THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“The women’s movement had such a profound impact on my life.“
Interviewed by Ryan Leary at the UIC Richard J. Daley Library, Chicago, IL., June 15, 2019
RL: What was your life like before you got involved in the ERA and the women’s movement?
NS: I came from a Jewish, democratic socialist family. My dad worked for a union. My mom was a stay at home mom. I had a disabled brother and we lived upstairs from her parents. She took care of all of them and me and my dad. I had been in and out of college for a while and finally graduated in 1972. I had been active in the anti-war movement and the Democratic Socialist Organization that Michael Harrington headed and I had worked on Robert Kennedy’s campaign for president and George McGovern’s campaign for president.
RL: How did you get involved in the ERA campaigns in Illinois?
NS: In the early seventies I met a woman named Liz McPike who was from Alton, Illinois where Phyllis Schlafly was from. Liz was a big feminist and we were trying to recruit her to the socialist organization, and she started going to meetings with me. I always say that I made Liz a socialist and she made me a feminist. That was really where I started to think about and started to read and realize that I was a feminist.
After I finished college I got a job as a secretary at a labor union and Day Piercy who was starting Women Employed that year, in 1973, asked me to have lunch and recruited me to participate in Women Employed. She was very close politically and organizationally with Heather Booth and so after I had gotten involved in Women Employed and met Day, Heather came to meet with me. She was starting the Midwest Academy which was a training school for organizers, and she recruited me to become the first office manager when the school started in 1973.
In the first class at the Academy were Mary Jean Collins, Anne Ladky, Kathy Rand and other feminists as well as other people who were active in other movements but that was really the beginning for me. Also, people who know me now don’t believe this, but before that I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence. I couldn’t see myself as an organizer and working at the Academy and having all that experience with Heather over the year and getting to know Mary Jean and Anne and all of them over that year, it all changed my life.
A year later I was recruited to go to work for the Illinois Nurses Association (INA). The governor of Illinois had just issued an executive order allowing collective bargaining for the nurses who work for the state of Illinois in mental hospitals, prisons etc.. I was hired to become the organizer for this union election, and I would never have been able to do that. And then working on an organizing drive and the woman who was the head of the Illinois Nurses Association was Anne Zimmerman and she was a mentor to many of us – myself, Mary Jean, Karen Fishman, many of us worked at the INA over the next 10 years and she inspired all of us. I think that’s what sort of brought me to the women’s movement.
In 1976 there was a big national focus on having an ERA march in Springfield and Heather Booth was working on it. I was hired as one of two people to work with Heather on the march. This was our big 1976 ERA rally. Labor union organizing is a little different than women’s movement organizing or any other kind of social change organizing. It was really my first experience with that. And it was great. The march had ten thousand people. So many people had never been to a march before in their lives and they brought their children. And it was just a really wonderful experience.
And then at the end of 1977 I went to work as the Executive Director of Chicago NOW. Chicago NOW had staff previously, but there was a long period where they didn’t, and they didn’t have an office. I was hired to be the Executive Director and I then worked on raising money and then hired two other staff. Sally Kelsey who was the assistant director and Meg Martino who was the secretary in the office.
Those two years were really critical to me because up until then I was very focused on national politics. Like I said, I worked on these presidential campaigns and I didn’t know much about Illinois and I didn’t know much about the Illinois legislature. I learned that during those two years where I obviously had to learn the whole Chicago delegation. For example, Alan Greiman was the sponsor for the ERA, and he represented mostly a suburban district but a little part of Chicago. He was also considered a “Chicago” legislator. But I had to get to know all the Chicago legislators and learn about them so that I could work with our grass roots people who lived in their districts to put pressure on them.
And also, this was my first experience with really developing strategy. People who knew me later in life and my professional career would say that my number one strength is my strategic sense and I really feel I developed that in the women’s movement and working for Chicago NOW in those two years on the ERA campaign. One of the things I did was to build the staff of the organization and raise money. I’m not positive, but I think the ERA walkathon started during that period when I was working there in ‘78. I’m not positive, but that’s what I think. We had these walkathons every August on the anniversary and we worked very hard on those to raise money to support the staff etc..
RL: What issues were of greatest concern to you?
NS: I think the three issues that were of greatest concern to me from my own personal point of view were the ERA and that is what I spent the overall majority of my time working on. Abortion, and Sally who I mentioned was the assistant director, she really led that work in the chapter, but it was very important, and I felt very strongly about it. And then women’s economic status, the status of low income and working women and improving the status of all of those. I continued during those years to stay involved in Women Employed and go to their demonstrations and things like that. Those were the main issues that I worked on or was totally committed to.
RL: What were your major accomplishments personally and that you were involved with?
NS: You know it’s hard when you think about the ERA because it didn’t pass, and it was extremely frustrating working with the legislature and having one after another thing go wrong. I think some of the things I did like raising money for the organization, building the staff, recruiting new members, building leaders and then for me it was building relationships with lifelong friends and mentors. Anne Ladky, Mary Jean Collins, Karen Fishman and Heather Booth have been my friends ever since. And that was one of the major impacts on my life. I would say those are the major accomplishments. And the ERA rally was a huge accomplishment – getting 10,000 people there, that was a huge accomplishment.
RL: What were your most memorable and important experiences from the ERA campaigns?
NS: It really taught me a lot about organizing and grassroots organizing and about strategy. In 1979 Jane Byrne was elected mayor of Chicago and she was a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and she decided that she wanted to pick the sponsor to be someone who she felt more that she could control. I think he was a city worker. And my job was to call Alan Greiman, who had been the lead sponsor of the ERA for many years and who we all thought was doing a terrific job even though it hadn’t passed. But he worked hard and was respectful of the organization and of our opinions.
I was the one who had to call Alan to say Jane Byrne feels that we need a new sponsor and we so appreciate everything you’ve done, but would it be okay if somebody else took the lead on being the sponsor? I will never forget this – never in a million years. And Mary Jean said I could tell the true story here. Alan is a very funny guy and always has been just a riot – anyway – he says to me, “OK, I’m with the program, I’ll go with the program, I’ll cut off my testicles and I’ll put them in a drawer.” I never have forgotten that experience.
And all I learned about strategy and about the legislature. I then went on to be a lobbyist for the next over 30 years after that. I really trained many new people. Not just people on my staff but people from other organizations. Karen Fishman went to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and I trained their lobbyist who went on to become very successful and heads up one of the big mental health organizations in the city. There were a number of people like that who I trained and felt like their legislative successes were also mine. I learned it all working on the ERA.
RL: How has your involvement in the ERA campaign and in women’s movement affected your later life personally and professionally?
NS: In 1980 I left NOW. As I said, I love working on presidential campaigns. So, I quit to work on Ted Kennedy’s presidential campaign. And then I went to work for AFSCME, the public employee union in Illinois and I became a full-time lobbyist. I continued to work on ERA in the legislature for the next two years and other women’s issues, such as pay equity. That was a big issue in AFSCME. The state was doing a study around pay equity and comparing women’s and men’s salaries for specific jobs and I was on the commission that the states set up to investigate that and there were other women’s issues that the union had a particular focus on also. I continued to work very much on that.
I left AFSCME in ‘86 and in 1987 I went to work for the Ounce of Prevention Fund and Family Focus which were both organizations that work to improve the lives of poor young children and teenagers. I worked on the issue of teen pregnancy. I worked then on women and children’s issues, particularly around low-income women and children’s issues, teen pregnancy prevention, maternal and child health. I did a lot of work on expanding access to Medicaid for women and children. The things that I cared about still very much were my work. I really became a major strategist on those issues and getting poor children off to a good start in life. I feel like my strategic skills were built in the women’s movement and then I honed them as I continued to do the work.
I wasn’t as active in organizations, but I continued as a member of the board of the Midwest Academy which is a training school for social change organizers. I continued to be a supporter of Women Employed and women candidates. I retired in 2013. Since then I’ve done a lot of travel. But in terms of the issues of the women’s movement, I continue to spend money. I continue to work on women candidates. I’m a grassroots person, so I go to demonstrations, I go to forums and that’s what I’m doing now. And there are commissions I was on that had to do with women’s issues – whether it’s teen pregnancy or pay equity or things like that – that were formed by the government that I was on, but I wasn’t active in sort of organizations, organizational life like I had been.
RL: Anything else relevant that we haven’t covered Nancy?
NS: This event inspired me so much. I said to the president of Chicago NOW the first thing I was going do when I get home tonight is rejoin Chicago NOW.
RL: It seems like you’ve moved from a neophyte to a seasoned strategist. And a lot of that was sparked by your initial experience.
NS: Absolutely. I feel I developed that in the 70s. Working for the Academy, working for the Nurses Association, working on the ERA rally, which was a tremendous amount of it. And then going to work as the Executive Director of Chicago NOW. I really feel that that’s where I developed those skills and continued to strengthen them. The women’s movement had such a profound impact on my life. And as I said, my friendships are some of most important things in my life.
I’m also very much involved with my family. I’ve got a lot of cousins. I’m very close to their children and grandchildren. The children of my cousins are around 50. I remember when I was working on the ERA in the 70s and they were 10 and now they are all strong feminists. And one of my good friend’s daughters went to a bunch of ERA rallies and all of that because the ‘76 rally wasn’t the only one. We also had a 1980 rally and we had another big rally that we spent a lot of time working on. She went to some ERA rallies and then she was part of my summer home community where they had been playing softball games since my father was young. And she integrated the softball games and sort of brought women into playing in those games. And I felt like my effect on her helped lead to that. That’s sort of the other part.
RL: Well that’s great. Thank you very much for this interview and for the work that you did.
NS: Thank you Ryan.