The year was 1970, I was to graduate with a BA, the Kent State killings had just occurred and campuses all across the nation, including mine, were shut down. Never having to take our last set of final exams, my class was graduated. – some of us walking down the aisle to receive our diplomas wearing black arm bands to signify opposition to the war in Vietnam. Having financed my education, my parents congratulated me and quickly let me know that I was now on my own as far as money was concerned.
So, since I had to pay rent, I went about the task of finding a job. I soon learned that my degree in English didn’t matter a damn but my halting ability to crank out 45 words per minute on the typewriter did– a skill I tried to learn in high school since I thought it’d be easier than trigonometry.
Wearing one of the two dresses I owned, (women were not allowed to wear pants) I showed up at the tall office building in downtown Chicago to begin a job called “personnel clerk” for a major national corporation. My plan was to keep this job just until I could land something more worthy of me – such as an international correspondent for a major news organization – totally clueless to the fact that I had no journalistic training and even if I did, mainly boys got that kind of job.
So, instead of reporting on international events, I set about learning how to spell personnel (two n’s and one l as opposed to the other way around) and process personnel change notices every time someone was hired, fired, quit, promoted, transferred or retired.
Two years later and I’m still processing changes – the economy was in the pits, my skills to qualify for another job were lacking and promotion seemed unlikely since most women in the company were at similar or lower pay levels than I. (please notice I did not say “than me” – which is a pet peeve).
Anywho, just about this time a group of young guys called, “Industrial Relations Trainees” began making the rounds of the various company personnel departments to see the nuts and bolts of the operation. My desk was one of their designated stops.
They would ask me questions and I would answer. Then one day I started asking them questions – What are you being trained to do? How did you get this gig and where does it take you?
These trainees were fresh out of college and typically had majored in business and were interested in personnel / industrial relations, (more recently referred to as human resources reflecting a softer-gentler approach to people as opposed to its former union busting mentality).
Naïve and bored, I decided I’d like to switch sides of the desk and be an Industrial Relations Trainee interviewing personnel clerks rather than the other way around. The year was now 1972 and Congress had just passed the equal rights amendment stating that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex” – a fact of which I was clueless. Had I been a bit more politically astute, I would have used this fact to argue my case. But in all honesty, my main motivator at the time was to get a more interesting job and make enough money to buy a car.
So I decided to write a memo to the big personnel boss and ask to be promoted to Industrial Relations Trainee. Anticipating opposition to the fact that I did not have a business degree and the position required relocating, I informed the higher ups that I had taken a few business courses over the past two years and that my academic work, along with my hand-on practical work in the trenches, qualified me and they need not worry because I was open to relocation.
My timing couldn’t have been better. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall of the executive dining room when the old white guys read and discussed my memo. Not only had the ERA been passed by the congress and, at the time looked to be on its way to becoming a constitutional amendment, eight years had passed since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and it was gaining traction. (In case you didn’t know, this law included a prohibition on gender-based discrimination – a prohibition that was added to the bill at the last minute by opponents thinking if gender was added, the bill would never pass. Talk about a colossal misstep by the chauvinists!)
Unlike the Godfather offer that one cannot refuse, I was made an offer that I think I was expected to refuse – an offer that the corporation could use in its defense if I decided to sue for sex discrimination – which, btw, was the farthest thing from my mind (at the time). The offer was a salary about 20% less than what they paid the guys and the location was in a factory in southern Ohio. After refusing my request for 20% more (a/k/a equal pay), I got pissed and decided the best thing I could do to express my feelings was to ACCEPT the damn job and show them! I had unwittingly become a feminist.
I became the first women Industrial Relations Trainee in the company’ history and my real education began. I bought a used car, loaded it up and drove south. To say my reception was cool would be an understatement. Neither the male bosses nor the female clericals knew what to make of me. I was a girl in a boy’s job and I was from “corporate” – two major strikes against me. Not to whine, but the first few months were lonely. I remember sitting in one of two deck chairs on my patio staring at the other thinking, “I don’t need you”.
Things began to turn around when I decided to publish an employee newsletter – giving me a reason to meet, interview and photograph the staff. People love to talk about themselves (witness this blog). Soon the ice began to thaw and slowly I became accepted as a somewhat novel addition to the factory. The employee newsletter became a big hit and gave me access to employee relation issues that allowed me to better do my job – help maintain a productive workforce. Have to say, no guy had ever thought of this approach.
Over the next three years with the company, I had more successes than failures enabling me to put a small crack in the glass ceiling for those that followed – and they did follow!
To end on a somewhat related topic, I’m glad that the $10.00 bill will in the future bear the image of a woman – but as comedian Jessica Williams recently said on the Daily Show, having a woman on the front of the bill is cool but she’d rather be paid 10 full “Hamilton Dollars” than $8.50 of “Lady Dollars” for the same work.