Who Doesn’t Like Allyson Schwartz?
“There’s this idea that if you went through something really hard, it makes you stronger. She said, ‘That’s bullshit,’” Schwartz recalls. She laughs at the memory of her mother’s feistiness, before acknowledging the catastrophic childhood that produced the tragic end: “It really messes with your soul.”
The irony isn’t lost on Schwartz: The events of mid-century ultimately closed in on her mother just as America opened up in a new way, with the women’s movement now in full swing. And that was the second thing that happened when Schwartz was 26— she opened Elizabeth Blackwell, a women’s health center on Walnut Street.
“The law had just changed,” she says, referring to Roe v. Wade, “and we were going to do something about that. So I ended up helping a group of women. We literally sat around a living room, deciding what we can do about this.”
Schwartz became head of Blackwell’s board of directors. They needed bylaws. They had to get financing, which proved a challenge. Don’t you have a husband? Lincoln Financial wondered. Don’t you have someone who could sign this loan? “Of course, we took offense at all that,” Schwartz says. A compromise was struck. Some co-signers were found for the $80,000 it took to get Blackwell rolling.
The center was the touchstone Schwartz had been looking for: important work, what her mother had pushed all of her children to pursue. The center would have full gynecological care, family planning and prenatal care, and would be the first out-of-hospital birth center in Philadelphia. It would also perform abortions.
As she reflects back, Schwartz warms to the old challenge and starts talking very fast: “The city health department did not have regulations. I had worked there as an intern when I went to grad school, I did know the health commissioner, so I went to him and said, ‘You have to write regulations so we can open this health center,’ which he did, which is really quite amazing.”
Up to now, Schwartz has swelled with raw enthusiasm for the possibilities in her coming-out era, which makes her great company. But with that “amazing,” something shifts in her tone. Suddenly she’s marveling not just at the era, but at her place in it.
She says that after she became a state senator, she went to Pittsburgh, and a hospital there was showing off a program that helped mentally challenged women find ob-gyns: “I thought, oh my God, we did that 10 years ago at Blackwell!”
A minute later, she’s saying, “I think it was pretty amazing that at the age of 26, I thought I could create a women’s health center, and we did.” And then: “It certainly informed my sense of purpose and ability to meet a challenge and to take on big ideas—a theme of ours now.”
It’s a hint of another side of her, the one that’s trying—maybe a little too hard—to convince us of something about her.
IN NOVEMBER 1990, Schwartz, then 42, won a state Senate seat representing parts of Northeast and Northwest Philly. On the face of it, her first dive into politics seems out of the blue, but Schwartz sees it as more of a piece: After running Blackwell for 14 years, she had worked for two years for the city’s Department of Human Services. On behalf of the city, she went to the state legislature to demand more funding, because obligations to Philadelphia children weren’t being met. “The elected officials all said, ‘Yeah yeah yeah,’” Schwartz remembers. She initially considered running for City Council to attack the problem from there, but the state Senate seemed a better opportunity.
She was wrong about that. Schwartz was still charged with the idea that had launched Blackwell, believing that hard-driving women could make a difference. But in 1990s-era Harrisburg, she was one of just four women in the Senate. And when she arrived, Vince Fumo was there to greet her.
Fumo controlled the Appropriations Committee, which new senators typically joined. But Schwartz talked far too much for Fumo’s taste, and she refused to go along with business as usual, so Fumo kicked her off the committee, then ignored her.
Schwartz—who today admits to a bit of naïveté and overaggressiveness—didn’t take Fumo’s rebuke lying down. The Senate’s Democratic caucus would discuss, for example, how to get a certain bill passed with no amendments attached, so that it would have the best chance of sliding through and reaching the governor’s desk to be signed into law. But Schwartz—according to one Senate staffer who witnessed her early days there—would often ignore whatever was agreed on and add her own rider to the bill, which would effectively kill it.
The staffer would plead with her: “Allyson, you are fucking us! Please.”
“I don’t care what you guys agree to,” Schwartz would say. “I’m not going along with it.”
She was the only senator, the staffer says, who would cross Fumo and Senate Minority Leader Bob Mellow that way. It caused havoc. It was a chink in the Southeastern bloc of senators, normally so strong together. And, naturally, it didn’t make her very popular in the Senate.