Interviewee: Jean Maack
Interviewer: Charlotte Kinch
Date: November 18-21, 1977
Jean Maack grew up in Iowa, lives in Illinois, and she had four sons. Maack entered college at the age of sixteen and married while still in college in 1939. She held a master’s degree in biochemistry with specialties in home economics and food nutrition. Maack had been employed as a nutrition researcher and a teacher. She was active in the Illinois Education Association and helped found the women’s caucus of the Association. Issues important to Maack included women in higher education, economic equality, and support for the ERA. In 1977, she became president of ERA Illinois. Interview includes discussion of Maack’s experience organizing women teachers; Maack’s support of her children’s anti-war perspectives; her experience at the Illinois state convention; and managing the convention floor in Illinois.
Jean Maack: I’m Jean Maack, M-A-A-C-K. 4735 Sealy, in Downers Grove, Illinois, 60515. Now, you want me just to start out as to how I got started in the first place? Well, I guess I’ve been a feminist in a way all my life. I started to college when I was sixteen, which was relatively young, and I was married in college in 1939, when nobody got married in college, went ahead and got my master’s degree, my husband was working on his PhD, and went up to the University of Minnesota where he had a job after I had a master’s degree in biochemistry home economics, a food nutrition major, and could not get a job as a home economist or in chemistry because I was married. This was 1941.
So my first job with a master’s degree was on the catalogue order desk of Montgomery Ward’s at forty-two cents an hour. Eventually the war came along, and I did get to do nutrition research and got some publications, and had the delightful experience of turning down almost every lab in the state, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, who had dug my letter out of the files when the men all went off to war. But I also was very child-oriented. I always thought we wanted six children. My husband didn’t quite agree with that so we compromised at four.
So, I had fifteen years at home with diapers and bottles, and did become involved in church work and teaching Sunday school and so forth, and decided that what I could do best to work with my children at home and to work, because we had four sons that we could see needed to go through college, I went back to college when our youngest one was two to become retreaded as a teacher, because I was not about to go in – even though you could in those days – with an emergency certificate. I thought that profession deserved to have proper preparation as well. So I had a good many hours towards a master’s degree in mathematics when I got my student teaching assignment and went back to teaching.
I planned to start teaching when our youngest son was in first grade. However, there was a crisis in our local school district so I went to work when he was still in kindergarten, in the second semester. I no sooner got involved in teaching and I discovered we were losing all of our good young men, because elementary salaries were so much lower than high school salaries. And by the way, my father was the last of a 75-year list of Nicholsons who were on the school board back in our hometown in Iowa, and he had come home laughing about my eighth grade teacher and how much gumption she had when she went into the school board and insisted, and he was very proud of her but she didn’t get it, that elementary teachers should be paid as much as high school teachers. Here, forty years later, I’m still working on the same thing.
So I became involved in teacher association work and became involved in negotiating, because as a woman who was a second income I could be abrasive, and if I got fired my kids would still be fed. So in a way I had an advantage over someone who wasn’t a second income. I never put the men down because I knew that most of them were solely responsible for their wives and small children, and so I could stand up and negotiate in ways that perhaps they wouldn’t have.
In the process of working with the Illinois Education Association, I got all kinds of training in how to organize people, how to work with people. Eventually I helped to write a new constitution for the Illinois Education Association and became a chair of about 1500 teachers in South DuPage County, and as a result of being a chairperson of that group I was on the Illinois Education State Board, was on the Budget Committee with a $5 million budget to handle; I had some very grave problems with the financial situation in the Illinois Education Association, had to learn the hard facts of life and we had to cut staff. I had to help fire some of my friends, for example, which is a hard fact of life.
So, I learned a great deal of how to organize women, how to organize men, how to work in the association. In fact, I ran for president and lost, and after that very March sent a letter to every woman delegate. I wouldn’t do it before the convention because I thought they’d say I was using it, but I sent a letter and asked them if they were interested in helping to form an IEA women’s caucus. So I was one of the founders of the Illinois Education Association Women’s Caucus, and then as I have done several times since as new people came up, I stepped aside for them to run things.
I believe very thoroughly in this. There’s a time to step aside, as there always is with children. One of the things one of our sons said to us I’ve always really cherished was that he never had to leave home. He said, “One thing, Mother, you and Dad never made it so we had to leave home,” that they could grow up. We have four very fine sons that we’re very, very proud of, and I would brag about them very much. There’s likely to be three PhDs in our two sons and our daughter-in-law within the next two months. The oldest one’s a librarian at the University of Washington, and the youngest one is starting on his PhD in Scandinavian languages. We’re very, very fortunate, we know that, with our children. Genetics don’t have to work that way, believe me.
But at any rate, I had that sort of a background, so I started as one of a group, started IEA Women’s Caucus, was the first chair, stepped aside for the other younger women. I was known as Mama Liberationist for a while in there. Every once in a while they call me Mother Maack even now. And as a member of the Illinois Education Association Board I became the liaison to the ERA Coalition in Illinois and was on that board, have been involved for about five years all together with ERA.
We had a coalition and an ERA center. Unfortunately, there were two different groups, each of which had great strengths, but it was counterproductive. And so there was finally negotiation and the two groups became one, and the first year another woman was president who was not from either group but came from a fund raising group from the outside and did a very nice job, and then this year I became president of ERA Illinois and have been able to use all those organizing skills that we had. In the IEA, for instance, we have a political action committee and that was the basis for me knowing how to set up a PAC for ERA.
So I guess you’d say it’s a lot been pointed towards that all my life. We’ve had, as I said before, these four sons. We taught them to think for themselves and were very upset when they did, just like every other parent, but in the process they have helped me to broaden my horizons, too, and be more aware of the fact of what these kids are as they go along. As I said at one point, I tease them about being bearded, long-haired freaks, so we’ve learned to rock with that sort of thing, with their stand on the war situation, being conscientious objectors and so forth, so I guess I’ve been alerted to all kinds of things that are going on in the world and somehow I kind of feel that I’m George. My whole family from way back were always into things and it’s up to me to do it if it’s going to be done. If I have ability, I should put it to use.
CK: You came here very well organized for the Illinois ratification of the ERA. That’s of course your primary goal in coming to the convention. Would you like to discuss a little bit how you organized for this, because I think you’re the first person that I’ve met who has really been just so well organized.
JM: In the first place, I had been very involved in the Illinois Education Association, as I said, and had not been all out for ERA. It had been a split thing. And I went to the Bloomington, the Normal convention, the Illinois Education Association convention in June, and you see, having been an NEA delegate, a National Education Association, that’s a 10,000 delegate body and we have a 400-member delegation from Illinois, and you learn how to explain the issues to them, get them convinced, and then most of you, we don’t do unit rule but most people then have made a decision. The group has made a decision that this is the way they want to go, and most of the delegation does do this. And so therefore, I had experience with parliamentary procedure in a huge group where many women had not.
And when I got to Normal as ERA Illinois president, I really was not too aware. I had known about the Mexican convention, I knew about the Illinois Women’s Year, but I hadn’t really been zeroing in on that, we had other problems in IEA that I was thinking about, but I walked into the convention Saturday late because I had an Illinois Education, my last responsibility, I was the chair of a statewide caucus of the board and my last responsibility was in effect over that day. So when I got to Normal, I saw the lines for the voting, for example, and walked onto the floor on Sunday morning and wanted to know who was managing the floor.
Now, some people who are not adept at using parliamentary procedure and whatnot, who are not used to going to conventions that word managing is a nasty word. It means you’re telling people how to vote. I have never operated that way. Some people have accused me of throwing so much material at them that they had trouble understanding. What I did with my caucus, for example, was consensus. I’d get ideas, I’d go around with them, I’d pick up all the other innuendoes, the differences that people had, and then I’d go back and say okay, the general group is coming out with this, how do you feel? And we would then mostly have come to consensus before we got – we had a 50-member IEA board. That’s a pretty big board to operate with, and it does take consensus.
So when I found that there was no real plan, I’m too aware of what can happen. My husband had a cousin who was in the State Department and had to go through public presentations in Illinois during the Otepka time, and I understood then how very difficult it was to argue with someone who did not know the rules of debate or didn’t care to know the rules of debate and simply wanted to jump to another issue and to continually keep the adrenaline flowing and the fear flowing in their listeners rather than debate on ideas.
So that morning at International Women Year a group of us got together and did go ahead then and try to make some plans of action on the floor, and from then on I could hardly stand the idea of coming here to this convention. Then as ERA Illinois president, we had our new political action group to get off the board, we of course wanted other people to back us, and so we organized all of this in the last month to come down here to get our story across here.
End of Interview