THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Rev. Addie Wyatt
“Change Can Come, But You Cannot Do It Alone.”
Veteran Feminists of America, “Unfinished Business,” Chicago, Illinois 2004
Good Morning. It is good to see each of you. And before I even begin saying anything, I want to especially thank those women who made it possible for us to be here last night and today. Thank you so very much. It’s good to bring us together and I did not know that so many of us still existed. I sort of felt that everybody but Addie was dead. Quite a few have gone on and are no longer with us but you have encouraged my heart. It is good to see you. And I pay tribute to each one of you.
Understood at an Early Age
Would you really believe that at the age of two, I knew that black people were disrespected, unprotected, neglected, rejected, discriminated against. But I did not know until I entered the work place in this country that women were also discriminated against – unprotected – neglected – disrespected. It was when I started in the workforce of this nation that I discovered we had more problems than we could even begin to dream of. That’s what started me on this road. As a feminist – as a person who would fight for justice, peace and equality for all. White women – black women -brown women – red women – polka dot women – any women. We will fight together to make life better for all of us.
I went to work at a very early age, 17 years old, because I came from a very rich family. We just didn’t have any money. And I did not like doing without. I did not like being hungry. I did not like having to move every month because we didn’t have rent to pay to a new house. Even to the point when I started school here in the city of Chicago. I couldn’t remember where we lived when I came out of school one day because we had moved so often.
Did It Have to Be Like This?
And I raised the question with my precious mother. “Does it have to really be like this? Why are we sometimes hungry? And why do we move all of time? Why is it that things happen to us and you just cry? And we watch you cry. Can’t it be better?” My mother said to me, “Addie, life can be better but you’ll have to help make it so.” Little did I understand what that meant. At 80 years old, I know better than I did at 30, that I’d have to struggle, fight, and stand up. Refuse to sit down when I didn’t want to sit down. I knew that I was on the right track.
And when I see so many of you here – that were fighting with me and encouraging our selves when nobody else would encourage us. I knew that we were on the right track. And I want to pay special tribute to you. You know who you are. We would meet together at a time when women seldom went to meetings and certainly if you went to the meeting you did not stand up to protest the treatment – that women – your sisters – your daughters – your granddaughters – your aunts – were treated – were exposed. We didn’t have the courage, some of us to say that. I’m hurting. And we were hurting. Nothing in the world disturbed me more when I became a negotiator in the organized labor movement [than] to hear women being called “girls” and “gals.” And the other names. And what disturbed me even more was to see women smile and take it.
I Knew that Something Had to Be Done.
That life for us could be better. But together we’d have to help make it so. I was sent as a delegate to my first Women’s Conference in 1954. When I walked in that room I saw what I thought could be the changing group – the force that could help bring about a change. There were men, women – young and old – various races and creeds – religious groups in this room. They were talking about anti discrimination. I wasn’t too sure what they meant by anti discrimination because we called it all different things at that time. We didn’t understand each other’s language – each other’s pain and concern.
But the longer we stayed in the room and we talked together it was so therapeutic to me. Just to be able to talk about my pain. And for others to talk about their pain. White women and black women learned that they had pain – serious pain that no body understood but them. And nobody would really do what was necessary to change that condition if they didn’t do it themselves.
I was sitting and as the leaders of our union began to talk about women and blacks in leadership. Leadership? That’s a good thing and we can find somebody to give leadership. I went back to the union to give my report. And lo and behold they bought it – black and white – male and female leadership. But we couldn’t find any leaders among the women because all of us are very busy in our home, helping to raise our children – doing what we could. And now we’re asking for women leadership in the union.
Elderly women came over to me and said, “We challenged them and they’ve accepted. We can’t find a leader.” I said, “That’s too bad, we’ve got to pray about that.” They looked at me and said, “Listen: you could be the leader.” “No, not me, I can’t be the leader.“ They said to me, “You can be the leader. If you will lead we’ll do everything that we can to help you.”
That was a challenge until the last day of making a selection for the woman who would run for the vice president of our union. There was a white male who had run for the president. I certainly did not dream in my thinking that all – hoping and praying that I would not win.
Someone Had to Do It
And that day of the election I went home. I never went to the polls to vote. But when I came back the next day they were all in the hall at the plant where I worked. “Congratulations.” I said, “For what?” “You’re the vice president of the union,” and I said, “Oh no! That can’t be!” It took me some time to tell my precious husband that I was now the vive president of my union. Every day that we got home, we would have such a wonderful dinner. And such a wonderful meeting with each other. I just didn’t have the courage; I’ll wait a little bit longer. I’ll pray a little bit more.
And one day when I had to go to the meeting I burst out and said to him, “Honey, do you know I’ve been elected vice president of our local union. The first woman vice president of the local union at the UPWA. He said, “What?” I said, “Oh yes.” He said, “Well listen: how are you gonna take care of the things here at home?” I said, “Well together we can do that. We are going to make life better for our children and for ourselves. And I found a group that means so much to us and they will help us to do that.”
Well he challenged me. He said, “If you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to be sure that things don’t go undone here.” I said, “Listen: I can do that and this with your help.” We’ve been married for 64 years. We’ve never failed to cooperate, never failed to make a difference, because we took this route of working together with this Labor team of women and men who wanted a better life. And also found that the only way you can get this better life is that you’ve got to organize. You’ve got to unify yourself with others who also want a better life. This I did making a long wonderful interesting story short – I became the vice president – only to have a wonderful white president to resign, not because he did not want to work – he had personal problems and he had to resign.
And I went into a meeting one day waiting for him as president to come and lead the meeting, to be told, “He’s not coming – he quit. “What do you mean quit?” “He quit and you are going to be the President.” I said, “How am I going to be the President when I’m just barely making it as the vice president?” They encouraged me to be strong and I accepted that challenge to be the first woman president of the Union with two children of my own and five children that my deceased mother had given me before she left us. I’ve got seven children to take care of. Unify.
Put Your Heart and Mind Together with the Hearts and Minds of the People.
No matter what color they are or creed and you can make it. Organize them and show them the way as they show you the way. That teamwork can make a difference. For thirty-three years I served in the leadership of the union trying to organize and get others to go in that same direction. We did not change the world, but we changed ourselves. And we banded our hearts and our minds together. And we were able to say to women, “Life can be better. But you’ve got to help make it so.” We’ve done so much. In the Equal Rights Amendment when I would get up to talk the men would get so upset. “There she goes again with equal rights for women.”
But the thing that disturbed me most – too many women would say the same thing. “There she goes again.” Not realizing that together, we can make a difference. That if we didn’t work together that difference will never come. I think today on the many beautiful women and men who were encouraged and led to follow that path. And yes we made a difference in my own union in the year 1950 before it became law in this country we had an equal rights amendment in our company. Women could not be discriminated against because of their sex. We were fighting for women to get equal pay for equal work and we had it in contracts before the law was passed in this country. It was because we banded together and we tried to understand the problems that each of us faced.
We Didn’t Understand It All Together.
Some of these things you won’t understand unless you are victims yourself. And unless you recognize that you are the victims. I would meet with women like this and say to them we’re not going to be called “gals”. Sitting one day in an office when the employer we’re getting ready to negotiate [with] and one of them said – “Will you send my gal in here? You’ve got to take some notes.” And I sat down – oh god help me to be calm. This attractive young woman came in with her pencil and pad and I said, “Is that who you’ve been talking about and what did you call her?” He started to try to explain what he was thinking. I said, “First place – I don’t know what a gal is but that’s not one and the other thing – she’s not a girl – even though you pay her a girl wages. She’s not a girl. And you must recognize that – because we are going to demand this day equal pay for equal work and more pay for all work.”
Sometimes I got in trouble with the women because they wanted to be called girls and gals. And I’d have to say to them, “To call you a girl may flatter your ego but it flattens your pay.” Women had to be taught what that really meant and to refuse to be called gal and girls when we are women, mothers, sisters and grandmothers. So the teaching experience was very necessary and it was great for us. I mean women in the streets now and men – we laugh about it now. When they tell me about how I would say to the young people, “We want women in these departments,” and the employer would say to me, “We don’t have bathrooms for them.” And I don’t respond – that’s perfectly all right. “We’re going to use the one you use. We taught you to go in the first place.”
This would sometimes upset the employers. But regretfully, it would also sometimes upset the employees – the women. We had to teach our selves and teach each other – we had to let them know that we are on our way to a different world – a world in which we have to have these qualities. We have to have respect. We have to have protection. And nobody should go through life neglecting any of our needs. And you sisters and brothers, you will have to help make it so by working together.
There’s so Much More I’d Like to Say – When I Get Started on this Subject it’s Hard to Stop.
Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn’t been opened.
Sometimes I wish I could no longer see
All of the pain and the hurt and the longing of my
Sisters and me as we try to be free.
Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn’t been opened,
Just for an hour, how sweet it would be
Not to be struggling, not to be striving,
But just sleep securely in our slavery.
But now that I’ve seen with my eyes, I can’t close them,
Because deep inside me somewhere I’d still know
The road that my sisters and I have to travel:
My heart would say, “Yes” and my feet would say “Go!”
Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn’t been opened,
But now that they have, I’m determined to see:
That somehow my sisters and I will be one day
The free people we were created to be.
(Words and Music By Carol Etzler, 1974 published by Sisters Unlimited, RR 1 Box 1420, Bridgeport, VT 05734)
With that determination in my mind I’ve taken some critiques, I’ve taken some bumps, some lumps, but I still carry on because God has blessed me with people like you. Who are going with me – who will stand up and speak with me and for me? This is a new day. A. Philip Randolph was right – and I paraphrase – When you said that the struggle is not won – it continues. I thought by 1984 when I retired, I thought surely that we would be singing – We Have Overcome. Let me suggest to you – I hope the day will soon come when the young people will pick up this mantle and carry to that post – where they can hang it up in the skies – We Have Overcome.