Not your ordinary 'women's group'

• First Tuesday was an incubator for female leadership in Oak Park and a 'rapid response' team that took action on issues at a critical time.

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By KEN TRAINOR

It started as a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968 and the subsequent riots across the West Side. A couple of Oak Park women, Sue Bucholz and Martha Keene, along with soon-to-be Oak Parker Susan Powell, formed a group for young mothers and called it "First Tuesday."

The ripple effect is still being felt in Oak Park today.

The notion of young mothers getting together isn't new, but these weren't ordinary women. They were highly educated and actively interested in what was going on in the world around themâ€"which isn't unusual either for Oak Park. What made these young mothers different is that they wanted to make an impact on their immediate worldâ€"and they succeeded.

"The one inviolate rule," said Marge Greenwald, at a reunion of First Tuesday participants that WEDNESDAY JOURNAL convened in 2003, "was we weren't there to talk about husbands or children or houses."

Well, not entirely true, corrected Ann Armstrong. You could also share some advice on toilet training and the like if you needed to.

The reunion, at Trudy Doyle's condo in Oak Park, of eight strong-willed, vocal, intelligent, articulate women was creatively chaotic. The energy and the laughter levels ran high over the course of 2-plus hours, with frequent outbursts of simultaneous conversation, and the historical record under constant revisionâ€"all of which was more or less consistent with the tenor of the original meetings, the members said.

Those meetings, as the name implies, started on the first Tuesday of each month, but quickly became a weekly occurrence, as membership outgrew the host houses. Eventually they started holding First Tuesday's first Tuesday meeting at what is now First United Church (where 20-30 women attended on a regular basis), followed by smaller group subcommittees meeting at rotating houses the other three weeks.

"Child care was always an issue," recalled Joan Pope, one of the original attendees. "Trying to talk about strategic planning while being concerned with snacks for the children was a bit of a challenge." Eventually, babysitting was arranged for all their meetings.

The social benefits were self-evident, but the primary function was social actionâ€"well, that and "keeping our minds going because we had these little kids that were driving us crazy," said Sherlynn Reid, one of the first African-American homeowners during the open housing era of the 1960s, who was quickly recruited to join.

Today's mother's groups tend to be centered around activities for the kids, these women noted, whereas, as Greenwald noted, "We did plenty with our kids. We were looking for adult companionship." The association led to many core friendships that continue to this day.

Members recruited friends from all over the village and the numbers quickly grew. Ann Armstrong was home with her first child in 1970. She had a master's degree in speech pathology from Stanford and had just left the work world. A friend said, "You're really bored. You need someplace to go. There's this group. Come on." She said it saved her sanityâ€"and led to a lifetime of adult activism with the Village Managers Association (VMA).

Powell recruited Pope when they found themselves in the same room at West Suburban Hospital. Their daughters were born the same day.

Greenwald was told, "I don't know how you feel about women's groups, but this really isn't one."

"In those days," Greenwald recalled, "'women's' group meant something cultural or social, not political. We discovered issues. We really explored and discovered them. That's what was so different."

Taking action

The first institution they took on was the public library. The issue was simple, practical and, it turned out, achievable. They met with Library Director Barbara Ballinger and told her they didn't want books like Little Black Sambo to be the only books about black children that their children were exposed to.

Powell said, "She was wonderfully open. She said, 'Bring me a list and I'll get them for you.' We started to think, 'This is all right. You state what you want and people respond.'"

It wasn't always that easy, of course, but this was not an easily discouraged group.

A contingent visited Dr. Kenton Stephens, District 97 superintendent, to say they thought the district needed to hire more black teachers to give students a more diverse experience.

"The main issue was race," said Armstrong, "but that trips into testifying and talking about a million things. The interconnections were very strong."

One subgroup visited the local Jewels and Dominick's to encourage them to put more Jewish and African-American products on the shelves. Their approach was non-confrontational. As one member put it, "Know that there is a group of people who will support you if you go in this direction."

They were not a study group, but they did their homework, and slowly they built credibility. "We thought that if we told the truth and presented a reasonable argument, people would listen," said Pope.

"We didn't believe in yelling and screaming," added Reid.

They frequently addressed the village board, identifying themselves only as "First Tuesday, a group of mothers with young children." They never defined themselves beyond that and left the membership numbers to the trustees' imagination.

"We usually had done our research," said Trudy Doyle. We weren't just a bunch of young women who would 'like you to stop something, and here's how we feel.' Our credibility rose because we did our homework."

In 1973, after the Chicago Tribune interviewed an elderly couple about their fear of crime, then ran an article titled something along the lines of "Fear stalks the streets of Oak Park," Peggy McGrath led an effort to solicit funds from individuals and businesses to pay for a full page ad criticizing the Trib and expressing confidence in the village.

"This was not a group where the goal was a learned paper," said Greenwald. "Its goal was to effect change."

Rapid response team

And they were able to get things done because they didn't have to contend with the bureaucratic entanglements of other groups. They didn't have bylaws and officers and dues and other organizational issues. All they had was a phone tree. It was fluid. People popped in and out and worked on issues as the spirit moved them.

Unencumbered by process, they were, in effect, Oak Park's rapid response team. They identified achievable objectives, studied them, then acted on them. They were nimble.

"Nimble is such a wonderful word," said Armstrong.

Greenwald led an effort to get a crossing guard at Lombard and Washington after a student ran in front of a car and was injured. The police chief said the numbers didn't call for a guard, but they had already talked to the officer who did the study and knew the numbers.

"We learned the police chief would lie if he didn't want something. We got smart. We learned who to talk to."

And they could move issues forward when government was too timid to take the initiative.

The group developed a dual focusâ€"housing and education. Joan Pope, with encouragement from First Tuesday, was the first to run for office, serving on the District 97 school board from 1970 to 1973. Sue Powell followed suit later in the 1970s.

When Pope got on the school board, there was no lunch program. Everyone went homeâ€"except for the kids who qualified for the new federal lunch program. But the law said those kids couldn't be clearly identified as part of the program, so First Tuesday used the provision as leverage. The only way to avoid being identified was to allow all students to eat their lunch at school. Now it's the norm. Change takes place that way.

Moving inside

"First Tuesday was an incubator that developed female leadership in Oak Park," noted Armstrong, who eventually served a couple of stints as president of the VMA in the early 1990s and ran several campaigns.

Village hall took notice, particularly Village President Jim McClure (1973-81). "He walked into my living room one day and said, 'I want you to be on the Oak Park Housing Authority board,'" said Greenwald. "I said, 'I don't know anything about housing.' He said, 'Yeah, but you'll learn. I need women.' It was Jim who could articulate that issue. 'We have a lot of women in this town, and they are not represented. And that's what I want.'"

Greenwald went on to serve on the Oak Park Residence Corporation board and worked at the Housing Center, and now sells real estate for Gloor Realty.

"It's a career path I never would have chosen," she said.

Joan Filbin also started out picketing Realtors, then eventually became one herself. "I was a biology major," she said, "but I had been selling the community for years [as an activist]. That's how it all started."

Sherlynn Reid was hired by the village and became the longtime director of the Community Relations Department. She became the group's "secret weapon," along with Bobbie Raymond.

First Tuesday members were among the earliest staffers for Raymond's fledgling Housing Center because they already had the babysitting network set up. They cooked the food for the organization's first fundraiser.

Equity Assurance

Housing issues produced First Tuesday's biggest successâ€"the village's Equity Assurance program.

Sue Cronin first raised the issue when she brought the group's attention to a large number of houses for sale on her block on South Humphrey, a clear sign of panic selling setting in. The members started asking, "What is it that makes people want to flee?" They decided it was the threat to their property values.

They did enough research to know that values were not declining, but Realtors were nervous and weren't looking at the numbers. So First Tuesday asked, "What is it that will make people stay?" One member's husband read an article suggesting that if you can guarantee people the value of their home, you can solve the problem of white flight.

Village hall wanted equity "insurance," but First Tuesday pushed for "assurance." Several members served on the commission, chaired by future village president John Philbin, that developed the program, but most of the details were generated by First Tuesday in advance.

"We came up with all of them," Reid corrected.

The deal was, you had to live in your house for five years and make improvements on it. Then you could get it appraised, and when you were ready to sell it, if you couldn't get 80 percent of what it was appraised for, then you could turn to the village for assistance.

The process started in 1973 and the ordinance didn't pass until 1977, but residents in the village thought it was in effect the whole time, Reid said, so it was working even before it became official. Ironically, she said, the only people who signed up for the program lived in northwest Oak Park.

First Tuesday's success was self-reinforcing. "We were all optimists," said Powell. "We were young, naive, brassy. We didn't think negatively. We were reasonable enough and stuck around long enough to get things done."

"The results made us optimists," added Doyle. "That kind of experience compels you to do more of it."

"It's a small town," said Armstrong. "You really can affect things that are going on in your government."

A moment in time

Eventually, in the 1980s, what held them together no longer did. The "moment in time" passed. People moved away. Nests emptied and members went back to work. The times changed.

Victims of their own success? In a way. The eight women we met with all agreed that today there's a dangerous lack of historical perspective among the young adults who are drawn to Oak Park because of what it has becomeâ€"thanks to the efforts of groups like First Tuesday.

"We have a forest-for-the-trees issue here in Oak Park," noted Armstrong. "It's not a done deal. The people 20 years younger don't have a clue."

"The reason they don't have a clue," added Reid, "is they think Oak Park happened naturally."

"You can't communicate the amount of work in the vineyards that this has taken over many years," said Greenwald. "In the last 10 years, everyone assumes that it's done, done, done, and there's nothing to be done."

"Maybe when we retire, we can start a Grey Panthers version of First Tuesday," someone said.

But some of the younger ones are getting it. Sherlynn Reid's daughter, Dorothy, served a term on the Dist. 97 school board, and came within a whisker of being elected state representative. Joan Pope's son, David, was elected village trustee in 2003 and has just announced he will run for village president next year.
The ripple effect continues.

 

 

No one seems to have a complete list of all the Oak Park and River Forest women who participated in First Tuesday. The eight women who took part in our 2003 reunion were: Susan Powell Griffith, Joan Filbin, Marge Greenwald, Trudy Doyle, Marcia Dowd, Sherlynn Reid, Ann Armstrong, and Joan Pope.
A very incomplete roster of some others:
• Gloria Merrill (Plan Commission, Community Relations Commission, Sarah's Inn board, VMA, LWV, Exchange Congress board, Diversity Task Force, Oak Park Community Organization)
• Roberta Raymond Larson (founder and longtime director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, founder of the OPRF Alumni Association)
• Nancy Leavy (former District 200 board president, local Realtor)
• RaeLynne Toperoff (director of Literacy Volunteers of Western Cook County, consultant for District 97)
• Pat Healey (longtime Dist. 97 teacher, Project Unity)
• Carla Lind (author of a major book on Frank Lloyd Wright)
• Mary Ellen Matthias (LWV past president, Housing Center)
• Abby Schmelling (longtime director of the Volunteer Center)
• Joan White (longtime director of Pilgrim Nursery School)

â€"Ken Trainor

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