THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“We Can’t Stop Working on the movement just because we’ve made some progress.”
The VFA would like to thank Sheila Tobias, Convenor of the Tucson-Based group of activists, Dean J.P. Jones, Univ, of Arizona, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Jennifer Croissant, Chair, Gender and Women’s Studies, David Sanchez, Videographer and Editor, and Graduate Student Ruben Ernesto Zecena. Interview conducted March 2019.
Hello I’m Alison Hughes. I’m tasked with talking with you about my experiences in the United States with the women’s movement over time. First a little bit about myself. I am a product of working-class Scotland. I emigrated to the United States when I was 19 in 1959. (My mother was American.)
I remember during my teens getting an aha moment when I watched the news and saw the discrimination that was occurring in the United States with African-Americans. I couldn’t believe that people had to go to the back of the bus. It was just beyond our belief at that time to think that buses could be segregating people.
When I was coming over to the United States I shared a cabin on the Queen Mary with a woman who was a Holocaust survivor. I had been reading a book about that in Scotland. She was able to share with me her personal experience. I’d say those two moments drew me into the issue of equal rights when I arrived in the United States.
Another area in which I could pinpoint the change in my thinking was when I went to work for the United States Commission on Civil Rights in Washington D.C. Martin Luther King was a leader in the United States movement for equality at that time. I attended the March on Washington and heard his speech at the Capitol Mall. This was followed by the disastrous assassination that caused such an uproar in the country. Jesse Jackson took a leadership role afterwards and we had the People’s March on Washington which I also attended.
Those things shaped who I am and shaped my interest in being involved in the equal rights movement in the United States. One of my early jobs when I came to the States was working for McKinsey and Company. At that time, I was in the Washington D.C. office. This was before I worked in the Civil Rights Commission. McKinsey and Company hired their first woman consultant for the Washington office, and she was treated miserably. She was a graduate of Harvard Business School. She had to eat and socialize with we secretaries and meager administrative assistants. She wept in the lunchroom as the men simply ignored her. That was another interesting experience that shaped me.
Fast forward, I came to Tucson, Arizona in 1970 where Pima Community College was just forming in a new vision. That new vision was one that would involve many minority and ethnicity groups in Tucson. You had a faculty that probably for the first time in the United States was deliberately composed of African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans. They felt very strongly about this interracial environment that Pima College became, and I was proud to work at the college with this group of people for five years.
At the same time, César Chávez was organizing the farm workers movement. There was a boycott of lettuce and grapes and after work at Pima College many of us would come to the Safeway and the Lucky stores with picket signs. We would picket those stores that were not carrying union lettuce. One of my favorite possessions in fact, is a large poster that César Chávez autographed for me. It hangs on the wall in my home.
The African-American equal rights movement, the farm workers movement for equal rights, concurrently with all of this, women were organizing. The National Organization for Women was forming in the mid and late 60s. The Women’s Political Caucus was forming. There were aha moments going on all over the country with women that were inspired by the civil rights movement and it seemed like a natural extension of my life to get involved. And that’s what I did.
I remember Governors Commissions on Women were forming throughout the country after John F. Kennedy formed a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. Jimmy Carter canned it. Bella Abzug was the chairwoman at the time and the commission opposed the direction that Carter’s budget was moving in, in terms of supporting women’s needs in social service programs. Jimmy Carter didn’t like it and he just basically fired the Women’s Commission and we’ve never had another Presidential Commission on Women.
In Arizona, the governor then was Jack Williams a Republican fellow that we called one eyed jack because he was blind in one eye and he wore a black patch. He formed a Women’s Commission in 1968 and the women of that time identified themselves by their husbands’ names. For example, Mrs. Gerard Keiper or Mrs. John Doe. I looked at the names the other day of the original members of Governor Williams Commission on Women and they all identified with their husbands’ names.
Things have changed a bit by 2019. Again, fast forward. This was happening all over the country in city governments and in county governments. In Tucson, there was movement to form a Women’s Commission in 1975 – 1976. About 200 women gathered together at the City Hall and formed subcommittees, task forces which thought through what a commission should do. Even to writing an ordinance by working with the city attorney’s office. We created task forces on different issues that were happening for women at the time. Everything that we’re talking about today in 2019 has to be considered in the context of history and in the context of what was happening with women.
What was the status of women back then? Women couldn’t get credit cards in their own names. You had to get it in your husband’s name. Women couldn’t get loans to start small businesses. Women in the media? You couldn’t see women reading the news in the media. Women in higher education? You didn’t see women that were tenured in faculties. Police academy? How many police women were there? How many fire women were there? We still use the term fireman today. Postman? Women weren’t delivering the mail. We still say postman. Naming is changing today. Women in the military? Women and civilian women working for the military? Women in the trades? You didn’t see women in apprenticeships and in the trades back then.
Women were fighting rape and sexual assault. We saw the first Take Back the Night March in Tucson. Women in Law? Getting women into the law professions, getting women into medicine and into all of these professions was very hard. There was a lot of discrimination going on. Women in elected office, you just didn’t see it back then. Child care issues? Older women, double discrimination! Women of color especially had double discrimination! Not only were they women but they experienced racial discrimination. Women in sports? There were issues related to equality in the sports arena for women. Women in basketball had no rights compared to men in basketball.
And then of course we had the famous Equal Rights Amendment. We had women marching all over the country looking for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution. I brought along some buttons that you might like to see that represent that era. The yellow button interestingly enough has a story to it. The large ERA yellow button has a story that I’d like to tell you about. The button maker created that button in the basement of the Arizona state capital when the legislators were totally opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment.
I was a member of Governor Babbitt’s Commission on Women at the time. We had received some grants to hire some staff members who used personal money to buy a button maker. They took great delight in making buttons in the basement of the state capitol in which the legislature vehemently opposed passage of the equal rights in Arizona. There was even a boycott of states that refused – an economic boycott of states that refused to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. National organizations that simply refused to bring their organizations annual meetings into those states that did not pass the Equal Rights Amendment. I think that was an important event that expressed women’s fight for equality.
Getting back to the Tucson Women’s Commission. I think one of the first things that the commission wanted to find out about was exactly what kinds of discrimination were going on. We worked with the state civil rights division to learn the state laws about discrimination. We started to hold regular workshops in which women were invited to come and present their cases of discrimination. We helped these women file their complaints with the Civil Rights Division. We filed hundreds of complaints. Many of which were won and many of which were not won.
The Commission felt it was important to have a vehicle to communicate with other women in Tucson about the events and the happenings that were going on.We didn’t have a lot of money, but we thought a women’s newsletter would be very valuable. We didn’t have anything like that in Tucson in the time. The very first women’s newsletter was issued in the city of Tucson in January of 1977. The headlines of this newsletter – Supreme Court Dissent on Pregnancy Disabilities. A very simple newsletter personally typed by yours truly that represents the findings of the Tucson Women’s Commission and the projects that the Women’s Commission had going on at the time.
This newsletter evolved into a newspaper we called The Clarion. The Clarion was named by Winifred Wallace who was in her mid 70s and who was a paraplegic and whom we hired at the Women’s Commission to write the monthly newspaper for women called The Clarion. Winnie named it The Clarion because she felt it was about a clarion call for women and we all loved that name. The Clarion eventually came into its own as a 501c3 organization whose board, our own Sheila Tobias served on at the time.
We don’t have a women’s movement newsletter today and I think there’s still a need for one. It’s unfortunate that it stopped. But you need money and you need talent and time to create something like this. And we all got old along the way. We’re all getting older and wondering where’s the younger generation in all of this. We know the younger generation is out there because of the MeToo movement. I’m a little bit worried that it is about “me” and not about all of us. When do we release the concept of “me” and start really focusing on us as a group, us as partners, and us as part of the planet? There’s so much still to do.
In recent years, a few of us went back on to the Women’s Commission. Annie Sykes, Sheila Tobias and you’ll hear from us about a modern era Women’s Commission and some of the activities of that organization. When we did return to the Women’s Commission about five or six years ago, once again we held workshops about discrimination.
What was the discrimination that women were experiencing twenty-five years later? Women showed up to that workshop and we listened to them and we helped them file complaints. I remember in particular, civilian women in the military. One was a chemical engineer filing a discrimination complaint. She could not get a hearing. Another was a woman who had been in the trade union for 14 years. We learned about the union practices of discrimination against women today. There is a list and you get called off this list for jobs as they become available and how people get dumped down the list especially if you are female and you don’t get access to the jobs on the list.
So, yes, lots of discrimination whether you are women who are actually in the military or civilian women working for the military. It’s a big issue today. However, we can get credit on our own. We can go to the bank and have our own credit cards. We can own our own property today. Law students make up more than 50 percent women today. Medical schools have 50 percent women. You’re seeing a lot of changes. Women in Sports, with Title IX that came along and was passed by Congress to decrease discrimination toward women in sports.
But we still don’t have an equal rights amendment. And women are still being trafficked for purposes of sex. They are being trafficked across countries – being trafficked across our own country. There’s still violence against women in the country. There’s a lot to do. We’re destroying the planet as a race of humans. We’ve got to get to work on saving the planet. Women can do a lot there. We can’t stop working on the movement just because we’ve made some progress. There’s lot more to be done.
We were wearing buttons back in the 70s that said 59 cents. That’s all it said – 59 cents. Today I think we make 79 cents for every dollar that a man earns. That’s a statement of something yet to be done. Where are women in finance today? Where are women in the top corporate structures? Where are the .com billionaire women? You know when there are one or two of them – there are all their names plastered all over the newspapers.
But today the planet is such that global interchange is critical. The global economy is so interdependent and it’s all about money. It’s all about how you’re going to make money. It’s not about happiness. It’s not about enriching the human experience for others. The value system has changed… or has it? Has it always been about money? It’s certainly where it is today. But if that’s where it is, where are the women in it? Where’s the wealth? Where are women in the corporate structure? Where are women on corporate boards? Especially women in finance and women coders.
There was a group of young women in Tucson that had formed about four years ago called Girls Coding. I loved it. It was really important. Women in science. Women in Computer Science. Women in Engineering. Women in the arts. You can look everywhere, and you find that there are still disparities. To young women of today, I challenge you get involved. Care about others. Bring your own children up to face justice issues and to help save our beautiful, beautiful planet.