THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“We Need to Have a Seat at the Table.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, July 2019
MJC: Good morning Lois.
LH: Good morning Mary Jean.
MJC: Would you state your name for the record here?
LH: Of course. I’m Lois Herr.
MJC: Wonderful. Thank you so much for agreeing to do an interview with Veteran Feminists of America. We’re proud to have you as part of our collection.
LH: Well thank you. It’s delightful to be interviewed by you.
MJC: Thank you. Yes. Long, long friendship.
MJC: Appreciate that; good part of my life. Let’s talk first about life before the movement. So, where were you born and what was your family like and what other influences might have been there that led to the story?
LH: I was born in December 1941, and actually in Hershey [Pennsylvania], which may explain my desire for chocolate. I grew up in a town named Elizabethtown [Pennsylvania] and I was on a campus. I was a campus brat, because my dad was the coach and my mother taught French and worked in the library, which was somewhat unusual, but in other ways very traditional. Normal, small town American life. No brothers or sisters, but I had lots of friends that we ran around with. I also think that playing field hockey and playing the violin in orchestras taught me a little bit about working with groups, even though I was an only child.
MJC: Okay, maybe you sought them out even more.
LH: I traditionally started out thinking I was going to get married and I did, right after college. I went to teach, which is a traditional out of the ’50s kind of thing. The marriage lasted 20 years, the teaching only lasted one year. I found myself working in the corporate world from then on.
MJC: All right. Well how did you make that transition?
LH: It was really relatively easy. I found out that the Bell Laboratories hired women as technical editors. And since my major had been English, it was a natural thing and that was one of the few good jobs available to women. That was in New Jersey. First move of my many moves was from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.
MJC: Okay. So, what was that like to be in, first of all be in a bigger city, bigger environment and then a large, the largest employer I think in the country at that time?
LH: I would stay with them for a long time, so I liked the company. We were only there for three years, during which we got into New York City, into the shore and all that kind of stuff, but they moved a whole contingent of us out to Naperville, Illinois, which changed my life significantly.
MJC: So, when was that? What years are we talking about?
LH: 1966. They moved hundreds of us out at the same time with a new electronic switching system department. So, it was new technology. I was an editor. I became a technical writer, I wanted to be head of the group I was running in and found out from my boss that I couldn’t have that job, because that job was going to somebody from the engineering drafting unit who had never gone to college or anything like that, which got me a little upset. And for the first time of many times if I had had the job opportunities that I really thought I should have, I would not have become the activist I became. I had the time to cause trouble.
I started to get involved in feminism, because my future as a supervisor or manager in that area was limited and there are a couple things that happened then. I went to one of the employment agencies in Chicago to try to see if there was another job. They didn’t have any job that paid what I was already making for women. They said go to the men’s department.
So, I did, filled out the forms, and was promptly ignored. I figured I got to stay where I was. I liked the company. I mean, it was a great place to work. I was also reading the papers and I saw that there were some issues with death benefits. I know that sounds absurd. Turns out that it was being argued before the Supreme Court at that time, but I didn’t know it. That was one of Ginsburg’s first cases.
MJC: Death benefits for women?
LH: Death benefits for surviving spouses. Except at that time it wasn’t surviving spouses. In the Bell System, as in other companies, it was the wife or the husband if he was totally dependent on his wife for support. And I drew from that, the idea that my benefits, my salary was worth less, because the benefits accruing to it were less. If something happened to my husband on a plane flight, I got this death benefit, which was humongous. If something happened to me, he got nothing. So that meant that I was worth less.
Now that led me in two directions. One is NOW (National Organization for Women), which we’ll talk about in a minute, and the other was activism within Bell Laboratories. We formed a women’s rights committee which, since it was an intellectually open environment, was perfectly okay. I mean there were chess clubs, and there were baseball clubs, and there was the women’s rights committee.
MJC: And they didn’t oppose it?
LH: No, not at all. Now we also did get a petition, my first petition kind of thing. I wrote a letter and got signatures from all kinds of people to the head of the plant saying that this had to change. It was forwarded on to the headquarters in New Jersey, and the response was, “That’s being discussed in the courts. We’re not going to change.” And eventually of course it did. But that was my first experience of going up the chain of management to the top person there with an argument finding that he didn’t stop me. In fact, he forwarded it on.
MJC: And he didn’t punish you.
LH: No, not at all.
MJC: Excellent. Right.
LH: Partly that’s due to the environment it was, but we’re talking ’60-well, that was about ’70. ’69, ’70. But the NOW part of it is because of that, I started paying attention to Chicago NOW, and I knew they were going to strike on August 26, 1970. I wasn’t really connected with them, but I left a note on my boss’s desk that I’m on strike. I don’t expect to be paid for this. I went down by myself in my little yellow suit and stood across the street from where you and others were having your rally.
I went back to work and they didn’t know what to do with us, because there was no way for them not to pay me. By the next year, by the strike August 26, 1971, I was deeply involved in NOW. We were starting a chapter out in DuPage County, which turned out to be one of the first suburban chapters. But my husband and I were both actively involved with you, with NOW, with the office, putting out newsletters. I remember the card file you had with people that you sent them to. This was national NOW at that point. I learned so much, but it was the first time I’d ever done anything like that.
MJC: Amazing. Yes. The national office was in Chicago.
LH: Yes. It was quite an experience. I was also reading Born Female by Caroline Bird. [It] doesn’t get as much attention as Betty Friedan’s books, but this was more related to the workplace, and that was always my key issue. Women in the workplace. So, you know, there are many influences. You, NOW, I trudged along with you up to a board meeting in Wisconsin. We went to some lake somewhere for a conference.
MJC: Lake Geneva?
LH: Yes. And then we went out to Los Angeles to the NOW National Conference, which was again, a first for me. But I remember being on the airplane with a whole bunch of NOW people. And it was fun.
MJC: That’s amazing.
LH: Work intervened though, and we were transferring. We transferred to New York City, which was a key point in my life, just like moving to Illinois was a beginning of a lot of things. Moving to New York was as well.
MJC: Let me bring up something, because I don’t remember the chronology exactly. The government was taking action against AT&T on the basis of discrimination. What year was that?
LH: That happened in 1970. Out in Illinois and Bell Labs we were vaguely, vaguely aware of it. By the time I got to New York and AT&T, I transferred to the parent company, it became very obvious what was happening. The EEOC claimed that AT&T was the single largest oppressor of women and minorities in the country. And there’s a whole story behind that and about how that happened.
I wrote a book about it. It’s called Women, Power and AT&T: Winning Rights In The Workplace. And I got involved in that, but I was still in the company. And actually, we had pretty much of an activist group in the company, which we’ll talk about later, but I was connected with NOW. NOW was connected with other activist parties in this. We had folks in government agencies, and it was a real beautiful way of bringing about change by connecting the forces that make a difference. Any one of us alone could not have done it. And quite frankly those of us – again, there was a women’s alliance at AT&T. I’ve left a trail of organizations behind me.
MJC: You were kind of the force behind these various caucuses?
LH: I wasn’t always the leader, but I was one of the instigators who made it happen. When EEOC got serious about this and started writing a document, they filed a document called A Unique Competence, which talked about how the Bell system being the largest employer in the country, other than the government, had a million employees, half of which were women. More than half. So, they were uniquely positioned to make a difference and treat people right. AT&T thought they were doing a good job and many women had good jobs with AT&T and the Bell operating companies. So, in a sense, they were already a good company. So, it was brilliant to attack one of the biggest, best managed companies in the country and say you have to do better.
Now, having an organization inside the company like this woman’s alliance, we could talk to the executives. I worked in corporate planning, so I had some access. We could talk to these people and they would point to you guys, you NOW people in the street and others as being really radical you know, and that made us look so reasonable. And therefore, we could do all kinds of things inside.
MJC: Excellent. What a good pincer movement, right?
LH: It was. It was an exciting time. The whole case took three years. In 1973, it was resolved with the consent decree and one of the undying frustrations is that most people don’t know about it. It wasn’t a court case, so it’s not documented like a court case. It was a consent decree at the end. It was a court case, but it was a consent decree rather than a decree. It was pretty pivotal, and a lot of other companies were paying attention. I think it had a big impact not just on the Bell System which had fingers all over the country, but also on other corporations.
MJC: I’m sure that’s true. My own memory is that, at that time in my life, the government worked more – you know, had a more clear notion of what its role was in terms of ending discrimination…like the last 40 years has been arguments against that.
LH: Right. But NOW was growing, too. One of the fascinations about this is because you’re dealing with AT&T, which had telephone companies all across the country, the NOW chapters, whether they were in Detroit, or Los Angeles, or Chicago, or wherever, were tied into the NOW strategy and could picket or leaflet on the same day. Without internet, without even cheap long-distance calling! It’s amazing what got done. I was always behind the scenes with a lot of things.
We did a private line. Now, most people know private lines as telephone lines. Private Line to us was a newsletter that we sent out across the country to women in the telephone companies. As much as we could find, pockets of people who were concerned. Some men, but mostly women and tied them together with information and we sent out stuff that we knew, because those of us at headquarters had access to more information. And if we got a change made within the company, we could tell them about it and vice versa. It was our own little network.
MJC: Amazing. Now I think this is a unique story.
LH: It was an exciting time. It really was. And I must say that my next move was probably because I thought we had accomplished something. And we had! I mean we really had changed affirmative action. But one of the flaws of this was that it dealt with everybody, what we called district level and above, which would be middle management up, were grouped together in the statistics and everything else.
The focus of the decree was the people who worked in the crafts. It was on the operators and the plant people and the ability of women to get into non-traditional jobs. There were fewer guidelines. Even though we thought we’d solved the problem, those of us in middle management at that point had less of a firm grasp on getting ahead. For us it was still much the same. And there wasn’t much we could do about that, but I think our energy then went from changing the system to trying to make the system do what it said it was going to do, both for them and for us.
I wasn’t as active in the next couple of years because I was really trying to get my career going. Because for once I thought I actually could. In 1974 on a little napkin, I designed a career plan to get me to CEO of AT&T by the year 2000. And I might actually have made it except for two things: one is I’m not sure I had the ability to do it. But secondly, the Bell System was broken up in 1984. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I had – at some level – had contacts across the country and was building a reputation, and when divestiture happened all that was split. But in ’74, something else interesting happened. I moved again. I heard about the President’s Executive Exchange and my boss at that time, who became one of the best mentors I’ve ever had, had been on that program from government to AT&T. He went back to government, and then was hired by AT&T.
MJC: So, the President you’re speaking of is the President of the United States?
LH: Yes. Congress had established this Executive Exchange to provide better understanding on the part of government, of business, and business of government. Each year about 60 people, I think it was 60, maybe 30 from the private sector and 30 from the public sector went into the opposite environment. Not a job switch, but you know, I went to OMB, Office of Management and Budget in the White House. The only reason I got to OMB is that they had me interview with the Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, I mean, I had a wonderful time interviewing, because I learned a lot about government. But I said I want to be at the center of things, and that’s OMB. Well we’ve never had anybody into OMB before. Well, let’s do it.
And I got myself there, which is kind of what I usually do. The experience there was interesting, because it happened in September ’74, which was a few weeks after Nixon left. I was there in the Ford administration. I was pretty much apolitical. It didn’t matter to me that I was going to a Republican. As a matter of fact, I thought Nixon might still be there when I decided to do this. But we maintained two homes then. I was in Washington, and my husband was in New York. And on weekends we’d go back and forth. He took the train, I usually flew.
I loved coming into New York and just seeing the skyline of New York. But I also loved being on my own. And it was probably the first time in my life that I was, and that was a heady experience, not to mention the fact that we were meeting with Cabinet officers and doing this whole educational program. We even went to Europe to NATO and on the job I had a job. I was in the management side of OMB and one of my jobs was oil pollution liability. Another one was civil defense. I remember to this day going to a meeting representing OMB at the Pentagon. I walk in and there’s this room of uniformed people mostly, well, all-white all-male, all older than me. And I’m the one who’s technically in charge of this project. It was a growing experience to say the least and that lasted a year.
MJC: So that was a changing experience.
LH: Absolutely. On so many fronts. I wasn’t active in any feminist thing particularly. Again, I was building my own career, trying to take advantage of what we had done. I came back to AT&T and it’s a brilliant company and it’s a big company. Well managed, but they don’t deal with one person moves very well. I didn’t want to go back where I was, simply because you don’t have to be tired of a place, you don’t have to hate what you’re doing in order to be ready to move on. I figured I got to go somewhere else.
I knew nothing about finance and money, although I had gotten an MBA, but I’ve never actually worked in it. I said I want to go to Treasury and Required Earnings, which is a funny name. Required Earnings was what AT&T and the operating companies needed. And that’s how they established rates. What they needed in order to maintain the systems, develop new things and provide a return to shareholders was their required earnings. That’s how rates are set.
It wasn’t my favorite job. It wasn’t my best job. But I learned a lot. It was a kind of downtime, though, because after the highs of the EEOC case, AT&T corporate planning, being in Washington with all these people, now I’m in an office trying to figure out what people ought to, you know, use in a rate case. Fortunately, a friend of mine was working in the corporate policy seminar and pulled me along into that. The corporate policy seminar was at Buck Hill Falls in the Poconos [Mountains].
It was a series of 34 week-long sessions to which every officer fifth level and above – which is about fifteen hundred – came there for a week and we talked about what the world was going to be like tomorrow for the Bell System and for business in general. And I was on the program staff. We had a lot of fun deciding what futurists to bring in, what Washington people, economists, and marketing people. I was useful to them, because I could then use the contacts I had made when I was in Washington to get people like Dave Broder and some of the others.
MJC: Right. Excellent.
LH: So that was a year and a half.
MJC: How many women were in that program?
LH: You mean the officers who came?
LH: Very few. Maybe a handful. I remember, and it’s in my book, something about at that level, at that time, there may have been twenty-six women at levels above the level I was at. You know, over the years it changed, but it was always very few. Some of them were doctors and lawyers. Very few were operational people.
LH: And to this day, I still have a friend in Pacific who was the Vice President of Operations out there. And she, you know, she was helpful. I worked in Treasury for a woman AVP. I remember distinctly asking her why she wasn’t more outspoken about women’s issues. And she said, “I am. It’s just that I only do it when I’m talking to my peers and the people, but I can’t be public about it. But I can ask where are the women?”
And the same thing was true of Catherine Cleary. Catherine Cleary was the first woman on the board of AT&T. I went to interview her years later when I was working on that book. I learned some interesting things from her, too, because she apparently asked the management, “Where are the women?” – although we never had any way to get in touch with her. It was not politically right for us to contact her. She also said she noticed a big difference when Juanita Kreps was added to the Board of Directors, because then there were two women and the environment changed.
MJC: Okay, so that’s a good point.
LH: That’s a good argument for that.
MJC: Yes it is. Very good. So, if I can dip back a moment, I know that you stated another aspect of your feminist activity was getting involved in consciousness raising back in New York.
LH: Oh yeah.
MJC: Do you want to pick up that thread?
LH: Yes, definitely. That was one of the major things when I moved back to New York. When we moved to New York, we went to some of the NOW meetings. But what really grabbed me was consciousness raising and it too came out of the corporate environment, because our Women’s Alliance at AT&T had a committee to talk about what issues we should be discussing in our meetings. Well I guess there were 10 of us at the time; we started talking about issues and we really liked talking about them. We became a consciousness raising group.
MJC: So, you took the model out of the women’s movement and adapted it to a corporate setting?
LH: Yes. A little brochure called Free Space gave us the ideas of how to do it, because none of us had done it of course. We would get together either on company premises after work or in somebody’s home and do the traditional consciousness raising thing of going in a circle, talking, and following the rules. And we met for four years, although gradually people dropped off because of moves or transfers or life changes.
And that led me also to Warren Farrell, who was running couples consciousness raising groups in New York at the time, and my husband and I joined one of those, which was another experience where the women and men met separately, and then the next week they met together. And it was fascinating to watch our interactions knowing what we knew about each other in the private groups. So, in a sense, that was what turned me more inward to who I am and what I want to do, because consciousness raising takes you to many internal places.
MJC: It does. So, the personal and the political as we say in the women’s movement kind of merge.
LH: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I have multiplied that concept in ways people didn’t know. At one stage in my career, I set up mentoring circles, which were really consciousness raising. You take six women who are at the same level and bring in a woman who’s two levels above, possibly. But the rules are that person participates in group discussion at the level of the people who are there. There’s no status, no telling you what to do. It’s, “how do you feel about” or “how do you know.” That was consciousness raising.
MJC: Yes, yes. Wonderful. Wonderful. Sounds like something that would be relevant today.
LH: I think there are mentoring groups, but they usually end up being more like a lot of women’s conferences. Here’s what we can do to improve the women. I’ve objected to that. We don’t need to improve the women. What we need to do is change the system.
MJC: Going back to your thread now of your corporate career, I might have interrupted that. Do you want to go back to that?
LH: After the corporate policy seminar, which is where we were, I took an adventure, which, in retrospect, is like all my adventures, but it seemed at the time to be strange. I had done very well in staff jobs, finance, corporate planning, those kinds of things. And the executives I met at the conference, some of them were there for quite a while. I got to know them.
They said, “If you really want to get ahead you’ve got to be in operations. You’ve got to go to the telephone company.” And I had always sort of pooh-poohed that, thinking that that was really not necessary. But they convinced me and two from New York Telephone in particular said come to New York Tel. We’ll put you in operations, and, you know, it’ll be great. I said, “Yes.” When we worked out the terms of this it was a little more complicated, because it’s one thing to have high levels say they want you to come in. It’s another thing to get everybody down the line to buy into this.
MJC: And most of these are overwhelmingly men running the operating company?
LH: All men.
MJC: All men?
LH: Well not running the operating company but running the area where I was going. The area where I was going was what we called Central Office. It’s the telephone switch. You know, all calls even today have to go through a switch somewhere. And we’re talking at that day of mechanical switches to some extent, and the introduction of new electronic ones that I had worked on at Naperville, Illinois documenting them.
MJC: So, you were first at the developmental level, now you’re at the operational level?
LH: Now I’m in the operational level. As a matter of fact, I saw some of the documents I had edited.
MJC: Oh amazing.
LH: Not current versions, but you know. There were a few glitches to this. They designed a one-year training program for me, and I was willing to buy into that. I kind of knew that no man would be forced to do that, but I also didn’t know what I was doing so it seemed like a good idea. They had built into the training program some real live experiences which never happened. I spent a year and a half being trained, which meant I went to classes on the different kinds of switches. I was taken to different departments and I’d spend some time shadowing them, seeing what they’re doing. And I was very restless because I wanted to do something.
But on the other hand, I was meeting people all over the plant department. Not just my one area but all of them, which would prove very useful in the future. I was after them all the time. I must have been a real pain in the neck to the managers between me and the top levels, because I said when am I going to get a job? When are you actually going to give me something to do? As I go back over my journals – by the way I’ve kept journals since I was 12.
MJC: Very helpful.
LH: Oh, it is very enlightening, because our memories are very faulty. I kept after them and they kept saying, you should have come in as a foreman first level. There’s no way I would have survived as a foreman, because that requires more technical expertise than I’d ever have. I was a manager, not a technician. And they would just send me to classes and make me do things. I kept hounding them. I must have really been a pain in the ass.
I would think about it now and I think I was asking to take charge of telephone switches and eventually when I got the job, I had almost a million customers I was responsible for. I had one hundred and twenty-three employees, I had millions of dollars of capital equipment I was responsible for, and it was the heart of the company. Phone calls went through there. No wonder they were a little cautious about bringing in a woman and an outsider!
Now I understand it a little bit better than I did at the time. And at the end of the year-and-a-half, for the second time, I called back to my highest-level mentor. I tried not to do that too often, because that was not liked. I said, “I’m out of here.” I didn’t say I’m out of here. I’m saying, “They don’t mean it. They’re not going to give me the job. I’m going back to AT&T.” He said, “Patience,” as he always did. And he’s also the one who said, “Calm down the feminist rhetoric.” And I did.
I didn’t in my journal, but I did in real life, because I knew that I couldn’t get away with it. Although I was beginning to find the women in the department and the young women and helping them – because there were women working for me who got their jobs because of the EEOC consenting. I could see that it’s just that they hadn’t gotten up in the levels. It was a fantastic job. When I finally got a plant central office district, I had northern Manhattan and the Bronx, which is not prime real estate for central office. But I think there were still people who wanted to give me the toughest job they could. But the people who worked for me were fantastic.
They would not let me fail, and everything is measured in that business. The seconds it takes for dial tone – back in those days where you picked up a phone and got dial tone it had to be there. I was measured on that. We were measured on the quality of voice recordings, which obviously isn’t done now. Everything, it was measured to the nth degree. When I had that job, which I had for a year-and-a-half, we never failed. And it was because of the people who worked for me, most of which were union. And then I had two levels of management below me. And they would protect me.
If there was a failure in the middle of the night, they called and told me what it was doing, and I would ask do you have what you need to fix it? If they didn’t, I got it for them. If they had what they needed, I said thanks for letting me know. It was run like a military outfit. Nobody was supposed to be surprised. If there was a failure and some system was down and customers were out of service, I had to tell my boss so that in the morning there wouldn’t be any repercussions.
MJC: The worst thing would be for him to find out about it some other way.
LH: Right. They would always ask me where was the problem? What did they do to solve it? I mean, they kept asking me questions to get to the point where maybe I couldn’t answer it. One of my foremen in one memorable time brought a relay to me. They were wire spring relays. I still have it. And he said next time they ask you; this is the relay that caused the problem on that frame and there’s nothing more you can know.
MJC: That’s funny. That’s beautiful. That’s a great story.
LH: It was a wonderful job. And I’m in the process now writing my memoir about that period. I’m calling it Audacity, Courage, and Survival because I had the audacity to do something that no woman had done, at least there. And the courage to survive in it. I often wonder if I should have stayed there. I left because I knew that the Bell System was coming apart and I thought that it would be better to be at AT&T headquarters when that was happening than in a plant department in Manhattan.
MJC: The company might be split off from that.
LH: I went back to AT&T, first with the AT&T side and long distance, and for a brief period of time I worked on Reach Out America. I very quickly went to the group that was trying to help the telephone companies deal with the split up, because from the operating companies there were going to be seven companies and many people will remember them by names of Bell Atlantic, 9X, Pacific Tel, etc. The seven companies, the seven Baby Bells. And then I decided, I actually got a call from an old boss and 9X wanting to get me in on a promotion.
My boss denied it. I couldn’t go. But not too long after that, he brought me over at my level and then I got the promotion. I went back to 9X, which was New York Tel and New England Tel and I loved it. I worked on what we called Carrier axis, which was after divestiture. The companies like MCI and Sprint and everybody else had to have access to the long distance and we had to figure out how that would work and how people would pick their carrier. It was fun!
Then I had the AT&T account for marketing. It was a two-and-a-half billion-dollar account, because AT&T was our largest customer. And we were their largest customer. So, in effect, it was like a divorce. They knew everything about us. We knew everything about them! It was an interesting job. And then they offered an early retirement, finally. Other people had done it years before. And at 48, I said why not. So, then I started a new adventure.
MJC: Right. And now tell us about the new adventure.
LH: I bought a farm. I came back to Pennsylvania where I was born, and I bought a farm. Part of the reason for that is I owned a horse and it would have been impossible to afford to stay in Westchester County New York with a horse without a job. I came back here, and I bought a farm! Brought my horse here and another horse and was there for twelve years. An interesting adventure, because I’d never lived on a farm. I had to grow hay.
For a while I had a fleet. I had a riding mower, a tractor, a Ford F-150 pickup truck and a horse trailer. A whole fleet! And a lot of animals. I redid the farm fencing and barn and then I turned to the house. I bought the property without going in the house, because I knew it didn’t like it. It was green aluminum siding and inside I discovered that every room was paneled in something different. There were shag rugs on the floor and all kinds of stuff.
Over the next couple of years, I took it back to log, which is what it was from 1800 or so. And that was my project. And by the time I finished it, I left. I loved being there. I loved the animals and had lots of New York friends come visit me, because they couldn’t understand how this person would have done that.
MJC: Can you talk a little bit going back to your feminism about how your ability to take on a totally different life approach is related if at all to your feminism?
LH: Very definitely related. If you remember, back in the early ’70s we had Helen Reddy, I Am Woman and it played at everything. Everything we went to. I Am Woman and I Can Do Anything. And I think we internalized that. Otherwise why on earth would I have thought I could run AT&T let alone the plant department central office. And then when I was in Washington there was some popular song called My Way. I was beginning to be an individual and the feminism led into that.
I mean I think as I go back to my diaries from high school I see some of that, but it didn’t happen, because we were so traditional in the ’50s. I even danced to the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in Hershey. I was of the ’50s. And that was a very traditional time. You were going to be a teacher or nurse. It didn’t take. I think a lot of that was the reading I did. And being associated with NOW. Because it was real experience for me. I grew up in a culture that didn’t hug particularly, and I get into Chicago NOW and I’m getting hugged by people I don’t even know.
I learned that there was so much beyond what I had known. My confidence got built. I Am Woman will never go out of my head. And I think the consent decree. We thought in the early ’70s that we had accomplished a lot. Whether it was the broadcasters, the CBS and NBC people who were fighting their bosses, we were on a trajectory that was going to very positive and helpful. And meeting other women and liking other women and spending time with other women on something that was going to change the world.
It was a very heady time. I think even when I was working on my career, more or less, I was always conscious of it, because obviously we formed the alliance at AT&T and New York Tel – we eventually got a group. I didn’t start it, but it was there. And in Washington I sought out the women and it was exciting to notice where they were. Even some of the people who came to speak to us, like the woman who was head of the International Ladies Garment Workers.
I was always conscious of it and I gave a talk at E-Town College Convocation. I found it the other day and it amazed me – in 1975 – called “May Court to Management.” I was aware of all this stuff changing in me and things I was learning. And I tried to help other women. I always worked with other women. After the farm comes another change and another challenge and another first,in a sense, because I got involved in politics. And I had not been active. I had done a few things for Shirley Chisholm when I was in New York and I think I was on a committee when I was in New Jersey, but not serious.
It got serious when I heard Governor Howard Dean talk, because I thought his versions of equality, his versions of reproductive rights, education they all made so much sense that I called up to Manchester and said, “Can I come help?” This was in September of 2003. “I’ve never done anything like this before.” I’d just go for a week – and this was before all the hordes of people would travel across the country to help.
I think they got a flight of people from Texas while I was there, but that was one of the first and they let me do anything. I was out in visibility. I had never done that before. I was answering phones. I was sending out things. I was going door to door. All new experiences for a good cause. I came home and tried to get people to go back and I couldn’t get enough. But we had meet ups, so that kept it going. And then Iowa. I got on a bus with a bunch of people, and we went out to Iowa, Cedar Rapids, I think. We arrive in the middle of the night in this Camp Fire Girls camp and people were in sleeping bags all over the place. You had to find some space, because it was the middle of night. Another whole new experience.
And then I came back and was at a Democratic state committee meeting. I had done nothing with the Democratic committee. I was peddling Howard Dean buttons and the chair of the county party in Lancaster where [he] lived said, “Why aren’t you running”? They wanted me to run for state house in a district I didn’t live in, so I said no. And they came up with another district and guy holding the district provided the swans at my farm, so there was no way I was running against him. I said, “No.” They kept calling and they said, “Congress?” and I said, “Yes.” I don’t remember if I knew who the congressman was.
It happened to be Joe Pitts, who was not exactly a friend of women. And that began a period of time from 2004 to 2010 where I was almost always running for Congress. After that I moved to Lebanon County and I’m chair of the Democratic Party, ended up running for State Senate. I haven’t won any of those races, but I did win the races for Borough Council and I’m on the Borough Council now. When I was running for Congress there weren’t many women in Congress or even running for it and certainly not in that district.
And it was really good to show, in a sense, that a Democrat could run in that district and could raise money, which was sort of a shock to everybody.
MJC: You were definitely a pioneer. Having somebody straddle both worlds of the corporate world and feminist organizations, I think, is a bit unusual. Would you agree?
LH: I agree, because I called myself a corporate feminist. That was not a term that anybody else was carrying because it seemed to not match. I knew a lot of others who were feminists in the corporation. They just weren’t as vocal about it. I wasn’t alone by any stretch of the imagination. Some of my NOW friends didn’t understand, because they thought that I had sold out, because I was defending the corporation sometimes. There were stories about how because AT&T was automating its operator services, that they were taking jobs purposely away from women, which is not the truth.
The truth was the telephone calls were growing at such a rate that we would have had to hire every adult woman in the country. And that wasn’t going to happen. They could see the trajectory of that. And they tried. And besides there were better jobs for women. We had to make it happen.
MJC: You were definitely a pioneer in that and then managing a business. That strikes me as interesting you were able to get early retirement from the corporation and how much you made of your new status and how much more you were able to contribute to the community.
LH: I noticed, though, that when you move from one world to the other, people forget. I moved to the farm and nobody knew what I had done in the telephone business. I did work with a college in between. But even running for office it was hard to explain. And writing the new book, it’s very hard to explain to people what it was like to invade the white male dominated plant department in a technical area which doesn’t even exist anymore. I mean a lot of telecommunications has changed so much that even the language I used is hard to explain.
MJC: Interesting. And also, I think that was a period where the government was on our side in a way that we haven’t experienced since.
MJC: The actual effort to enforce the new Title 7 and Title 9 – the other laws were fresh and assumed that they would actually be enforceable as opposed to resistance that has grown up since then.
LH: The AT&T case should get more attention, because first of all the lawyers, both the men and the EEOC and some of the women who worked with them and in other areas, generally had been peace corps people or they were women who couldn’t get jobs in law firms. Again, it’s that case when you have the opportunity, fine; if you don’t have the opportunity, you have all the motivation in the world to change it. And the case was this interesting study, because it was National – it was very well done.
They ran hearings around the country which covered in Pacific, MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) and some of the other organizations were involved testifying. And in New York it was a riotous thing, because there were some radical feminists who broke up the meetings and it was just hysterical. And most of it is told in my book, but there’s also a few other books about it, but much attention. It’s a way of changing it, because there was Catherine East in the government. She was in the Women’s Bureau. And the Women’s Bureau was doing a lot. They provided a lot of our ammunition, because they studied what was going on in the workforce. They had the statistics. And right now, I understand they’re not probably allowed to keep them anymore, which is a tragedy.
MJC: I mean the loss of the government on our side in terms of enforcing the law as it was passed is a tremendous loss, all the social movements.
LH: There weren’t just women either. There were men who were very sympathetic to the cause in the Department of Justice, EEOC. I mean it was just in a sense the perfect time, even though it was a Republican administration. It was Nixon, but these things happened. And one of my greatest disappointments is the Bell system being broken up. And not just for my career, because it did derail a few things, but also because here was a company that finally had accepted that it could do better. I mean it really – you have to go back to it. AT&T was very cooperative with the government’s case, because they thought they were doing a great good job.
I wanted to study – and I have never done – from the breakup of the Bell System, the women who were there at the time and the women who came in after the case, where did they go? And did they seed other corporations that had women leaders? There are a few I know of, but [there are] probably more than that. But the company was split up and it had – just like the Bell System which was military – had a mission in New York Tel to make me a central office district and they weren’t going to fail. Even though I thought they wanted me to fail. They weren’t going to fail. And the company, when it was told to split itself up did a very good job of it. I loved the company. I just wanted to run it.
MJC: Obviously you’ve talked a lot about how the movement affected your life personally. What do you count as some of your most memorable or important experiences?
LH: Moving to Chicago and getting involved in NOW. That changed my life. And then beyond that, the move to New York and getting involved in consciousness raising. Probably the EEOC effort bridged that.
But consciousness raising was really important because I was a pretty up tight character and I came from central Pennsylvania. It’s not exactly the hotbed of liberalism, so I had a lot to learn.
MJC: Well let me drop back on that too. I was pleased to know your mother and I know your grandmother had influence too and you’ve written about your family. So, would you talk a little bit about the women in your family and the impact or maybe the men too who helped your development ultimately as a feminist?
LH: I’ve learned most of it after they’ve gone, because I have their diaries and letters and photographs. Going backwards, my mother was a big influence on my life. And at the end, she lived to one hundred and three and for the last 17 years of her life, I was in the neighborhood. So, it wasn’t like I had moved away and never came back. We spent a lot of time together.
Her mother Gertrude was a college graduate in 1900 and she was the oldest child in her family. And she convinced her father to send her to what is now Shippensburg University. And at that point it was a teachers college. She got a two-year degree; she went out to teach. My mother then came along and went to Lebanon Valley and got her degree in 1923. My grandmother went back to school when my mother was in college and got her degree in 1925. So, my mother and my grandmother both had college degrees.
And my great grandmother was on a farm, but she sort of ran it and her letters and everything were just fascinating. This is a strong woman. Strong women in the family. My mother was a teacher. When she was in college she was encouraged to go into biology and chemistry, but she chose English and French. I think she thought seriously about that but that was in the 1920s. She went to teach. She didn’t get married till she was in her 30s. I was an only child.
My dad was at the college coaching and I learned a lot from him too, because he was the kind of coach that brings athletes as best as possible to their ability level, not focused on winning, although he had winning teams. He worked on women’s basketball very early and had great connections with them. But there were strong women in my family. I mean they definitely were. And the thing is I know them because I’ve read their letters and diaries. I would love to write more about that. The only one I wrote is about my mother’s sophomore year in college when her grandmother took her on a train trip around the country and I have that diary. So, they’ve been pretty impactful in my life.
MJC: What else would talk about that we haven’t covered yet?
LH: People. My high school hockey coach was a pretty important influence on me. I mean she made me work. I mean she was tough. It was until later that I learned she was a real person. I did play through college too. And my dad’s philosophy was true even there. He wanted his athletes to do well and he wanted to win but that wasn’t the most important thing to him. And they’ve loved him, his athletes really cared about him. So that’s one, my coach and the involvement in athletics.
My high school friends. I have reconnected with them now that I am back in Pennsylvania and I realize how central they were to my growing up and to now. There’s a group of them that I see regularly. It’s really kind of fun to be back after 60 years. You, because you were key to my getting involved in Chicago and since. My consciousness raising friends are sort of anonymous and I don’t see them anymore. But they were important people as was that mentor that I had in corporate planning. A guy named Jim Armstrong who’s no longer with us. He taught me a couple things that are really important. One is to trust my instincts and basically to be aware.
Pay attention. See what’s going on and what’s really happening, because you can deal with it better if you do that.
Strangely, Howard Dean. Because if it weren’t for Howard Dean, I would never have gotten in politics. Politics to me has been a fascinating experience, because being on the campaign trail for Congress is like going for your PhD exam when you don’t know the subject. Anybody can ask you a question and expect an intelligent answer about anything whether it’s relevant or not. I had been used to being in public, giving talks and things like that, but being up there as a candidate was very different.
I also learned a little bit about people and the way they live and understanding because I had lived a pretty easy life relatively speaking. But when I went door to door in my hometown, I saw things and talked to people and learned things I didn’t know. Some people really didn’t have the advantages I did. And to stand there and talk to them and honestly hear them expect me to be able to do something about it – which I thought I would do – but it was a little humbling. Campaigning can go to your head, but it can also make you very humble. So, the people I met while I was doing that, and I try very hard.
We had a group I had set up, a group of women who were running for office in 2011- 2012 for state office to get them connected to each other to form a support group, because for most of them they were out there by themselves. And you don’t get much support from the big organizations if you’re running for township supervisor or even state representative in a district where your odds are not good. But we need people to run there, because now we’re showing that they win.
But we needed to get started. And I have tried to work with them. And I write and I want to write more books. I have a lot of things I want to say. I’m not done yet. On the Borough Council I don’t get to be very political. We deal more with how we’re going to deal with rental and how we’re going to deal with the traffic on the highway that goes through town.
I’ve had experience now at all levels of government. I wish I had started the politics younger. But on the other hand, I liked what I was doing. I always moved to the next thing before I was really done with what I was doing. I still liked it. I very rarely was running away from something. I needed another challenge. Right now, I don’t know what my challenge is. I’m trying to go through the writing part. I love Mount Gretna. Mount Gretna is a Chautauqua community, so it’s intellectually stimulating and arts and music and people and it’s just wonderful. It’s our own little Brigadoon or Camelot. I’m not sure which. I don’t know, it’s very hard to articulate what I want to do. I’m trying to figure that out.
MJC: That’s OK. Today we’re accounting for what you’ve already done, which is not an insubstantial amount of lifetime of service and learning from feminism and contributing to feminism and letting feminism see your way of doing it. And so that’s been wonderful. What have I missed here?
LH: Because I was on the State Board of Barber Examiners, I headed the Lancaster County Planning Commission, I was president, my Rotary Club and in all of those I tried to be me. I tried to make a difference for the women who were in those areas and try to pay attention to it and not be private about it.
In other words, one of the things that always bothered me in the corporate world is it was hard for women to speak out, because there was the fear that something would happen to you. As it turned out, the women who were president of our women’s alliance at AT&T all did fine, because again they know your name. And too often women have been justifiably afraid that they might get in trouble if they are outspoken feminists, including me. I mean, I’m sure there were times I could have spoken out more than I did, because it’s not an easy thing to do when you’re in hostile territory.
I consider that hostile territory like I entered in the plant department, not as hostile in a war-like sense, but hostile in the sense of the climate isn’t good for growing. You’ve got to have the courage to survive in this. I loved the farm too. I loved being out there learning how to do all that and having the animals. I finally had my horses that I had always wanted. Again, it’s a case of stepping out and doing it. It’s been fun and I met a lot of interesting people along the way, most of whom helped me probably more than I helped them. Some of them don’t even know it.
MJC: All right. Well thank you so much for many years of friendship and for this interview and wish you well for the future.
LH: Thank you.