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DeCrow, Karen

 Person

Karen DeCrow was born Karen Abt Lipschultz in Chicago, Illinois, on December 18, 1937, to Juliette Abt and Samuel M. Lipschultz. Raised in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago with her younger sister Claudia, DeCrow attended public schools Kilmer Elementary and Sullivan High School, and entered Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in 1955.

At Northwestern, DeCrow wrote for The Daily Northwestern and was a member of Hillel. She graduated in 1959 and married Alex Kolben in December 1960. Between these two occasions, in April 1960, DeCrow’s father Samuel Lipschultz died of a heart attack. Following his death, Juliette and Claudia moved to Miami Beach. Juliette Lipschultz would live in Miami Beach until her death in 1998. DeCrow began her career in journalism. She worked for Golf Digest and the American Society of Planning Officials’ Zoning Digest, before finding a niche in adult education with positions at the Center for the Study of Liberal Education for Adults (CSLEA); Holt, Rinehart and Winston; L.W. Singer; and the Eastern Regional Institute for Education (ERIE). While working at ERIE, DeCrow began graduate coursework in communications at Syracuse University. While working at CSLEA, Karen DeCrow met colleague Roger DeCrow. She and Alex Kolben were divorced in 1965, and the DeCrows married that same year. Roger and Karen DeCrow were divorced in 1972.

NOW

In 1967, DeCrow and her mother saw an interview about the National Organization for Women (NOW) on television. They both joined, and DeCrow began serving on the national board of directors a year later. She held various positions within the organization, including Membership Coordinator (1969-1970), Eastern Regional Director (1970-1972), and President (1974-1977). As membership coordinator, DeCrow advised NOW members in organizing local chapters around the country. Betty Friedan, one of the founders and first president of NOW, served as an unofficial mentor by encouraging DeCrow to start a local Syracuse chapter of NOW and organize events and actions.

Early NOW actions focused on public accommodations, which, according to Title VII of the Civil Rights laws of 1964, should be unsegregated. Many alcohol-serving establishments of this time refused to serve unescorted women, and since these places were public spaces, DeCrow and other NOW members argued they were breaking the law. Protests and demonstrations occurred across the country. In Syracuse, DeCrow organized protests at the Hotel Syracuse’s bar, and at McCarthy’s Seafood House. DeCrow was also involved in protesting McSorley’s Old Ale House, famously advertised as New York City’s oldest bar. McSorley’s had refused service to women since it opened its doors, and in 1969 DeCrow and others attempted to get served. When refused, they filed a lawsuit, which eventually was won, and in 1970, McSorley’s was required to integrate.

Friedan also named DeCrow as national coordinator of a proposed Women’s Strike for Equality, commemorating the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage on August 26, 1970. DeCrow corresponded with NOW members and other groups across the country to promote various strike actions, including a march in New York City, where tens of thousands of women marched down Fifth Avenue. The Women’s Strike received national media attention, and DeCrow fielded the media requests as well as coordinating the march and other events on that day.

As Eastern Regional Director of NOW, DeCrow represented one of four national regions on the board of directors. One highlight of the year she spent in this position was the School for Candidates that DeCrow planned, organized, and held in Seneca Falls, New York. This School was a one-day program that was meant to help women who wanted to get involved in politics, more specifically to run for office. DeCrow had run unsuccessfully for mayor of Syracuse in 1969 as the Liberal Party’s candidate and had learned firsthand the special skills needed to enter the political realm. The School for Candidates program included speakers on topics such as communication, strategy, and lobbying. DeCrow was elected the fourth president of NOW in 1974. She served two terms, getting re-elected under a Majority Caucus platform in 1975, which emphasized support for all women, including women of color and non-heterosexual women, as well as advocating for repeal of anti-abortion laws. At this time, many NOW members felt that including race in its platform, as well as controversial issues such as gay rights and abortion, was distracting from the main equality message. Others, including DeCrow, felt that ignoring any existing inequalities within society, even within the membership of NOW, was against the ideals of an organization meant to promote equality.

As president, DeCrow raised public awareness of NOW further by being the organization’s first president to be invited to the White House. NOW under DeCrow’s presidency led boycotts against states that chose not to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), helped defeat proposed limits on Title IX, held the first “Take Back the Night” march against violence against women, started multiple task forces, settled major employment discrimination lawsuits, and more. DeCrow held the first and possibly only Women’s State of the Union address, scheduled to piggyback off of United States President Gerald Ford’s State of the Union in January 1977. During her presidency, DeCrow also traveled internationally, making speeches and touring as an invited guest in Greece, Mexico, the USSR and the People’s Republic of China.

ERA

The attempted passing of the ERA was a decade-long process. After the amendment was approved in the United States Senate in 1972, it went to the states for ratification. NOW was heavily involved in campaigning for ratification, though eventually only 35 of the required 38 states would ratify by the 1982 deadline (already extended once) and the amendment failed. During this time, one voice that loudly dissented with the women’s liberation movement was Phyllis Schlafly with her STOP ERA campaign. DeCrow and Schlafly had completely opposite viewpoints, but enjoyed each other’s company. They toured the country together, debating the ERA over 80 times.

Politics

DeCrow’s run for mayor of Syracuse in 1969 was the beginning of her involvement in supporting women in politics. While her political interest was evident from a young age, including campaigning for U.S. Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson while in high school, DeCrow felt that women needed to be represented among those making the laws in order to have their viewpoints heard. As a candidate for mayor, DeCrow received plenty of derision from all sides. She was described as a “housewife” in a newspaper article despite being a full-time law student and political candidate. The length of her skirt was often mentioned in articles (“the miniskirted candidate”) and her candidacy was not taken seriously by many. DeCrow became a strong supporter of Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton, as well as many other federal, state and municipal female candidates.

Law career

DeCrow was the only female student in her class when she began law school at Syracuse University in 1969. She found law fascinating, and represented men and women in cases of gender discrimination and age discrimination, including various employment cases. One of DeCrow's higher-profile cases was representing Frank Serpico, of New York Police Department fame, in a paternity suit. DeCrow founded the Central New York Women’s Bar Association with four colleagues, later to be known as the “Onondaga Five.” Noticing a lack of female leadership in the Onondaga County Bar Association, the group succeeded in electing women to leadership roles within the chapter. Her 2009 biographical statement describes her private practice as using “litigation as a tool for social change,” echoing DeCrow’s philosophy on changing society from within the law profession.

She was also a strong proponent of First Amendment rights and advocated for free speech before the Meese Commission on Pornography in 1985. Unlike many of her peers, DeCrow was against censorship in any form, including pornography.

Writings

The author of four books and hundreds of articles, columns, and letters to the editor, DeCrow was an effective, tireless writer. She often credited the Medill School of Journalism and Northwestern University for giving her a solid education and for teaching her journalistic integrity and skills. After co-writing a bibliography on adult education with Roger DeCrow in 1967, her first book as a solo author was The Young Women's Guide to Liberation, published in 1971. Her second book, Sexist Justice: How Legal Sexism Affects You, analyzed the ways that laws discriminate against women. Her editor for Sexist Justice at Random House was the not-yet-famous author Toni Morrison. Morrison and DeCrow remained friendly for many years after working together. Her third book, Women Who Marry Houses: Panic and Protest in Agoraphobia, was co-written with her longtime collaborator, Dr. Robert Seidenberg, a psychiatrist. Women Who Marry Houses explored agoraphobia as a psychological response to sexist societal norms. DeCrow had a regular column in the Syracuse New Times from 1985 to 2007, and in the Syracuse Post-Standard from 2011 to 2013.

Gender equality

DeCrow felt very strongly that absolute gender equality should be the goal of the women's movement. Because of this, she often argued for policies and defended clients with which her peers would disagree. She spoke at the 1982 National Congress of Men and was a proponent of father's rights and joint custody in divorce proceedings. She was against women-only spaces just as much as men-only spaces. In a speech at the National NOW Conference in Houston in 1975, she said, “I think that what gender a person is should never – I repeat, NEVER – make a difference. And when we get that through our rhetoric and into our heads, we will, I believe, have solved the problem of women’s liberation and men’s liberation in the United States.”

Honors and awards

DeCrow was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2009, adding to her roster of citations, medals, awards and honors. She received an honorary doctorate from the State University of New York in Oswego in 1994, as well as their President’s medal in 2009. Other honors include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)’s Ralph E. Kharas Award (1985), Northwestern University’s Service to Society Award (2002), induction into Northwestern University's Medill Hall of Achievement (2007), New York State Bar Association’s Ruth G. Schapiro Memorial Award (2008), Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York’s Doris S. Hoffman Medal (2005), Onondaga County Bar Association’s Distinguished Lawyer Award (2008), and Syracuse University’s George Arents Award (2009). In 1974 Time magazine included DeCrow in a list of 200 Future Leaders of America.

Karen DeCrow died of metastatic squamous cell carcinoma on June 6, 2014. She was posthumously honored by Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner with a proclamation naming June 22, 2014 Karen DeCrow Celebration Day in honor of her work.
Citation
Author: Jill Waycie

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Karen DeCrow (1937-2014) Papers

 Collection
Identifier: 31/6/94
Abstract Karen DeCrow was a lawyer, writer, activist in the women's liberation movement of the 1970s, president of the National Organization for Women from 1974-1977, and a proponent of gender equality in all areas. DeCrow’s collection consists of papers, audio, video, and artifactual materials documenting her life and work.