Activist Provides Guidelines to Negotiating a Life

“If we don’t make a ruckus about it, who the hell will?”

Like leadership, negotiation is a learned skill. But most of us haven’t been taught how to negotiate properly, much less deal with the anxiety surrounding the experience.

    Activist Hannah Rosenthal is no stranger to negotiation. As the executive director of the Chicago Foundation for Women, she heads an advocacy and grant-making group focused on human rights issues impacting women and girls.


    Rosenthal offered advice about negotiating one’s life from a personal, professional and political point of view at the Wisconsin Women in Higher Education Leadership conference held at Marian College WI in October 2005.


    “Increasingly, negotiating skills are great to have,” she said, “if the playing field is level. If not, the best negotiating skills in the world will get you only so far.” Most of us recognize that the disparity in power causes the playing field to be pretty bumpy. The solution is to be more creative and look at a larger context to get what we need.


    Most of life requires negotiating, whether it’s scheduling a committee meeting or attending a daughter’s soccer game instead of working late. Before beginning the process, decide what you’re comfortable with getting at the end.


Creating an activist


    Attending an all-women’s college during the late 1960s, Rosenthal admitted that her initial desire was to become President of the United States. “I used to think that we figure out which vehicle available today is right for us,” she said of achieving objectives.


    Activism, in full swing during her college years, was a wonderful vehicle for social change. Rosenthal marched in the streets and attended the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. “But I decided that the pace was wrong and that I needed a vehicle that matched my own clock,” she said.


    So she followed her father’s example and entered the seminary to become a rabbi. Like many survivors of the Holocaust, her father had guilt about why he had survived the trauma when so many others didn’t. “He’d tell me, ‘I survived to have you,’” said Rosenthal. “So the guilt passes on to me.”


    Rosenthal eventually left the seminary and went into religious education. Encountering Leviticus and verses about paying a woman 50 shekels to do a job and paying a man 100 shekels to do the same job, she tried to rewrite the curriculum to recognize women’s equality. But again, she found the pace too slow. “They weren’t used to hearing from one whose legs showed,” she said.


    So she moved to state government and discovered that a lot can get done in those halls of power if you know how to play the game. Running the home office for U.S. Congressman Robert Kastenmeier (D-WI) who was on the judiciary committee during Watergate, Rosenthal found that politics was a better pace. “I learned you can take down a President with the right power,” she said.


    And she was finally able to “spread the wealth of guilt” to her two daughters. “My goal is to leave the world better for them,” she said.


Negotiating one’s worth


    Starting the Wisconsin Women’s Council in 1984, Rosenthal helped to pass legislation on comparable worth for women. The negotiation process began with gaining pay equity at the state level and spread throughout state government. “It was a great victory, but opponents found a great way to eviscerate it,” she said. “I learned you have to stay with an issue. It never goes away.”


    When Rosenthal’s chief opponent, Tommy Thompson, got elected governor, she learned that negotiation needed to be reframed to build coalitions with other stakeholders. “You need a level playing field to negotiate, but they have all the power in the government,” she said. So Rosenthal chose a creative plan to communicate directly with the public.


    For example, when a bank fired a female employee because she had a child, the case became the impetus for much of the job protection legislation. “We worked hard and made up the strategy as we went along,” she said. To pass the legislation, the Council needed to educate an entire business community.


    Looking at the unusual rather than the usual suspects, Rosenthal’s group connected with the local Catholic conference, which was generally on the opposite end of the table from her on any issue. But she understood the Catholics were motivated by a deep respect for the poor and social justice. “Much of politics is understanding compromise,” she said. “Although I never could get them on our side on women’s body issues.”


    In exchange for its support, the Catholic group wanted the Council to support its cause: allowing women to stay home with a child for six months after an adoption. The plaintiff in the bank case had considered an abortion rather than challenging the bank’s decision, so this wasn’t a stretch.


    The Council got the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce group to support a six-week maternity leave. It wasn’t the six months the Catholic group wanted, but it was a start. “Six weeks was better than none and we considered this a floor to start on,” she said. Later, the Council played an instrumental role in the passage of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).


    Gov. Thompson, who left to head the Department of Health and Human Services during President Bush’s first term, threatened to veto the FMLA. But before he could do so, the Council staged a press conference featuring children with cancer who told the press how bad it was to go through chemotherapy without their mom there because the moms couldn’t leave their jobs. “Reporters were crying,” she said.


    The Council used a key negotiating point to win that battle when it decided to talk past the power brokers to frame the issue and negotiate through the press. “I used my father’s tactic,” she admitted, “shaming them into doing the right thing.”


Battles remain

    One battle is won, but there are others to fight. “We’ve been more than reasonable in negotiating family and medical leaves as well as raising funds for violence against women,” she added. “But we’ve allowed opponents of women’s rights to define the issue and use their language. They’ve narrowed the issue severely.”


    Rosenthal warned about the national strategy to allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions if they disagree with a product’s intent. “We’ve let them call them late-term abortions and they’ve advanced to the point where it’s all about the fetus,” she said. “As women, we’re invisible, we’re unprotected. We have to push back. We can’t let them negotiate about our bodies.”


    In 1992, Rosenthal left the Council and state government, joining the Clinton campaign and learned more useful lessons in negotiation. “I learned how power is and isn’t used and how easy it is to take power away from you with your permission,” said Rosenthal.


    Later, heading up a private advocacy group whose mission statement called for “poking the eyes of people who are not treating people right,” she learned more negotiating skills.


    When the Bush administration decided to give tax breaks with the surplus it inherited from the Clinton White House, Rosenthal’s group opposed the cuts because they were unfairly distributed and would take away Medicare from the poor. But her group had a million-dollar donor from New York who threatened to shut her down because those tax cuts were good for his business.


    She spent many sleepless nights wondering about compromising the group’s voice and deciding whether or not to pull punches so that the advocacy group would stay viable. Instead, she talked past him, contacting the New York Times and connecting with a reporter she had previously built a relationship with. The reporter asked the donor about the issues of abortion and women’s health. “He backed off and we saved the agency,” said Rosenthal.


Advice from a pro

    Rosenthal told the Wisconsin women leaders that they can use their power to solve issues of poverty, caring for our country and supporting our values. “Now we need to stop talking to each other and talk to new people. You’re not just talking about English literature but about the big picture,” she continued. “You’re leaders, in positions of power. You need to push back. What you learn in books about negotiating works only if the playing field is level. Power disparity means we have an unlevel playing field.”


    She advised women to demand to talk to others, not just those at their table. Do it often, do it in coalition with others, do it knowing you’re taking a risk and do it right away. She suggested using the print media, which is especially powerful because it can be reproduced and sent around to others.


    “We can no longer be proper, be counted on to be reasonable or to act like ladies. We’re smart, skilled, have chutzpah and life experience. We need to push back,” she said.


    “If we don’t make a ruckus about it, who the hell will?” she asked. “We have to be a little more comfortable with making others a little more uncomfortable, so we can look back in 30 years and say ‘We did make a difference.’”  




Contact Rosenthal: or 312.836.0126 ext. 217

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