THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I’m So Glad I Got In that Carpool!”
Interviewed by Kathy Rand, Executive VP, VFA, September 2018
KR: Hi Anne, it’s so nice to see you, and thank you for agreeing to participate with us in the VFA Pioneer Histories Project. Do you want to start just by telling us your name and when and where you were born?
AL: Anne Ladky and I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1948.
KR: And what’s your family background like?
AL: I have five siblings, and we had a pretty typical middleclass upbringing – in the first suburb north of Milwaukee called Shorewood. I come from Irish and a little bit of Czech background and attended Catholic school for the first 12 years of my education.
KR: And then where did you go to college?
AL: I went to Northwestern where I was an English major and had no female professors. I think I did have one female lab instructor in biology, but that was it. So it wasn’t particularly, in my opinion, very welcoming.
It Was Also a Hard Time to Be in School Because It Was Late ’60s
It was the era of a lot of upheaval in the country with the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, and the antiwar movement, so that might have played a part too, but I never really felt connected to Northwestern. And I wasn’t interested in going on after my undergraduate work.
KR: So what was your life like after you graduated from college before you got involved in the movement.
AL: I decided after college that I needed to get away, so the savings I had went to going to Europe and traveling around there for about six months, which was a really great experience. And when I came back I thought about moving to New York, because I was interested in getting into the publishing industry. But realized I really didn’t have the money to survive in New York without an immediate job.
And I’m not – for lots of reasons – qualified to wait tables, so I decided that I’d better move to Chicago instead. I did want to leave Milwaukee, partly because there wasn’t much publishing business there and also because my family has lived there for generations, and I felt that I wanted to separate from that.
So Chicago seemed like a good option. I found some roommates and moved to Lincoln Park, which at that time was a place where people actually got starting-out apartments for really cheap – which is no longer the case. And then I started looking for a job, which because there was a recession on, wasn’t easy. But after several months – before total panic set in – I did find a job as a copyholder (someone who reads out loud to a proofreader) at a legal publishing firm on the northwest side of the city.
It Was Time to Educate Employees and Management at Scott Foresman and Co.
KR: And then how did you get involved in the women’s movement?
AL: My job as a copyholder was the most boring thing that anybody can ever imagine – because the material is very, very dry. Of course all those kinds of legal cases went in books that people had in law libraries – and none of that exists anymore. But when I had that job I very vigorously looked for other employment, and I did finally get a job at Scott Foresman and Co., which at the time was a major publisher of textbooks from kindergarten or preschool through college.
I was in a department there that supported the sales and marketing staff doing competitive analysis of the textbooks, and then since I wanted to be in editorial, I ultimately switched and became an assistant editor in the high school social studies department. Scott Foresman and Co. was in the suburbs, so if you didn’t have a car, you found somebody who drove every day, and you paid them something for driving.
The Carpool was Full of Argumentative Feminists
I felt after the antiwar movement that I really wasn’t interested in being a “joiner”. It was interesting to listen to the discussions of what my carpool companions were reading. I remember particularly discussions about Robin Morgan’s book, Sisterhood is Powerful. It was all very interesting but I wasn’t really too susceptible to being encouraged to come to organizational meetings.
Eventually though, I started working on together with other women at the company to start a group that would raise issues to the management about the content of the books, which was often very sexist. And about the conditions of employment for women, because there was no maternity leave.
Women Were Forced to Leave Work When Their Pregnancy Showed
Women had to take vacation for their maternity leave. Scott Foresman had all of the practices that are familiar to people who’ve looked at employment trends and conditions in the ’70s. So we started a group called Women at Scott Foresman, and it was one of the very first in-company caucuses of women.
And fortunately we had a progressive H.R. person, a woman who was comfortable with our meeting on company premises. Other women’s groups that had started at companies at that time were prohibited – the companies didn’t want that. So we basically began to educate the employees and the management – first of all about the most vivid issue, which was the sexism in the textbooks.
KR: This was about what year?
AL: This would be 1971. I think we made a lot of progress on that front, and we published a set of guidelines for how to eliminate sexism in textbooks, which the company agreed to publish as a pamphlet. And they did that and we distributed it with the company’s backing all over the country.
Probably It Became the Most Well Known When William Buckley Wrote a Column About These Guidelines, Decrying Them for Being Some Sort of Political Correctness
I don’t think the term was in use then, but Buckley was basically making fun of these guidelines. And of course the orders for the guidelines just went through the roof after he gave us the benefit of all that publicity. They were also one subject of a hearing in Congress on the subject of bias in education.
Our Guidelines Were Entered into the Congressional Record and There Was Testimony
I went to Washington for the hearing. So that was really interesting and huge. And our caucus became a model. I can’t remember who wrote the article in an early issue of Ms. about in-company organizing that included our group. At the same time, one of the people in my carpool did persuade me to go to a NOW meeting in 1971, and I found it interesting. I thought all the discussion and debate about which issues NOW should work on was important – what would it mean if women were equal in fields like education or the media or other areas of endeavor.
I found all that very interesting, and of course the women – Kathy Rand among them – were just very, very impressive, very accomplished professionals who were putting their talents to work for what they believed in in terms of women’s rights. So I kept going to meetings. It was Janet Kanter who persuaded me to go, and she was at that time co-chairing the committee that was working on the AT&T discrimination case.
I began helping her write the newsletter that was distributed to AT&T employees modeled on their bill insert, which was called “The Telebriefs” and we named the newsletter “The Tell-A-Griefs.” Janet was the editor-in-chief, and I helped her with it. And I realized that the issues that I was most interested in were the employment issues.
Then after some period of time with Women at Scott Foresman, when we got to the issues of things like maternity leave, etc. that was tougher.
The Company Wasn’t Too Open to Changing That [Maternity Leave] or Even Discussing It
The management didn’t like having an internal advocacy group. They were okay when we were focused on the product, but not okay when we were focused on employment policy. But still they gave us the space – they listened to what we had to say, which was very unlike what women in other publishing companies were experiencing.
Chicago at that time had a lot of trade publishing and educational publishing [of a] reasonable size. There were a couple of big companies and a lot of trade publishers. Women in the industry had heard about Women at Scott Foresman and began contacting us and asking how do we do this. And we said this is what you do – you put up a notice on the bulletin board after you get it approved by H.R. and you have a meeting – see what happens.
They never got approval to meet on company premises and they were discouraged, and the companies pressured some of these women to get off this bandwagon. So the conversation turned to perhaps what we needed was a citywide organization of women in publishing to raise issues and put on pressure – particularly because some women were not able to make any progress by doing it in company. So that was also – that might have been late 1971 and ’72.
We convened a meeting, and women from a variety of companies came. We got a very talented graphic designer at Scott Foresman to do a poster for us to call a meeting. And those posters went up all over in places that were nearby publishing companies – and 200 women came to the first meeting of Chicago Women in Publishing. It was astonishing. I think we were expecting maybe 30 or 40.
Those Were the Days When There Was Really the Idea of Movement in the Air
There was a ton of frustration that was coming from women who had college degrees and were having experiences in the workplace that were very different from their male counterparts. This was a different time even than say the mid-60s – women’s expectations were really rising and nothing was changing inside the companies. So that’s why 200 women turned out.
The organization split into working groups on a variety of issues and I realized then – this is probably 1972 – that this was very exciting and great and everything, but I had no idea what I was doing. Having 200 women who expected to be engaged and do action was kind of – I just realized I did not have the skills to manage this thing.
And there was also some difference of opinion arising within the group after a number of months – maybe five or six months of working groups on various concerns. Some women really wanted to have more of a professional association or at least have some of those elements that would help them find better jobs or network with people. And some women wanted to go right down the road of trying to figure out how to unionize.
I Was Very Sympathetic to the Unionization Caucus
It’s what I thought would really be the best solution. But it was very difficult then to figure out how to interest a union that would really be collaborative in a partnership around how to organize – in a challenging white-collar environment. That was also more of the reason why I thought I just don’t know enough to do this.
And I was at the time also getting more active in NOW and realizing that I had a lot to learn and there were really smart talented people in NOW to learn from. I think what happened was there was a faction fight in the Chicago chapter and the leadership that was the sensible caucus, maybe we would call it – really needed to find people who would move into the leadership of Chicago NOW who had not gone through that and could convey a fresh start for the chapter – I think.
I was really not in those discussions so I can’t say. But that was sort of the environment. For those of us who were just activists in the chapter, the conflict really never affected us. I got encouraged to do more and I think I was chairing a committee on the Federal Communications Commission strategy that Kathy Bonk was directing at the national level. I was learning about how to do these meetings with media executives and how to file complaints about equal time and so on and so forth. So I was just learning everything and trying to rush from Scott Foresman and Co. in Glenview down to meetings downtown.
Then I Was Asked to Become the President of the Chapter
Now while this was going on in late ’72 – I guess maybe mid-’72, Day Piercy (whose name at the time was Day Creamer) was working at the YWCA – first on the southwest side, then at the Loop Center of the YWCA – thinking about working on starting an organization that would focus on economic issues for women and have the vision of ultimately becoming a union. She came to Chicago NOW because she needed to get help to start it.
So I Thought – That’s Interesting – Those Are the Issues I Care About
There’s another person I can learn from. I became the president of the chapter in the fall of 1973. Women Employed started in February of that same year. Before I became the president of the chapter – and Kathy Rand was one of the principal early spokespersons for Women Employed, because they needed really experienced cool-headed people to do these meetings with these corporate guys in front of hundreds of women. The point was to try to help radicalize them essentially and understand that their problems were not personal but that they were systemic.
So that started in ’73, and NOW was committed to helping Women Employed get off the ground. So I thought this is a good place for me to do both of these things. Be part of the founding group of Women Employed–.that group of members that worked with Day to get the thing off the ground. The senior leadership of NOW also advised and played these roles so that Women Employed could get through this really critical period effectively.
The Midwest Academy
I think it was the fall of 1973 when the chapter – I am not sure when the first class of the Midwest Academy was – raised money for a number of us in the chapter leadership to attend the Midwest Academy for two weeks. So I took my vacation and went to the Academy. Day was one of the faculty members there teaching basic organizing skills, and I loved it.
I loved that there were learnable skills behind this – because when I first got involved in NOW and I saw these women doing all the stuff, I thought you must have to be born into it, to know how to do that in order to just have the talent. But at the Academy I really learned this is a skills thing. I can learn it.
The great thing about NOW was that Kathy Rand, Mary Jean Collins, Mary-Ann Lupa – [were] all very encouraging of trying stuff out – just doing it – stepping up, and really I’d never had that before. I didn’t have that in college. I certainly didn’t have it at work. So it was a very attractive environment in that sense when you’re young and you think – well this is a pathway to develop my interest and my talents.
Be Around Women Whom I Found Really Inspiring
All of this was happening at the same time. A number of us went to the Academy together and started hatching plans for the chapter and the national organization that were aimed to take us to a different level. The vision for the chapter was to hire staff and become a staffed, serious force in the city for women.
And the vision at the National was to make the organization an aggressive national advocate on the hard core issues of economics, education, reproductive rights – but aggressive. And maybe it’s probably overdrawing it – but less of a support group for women and more of an aggressive big- muscle advocate. That was the vision for the National.
We thought about how to do both of those things, and there was a little group – I agreed to be the president of Chicago NOW if the senior leadership was going to stick with me and help me. And I think we must have met for at least a year. I think every other week – Monday nights. There were five of us in those meetings: Mary Jean Collins, Kathy Rand, Mary-Ann Lupa, myself, and Dorothy O’Brien who became the staff person for the chapter.
We spent our time I guess every week on chapter issues that had to be resolved and national planning because we wanted to lead that effort to take the national organization to a next level.
And That Was the Reason I Agreed to Be the President of Chicago NOW
Because again, I didn’t know how to do that, so I needed people to help me. And I guess that group felt it was worth it to help. I guess we did meet every week and it must have been for at least a year.
KR: I think it was, and we looked at it as helping you grow, but also we were developing strategy for the organization at the same time. It wasn’t just a charitable thing.
AL: This group did have a very big investment in the health of the chapter, which had gone through a lot. I think they wanted a vision for the chapter, so it was partly to help me and partly because we were trying to create a model for the country of what is a healthy chapter that can contend for power in a city or region. That’s really what we were doing.
The chapters had just grown up. They were – you know it’s hard to explain now except we seem to be moving more to a movement time – now sort of since 2016. But then it really was a time when the organizations were growing and had growing pains and were beginning to come under pressure that I don’t think we fully realized how strong it was.
We Were Beginning to Come Under Pressure From the Forces That Wanted to Resist What We Were Doing
We had our hands full. It was a lot, but it was really exciting – really interesting. That’s the period when I was working on Women Employed and Chicago NOW. At the time I wasn’t going to work more in Women Employed, because I was working in the suburbs. And in order to create some conditions that led to real leadership from working women in Women Employed, they had nobody who didn’t work in the loop in the leadership. And that was fine. I was very committed to Chicago NOW at the time.
In ’73 I changed jobs. I left Scott Foresman and Co. and came down to work for World Book, which turned out to be a terrible job. But it was good because I was free to come to things, because I worked at the Merchandise Mart and I could get away for a lunchtime action or whatever. And Mary-Ann Lupa worked there, Wilma Stevens worked there and Darlene Stille, who became the first chair of the board of Women Employed – recruited by all of us – also worked there.
There were a lot of feminists at World Book, but we certainly had no illusions that were going to start anything inside of World Book. It was a very conservative company, and that was just the place where we worked. Some people were more committed to it than I was. I was really committed to my movement work.
At that time you knew you weren’t going to get ahead – they weren’t going to promote you. Now women have more difficulties making all these decisions about how to use their time, because they actually might get rewarded at work, whereas at the time – it was like, it’s 5:15, I’m going over to Woman Employed – I’m going over to NOW.
That’s Where My Passion Is; That’s Where My Brain Is Being Used
I could do a good job at World Book without straining myself to hard.
KR: So tell us a little about how – well you talked about how you got started with Women Employed at one point, but how it ended up being such a huge part of your life.
AL: I finished my term as chapter president in ’75, and by that time we had taken a pretty big beating – our caucus at the national level of NOW. And although it had been somewhat customary for past presidents of Chicago NOW to go on the National Board, I had the less than zero interest in that, because I had seen firsthand how dysfunctional the National Board was.
And the organization had really – for reasons we could talk all day about – had not embraced the strategy that we put forward. As I say – [there were] lots of reasons for that, but I wasn’t attracted to the national level of NOW. And in addition I think the organizing I had done both at Chicago NOW and was somewhat involved in Women Employed really convinced me that the framework I liked was the local framework with more organizing in it.
So that, combined with the fact that I just detested the national politics of NOW by that time, led me to decide to change my involvement in NOW. I didn’t want to stay on the chapter board after my presidency. I just felt that was just too much hanging over Wilma Stevens’ shoulder that wasn’t good.
The Sears Task Force Was Still Operating
And so we still did some work on that. Mary Jean Collins and I co-chaired that and national NOW had approved the resolution for that campaign. So we kept that going as long as we could, although the Smeal administration wanted to kill it off. And Sears had in effect compromised national NOW’s leadership by putting Aileen Hernandez, a past president, on their payroll, which for some reason many of the key leaders of NOW did not object to– which is an ongoing mystery to me.
Certainly if Aileen Hernandez had gone on the payroll of the Playboy Company they would have understood that – but somehow they didn’t understand the Sears thing. We knew that was going to go off the table.
So we had the idea that we would try to create some kind of unity strategy within NOW around the Equal Rights Amendment.
We Created This Idea of the National Rally for Equal Rights
Although we got beaten badly at the NOW convention in 1975, the Rally for Equal Rights was approved, and so we had that national effort going on. I think my role in that was to be the treasurer and then part of a senior strategy group along with Jane Plitt, Mary Jean Collins and Kathy and whoever else I can’t – you probably remember better than I do – it’s a little bit of a blur.
Anyway, from the time of the NOW conference until the rally which was in May 1976, that’s basically what I worked on. And I think we ultimately had 10,000 people at the rally in Springfield – one of the biggest ever. It was not a fun experience, but it was a phenomenal rally. Dealing with national NOW and our political opponents was utterly miserable.
It doesn’t compare to some people’s experiences, which were even worse. But mine was pretty bad. And that just sealed the deal. I was finished with NOW at the end. Obviously I went and supported Mary Jean when she ran for office in NOW after that, although it was not something I would ever have been interested in doing.
I Was Finished at That Point
Before the 1975 NOW conference, I quit my job at World Book and went on a campaign trip with Mary Jean Collins on a Greyhound bus ticket all over the Northeast, which ended in Philadelphia and that terrible convention. When I got back to Chicago after that bus trip and the convention – and by the way, there were parts of the bus trip I actually enjoyed, because we talked to a lot of NOW members who had great commitment, great ideas and so on. But it was so overshadowed by the internal problems in NOW. Anyway I got back to Chicago [and] I didn’t have a job. I had to start looking for one.
I had just started my job search in late fall of 75. I called Karen Fishman whom I knew because she had covered Chicago NOW and Women Employed and all the issues in Chicago for the monthly news magazine [on] women’s rights news that she owned called The Spokeswoman.
And she knew that I had worked for World Book which was a company called Field Enterprises at that time. So she thought I worked for Marshall Fields in retail. And when we were talking – and I can’t remember if she told me that she was looking for somebody with The Spokeswoman or I told her that I was looking for work – we had this conversation and she said – why don’t you come down here and interview. So I did.
And I had an interview in her apartment and I remember vividly that I was nervous during the interview not because of the interview but because her cat kept walking back and forth on the couch behind me. But anyway she hired me on the spot.
I Went to Work for The Spokeswoman as the Associate Editor, Which Was a Totally Great Job and Totally Fun
What was great about The Spokeswoman was that everybody who was anybody in the women’s movement picked up the phone for you, because The Spokeswoman was really an important magazine, and it covered serious things. Karen and I were looking through some old issues of The Spokeswoman when we were in a conversation with Katie Turk, who is a young historian who’s working on a book about NOW.
And we saw that there was a letter to the editor at one point from Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Because this was Karen’s beat – all the courts. She did all the court writing. And I think maybe Ruth Bader Ginsburg objected to something Karen had written – not me. I covered the employment stuff and together we did series on Occupational Safety and Health and we did a big retrospective on the NOW internal fight.
I covered political news, so I got to talk to all kinds of interesting women who were in the political realm. It was absolutely great. I got to do what I really enjoyed doing, which was writing, but I got to do it on the issues that I cared about. I started at the end of ’75. Sometime that fall, Day Piercy started talking to me about becoming a staff member at Women Employed. But I loved being at The Spokeswoman.
I did sense that I was really missing organizational work. I didn’t have a role. I didn’t really know how to get one. My last formal experience in the movement was the terrible time I had doing the Rally for Equal Rights and that had left a bad taste in my mouth. So I listened to her pitch, but I thought – I don’t know.
While I was there was the period when Nicole Hollander began illustrating and designing The Spokeswoman and launched her career as a cartoonist. We were all in the same office together. And as I say, you could pick up the phone to any important person in the women’s movement, and they would talk to you. So it was very fun. It was certainly such a great break from corporate work, and I knew I didn’t want to do that anymore.
I finally agreed sometime after the first of the year in ’77 to join the WE staff as an organizer in March of 1977. Women Employed was 4 years old at that point – and I think – still believed that we could find a way to become a union for clerical workers.
It Was Time to Organize
We brought a lot of women together under the banner of Rights and Respect, which essentially we took from the Farmworkers and used community organizing techniques, and also looked at the possibilities of union organizing. We were still hopeful about that at the time I joined the staff.
My initial assignment was to do geographic organizing in the Loop. I had six territories where I was trying to build groups of women who could come together, share their experiences, and figure out how they might organize within their places at work, in addition to becoming active in the big issues of Women Employed around equal opportunity enforcement, rights on the job, and so on.
That Was the Beginning of My Career at Women Employed
Although I look back on The Spokeswoman and I think that job was really great – Women Employed was long hours and a lot of work, because there weren’t enough of us to do everything that needed to be done. But it was tremendously satisfying to be an organizer and meet with women.
The organizing part of my day started around 11:30 and I would have half-hour lunches with women or groups of women – 11 to 11:30, 11:30 to 12, 12:30 to 1. Sometimes I’d even have a one o’clock. Fortunately at that time there were cafeterias all over the Loop, every office building had a cafeteria. So you could always find a place to meet people and that’s how we did our organizing. And we attracted women to the organization with leafleting and events.
No Computers Then
We handed out leaflets – women filled out the coupon and mailed it in. Then one of our jobs as organizers was to call those women after work at night. Many of those women didn’t even have a telephone on their desk, and they certainly didn’t feel free to talk about their jobs at work. So part of my job was to talk to those women at night, and I’d look and see if I could connect them with one of my lunches.
That was my job – to figure out how to connect those women to the organization and how to take the issues that they were bringing forward and figure out how we could move ahead and what were we going to do together. And then in addition if there was some kind of catalyst – a precipitating event in somebody’s workplace, to try and meet with the women who were concerned about that and figure out an internal strategy.
But People Were Very Fearful for Their Jobs
So that was not so easy. And we were continuing to try and figure out how to have the kind of relationship that we wanted to have with a union. Again I think at Women Employed, same as in NOW – I think we underestimated the strength of the opposition that was building. We were experiencing it.
After a certain amount of communication with Women Employed, companies were bringing in really really hard-nosed labor attorneys and the management or HR wouldn’t meet with us anymore. So we could see it, but I don’t think we understood quite the magnitude of it.
We Underestimated Ourselves
Much as we didn’t understand the magnitude of it when we took on Sears, we knew they had a big anti-union history, but we underestimated how incredibly aggressive they were going to be in trying to corrupt NOW. And I think that we underestimated the strength of companies who simply had decided that they were not going to tolerate unionization in their white-collar environments.
They had given in to it in the blue-collar environment on their production side but they were not giving in to the white-collar side. Could we have succeeded in that? Yes, but it would have been much much more expensive than anything that we had envisioned at the time.
KR: In some ways they took us more seriously than we took ourselves.
AL: Absolutely. That is exactly the point. I think that we didn’t understand because of where we were in history – our age and so on. I don’t think we understood the magnitude of what we had gotten started…the threat that we posed – the power of the movement. So it’s interesting to speculate what it would have been like had we had a different vision for what that fight could and should have looked like.
I Don’t Know if the Outcome Would Have Been Different
Would it have been? I think of that sometimes. There’s a new book out about labor organizing in the ’70s (Knocking on Labor’s Door) that delves into the rise of anti-union investment and behavior on the part of companies at that time. At this end of my career it’s very interesting to think – well if I had the strategic capability that I have now and the strategic capability of women like Mary Kay Henry at SEIU (Service Employees International Union) … there are women who I think after all this time in the movement understand what happened to the labor movement.
If the labor movement had really embraced the idea of organizing white-collar women what would have happened? It’s an interesting historical question. So that was my beginning at Women Employed. The project that I worked on did not prove out. So we stopped that. And around that same time, the associate director of Women Employed left, so in ’79 I became the associate director. In ’85 when our founder left I became the executive director. Women Employed was still quite small and things were somewhat informal, so Day and I went to the board and said Anne’s willing to do this. How do you feel about it? And they said fine. There was never a formal process or a search or anything like that. Day went off and became a consultant.
Then I Ran with Women Employed for the Next 40 Years Until 2017, When I Retired
KR: So looking back on those 40 years, what’s most memorable – what were your greatest accomplishments or things that you remember most?
AL: You know the thing about Women Employed is that we always had great people there. The organization’s accomplishments were always a team thing. So I say what I say now in that context, but I think Women Employed’s big early accomplishment was making equal opportunity enforcement work for women. Critically critically important. I don’t think we would have women in the variety of white-collar jobs that we have today if not for that effort.
Keeping Affirmative Action from Being Dismantled by the Reagan Administration
After that – although there’s been serious erosion and it’s getting worse now in higher education under the current administration – I think that we helped and really led the work to make affirmative action more popular, more widely understood, and more politically untouchable than it had been.
And I think that our expertise on federal equal opportunity enforcement and our connections in the federal government meant that even when we didn’t have both houses of Congress and we had a Republican president, we were able to keep that president from dismantling affirmative action – although he tried very, very hard. I would say over time we probably made more progress for women with some education and advantages, because they were really the ones who could utilize affirmative action. It was much harder for women who were in clerical jobs where they didn’t have a comparable man to be the standard that we could measure against.
It was much harder to make progress for those women. And their jobs changed tremendously with the advent of computers. All of those clerical jobs in the insurance industry and the banking industry changed a lot. And I do think that unionization was vastly the best strategy for them. But at the point where that was becoming harder and harder to achieve, automation also changed clerical work.
We used to have football field-sized offices of women who were doing billing statements at World Book or attending-physician approval statements in the basements of insurance companies. There were armies of women doing these jobs that then changed completely—at the same time that unions were under tremendous attack.
During the Reagan administration – [they] set off and encouraged a very, very aggressive anti-union sentiment. And we also had automation changing these jobs dramatically. It was hard for us to make progress there although I will say as time went on we actually did better. Late in my career at Women Employed, we passed an ordinance in the city guaranteeing paid sick time. And the people who will benefit the most from that are low-paid workers who don’t get any paid time off.
So even though our original strategies about low-wage working women weren’t as successful as we had hoped, I think ultimately in rallying people around higher minimum wage, paid sick time, and hopefully paid family leave when the policymakers change – those are things that really are benefiting women who always were at the heart of Women Employed – women who were in lower-paying jobs with fewer opportunities.
It just so happened that because the companies shut down a lot of the direct action organizing that we were doing and we had to go to the federal policymakers, one of our biggest levers was affirmative action.
Women with education and advantages were the biggest beneficiaries of that work. Family and Medical Leave, even though it’s not paid – so it’s less available to women who are low paid than women with better salaries – still is very important. That’s still job-protected leave. That was a big advance. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act [was] a big advance. Those are some of the policy wins that I’m most proud of, and I think are really historic and have made Women Employed one of the most consequential economic advocates for women in the country – certainly the most consequential here in Chicago.
I also think that the work that we did in the ’90s directly with corporations – we moved away from our heavy adversarial stance with better companies and tried to look for ways to persuade them to do better, because equal opportunity enforcement tends to focus on the lowest performers – and we wanted to figure out how those companies that had realized that affirmative action and women’s advancement were business advantages – we wanted them to do more – be more outspoken and spread their best practices.
So over about a 10-year period, we worked with leading corporations to get them to be a stronger voice for best practices. And I think that was actually successful. At least because the materials that we produced together – we often heard later – were found in copy machines before boards of directors meetings and so on.
We Did Influence Corporate HR Strategy; That Was Important
Also, given the organization’s analysis of mobility for women, we understood that we had to make it easier for women, particularly low-income women to get into and succeed in higher education. We made a lot of progress there by making financial aid fit better with the patterns of the way working women go to school. In other words – they go to school part time. It wasn’t until Women Employed came along that financial aid was made available for part-time students.
We did things like that, that were just really practical – [addressed] some big barriers to mobility. And we were one of the very important voices in the country that said – look, we have to recognize that our economy’s creating more low-wage jobs that are low quality than people want to admit. And it’s not all about moving up – that’s great, but still, tens of millions of women are going to be working in jobs in retail and hospitality and other forms of service occupations, to say nothing of caregiving. And we have to improve the quality of those jobs.
We have a long way to go, but we’ve raised the minimum wage in Chicago – there’s a very vibrant Fight for 15 movement. Women Employed has been a really strong leader and a catalyst for action around job quality and helping people understand why it’s such an important issue for women.
The Sears Campaign
KR: You briefly referenced the Sears campaign. Do you want to talk a little bit more about what was involved there and what happened?
AL: Sure. I believe that it was at the ’74 NOW convention that we brought the Sears resolution in Houston. Essentially the Sears campaign came out of a couple things – [it] came out of this group that was meeting that I talked about – part of whose job was to help me be president at Chicago NOW; and partly we talked about what would help to move NOW nationally in a direction of aggressive action on employment and economic issues.
We had the AT&T campaign as a model. So we were thinking about that, and then we were all at the Midwest Academy, and you have to talk about campaigns you’re thinking of doing when you’re at the Midwest Academy.
Sears, at the Time, Was the Second Biggest Employer of Women in the Country
And now it’s mostly gone. But it really employed a lot of women. So we explored doing a national campaign around discrimination at Sears, which we knew was pretty rampant. There were a couple things that influenced our thinking. One, we knew that Sears was about to move from the West Side of Chicago to downtown to what was then the new Sears Tower. We knew people would be sort of off-kilter and maybe unhappy and willing to talk.
Their Discrimination Was Very Evident for Everybody to See in Their Stores
The other thing we liked about it was, like AT&T at the time, there was a Sears store in every town and one of our criteria for choosing a national campaign was not just the issue, but also the availability of opportunities for local chapters to build an activist profile. So we wanted something that had a target in every town.
The way we went about this – I think we did some basic groundwork – we did some joint actions with Women Employed locally. There were hearings that Congressman Gus Hawkins was holding around the country on poverty, and we decided that we would endeavor to testify at those hearings to make the case that major employers like Sears were contributing to poverty.
That was sort of the first national exposure of the campaign. I don’t remember when in ’74 those hearings were, but that testimony is of course available. We began enlisting our own chapter members in going to Sears and counting women and looking at the departments they worked in, because Sears was commissionable at the time. And women were in all the low-commission departments and men were in all the high-commission departments.
Men Sold Refrigerators; Women Sold Buttons
That’s basically how it worked. So men always made more money, even though women obviously know more about refrigerators from a practical standpoint than men do. There was a category of employment called Buyer’s Assistant. They were all women and they were hourly employees. There was a category of workers called the Assistant Buyers.They did exactly the same thing as the Buyer’s Assistants. They were all men and they were salaried. So this was discrimination as obvious as the nose on your face, and we wanted to document that. We documented the patterns on the retail floor, and then we also interviewed a lot of women who were Buyer’s Assistants about the kind of work they did.
Mary Jean Collins and I co-chaired a national task force whose charge was to run the campaign for NOW and our focus – Mary Jean’s and my focus – was to figure out how to engage the maximum number of chapters in this. So essentially what we did was come up with activities – ideas for what chapters could do to highlight discrimination in their communities and focus specifically on Sears.
We wrote these – I don’t remember what they were called – but we wrote these Sears action bulletins. I think they came out every couple of weeks or every month. And essentially what they were was toolkits for chapters. And then we would make phone calls and encourage action by the chapters. We would do an action day before Christmas and give people a template for a card that they could hand out with a piece of Christmas candy to everybody who came in the store to tell them that Sears was discriminating or Sears was Scrooge or whatever.
You know we always had to do something per our training from Kathy Rand to engage people – capture people’s imagination – and get media. So all these actions have that kind of angle, and then people like Kathy and others contributed the ideas about how to engage the media in your town. Because in a lot of these towns the media didn’t have too much to cover, so we could really help these chapters be successful.
And Some of These Chapters Also Were Quite Astute and Already Had Good Relationships With Their Local Media
And so what we did – what Mary Jean and I did – was build the case against Sears, help to engage the chapters, push forward here with some national actions that we then could disseminate to the local chapters and to the national around things like the shareholders meeting where one of Chicago NOW’s members was a Sears shareholder.
We went in and made a statement at the Sears meeting. Now this generated a tremendous amount of backlash from Sears. And they gave a contract to a past NOW president – Aileen Hernandez – to be a consultant for them. This basically created a division in NOW between people who were friends of Aileen’s who very reasonably respected her and didn’t believe she would ever be anything other than an honest broker, and those of us who felt that there was simply no possibility of her being an honest broker once they were paying her. They came to the Philadelphia convention. They had done a glossy brochure about their equal opportunity stuff. They joined and voted in the presidential election.
It was a nightmare. And I think for Sears it was very successful, because ultimately the EEOC filed charges against Sears based on a lot of our information. And Sears went aggressively after the EEOC – saying that they were tainted by their prior association with NOW from the AT&T case. They really tried to smear people in the EEOC.
The Higher-Ups Then Managed to Suppress Findings That Were Really Damning to Sears, Which We Ultimately Saw
And they made it, you know – mean. Sears contention was that women wanted these jobs, and this was the way they wanted to work and they didn’t want to be full time. And they relied on really egregious gender stereotypes in their case, and they hired expert witnesses who were historians to say that women didn’t really want the jobs that we said they wanted.
Because we lost that election in ’75 in NOW, NOW basically abandoned the case so EEOC was left hanging with no national force – which they had in AT&T – that was putting public pressure on the company to settle. And I’m not saying Sears ever would have settled, but we certainly did make an effort. But the winners of the election associated the case with the Chicago faction, which they had decided to crush and throw out of the organization.
It Wasn’t Enough for Them to Win – They Wanted Us Out and One of the Ways They Did That Was to Abandon the Sears Case
I think it was a terrible blow, not just to our vision for the organization – in what we thought of as a healthy organization, even if we had made tactical mistakes – but [to] the right direction for the organization. But also it was a terrible blow to NOW’s reputation to have put that kind of time and energy and investment into something that affected the lives of tens of thousands of women and maybe millions if you think of Sears as an example.
They abandoned it for, I think, crass reasons, for political reasons internally. The dignity of the organization, I think, required them to make their best effort. And they didn’t do it. And it just cleared the field for Sears, which spent, I guess, an unimaginable amount of money to fight the case and essentially they won. It was a great campaign. It was very fun to do. I learned a lot. I think it was great for the chapters.
It Was Pointing the Organization in the Right Direction
I think two main things happened. One was, Sears was much more aggressive than we ever thought they’d be. And perhaps tactically we should have made a much bigger stand when they tried to corrupt the organization. Perhaps we weren’t as clear about that as we could have been. And then [there was] the political fight in NOW.
We’ll never know what role Sears played. We just – I mean I don’t think I’ll ever know. We can speculate. But certainly Sears wasn’t the cause of the internal trouble in NOW. I think it was a lot of growth pains, but I think they were exploited by people with bad motives via the Sears case.
KR: And I’m sure there were forces that we didn’t know about and still don’t know about.
AL: Again, as we were discussing earlier – we underestimated Sears. I think we were passionate, and we truly believed in the serious importance of this, but we underestimated the magnitude of the change that we were engineering. And that’s never a good idea when your opponents are really determined. But do I think we made things better ultimately for women at Sears? Absolutely.
We Just Didn’t Get Them the Justice They Deserved
We did succeed through that campaign in wiping out these absurd sex-segregated categories. Certainly other companies took notice, just as was the case when Women Employed had its case against the Harris Bank. Harris Bank was recalcitrant, but other banks in town took one look at that and thought, “Well I don’t want to be in that hot seat,” and I’m quite confident the same thing happened as a result of the Sears case.
Whether because a company didn’t want the legal bill or they didn’t want the bad publicity or whatever it was – or they just wanted to do the right thing – I think the Sears case was important, and I think it was good for women. It just turned out not to be good for NOW.
KR: We’ve covered a lot. Is there anything else that we haven’t covered that you think would be important to add?
AL: I guess that the only thing I would conclude with is that I think that the women’s movement was – despite the fact that I’ve spent some time on the worst parts of it when I was talking about the progress we’ve made – I think maybe I did not say clearly that I could never have, I can’t even imagine finding a more rewarding way to spend my professional life.
I’m so glad that I got in that carpool and that Janet Kanter introduced me to NOW, because I wouldn’t have gotten to Women Employed without that either. It just was amazing. I came from a corporate environment where really nobody cared what I did, and I was not going to get ahead. Maybe if I’d stuck it out…people of my generation did get ahead. But for me it just wasn’t appealing enough. And the women’s movement was a great thing.
Kathy was part of this and Mary Jean and others—they said – you can contribute – welcome – we’re all in this together -we’re all trying to figure out what to do. I just had never had that experience in my life. And so from there it just grew to be a great job…total fun to be doing something so meaningful and be a part of history and do it with all these great people that I met throughout my career.
All movements have some pain and suffering in them, but I want to make sure the interview doesn’t end without my saying that [that] was a minor part and that I think what’s most important historically – [are] the achievements – the joy – the connections – the way women themselves have changed and their opportunities have changed. [These] are really the big story and the part of my story that I will always consider to be the biggest piece of luck ever.
KR: That’s awesome. Thank you so much – that was great.