The Making of an Accidental Feminist

The Nation and the web were ablaze with beautiful rainbows since Friday when SCOTUS handed down its landmark decision that same sex marriage is legal. The congregation in the church and a nation-wide TV audience got chills as POTUS sang Amazing Grace during his eulogy of the black pastor killed by a racist during bible study in Charleston, SC. Everyone with a pre-existing health condition breathed a sigh of relief as SCOTUS finally put Obamacare’s constitutionality to rest.   For those of us on the left, it was a very good week.

The struggle for racial and gay equality takes me back to the early days in the struggle for women’s equality in the work place and how it affected yours truly.

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.

So let’s continue to celebrate the rainbow and amazing grace and other events bringing us closer to equality but we need more cracks in the glass ceiling in order for it to shatter.

In keeping with my yet to be established blog post tradition, I welcome you to listen to an apropos tune by Dolly Parton – “9 to 5”.

We have come a long way ………BUT THE JOURNEY IS NOT OVER 

– Anne


The “Pill” and its Impact

The Pill

The other day, I turned on my radio to a classic country station and it was playing Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill”, written and recorded in 1972 but not published until 1975 due to its controversial nature. The song is about a wife who is continuously pregnant and caring for her kids while her husband cats about. The theme of the song is control over her life and the changes that are coming now that she has access to the birth control pill. She is no longer willing to be barefoot and pregnant. Although the song was considered quite divisive in its day, it also did quite a bit a good. According to Wikipedia, Loretta was congratulated by a group of rural physicians claiming that her song did more to highlight the availability of birth control to low income rural women than all their literature and outreach combined.

For those of you who have never heard it and for those of you who haven’t heard it in years, I’m including it here for your listening pleasure.

Example of Some Lyrics

“All these years I’ve stayed at home

While you had all your fun

And every year that’s gone by

Another baby’s come

There’s gonna be some changes made

Right here on nursery hill

You’ve set this chicken your last time

Cause now I’ve got the pill”.

The Revolution

It’s hard for young people to imagine how revolutionary the pill was – with a claimed 99% success rate, for the first time women were in actual control of their bodies – with one small pill per day dispensed from a feminine circular purse size container.

The “Moral” Issue

Raised Catholic, I was acutely aware of the ”moral” issue that accompanied this medical break through. My father was a “detail man” (at the time there were no “detail women”) who educated physicians about the benefits of the pharmaceutical products sold by The Upjohn Company. One such product was the pill. I know he had a religious conflict promoting the pill – because we always had a substantial stockpile of physician samples in our basement. Somehow he was able to keep his job notwithstanding his reluctance to promote the pill.

The Times – They Were “a changin”

Thinking back to the early 70s, it was an amazing time for women in history. The pill had been on the market for a decade but was finally gaining traction. In 1973, Roe v. Wade made abortion legal. Burning bras (or abandoning them if burning is in fact an urban legend) to protest the confinement of preordained women’s roles, losing the moniker “Mrs.” for “Ms.”, and marching to enact the Equal Rights Amendments were the hallmarks of the early feminists. (Btw, the current controversy about what is and what is not a feminist is noteworthy – in my opinion, feminists do not hate men, they simply recognize the strengths and talents of women in addition to those attributable to motherhood).

From the early 70s to the early 80s sex for women became fun and free of worry over pregnancy and STDs (before AIDs/HIV came on the scene). Women’s reputations no longer rose and fell on their virginity. We could finally relax and enjoy the ride (so to speak).

The sexual revolution was about more than sex. It was about women beginning to take our place in society as equals – in bed as well as in other arenas– finally free of the unwanted consequences of enjoying our sexuality. And we sure did enjoy it. I know lots of grandmothers, who are retired professionals and upstanding contributing members of society who, in the day, made love outdoors, in the sky, on boats, in elevators and restaurants and had so many sex partners that they lost count! Think of this the next time you see a plump, grey-haired lady tending her grandchildren in the park!

What’s Happening Now

Fast forward 40 years and now we are talking about over the counter access with full insurance coverage of the pill. A recent University of California study concluded that unplanned pregnancies (which comprise 50% of ALL pregnancies) could be reduced by 25% with such access and coverage.

In addition to “The Pill,” there is now another pill – a little “pink pill” that supposedly enhances a woman’s waning libido. The FDA has yet to approve it causing some controversy about FDA’s gender fairness – having approved the little blue erection pill for men but not the little pink pill for us. Don’t know much about the little pink pill other than the middle-aged woman from a research study who sings its praises on a TV report while walking hand-in-hand with her formerly love-starved husband – but I am very pleased that society is beginning to realize that even post menopausal women have a right to enjoyable sex.

From a song about birth control that shocked the nation 40 years ago to over-the- counter access and a little pink pill to enhance libido . . .

We have come a long way…..BUT THE JOURNEY IS NOT OVER!

– Anne