An organizer at heart

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Arvonne Fraser: A founding feminist writes her memoirs. She isn’t finished advocating for women’s equality.

“She’s no lady,” young Don Fraser informed the bartender at a Minneapolis establishment-making clear that his friend, Arvonne Morgan, wasn’t leaving despite the bar’s “no ladies allowed” policy. Almost six decades later, “She’s No Lady: Politics, Family and International Feminism,” is the title of Arvonne Fraser’s new memoir, which chronicles a life that took her from a modest family farm in the southwest Minnesota town of Lamberton to Timbuktu.

She may be no lady, but more surprisingly, this founding mother of the organized women’s movement claims she’s no leader-something many would dispute. Near the end of the book, she writes, “I never wanted to be called a leader, nor do I think of myself as one.”

Asked why, she smiled and said, “You aren’t a leader unless you’ve got followers.” Rather, she considers herself “basically an organizer” who isn’t happy unless she has at least one “project” under way-nearly always in the service of her life’s core project, which is nothing less than an end to the subordination of women.

Soaking up politics

Fraser’s credits
Arvonne Fraser’s distinguished achievements include:
Senior fellow emerita, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota; co-founder of the Institute’s Center on Women and Public Policy
Former director of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch
Former ambassador to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women
Former coordinator of the Office of Women in Development at the U.S. Agency for International Development
Co-founder, Women’s Equality Action League (WEAL)
Co-founder, National Women’s Political Caucus

This founding mother attributes her passion for politics-and her confidence in herself-to her dad. Although money was tight, and her father struggled with alcoholism, Fraser does not describe her childhood as difficult. “I had a father who thought I could do anything in the world,” she recalled.

A strong Farmer-Laborite (the radical party whose merger with the Democrats formed the DFL), he talked politics at home “all the time,” Fraser said. ” I soaked it up like a sponge.”

Soaked it up, and put it into action, even as a child. “In second grade, I was for FDR, and passionate about it,” she recalled. She wore a button, and lobbied her classmates.

On to Washington

Fraser continued her activism as she matured. While a University of Minnesota student and newlywed she moved in the inner circle of Hubert H. Humphrey and Orville Freeman. It was after her first marriage to an emotionally abusive man ended in divorce that she dated and married young lawyer and DFL activist Don Fraser.

“I had this great life [in Minneapolis]. I had a career, and was vice chairwoman of the DFL Party,” she recalled. “I worked my head off to get Don elected, we went to Washington, and bang-I became ‘the Congressman’s wife.'” Fraser called moving to Washington in 1962 “one of first big crises of my life.”

The Frasers and their six kids landed at first in the suburbs (Chevy Chase). She writes in her book, “While Don was feted on Capitol Hill, interviewed by newspapers, radio, and TV… I was supposed to feel soooo lucky that my wonderful husband had found us a good house. Dutifully posing for news photos in an apron, serving breakfast to my crew with a happy smile in our new Washington house, I pretended delight. Inwardly, I seethed.”

Eventually, Fraser did what she has always done: She reached out to other women.

“I began meeting women and getting involved with groups,” including WISE (Washington Integrated Secondary Education), she said. She started a nontraditional luncheon group that dubbed itself the “Nameless Sisterhood”-a nod to Betty Friedan, who in “The Feminine Mystique” described “the problem that has no name”: American women kept from reaching their full capacities. The Nameless Sisterhood met monthly to share experiences and vent frustration (they refused, however, to call it a “consciousness-raising group”).

She also began volunteering part time in Don Fraser’s congressional office, which she called “crucial,” adding: “I had to have something to do besides sit in that suburb and feel sorry for myself.” From the D.C. office, she monitored events in Minneapolis, and reported on legislation to constituents via newsletters and mailings.

Personal tragedy

The second big crisis of Arvonne Fraser’s life came a few years after moving to Washington: the death of young daughter Anne in an accident. Much later, the Frasers endured the death of another child.

Anne lingered for days, an ordeal that had a profound effect on how Fraser now views the American way of death. “You don’t prolong life that’s not life,” she said firmly. “She was dead before she was legally dead.”

Fraser coped by huddling tight with family and close friends. “Without friends we would never have survived it,” she said. In the basement, she keeps sympathy letters the family received after Anne died. “I can’t bear to throw them away,” she said.

Years later she lost her second daughter when Lois (YoYo) Fraser, who had struggled to find her path, succumbed to her depression and committed suicide. Fraser, who notes in her book that she herself took antidepressants for eight years in Washington, later became involved with Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) and, she said, gave speeches on the issue.

“But I’ve got to confess,” she said, pausing to collect her thoughts. “I can talk about it abstractly, but not in terms of my kids. I never know when it will hit me and I’ll break down in tears.”

A run for office

In her book, Fraser poses the question of why more women don’t run for office. She herself wasn’t a candidate until age 60, when George Latimer asked her to be his lieutenant governor running mate in his primary challenge to Gov. Perpich in 1986. She was ambivalent, both about the political wisdom of a ticket consisting of two Twin Citians, and about whether she wanted to run for office. “I always liked working and organizing behind the scenes,” Fraser said.

But she ran, not wanting to regret it later if she didn’t. The ticket lost, and Fraser has been happily “behind the scenes” ever since.

What about her children? Fraser said her older daughter ran for school board in California, but lost. Her younger daughter, also in California, considered running but ultimately decided not to. While all her children are active in causes and issues, when it comes to elections, “I think they got their fill as kids,” she said, smiling. “But it’s interesting that it’s my two girls who considered running for office-not my two sons.”

Neighborhood stateswoman

Perhaps nobody better personifies “Think Globally, Act Locally” than this one-time high-ranking international development official who now chairs the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood association. She has plunged into issues of local land use and livability with no less passion than for “projects” that took her to Africa and Indonesia.

She’s also involved with the DFL Education Foundation and the Stone Arch Discussion Group, and is CFO of her son’s new startup company. Oh, and she just might go back to work on a book project she began but set aside a while ago-about women and leadership.

By her count, “I have four part-time jobs,” Fraser said. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine this elder stateswoman who loves a good project spending her ninth decade any other way.