With four years of elementary school and carpenter papers, my father Oscar left Sweden for the U.S. in 1923. Using Chicago as a home base, he went wherever there was work, ultimately becoming a contractor specializing in walk-in coolers in food establishments. My mother Violet Chappell, born in Zion, Illinois, was raised in a fundamentalist religion in which only males are congregation leaders. After two years of high school she worked as a bank clerk, but left her job to follow my father. I was born in 1934 in Waukegan, Illinois.
As a homemaker my mother became severely depressed. Her withdrawal meant my younger sister Beverly and I had far more physical freedom than most. Sports were permitted and I took up ice-skating. However, all reading material that had the potential to conflict with my mother’s religion (practically everything except numbers and calculating) was forbidden. Thus, my fascination with charts and statistics ensued and my sister came to excel in math. Also acceptable was an elementary school home mechanics program where girls and boys practiced sewing, electrical connections, carpentry, etc., in the same classes.
High school students took home or shop classes based on their gender. I enrolled in foods and clothing because my friends did. The school newspaper reported on my swimming, diving, bowling, and horseback riding. My sister’s sports included championship baseball. One summer the two of us were left alone at a cottage my father had built in Wisconsin. Having the freedom to read a book about a religious man, I realized that not only did other religions lack merit as taught, so did the one in which we were raised. However, it took several days before there was the courage to face that what one internalized as righteous (or desirable as an occupation), may not be, especially when it restricted women. I changed to a college preparatory program taking every science course and received the Bausch + Lomb Science Award upon graduation.
Next was the University of Chicago. Most meaningful were the readings of historical debates showing that the opposition to equality on the basis of class (among whites) was similar to that between races. The bad news was that there was nothing relating to inequality based on sex.
Looking for adventure and a career, upon earning my Bachelor’s Degree I joined the U.S. Navy. After becoming a line officer, I was assigned to the Pentagon and the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations for administrative and communications jobs. Wives of successful naval officers, previously naval officers themselves, told me, “Whatever you do, don’t get married.” I took their advice and continued my adventurous career, “hopping” memorable flights aboard military aircraft.
Personnel work in Kodiak, Alaska followed. Next was another personnel job in San Diego where my sister also relocated and worked on safety factors of nuclear reactors at General Atomic. I took a course in oceanography at Scripps Institute.
No longer content with a shore job to which women Navy line officers were confined, I requested and, incredibly, in 1961 became the first woman line officer to be assigned to sea duty. I expected the negative reaction from Navy men, but was saddened by those Navy women who essentially ratified their traditional niches. On board, I was not permitted on the bridge or in the engine room. During the Cuban Missile Crisis we left the Pacific via the Panama Canal loaded with supplies and waited in New Orleans. I was told that if the ship went to Cuba, I would not.
Shortly thereafter, although I was “a credit to the WAVES and to the naval service,” the Navy announced it no longer would assign women line officers to sea duty, nor would there even be a sea-going code in my record. Not until the height of the Women’s Movement and a forward looking Chief of Naval Operations did the assignment of non-medical women to Navy ships resume.
Needless to say, I now had a heightened interest in women’s status and the sociological and psychological means by which women were kept “in their place.” In my next assignment, recruiting for women officers in Ohio and western Pennsylvania, a senior at a Catholic women’s college told me her degree would be in “Hospital Secretary!” Because the Catholic hospital across the street needed secretaries, her college channeled women into these jobs.
I recruited more women officer candidates than there had been in the past. Unfortunately, during the last month of my recruiting tour, the first acts of a new area director of naval recruiting were to downgrade the women officer program and direct that I write a memo apprising my replacement of her work circumstances. He was not happy with a portion of my memo and made a negative entry in my fitness report, which meant that after three more years I would be required to leave active duty.
During the next two years I was an aide to an admiral at a NATO base in Naples, Italy. However, adventure was no longer sufficiently rewarding. Lois Byrum, an earlier Naples naval officer destined to be a charter member of Twin Cities, Minnesota NOW, sent me notice of the formation of the National Organization for Women. It was time to professionally address the problem of sex discrimination. An Italian sociologist recommended that my final Navy year (from mid-1967) be in New York City, the place most likely to facilitate my transition to change-oriented goals.
That last year I worked at another personnel job, studied for a Master’s in Sociology at the New School for Social Research (with a couple courses on women), and joined the newly created New York NOW. I was in awe of those creating NOW’s Bill of Rights at the 1967 NOW Conference in Washington, D.C. and their courage in defying both the religious right by adopting reproductive rights and the Labor left by adopting the Equal Rights Amendment, the former with input from Muriel Fox and the latter facilitated by the presence of suffragist Alice Paul.
My first New York City NOW task was assisting Kate Millett in the writing of “Token Learning” (on ways women’s colleges short-changed their students) by providing data on the standings of these schools. My first office was Legislative and Political Affairs Committee Coordinator. Committee members, including Beth Buchter, Cindy Cisler, Jim Clapp, Nancy Erickson, Donna Loercher, Beverly Olman, Lorraine Rechill, Marilyn Schnaufer, Carol Turner, & Ann Wallace, each with their own issue, sent legislative goals to mayoral candidates for their support. When candidates did not reply, we held demonstrations in front of their offices, which produced immediate response. The ERA Coordinator, Ann Wallace, arranged actions in Washington, D.C. to get the ERA out of committee. A trip to San Francisco included a sit-in with Betty Friedan and a couple dozen others to open the Squire Room at the Fairmont Hotel to women. I was elected Chair of the New York City Board. My first political campaign contribution was to Shirley Chisholm when she ran for Congress in 1968.
Upon my father’s death in 1970, my sister and I went to a Brotherhood of Carpenters union office in Chicago to place a death notice and obtain a burial benefit. As we entered, a union employee yelled, “We don’t hire women carpenters.” When we did not leave, he repeated his outburst. This was five years after such discrimination had been outlawed. Having already completed my Master’s, I moved with my mother to California, where my sister remained.
One of the first of many Los Angeles actions was protesting the omission of women from Labor Department Affirmative Action regulations. In 1971 I became L.A. NOW’s Legislative Action Committee Coordinator and later the Southern California Legislative Coordinator. Jean Stapleton arranged for the Los Angeles Times to publicize our “Barefoot and Pregnant” awards to legislators with the worst voting records on women. In response to a Catholic bishop excommunicating women who had abortions, I appeared on television advising viewers that NOW was giving the bishop its (mythical) recruiting award because his actions resulted in new NOW members.
Eliciting a promise from State Senator Mervyn Dymally to introduce “Marriage as Equal Partnership” legislation, I proposed that both spouses, rather than the husband in an intact marriage, be in control of community property. Los Angeles NOW member Lynn Peterson testified in the State Senate on behalf of this change. Other groups in Sacramento became involved, resulting in the enacted compromise that “either” spouse could be in control. Years later the law was amended to require that “either” spouse had to act in a fiduciary manner toward the other.
To help California women identifying with different types of activism all contribute to the ratification of the ERA, we developed “Legislative Guidelines” featuring various strategies (letter writing by Gigi Thousandfriend, lobbying by Geri Sherwood and Mary Samis, demonstrations by Lynn Peterson, and unorthodox actions by Rebecca Anne Gould). There were problems from both political parties. I did a zap action leafleting the plates at a Republican Women’s dinner because the group had not yet supported the ERA. On the other hand, it was necessary to threaten to organize a swing district to vote Republican upon a Senate vacancy in order to produce a domino effect to remove a Democratic roadblock. Three days later the Senate voted to ratify the ERA.
In addition to local involvement, I was a National NOW Board member from 1971 to 1974 and National Secretary from 1974 to 1975. Early on I created an extensive ERA time chart showing the limited amount of legislative session time remaining in the states that had not yet ratified. However, my most important contribution at the national level was helping NOW move from a position of abstaining from political action to that of using political action, by obtaining an IRS ruling enabling NOW to take political action without losing tax-exempt status, the first or one of the first in the nation upon new criteria.
My day job, through all of this, was that of Equal Employment Specialist (Investigator) in the Los Angeles District Office of the EEOC enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed employment discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, and sex. Some at the EEOC were unsupportive of the anti-sex discrimination aspect of the law. After indicating my concern that another investigator who said she “would not want to fly in a plane piloted by a woman” was handling sex discrimination cases, I received proportionately more sex discrimination cases than other investigators. A promotion to Senior Equal Opportunity Specialist was then denied because I had investigated more sex discrimination cases and fewer race/national origin cases than others. An appeal to the Civil Service Commission ultimately resulted in promotion to Senior Specialist and a meaningful back pay award, “possibly the first EEO monetary award from the Civil Service Commission” according to my attorney, Bette Bardeen. In 1975 I received the Everywoman Award from the American Civil Liberties Union for my efforts to have the EEOC give attention to sex discrimination.
Promotion to Supervisory Equal Opportunity Specialist came at the first opportunity. The demands of this higher job precluded active involvement with NOW, although I always remained a member and took action on women’s behalf at my workplace whenever warranted. As the Head of Los Angeles Systemic Programs, I insured that sex discrimination situations were on an equal footing with race and national origin counterparts and insisted on sex by race/national origin analyses. Long wishing I had a PhD, as soon as I was eligible, I retired.
During these years, my sister, then the owner of a bicycle shop in Oregon, built a beautiful home, literally with her own hands. Beverly and her husband Carl were still kayaking at age 75. While my mother’s depression lessened somewhat over the years, her continuing practice of destroying anything conflicting with her beliefs meant she lived alone until shortly before her death at age 91 in 2000.
Acceptance into the University of Southern California’s Sociology PhD program, with concentrations in gender, aging, and quantitative methods, enabled me to pursue my equal opportunity interests regarding the continuing exclusion of women from non-traditional physically demanding jobs. Contrary to what common knowledge might predict, controlling for relevant variables my dissertation showed that as physical demands of occupations increased, job satisfaction of women and older workers increased. A favorite story found during my “comparative historical” literature review was about a miner who had a sermon preached against her in church. She replied that her mining did not cause her divorce; instead it enabled her divorce.
After receiving my Sociology PhD and a certificate in Gender Studies, I became active again in NOW and used my membership to help military women when a Congressman who had worked to block opportunity for women in the armed forces was nominated to be Secretary of the Army. Even so, baby step by baby step, opportunities have increased for women in the military. Unfortunately, the same may not be said for women in civilian construction trades. Although the Brotherhood of Carpenters website now has a section on “Sisters in the Brotherhood,” women remain less than 2% of the craft. I am unaware of any instances where construction crafts have assumed responsibility for their pasts regarding women and have self-imposed and attained serious affirmative action goals.
Currently operating as an independent sociologist, I am gathering material on the ongoing channeling of women’s energies by those deploying “celebration of what men have allowed women to be” strategies. Hopefully, the more women who know their history in this regard, the fewer there will be “doomed to repeat it.”
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