A Letter from Karen Mulhauser, Immediate Past Chair of the United Nations Association-USA National Council

It is a surprising and amazing honor to be asked to give remarks at the 2017 WomenWerk Gala.  I have thought a lot about what to say this evening to a group of such smart and talented people. Nekpen asked if I would say something about my self-care journey and any advice I’d offer my younger self. Hopefuly my reflections as a girl growing up on a farm in a small town with one African American family and as a young professional whose formative years were before social media will have some relevance.  I grew up when most women did not keep their maiden names when marrying — and when LGBT marriages were unheard of. Gay and lesbian young people either had to keep their life reality a secret or were not accepted as normal. Fortunately this is slowly changing.

I decided to shape my remarks as a letter from the 74 year old Karen Mulhauser of today to the fifteen year old Karen Webber.  I believe that the most profound lessons I pass on to my younger self are universal.  You will know when your self-care support is different from mine.  What is important is that we do take care of ourselves – that we know what is important to us – and that we truly understand that we are not practicing for the next time – this is it – we have one life.  We have opportunities to make it as good as possible.


A letter from today’s Karen Mulhauser to teenage Karen Webber

March 11, 2017 to Karen of March 1957

Dear Karen,

I want to give you some information about what you will experience in the net six decades. Yes, one day you will be even older than Grandma is today.

First of all, you are going to have a great life. Really.  It is not always going to seem that way. There are going to be a lot of disappointments along the way. But you are going to learn from them and some will even make you stronger. You are also going to make mistakes – and you will learn from them as well. And, those boyfriends you do not even know yet, but will meet in the next several years, they are going to break your heart.  However, that will leave you free to fall in love with the man whose name you will take and who you will stay married to for at least 48 years.

Mostly, at this time in your life, I want you to know you will not always be as shy as you are now. This must seem hard to imagine, but trust me — life will present you with some amazing opportunities. You will give speeches in front of large audiences and you will be interviewed on TV and you will start and lead organizations and you will even work in presidential campaigns. You’ll see that it gets easier the more you push yourself to take some risks, and, well, as you try new and challenging things.

This getting over being shy thing will not happen right away. Today you don’t have the self-confidence you see in your classmates, but you will learn to trust your instincts.  It won’t even happen while you are in college [more about that later], but it WILL happen and one day you will have the confidence to stand in front of a room full of people at the 2017 WomenWerk Gala. Yes, you will live that long!

Karen, there are two important lessons that we learn along the way. The most important lesson is to take risks. And the other is that we work best when we work with others – we will form communities where they did not yet exist. We are still shy in college but we find ways to seem normal.  We become a science major and it is appropriate to spend a lot of time in the science building … alone… with the test tubes.  And because we admire the people who do have [or appear to have] self-confidence, we make the costumes for the actors in plays in both high school and college.  We enjoy doing well in both our science and back-stage lives.  And this is the beginning of self confidence.

You go to Antioch College where you get credit for working in jobs off campus – experiential learning is valued as well as classroom leaning. Your first job is as “Play Lady” on the children’s ward of a public hospital where you spend each day mostly with African America children and you spend evenings at the settlement house where you make costumes for the African American actors in the “Raisin in the Sun’ performance.  At the binning of the work term, you are conscious of being among the only white people in the room – day and night.  At the end of your work term when Sidney Poitier comes to opening night, you realize you will never again be comfortable in a room with only white people.

After college, we start graduate school to prepare to do medical research. Part way through graduate school, we decide we would rather work with people than with rats and we drop out of school. We think we have failed.

THAT WAS A BIG RISK – Now what? We do not know what to do — how to start a new life.  And then we take another big risk – we teach high school sciences for two years.  Karen, you know now at 15 that you are doing well in sciences, but teach it? Stand in front of a classroom?  And speak?!  Yikes! You are probably asking, “Is that really going to be me in ten years?”  The answer is yes.

And this is where it starts getting interesting. You’ll be a good teacher and your students will do as well on the SATs as the students of the ‘real science teacher’. You’ll meet that husband I mentioned at the beginning of this letter. He is also teaching at the same school [you’ll know him when you look at his ring finger in the very first faculty meeting]. You’ll get over some of that shyness by helping the teenagers – people your age now – understand about their sexuality.  I know that you do not know much now about sex now – you’ll learn.  But you probably already know how valuable it would be if there were someone you could talk with. And get this — You become that person!  The school will not allow you to teach a formal sex education course, but the students will come to you, and you will not be uncomfortable telling them about contraception, how to say “no” if you’re not ready for se and even explain to boys that when a girl says “no”, it means “NO!” You will go on the counsel hundreds of women and girls about their reproductive choices and rights, and you will train doctors, nurses and counselors who work in family planning programs.  And, yes, this is more progress with the self confidence thing.

Then you will spend more than a decade working on reproductive rights issues – you’ll keep taking risks such as saying “yes” when asked if you’ll be the President of NARAL – the National Abortion Rights Action League. This is when we decide we will probably work on women’s issues and reproductive rights the rest of our life. Women cannot avail themselves of all the education and other opportunities the women’s movement is advocating for if they cannot control when or if they will have children. Simple.

And this brings us to our next life lesson. We do our best work when we build community and work with others.  When we are asked to run NARAL, we approach other women who are running nonprofits and we start a support network of women executive directors.  Turns out we are not the only one who wants guidance from time to time and need others outside our organization to talk with as we learn how to manage and grow NARAL.

We learn a great deal in that NARAL decade and then, when the cold war heats up in the early 80s, we decide to take what we learn and we start two disarmament organizations. This chapter of our life allows us to learn about a whole other community, to build coalitions and organize a delegate education project for both the Democrat and Republican conventions and we are asked to travel to Australia to speak to a crowd of 350,000 peace activists. Really, Karen, we do that.

We learn a lot about nonprofit management, advocacy, coalition building and organizing – and along the way, we see a lot of dysfunctional boards and organizations.  In 1988 we have enough confidence to start Mulhauser and Associates, a consulting firm that will help such groups. We continue taking risks, like taking on contracts to organize international conferences, lead organizations in strategic planning and conflict management, working in presidential campaigns and so much more.  This is when we will start doing a lot of international work and one day even become the president of United Nations Association of the National Capital Area – and then the Chair of the whole UNA of the USA. And we work on global gender equality issues as well as domestic.

Soon we see another opportunity to build a supportive community. In response to inquiries about how to start a consulting business, we build a network that eventually grows to 1,000 DC-area self-employed women.  Amazing, right? Us, the shy fifteen year old girl growing up on a farm!

Another wonderful community that we help build is Women’s Information Network. It starts around our dining room table in Washington, DC in 1989 when several young women ask us why second wave feminists are not doing more to help the next generation. WIN figures out how to change that dynamic and we continue to be involved until today. It is the strongest leadership development and mentoring network for young, prochoice, Democratic women in DC – perhaps nationwide. And WIN gives the annual Karen Mulhauser award to the woman who has done the most to help young women that year.

I suspect that we enjoy and appreciate these support communities because – basically, we still lack a bit of self-confidence and appreciate trying out ideas with others. But we come to appreciate the support networks because we know that others need them as much as we do.

Karen, people will tell you that they cannot imagine that you were once shy, but I have to tell you our little secret – we still are.  But just like hiding out in the science building doing what science majors do, we find ways to appear normal.