THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
A Conversation With Dorothy O’Brien and Jane Plitt
A Little Background
DO: This is Dorothy O’Brien. I was born in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin in a very northern part of Wisconsin, not too far from Lake Superior. My family background is German and Irish Catholic. I have four siblings, still living – one brother and three sisters. My mother and father are both dead. Both were educators. I am sitting with Jane Plitt.
JP: I am Jane Plitt and I was born March 19, 1948 in Suffern, New York in a rural area of New York State. I come from a family of Reformed Jews who came from an Eastern European background and I have two siblings. I’m the youngest.
DO: My parents were second-generation immigrants. My grandfather on my father’s side was an Orphan Train Rider. We always had family history stories of the kids who were put on trains in New York City and sent everywhere. It turns out that the grandfather who was an Orphan Train Rider – his name was Reardon – when he reached the age of majority, which at that time was 16, took the O’Brien name because they had treated him well. We have what I would call an interesting immigrant story. There is now enough collected about the Orphan Trains that there is an Association in one of the Western states.
The other thing is that the place I grew up is a small town that never got larger than 7,000 people in what I would call a limited access area in Wisconsin because at the time I was growing up there were not expressways. What was my life like before? Rambunctious and full of pushing the boundaries – mostly big fights with my father. We made one move as a family from a much smaller town – smaller than the 7,000 to the large 7,000 because that was the town my father grew up in. He always wanted to quote “go home.” In fact he created what I would call the “Irish Land Ownership” that he expected his children to take it over when he died – none of us decided to do that.
JP: I was fortunate to grow up in this rural community and small town where I remember in my pre-k years spending time, helping my grandmother, Bessie Rubin Plitt in her antique store. She also ran a real estate firm, which obviously fed into supplying the antiques. She was an extraordinary role model for me because unlike everybody else she actually didn’t baby talk me. She spoke seriously and she gave me a sense that I was someone who had real thoughts. It was also a time in that period of the 1950s – ’60s where the whole civil rights movement and Reformed Jewish belief in Sedaka and doing good and saving the world was deeply impressed upon me. But I had no identification about being a girl and whether or not that should limit me.
I did discover when I applied to be a page in the U.S. Senate that Senator Javits responded that he would have liked to endorse me – but girls were not allowed. That was one of my first clues that our society was not quite equal. And then I went on to college at Cornell in the Labor Relations School and thought it was wonderful dating odds. They had a 10 percent quota of the number of women that could be in a class. That perspective began to change only after I graduated college.
DO: That’s interesting because I hated growing up in a town I grew up in and mostly because my father was a big football star and everyone knew him and my uncle was local law enforcement. He was both Sheriff and plice chief and everyone knew him. So as you grew up reports about what you were doing preceded you to your family home and you had to justify every move you made, every person you talked to, every disgusting or interesting comment you made because of course the narrative went home at the same time the actions went home.
The bottom line was for me in this small town, I wanted out as quickly as I could get out. My mother and father actually were strong Democrats in a very Republican area and organized around teachers unions and that permeated most of everybody who showed up in our house. It’s not a surprise to me that you would end up wanting to take action for something because they were always saying “fighting the good fight.”
I would say that none of the girls thought that there was any limitation on what we could do until we got to school and we were told we couldn’t do something. Most of us are reasonably athletic. Most of us were told we couldn’t do anything athletic because – of course this was way before Title IX. And at the same time – my mother was an English educator and precise about everything and so we would challenge most of our teachers. My brother got away with a lot of challenges that the rest of us never had the opportunity to do because he was male and that was really obvious to all of us.
Also my father didn’t become what I would call a supporter of feminism until after we had all graduated from college. So you can imagine being the second oldest – that was long after I had left the household. I would say my experiences were mostly family based and just because the family was so well known everyone in that town that knew who you were and who you were connected to and what your background was and what the expectations for you were. If you didn’t live up to them – you pretty much could expect a daily report on why you weren’t living up. It used to drive me crazy.
Involvement in the Movement
So let’s see. I guess we’ll go on with our involvement in the movement. I actually didn’t get involved until college and then it was more organizing around renters. There was a renter movement in the University of Wisconsin at the time. The rents were going up very significantly for students. So we were trying to get a rent controlled or rent abated movement started and that led frankly to the antiwar movement.
I was at the University of Wisconsin just before the huge bombing that occurred there where there was a death and there was a lot of antiwar behavior. I was involved with showing up at demonstrations and organizing where people should be. If you look up the Dow Demonstrations at the University of Wisconsin that would be something – a friend of mine who was in politics actually in political science and was going to run for a local election but decided not to – helped to make sure that it happened. So that was the beginning for me.
JP: My activism in college focused on the Vietnam War. It was typical. We’d be in Washington D.C. a whole lot for rallies and marches and the like… In high school, I had determined that I was going to be a Native American teacher. After a trip across the country as an 8 year old I observed the discrimination against Native Americans. But a summer spent in Cloquet, Minnesota when I was in high school working to rebuild the Community Center demonstrated to me that I just too personalized the abuse that was taking place and that there would be no way that I could be a supporter or an advocate for Native Americans – except through money. I remember even as a younger teenager I was sending money to a variety of the causes.
So it wasn’t until I got hired in the field of labor relations in Rochester, New York that I began to experience the obvious. I’m embarrassed to say how obvious it was – discrimination that was taking place. I couldn’t eat lunch with my male colleagues because there were men’s only grills. And the Help Wanted ads run by Gannett throughout New York State had Help Wanted Male – separate from Help Wanted Female -separate from Help Wanted Male/Female. So these were the beginnings. As I did some historical research at Rochester Telephone, I found out there had been policies of firing people – operators who got pregnant and the like. Now that had passed but it did make my juices flow.
And then there was Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique and declaring that there would be an August Strike Day and that was pretty significant for me. I ended up joining a fledgling Rochester NOW chapter and we began to think about what we might do to participate. We agreed that since we were the home of Susan B. Anthony and since her home was controlled by a Republican women’s club that refused to make the home available publicly – but that there was a by invitation only tea once a year to come into the house – that we should march down Main Street to Susan B. Anthony’s house and that we should all bring tea cups and we should smash them on the steps of the Susan B. Anthony house explaining that we wanted that building to be available to the public. It is now – a historic site. What’s significant about our approach was that we also brought brooms and dustpans to clean up our mess. So there we were trying to be radical but also our feminine cleanliness came to rest.
DO: That’s a great story, Jane. I love that story.
JP: The chapter was full of a number of women who like myself suddenly said – “Oh, I’m not alone.” There was enormous excitement and passion among the members to do something and many of us were professional women with great ambitions. We decided that we would just have lunch at one of those men’s only grills and we brought the press in. The law was on our side but not the practice so we kept lunching at a number of men’s only grills – The Manhattan Grill, The Sibley Grill, The McKirdy’s Grill and they all – voila – opened up.
We brought a lawsuit against Gannett and actually won and integrated all the Help Wanted Ads. We also decided that the way to succeed in Rochester was to be a Jaycee member but you had to be under the age of 36 and male to be a member. Ultimately and with NOW’s local support and then nationally we proceeded to get that chapter to change their bylaws and allow women. Today I’m pleased to say that the Kiwanis, The Rotary, Lions and other service organizations are now integrated.
DO: I didn’t have quite as direct a line into the women’s movement as you. I had moved to Chicago after graduating and I was working for almost two years before I realized there was a NOW chapter in Chicago. I joined that NOW chapter and worked very closely with a number of other women who were there. Many of us were as Jane said professionals who were doing this – what I call “on the side”. One of the big things that happened with that chapter was the integration with Sears Roebuck because they as Jane said they were not unlike other organizations that had separate help wanted ads for males and females for male and female and then of course they had the segregation by race as well.
And actually the thing I found most interesting in those early years was just being with other women who were willing to talk about the injustices that each of them and each of us and myself were facing on a daily basis because of course it doesn’t take long in a work environment to realize you’re getting the pat on the back and the pat on the butt. And you’re not getting any money for all those wonderful things you’re doing.
It was what I would call a relief for many of us to start with. We then turned it into strategies that would help more than just us. There were a whole host of campaigns that Chicago NOW did and many of them lost to the fog of time. I think they were reasonably successful because they made a name for themselves and it had an influence on places like Carson Pirie Scott, Marshall Fields, the big Sears organization that spread all over the United States and several other organizations that weren’t locally in Chicago. I think that had made those of us that were in the very early part of Chicago NOW feel as if we were empowering something much larger than ourselves. I don’t know that I can remember a lot of details because I tend to be a present moment person.
JP: Dorothy has captured that sense of purpose that I think so many of us felt. Within a couple of years, our chapter had over 100 members. It grew like fire and it was thrilling. And as Dorothy said, it was all on the side. Most of us were working full time. But the passion – people worked at night and over the weekend and they’d strategize. I’ve been involved with a number of efforts since then. I remember with great pride but also great joy about those times. We thought we were taking on City Hall or the nation and we knew that we could change it. And as Dorothy said, in many tangible ways we did.
My field was labor relations. I was the only woman in labor relations both at the company [and] in the county. And in my work performance I was written up for swearing at the bargaining table because I caused a union walkout. Most of the union members were offended. They were men [and] a woman had to use – and I guarantee you it was a mild swearword compared to what was being expressed at that table by the men.
But the constant awareness that you were being judged by a whole different standard even though it was successful and you were successful. It became that impetus to push us forward. So employment and opportunity to become, to eat, to pursue whatever you wanted were top on my agenda. It came to be that my husband was going to relocate to Chicago and they were looking for a national executive director at NOW and I applied. I had that job and for two years I continued to provide [an] administrative role.
But it never had the passion that that chapter involvement did. It had a lot of pain because one of the tendencies is that groups often turn on each other and there became a split. Does that sound familiar – a split between the South and the Midwest against the East Coast and West Coast chapters. Although that wasn’t quite so “Queen Anne,” as a staff member it became a little hairy.
DO: As part of the Chicago chapter, I worked very closely on communications mostly and then eventually I held what I think was the secretary’s role although that is a little vague to me and then was hired as the very first administrator for Chicago NOW. I will tell you that it was a very difficult role because the thing that happened most frequently during that role was the daily concerns that women would call in with – very frequently. If we had to do it over again we would have had professional counselors sitting to take the phone calls.
There were so many awful stories about how women had been sexually abused, how women had been beaten up, how the steel industry in Gary, Indiana was not allowing women to move from one job to another job. It didn’t matter how frequently they applied for a job at an organization. They never had the opportunity to move ahead.
It became what I would call increasingly difficult to be positive and highly motivated because the daily grind was to hear how bad things were for women in Chicago. Over time – at the time I was still the executive director – I was attending most of the strategy sessions that people were planning things around. I would say with the successes that Chicago had, by the time I left that role – actually more accurately, was asked to leave the role – I think there had been a compression and vision that there wasn’t this excitement and we’ll conquer the world feeling anymore.
It was all what small incremental change can we make that will impact this group of people and it became very frustrating. So it was probably in part a good thing I left. I would tell you I didn’t like the way it was handled so I don’t know that NOW was any better than any other employer at handling – labor relations. But Jane can talk to that.
JP: Yes. I’d rather not. Other than I made a pledge after I left. After two years at NOW national – that I would never work for a not for profit again because it’s very hard. You’ve got people who are volunteers and they’re trying to reconcile how much they are giving. And they believe you should be ever grateful and you are doing the job and still they want blood from you. And it’s never enough. I went back to the private sector and I would comment that I did get involved in electoral politics before I left Rochester. I actually ran for the county legislature along with a lot of progressive Democrats in districts that were highly Republican and many of us did not win that first time around.
One of us, Louise Slaughter, went on to run three times and then got elected and just died in 2018 as one of the longest serving female Congress women representing Rochester, New York. So electoral politics and that whole women’s political engagement surely began in this era. When I returned to Rochester in 1976, I got involved with mobilizing women with the possibility of just having some kind of network. It always seemed like there was a boy’s club and if you didn’t play golf in Rochester and most women couldn’t even join the country clubs because you needed to be male to be a member. We threw out the possibility that maybe a few women would want to get together and be supportive of each other. We called the meeting expecting maybe ten people. We had about 150 show up and it was standing room only.
I’m pleased to say that the Rochester Women’s Network continues to thrive.
It celebrated its fortieth anniversary in 2018, which speaks to the issue about women in Rochester. It may be the Genesee River but there is something in the water that stimulates collegial supportive path blazing effort. It did not only with Susan B. Anthony… but I happened to stumble on a story that changed my career. I was running a consulting firm – twelve person – and came across this little article about the first woman member of the Rochester Chamber of Commerce, Martha Matilda Harper. When I called the chamber, they were clueless about who this woman was but suggested that I should fill them in when I found out which ticked me off.
I ultimately spent six years researching her life, becoming a visiting scholar at the University of Rochester and I am pleased that Syracuse University Press published her book, Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream which documented that she as a Canadian immigrant transformed her life by opening one of the first early beauty salons inventing the reclining shampoo chair and launching franchising and social entrepreneurship. Ultimately having 500 shops around the world and most importantly putting only poor women in those ownership positions.
Susan B. Anthony became her customer. I know most of us couldn’t tell that with her bun but she also became her advocate and talked about the importance of women having their own purse. And that has been something that has continued to stimulate me about encouraging women – through my own personal investment of time but also of dollars. I’ll talk more but let Dorothy.
DO: I’m going to go back to an earlier comment. Jane talked about the split that occurred in the ‘70s in the NOW organization. That kind of split impacts local NOW’s as much as it does national NOW’s. I think over time for Chicago NOW it helped deteriorate the interior and the internal structure of the organization. It reinvented itself and I did stay connected until I actually left Chicago in 1978 or 1979. I don’t know. But the organization became very employment focused more than anything else I think after that time. I was still participating in some of the strategy development which is probably the most interesting part for me. But it was no longer the movement organization that it had started to be in the late 60s early 70s. It was pick and choose individual places that you could influence.
I do think one of the positive things that came out of that were the other organizations locally that developed.
Women Working for Women or 9 to 5 – so all of that is positive. I also think it brought an emphasis to thinking about economic independence which may not have been in the early part of the movement. There was sort of the laissez faire approach to – money will just show up. For those of us who were actually in the work knew that wasn’t going to happen because we were all donating time and energy and funds in order to make the movement happen. And you know that’s also reflected in the early years suffragist movement. It was not poor women that started that movement. It was women who had some financial backing in some form or another that were able to do it.
And I think maybe by the late 1970s NOW and the women’s movement was recognizing without economic independence it was extraordinarily difficult to do anything. People were then beginning to put their money where their mouth is and were picking and choosing. They could make the lives of these women better. Like if it was the steel workers, if they focused on the steel workers and they didn’t think just universally. When I left, I moved to New York City and I did not join NOW there. I thought I’d had plenty of NOW and it became what I would call the silent majority in NOW. The ones that worked very early, very hard, very long and then turned it over to the next group of people and may or may not have agreed with what they did but wasn’t going to go and have the argument about why it wasn’t right.
The most important experiences I think for me were the very early ones.
We were demonstrating that what we did had the kind of visual impact that you don’t necessarily get when you’re doing economic improvement. You could say we were 500 strong demonstrating against this and there were pictures in the paper that proved you actually did that. I think the combination of my mother and father’s union work, the civil rights movement and then NOW has just kept me very attuned to social injustice and how one can choose to play a role in making that better.
For instance, later in my lifetime we worked with three other women to create an organization that did consulting within companies like Dupont Canada or NASA to talk about how women could influence the teams they were part of and what improvements they could bring to the processes used inside organizations. So that there was recognition for what they were contributing equal to the mission of what the men on the team were contributing. Because even as late as the late 80s that was not an obvious thing.
I think that organization, it’s called Women in Process is still in existence. It’s to me one of the very first electronic organizations. The four of us who started it lived in four different cities. We talked – at that time it was only e-mail and telephone – let me tell you. And we only got together four times a year in order to do our work and our strategies. When they talk about the new electronic team building – I’m like well – it happened earlier than that kiddo.
The Work Continues
JP: The effort that I put together to produce the Harper adult book was to get her into history and it is an area that I think continues to lack. That we are not recognizing the real role of women in a number of different arenas. Not only white women but women of color and of various backgrounds. That is an issue that I think continues to haunt me. I produced two other books. One for young children called Martha’s Magical Hair and the other Martha the Hairpreneur for young adults and older.
I’m spending a fair amount of time in Title 1 schools trying to impart Martha as a role model to give them hope both as immigrants, as poor people – boys and girls, that they can have a dream and they can pursue it and be successful but they have to stick to it and that they can throw in the possibility of helping others along the way. Those are the values that over these many decades I have come to believe are essential.
As we look at today and it is January 2019 and look at the divisions and look at the references to immigrants, to women as though they’re inhuman or they are for sale. It is quite frightening to me. There was no doubt in 2017 when the women’s march was declared that I was marching at that in Washington D.C. and Dorothy was with me along some of those other second wave women, but we were in the minority.
It was clear at that moment that young men, young women and their children were present in numbers that far outnumbered us and we all commented that we were delighted to pass the gauntlet. So, it’s not that we have stopped but the impetus for the overall movement has to be among the younger women in men of our generation. It pleased me very much to see that number and the diversity of women sitting in our Congress this year and I hope that that number will grow to over 250 and they may be the majority in the house. But these are women from various backgrounds and that’s just what we wanted.
DO: My path took more of a – I was in corporate and doing proper work for many years but then I finally moved over to nonprofit. The way I stayed active – as my husband and I have a daughter, had moved to Japan and when we came back, I looked at Cincinnati Ohio where we were located, and I would tell you that the minority group not represented was the Asians and everybody says there are no Asians. Well there are a large segment of your population that you tend to believe don’t exist. They run your dry cleaners. They do manicure houses and pedicure houses. There are your invisible servants. And in fact, they are considered the best kind of minority because they rarely speak up.
I helped three other people start an organization called the Asian Community Alliance in Cincinnati which is still in existence. Its purpose was to bring together the diverse Asian communities in Cincinnati and have them have a platform and location where they could talk to each other and strategize about how they could improve the lives of all Asians in that area. Some of the best work they’re doing now is on mental health because if you look at the statistics on things like suicides, there’s a disproportionate number of Asian teenagers who commit suicide and it is in part because of the structures that exist. And in part because of the cultural expectations from Asian communities. That kind of activism doesn’t go away, I don’t think.
You think about what’s going on in your community and you decide to do something about it. I’m with Jane on the political activism. I think this is the period when that’s probably a really good thing to be involved in. I’m very pleased that the House has as many female representatives as it has. But I am disillusioned a bit about support for ideals I might believe in because I live in a state where pretty much – I now live in Florida – the state is a 50/50 split. You don’t get to 50/50 without a lot of females believing something I don’t believe. It’s frustrating but it does not discourage you from showing up at rallies or donating to organizations that are actually helping women become excellent political candidates or learning issues and having the conversations with your neighbors even if your neighbors are not from the same political party as you are.
If you’re asking if I’m a current activist I think the issue would be yes. The nature of the activism tends to be very different and I think that’s a natural change. I am duly impressed that we have in our Congress people not of my age. That they are younger with different experiences and surprisingly articulate for the amount of life experience they’ve had. I also for Florida, have been so impressed with the students out of our awful gunman experience where they have become articulate about gun control or gun safety in a way that it has made The National Rifle Association stand up and take notice. It seems to me a natural progression and I’m happy to turn anything over.