have just never gotten a break. If we’re lucky, we have a quarter of them women. We have a women’s only program that we hold with painters because they like being free of the guys. While eventually they’re going to have to work within the larger construction trade, it helps them get the skills in a confident area and be honest and open. I’m very thrilled with the fact that I still get to do that and to come full circle for me.
MJC: And you use your organizational skills in another area.
SM: I use my organizational skills in many areas. I was a hospice volunteer for many years with my one dog, which is my major advocational love. I live with and raise and train and show golden retrievers. I make sure that all of them are trained as therapy dogs. My one dog and I were hospice volunteers for a number of years, and that was remarkably moving and inspiring. And now I’m on the board of the Annapolis Hospice Cup. I’ve come full circle again.
I’m working for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, trying to help save the Bay. My grandfather would be very proud. I’ve got a small piece of a creek right here, and I’m busy replanting with native plants and helping to clean up the water and doing as much as possible, raising oysters for the Bay Restoration Project. Doing whatever I can.
Life is busy and I have these beautiful dogs. I actually have learned a lot living with dogs because I train them, and I have to think through how do I teach a non-verbal creature? It has taught me a lot in terms of my own thought about educational theory and how I break down skills. We take for granted when we work with other people that if we say it, they get it. But there can be a language difference, there can be a lot of cognitive differences. And through all these years of trying to teach people to find their voices, it’s also having to teach them how to hear and how to learn and how to really internalize what they hear and make it their own.
And working with dogs, you’ve got to go to where the dog is. You have to humble yourself because you have to really break down the skill and teach the small pieces and have them get mastery first. You can’t speed it up. I love the fact that I’m teaching people now who maybe are not very literate and who socially are not necessarily as adept, particularly those who’ve been away in prison for a while.
Many of them when you sit and talk to them are trying to find a way to make it in this life because nobody has helped them. They didn’t grow up in a place where anybody was ever going to help them. I had one guy who said, “I want to learn how to help my kids with their homework because nobody ever helped me. And if somebody had helped me, maybe I would have gotten it.” I’m privileged to work with these people.
MJC: What are you proudest of?
SM: When I retired, somebody wrote me a letter from one of the local unions. They said that I set up these programs and I never really had a chance to know how many, many people’s lives were changed. That old argument about let them buy sneakers or let them get an education. I’m really proud of the fact that I let them get an education to get the kind of job where they could buy their own sneakers. And there are lots of people. Even if there were only 100 or only 10, those 10 people affect their families and those families affect their communities. I hope I’ve managed to make some lives better. I’ve done my best.
MJC: Thank you, Suzanne. Thank you so much.
SM: Thank you. And thank you for everything you’ve ever taught me and shared with me. Thank you.