In Memoriam: Olga Vives
Former National Officer "Wasn't Through Yet"
March 19, 2012 | More Tributes
NOW and the women's movement lost a valiant champion on March 16. Olga Vives served as NOW's executive vice president from 2005 to 2009, and NOW's action vice president from 2001 to 2005.
Olga began her career as a crusader very early in life. At 14 she arrived in the United States with her Cuban family, and as the only one who spoke English, she marched into agency after agency negotiating on behalf of her parents and relatives. She knew and practiced the art of negotiation and resolve in her principled deal making, long before most of us managed more than our allowance.
Olga brought to NOW this same determination based on her life as a businesswoman, single mother, immigrant and proud lesbian. She was a dedicated advocate for all women and fiercely fought for the rights of girls and women who were often left out in the crusade for civil, human and equal rights. Joining NOW in the early '80s in Illinois to fight for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, she was first out of the box to demand economic justice and equal opportunity for women treated as second class, or no class, citizens.
In her eight years as a national officer in NOW, she led the charge against the Iraq invasion, demanded fairness for Wal-Mart workers before it became stylish, exposed the hypocrisy of the Bush White House with The Truth About George campaign, represented the women's movement in demanding that sexual identity be included in the Hate Crimes legislation, held the first meeting of the National Coalition for Immigrant Women's Rights, and devised a lobbying strategy to support equal marriage when allied organizations said "it's not time yet."
Olga devised 10 for Change, a voter mobilization tool using the Internet, before online voter organizing was popular. She led the NOW board across the bridge to Juarez, Mexico, to protest the rampant and unsolved murders of women. And in November 2007 Olga called us all to roll up our sleeves and hit the ground to work for Hillary Clinton's presidential bid. Many of us followed her to Iowa and other key primary states, and thousands volunteered to make phone calls and donate money to this effort spearheaded by Olga. Her response to those who suggested "The time isn't right, wait for a while, how can we do this alone" was "There's no time like right NOW" and "If not us, who will?"
Olga spent her last week in a sunny hospice, surrounded by family and friends. She loved reading the hundreds of messages NOW members sent her, and she loved reviewing her life's loves and accomplishments. Olga's only regret was that she wasn't quite through yet, and she would not see her granddaughter Mia grow up. So we all promised to be stewards for Mia and all young girls who deserve the opportunities and challenges that Olga fought so hard to guarantee for them.
Olga was our jefe and comadre -- our sister, our friend, our boss and our conscience, our angel and party girl, our inspiration and our model, exasperating and exhilarating. When it was suggested that Olga go to heaven and have a chat with God and ask her to stop the wars and the rapes and beatings, Olga laughed and said, "Okay, give me a target list."
Submit your memories of Olga Vives, and we will post as many as we can below.
Tributes to Olga Vives
The cold winter of 2007 was setting in, and most people were making their grand plans for the holiday season. Olga Vives, our then Executive Vice President of the National Organization for Women, sent out an email blast to several of her friends indicating that she could not sit idly by and allow the world to ignore the woman who would make herstory for all women and girls. Olga was going to Iowa to campaign for Hillary Clinton, our first viable woman candidate for President of the United States. One by one, we responded to her email. Before long, approximately 10 feminists jumped on the wagon that would be later be known amongst the Democrats as the "Woman's Campaign for Hillary." Little did we know how our vigor and our enthusiasm would become the talk of several political circles. As seasoned feminists we knew what to expect. Olga warned us...campaigns could be brutal and we knew that people would criticize us by claiming that we only wanted Hillary Clinton as the President of the United States simply "because she is a woman." But in the coming days and weeks, the gauntlet was thrown down. Olga proudly proclaimed that Hillary was our candidate and we were determined that the world was going to hear our battle cry. Yes, she was a woman, but she was qualified and it was our job to make sure that our message was heard. Olga Vives led the charge. She was our warrior sister, our leader, the woman who would give me the most memorable time of my NOW life. Together we set out on our journey to make herstory, and we did. I will never forget Olga Vives. Gracias por todo amiga.
Marcia Pappas, Saratoga, New York
Olga Vives was a long-time advocate for women's, immigrants', people of color, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ people's rights. She also loved a good meal, a good glass of wine, salsa dancing, and spending time talking to her family and friends. My fondest memories of Olga were sitting down at a meal after an action and spending hours laughing, talking, and strategizing on what she/we might do next. Olga, you will sorely be missed. My condolences to Mia and the rest of your family -- both related and to all those who thought of you as a sister.
Joanne Tosti-Vasey, Bellefonte, Pennsylvania
One thing you can certainly say about Olga is that she was 100%. Whether she was fighting for something she believed in, kicking up her heels, loving her family, or being a loyal friend, Olga was all the way. Her passion for justice and for life was infectious and persuasive. Our friendship, which had its roots in my admiration for her as a leader, quickly became strong and deep. I watched my friend in awe as she rallied the troops, dreamed up creative new action programs, marched and spoke out. She was a fighter. She was a real force to be reckoned with. And she had no inclination to stop until justice for all was achieved. Olga and I had plenty of down time together as well. My lakeside home in New Hampshire provided a kind of sanctuary for her, to have quiet time to think and regenerate. We could sit for hours in the peaceful quiet that only true friends can share. And then she would be off again, to lead another charge and fight another fight. When cancer came knocking at her door, she fought again, and she fought hard. She fought to live to see her granddaughter enter this world -– a baby girl with Olga's eyes. My heart is broken that my dear friend is gone. But her spirit will be with me always. The world is a better place because Olga was in it, fighting tirelessly for justice and equality for us all.
Kris Moody, Strafford, New Hampshire
Inspiration, sister, and leader, Olga Vives is strongly missed already. Her never-stop, never-give-up attitude inspired many women to believe feminism's voice could include their own. She embraced controversy and was willing to have a fight, when necessary, to include more women in the struggle for justice. She understood deeply the transformative power a woman president would have had for women's equality in the United States and led many NOW leaders to snow-filled road trips in Iowa and beyond to support Hillary Clinton's historic candidacy. Olga was a great friend. She lived hard, laughed hard, worked hard and stood up for immigrant women, lesbian women, women of color, young women, global women, women with disabilities, women and girls no matter who they were. Olga rejected privilege in any manifestation and worked for a true equality for all women. In Olga's spirit, we say, Viva NOW!
Erin Matson, Washington, D.C.
Olga, You were a true champion of women and a friend forever. May all your trails lead home.
Martha Burk, Corrales, New Mexico
Olga was the executive vice president when I worked as a policy intern in the national D.C. office during the summer of 2007. She was always an inspiration -- a true crusader for gender equality. I remember her fondly as a kind, friendly, and humorous woman.
Julia Fedor, Chicago, Illinois
I am so saddened to hear of the death of Olga Vives. I met her through my friend Karen Johnson (former NOW officer). While in DC, we use to have a lot of laughs together. I will always remember how supportive she was when my brother died suddenly in 2005. My thoughts and prayers are with Olga's family in this time of grief. She will be missed.
Jannette, Washington, D.C.
There are so many memories of our meetings, conferences, dancing, actions, and Olga was the life of every event!! However the most important memory was how she inspired you to never stop, never give up!!! Thank you Olga for your inspiration and leadership!
Renee Beeker, Milford, Michigan
I can still see and hear Olga laughing -- what a wonderful, full laughter she had. I remember Olga for her commitment to the women of Cuba and Venezuela. She drew me to NOW because of her ability to work cross borders as if there were no borders when it came to the agenda of women. And while we had our differences around Cuba, she knew that the women's rights agenda was so much more advanced in Cuba than in our own U.S. She co-led the U.S. Women & Cuba Collaboration's women's delegation to Venezuela and marched with thousands of women from Venezuela and Latin America on International Women's Day. We have all lost a good compañera and while we will not try to fill her shoes, she remains an inspiration for all of us who continue working for the same values and issues that she was committed too. I drink a glass of Cuban rum for you Olga and will miss you much!
Cindy Domingo, Seattle, Washington
I knew Olga for only a few years, but was always "awe" inspired by her reputation and dedication to NOW. I will miss seeing her, because every time I did see her I was inspired to do more for women. May her legacy inspire us all to move NOW into the 21st Century and beyond...she'll be looking over our shoulders. Gracias por los recuerdos!
Shirley Rawls, Montgomery, Alabama
I worked with Olga on the campaign to pass the ERA and on clinic defense in Chicago, and I will never forget her! She was a trip! Olga was funny, profane, very smart and never gave an inch in her defense of women's rights. Olga was totally secure in debating with anti-choice and anti-feminist baiters, but really nice and a warm person to them, almost as if she felt sorry for them. My memories of her on the picket lines, at demonstrations, and in clinic defense, are of her smiling and laughing, but standing firm in her defense of our right to equality and to control our own bodies. When push came to shove, she was always there.
Cathy Gutekanst, Chicago, Illinois
My Condolences to Olga Vives' Loving Family, Friends, and Co-workers. Thank you Olga for all of the positive changes you made for all women that have struggled to support their families and enrich their lives and everyone around them. You are sadly missed because I feel that you are one of the team leaders that set forth the determination and groundwork for better lives and protection for women of the world. Women are the backbone of the world, women provide a safe haven for everyone to live and work in harmony together. I'm going to miss your future correspondence and informative letters.
Rex, Simsboro, Louisiana
I remember Olga for her steadfast support of the transgender community. She was key to educating Senator Kennedy on the importance of adding clear transgender protections to the federal hate crimes bill before it passed. She showed resolve and courage to fight for what was right, and her work with NOW was an important part of why we won the inclusion of "gender identity." She will be missed. - Lisa Mottet, Transgender Civil Rights Project Director, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
Lisa Mottet, Washington, D.C.
Olga came to Syracuse to help our chapter become more effective. At the time, I was chair of the local chapter. Olga was very soft-spoken and did not in any way try to get us on a band-wagon. I recall driving around the city with her and thinking that I wished so many of our so-called leaders would be the facilitator that Olga was. Thank you Olga--I'm so happy to have met you--and your kind of leadership keeps all of us hopeful. Best regards to all of you in NOW.
Patricia Durgin, Syracuse, New York
Olga Vives had been a national board member and regional director from the Great Lakes Region before becoming a national vice-president. She was from Illinois when she served on the national board with Karen Johnson and me. Karen Godshall and Marion Wagner may also have served with Olga. I had a phone conversation with Karen Johnson this morning about our years with Olga. There was so much energy and passion and also disappointment and frustration, but we always kept our eyes on the big goal -- constitutional equality for women and all the protections and opportunities that went with it.
Through tears of sadness and a sense of great loss, I sent the following message out last night to the NOW officers, former officers, state presidents and a few of Olga's close friends:
This news was so hard to bear even with the forewarning that Olga had been in Hospice. I was very close to Olga; she was there for me when I had a serious health crisis; and I loved her like a sister. She was always so full of life and energy, courage and determination that I can hardly accept that she is quiet. Olga Vives, her name itself means life. She joins other great feminists' voices like Indiana's Rhoda Bradshaw and Molly Yard, herself. Their voices, their messages and their actions will live on and stand as examples to the rest of us that giving up is not an option. Our leaders never leave us without leaving something of themselves with us which allows us to carry on the tasks and strive for the goals which they were committed to. And so, dear Olga, Peace Be With You. We accept your core belief as our own: We will never give up; we will never give in.
Jackie Hillyer, Ashtabula, Ohio
I first met Olga at a regional NOW conference in Toledo, Ohio, in 1985. I last saw Olga a couple of months ago in late January in Scottsdale, Arizona. We sat and talked of her granddaughter Mia Rose, and her face just lit up. She knew that the cancer was sucking the life out of her but was grateful that she got to meet her granddaughter and thankful that she made a difference in this often indifferent world. Always with a passion for justice, Olga's zest for life was easily visible in her salsa and easy laugh. Together we defended clinics, picketed the cathedral, picketed Walmart, and marched, and marched and marched. Olga was my sister and my friend. I had bugged her for years to run for national NOW office, and finally she said yes. When we were national officers together she would come over and cook dinner for us. Pasta carbonara, pollo con arroz, or some other delectable dish. There are so many fun memories of Olga, and it is almost impossible to believe she is gone from us - in body. However, the spirit of Olga remains. "I love you" were our last words to each other. Let us honor Olga by our activism for women rights.
Karen Johnson, San Antonio, Texas
So many memories ... regional conferences, national conferences, national board meetings. One memory that stands out is when I attended a national board meeting in TX; we marched across the border into Mexico because women in Juarez were missing and the government was doing little. We erected a memorial and gathered in a park to rally; Olga spoke in English and Spanish, and I was so proud of her, of us, of NOW as we demonstrated our solidarity. Olga has left a legacy for us; her strength, commitment, vivacity and work for social justice and feminism is unparalleled. She lives in our hearts.
Jacquie Steingold, Detroit, Michigan
Olga Vives was an inspiration throughout the entire country. In September 2003 I became an active member of NOW-NYC. I saw Olga on more than one occasion in Manhattan. She joined everyone at The March for Women's Lives on April 25, 2004. The last time I saw Olga in 2009 she was a panelist at The Women of Color Policy Network in Hunter College. She visited NOW leaders everywhere and spoke with every one of us as activists. My condolences not just in her death but that she was in such discomfort leading up to it. She will both be surely and sorely missed.
Laurens Hunt, Jersey City, New Jersey
The Arizona feminist community saw Olga as an unexpected gift and looked to her to lead the charge on immigration and women's reproductive health issues. While fighting cancer, she rose to the challenge. She was resolute and determined to effect meaningful change in this conservative, border state that she currently called home.
The activists in Arizona desperately needed the skills and talents Olga brought with her. She provided leadership at NOW chapter, state and PAC meetings, state immigration caucuses, voter registration drives and Latina/o outreach. When she began having mobility issues she used a cane, then a walker, and finally a wheelchair. When she could no longer attend meetings they were held at her home.
Arizona was Olga's last battle ground and she brought her entire arsenal to the fight. Those of us who shared this last chapter with her witnessed unbounded courage, grit, intelligence, humor and kindness. Her inspiration is a lasting legacy to the feminists in this state. While there is much work to be done, and it will be so much lonelier without her by our side, she armed and inspired us. We will carry on.
Ellen Widoff, Phoenix, Arizona
Olga was a fighter, and she picked the best causes. She had boundless energy and was a very frequent flier. It was great working with you in FL. Hasta luego, hermana. Nos veremos.
Linda Miklowitz, Tallahassee, Florida
OLGA VIVES – PRESENTE!
It is with great sadness that we learned that our hermana and compañera Olga Vives has passed away. She fought tirelessly during a long struggle with cancer, just as she did for women's rights.
In addition to her many contributions and accomplishments with the National Organization for Women, Olga brought all of her identities as a Cuban American, lesbian, immigrant and feminist to the table. She understood and supported the work of the US Women and Cuba Collaboration in many ways that fostered strong ties between NOW and the Collaboration. Because of her leadership in advancing global feminist strategies and issues within NOW and beyond, Olga co-lead, and NOW co-sponsored, our 2006 International Women's Day Delegation to Venezuela. She spoke eloquently at the IWD Rally prior to millions of people marching for peace and women's human rights down the main highway of Caracus. She also facilitated numerous workshop opportunities with the Collaboration and NOW at venues -- large and small -- including the National Women's Studies Association, numerous NOW conferences and also to local Seattle house parties to support our organizing.
Her visionary leadership for NOW as a co-founder of the National Coalition of Immigrant Women (with the National Latina Roundtable and NAPWAF) was especially inspiring to bring multicultural feminist perspectives to address racism in immigration policy, as was her leadership in opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan within NOW. And she initiated the National Women of Color and Allies Summit in 2005 that resulted in regional conferences across the country, including keynoting the Northwest Regional Conference in 2007.
Olga's tireless energy will always be evident as part of her legacies in work and play, and we salute her courage in life and in facing her death. Viva Olga!
Jan Strout, Bozeman, Montana, on behalf of the US Women and Cuba Collaboration
I met Olga in 1995 prior to her position with NOW. She was my mentor and friend. We worked together for 5 years. I lost touch with her when I left Chicago in 1998 but never forgot what she did for me. My sincere condolences go out to her children. After reading about everything she when on to accomplish reminds me of what a remarkable individual she was.
Adriann, San Francisco, California
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