In Memory: Tributes to past civil liberties leaders

Mickey (Merle) Stern 1929 – 2017

Mickey Stern

Feminist, activist and civil libertarian Mickey Stern passed away September 25, 2017 at the age of 88.

Mickey and her husband Al (who died in 2008) were recruited to the ACLU family many years ago by their good friend, Harold Levine. They were staunch supporters from that day forward, having found yet another outlet for their unflinching commitment to social justice.

Mickey grew up in Windsor, Canada with her immigrant parents and three siblings. She attended I.L. Peretz Yiddish secular after-school program for six days a week for six years. “My Jewish socialist education influenced me for the rest of my life,” she explained.

Mickey came to Cleveland, Ohio in 1948 to study at Flora Stone Mather College at Case Western Reserve University.

“J. Edgar Hoover considered me very dangerous,” she once joked.

A few years later she helped to organize a meeting to protest the death sentence of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were accused of conspiracy to commit espionage. “I did not believe the punishment fit the crime,” she said. Al Stern came to that meeting.

She and Al married in 1953, and meetings for causes quickly became their way of life. At the same time they raised three children, Rifka, Brian, and Gary.

In 1957 Mickey joined the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). The Cleveland chapter studied, petitioned, and educated the public about nuclear disarmament and peace and social justice issues.

In 2009, Mickey requested her FBI file. One year later, 500 pages arrived, mostly related to her work with WILPF. As it turned out, for eleven years an informant reported on all the meetings of the group, made up of mostly middle-class peace activists. The file also included reports on her anti-Vietnam war, women’s liberation, and abortion counseling activities. “J. Edgar Hoover considered me very dangerous,” she once joked.


Mickey told her life story beautifully when she was honored in 1994 with the Creative Philanthropy Award given by the Women’s Community Foundation (WCF) (Excerpted):

“My social awareness didn’t turn into social activism until after I graduated from Mather College in 1950. Those were dark years for freedom, with McCarthyism in full force. In the frightening climate of 1953, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg received the death penalty for conspiracy, the first Americans ever to be sentenced to death in peacetime for spying. I was so distressed by the injustice of the death sentence that, despite my fear of being labeled a subversive, I helped to plan a protest meeting.

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That meeting had a significant effect on my life, for two very different reasons. It launched my lifelong career as an activist, and it was there that I met my husband-to-be, Al Stern. We were married six months later, and have shared a passion for social causes ever since.

Al and I settled down in the suburbs. Getting married was easy. Staying married has been a challenge and an ongoing adventure, a process of growth and of compromise. After 41 years Al and I are still blessed with romance and excitement with each other. And we have developed a partnership of support for each other’s causes.

The early years of childrearing were hard for me. Having three children in five years overwhelmed me as a mother. I lost my confidence and my sense of self. I should have felt lucky. I had what was supposed to be the great American Dream — you know, husband, children, house, and all the appliances. But instead I felt depressed. When Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique she must have had me in mind.

Fortunately, I found inspiration in a different dream. In the summer of 1963 I watched with horror the TV coverage of African-Americans struggling to register to vote. I felt compelled to do something. Leaving the children and Al at home I joined the historic March on Washington. This memorable gathering and the eloquence of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. became the catalyst for my commitment to work for racial justice. For the next four years, I volunteered with CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. There I learned about racism, my own and others. I learned about the dangers and risks many were willing to take to challenge the status quo. I also was a witness to the development of black pride and black leadership.

Soon thereafter, Al became active in the anti-war movement. Our home was the center of meetings and mailings, and the local “Blair House” for visiting political activists. Al was usually in a leadership role. I was usually the secretary and the coffee server.

Then came the turning point. At age 40, I joined a consciousness-raising group. This was the beginning of a remarkable quest which taught me to value women — including myself. I began to understand the power imbalance between the sexes — and how much this has to do with who controls the money.

The group changed how I related to my world. I began to call myself a feminist, a label I continue to wear proudly. And I began to gain the confidence and acquire the tools to take on leadership positions. In 1970, I joined the first of many organizations run by and for women. There I found my own true voice.

One of these groups was Cleveland Women’s Counseling, formed in the early 1970’s to be an advocate for women with unwanted pregnancies. Abortion was illegal in Ohio, but was legal in New York and Washington, D.C. We established a hotline for referrals, and counseled many women. I learned then that a small group of people with commitment, passion and vision can have an important impact on their community — and in the process can transform their own lives.

When I saw how our counselors were drawing on their own meager salaries to help women pay for abortions, I started a revolving loan fund. I learned to ask anyone and everyone for money. I discovered that it is easier to ask people for money when you yourself are fervently dedicated to your cause.

But we did more than raise money and make referrals. We enlisted the help of doctors and psychiatrists to provide therapeutic abortions in Cleveland for women who, because of complications, were not able to travel. I learned that with a strong belief in your cause you can move others to take action, even on an issue they may never have considered.

When Roe v. Wade legalized a women’s right to choose, I took what I had learned to Cleveland Preterm, which I co-founded in 1974 as a nonprofit feminist-run abortion clinic. None of us had any hands-on business experience.

What we did have was endless passion and a burning vision of what ideal health care should be. We based our operation on principles such as diversity, participatory management, a concern for the feelings of all involved, and support for each other. I learned you could successfully run a clinic in a feminist way — collectively and collaboratively.

At Preterm, for the first time in my life, I had a real career. At home, Al and I suddenly found ourselves in somewhat opposite roles. For the next four years I was the workaholic, and Al, even while he operated his business from our home, became the nurturer and co-homemaker to me and our youngest son who was still living at home. During those years I learned the power of having my own money — money I could spend as I saw fit.

After four years of immersion in the work of Preterm, I called it quits. But a funny thing happened on my way to a less hectic life. I got depressed. So Al and I worked out an arrangement where I would earn a salary. I don’t mean grocery money nor household money, but a salary for the time, energy and creativity that I bring to our family: The lesson that both Al and I learned is to appreciate the role of the homemaker and nurturer and to value it as work that deserves compensation.

Recharged emotionally and financially, I volunteered part-time for 9 to 5, the National Association of Office Workers. I wanted to work on the hotline. They wanted me to raise money. They won. I composed my first solicitation letter, which I mailed to a growing network of friends and associates. Much to my surprise this letter brought in $5,000. I credit 9 to 5 for teaching me many of my fundraising and public relations skills.

And then we entered the 80’s, and another great and lasting passion in my life arrived. I saw The Dinner Party, a multi-media work of art, by the feminist artist Judy Chicago. I was deeply moved by its portrayal of the incredible scope of women’s achievements that had been distorted, discarded, and often forgotten by history. A group came together in my home to see if we could mobilize a grassroots effort to bring the exhibit to Cleveland. We went around the room pledging money. By the end of the night we had come up with the $65,000 needed to negotiate a contract. Trembling a little, I pledged $5,000, money that had built up in my retirement fund from Preterm. For the first time in my life I had made a sizable contribution without consulting my husband. I was willing to risk my own money for a cause I believed in.

I had as little experience in the art world as I had earlier in the business world. But for the next 12 months, I was part of a board of 20 people and 200 volunteers, raising money, reaching out to the community, renovating an exhibit space, and organizing a symposium. And for three months in 1981, more than 30,000 visitors came to the exhibit and learned about some extraordinary women in our history. When the exhibit ended, we had $70,000 in the bank. We distributed it among 10 community organizations, and half of that amount became the seed money for what is now — you guessed it – the Women’s Community Foundation.

For me, a delicious bonus of The Dinner Party is my friendship with its incredibly talented and visionary creator, Judy Chicago. I’m proud to be her friend — and proud also to serve on the board of Through the Flower, the organization that supports, preserves, and exhibits her artwork.

Presently, I’m involved in trying to bring about a permanent home for The Dinner Party by raising money for a building and an endowment fund. I am working to accomplish this nationally through my activities with the Through the Flower board and locally with the Dinner Party Site Project.

The spirit of The Dinner Party lives on in the Women’s Community Foundation. I’m proud to call myself one of its foremothers. The Women’s Community Foundation is a wonderful example of how vision, determination and hard work has made it possible for women to help empower other women.

My organizational work energizes me. I love working with women from diverse ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds; lesbian and straight women; women from whom I constantly learn and grow. Our difference in experiences and style can be challenging but the process of solving problems together is also very rewarding. I constantly struggle to balance work and play and family so that I do not burn out. I’m here for the long haul.

My journey has taken place on two levels — the personal and the public. I’ve had to confront myself, about my anxieties, my anger, my relationships, and my hang-ups about writing and public speaking. My political work has been strengthened considerably by my personal growth through therapy, my ongoing women’s groups, and the love and support of family and friends.

Thank you, Women’s Community Foundation, for this honor. You have helped me to see myself as a philanthropist. I appreciate how very privileged I am — how blessed I have been to have the health, the education, the time, and the resources to pursue my dreams.”

Mickey Stern
November 15, 1994

Mickey’s obituary can be read online.

A memorial service will be held for Mickey Stern this Thursday, September 28 at 11:00 a.m. at Landerhaven, 6111 Landerhaven Drive, Cleveland, OH. 44124. (Google map)

  • Read Al and Mickey Stern: Signing on for the Big Life, from the January 2007 Cleveland Liberty, the ACLU Cleveland Chapter newsletter (large pdf).
  • Read “Urging women to take charge of their philanthropy” published by Cleveland Jewish News January 27, 1995.
  • Read Al Stern’s biography.
  • You can honor Mickey Stern by making a gift to the ACLU of Ohio Foundation.