Interview with Karen Mulhauser2018-11-05T18:55:24+00:00

THE VFA PIONEER HISTORY PROJECT

Karen Mulhauser

“We Are Not Practicing For The Next Time – This Is It – We Have One Life”

Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Board, November 2018

 

[Karen’s 2017 Speech from WomenWerk Gala can be found at the end of the transcript.]

KM:  My name is Karen Mulhauser. When I was born it was Karen Webber on the birth certificate. And I was born in Burlington, Vermont but then spent the next five years outside of Austin, Texas.

MC: Can you describe a little bit about your family background including any ethnic background if that would be helpful for the story.

KM: Both of my parents were Caucasian but there’s a very interesting story about my parents. My mother was my father’s graduate school professor. She had a Ph.D. in botany back in the 30s and she met my father – her student. They got married when she was 35 and he was 25. And then she had 5 children.

That’s not the whole story about them. She was raised in a strict Protestant church. My father was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home. They had a wedding in the church for my mother’s family. They got married by the justice of the peace so that my father’s parents were ok with them traveling across the country – married. And then they got married in the synagogue.

MC: So that’s a beautiful story.

KM: It is a beautiful story.

MC: Well I assume that did a lot to shape your life.

KM: Well actually bringing that story up to today – in one week my husband and I will be having our fiftieth wedding anniversary.

MC: Congratulations.

KM: And my sister got married in May – 50 years ago. And one of my brothers got married in September – 50 years ago. So we’re having an amazing family and friends reunion in September for our 150th wedding anniversary.

MC: Beautiful. How wonderful.

KM: All married to the same people. So a little bit of sanity in today’s strange world.

MC: Well, good for everybody that’s a lovely story. It’s wonderful and your mother and father would be proud.

KM: Yes, I think they would.

MC: So tell me how your life was – what was your life like before the women’s movement and of course how it changed as the subject of this interview today?

KM:  Perhaps because both of my parents were scientists and perhaps because I was extremely shy in high school and college, I decided to be a scientist. Because it was ok for scientists to spend all day in the science building with the test tubes. I was going to do medical research and find a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s or whatever. But partway through Medical School at Tufts Medical School, I decided I should probably try to get over being so shy and maybe I’d rather work with people than with rats. Not knowing what to do, thinking I was a total failure because I dropped out of Graduate school, I taught high school chemistry and physics for a couple of years and that’s where I met my husband.

And It Helped Define the Beginning of My Awareness About the Women’s Movement.

I got married in 68 and I was just starting my second year as a teacher and the students were coming to me with their questions about sexuality. All the way from, “I need an abortion” – this was Massachusetts, where even contraception was illegal unless you were married; or “How do I say no my boyfriend – I’m not ready?” And then I became incredibly aware. So this shy girl was talking about sex with teenagers – but I became very aware of how important it was that there be more information for young people.

So after teaching, I volunteered full time for more than a year at a pregnancy counseling service in Boston, just a block from the statehouse. And saw 8 or 10 or 13 women or girls a day who were seeking abortions. If they could afford it and we were sure that they really did want an abortion and didn’t have problems afterwards, we put them on charter flights to London where abortion was legal.

If they couldn’t afford it – and you may recall there was a clergy counseling service – we referred them to the clergy counseling service, which was Rabbis, ministers and priests who once they were confident that this was the decision that they wanted, they would refer them to illegal abortionists who they had visited and they were sure that they would be safe. Then in 1970 when New York changed the law, we just put them in car pools up to New York.

MC: So that was your introduction to the women’s movement?

KM:  Right. With the simple issue of abortion.

MC: And you maintain your activity. Describe what happened after that.

KM: Well my husband and I and our young son moved to Seattle. And not knowing a soul there, I just knocked on the door of Planned Parenthood of Seattle and started volunteering. And then they offered me a job, which was the last chapter in getting over being shy. It was a trainer for federally funded personnel and family planning programs in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. So I would talk to rooms full of doctors and nurses. And when I wasn’t doing the training, I was being kept up to date on the most current contraceptive technology.

I Got Over Being Shy by Talking About Sex to Roomfuls of Adults.

That was in 1970 and 71 – 72. I was in Seattle when Roe v. Wade came down. And then in those four states where I was doing the training there were different laws. We had to change our whole script after Roe v. Wade because abortion was to be legal everywhere.

MC: So you were happy to do that?

KM: Yes we were – that was not a difficult task. And then in 73 we moved to Washington and this was the era when women followed their husbands wherever they got a job. I found that if the doctors and nurses didn’t know that I didn’t have a degree – they could hear me when I was talking to them and training them – If they knew I only had a bachelor’s degree, I had to spend the first half hour proving myself.

So I was going to go to medical school. We were going to be in Washington D.C. for a year and then go to wherever I got into medical school at the ripe old age of 30. And I was being told that I was too old. And besides I might have another child. I’m paraphrasing because [they] didn’t really say it this way but I was hearing it – Why would we waste an education on you?

MC: And they probably didn’t particularly want you in medical school in the first place.

KM: Who knows? I don’t know.

MC: They didn’t want women.

National Abortion Rights Action League

KM: I went to a board meeting of the National Abortion Rights Action League which actually when they started the meeting it was still called the National Association for the repeal of abortion laws – NARAL. But after the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade earlier in the year they had to change their name. So they spent a couple hours figuring out how to keep all of those initials – NARAL. And then they announced that they were going over to [the] Washington office. So I applied for that job and got it.

MC: Wonderful. 

KM:  Yes. It was wonderful and a bit of a surprise. I knew where that Capital was but I didn’t know about lobbying or starting an organization or anything – but I figured it out.

MC: And it was a pretty young organization at that time.

KM: It had started in 69. So next year will be the fiftieth anniversary. When I started, there were about 2,000 members in NARAL and the main office was up in New York. And then when I opened the D.C. office to have a lobbying presence, it grew every year. And in 75 I knew they were going to ask me to – I suspected they were going to ask me to be the executive director and not just the director of the Washington office and move the whole operation down to D.C. And I remember standing right there at the kitchen counter with my husband and saying – how do I tell them that they can hire somebody who knows how to do this without them losing confidence in me? And he said – You can do this.

MC: Good for him.

KM: Yes, good for him – everyone should have one of those in the house. 

MC: That’s exactly right.

KM: And what I did with that support was I called women, because our age cohort we hadn’t really –

MC: How old were you at the time?

Women Supporting Women

KM:  33. We were not really raised – although I had some good examples in my own family – but we weren’t raised to think that we were going to run things or be leaders or managers. So I found women my age and older who were running nonprofits and I said – I think NARAL is going to ask me to be the director and I have to succeed and I’ve never had a management course and can I come to you from time to time? And they all said [they’d] never had a management course and I don’t think they had nonprofit management courses back then.

And so I started a group, which lasted for three or four years. And so we met every month and it was kind of amazing. And I don’t know if it would be the same now. We’d take turns meeting in each other’s offices and we’d close the door and whatever we said, it was to stay there. Even if it was outside the door, and we were competing for members and fund raising and media attention. But we in that room – we would feel comfortable saying – “This really weird Board Chair won’t get out of my business,” or “I’ve got a staff person who wants my job and what I do?”

And we would help each other. And we helped write each other’s bylaws and personnel policies. Every once in a while if we all knew we were stuck, we would invite an expert to talk with us. And it was so good. And it was a lesson that I repeated in many other ways in the decades since.

MC: How long did you stay as the Director in NARAL and what do you think your major accomplishments were as the director?

KM: It was clear that Congress was going to try to make abortion legal through a constitutional amendment or in some other way. And so I knew that it was not enough to have smart lobbyists in Washington D.C., we [had] to have constituents around the country, because the Congress people were going to pay more attention to them. So I learned how to build chapters by bringing on staff that already knew how to do that.

MC:  Had you done grassroots organizing before?

Learn From the Best 

KM:  No. But somebody recommended that a friend of ours – Heather Booth – come in and train. And so that’s how I met Heather Booth. I hired her from Midwest Academy. And I had been able to raise enough money, which was another thing I learned. To bring in field people to get the training. We built chapters in almost every state. The membership expanded by the time I left about 140,000. And then we had a presence on Capitol Hill.

I mean when I started lobbying, members of Congress would say, “Well we just don’t hear from you all.” So that’s when we built chapters and then a couple of years later I’d go in and they’d say, “Well now we’re hearing from you, but you’re not showing up at elections.” And so then I started the Political Action Committee. It was affiliated with our 501C4 lobby group.

By then we had enough members that we could write to them and ask for money and get them involved in politics so I feel really very good about where I left NARAL. In the 1980 elections, we were very involved in those elections, but nonetheless Reagan was elected and they lost a lot of friends in the Senate. And people now find this hard to believe, but back in the 70s some of our strongest friends in Congress were Republicans.

MC: I remember. Yes.

KM: It does seem hard to believe now in 2018 – but back then. So we lost a lot of our friends in the Senate and that’s when we started a Strategic Plan to have enough strength in at least 13 states because we learned from the ERA. So if there were constitutional amendments [they] would not be ratified.

MC: Do you want to comment on how the opposition built during the years? You know what you were facing [and] how it changed – what you were facing over the period over your leadership?

KM: What was happening [was] I think that initially there was not as much opposition from the Catholic Church. But I remember in 1975 I don’t think I ever really read anything about Catholic – Encyclicals or whatever but there was one on pro-life. I could not believe what I was reading about a woman’s place and having babies and don’t have sex if you don’t want to have babies.

And that started the era when the Catholic Church was talking about abortion more than it had been before. I remember writing my executive directors piece for the newsletter that was back when they were all on paper. And I showed it to my deputy director and they wouldn’t let me write anything without two or three other people reading it. And she walked into my room holding it and she said – Karen I hope this was therapeutic but we can’t print this.

MC: Interesting. In a way, we all need someone in our life like that.

Nuclear Disarmament Organizations 

KM: That was in the mid to late 70s and then they got organized in the elections in a way that they hadn’t been before. It was after Reagan was elected. And then in 1981 I was beginning to get at least as scared as the Soviets were. And I was actually recruited to start a couple of Nuclear disarmament organizations. This was in the early 80s when a lot of organizations that had nothing to do with peace and security were passing resolutions opposing the continued production of nuclear weapons – the nuclear freeze movement.

And so three men – asked me after having worked so much with women – to start these organizations. One of them became a coalition of 65 or 70 – all of the major labor unions and environmental groups and women’s groups that had passed resolutions but hadn’t really put resources into doing anything. So we were kind of their surrogate staff. We would write articles for their newsletters and work with their lobbyists – you’re talking with the senators anyway – why didn’t you mention opposition to nuclear weapons.

That was great. I actually had free office space in the National Education Association building. Free use of the postage meter, use of meeting rooms, and then when they emptied their building in 1988 that’s when I had to leave, because they were renovating the building. That’s when I started my consulting business.

MC: So particularly – if you want to talk about it – what motivated you toward the anti nuclear issue?

KM: It was genuine fear. I remember in my home putting up on a wall pictures of grandparents and ancestors and just breaking down in tears thinking there isn’t anyone for whom I’m going to be a great mother. You know that the nuclear war was going to destroy –

MC: The threat is real. 

KM:  The treat was real – it was real in my heart. I started going to conferences and I went up to Mort Halperin who was then the head of the ACLU here in D.C. and he was talking about the threat of nuclear War and nuclear weapons and so he’s one of the people who eventually approached me to run the transition.

MC: How did you find that organization different from NARAL?

KM:  There was so much that was the same. I had learned by then about lobbying, about board staff relations, I learned a lot of things about running a non-profit. But it was different issues. And so I was able to bring a lot of what I had learned and also the Coalition was a 501C4 lobbying organization. And the other group was a 501C3 tax deductible nonprofit. And it became an umbrella for…to be the fiscal sponsor for a lot of different kinds of projects.

And this kept me in line with the gender issues that were part of my life. And I organized and was chair of a group, then raised some money and had some staff to help me – of a group called Women For a Meaningful Summit in 1985, which is when Reagan and Gorbachev were having their first summit meeting in Geneva. And it became clear to us there would be no women there.

MC: So your issues began to overlap during that time.

KM: And this 501C3, which was the center for Education in nuclear war, became the fiscal sponsor for me to raise money to bring thirty-five women to Geneva – including Bella Abzug, Maxine Waters, and Jane Alexander.

MC: People have a lot to say.

KM: A lot to say. And so we spent a few days in Geneva and then it continued and I brought delegations to Reykjavik, Iceland and they got together again and to Moscow. And so these wonderful men let me do these things [under] the umbrella of the Center for Education.

MC: How did becoming a consultant change how you worked?

How to Support the Next Generation

KM: Well first of all I thought I was going to do it for a year. This was 1988. The first call I got was from the Dukakis campaign in January of 88 saying, “We’ve got a bunch of 20 year olds in Iowa and we need some grownups,” and would I go. I’ve never added it to my resume – “grownup.” I spent a couple of weeks in Iowa preparing for the caucuses. I met some amazing young people their first year out of college working on a presidential campaign. And some of them moved to D.C. even though Dukakis didn’t win.

And partway through 89 they approached me and said we expected you women of the second wave would be more understanding of our needs. But wherever we work – whether it’s on Capitol Hill or in a law firm or in a business or in a nonprofit – the women who are at the top don’t seem to understand that we’re struggling to figure out how to be them one day. And I said – Well that doesn’t sound like my friends.

So I invited 6 or 8 of them and 6 or 8 of my friends to a dinner party. We sat around my dining room table all night long. I had often said that if I had bagels they probably would stay for breakfast. And we talked about this and for a lot of women our age, when they got to the top – some of them got there using whatever worked for men to get at the top – and for some reason – that wasn’t occurring to them.

Anyway we set about trying to change that dynamic in Washington D.C. So that night we decided that we’re going to have more dinner parties like this and we started the Women’s Information Network. Which continues until today almost 30 years later as a forum where young, pro-choice, Democratic women can find a way around this town. Former young women are there to help them.

MC: What do you think each group got out of that and why it continues?

KM: Well it changes with every year. But it has been written up as probably the best leadership development program for young people – young women – because they have several different networks. They have an elected executive committee – it’s totally voluntary.

MC: Is there no staff?

KM: They sometimes have an intern that is paid to do some of the administrative work. There is no executive director. They have a chair of the executive committee and they have a vice chair and they have a development director. They have people who are learning the leadership skills – experiential learning. And then there are people on the advisory council like myself who are there to not offer unsolicited advice – like – you ought to do it this way – but to be there to give advice if asked. And it’s extraordinary.

It has between 800 and 1,000 members and the women in these positions go on because they got a good start. They learned leadership skills in a safe place because they were all learning together.

MC: That’s a beautiful story. Beautiful accomplishment – wonderful. And so happy it’s still going on. How did your involvement in the movement affect your personal life if at all?

KM: Fortunately I had the good sense to marry a good guy. Have just one child and that’s one regret from having grown up in a family of five kids. I guess I always thought I’d have more but I had pregnancy problems.

MC:  You know the other side of the issue as well.

KM: Exactly, I really do – I understand what choice means. Before our son was born I was pregnant and delivered three months early and that was very hard. And our son was born two months early and I just said – I can’t go through that again. Our son is now six foot five and no one confuses him with the preemie.

MC:  Are there any other areas of activism beyond the women’s movement, the peace movement that you want to talk about that also came out of this life changing experience?

The Passion Continues 

KM: I think [there’s] something else that’s always been important in my life and it started also back in college – Antioch College – where I took a year abroad. And so being aware of the value of the rest of the world and our place in the rest of the world is something that’s been part of my life ever since college. I studied in Italy for a few months and then I went on to Nigeria where I worked for a couple of months in a school that was way out in the bush.

In the morning I’d help make the bricks out of red clay and in the afternoon teach English. Even though Nigeria is English speaking that is what they asked me to teach. And then I met up with three other Antioch girls – we called ourselves “girls” back then. We met in Israel where we started – and Antioch gave us experiential learning credit for four months of hitchhiking around the Mediterranean with what we call an experiment in communication without words.

And so we did folk dancing – and actually one of us actually had talent – she sang and played the guitar. So that’s another whole interview. It’s a long story. It helped me understand how Americans are seen in other countries as well as [that] we’re not alone. And so it’s quite troubling now to see that we’re in a time when our president says – Not only America first – but America only.

Since 2000 I’ve Been Involved with the United Nations Association.

I’ve been involved first in the D.C. area chapter. I got involved because a friend of mine who had been on the board died and I told her before she died that I was going to raise money to keep her name and her work alive. Perdita Huston – just a wonderful woman who had been Peace Corp Director and has been written in several books about women in development.

The United Nations Association seemed a logical fiscal sponsor for me to raise the money. And so after they saw that I could raise money, they said would you like to be on our board. And then the next year they asked – would you like to be the president? And I said – well I have my conditions – you have to promise me that I’ll never be the youngest person in the room again, you have to let me work on gender equity issues and we have to do more advocacy. And they said ok.

MC: Talk a little bit about your ability to adapt to the needs of feminism in the three generations that you’ve been involved with. How that worked. I don’t know if you can articulate it, but intersectionalism is very important – diversity in the women’s movement – even more important than it was. Talk about change if you would and the women’s movement and why feminism needs to constantly be aware of itself. 

The Global to the Local 

KM: Yes, and it is more aware of itself now than it was back when we were marching on Washington in the 60s and 70s. One of things that I’m doing with the United Nations Association in the national capital area now, is trying to get the D.C. government to have policies that are consistent with the U.N. Women’s Treaty, which is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women – CEDAW.

We’re starting by trying to get each D.C. government agency to add gender to its performance reports. They don’t do that. So they don’t know how many women are employed, how many men, how they’re getting paid. And we said we also want race-ethnic background, because we want to demonstrate that black women are getting paid less than white women who are getting paid less than any man.

We wanted to be able to identify the inequities so that we could then introduce legislation to correct inequities. And so this is a way that in my mind I’m reading the global to the local. And it is different, because I think that 30 or 40 years ago the women’s movement might not have been as conscious of the intersectionality even though in our lives we experienced it.

MC: Right. I mean we had committees on Internationalism but it was not where it is today.

KM: Yes. And that’s because there’s so much more awareness. I mean children growing up now can watch on their phones what’s happening in India.

MC:  For sure that’s an incredible difference. Memorable events or experiences that you want to share that we haven’t talked about?

It Is All About Relationships

KM: There’s so many of – you know [when] you live this long – lots of memories. There are some things that I’m very proud of. Some of the people that I’ve gotten to know along the way, like Bella Abzug and Maxine Waters. At the time [Maxine] was in Geneva with us she was not in Congress, she was a California delegate. I knew then that she’s a leader.

And Gloria Steinem who was on my board when I was the director of NARAL back in the 70s and we just remained friends ever since. A few years ago she said a friend of mine from India is going to be in D.C. and needs a place to stay and is your guest room available? And I said yes. So the three of us were emailing for a while and I said – Gloria, it seems you really want to visit with them and she gets the guestroom – but if you want to sleep on my couch you’re welcome to come – and she did. And so the three of us – I mean this is a wonderful memory – the three of us. We spent a lot of time together. And meeting you.

MC: Absolutely. What do you think is undone and what do you think – well lots –

KM: Well I think that – and I thought this for a long time – not just this year – 2018. That if we really want to get what we’re passionate about then we have to get involved in elections. And I thought that ever since 1976 when I started the NARAL PAC – that it’s not enough to educate people about what’s important. We have to take it to the next step and have them get involved in elections. And so that’s a lot of what I’ve been doing in the last couple of decades.

I’m fortunate to have a nice home close to the Capitol. And so I host events for candidates at the local and national level. And you know if I can only give a couple hundred or a few hundred dollars, I’d rather buy the wine and refreshments and raise even more money by opening up my home. With better checkbooks than mine. And so I’ve met some amazing people that way as well – Tammy Baldwin.

MC: Is there anything we haven’t covered that you think we should have?

The Antioch College Alumni Association

KM: Well another part of my life it takes – I mean it’s a pretty major thread in my life is that I am the president of my College Alumni Association – Antioch College. I graduated in 1965. Took me about 20 years before I started paying attention to it again. But some people think now I’ve never left Antioch or Antioch never left me. And so I was the president of the alumni association back in the 80s and I’m again the president of the alumni association.

Antioch has influenced me in many ways. And I mention my experience in Communication Without Words. But it does genuinely believe that what you learn on the job is as important as what you learn in the classroom. And so it was one of the first or the only – the first college to require for graduation that students have a certain number of jobs and they write up that learning experience. And so that’s been very important to me and a part of my experiential learning ever since. It’s helped me have the courage to say yes – I can be Executive Director – gulp. So that is important.

Preserving History 

MC: I know that because I’ve attended events that you put together for Veteran Feminists of America. Do you want to talk about the importance of women’s history?

KM:  It’s incredibly important and now I spend probably more than half my time with people far less than half my age. I do spend a lot of time with young people and they just they can’t believe even now with what they’re hearing out of the White House that abortion wouldn’t be available. They are beginning to believe it. But what it was like before.

And so it’s important to pass that on. It’s like women in the 30s or 40s – what do you mean women couldn’t vote? So it’s important to know the struggle and that it continues because women are not yet equal in so many ways. Although there’s been incredible progress. When I graduated from college one of my friends who wanted to go to law school – it just wasn’t happening. But now most of the graduates from law school are women. So it’s important to look at the measures of progress when we look at how much further we have to go. But we have a lot further to go. Elections are the way to do it – I think.

MC:  Well hopefully this year we are going to see some significant changes.

KL:  Hopefully. 

Always an Activist – Always Involved 

MC: Well you know we have covered a lot of territory and I think we’re up to date on what you’re doing in your current life as an activist and how you inspire people. Is there anything that I forgot that you would like people to know?

KM: Well there were a few things – little quirky things that I do that might be of interest. In 1999 my husband and I went to see our friend Perdita Huston that I mentioned earlier who was the Peace Corps director in Mali. And she said get out of Bamako – go see this beautiful country and she found us a driver and we drove over the whole beautiful country.

And I met an amazing man who called himself Peace Corps Bob because when he was 15 he worked for the Peace Corps and he learned English. He’s never had a day of formal education, but he speaks seven languages. He makes beautiful jewelry. We visited with him when we were in Mali and without thinking I’d ever see him again in my life – I said if you ever come to the United States let us return this hospitality.

And he’s been coming here for years since, bringing bags of jewelry and I have my friends over. We drink wine and go shopping. And when I can wire him five thousand dollars, that money goes so much further than it does here. And so that’s one little nice thing that most people don’t know.

Another is that every November after Thanksgiving I make a gingerbread house. And I’ve been doing this since my now 40-year-old niece was five years old and we did it together that first time. And it’s kind of therapeutic. It kind of gets me ready for winter. And they’re big – like the White House or the Capitol.

One year I made the Pentagon and somebody who won the raffle brought it later that evening to a fundraiser for Ron Dellums who with great glee – destroyed it. And they all ate gingerbread. And then what I do is I raffle them off online and raise money for one of my causes.  Last year I made the Capitol because I knew we were going to take back both houses this year.

MC:  We are counting on you.

KM: And we raised two thousand dollars for NARAL.

MC: So the work goes on, there is no doubt about that. 

KM: The work goes on.

MC: We didn’t emphasize it but it’s a discussion – doing Fund-Raising – how important. Having women who can do that work and not be too shy about it.

KM: And not be too shy about anything. And this is the shy girl who grew up on a farm. And the more we do it, the easier it is. And what’s so wonderful about WIN [Women’s Information Network] is that they support each other as they’re learning to stand up in front of a group and talk.

MC: Karen thank you so much.

KM: Mary Jean – thank you.

Additional information submitted by Karen

2017 Speech WomenWerk Gala

It is a surprising and amazing honor to be asked to give remarks at the 2017 WomenWerk Gala. I have thought a lot about what to say this evening to a group of such smart and talented people. Nekpen asked if I would say something about my self-care journey and any advice I’d offer my younger self. Hopefully my reflections to a girl growing up on a farm in a small town with just one African American family and as a young professional whose formative years were before social media will have some relevance.  I grew up when most women did not keep their maiden names when marrying — and when LGBT marriages were unheard of. Gay and lesbian young people either had to keep their life reality a secret or were not accepted as normal. Fortunately this is slowly changing.

I decided to shape my remarks as a letter from the 74 year old Karen Mulhauser of today to the fifteen year old Karen Webber. I believe that the most profound lessons I pass on to my younger self are universal. You will know when your self-care support is different from mine. What is important is that we do take care of ourselves – that we know what is important to us – and that we truly understand that we are not practicing for the next time – this is it – we have one life. We have opportunities to make it as good as possible.

A letter from today’s Karen Mulhauser to teenage Karen Webber

March 11, 2017 to Karen of March 1957

Dear Karen,

I want to give you some information about what you will experience in the next six decades. Yes, one day you will be even older than Grandma is today.

First of all, you are going to have a great life. Really. It is not always going to seem that way. There are going to be a lot of disappointments along the way. But you are going to learn from them and some will even make you stronger. You are also going to make mistakes – and you will learn from them as well. And, those boyfriends you do not even know yet, but will meet in the next several years, they are going to break your heart.  However, that will leave you free to fall in love with the man whose name you will take and who you will stay married to for at least 48 years.

Mostly, at this time in your life, I want you to know you will not always be as shy as you are now. This must seem hard to imagine, but trust me — life will present you with some amazing opportunities. You will give speeches in front of large audiences and you will be interviewed on TV and you will start and lead organizations and you will even work in presidential campaigns. You’ll see that it gets easier the more you push yourself to take some risks, and, well, as you try new and challenging things.

This getting over being shy thing will not happen right away. Today you don’t have the self-confidence you see in your classmates, but you will learn to trust your instincts. It won’t even happen while you are in college [more about that later], but it WILL happen and one day you will have the confidence to stand in front of a room full of people at the 2017 WomenWerk Gala. Yes, you will live that long!

Karen, there are three important lessons that we learn along the way. The most important lesson is to aware of what you are passionate about and to find ways to learn more and to work on your passion issues. Then we realize we have to take risks. And the other lesson is that we work best when we work with others. We will form communities where they did not yet exist.

We are still shy in college but we find ways to seem normal. We become a science major and it is appropriate to spend a lot of time in the science building … alone… with the test tubes. And because we admire the people who do have [or appear to have] self-confidence, we make the costumes for the actors in plays in both high school and college. We enjoy doing well in both our science and our back-stage lives. And this is the beginning of self confidence.

You go to Antioch College where you get credit for working in jobs off campus – experiential learning is valued as well as classroom leaning. Your first job is as “Play Lady” on the children’s ward of a public hospital where you spend each day mostly with African American children and you spend evenings at the settlement house where you make costumes for the African American actors in the “Raisin in the Sun” performance.  At the beginning of the work term, you are conscious of being among the only white people in the room – day and night. At the end of your work term when Sidney Poitier comes to opening night, you realize you will never again be comfortable in a room with only white people.

After college, we start graduate school to prepare to do medical research. Part way through graduate school, we decide we would rather work with people than with rats and try to get over being shy – and we drop out of school. We think we have failed.

THAT WAS A BIG RISK – Now what? We do not know what to do – how to start a new life.  And then we take another big risk – we teach high school sciences for two years.  Karen, you know now at 15 that you are doing well in sciences, but teach it? Stand in front of a classroom? And speak?! Yikes! You are probably asking, “Is that really going to be me in ten years?” The answer is yes.

And this is where it starts getting interesting. Turns out you’ll be a good teacher and your students will do as well on the SAT scores as the students of the ‘real science teacher’. You’ll meet that husband I mentioned at the beginning of this letter. He is also teaching at the same school [you’ll know him when you look at his ring finger in the very first faculty meeting]. You’ll get over some of that shyness by helping the teenagers – people your age now – understand about their sexuality. I know that you do not know much now about sex now – you’ll learn. But you probably already know how valuable it would be if there were someone you could talk with.

And get this – You become that person!  The school will not allow you to teach a formal sex education course, but the students will come to you, and you will not be uncomfortable telling them about contraception, how to say “no” if you’re not ready for sex and even explain to boys that when a girl says “no”, it means “NO!” You will go on the counsel hundreds of women and girls about their reproductive choices and rights, and you will train doctors, nurses and counselors who work in family planning programs. And, yes, this is more progress with the self confidence thing.

And you realize you are more passionate about this new path than previous possible work.

Then you will spend more than a decade working on reproductive rights issues – you’ll keep taking risks such as saying “yes” when asked if you’ll be the President of NARAL – the National Abortion Rights Action League. This is when we decide we will probably work on women’s issues and reproductive rights the rest of our life. Women cannot avail themselves of all the education and other opportunities the women’s movement is advocating for if they cannot control when or if they will have children. Simple.

And this brings us to our next life lesson. We do our best work when we build community and work with others. When we are asked to run NARAL, we approach other women who are running nonprofits and we start a support network of women executive directors. Turns out we are not the only one who wants guidance from time to time and need others outside our organization to talk with as we learn how to manage and grow NARAL.

We learn a great deal in that NARAL decade and then, when the cold war heats up in the early 80s, we decide to take what we learn and we start two disarmament organizations. This chapter of our life allows us to learn about a whole other activist community, to build coalitions and organize a delegate education project for both the Democrat and Republican conventions and we are asked to travel to Australia to speak to a crowd of 350,000 peace activists. Really, Karen, we do that.

We learn a lot about nonprofit management, advocacy, coalition building and organizing – and along the way, we see a lot of dysfunctional boards and organizations. In 1988 we have enough confidence to start Mulhauser and Associates, a consulting firm that will help such groups. We continue taking risks, like taking on contracts to organize international conferences, lead organizations in strategic planning and conflict management, working in presidential campaigns and so much more. This is when we will start doing a lot of international work and one day even become the president of United Nations Association of the National Capital Area – and then the Chair of the whole UNA of the USA. And we work on global gender equality issues as well as domestic.

Soon we see another opportunity to build a supportive community. In response to enquiries about how to start a consulting business, we build a network that eventually grows to 1,000 DC-area self-employed women. Amazing, right? Us, the shy fifteen year old girl growing up on a farm!

Another wonderful community that we help build is Women’s Information Network. It starts around our dining room table in Washington, DC in 1989 when several young women ask us why second wave feminists are not doing more to help the next generation. WIN figures out how to change that dynamic and we continue to be involved until today. It is the strongest leadership development and mentoring network for young, prochoice, Democratic women in DC – perhaps nationwide. And WIN gives the annual Karen Mulhauser award to the woman who has done the most to help young women that year. Nice.

I suspect that we enjoy and appreciate these support communities because – basically, we still lack a bit of self-confidence and appreciate trying out ideas with others. But we come to appreciate the support networks because we know that others need them as much as we do.

Karen, people will tell you that they cannot imagine that you were once shy, but I have to tell you our little secret – we still are. But just like hiding out in the science building doing what science majors do, we find ways to appear normal.