Karen Nussbaum

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Karen Nussbaum

Template:TOCnestleft Karen Beth Nussbaum is a veteran Washington DC activist. She has been the partner of Ira Arlook.


Karen Nussbaum was born in Chicago April 25, 1950, the daughter of Annette Brenner Nussbaum, who “did public relations for educational institutions and organizations for the public good for many years,” and Mike (Myron) Nussbaum, an exterminator (1946–70) and actor and director (1967–present). At the age of 5, Karen Nussbaum and her family moved to the Chicago suburb of Highland Park.

Mike Nussbaum was an "amateur actor at the time and had always wanted to be a stage actor and he is, now. Soon after we all got to be 20, he quit his business and he became a full-time actor and director, so that was part of the home life and they and their friends held play reading groups where, you know, twenty of their friends would come over once a month and they would read a play like JB [by Archibald MacLeish] or something. Something light [laughs]. And then my father later became part of the Theater of the Absurd scene in Chicago. He worked at Hull House."

My mother was interested in books, in theater, and so on, but was also a political activist in the Democratic Party in a largely Republican county, and so she would take me walking precincts as a little girl and she would be a poll watcher during the local elections and I would see her at my local school when she was being a poll watcher, that kind of thing...
By the time of the war in Vietnam, my parents were very active so, for example, there was a weekly vigil in front of the public library on Saturdays and so the whole family would go to the weekly vigil in front of the public library on Saturdays...
My mother was very active in trying to bring speakers to the community about the war, to talk about what was wrong with the war. And there was a big to-do when she invited Staughton Lynd, who had been indicted for traveling to Vietnam because it was against the law so his passport had been revoked and so on, and he was living in Chicago at the time and she invited him to speak and she got some hall — I can’t remember where she had originally arranged to have it but then they refused to let her have it and so she marshaled her forces and there were letters to the community newspaper and mobilizing people to fight back and finally, we ended up in the recreation center and the place was packed with people, standing room only, and so she was a real activist along those lines.
And during that time, we were getting hate mail from the Minutemen, which was the local John Birch Society and, you know, postcards with cross hairs on them addressed to my mother. So, it wasn’t without some sense that it wasn’t risk free for her to do that. My mother died just this last year and she had been sick for many, many years and you forget the young woman, you remember just those awful years when she was so sick. But we went through some of her papers when we were helping to write the obituary and we saw that she had been quoted in the newspaper when she was working for Gene McCarthy. She was the coordinator for Gene McCarthy for Democrats of South Lake County and she’d been quoted as saying, “You know, it’s time that women cared as much about peace as they do the PTA.” I thought, “Whoa, that’s something I would’ve said.”[1]

Teenage activism

Karen Nussbaum's older brother was a draft resister. "He went to college (Antioch) and immediately got totally involved in politics."

In high school, helped establish the Social Action Committee. There was like ten or twelve of us who were radicals and we would invite speakers [to] the school, and it was amazing but you could get a lot of kids to come to these things; you could, because it was the 60s and there were enough — kids were interested in what was going on. We had a speaker who was a black anarchist (Jeffrey Stewart) who was active in Chicago and a poet. And we brought him to the school. And it was a big deal, you know, could you have an anarchist in the school anyway. But we finally got him and there were like a hundred kids at the thing and we had the two sponsors of the Social Action Committee — the teachers were Lou Silverstein, who was the first Jewish teacher in the high school of 1700 kids, and then Miss Price, who was older, a bit conservative. A nice woman, I didn’t know her very well, but — so, the black anarchist poet read some of his poems. And one of them was about [President] Johnson shitting bombs on Vietnam and then — that was bad — but then, when he took the dictionary and ripped pages out of the dictionary because our government was lying to us and words didn’t have meaning — Ms. Price just lost it, and she ended the meeting and the Social Action Committee was disbanded and the black anarchist poet was shooed out of the building. And so there were all of these [?], and we had to go to the principal and were we going to be expelled and, there was all this tumult about free speech and politics and what was crossing the line and what was acceptable and so on.[2]

College activism

In 1968, Karen Nussbaum attended the University Chicago for a year and a half and became involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement and the demonstrations against the 1968 Democratic Party convention.

At the Democratic [National] Convention — I actually had a job inside the convention as a gofer and so there I was in the convention, seeing what was going on outside. So I left the convention and I went out to the demonstrations late that night in front of the Pitt Congress Hotel and the air was filled with tear gas and they had stink bombs at the Pitt Congress and people were dispersed by the time I got there but they were still hanging around in clusters and just the power of the moment, you know, with the students chanting, “the whole world is watching,” and in fact, the whole world was watching, and the enormity of what was going on inside the convention, that it was responding to what was going on outside the convention.

Nussbaum became involved in the was a Rehire Marlene campaign. Marlene Dixon, was a radical teacher, fired from the University.

I can’t think of why anymore, but that became the reason that we demonstrated. So, within a couple of months, we had taken over the Administration Building and stayed — occupied the Administration Building for weeks. And the administration just waited us out. They weren’t going to repeat bringing in police and clubbing us and so on [as Columbia University had].

Karen Nussbaum was in a class that was the "prototypical liberal education class at the University of Chicago called Liberal Arts I. It represented half of your course load and it was a very tiny class of just 12 students where with a very highly regarded teacher — his name was James Redfield."

Black Panther supporter

At Chicago, Nussbaum was was part of the Black Panther Support Committee.[3]

Black Panthers were being jailed, killed, wiped out all over the country and in fact, Fred Hampton was killed in his sleep in Chicago near where I was, I think probably the next fall — I think it was the fall of ’69. And I remember — actually I’m in a picture in Time magazine in a demonstration in front of the Federal Building in Chicago demonstrating against this — you know, the impunity with which they attacked Black Panthers.[4]

Second Venceremos Brigade

In 1970 Karen Nussbaum from Highland Park, Illinois, was a member of the second Venceremos Brigade to Cuba.[5]

So I was active on those, active in the antiwar movement, active in student politics in my own university. And then, it was probably the next fall that the opportunity came up to join the Venceremos Brigade and go to Cuba, and it was actually something that was tied into the Black Panthers who were helping to lead these educational sessions for people who were going. So I signed up. I quit school and decided to go to Cuba in the winter of ’70.
I had what money it cost. It cost like a couple of hundred of dollars or something. You just had to pay your fare on what was a converted cattle hauler that took us from Nova Scotia down to Cuba. We took a bus up to Nova Scotia and then we took a ship down to Cuba...were in Cuba for a couple of months...
Now, our brigade was the second brigade and I think it was the largest, I think, that ever went. It was about 700 people and it was riddled with agents. But it was also filled with people just like myself. In fact, one of my best friends today, turns out, was on the brigade when I was. We didn’t know each other then. She was living in Philadelphia at the time but, it’s funny to see those ties back in your life. (this is probably Karen Ackerman, KeyWiki)It’s like a skipping stone. And so that’s what we did. We both harvested, worked in the sugar cane fields and then there was a two-week period at the end where we got to travel around the country and see other parts of the country and meet with different local leaders and understand the country better...
There were a lot of Weathermen who were in the Brigade, who were the left split off from the SDS and a huge array of young leftists who were there and so we talked politics all the time. And politics got played out there. There were racial problems in the brigade. There were huge problems between men and women. There was this just beginning to grow women’s movement, and if you can believe it, there was this huge debate about whether women should wear bras while we were cutting cane. But that was the insanity of the time, too...
So when we returned, it was right when there was a gigantic demonstration in New Haven, to free Bobby Seale and Erica Huggins, who were in jail in New Haven, as Black Panthers. We had taken the boat back up to Nova Scotia and we were taking a bus back down — I was supposed to go to Chicago but I guess a couple of us just got off the bus in Maine and hitchhiked down to New Haven to be part of the demonstrations there.[6]

Impressions of Cuba

It was thrilling, you know. It was a society that was combating racism, that had provided free health and educational care to every person in society, that had reduced income inequality more dramatically than any place else on earth, that had created literacy in an illiterate country by having middle schoolers going out and teaching adults. It was very, very exciting. So, that was terrific — and to understand what struggle was like. You know, what it meant to fight against the government in a totally different context. You couldn’t take the experience in Cuba and apply it to our circumstances. I never thought that was the point.[7]


Nussbaum moved to Boston, working for the antiwar movement there while supporting herself as a clerical worker at Harvard University.

In Boston, Nussbaum met up with people who had also been in Cuba.

But, so there were four women who all lived together. And that’s when we also started doing work as women. Political work as women. And there’s this huge culture of young people getting jobs to support their political work. And that’s what we all did. One of our roommates worked in a warehouse and I worked in a food co-op and sometimes I worked passing out leaflets, commercial leaflets in downtown areas, promoting one thing or another. I can’t remember what. After I was there for about a year, I got a job as a clerical worker at Harvard University, as a clerk typist. But what we were really doing there was having a — how can I even say these things? We had something called “female revolutionary education” where we provided courses for other women who wanted to learn stuff. And we taught auto mechanics and we taught political theory, and we taught emergency medicine and people would come to these classes.

The group was called Female Revolution Education.

For a time Nussbaum was on the staff of a local organization called the People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice.

Nussbaum earned a B.A. from Goddard College in 1975.


Nussbaum's local peace organization joined up with the Indochina Peace Campaign which was headed up by Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda. She was on the steering committee for that organization and got to go to North Vietnam with a 7 member delegation in 1973.

And again, it was one of these tremendous experiences. I was 23, and you know, I was an arrogant know-nothing. But good hearted, for sure, and it was a real learning experience. The Vietnamese, the North was not being bombed at that point, so there wasn’t any danger to us. I recently have been talking with Jane Fonda again, and when she went, just a year or two before that, she was being bombed. She had to go in the air-raid shelters on the roadside. But that wasn’t our experience. It was really safe, though illegal. But it meant that we could come back and talk about our experience.[8]

Nussbaum was a participant in Workshop Group 17 at Hayden's IPC [{Germantown]] Ohio weekend conference which planned the anti-aid campaign aimed at the embattled So. Vietnamese armed forces and government. Hayden and Fonda had just returned from a mid-October trip to meet with the communists of No. Vietnam and the so-called PRG Provisional Revolutionary Government, their political front arm for the old National Liberation Front (NLF), and its military arm, the Viet Cong. The conference was held just a week or so later and Hayden told those in attendance that he had received instructions from the communists on what they "wanted him to do" in the U.S. re setting up a "cut the aid" campaign aimed at Congress. This was to prevent any effective military equipment one-for-one replacement as allowed under the fraudulent Paris Peace Agreement of 1973. Everyone at this IPC conference knew that if the plan worked, Hanoi would conquer South Vietnam, Laos, and potentially Cambodia (where the Maoist Khmer Rouge movement was growing in opposition to the Hanoi Cambodian faction and troops already in-country).


In 1973 Nussbaum and some around 9 friends including Ellen Cassedy, Marilyn Albert and Penny Kurland, founded 9to5, an organization for women clerical workers, initially in Boston.

We put out the newsletter 9to5. Again, for about a year, and it was during this time that we were talking with each other, but it was a very popularly based newsletter. And in fact, the very first issue, the headline in the first article in the first issue is “Every Day” and then it goes into kind of what do we confront every day on the job and then we started getting letters in from women who felt the same way we did.[9]

Midwest connection

One of the 9to5ers, Ellen Cassedy, went to Heather Booth's Midwest Academy, "I think the first summer that they ran a class, and our group all pitched in the money to send her, to pay her expenses and the fee for her to go for however long the session was, and so she learned some techniques and tactics for community organizing and then we applied that to the workplace situation."

CLUW connection

Nussbaum's friend Jackie Ruff, who then later became one of the founders of our union, District 925, did go to the founding Coalition of Labor union Women convention because she was working in a paste-up shop and was a member of the graphic artists’ union. "And, actually, they were on strike for months and months and months, but it was while she was, I think, on strike with the graphic artists that she went to the CLUW convention."[10]

"9to5" movie, hitting the "Bigtime"

Nussbaum knew Jane Fonda from her work in the peace movement.

We were both part of the same organization, the Indochina Peace Campaign, and when the war really did end in 1975, Jane was looking more toward working on issues in our country, you know, some domestic issues. 9to5 had already been active for a couple of years by then and Jane was intrigued by it and so she came to me and she said she wanted to make a contribution to our work in the best way she knew how, and that was to make a major motion picture. So, that sounded great to us!
And it just was an extraordinary experience. Jane wanted to know more about what office workers thought about their jobs, and so early on, we invited her to come to Cleveland where I was living by then and our Cleveland chapter set up a meeting with about forty office workers, women office workers, with Jane and, I think, one of the script writers, and we spent a long night talking about what were the problems that they faced on the job and have they ever dreamed about getting even with the boss, and then, after that, there were some other sessions with some of our members in other places. And then, ultimately, every detail in the movie, with the exception of hanging the boss up by a garage opener system, actually came from these women. And, it was just great.

We looked at the script, we were able to comment on things and then, when the movie came out — actually, before the movie came out, Jane went and did a tour, she went to about eight or ten of our cities and we had thousands of women in these nighttime events with Jane where she was talking about what she’s learned by working on 9to5, and this was before the movie came out, and then the movie came out and we did benefits with Jane and, and then I went on a tour called the Movement Behind the Movie and went on a 20-city tour and I did press. I’d go in the morning and I’d get on those early morning television shows. At that time, just about every city had its own local morning television show where they did recipes and what was happening at the zoo, and outsider guests coming in. We would show a clip of the movie and then I’d talk about what was really going on and how office workers all around the country were standing up for themselves and do press, and then hold a meeting with office workers in the evening in that city. And this was 1980.
The movie became the Number 1 box office hit of the year and soon after, we were an organization with 25 chapters around the country. It was the best example I’ve ever seen of popular culture helping to lift organization and movement. This combination of an existing movement that needed popular culture to take the lid off and move it to a new stage.[11]

Government help

During the Carter administration 9to5 "got government funds to do great work."

It was wonderful. And that’s when we were able to hire staff in a number of cities. We would do programs. We did an oral history project that was funded by the National Endowment of the Humanities where we did oral histories in ten cities and we were able to put on staff to do that work who could also, as they were working with these women, help them in their activism on issues as well.[12]

Government service

By 1975, Boston 9to5 had joined other similar groups across the country and they reached out to a mostly unreceptive labor movement. SEIU, however, welcomed them and Local 925 was born. In 1981 the union expanded to a national jurisdiction and became SEIU District 925. Nussbaum was president of the 925 union and executive director of 9to5 until 1993. In 1993 President Bill Clinton appointed her as director of the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor. At that point Nussbaum severed ties with 9to5.

Nussbaum had been living in Cleveland for 15 years at that point. John Sweeney [then president of SEIU] proposed Nussbaum as a candidate for director of the Women’s Bureau position. Robert Reich appointed her to the job.

Big labor

In 1996 Karen Nussbaum went to the AFL-CIO to head up the newly created Working Women’s Department, which was phased out in 2001. Since then, Nussbaum has served as Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney, and as director of Working America, community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Institute for Policy Studies connections

Karen Nussbaum, Director Working Women, Cleveland, was listed[13]among those participating in the Institute for Policy Studies affiliated Conference on Alternative State and Local Policies (CASLP) Bryn Mawr August 3-5 1979.

Take Back the American Dream Conference 2011

Karen Nussbaum was one of the 158 speakers who addressed the Take Back the American Dream Conference 2011 . The Conference was hosted by the Institute for Policy Studies, and Democratic Socialists of America dominated Campaign for America's Future, [14]

NEXT AGENDA Conference

NEXT AGENDA was held at the National Press Club, Main Ballroom, Feb. 28,2001.

At Feb. 28 Conference on NEXT AGENDA, progressive activists, Congressional leaders will unite to forge strategy for "working families" agenda -- the day after President Bush delivers his plans to joint session of Congress.
-- Calling themselves the real "democratic majority," organizers and thinkers, led by the Campaign for America's Future, to release new book outlining an agenda for changes they insist most voters endorsed in 2000 elections.
On Feb. 28, a national conference on the NEXT AGENDA, will bring together progressive activists, intellectuals and allies in the Congress for the first time since the disputed election and battles over President Bush's cabinet nominees. It will frame the next two year's debate.
Sponsored by the progressive advocacy group, the Campaign for America's Future and its sister research organization, the Institute for America's Future, the Conference on the Next Progressive Agenda has been endorsed by a who's who of prominent leaders from the labor unions, women's organizations, civil rights groups, environmentalists and individual members of the House and Senate. Their goal: to forge a progressive movement to fight for the "working family" agenda they insist was endorsed by a majority of the voters in the 2000 election.

Organizers of the conference would release a new book, THE NEXT AGENDA: Blueprint for a New Progressive Movement, edited by Robert Borosage and Roger Hickey and published by Westview Press.

3:45 - 5:00 Bold Initiatives

Chair: Roger Hickey

Empowerment '92

Empowerment '92: A Call to Action Conference, was held June 6 to 9, 1992. African American community activists, joined with trade unionists, politicians, peace activists, environmentalists and others to discuss how to change the nation's priorities as the economic crisis deepens.

Of the upcoming conference DC Statehood Senator Jesse Jackson said..."We issue this Call to Action to reaffirm and reassert our vision of a true world order, one based on peace, justice and human priorities. our message, translated into action can, and must srt a new direction for our nation".[16]

Speakers included;

DSA "Globalization From Below" conference

Democratic Left, Issue #1 1998, page 10

Globalization From Below was a conference held May 29 - 31 , 1998 in Chicago Illinois, organized by Democratic Socialists of America.

Invited speakers were Profirio Munoz-Ledo, PRD-Mexico; Audrey MacLaughlin, New Democratic Party-Canada; Rev. Jesse Jackson; Dolores Huerta, United Farm Workers; Clare Short, Secretary of State for Overseas Development, UK; Rep. Luis Gutierrez; Rep. Danny Davis; Jose LaLuz, AFSCME, Karen Nussbaum, AFL-CIO; Stanley Gacek, AFL-CIO; Stephen Yokich, United Auto Workers; Enrique Herandez, Han Young/ Hyundai plant organizer, Tijuana.[17]

DSA connection

In 2002, as the director of the AFL-CIO Working Women’s Department, Nussbaum contributed an article to Democratic Socialists of America's Democratic Left, Spring edition, "Reflections on Nickel and Dimed:Earning Respect for Women Workers".[18].

Midwest Academy connection

The Gala Host Committee, for the December 10, 2014 Midwest Academy Awards Ceremony included Karen Nussbaum — Executive Director, Working America- Midwest Academy alumni .[19]

"Progressive Agenda"

Signers of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's May 12, 2015 launched The Progressive Agenda to Combat Income Inequality included Karen Nussbaum, Working America.[20]



  1. [1] Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection 2004, KAREN NUSSBAUM interviewed by KATHLEEN BANKS NUTTER, December 18–19, 2003
  2. [2] Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection 2004, KAREN NUSSBAUM interviewed by KATHLEEN BANKS NUTTER, December 18–19, 2003
  3. [3] Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection 2004, KAREN NUSSBAUM interviewed by KATHLEEN BANKS NUTTER, December 18–19, 2003
  4. [4] Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection 2004, KAREN NUSSBAUM interviewed by KATHLEEN BANKS NUTTER, December 18–19, 2003
  5. THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF COMMUNISM IN 1972 (Venceremos Brigade) PART 2, hearings before the Committee on Internal Security 92nd Congress oct 16-19, 1972 pages 8136-8138
  6. [5] Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection 2004, KAREN NUSSBAUM interviewed by KATHLEEN BANKS NUTTER, December 18–19, 2003
  7. [6] Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection 2004, KAREN NUSSBAUM interviewed by KATHLEEN BANKS NUTTER, December 18–19, 2003
  8. [7] Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection 2004, KAREN NUSSBAUM interviewed by KATHLEEN BANKS NUTTER, December 18–19, 2003
  9. [8] Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection 2004, KAREN NUSSBAUM interviewed by KATHLEEN BANKS NUTTER, December 18–19, 2003
  10. [9] Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection 2004, KAREN NUSSBAUM interviewed by KATHLEEN BANKS NUTTER, December 18–19, 2003
  11. [10] Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection 2004, KAREN NUSSBAUM interviewed by KATHLEEN BANKS NUTTER, December 18–19, 2003
  12. [11] Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection 2004, KAREN NUSSBAUM interviewed by KATHLEEN BANKS NUTTER, December 18–19, 2003
  13. Information Digest August 24 1979
  14. Our Future website: Take Back the American Dream 2011 Speakers (accessed on Sept. 22, 2011)
  15. Common Dreams, Morning After Bush's Speech, Progressive Activists to Unite Feb. 28 for Conference on 'Working Family' Agenda, WASHINGTON - February 26 - News Advisory
  16. Peoples Weekly World, May 25, 1991, page 8
  17. Issue #1 1998 • Democratic Left • page 10
  18. Democratic Left • Spring 2002
  19. MWA homepage 2014 GALA HOST COMMITTEE