Barry Smail/Novato Historical Guild
Annette Klang was born in Rutherford, Napa County on July 20, 1920, the year women received the right to vote. Her grandfather and father were the proprietors of the Hartman and Klang Department Store in Rutherford. In 1926, the family moved to San Francisco, where Annette attended Lafayette Grammar School, Presidio Junior High School, Galileo High School and San Francisco Junior College.
After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1944 with a degree in English Literature, Annette moved to Illinois, where she enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. There, she met Saul Alinsky, the great community organizer. His focus was Chicago’s “Back of the Yards” district, famously featured in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The tenements, housing an amalgam of European immigrant groups and African Americans, sat in the shadow of Chicago’s giant stockyards. Annette put graduate school on hold and became the editor of the “Back of the Yards Journal”. In 1946, she went to Washington D.C. to lobby Congress on behalf of the meatpacker’s union. Little did she know that 30 years later, she would be lobbying in Washington once again, this time leading her own national grassroots movement.
Annette first came to Novato in 1949. Her husband, Sergeant Donald Smail, was stationed at Hamilton Air Force Base. In 1950-1951, she worked as an administrative assistant and analyst for the Directorate of Intelligence, Western Air Defense Force at Hamilton.
In 1952, Annette became a mother when Barry was born in the Hamilton Air Force Base hospital. Karen was also born there in 1957. Putting her career in hibernation, Annette’s focus turned to motherhood and homemaking. She wrote poetry in her spare time. In 1966, after having been assigned to other military bases, Sergeant Smail and his family moved to back to Novato. Annette would call this city home for the next 35 years. As her children were in high school and middle school, Annette went back to work part time at Hamilton, teaching effective writing to military personnel from 1966-1969. From 1969-1972, she worked as a volunteer community organizer and education program coordinator for the Marin Economic Opportunity Council (now known as Community Action Marin). In 1972, she was appointed to serve on the City of Novato’s Human Needs Committee. She wrote the resolution petitioning the City Council to establish the Novato Human Needs Center (now known as North Marin Community Services). She served as volunteer coordinator and as a member of the board.
Annette rose to national prominence in the late 1970s as she was going through a divorce. She was shocked to learn that as an ex-spouse of a military member, she would no longer be eligible for government medical benefits, even though she had worked tirelessly over a 28-year period to support the family through her husband’s various tours of duty around the world. Her activist flame burst anew. In 1977, she met with Congressman John Burton, who agreed to introduce a bill to grant ex-spouses married 20 years or more lifetime medical benefits. She returned to Washington D.C. for the first time since 1946, and testified before Congress. But initially, her proposal encountered stiff opposition from the Pentagon and Congress. Annette turned to grass roots organizing, and founded Medical Equality for Dependents (MED). What started out as a Novato-based group quickly evolved into a national lobbying organization. After a five-year struggle, during which time ex-military spouses from all over the country were enlisted and trained by Annette to petition their representatives, Congress relented, and Burton’s bill was passed and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. Thousands of ex-military spouses, many of whom were ill, without medical insurance and poverty-stricken, had their medical rights restored.
In 1979, Annette was named recipient of the “Women Helping Women” award by the Soroptimist Club of Novato. In the same year, she was named one of three “Women of the Year” by the Novato Advance.
Annette worked on many community projects relating to women. Her special focus was on the feminization of poverty and aging. In 1981, Governor Jerry Brown appointed Annette as a delegate to the White House Conference on Aging. In 1984, California Lieutenant Governor Leo McCarthy established the Feminization of Poverty Task Force and appointed her as one of its charter members.
In 1979, Annette founded the Older Women’s Caucus, a subgroup of the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) and played a leading role in NWPC’s Marin chapter. She volunteered for the Marin County Area Agency on Aging and the Marin County Commission on the Status of Women, among other agencies. Annette was a member of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael and served on the Jewish Community Relations Council. She was awarded the national Eleanor Roosevelt Women of Vision award in 1984. That same year, Annette initiated another nationwide campaign to reestablish a Federal Council on Women, which President Reagan had abolished. The legislation was carried by then-Congresswoman Barbara Boxer. The model Annette envisioned was based on the original President’s Commission on the Status of Women established in 1961 by President Kennedy. Its first chair was Eleanor Roosevelt, one of Annette’s heroes. After 11 years of lobbying, in 1996, the Clinton Administration agreed to set up the President’s Interagency Council on Women, not exactly what Annette had in mind, but she came to accept it.
Annette was inducted into the Marin Women’s Hall of Fame in 1991 and continued to stay active into the late 1990s, working with Transforming Communities, a Novato-based agency whose goal was “creating safety and justice for women and girls”, and Marin Abused Women Services (now known as the Center for Domestic Peace).
Annette passed away on March 10, 2007. On March 15, a headline in the Marin Independent Journal referred to her as the “Grande Dame of the Women’s Movement”. Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey’s tribute in the March 27, 2007 issue of the Congressional Record said: “I rise today to honor my friend Annette Klang Smail. Her example has motivated many others to fight for their rights and not give up. And she paved the way for women like me to become involved and seek leadership positions.” Supervisor Judy Arnold sponsored a County proclamation honoring Annette. It was entitled “A Life Well Lived”.
Anyone who knew Annette is welcome to contact me, as I am writing her biography. My cell is 415-497-2254.