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Polly Spiegel Cowan

Civil Rights Activist
1913 – 1976

Polly Spiegal Cowan and her husband Lou died in a house fire in November 1976. In 2004, their daughter Holly Shulman, a professor at the University of Virginia, wrote about her mother’s work for social justice, especially for poor black women in the South.

by Holly C. Shulman

When my mother died, my eldest brother Paul said that she was the only woman he'd ever known who had an equal passion for social justice and fashion. It was true: Pauline Spiegel Cowan profoundly cared about making the world a better place, and she adored fine clothes and beautiful furniture. Although the fire in which she and my father perished destroyed their apartment and her material possessions, her legacy of political activism remains relevant and important more than a quarter century later.

Polly was born in 1913. Her German Jewish immigrant family had moved to the midwest in the middle part of the nineteenth century and opened a furniture store. When my mother was still young, her father and older brother converted the business into a mail-order catalogue enterprise known as Spiegels. They became wealthy merchants. Before my mother was born her parents moved to Kenilworth, an upper-class North Shore suburb of Chicago. As Kenilworth developed, the family found themselves surrounded by a sea of Christians with restrictive real estate policies that prevented any other Jews from moving in alongside them. Polly was not invited to the parties, dances or other events that marked the social calendars of her peers. It was her initiation into marginality, her introduction into being not only different, but also unwanted and excluded.

Polly was the youngest of four children, but the only girl. When she graduated from high school, my grandmother Lena persuaded her daughter not to go to Northwestern, the local college of choice, but to Sarah Lawrence College near New York City. There Polly was exposed to the east coast and the New York intelligentsia. Her professors included Max Lerner and Robert Lynd. It was the 1930s and she was introduced to communism and socialism; years later she wrote an essay for her alumna magazine entitled "Pleading for Pink," in which she argued for democratic socialism. She was part of a generation raised on the ideals of Mr. Roosevelt's New Deal and the values of Mrs. Roosevelt's progressivism.

My mother grew up profoundly, but unconsciously, Jewish. Her parents were always part of the Jewish community, but did not practice Judaism. Seeking more spiritual and emotional content than they found in the local Reform temple, they joined Christian Science. Nonetheless, all their friends, their lawyers, and their doctors were Jewish. Between Polly and her three brothers there were six marriages, all to Jews. Polly's was not the Judaism of ritual and prayer; I don't think she ever went to a temple or synagogue on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. We certainly never had Passover when I was growing up. She knew little of Jewish texts. But Polly's parents did pass on to her the Reform Jewish faith in "Prophetic Judaism." It was the obligation to feed the widow and care for the orphan, what I associate with the teachings of Isaiah: "Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." (Isaiah 1:17)

The Spanish Civil War was a defining moment in the decade of the 1930s, and created a generation of Americans who committed themselves to fight Fascism. My mother dreamed of going to Spain as a nurse for the Republican soldiers. Instead, she stayed at home and married, first to a young man who worked for my grandfather, and then a few years later to my father, Louis G. Cowan, on August 7, 1939. The Second World War forced even the most attenuated of American German Jews, like my mother, to rethink their Jewish identity. In the years before Pearl Harbor, my parents tried to find relatives in Germany with whom they had been out of touch. Finding none, they did what they could to assist Jewish refugees from war-torn Europe.

Lou introduced Polly to the world of media and show business. They moved to New York during World War II, and never returned to Chicago. The life they lived in New York was glamorous and often exciting. They knew people in television and radio, where my father was first a producer and then a network executive, but their friends included academics and intellectuals, writers, politicians, and Broadway composers and producers. In 1952 my father headed up Adlai Stevenson's media campaign when Stevenson ran for president of the United States against Dwight D. Eisenhower; my mother took charge of women volunteers for Stevenson.

My mother loved the glamour of that world. I can recall watching her dress for the evening, especially one black gown, a Givenchy I believe, with beautiful pearl earrings, necklace, and bracelet. Every New Year's Eve they hosted a large and elegant party, and she reigned over the event in some glorious outfit or another.

Yet for all that, my mother was not a "society woman." She was a working mother, a radio and television producer whose programs included a television quiz show called "Down You Go," and an award-winning radio talk program, "Conversation." Lou sold his company when he moved to CBS. Polly had to leave her productions with that company to avoid a potential conflict of interest, and thus had to shift her professional life too. At first she drifted, I think rather unhappily. Polly may have been an early professional woman, but she built her career around my father's. Whatever my mother's feelings, my father's decision required her to reinvent herself. She moved around, shopping, so to speak, for a new life. Eventually my mother volunteered for the Citizens Committee for Children, and from there moved to the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW).

Working with Dorothy Height and the NCNW Polly finally found her spiritual home. In some ways I think she felt she was fulfilling her dream of becoming a nurse in the Spanish Civil War, doing her part to bring about the world the biblical Prophets had preached. She made a commitment to civil rights, a commitment she kept for the rest of her life. She served the Council and Dr. Height, always as a volunteer, eventually joining the Board of Directors.

It started with a man who has largely been lost to the written record, Stephen Courier. He and his wife, Audrey, had created the Taconic Foundation, and they wanted to support the civil rights movement. In the early 1960s very few whites gave charitable donations to civil rights organizations, and they hoped to change that. Courier brought together a group of civil rights leaders as the United Council of Civil Rights Leaders. The group was all male except Dorothy I. Height, the national president of the National Council of Negro Women. Among many other issues, Stephen Courier asked if any of these leaders wanted volunteers. All of the men said no; only Dr. Height said yes. My mother applied to work for the NCNW and was chosen by Dr. Height, and so it was through Stephen Courier that my mother went to work as a volunteer for the NCNW.In August 1963, Polly and Dr. Height learned that women would not be allowed to speak at the Civil Rights March on Washington. After the March on Washington, they began working with Trude Lash and Pauli Murray on ways in which women could participate in the Civil Rights Movement

In the fall of 1963, a Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader named Prathia Hall asked my mother and Dr. Height to go to Selma, Alabama to witness how the white Selma government was handling the girls and young women participating in the civil rights movement. These girls and women were experiencing violence and intimidation, and were being jailed and mistreated.

In the spring of 1964, Freedom Summer—the SNCC program to register black voters and teach black children in Mississippi—was being molded. My two older brothers decided to participate in Freedom Summer, and my mother suggested to Dr. Height that the NCNW send in teams of women to Mississippi throughout the summer. They would be there to report violence and protect the young men and women of Freedom Summer. But they would do more than that. They understood that the difficult process of social change would continue when the SNCC workers went home, and the women in each community of the South would play a key role in continuing this work.Polly and Dr. Height wanted to harness this women's power. They wanted to expose women from the North to what was happening in the South, so that each woman could return to her home and continue to fight for social justice. They wanted to send messengers into the South so that black women and liberal white women would know they were not alone. They wanted to reach across boundaries of race, religion, region, class, and age. And in this crusade they enlisted the help of the National Council of Catholic Women, the National Council of Jewish Women, Church Women United, the Young Women's Christian Association, the League of Women Voters, and the American Association of University Women.

In the spring of 1964, my mother and Dr. Height created the only civil rights program led by a national women's organization.

They called their project "Wednesdays in Mississippi." They would send teams of women down to Jackson, Mississippi on Tuesdays. The women fanned out across the state on Wednesdays, and returned to the North on Thursdays. They traveled by race, all white or all black, but they made sure that at some point in their stay they met as a group, black and white together. They brought in fresh air from the North, they helped open up the vistas of both white and black Mississippi women, and they brought women together across the racial divide.When the summer of 1964 ended, my mother and Dr. Height assumed the project would also end, but the women of Mississippi asked them to return. They created a second summer project in 1965. By 1966, as the formal and legal barriers of race began to collapse, and Lyndon Johnson erected the Great Society, they renamed their effort "Workshops in Mississippi."

My mother spent the rest of the 1960s working with Dorothy Height to respond to the needs of poor women in Mississippi. They met in all parts of the state, exploring what these women needed to survive the poverty and indignities of their lives. I can imagine my mother in Indianola, sitting with these poor community women. In my mind she is dressed, as always, with elegance, looking every bit the Park Avenue, sophisticated, wealthy woman she was, listening intently to what these women had to say. Polly understood that it was by focusing on the task at hand—paying attention not only to what these women said, but who they were, comprehending the dignity of these local women—that she and the NCNW could achieve their goals.

Out of these workshops flowed projects and plans. The women told them of the need for food and cleanliness; the NCNW created school breakfasts and school showers. The women spoke of hunger; Dorothy Height called upon women across the country to send in seeds, or money for seeds, to grow vegetables. The NCNW supported the development of cooperatives, which produced enough from their gardens to keep for the winter. Polly called her brother, Modie Spiegel, and the Spiegel mail order catalogue company sent freezers to preserve the food these women had grown. The NCNW started day care centers and quilting cooperatives. They helped the poor women of Mississippi, both black and white, help themselves.

My mother and Dorothy Height became close personal friends. The two women talked to each other every day from the summer of 1963 until my mother died in 1976. One summer I myself worked for the Council. Dr. Height was often at our apartment, close to my mother and my father, who in his retirement years did whatever he could to support their work.My mother had energy and commitment and intelligence and focus. She never felt she had to be prominent or public. She simply wanted to do what she wanted to do: create a world where there would be racial justice and social equality; to follow the teachings of Isaiah. She had a wonderful time doing it.

My parents died together in a fire on November 24, 1976. That is more than a quarter century ago now. For me they remain vital and in their sixties. I can see my mother walking on the beach in Martha's Vineyard, while my father stayed home, talking on the telephone.

The legacy that my mother left went beyond the immediate family. She was part of a great movement that profoundly changed American society. On a personal level, the legacy of her commitment inspired the succeeding generations of our own family. We, her children and grandchildren, remain committed to the beliefs of prophetic Judaism: to help the poor and the needy and to seek justice. As a family we have worked toward that goal in politics, law and the rabbinate, through writing and art, education and the academy. I am working to continue her legacy by preserving, documenting and disseminating the history of Wednesdays in Mississippi. I believe that keeping vital the story of what Polly Cowan, Dorothy Height and so many others did can help us in our own generation and in our children's generation learn to work across boundaries of race and religion, region and generation, class and gender, towards a more just society.

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Polly Spiegel Cowan, circa 1948.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Polly Spiegel Cowan, 1913 - 1976." (Viewed on September 17, 2014) <http://jwa.org/weremember/cowan-polly>.

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