A woman’s right to choose: Equal access to health care threatened
This episode contains sensitive topics, such as abortion and sexual violence, that may be difficult for some audiences. Listener discretion advised.
As listeners of our podcast know, the National Consumers League believes in equal health care access for all, and that includes a woman’s right to choose. With the looming possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned and the strict abortion laws that have been enacted in Texas and Mississippi, we sat down with pioneering champion of women’s rights — Karen Mulhauser — to discuss her personal story, contraceptive rights, and the upcoming elections.
A woman’s right to choose: Equal access to health care threatened
You’re listening to We Can Do This!, a podcast by the National Consumers League. We talk through the issues of today with the figures who have paved the way for social and economic reforms and those carrying on the fight for an equitable tomorrow. Leading today’s conversation is Sally Greenberg of the National Consumers League.
Sally: This episode contains sensitive topics such as abortion and sexual violence that may be triggering for some audiences. Listener discretion is advised. Abortion laws have been at the forefront of the news lately, specifically, the very restrictive Texas law that is now being reviewed by the Supreme Court. Many fear that Roe versus Wade, which made abortion legal in all States and was handed down by the Supreme Court in 1973, could well be overturned this term, and women’s healthcare and access to abortion protections will shift dramatically. As listeners of our podcast know the National Consumers League is a strong supporter of equal access to healthcare for all and that includes a woman’s right to choose. To learn more about this, we’re going to be speaking to a longstanding champion for women’s rights, Karen Mulhauser, who was also the first appointed director of the National Abortion Rights Action League in 1974, shortly after the Roe versus Wade case was decided. Karen Mulhauser is a friend of Etsy [unclear 01:58]. She’s also president of Mulhauser and Associates and Consulting Women. Welcome to you, Karen.
Karen, you have such an interesting and unusual background. I want to thank you for talking with the National Consumers League and being part of our podcast series. Before we get started, I just want to know how important these histories are coming from women like you, because you are an icon for future generations. I think future generations are going to really appreciate what you’ve accomplished and I think part of what we’re doing here today is building their knowledge, their courage, their strategies, learning from you about getting things done. And they’re understanding that you have to struggle for many, many years to win some basic rights. And often there’s two steps forward, one step back. And when I say basic rights, I’m talking about the right to contraception, access to abortion, equal pay, freedom from sexual harassment, and the right to vote. None of these are given, every single one of them has been fought for hard one over many, many decades. So your story is so important to this history and let’s get started. I wanted to ask you first to tell us a bit about your personal history, Karen, if you would?
Karen: I grew up on a farm in Massachusetts in a small town and both of my parents were scientists. My mother was a botanist and so she had a PhD and was a professor in the 1930s, which had to be kind of unusual at that time. She married one of her students. So my dad was 10 years younger than my mother, and they both were scientists and Antioch College. I was a biology major and had planned to do medical research. After a couple years of graduate school, I dropped out thinking I was a total failure because what would I do. I know science. And so I called the school that I had gone to in high school and asked if they needed a biology teacher. And they said, well, no, but we need a chemistry and a physics teacher. So I taught high school and middle school sciences for a couple of years.
And it was during that time that the rest of my life was charted out for me because the students were coming to me as this young 26 year old woman with their questions about sexuality. The girls were wondering how they could keep from getting pregnant or can I get an abortion? And even the boys were saying, how do I know she means no? And so I said, if she says, no, she means no. In any case, I realized there was a great need for information about sexuality. And after teaching, I worked at a pregnancy counseling service in Boston before abortion was legal counseling, 20 women and girls a day about what to do with unplanned pregnancies.
Sally: Now, what year was this?
Karen: This was ‘69 and ‘70 when I was doing the pregnancy counseling. So it was still before Roe and if the women could afford it, we put them on chartered flights to London where abortion was legal. If they couldn’t afford it, we referred them to a wonderful network called Clergy Counseling Service, where they talked with even a priest or minister or a rabbi about their options and they would make illegal referrals. I never made an illegal referral and they only made referrals to places that they had visited and knew that they were safe. When the New York law opened up, we put them in carpools to go up to New York.
Sally: So, how many people are we talking about here? How many young women are we talking about?
Karen: Well, and it was not all young women. It was some women who thought that they could no longer get pregnant. So it was women of all ages. And this counseling service would see 20, 30 women a day and we would kind of grill them. We wanted to make sure they were comfortable with the decision they were making. And at the school that I was teaching at, I met my husband and at the very first faculty meeting, I checked his ring finger, took him a little longer, but he got a job in Seattle and Washington State. And so we moved there and I worked for Planned Parenthood there. They had a federal grant to train personnel in federally funded, family planning programs, planned parenthoods, and so forth.
Sally: A federal grant.
Sally: Which probably would not be possible today. Now, what year was this?
Karen: So that was ’72 that I was doing this training, ’71 and ’72. And it was a grant for region 10 in the United States, which was Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska. So I would get in these cute little planes and pop into towns like Walla Walla and so forth and work with doctors and nurses and counselors to make sure they understood the law in their State. At that time, it was only legal in Washington State.
Sally: States created laws on their own, just like they do today to protect abortion. So let’s back up a little bit because I want to talk about something probably many young people don’t know, and that is that contraception was illegal in the United States, even among married couples until 1965. Griswold versus Connecticut.
Karen: And so when I was doing counseling in Boston, even the unmarried women could not get contraception.
Sally: Was that the pill essentially? I mean, you could always buy condoms, I assume, to prevent sexually transmitted disease. So those were available but on the theory that it wasn’t a birth control issue.
Karen: They could not get it unless they were married.
Sally: But even Griswold versus Connecticut, wasn’t that about a married couple.
Sally: So it was illegal until the Supreme Court said that was unconstitutional.
Karen: Well, and I think those laws were state by state also. So it was illegal in Massachusetts, but maybe…
Sally: In Connecticut, it wasn’t legal. So those are some States where you would expect it to be legal but let’s fast forward now. So you’re out west in Washington State and your access to abortion is made legal in that State.
Karen: I was there in January, 1973 when the Supreme Court did rule on Roe v. Wade. And so we all celebrated and we realized that we had to change our speeches because the law had changed. And so our training programs became different but it was in later ’73 that my husband got a job in Washington, DC. So I traveled across the country again with him. And when I was training doctors, I had the feeling that if they didn’t know that I didn’t have an MD degree, they could hear me. But if they knew that I only had a bachelor’s degree, the first half hour, I had to convince them that I knew more than they did about contraceptive technology and so that they could even hear me talk about anything else. And so, again, I thought I’d go to medical school. And so I started applying to medical schools as we were moving to DC. And I was told that, well, at age 30, you’re just too old. So I was invited to come to a board meeting at NARAL by the woman who was on the board of NARAL at that time. And she was the one who trained me to do the counseling in Massachusetts, Pamela Lowry.
Sally: What did NARAL stand for originally?
Karen: Well, originally it was the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws because abortion was illegal. And so at this board meeting in the fall of ’73, among the things that they were going to do was change the name because they didn’t want to repeal Roe v. Wade. So they spent two hours talking about what the name would be. And I thought there’s 2000 people who know what NARAL and they could just start all over again, but they’d figured out how they can find words that would be NARAL. So they agreed on the National Abortion Rights Action League. They also decided that they probably should have a staff person in Washington, DC, because the action was going to come to Congress instead of at the State levels. And so I applied for a part-time consulting job. Again, I had no idea what I was doing. We had just barely moved to DC, and I knew where the capital was but I had never done any lobbying, but nonetheless, they hired me to run the Washington Office. And the main office was in New York. But the next year they realized that all of the action was in DC because Congress people were introducing constitutional amendments to undo Roe v. Wade and so forth or limit access. And so they needed to move the office to DC and they asked me to be the executive director. So that happened in ’74.
Sally: You saw the need in working with members of Congress for more of a grassroots effort across the country. On one hand, you have all these members of Congress trying to undo Roe versus weight, which essentially said, no State can restrict access to abortion before 20 weeks,
Karen: They did it in trimesters. And so if its nine months is the usual pregnancy and there was some survival in the third trimester and so they said it couldn’t be legal then but it could be legal up until then.
Sally: And essentially no State would be allowed to pass laws that restricted abortion until the third trimester. So that’s what Roe gave us and it was a case out of Texas. So very similar to what happened with the gay rights movement, what happened with my organization, where our founder, Florence Kelly, who is not nearly as well-known as she should be got a maximum hours law passed. And it was there that they were tested in the Supreme Court and in 1908, because of the case of Muller versus Oregon, the Supreme Court said, yes, it’s legal for States to say, no, you can’t force people to work more than, in this case. It was 60 hours a week. So it’s a similar model for getting laws passed in one state and having them tested at the Supreme Court. And that’s essentially what happened with Roe.
Karen: But then when there started to be challenges to Roe in Congress, it became clear to me that we needed to have activists around the country because Congress people were not going to listen to me, a Washington lobbyist, no matter how well I dressed; they were not going to listen to me but they would listen to constituents, the people who would vote for them. And so I contracted with an amazing organizer, Heather Booth to come, and train. I was doing pretty well with fundraising, so I was able to not only pay her, but to bring in organizers from key States to learn how to build a chapter, to learn how to do organizing, to learn how to keep records. And I’m actually pretty proud of my time at NARAL, those years. I left in ’81 because we were able to grow the organization twenty-fold and build chapters in most States. And not only that, but eventually started a political action committee, in which we were able to raise money and give money to campaigns. And for the last couple of years, I was at NARAL. We had a mantra and signs around the office that said, if it doesn’t bring workers to campaigns and voters to the polls just don’t do it.
Sally: Wow. So what did Heather Booth teach you and how did you make this grassroots campaign work so effectively?
Karen: Well, she taught us how to do organizing and you know, this is in the ’70s. We didn’t have the word internet then. So this was all paper and telephones. And for a while we had a campaign in an election year where we printed out postcards that said, I’m pro-choice and I vote. And we had our organizers put tables out in front of shopping malls and supermarkets and get the person to put his or her return address on the postcard and make a contribution for postage. We collected them, we created a mailing list out of those return addresses and built our chapters that way. I forget how many States, but almost all of the States had chapters or some kind of organized activity because clearly Congress people, they might listen to each other, but they’re not going to listen to a paid lobbyist. They’re going to listen to their constituents.
Sally: Did you bring people in for conferences and for lobby days to meet with their members because we know that the opposition, those who were vociferously oppose abortion because I worked in Congress in the 1970s and we would be visited on the anniversary of Roe versus Wade every year by scores and scores of constituents and my congressman would not be around. I had to respond to angry constituents saying he’s Catholic. Why is he supporting abortion?
Karen: Well, and the reason we moved to Washington DC is that my husband had a job with a House Committee and worked with John Bradham as a Congressman at the time. And the first time I ever got a dozen roses was when my husband brought them home on January 22nd because for some reason they chose roses and I did not let them make me hate the color red or to hate roses and they would have thousands, sometimes, of people come to Congress and march. And that just reminds me one thing that has always annoyed me, is that they call themselves pro-life. I am pro-life and for people who don’t know this, a lot of women died with self-induced or botched illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade. And so I’ve always been offended by them calling themselves pro- life because we’re all pro-life.
Sally: And botched illegal abortions, kill women in countries all over the world where abortion is not legal. So let’s continue to talk about the movement and how it’s organized today. Now we’ve got a number of pro-choice groups. We’ve got Planned Parenthood, we’ve got NARAL, and we’ve got a score of other organizations. And yet, you know, here we are some 50 years later and we’ve got a Supreme Court that looks very likely to overturn the protections that were provided by Roe versus Wade. Even though most of America, 61% of Americans in the poll, I just read strongly believe that women should have the right to choose. How we explain the effectiveness, I guess, of the anti-choice movement. We won’t call it a pro-life movement because I agree with you. Those who don’t think that women should have control and choice over their reproductive futures. How do we explain their successes, given that popular opinion is really not with them?
Karen: They have become increasingly well-organized. Sally, you and I were in the demonstration in front of the Supreme Court in support of the right to have an abortion. And the anti-abortion people busting Catholic children. The children were given the day off and during the time that I was working at NARAL, it was the Catholic Church that was the most central organizing force for anti-abortion activities. In the latter ’70s and ’80s, the evangelical churches became even more engaged with this. And so if people are hearing a message from their religious leaders, it has a fairly strong impact and when I was at NARAL I worked closely with a lot of the providers of abortion services and every single one of them had a story or more than story, about a woman who had been picketing one week against abortion in front of their clinic and then the next week came in and said, I sure hope you are keeping these things secret, but I need an abortion. And then the next week she’d go out and picket it again. So they would never tell anyone else, even the person who got them pregnant, but they had an abortion. I wanted to do a project, never did because I couldn’t get anyone to join me to find women, wives, daughters, mistresses of Congress, people who had had abortions, who would try to help us make the case in Congress.
Sally: I’m glad you raised that. Do you think it’s important that there’s been an effort to get women to come forward and say I had an abortion? I had an illegal abortion or I had a legal abortion. And why is that messaging so useful?
Karen: I think it’s useful, especially if there are numbers of people who are doing it and maybe Sally, we can organize an effort through your organization to collect such stories that there are groups that are collecting those stories. The first one that I was aware of is a group called advocates for youth. And they had a project called one in three because one in three women have an abortion and I gave my story. My story is one that when I was in college and got pregnant unintentionally, I self-induced and for decades, I didn’t talk about that. But part of what I think needs to happen is that people have to tell their stories. And I thought I was going to be just fine until I fainted in the bus terminal on my way back to college and woke up in the terminal office in a pool of blood. And they must have known what had happened and they let me change clothes and leave, but they didn’t help me.
Sally: Did you go get medical care?
Karen: Yes, and I’m here. That’s part of the reason that I do what I do, is that I know, and my parents had talked to me about, you know, you never have to get pregnant unless you want to. And so if well-formed me, could do a stupid thing like that, it made me understand that the need is great. I also understood then, but more lately with the work that I was doing with NARAL that unless women are able to decide when, or if they’re going to have children, they really cannot avail themselves of all of the opportunities, economic and educational that men have. And so even though I haven’t always worked directly on abortion rights, that principle of equity, a threat of the fabric of my life, you know, all these years later,
Sally: One thing I read that was very influential for me is the book, The Pill, because it talks about how women were desperate for birth control and they would continue to get pregnant and they were begging doctors and activists, Margaret Sanger, and others, for help in preventing unwanted pregnancies. And it’s actually not good for women physically to continue to have child after child, after child. It’s not good for the kids to have, you know, a mother with 12 or 13. And you know, she did a lot of her work, Margaret Sanger in Puerto Rico. And the same story women were saying, I can’t control my destiny. And so the pill was so revolutionary, but the other thing to note about the pill and birth control and contraception is it’s the best defense against unwanted pregnancies. And yet some of the same forces that oppose abortion also oppose contraception and free contraception. Would you speak to that issue?
Karen: Well, it startles me. And back in the ’70s, when I was at NARAL, several of us agreed to meet with anti-abortion leaders and we had a conversation to see if we could find any common ground. And I kept thinking, surely we could find some common ground because we want to prevent abortions too and the best way to do that is with contraception, but they couldn’t, they couldn’t agree on, on that. I don’t understand that I never have. No one has ever been able to explain to me why they’re against contraception because that’s the best way to prevent abortions. And I know that they’re not against sex, they have sex, but they are…
Sally: And they’re pro-sex within the context of marriage. It is very curious that if you really want to prevent unwanted pregnancies, the ACA the Affordable Care Act, which made access to contraception free as a required condition of health insurance, the number of abortions went way down. So that should be where it seems to me that is the commonsense place for us to be. And do we do a good enough job of challenging those who challenge contraception?
Karen: I don’t think we do. And that could be an effort of all of the abortion rights groups is to really take on contraception more seriously. And the other, now, today, when we talk about the pill, it’s the pill that could do an early abortion. So a lot of people are hoping that that is what will help in States that that make abortion illegal because if you suspect you’re pregnant early in a pregnancy, you can take this pill and it would cause a miscarriage.
Sally: Well that’s probably our future. Were you ever afraid for your safety?
Karen: Oh yes.
Sally: Tell us about that. I think you all were very brave.
Karen: Well, my staff did not share all of the mail with me. I learned after I left NARAL because there was a lot of hate mail and in the early ’80s, which is when I was still at NARAL is when there started to be lot of harassment and physical harm at abortion clinics. There were challenges against the NARAL office and my staff did not share with me the kind of communications that we were getting that said, I know where you live, which is good. I could probably sleep better at night, but I never had any physical threats against me but it is something and it’s certainly something that today is very real.
Sally: When I worked at the anti-defamation league in the 1980s, we were getting threatening notes from a guy because of our abortion stance. And he said, “I want to see your head on a bloody pike” and things like that. By mistake, he left his return address on one of them. And we were able to figure out who it was and we pressed charges against him for threats of assault and other issues. And he went to Court and he was sentenced. It was a fairly light sentence, but you know, he said he was just under the influence of the church. But it was fascinating to see who the guy behind these nasty threats was. And that’s a precursor to all the trolling that we see today on the internet.
Karen: Well, your story reminds me of another story that is peripherally related. And that is that while I was still at NARAL in 1978 our 7-year-old son was sleeping in the basement of our townhouse on Capitol Hill and my husband was out of town on business and I was up late as I often was, writing memos and so forth. And I looked up from my kitchen table and there was a man standing there with a gun. It was August and so I had left the door open for the breeze. We didn’t have air conditioning and I didn’t need to tell the whole story, but there was another man in the garage. They made me go out into the garage and take all my clothes off. And they were in the house for two and a half hours taking everything of value and putting it in our car and they found the car keys.
And I wasn’t thinking of who’s going to run NARAL if I die. I just kept thinking of my son in the basement. I said, please don’t make any noise. I didn’t want him to have to come up and see what they were doing. Two and a half hours they were taking turns raping me. And they eventually drove away and I had a neighbor come over and help me call the police and go to a hospital for a rape kit. And I say all of that because for a long time I was quiet about it. My son was furious with me because they not only took my things, they took his piggy bank but I thought that I needed to talk about it. And I first talked with my husband and my son. I asked my son, do you know what the word rape means?
And at age 7, you know, because he had heard people call me a baby killer. He knew where babies came from. So all I said to him was, you know what mommy and daddy do. If we really want to show how much we love each other. Oh yeah, yeah, that old thing, you know. I said, well, those men were doing it and it wasn’t about love. It was about power. And he said he didn’t need to hear any more, but I asked him if it would be okay if I talked about it publicly. And so I then did talk about it. At that time I was traveling around the country a lot and I gave testimony in both the House and the Senate because at that time the Hyde amendment was coming up again in terms of the federal government would not pay for abortions, even of victims of rape or incest.
And I gave compelling testimony about how I could afford to pay for an abortion, but for women who could not, it’s just not right to make them have to continue that pregnancy, if they want to end it. The police were not at all helpful for a while, but eventually a detective came and asked me to look at some pictures in a lineup. I recognized the people that they had arrested the night before. This detective helped me prepare for a doing the lineup and I identified them in a lineup and this detective had identified 15 cases that had not been solved where they identified these two men. So they got long jail sentences and then I started talking about it because I felt safe again. I felt like I could walk outside my house and I could organize. And this is what reminded me of your story.
An anti-abortion person came into the police and asked if it had really happened, or is she just making up this story? An article was printed by quoting this man saying, if you’ve ever seen Karen, you’ll know she’s not an attractive person. I think this was just wishful thinking. So I think women need to tell their stories. Clearly, if I had gotten pregnant, I was going to have an abortion. I was not going to be twice victimized and not know how to care for that child. So I do think people need to tell their stories and they need to tell them to Congress people. They need to tell them now to State legislators, because a lot of the laws are going to be made at the State level if Congress makes it illegal and the Supreme Court makes it illegal.
Sally: Well, it’s a horrific story and you’re very brave to tell it but I think it’s so important that those stories get out there. Yes, as a matter of fact, someone we work with grandmother died of an illegal abortion probably in 1950s, 1960s and she tells this story a lot. She lost her grandmother. She never had the pleasure of having her grandmother’s company because of that. But thanks for sharing that story. And I think we may be looking at another situation if Roe is indeed reversed by the Supreme Court. What will happen? How does this play out if we get a decision that backs the Mississippi law?
Karen: Yeah, it will be back to where I was in 1969. We’ll be counseling people, sending them to London, if they can afford to go there. And if it’s early enough in the pregnancy, getting them the pill somehow, plus we need to be working at the State level because if Roe is reversed, then it’s going to be back exactly where we were when Roe was announced, there were only four States that had legal abortions, and so it will be left at the State level. So it’s going to be important. I mean, my main work these years is voter engagement and in 2020, I started and coordinated an effort with two dozen organizations to get them, to have their members in contacts, registered and voting, because we may make up our minds on a decision, but it’s going to be Congress and the State legislatures that make the laws that allow us to carry out our decisions.
Sally: How many States do you think we’ll be passing Mississippi style laws and…
Karen: Many of them. Most of the political work that I’ve done, I’ve had a consulting business since 1988 and most of what I do, which is political organizing, has been at the congressional level, House and Senate races but now I really think that we need to be identifying and supporting candidates up and down the ticket that are going to support the laws that allow women and families to have abortions and contraception.
Sally: We also have a federal bill called the women’s health protection action, and it would make the right to abortion protected by federal statute. What are its prospects? I mean, we’re 50 years from Roe over the time, we probably had a Congress who might have passed it and a president who might have signed it, are we too late to the gate on this?
Karen: It’s not going to happen with this Congress, with this Senate. It’s something I hope will get introduced every year. And it’s one of those things that will be inspiration I hope for people who support contraceptive and abortion rights to get out and vote and have everyone they know, register and vote for the candidates that support those issues. So, I mean, it’s not going to happen soon but it’s a good tool for educating as to why we need to get involved in elections.
Sally: And do you think that what the Supreme Court does and if it indeed reverses Roe, that that will be a catalyst to this generation of young activists and I mean, men and women. I go to these marches, you go to these marches and I’m so delighted to be able to march alongside 20 somethings with signs to say, we won’t go back and there is a lot of humor in, in their signage.
Karen: I hope so. Just as when Biden won in 2020, it mobilized the Trump supporters to get active. I just hope that if something negative like reversing row happens, that it inspires people who support abortion rights to become more active. And you asked a question early on about why are the anti-abortion people more effective? And I really don’t know because I think that the people who support abortion rights are just as determined and I don’t know why they don’t believe my mantra of it. It doesn’t bring workers to campaigns and vote voters to polls just don’t do it. Now more than ever we need to be mobilizing people of legal age to get out and vote in the states. There are so many laws now that make it harder to vote that we need to be working on that, making it possible for people to vote.
Sally: Let me shift gears a little bit because I want to talk about women in leadership. One of the things that you’ve written about is how you had no idea how to run an organization when you first came in and you reached out to a group of women who ran organizations and said, you know, how did you learn how to be managers? What was your management course?
Karen: Right. That was back in ’73 when it looked like they were going to ask me to be the director. And I wrote to some, I mean, we didn’t have the internet, you know some people, women my age, who were running organizations and at my age, women were not raised to think that they would be managers or leaders. And so those who were, were pretty strong and effective, and I didn’t know what I was doing other than saying, sure, I’ll be the executive director. And so when I spoke with each of them about, I’ve never had a management course. And can I come to you from time to time if I have questions? They all said, well, I’ve never had a management course either. And so I invited them to get together and we did on a monthly basis and we went to each other’s offices and we would close the door and everything we said inside that room was in strict confidence.
And we helped each other write personnel policies and bylaws and somebody would say, I have a staff person who’s doing everything she can to get my job and we’d help her figure out how to fire that staff person and board members. Right. You know how a board chair who’s difficult. And so we really help each other. And we did this for a couple of years and we are all better for it. And then years later, when I started my consulting business, after a couple of years of doing consulting, my friends would ask me, so when are you going to get a real job? And I said, well, consulting is a real job. And by the way, I’m making more money than I did running nonprofits. And I’m having more fun because I can work on more than one issue at a time.
And so I made it sound so exciting. They said, well, how do you start a consulting business? And I said, well, I’m just kind of making it up as I go along, but we can make it up together. I now coordinate a community. I no longer call it a network, but a community of over a thousand DC area, self-employed women. It’s an incredibly supportive network. Somebody will post a need saying, my accountant has moved, does anyone have a recommendation? And we’d help each other. And there are subgroups. So there’s a subgroup of coaches and there’s a subgroup that I lead of women who work on international issues. And I think that these kinds of supportive networks help us all, not only the people who are asking for help, but it helps those of us who are giving the help to be able to do that.
Sally: It may interest you to know that I’m part of a group called chicks-in-charge. It’s a much smaller network, but we do help each other. And we do find auditors and we go, you know, and what are you all doing for the Juneteenth holiday? And how do we recognize that, promote people, and get pay equity. And we’re all trying to do the right thing. And you know, it’s not easy.
Karen: It’s not easy. And it’s sometimes not even easy to go to your colleagues and confess the kind of problems you’re having, but it’s worth it once you do. And when I put the notice out in ’88 that I was going to start a consulting business, one of my first calls was from the Dukakis campaign saying we’ve got a bunch of 20 somethings out here in Iowa and we need some grownups and would I come. So, I mean, I didn’t add grown up to my resume, but I did go out to Iowa and met some just amazing, mostly young women, you know, right out of college. And when they moved to DC, even though Dukakis didn’t, they reached out to me after a few months and said, you know, we really expected that you second wave women who were running organizations that we work in would be more helpful and reach down and help us climb the ladder that you climbed.
And they’re not, they’re just up there being bossy. And I said, well, that really doesn’t sound like my friends, you know, second wave feminist. And so I had a dinner party with eight or nine of them and eight or nine of my friends and we stayed up all night. If I’d had bagels, they would stay for breakfast, I’m sure. But we stayed up all night just talking about this dynamic and how could we change it? But that was back in 1989, we started an organization called women’s information network, which existed to create mentoring. So women who’d been experienced… they didn’t call us old ladies, they called us women of achievement. And it doesn’t really exist in the same way anymore, but it was a powerful network for mentoring and networking and helping young women. And I still spend about half of my time with people half my age or third, my age now. So, I really do believe that those of us who’ve had some experiences should share them with the next generation, make them better voters.
Sally: Sure. And you know, I hope I said this when we began, but I have found the stories of, and the memoirs, the autobiographies, the biographies of the women who came to the National Consumers League, starting with Florence Kelly in 1899 and Francis Perkins who became FD R’s secretary of labor. And they should be household names, but I’m always shocked at how few people actually know about them. Eleanor Roosevelt was a vice president of our organization. So I’ve read several of those and Esther Peterson, who I know you knew Esther Peterson because she was a live wire and she was also very high up in the National Consumers. League. She chaired our board and she was very active in both labor and consumer affairs. And her book is absolutely wonderful. It’s very readable. It’s a hard book to find.
We can find a way to get you a copy, but what they did and how they accomplished under circumstances, where there was a lot of sexism and no expectations for women. And I wanted to mention that Florence Kelly, who was absolutely indefatigable and indomitable and really a towering intellect and got so much done, she was not allowed to be president of the National Consumers League. She had to be general secretary because women were not presidents.
Sally: Yeah. General Secretary. So that had some leadership component to it, but they went with it and they worked around those challenges. And one of the great things about Florence Kelly, was that she was standing up for racial equality in the odds of the 20th century. They were part of the progressive era. And I’ve learned a lot about that. I mean, she was in the forefront of anti-lynching legislation and she was attacked, viciously, attacked by members of Congress as if there could be any way to be anything, but anti-lynching. But their stories I find very empowering and I find what you’ve written and your interviews very important.
Let me talk to you about something you wrote and that is that Republicans used to be strong supporters of reproductive rights and those days are pretty much vanished. Can you talk about that hard right turn of the party and how that happened but first, tell us about how you worked with Republicans and Democrats?
Karen: Well, back in the ’70s, there was not the kind of partisan polarization that we’re experiencing today. I did go around to all offices, Democrats and Republicans and I organized volunteers to go and bring messages as well. And if some bad legislation got through the house, we always knew that it would never get through the Senate because our strongest Senate supporters were Republicans. And I say that today and even I find that hard to believe, but Senator Brooke, Jahvist, they were solid abortion rights senators and they would not let any anti-abortion legislation get through. And the parties have totally changed in the decades since then. But I think as individuals, just as I think some Republicans don’t support Trump as much as he’d like to think they do. I think that as individuals, a lot of the Republicans are in support of and they know they can get contraception for their wives or mistresses, daughters. So I think that we are losing our democracy and that’s why I’m building a voter initiative for this. In my long years of life, this is the most important election of my life. And I want to do whatever I can to mobilize as many people as possible.
Sally: 2022 or 2024?
Karen: 2022 because 2022 is going to define what 2024 will be. So I’ll be working on issues that I want to support and see in Congress.
Sally: You think democracy is threatened?
Karen: It is threatened. What I was experiencing in the ’70s was democracy. What we’re experiencing now is not. So elections become more important every year and not just at the national level, but at the State and local level as well. School boards that are saying you can’t talk about… there used to be racism in this country or slavery. So much has changed and I guess I know that the issues that I care about, whether it’s saving the planet, which is the most important human rights issue, humans need a planet to live on or abortion rights or how to get rid of diseases, like COVID that I know I’m in the majority, but if we’re not expressing ourselves as strongly as possible at the a ballot box, we’re going to continue losing,
Sally: Let me shift briefly. But you and I have something very important in common and that is that we both attended Antioch College, which was extremely formative I know for you and you’ve been in leadership roles there, back in the 1980s and more recently part of the board, the alumni board. It was a very important place for me as well in the ’70s. Can you talk about why Antioch was so important and you helped keep Antioch alive at a time when it was experiencing existential threats and extinction?
Karen: Antioch was incredibly important to me. It was a time when I was still the shyest person on campus. I was the shyest person in high school but Antioch gave me some experiences that allowed me to think that I could do things.
Sally: We should probably say it’s in Yellow Springs, Ohio, which is about 45 minutes from Dayton, Ohio.
Karen: Yes. And I have a friend who lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Jennifer Berman, who is an artist and she made a t-shirt last year with a map of Ohio with a little blue dot, which is Yellow Springs. And the rest of the map is red.
Sally: And it’s a charming little town. So if you were ever in the neighborhood go by and visit because it’s really lovely.
Karen: And Antioch helped me figure out who I was. It also helped me learn how to take some risks. And so the big risk that I mentioned earlier about dropping out of graduate school, when I didn’t have a plan for what I would do next, Antioch sort of changing from classroom to experiential learning on a job and so forth helps a student understand who he or she is. And Antioch was very important. I kind of ignored Antioch for the first 20 years after graduation because life was complicated. I was having a child, I was having a marriage. I was doing other things. And about 20 years after I graduated, I went to a reunion and I just re-engaged in a way that I have been ever since. So, I graduated in ’65, in the ’80s I got on the alumni board.
I became president of the alumni association and on the board of trustees and when Antioch was being threatened for survival. I was a leader in trying to raise the money to buy it back, buy the property back. And I just recently, last fall stepped down. I was terminated from being the president of the alumni association, again. My title now is immediate past president and Antioch has either never left me or I’ve never left Antioch.
Sally: And will it survive?
Karen: I think so. I think so. We have a new president and I was on the search committee to find the new president. She’s an amazing woman, Jane Fernandez. And she was born deaf, she’s totally deaf, can’t hear anything. So we also hired an interpreter, but she speaks perfect English. And I don’t understand how you can learn how to make sounds that you’ve never heard, but she’s been a college president before and she’s honest at a level of integrity and candor with students, trustees, faculty, and alums that I have great competence that will do well. A lot of liberal arts colleges are suffering at this time and many of them have closed and I don’t think we’ll close.
Sally: It’s a special place. Well thank you for spending so much time on keeping our alma mater going just in terms of the road forward and you know, lessons for the younger generation, can you sum up a couple of nuggets?
Karen: Yeah. A few years ago I was asked to speak at a self-care conference in New York and it was a self-care conference of all young black women professionals and my friend who founded the organization and who invited me. I asked her why me? Why an old white lady who grew up on the farm before the internet, what would I have to say that would be relevant? And she said, well, you’ve been taking care of yourself, just reflect on that. So still not knowing what to do. I eventually wrote a letter to my 15-year-old self that said things like dear Karen, you’re not always going to be so shy. You’re going to have a wonderful life. And then I talk in that reflection about some of the things that I’ve done and it’s, I believe deeply and I think everyone my age or a little bit younger should try to do that.
What would you have liked to know when you were a teenager about how your life was going to go? So I find that that letter is helpful for a lot of other people. And in that letter, I say, Karen, there are three important lessons that we’re going to learn. And the first lesson is to know what we’re passionate about, understand what is really important to us and the other second lesson is to take risks. And so the dropping out of graduate school and you have to take some risks. And I took some risks at NARAL that I’m glad I took. And then the third lesson that I tell young Karen doesn’t apply to everyone but I said, Karen, you’re going to find that you do your best work when you work with others, work in collaboration.
And that’s an important part of my life all these decades later is that I’m the one that starts the coalition for peace activists. I’m the one that brought together the abortion rights groups for coalition meetings and the consulting women network and so forth. Those are the three lessons that define me: knowing what I’m passionate about, taking risks and working with others. And now at this age of 79, I only do things that make me feel good. Working on elections makes me feel good. Talking with you. Sally makes me feel good. Talking about Antioch makes me feel good.
Sally: Well, Karen, Mulhauser, thank you so much for sharing your life experiences, for your many accomplishments, for helping to save Antioch College and to preserve women’s access to reproductive rights, including abortion. We’ve got work to do but you know, without people like you, we would be in much, much worse shape than we are. So thanks again, Karen.
Karen: Thank you.
Sally: We look forward to working with you.
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