Many veteran feminists in America today got their start working for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and 1980s. Tina Tchen is one.
Tchen served in the Obama administration, first as the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement from 2009 to 2011, then as assistant to President Barack Obama, chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, and executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls from 2011 to 2017. In 2018, she was one of the co-founders of Time’s Up and lead its legal defense fund connecting victims of sexual harassment with lawyers. On October 7, 2019, Tchen became chief executive officer of Time’s Up.
Ms. interviewed Tchen about her early work for the ERA and how it shaped the direction of her life.
Carrie Baker: How did you come to work on the ERA?
Tina Tchen: My ERA story is I graduated from college in June of 1978 and got married. My husband was from Illinois, so that’s how I wound up in Springfield, Illinois, in the summer of 1978. I wound up working for the state government in the governor’s office—but during the summer I stumbled across the fact that the National Organization for Women chapter in Springfield was running phone banks on the weekend to phone people for support of the extension. In 1978 we were still working on the extension bill.
They were using the ACLU in Springfield’s offices to phone bank, and there I met a woman named Linda Miller, who was then the president for the Springfield chapter of NOW.
I walked into an empty office to phone bank and found that it was the office of a woman named Julie Hamos, who was somebody I knew from Cleveland and had grown up with. She was then a lawyer for the ACLU doing their lobbying in Springfield at the time.
With all of those connections, I just kept doing it. I showed up to volunteer, and then when we got the extension in ’78, Illinois became the center of the four-state strategy to ratify the ERA. The National Organization for Women, under Ellie Smeal’s leadership, led this national effort targeting four states.
But Illinois was always viewed as the lynchpin because it was the only northern industrial state that had not ratified the ERA. Every other state that had not was basically a southern state. In the fall or winter of 1978 to ’79, every national women’s organization set up shop in Illinois. Ellie Smeal basically moved to Illinois, had offices set up out of the Chicago NOW office, which was a really large chapter at the time, and all of these national organizers came and the focal point was on the Illinois General Assembly.
Baker: What sort of opposition did you face?
Tchen: At the time, Governor Thompson was a liberal Republican governor. He was pro-choice. He was pro-ERA. But the legislature was, at that point, controlled in the House by the Republicans, who were against the ERA, led by a guy named George Ryan, who was the speaker of the House.
In Illinois, we also had an unusual requirement of a three-fifths majority vote to ratify. That’s how we failed. The ERA always got a majority vote. It just never got a three-fifths vote to approve in the House of Representatives. So, that was why we were the focal point.
So here I am, I’m like 23 years old—a very heady time with all of the kinds of things you might imagine in a national movement campaign going on. We had phone banking and we would do door knocking and we would be dispatching people to different districts.
In Springfield where I was living, we would have lobby days where everybody would show up, dressed in white and green because that was our colors. Phyllis Schlafly would show up because she was from Illinois and she made it her job to not get it through the Illinois General Assembly. They would show up in red and white. We would be arrayed on one half of the rotunda, and red and white would be on the other half of the rotunda, yelling at each other back and forth or going off to visit particular members and having constituents come in and go to visit members—all of that basic movement blocking and tackling.
We had some great grassroots moments. I met Jan Schakowsky, now Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky—that’s how the two of us became friends. Jan, at the time, was working for something called Illinois Public Action, and she organized a group of folks to walk from Chicago to Springfield. They walked the whole distance, which is about 250, 300 miles. They walked down to Springfield to lobby their members.
In 1980, we had a 100-thousand-person march down in Chicago on Mother’s Day. That was my involvement as a young organizer. I eventually became an officer of the Springfield chapter of NOW. I was vice president and then I became vice president for the state organization.
Baker: What happened when the deadline came up?
Tina Tchen: In 1981, I was going to go to law school at Northwestern. I remember Ellie tried to convince me not to go to law school but to work full-time for the campaign. I said “I really can’t, but I will help. I’ll help from there,” which I did. I remember coming back down after I finished my exams that spring for the very last final push.
We helped organize and put together a big 50 or 60-thousand-person march in Springfield. That was a moment in time where the nuns were on strike. So, there was an Eighth Day Justice Center group of nuns, led by Sister Maureen Feedler and Sonia Johnson. The two of them led a religious women’s hunger strike. There was a group of students from the University of Illinois who came to the capitol building in the waning days of the Amendment, because the legislature adjourned on June 30, and they chained themselves to the doors of the General Assembly. We had this big rally on the lawn of the capitol building with Sister Maureen and Sonia. They were carried in because they were, at that point, very weak from their hunger strike.
“Maureen Feedler and Sonia Johnson led a religious women’s hunger strike… [and] a group of students from the University of Illinois chained themselves to the doors of the General Assembly. … We were boycotting Illinois, so we encouraged conventions to stay away from Illinois. We would hold our Illinois NOW conventions in Wisconsin.”
Baker: Were a lot of those people working on the ERA in Illinois coming from out of state to help?
Tchen: Yeah. We were the focal point for the national women’s movement. We had movie stars show up. There were several organizers who moved and lived there for a couple of years, much like campaign organizers do during presidential campaigns. Some never left actually. I’m literally 23, 24 years old and it was my first exposure to that kind of commitment to political issues. It was a huge learning experience, like Feminism 101 on all the issues and what they were.
We were boycotting Illinois, so we encouraged conventions to stay away from Illinois. We would hold our Illinois NOW conventions in Wisconsin. We would have these huge debates. I think Gloria [Steinem] came to one of those conventions. We really had that kind of attention and energy.
Our chapter owned a mimeograph machine. I had the mimeograph machine set up in an extra room in my apartment with all the mimeograph ridiculous fluid that got all over the carpeting. We were literally running mimeographs.
And all organizing was by phone calls! And we had phone trees, little index cards where you’re keeping everybody’s name and contact information. There’s no such thing as email. You’re either mailing them or literally just dialing them up—so turning out 100,000 people is not that easy. We had people bussed in. We had to have a whole logistics plan for people bussing in from other states because it was a national march. It was the National March for the ERA.
Then we were going to other states. I remember we had a huge national march in Washington, where we went to D.C. together with the Civil Rights Movement, to mark the 15th anniversary of the March on Washington. We went to picket Ronald Reagan at the Detroit GOP convention. We did a lot of protesting outside the GOP convention in Detroit at the time. None of us could afford to fly anyplace, so we would just organize these very long bus trips.
Baker: What happened after the General Assembly failed to ratify?
Tina Tchen: After having lost the ERA, a group of us, who are still my friends to this day—Julie Hamos was working at the time for State’s Attorney Rich Daley, and Linda Miller who was at that point the president of Illinois NOW, and I was the vice president, and a few other friends who are in the sexual assault movement—we decided that what we needed to do in the aftermath was rewrite the Illinois rape laws because they were among the worst in the country at that time. They had not been modernized. I’m doing all this research on my off hours in the Northwestern legal library, finding how far behind the Illinois laws were.
So, we put together this comprehensive rewrite of the Illinois rape laws. The Illinois rape laws at the time said things like—it’s burned in my memory—“rape could only be committed by a man against a woman not his wife.” So you didn’t have a thing called marital rape. Men could not be raped. “By force and against your will,” so you had to prove lack of consent, which wound up with these terrible cases.
I still remember there was a young girl from Carbondale who was attacked by a guy who outweighed her by 100 pounds in the woods and they decided it was not rape because she couldn’t prove that she hadn’t consented. So, that’s what we were fighting up against.
We had this great woman sponsor, Dawn Clark Netsch, who would go on to become the first elected woman statewide. Dawn let us write the bill, let us sit at the table during the hearings in the markups—not in the back, but at the table—and we passed it. We actually passed it and it became the Illinois Criminal Sexual Assault Law of 1984. I always attributed the passing of that to … that they all felt really bad about not passing the ERA. So, as a result we got this huge progressive piece of protective legislation—but we didn’t get the ERA.
Baker: Wow. You used the momentum of the ERA to get that passed?
Tchen: Absolutely. At the time, the National Organization for Women was quite strong nationally. We had these huge conventions that Ellie would chair. We had chapters all across the state. We really did take the momentum that built up through the passage of ERA to convert it to get people to come and visit their members about the Illinois Criminal Sexual Assault Act and lobby for the House bill.
Baker: Why was the ERA so important to you?
Tchen: Well, I had done my college senior thesis on social movements. One was the labor movement and one was the women’s movement. It was my first exposure to doing some work on what was then considered women’s history.
At the time, Eleanor Flexner’s book was the only source material. There wasn’t anything other than the Flexner book about the first wave of the women’s movement. So, that was very eye-opening, doing some of that work. Then literally on the heels of that to find yourself physically in the middle of the second wave and watching it happen all around.
So, I was a little attuned to it already before it started. But then as I learned more and more about it, working on gender equality just seemed incredibly critical and important.
Then I got very involved in the violence against women part of the movement by working on the Sexual Assault Act. That grew out of doing a lot of work helping to support what was then a very new thing—a domestic violence women’s shelter. It was not a thing that was common to do and it was very controversial. It had this secret location. It was called the Sojourner Truth House. Meeting folks from there was really eye opening and deepened my commitment on issues.
Baker: Are you still fighting for the ERA today?
Tchen: We are. I just got off the phone with Ellie [Smeal] who was telling me we think we got the House. [It’s up for a hearing this week.] I’m proud that literally 40 years later Illinois passed the ERA two years ago.
We’ve made a lot of progress since then and we have a lot of protections that we needed then. We’ve gotten some things either through 14th amendment interpretations, or interpretations of Title VII and Title IX. But we’ve just seen through the last four years how Title IX can get rolled back. Some of these protections are not permanent.
I know this happened to me more than once during my eight years in the White House, because I did a lot of representation of the first lady or representation on global women’s issues as the executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls. More than once I would sit in a bilateral meeting with representatives from another country in which they would remind me, “African countries, Asian countries actually have gender rights enshrined in our constitution. Do you?” It happened more than once. It is a real black mark on our international human rights record and civil rights record that we do not have gender rights incorporated into the Constitution.
“We’ve gotten some things through 14th Amendment interpretations, or interpretations of Title VII and Title IX. But we’ve just seen through the last four years how Title IX can get rolled back. Some of these protections are not permanent.”
Baker: It sounds like fighting for the ERA really shaped your life.
Tina Tchen: It absolutely did. It very much formed my commitment on gender equity issues and it formed my political activism.
When I moved back to Chicago, my next step was to get involved in Harold Washington’s campaign when he became the first Black mayor of Chicago and then form something called Cook County Democratic Women, which helped elect people like Jan Schakowsky to her first elected office. Then it went on from there.
Some of the friends that I made from all that work like Julie Hamos and Linda Miller are my best girlfriends to this day. Doing this kind of work, you meet people who can become your lifelong friends because you go through the trenches together. That is very true of the women that I got to know there. One of the women is godmother to my children. That’s how close we all became going through that fight, which was terrific and very formative.
Baker: So it was the intensity of the ERA campaign and the duration of it that created these deep relationships?
Tchen: Yeah. I mean the ERA campaign then was really like a presidential campaign. It had national focus and scale, national attention, and it had people from all over the country coming to set up residence and do the hard organizing work that needed to be done. We had the unions behind us, all of the different women’s organizations, AAUW, for example, and civil rights leaders who would come in and speak at big events or give testimony down in Springfield. It was a very heady experience.
I was very much like the baby organizer at that point in time learning and watching. But what was great is that it was a big family, but not so big. So people like Ellie Smeal, who was leading the whole thing, knew exactly who I was. I often tell people that I learned political organizing and women’s rights organizing from Ellie, fighting for the ERA.
Tell Ms.: My ERA Story
First introduced in Congress in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment at its core consists of just 24 words: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Almost a century later, constitutional equality is yet to be enshrined into the U.S. Constitution—yet it’s as important today as it ever was.
With the ERA finish line in sight, Ms. wants to hear from you: the generations of feminists who marched, rallied and campaigned for the ERA. Share your ERA story—or that of your family!—with Ms. and we’ll publish it along with many others. Include a photo if you have one.
You can share your story in one of three ways:
- Email your story to myERAstory@msmagazine.com.
- Submit your story by heading to ERAyes2021.org.
- Share your story on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram by tagging #myERAstory.