Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky at Willard House Sept. 24.                         Photo by Janet G. Messenger

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Despite record-setting heat on Sept. 24, more than a hundred people showed up on the front lawn of the Willard House Museum, 1728-30 Chicago Ave., to celebrate the 178th birthday of local temperance and suffrage leader Frances E. Willard (1839 -98). They also came to hear U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky recount her path to leadership and to help launch the new Center for Women’s History and Leadership, resulting from the imminent merger of the Frances Willard Historical Association (FWHA) and the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (NWCTU).

The annual “Do Everything” party theme picked up on a Willard motto that is reflected in the far-reaching mission of the new Center. It was also emblazoned on Rep. Schakowsky’s “Do Everything” T-shirt that encouraged women to: publish, lobby, petition, preach, organize, and educate – almost all of which she herself has done, starting with a late 1960s campaign to let consumers know how fresh the food is that they buy. In fact, on the next shopping trip to the grocery store, anyone who checks the expiration date on a bottle of milk or a jar of spaghetti sauce can thank her grassroots group for this important information.

It was 1969 when National Consumers United (NCU) was founded. Jan Schakowsky was a young housewife in the northwest suburbs when she and several friends began visiting grocery stores to promote freshness dating. She said they had all been victims of buying spoiled food, of opening slimy hotdog packages or containers of cottage cheese topped with green mold.

Primarily, they went to the big Chicago-area chains: Jewel Food and National Tea Company. They would ask the clerk, the butcher, any employee how fresh a particular product was and how they could tell. They came armed with clipboards and pens, copying down whatever they learned. Sometimes they came with reporters.

They would ask how to read the product code, but it turned out grocers considered that a trade secret. The best strategy to learn the code, they found, was to persuade stock boys to tell them. That’s how we began “cracking the code,” Rep. Schakowsky said. They also learned other ways to determine freshness. For example, the color of a twist on the bread bag signified what day it arrived at the store. They soon realized, she said, that many items were long past any fresh date, with some sitting on the shelf for months or even years.

The group’s persistence and creativity brought them to the attention of the National Tea Company, which hired top-flight lawyers to investigate these irritating activists. “National even called our husbands at work,” Rep. Schakowsky said, “and asked why they couldn’t control their wives.”

In 1970, the women bought one share of stock in Jewel and one in National. A single share opened the door for them to attend National’s stockholders meeting that year. There they nominated Chicago’s iconoclastic journalist Mike Royko for a seat on the board. They also pressed the company for reports on just how much money had been spent investigating them. “We upset the company president so much,” the Congresswoman said, “that he called us ‘either communists or spies from Jewel.’”

When the NCU women had deciphered a thousand codes, they published every one of them. Consumers and consumer groups from across the country snapped up the invaluable code book until some 25,000 copies were sold at 50¢ apiece.

In the Chicago area, Jewel was the first chain store to buckle. Rep. Schakowsky said its advertising even began to urge women to shop at Jewel because it had easy-to-read dating. National Tea soon followed.

During all of her years in government office –  eight in the Illinois legislature and, so far, 18 in the U.S. House of Representatives – Rep. Schakowsky has continued to focus on consumer issues.

“From ordinary housewives,” she said, “we were changed into ‘ordinary housewives who could make a difference in the world.’” She admitted, “That is a very addictive feeling.”

“Well, that’s my story,” she concluded and urged everyone to join her and “get off the sidelines.”

The party wound up with guests invited to tell their own stories, recorded with assistance from the Library of Congress StoryCorps. Guests also toured Rest Cottage, Miss Willard’s former home willed to the NWCTU at her death. It was turned into a museum in 1900. Today the Willard House Museum and the Frances Willard Memorial Library and Archives are run by the FWHA. They occupy two of the five buildings in Evanston’s WCTU Historic District. Ownership of the district’s land and all five buildings are expected to be transferred in November from the NWCTU to the new Center.