Remembering My Mother: Susan Catania, Champion of the ERA

Beholden to no one, former state legislator Susan Catania was known for her willingness to take stances unpopular at the time—from LGBTQ rights, to gun control, to honoring Martin Luther King with his own state holiday.

Susan Catania was a former Illinois state legislator and mother of seven daughters who challenged political, social and gender norms.

Four days after Thanksgiving, my mother Susan Catania—former Illinois state legislator, a relentless advocate for the ERA, and a fearless champion of critical but politically unpopular causes—died. The cause was a fire that broke out during the early morning hours of Nov. 27 in our family cabin in Northern Wisconsin, where she’d moved to spend her retirement.

My mom’s tenure in the Illinois House of Representatives paralleled my elementary school years, and as a child whose earliest memories include collating campaign materials on the dining room table, her legislative career seemed completely normal to me. It was anything but.

She was white in a nearly all-Black district on Chicago’s South Side, a Republican in a city of big-D Democrats, and a young mother at a time when very few women—and even fewer who had children—ran for public office.

On top of all that, she had no experience in politics and no connections to the all-powerful political machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley, who maintained his white-ethnic grip on Chicago politics even as three other major U.S. cities—Los Angeles, Atlanta and Detroit—made history by electing their first African American mayors.

The birth of my sister Amy, a year after my mom’s election, made the story even more unusual. The first time I saw my new baby sister was on the front page of the Chicago Daily News, her small patch of dark hair done up by the nurses in a bow.

Susan Catania outside the Illinois Capitol in Springfield with her youngest daughter Maggie in her car bed, next to the family station wagon. This previously unpublished photo was taken in January 1978 for a spread in People magazine. (Dale Wittner, courtesy of Sara Catania)

After that, my mom, who believed in the importance of breastfeeding, routinely took Amy with her to work, tucking her into a car bed for the three-and-a-half-hour drive to Springfield, then setting the snoozing infant and her tiny bed under the vacant desk next to her on the House floor.

When Amy woke up, my mom would carry her to the ladies room to feed her, listening to the proceedings on the House floor piped in through a ceiling speaker. The whole process went so smoothly that my mom repeated it twice more. During her decade in the legislature, she had three babies, bringing the total number of my parents’ children—all girls—to seven.

The combination of extreme motherhood and public service made my mom a curiosity as well as an emblem of what was then a new kind of feminist—the have-it-all Super Mom. She was having the babies she wanted to have while doing the job she wanted to do. If motherhood could help support her political agenda and vice versa, all the better.

My sisters and I did our part to support my mom. We became experts in diaper-changing, lullabies and the relative merits of frosted Gerber biscuits and animal crackers. At age 6, I’d learned to cook an egg, and then, soon after, to make stew based on a simplified recipe from Julia Child. 

The combination of extreme motherhood and public service made my mom a curiosity as well as an emblem of what was then a new kind of feminist — the have-it-all Super Mom.

This photo of the Catania family was taken in early 1978, during Susan Catania’s tenure in the Illinois state legislature and shortly after the birth of Susan’s youngest daughter, Maggie. Clockwise from left: Rachel (and Clarence the cat), Sara, Anthony Catania holding Maggie, Susan Catania with Annemarie on her lap and Amy in front, Sue and Melissa. Anthony is wearing a sweatshirt bearing the iconic swimsuit image of Farrah Fawcett—”a gift to him from my mom and a testament to her dry sense of humor,” according to the writer Sara. (Dale Wittner, courtesy of Sara Catania)

The 1972 launch of Ms. magazine coincided with my mom’s ascent—Gloria Steinem was an early supporter. Even as my mom embraced women’s rights, she was out of step with many of her fellow feminists, who regarded motherhood as something that oppressed women. But my mother saw no contradiction in her dual roles as a mother and a feminist. She felt responsible for creating a more just world for us, her daughters. Continuing to give birth to daughters and calling that feminism was one of the many ways that she customized a larger movement to accommodate her personal choices throughout her career.

It also helped insulate her from criticism on issues like abortion rights, which she supported. Abortion opponents found it awkward to attack someone who, on a personal level, was so very “pro-life.”

She enjoyed defying the odds and defying expectations, and as her daughters, we enjoyed her enjoyment. When anyone marveled to us that we were a family of seven children, all girls, and asked whether we wouldn’t like a brother (this happened a lot) our standard reply: “Not until the ERA is passed!”

Beholden to no one and with nothing to lose, she soon became known for her willingness to take unpopular stances. She introduced gay rights legislation, championed gun control and was the first Illinois legislator to sponsor the Freedom of Information Act—all of which fizzled.

When anyone marveled to us that we were a family of seven children, all girls, and asked whether we wouldn’t like a brother (this happened a lot) our standard reply: ‘Not until the ERA is passed!’

Other efforts did pan out, including income tax reform, a compensation plan for crime victims and legislation that led Illinois to become the first state to designate a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. She joined with then-legislator and later Chicago Mayor Harold Washington in co-sponsoring a bill that saved Provident Hospital from shutting its doors permanently. In all, more than 50 of her bills became law.

The fight that defined her career was the Equal Rights Amendment. It was a battle that predated her tenure and lasted through to the end of her time in the legislature. She soon took up the mantle, becoming the amendment’s primary sponsor in Illinois, the lone state in the nation that required a four-fifths vote by the house and senate to ratify a federal amendment, butting heads with the speaker of the house, ERA opponent Republican George Ryan, in the process. She was in the gallery the first time the ERA was defeated in Illinois, and on the floor for every subsequent vote. Illinois was one of the states that wouldn’t budge. 

Over the years my mom and her (mostly) female colleagues mounted a valiant effort. They tried and failed every term, employing a range of strategies. In 1977, all the sponsors of the legislation were men. Carol Burnett, Marlo Thomas and Betty Friedan lent their star power to the effort, to no avail.

In 1980, she received an invitation to the White House, and was hopeful that a meeting with President Carter would lead to genuine support. But to her deep disappointment, she quickly understood that their tea in the East Room was nothing more than a show, a “highly offensive” bit of political theater.

As the ERA came up for a final vote, some supporters launched a boycott of anti-ERA businesses. Others arrived at the state Capitol, chained themselves to the rotunda and went on a hunger strike. To no avail. The bill failed, the deadline for ratification passed, and the opportunity was lost. It took another three-plus decades, but Illinois finally ratified the ERA in 2018. 

As the ERA headed to defeat, my mom’s legislative career was also winding down. The state legislature was changing its rules—no longer would someone in the minority party de facto be guaranteed a seat. From now on, you would have to win outright. At the same time, the lines of the districts were being redrawn in ways that were not in her favor. She was elected for the last time in 1981.

In the decades after, she went on to a second career, earning a master’s degree in social work from the University of Chicago and working for the Department of Human Services until her retirement. She survived breast cancer and bone cancer and settled into a rhythm of life that suited her in the family cabin on Cranberry Lake, purchased by her parents when she was a little girl, and where my sisters and I spent our childhood summers.

On hearing that my mother had died, someone asked me for my favorite memory of her. The first thing that popped into my head was her laugh. My mom was a serious and driven person. She also had a great sense of humor and a rolling, joyful laugh. My delight in hearing it was magnified by its stark contrast to her typical deadpan demeanor. I have many memories of her sitting at our kitchen table talking on the phone, often to reporters, in long and rambling conversations punctuated with that laugh. No wonder I became a journalist.

Her death was not the end we would have wished for her, or one she would have wanted for herself. But she died in a place she loved, after living her life exactly as she wanted.

This article is adapted from Sara Catania’s piece originally published on Medium: “Trailblazer, Feminist, Mom: An Appreciation.”

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Sara Catania is a journalist and chief program and operating officer at the Solutions Journalism Network.