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The Incredibly Quirky True Story Of The 'Supersisters' Card Set

Out of the mouths of babes ...

Or in this case, a 9-year-old girl from Irvington, New York, who collected baseball cards.

One day in 1978, Melissa Rich asked her mother, Lois, "Mom, why aren't there any pictures of girls on the cards? It isn't fair!"

Good question. Great observation.

The answer to Melissa's innocent query can now be found on eBay. And at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And in the hearts and minds of some of the original members of the 1979 Supersisters card series. "I have a poster of the whole set up in my basement," says Ann Tunney, a 10th-grade geometry teacher from Abingdon, Pennsylvania, who happens to be No. 36 in the series under her maiden name and former profession -- gymnastics champion Ann Carr. "I'm in one corner next to Rosa Parks."

Yes, the Rosa Parks.

Supersisters wasn't about sports, though there were 19 athletes among the 72 women selected for the set. It was about informing the next generation of the accomplishments of women, be it in civil rights, business, the arts, academics ... or sports. As curator Liz Zanis wrote in describing the set for The Met's blog last spring, Supersisters was a "playful, informative, and accessible way to spread feminism to younger audiences."

It was also about sisterhood, which is how the whole thing got started.

Rather than dismiss her daughter's observation, Lois Rich told her younger sister, Barbara Egerman, about it. And that got the ardent feminists to thinking that cardboard might be the right medium to open young eyes. To test the waters, they informally canvassed their respective neighborhoods -- Irvington, New York, and Ridgefield, Connecticut -- and discovered that the only prominent women that kids could name were either First Ladies or Charlie's Angels.

Melissa was right -- women needed their own set of baseball cards.

So Lois and Barbara applied for a grant from the New York State Education Department, compiled a list of 500 prominent women and began writing letters to them. They asked, first of all, for their permission, and also for photographs, biographical information and any additional thoughts each of the famous women might have. The idea was to replicate traditional baseball cards, with a photo on the front and useful data on the back. No bubble gum, though.

"The first to respond was the skier, Suzy Chaffee," says Lois, now 73 and living in Northern California, where she happily babysits for Melissa's soon-to-be-3-year-old daughter, Natalie. "You might remember her as Suzy Chapstick because of her TV commercial, but I'll never forget her for what she wrote: 'What a great idea! Role models are so important.'"

Barbara, now 68 and living in Saratoga Springs, New York, says, "The letters started coming in. Senator Margaret Chase Smith. Bella Abzug. Helen Reddy. Margaret Mead. Rosa Parks, for heaven's sakes. Gloria Steinem. Helen Hayes."

Lois says she realized they were really on to something when the 16th response came in, from the legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead. "It wasn't just her endorsement that thrilled us," says Lois. "It was the inspirational message she gave us."

That's why on the back of No. 16 in the Supersisters series, you'll find this:

Try to find something that needs to be done that only you can do.

***

Even with the endorsements, there was still a lot to be done. The sisters hired a friend of a friend to design the cards. They contracted with a nearby printing plant to produce them. To give you some idea of how small the operation was, the cards had to be collated on the Egerman's pingpong table in Ridgefield and sent out from the New York City accounting office of Victor Rich, Lois' husband and Melissa's father.

The set was numbered not by importance but by the order in which permissions were received. "I remember meeting the sisters in person," says Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon and No. 45. "I was working with Avon at the time, so we met at their headquarters in White Plains. Very nice women. I loved the idea. And the cards were perfectly timed for the dawn of Title IX."

For budgetary reasons -- they received a $3,000 grant -- the sisters had to cut it off at No. 72, which was playwright Ntozake Shange ("For Colored Girls ..."). Among those who did not respond were Jane Fonda, Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter. A few of them, notably NOW president Eleanor Smeal, asked that their ages not be given.

Taken as a whole, the series was a wonderfully eclectic mix of accomplished women, from the sublime (No. 31: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin) to the diverting (No. 38: puppeteer Shari Lewis), from the musical (No. 9: Helen Reddy of "I Am Woman" fame) to the clerical (No. 6: rabbi Sally Priesand). Then there were the 19 women athletes, whose sports ranged from surfing (No. 37: Laura Lee Ching) to race car driving (No. 53: Janet Guthrie).

Card No. 17 in the series belongs to Wendy Boglioli, the 1976 Olympic gold medalist in the 400 meter freestyle. "To this day, I am so proud of being a Supersister," says Boglioli. "To think that I'm in the same card set with Rosa Parks and Helen Hayes ... My mother got a kick out of it, and now my three grandchildren do."

The first set of cards was sent to the Irvington school district, but soon enough, the world found out about Supersisters. Says Lois, "On Feb. 5, 1980, The New York Times ran a small item about the famous flautist, Doriot Anthony Dwyer, and it mentioned that she had her own trading card. That's when the phone started ringing."

There was a certain karma to Dwyer (No. 29) being the catalyst -- she is, after all, the great grandniece of suffragist Susan B. Anthony.

Though there were some misogynistic snickers, the reaction was mostly positive. One girl wrote Lois to say, "Send me the cards -- I want to be President."

People magazine did a story headlined "Hey, I'll Swap Ya A Stargell For A Steinem!" and Louise, Barbara and Melissa were invited to appear on the "Today" show, along with No. 52 in the set, "Today" host Jane Pauley.

"They came out to film a segment at our house," recalls Lois. "Unfortunately, the hamster that belonged to Melissa and our son Jason had gotten loose, so the whole crew went searching for him. Fortunately, we found him."

The cards also got the attention of the legal department for DC Comics, which owned the copyright to Superman and sent a cease-and-desist letter. "Talk about David and Goliath," says Lois. "Eventually, we came to an amicable agreement out of court. We could use the word 'super' -- we just couldn't use the Superman font or colors."

In addition to the cards, which were sold through mail-order for $6.00 a set, there were Supersisters posters and T-shirts. The first printing of 3,000 sets gave way to a second printing of 5,000, and a third -- they eventually sold more than 10,000. "Suddenly, we had a business," says Lois.

But the real sisters were motivated far less by fame and fortune than by the sincere desire to open eyes. And that they did. This is from the teacher's guide that was sent out to classrooms:

Supersisters cards can be used to:

1. Increase awareness of the contributions of women to society

2. Counteract sex-role stereotyping

3. Introduce a wide variety of career possibilities

4. Add to knowledge of current events and issues

5. Provide peer-approved reading and language skills material

Even today, the guide strikes a chord. Among the suggested questions for discussion is this one: "What is a stereotype? Can you find some examples in school texts, books, TV programs and commercials, or magazine ads?"

Given the success of Supersisters, Lois and Barbara prepared for a second series. They sent out another round of letters, and received permissions and materials from an equally impressive group of women: activist Betty Friedan and Title IX champion Patsy Mink, actresses Joanne Woodward and Rita Moreno, jazz pianist Marian McPartland and ballerina Patricia McBride, poets Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni, athletes like runner Mary Decker, rodeo rider Sue Pirtle and speedboat racer Betty Cook.

But, as Barbara says, "Life got in the way."

They had jobs to do, families to raise, and they weren't sure they could devote the time. "We realized we couldn't do it by ourselves," says Lois. "We actually tried to get Topps to help us, but they weren't interested. And they controlled distribution and display space in candy stores."

So the Supersisters -- or at least the idea of them -- went into hibernation.

Melissa Rich Skehan, the original inspiration for the cards, grew up and went to Dartmouth. "I actually used that quote from Margaret Mead on my application essay," says Melissa, who until recently ran InterSchola, an educational resource company in San Francisco. "That's what my mother and aunt did -- they found something that needed to be done that only they could do. And they did it."

Among the "suggested student activities" in the original teacher's guide was this one: "Imagine that it is twenty years in the future. Create a 'Supersisters' or 'Superbrothers' card telling about your own achievements and family. Design a layout and border for your card."

It's been 35 years now, but the idea resonates still. The Met's set of Supersisters is archived in the Jefferson R. Burdick Collection of the Drawings and Prints Department, and when Liz Zanis wrote about it in conjunction with Women's History Month last spring, she received a very nice response. Wrote one woman: "I gave these cards to my daughter when was 8, and she still has them ... She and I both feel that they are Met-worthy and revel in this shared blast from the past!"

The University of Iowa Library website has all the Supersisters digitized as part of its Mary Louise Smith Papers -- the former chair of the Republican National Committee was No. 15 in the series, after all.

"Every once in a while, people will tell me they bought my card on eBay for a dollar," says Boglioli, now a spokesperson for Genworth Financial's long-term care division. "I tell them they paid too much, but it really was a tremendous honor. It was an especially important validation for me because I had just found there would be no Olympics because of the Moscow boycott."

Says Switzer: "We've come a long way. But we still have a long way to go. A new card series would be a great way to recognize a new generation of leaders."

Ann Tunney could've used the old set recently. As Ann Carr, she was the first woman to get an athletic scholarship to Penn State and the first gymnast to win back-to-back collegiate titles. But to the kids at her school, she's just Mrs. Tunney, the geometry and phys ed teacher.

"The other day," says Tunney, "this girl very excitedly told me that her substitute teacher was the cousin of Kerri Strug. I couldn't resist. I said, 'Oh, Kerri and I are both in the Gymnastics Hall of Fame.' I wish I had had my Supersister card to show her. I have the poster, and there's this YouTube clip of an old commercial I did. But somewhere along the line, I lost the cards."

As for the supersisters behind the Supersisters, they get occasional reminders of their contributions to feminist culture.

When Gloria Steinem came to speak at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs recently, Barbara Egerman found a chance to meet No. 32. "I went up afterwards and introduced myself as one of the creators of Supersisters," says Barbara. "She could not have been nicer. She said she remembered the cards. Maybe she was just being nice, but I believed her."

Lois Rich was thrilled to discover she has something in The Met. But she wonders if trading cards would even appeal to girls today. "My granddaughter is already into cellphones and computers, so I'm not sure she'd be attracted to plain old cardboard. But she's into gymnastics and skiing and airplanes -- maybe it would be nice if she had her own set of role models to collect.

"By the way, sometimes when I tuck her in at night, she's wearing one of the old Supersisters T-shirts that Melissa saved."

Now it's someone else's turn to do something that needs to be done.