THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Once You Give Someone an Education, Anything is Possible.”
Interviewed by Wilma Stevens, VFA Board, September 2020
BW: My name is Beata Welsh, I was born in 1949 in Nyack Hospital, in New York.
WS: Can you tell us a little bit about what your life was like growing up?
BW: I grew up in this town called Haverstraw in New York State. It’s on the Hudson River and it’s beautiful there. I grew up with a large Irish Catholic family. In that small town, the Irish went there to get work when they emigrated from Ireland and they went like other people did, to survive, as people do now. That was the center of the brickmaking industry for New York City and they became brick makers. Some grandparents, brick barge captains.
WS: You said you have a large Catholic family. How many siblings do you have?
BW: Three siblings, but something like 60 first cousins. My father’s father and my mother’s mother were alive when I was a child.
WS: Did your family encourage you in your developing feminism or any political activity that you took part in?
BW: My family were ostensibly Democrat, but I think they frequently voted Republican. In terms of my family’s political side, one of my great uncles had been the mayor of this little town, but they weren’t politically active. They also believed, not so much in women’s liberation, but that women were strong people. My mother’s father had died when she was 16, my grandmother had ten children and my mom was kind of in the middle of the pack there.
My grandmother, my father’s mother, had run her own little store. My grandfather was a brick maker. They only worked from April to November because the ground froze, you can’t make brick when the ground is frozen. She owned her own little store, as did her sister. These are strong role models of women and my mother was a strong woman. She believed my father was the head of the family, but in the house, she was.
My father on the other hand believed in education and he would say, get an education, it’s the only thing that no one can take away from you. I think it frustrated him that he had to go to work when he was quite young. You could do like a junior high and leave school. At 16, he became a bookkeeper in New York City and then ended up at that company as like the comptroller.
WS: Since you were encouraged to get an education, what did you do for your education?
BW: In New York, Rockland County I had twelve years of Catholic education, six at St. Peter’s and Haverstraw and four at Albertus Magnus, which was a newer Dominican high school in the county, it was coed. I think the nuns convinced everybody’s parents that the children should go there because I could have literally walked across the street and gone to the high school across the street. So off I went on the school bus to Albertus, a college prep program.
My older sister by this time was finished at St. Louis University, with her B.S. in nursing, and I thought I’d go to St. Louis University and she thought it was too big of a city or too far away. I ended up at a Catholic women’s college in Washington, D.C. – Trinity College. Now it’s called Trinity University. One of its claims to fame is Nancy Pelosi is also an alum.
WS: Did your Catholic education help to influence your feminism and any other activism that you took part in?
BW: This was after Vatican II, and I think many Catholics thought the laity were going to get more power. The Sisters of Notre Dame felt that they were educating women to be influential in their Catholic parishes and in Catholic charitable work. But once you give a person an education, anything is possible: doctors, lawyers, judges, the works. Trinity also fostered a feeling that you could be in leadership at the college – that was all we had. The girls I went to school with, they were the president of the class and the head of the Glee Club, as well as the debate society. Everything was possible.
On top of that, Trinity’s in Washington, D.C. – it was there that the civil rights movement was obviously being expressed in ’63. I went to college in ’67, by that time, the anti-war movement and those demonstrations were happening. I remember it was a horrific experience my freshman year when Martin Luther King was assassinated and there were riots and the burning of the city. This changes everything. I had been working for Bobby Kennedy and he was killed that summer, and you come back to school at the end of the summer and you feel like you have to do something.
The sisters of Notre Dame fostered this behavior in people to think for themselves. I always remember a story that was so heartbreaking: when the students at Kent State were killed in May of 1970. There was a gigantic student strike and my Comparative Government professor knew no one was going to come to the final, he said the final will be you’re going to participate in American democratic government. One of my roommates’ fathers called and said only communists go to demonstrations. We were all like, we’re not communists, we’re Democrats or Republicans and we feel like we should be able to express ourselves. We all went to a demonstration.
At the same time in the dorms, 1970, this is a group of women. We’re all talking about would you do the laundry for your husband? Would you iron? Who should be watching the children? This was ongoing all the time. Then I came out to Chicago to go to graduate school. You’re in Hyde Park and Chicago and it’s 1971, and these kinds of political activities are still going on. My one-year master’s program was kind of strenuous, so I didn’t have a lot of time to be actively involved in things in that way. But I found a paper when I was going through my papers for this interview that I wrote on the women’s agency within the Department of Labor, the women’s bureau. And I wrote a paper on that and I found a booklet called The Simple Matter of Justice. It was written in 1970, so I was kind of prepared for getting involved in something.
WS: What did you major in in college?
BW: Political science and then my master’s is a divisional master’s in social sciences at UIC. I was interested in urban policy, so my paper was on the Relocation Act and how it was amended and whether or not it was being effective for the people who needed to be relocated. I always thought I was going to end up as the Secretary of Housing or something like that.
WS: Could you tell us a little bit more about the Relocation Act?
BW: Sure, the Fair Housing Act was the first of our national housing legislation, coming out of the civil rights laws of the ’60s. The point of that was to provide the end of discrimination in how houses were being sold. But also, part of that was the Urban Renewal Act, which was to remove slums in American cities and in some small towns, too, and build standard housing for people where the plumbing would work, and the water would work and the electricity.
As part of that, there was an urban relocation requirement that if we were taking your housing, we would pay you fairly for it. Even as a renter, you had some rent subsidies to help with the move, they’d help you find a second place to live. So, I was doing research on whether that act, which wasn’t very old by then, was being fairly implemented. I ended up doing interviews with people with the housing department here in Chicago and the Urban Renewal Department here and also with the federal government. Those interviews were pretty easy to get because I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, it’s got a great reputation in Chicago, so that wasn’t a problem.
I finished the paper, but by that time, I already had a job. Because it took me an extra quarter to finish the degree, I had started interviewing in the summer and because I had those few loans, which seemed like a lot of money then (now it would be hardly anything), I started doing some interviews. I wasn’t having much luck finding a job.
Then a friend of a friend told me that the city of Chicago’s Department of Public Works was needing staff people to write environmental impact statements. Another new law had been passed requiring that if you’re doing a public works project with federal money, you have to write an environmental impact statement. And as wonderful as engineers are their education and training, usually only one year of college, isn’t any kind of writing at all.
I did this interview with the City of Chicago and this gentleman who was the head of the section said, “So you’re graduated from the University of Chicago, that means you can write, right?” I said, “Yes, of course,” because I needed the job and to be perfectly honest, I was dating somebody at the law school at that time and I didn’t want to leave Chicago. I said yes, and they offered me the job.
The interesting thing about that, they offered me $9,900 was the salary and this was 1972, I was like, yes! But when I was looking at some of the information Women Employed was handing out, it said the average female salary then was $5,500. Here I was, this graduate student, great job, public works department, writing environmental impact statements, to become aware that there are other women who are working who do not have these opportunities.
Then I think engineering and my further career in transportation was primarily a male profession in those days, everybody, some of the secretaries were female. But if you went to a bus garage, the clerk, which is a clerical position in a bus garage, was a male. Anyway, I’m the city of Chicago and I’m finding out that not everybody thinks the way I think about women and work. Nothing very overt because it’s a government job and people are protected from a lot of discrimination. Their promotional ability is still limited, but how people were treated on the job was probably fairer than a general office situation.
I was doing that work and I can’t say I was totally happy, but I found out that some of the benefits were a little unusual. For instance, if I wanted to get coverage for family planning services, the City of Chicago’s health insurance didn’t cover it. But by that time, abortion was legal in Illinois and since it was a medical procedure, they didn’t have a way of not covering it. I remember having this very peculiar conversation with a male in the H.R. department. I had him explain it to me again: you can’t get coverage to prevent a pregnancy, but if you’re pregnant, you can have the abortion covered. It just didn’t make any sense to me.
That’s I think what began to happen. Situations would occur where you think, am I crazy for thinking any other way? I was primed for the flyer I picked up coming out of the Illinois Central Station on Randolph Street one day in the morning. By that time, the few real members of Women Employed in the NOW chapter had started leafleting for organizing. This was in 1973. I found a very old flyer in my date books. I’ve decided it’s genetic because I have grandparents and great grandparents who did this genetic date book keeper. All my date books go back to 1963. So, I could open the 1973 one and find that in April of that year I went to a meeting for the first time at the Y.
I found a home of people who felt the same way I did. I think it’s really important for people who are thinking outside whatever box their society has put them in to have people who think the same way, because if we’re all in this room and everybody is saying, you’re a little nutty, unusual, maybe you start feeling you are. But if you go in the other room and people saying, no, no, that room is a little unusual or nutty, but it’s not you, I think you start feeling a little better about yourself and that is important.
In the middle of all of this, I get an opportunity to change jobs from working for the Public Works Department on environmental impact statements, to working on a grant for the City of Chicago that was going to provide some of the first transportation for elderly and disabled people in the city. Because our buses or trains were not accessible, that was how transit was going to be provided, a bus with a lift or a ramp or something. The guy from the CTA who was with us at Public Works putting this grant application together was Dick Brazda. He says to me after a few meetings, the CTA is putting together a federal grants group because once again, new legislation has been passed to fund public transit in America, garages, airline repairs and subway stations. He told me to apply for that job.
I went for the interview and they offered me the job, so I took it. I do want to go back one step and talk about a woman, Elizabeth McLean, who was the deputy commissioner of Public Works. She was a woman who had been one of the few in her U of I engineering class and she had come up through the ranks there. She was what many people would have considered a very tough woman, and nobody wanted to go into her office because if she yelled at you, you would take this personally. I don’t want to say she could make men cry, but I’m not going to say it would be outside of the realm of the possible.
Maybe because I was a graduate of a women’s college, pretty upright and frank and also I had been educated by nuns, you get to the place where tough women don’t bother you. They just are who they are and they’re running their order. One of my mother’s sisters was a Dominican nun, and at the end of her career, she was the treasurer of her Order. These were the women I thought were once again “normal”. It was normal for a woman to be the head of her corporation. Just because the corporation was a Dominican convent, it didn’t matter to me.
So, I go off to the CTA, where there is a graduate training program. My manager was an engineer and the people I worked with were engineers. Was I the only woman in that group? Yes. There was one other female planner at the CTA at that time, and all the other planners were men. Engineers were all men, no women at all. The secretaries were female. I was starting to get used to this, that I was just in a career where everybody else was a man. I really needed Women Employed in my life at that point in time and became more and more involved.
The graduate trainee program, I do want to stop and talk about that a little bit because it was for college graduates who had not come up through the ranks as bus drivers or rail operators or whatever, and it would give you six-month internships in bus driving, rail operations, the maintenance shops for the vehicles. You would also spend some time as a ticket taker. Many of the ticket takers were female. My manager said he wanted to sign me up for the graduate training program since I was a college graduate. They were like, we don’t have any women who are bus drivers or rail operators or in the maintenance department so she can be a ticket taker.
All I could think of is those people they work behind the grill, look like they were in jail. I don’t want to do just that. I don’t understand this, once again, but OK, so my manager and I agree I’m not going to do that. Later in my career there was a management training program I did. The CTA was what is called a vertical organization. You started as a bus driver, you end up at the head of transportation, it’s just up that line. There were no women bus drivers or anything and I never did that.
But over those years that I was at the CTA from ’74 until the end of 1980, things began to change a little bit there. I was project manager on a couple of projects, which was a big deal. I did a bus garage project as the project manager and so ran a lot of the committees there, and that gives you a feeling of empowerment too. At the same time as I’m working with Women Employed on various and sundry actions and organizing and the organization is getting bigger, the pushback from corporations is very strong.
In ’76, Jimmy Carter was elected, now we have a Democratic president. Even a little bit before that, Gerald Ford was a little bit more amenable to civil rights and equal rights. Things were beginning to change, but I think Women Employed was finding out that it was almost better to go through the governmental route to change the way things were; to come at corporations through the EEO side, equal employment opportunity. If people had a problem at work, they could go to the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and put in a complaint at that time. This was the direction we were moving, and I was interested in advocacy because I worked in the government.
I was also very concerned about the people who were working in private corporations, the blowback on them if they organized was very high. So, it was almost easier to go this other route. I helped develop the advocacy committee and the affirmative action committee, I think that both still exist. In 1979 I was elected Chair of Women Employed. I was the chair for three years. I was certainly the co-chair for a bit with Jean Hoffenkamp. I got to chair the 1980 conference and speak to all sorts of people. Jane Byrne had been elected in ’79 and she came and spoke and Eleanor Holmes Norton, the D.C. representative for Congress, was the chair of the EEOC and she came and spoke.
I think we felt many, many things were empowering, but at the same time, I was going nowhere at the CTA with grants and project management. I had bid on a couple of jobs in the Transportation Department to do supervision of the big capital projects and was turned down for the job. I had been out on a long sick leave because of an infection and they said that because I had been on sick leave for so long. Women Employed was willing to back me up if I wanted to sue the CTA. I know the people who have done that, it’s very destructive to your career.
Something else happened that was better for me. Once again, I’m riding on the CTA train, standing next to the regional head of planning for Region five at DOT Urban Mass Transit Administration here. He turns to me and he said, “Have you ever thought of working for the federal government?” And I said, “Yes, I have,” because I was going to be Secretary of Housing. I had taken the federal service entrance exam a couple of times, but my math skills were not high, and it had a lot of bizarre math on the test. But because I had so much experience, instead of starting as a GS or government service grades: 5, 7,9 ,11,12,13. So instead of going in as a 5, 7,9 , I’m being offered an opportunity to go in as 11,12, which is a big bump. I took that job.
I’m on my last day at the CTA and the man who was the head of the Transportation Department sees me and now my husband, Dave Phillips, who was in the planning department on the platform and says to me, “I hear you’re leaving.” I said, “Yes, Jimmy, I am leaving.” And he said, “Well, it’s probably more money.” “Yes, it is more money. But that’s not really why I’m leaving. I’m leaving because there weren’t any opportunities at the CTA for me.” He said, “We have to promote from within and we have women who need to be promoted.” I said, “Fine, Jimmy, but when I went there, you wouldn’t even let me into the graduate training program.”
At this point in time, my husband is moving down the platform because he’s afraid I’m going to push the head of transportation onto the rails and electrocute him, which I did not do. And I went my merry way to the federal government. I was sworn in as a federal employee the day that Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. Right after he was inaugurated, he left the inauguration and lunch and signed a federal hiring freeze, so I was very lucky to have started that morning. I knew something weird was going to happen because of the way he was talking once again about how bad the bureaucrats are, how terrible the over bloated federal government was.
I went to work then. But that also became an auspicious date because nine months later, our son was born. My regional administrator had a working wife who when I asked if I could go part time, his wife said, “Why wouldn’t you say yes?” So, they let me convert my job to a part time job, which the CTA would never have done. Over the next X number of years that I was there, I heard from many people at the CTA, two women both wanted to do job sharing, nobody would let them do, and now everybody seems to have part time employees.
That was my career and my time at Women Employed. When our son Michael was born in August, I just didn’t have the time anymore to be active in a women’s equality group, to be what I thought was necessary to be a mother and also to work part time. So, the thing that took a back burner was my activism, which is not to say I wasn’t still going. When I look at my date books, I was still going to organizational meetings and conferences, so Dave must have been babysitting.
WS: How did starting a family impact your work life?
BW: I think it’s difficult to be many things at once, and so people have to make choices. I think a lot of people say that the Second Wave feminists told everybody they could be everything, but I don’t think we ever did. You have to evaluate what’s important to you, and that was the whole point of feminism. You have a choice to work in an office, to work at home, to try to do both. These things are complicated and difficult, and so we make complicated choices.
Michael was born in August of ’81. I got really lucky that the federal government let me go part time and that was wonderful. And then Kieran was born in June of ’85, and I still worked part time. But by ’87, I don’t want to say I was tired of being a grants representative when I was working with wonderful grantees in Wisconsin and some here in Illinois, all wonderful people who accepted me and thought it was amusing that I had children, but I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do some grants management work and they just didn’t have a position for me that I could work on part time.
So, I made a very difficult and personal decision to leave the federal government and reevaluate what I really wanted to do and did something else for a short time. Then I started consulting as a freelance consultant and writer for transportation planning. I mostly work for engineering firms and the City of Chicago. The beginning of the RTA, the Regional Transportation Authority, I did some consulting work on grants management for them, which was very rewarding. I did that for 23 years and there were good years and there were bad years, and I think Kieran was twenty-seven.
So, all of those working mothers, I have to go to the Scouts meeting, kind of difficult to say when your daughter is an actor and often doing her thing. Anyway, at that time, the 2008 economic turndown happened, and I went for two years without making any money. I was about 60 and not ready to retire. One of the things I had consulted on was with the Regional Transportation Authority, a grants management program for some sub recipients.
These are technical terms in the federal government. The RTA gets a big grant, they pass it through to a whole bunch of smaller places and they are required by the federal government to do the compliance. I wrote the compliance manual for that as a consultant. They had an employee who started doing it for two years, then she decided to go back to the Carolinas where she was originally from and do some planning work there. They had a job opening and I bid on it.
So then for the first time in thirty-one years, I went back to work full time at 60. It was tough. I made it for five years, it was good to have a full-time salary again, put some money in savings. Then I had a couple of unpleasant experiences with the way that the RTA does their management reviews in an HR sense, and I decided it wasn’t worth it to fight that situation. I was sixty-six, I’m going to retire and that’s basically what I did.
WS: What were your most memorable and important to you experiences, both through Women Employed or through your work life?
BW: I think of Women Employed, the development of the advocacy committee, the work with the federal government on affirmative action, these things were critically important to me because I’m a big believer in the federal government’s power and influence. Just as an example, I was working on this compliance manual, some of these small recipients had never had any federal requirements. The Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prevents the distribution of federal grants in an unequal way. For instance, they couldn’t make a grant to a minority community that was less than a majority community because it would be unfair and illegal.
So, the feds require that the RTA have what’s called a Title VI plan and then they said we had to have our sub recipients create those plans. I sent them out to these sub recipients, I had to develop a form that all they had to do is fill in the name of the organization. Someone actually asked me, “What is this about?” I said, “It means you can’t discriminate in how you operate your program.” If you didn’t like purple people, you couldn’t prevent them getting on your bus. Then this other person said, “How long has this act been in existence?” We’re talking about the 1964 Civil Rights Act so 50 years by then.
It’s amazing to me that in the twenty first century that this still goes over people’s heads. From my time at the CTA, I wanted to tell a story about a woman I met there. I was working on a project called the Garage Grant. It was evaluating all ten garages the CTA owned and we’re going to improve some, replace some. There was a place called Limits Garage, a former car barn, which means it was for streetcars, at the limits of the City of Chicago. This is in maybe 1977 or so. I was in the office there, the clerks in the garages were all men then and I asked if I could use the washroom.
They said, “We don’t have a washroom for you. You can use Mary’s.” And I thought to myself, is this a euphemism? I ask, “Who is Mary?” They tell me, “She works over there, just knock on the door.” So, I went over, I knocked on the door and a very pleasant African-American woman, opens the door and says, “Can I help you?” Think of this as a very large utility closet with a locker and a small bathroom and a sink. And I think she had a little cooktop in there of her own.
I use the washroom and I said, “Who are you?” She said she was a bus cleaner and there’s no facilities for her to eat lunch with the guys. She came to work for the CTA during World War II when the men were fighting, and women were brought in for these jobs. It was a union job. It was a good job. And she was a single mother with three kids. When the war was over and they asked everybody to go home, she didn’t go. She stayed there, but people treated her like this unusual person.
I was amazed by this. By now, there are lots of bathrooms and facilities for women, but as a result of my experience with Mary and in the Garage Study, we were able to put together a capital grant that provided women’s washrooms facilities at city garages. I know that seems funny now, but in 1977 it wasn’t funny. These little changes are important.
The other thing I did with my life is I raised two children who believe in equity. I think my son has always treated women fairly in his work and friendship circles and things like that. Our daughter works in H.R. Today, she’s going to be giving a diversity training in her office. It means a great deal to me that they took seriously what I was doing then with my life, even if they would not have understood it. I always had a home office, which is half of our upstairs room and a sign on the door when school was over, but I had to finish something, it said, Do Not Enter. And they would respect that. So that, I think, is the important things about my time.
WS: Have you been involved as an activist in the women’s movement or any other area since your second wave of experience?
BW: I think I’ve always spoken up for the rights of women, even today, speaking up for it wherever I am. In my friendship circles, the women I like the best are women who are other feminists. I will say that during the time that I was with the federal government and even when I was freelancing, there was a women’s group called the Women’s Transportation Seminar, which was very new then. And it was because women were getting these planning degrees and coming into this field where in the beginning it was maybe two of us.
I worked with them for a while. I think I was the treasurer for a year. I can’t quite get a grip on that mentally because I wasn’t as involved. That organization still exists also. And then I think being a Catholic woman, let me go back and talk about that. This is very difficult because the Catholic Church is buried somewhere in the, I don’t know, 17th century.
With Vatican II, a lot of people believed, and I came to believe that the laity would have more influence and power, that we would have female priests. The Catholic Church would have fewer problems with membership, and God help with some of the abuse issues, if there had been more women involved in the organization. The men wouldn’t have been left to field the burden of all of this themselves. Maybe it’s kind of a feminist perspective to say heavy is the head that the crown is on, but it’s a lot of responsibility.
Still to this day they talk a good talk about women’s equality, but no. I was on the parish council at our parish for a while and became the chair of that, and even there where you feel that you have a lot of influence in fact, the pastors is in charge, it’s not like Protestant denominations. If the pastor doesn’t want to do something that all these people want to do and the archdiocese owns all the land and the buildings, they are very much in charge. I think that Catholic women are seeing now during covid-19 that maybe we have to look at this differently.
I don’t want to ever give up on it because I think Catholicism is in my bones and DNA. I can’t imagine being anything else but that. But I think that young women like my daughter, there’s a lot of things they like about the Catholic Church, but I don’t think it feels the same as it feels to me because they don’t get it. Why can’t women be priests? Did Jesus ever say, I don’t want any women to be priests? We don’t know because that history was not written by women – how influential they were in the early Catholic Church. A lot of people are doing research on that now. I stay because my friends are there. My community is there. I think at 70, it’s kind of hard to find another community, and because we’re all there together, we are once again the person putting up her hand to say, no, not right. Needs to change. We’re not the crazy ones again, it’s the other situation that’s a little abnormal. It’s not us.
WS: Have you been doing any work on any of the elections?
BW: I was always peripherally involved in politics. The problem was that for people who work for the federal government as opposed to what’s going on right now, we were not supposed to be politically involved. I always set that kind of aside, and I didn’t do it much even when I worked for the City of Chicago. I know everybody thinks they might have been all Democrats, but, yes, I was. It had nothing to do with my employment with the city.
Recently in 2008 and 2012, I went to Iowa the weekend before the election to canvass for Obama. And then I went back in ’16 with the Evanston Democrats for Hillary. I am sorry to say I did not understand how much people disliked her. Having gone to a woman’s college, it didn’t bother me that there were powerful assured women in the world. But I misunderstood what was going on. Now I have upstairs on my desk, since we can’t canvass, I have postcards and inviting people to vote, and my state is South Carolina. I’ve got two hundred handwritten postcards I’m working on up there and I will mail them.
All it says is we basically can do better. Please vote on November 3rd. It’s not telling anybody to specifically vote for Joe. I am never really involved in local politics here in Chicago much. My son Michael was, he worked on a whole bunch of campaigns because he was also a political science major. I think it’s important for the future to think about how people can work together.
This was I think the big difference for us is that we may have looked different or held different jobs: secretaries, professionals; our job titles were different. We were all women and there were African-American women in the organization even from the beginning. I think an organization that can understand the others’ needs is important. But unless we’re all willing to set aside some time, to just do one thing, whether it’s giving a diversity talk in the office or standing up in a parish meeting and saying we need to have more women preachers, even if we don’t have priests or the people need to work together to make small changes and over time a big change can happen.
I think we were all surprised, maybe we were naieve at the beginning of the women’s movement, how hard it was going to be. As a poly sci major, I understood, there’s power and when you have power, you don’t necessarily want to give it to somebody else because then you have less power. So they almost have to require you to give up some of that. And that’s in many organizations and systems.