THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“All my life, I’ve felt a need for women to gather, share stories and support each other. It’s as relevant now as it was 40 years ago.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, August, 2020
MJC: Tell us your name.
LD: My name is Lorraine Duvall. I was born and raised in Binghamton, New York, which is in upstate New York, in the Southern Tier. It was a nice town and a nice neighborhood. I had a privileged upbringing. My father died when I was 15. That kind of changed our world, but I had a good childhood.
MJC: Tell us about your ethnic or racial background.
LD: The closest we have to something other than general European is my grandmother who was born in Sweden. She’s the closest relative I know about. My name’s French, but I haven’t been able to find any French background.
MJC: Did you go to public schools?
LD: I went to public schools in Binghamton.
MJC: So at 15, your father died. How many kids were in your family and what was the impact on your family?
LD: I have two sisters. One sister is two and a half years older than I am, and one is a year and a half younger than I am. So I was the middle child. As my grandmother said, she thinks that the most impact of my father’s death was on my younger sister. By that time I was a teenager, into teenage life. It probably affected me in what I saw my mother doing. She had always been independent, but my father was the breadwinner.
He was working for Monroe Calculating Company. He had a very responsible job. But pensions were not available to widows and they had very little life insurance. We basically didn’t have a lot of money after my father died, although we had assets. My mother started her own business: The Duvall Inventory and Figuring Service with the loan of eight to ten calculating machines. My mother thought the company loaned her these calculators because they felt guilty for not providing us with any financial assistance.
She had an office built in the basement of our house and hired neighborhood women to do mostly inventory. In December, January, February our house was filled with neighborhood women. My mother was a great role model. This was 1954, before computers.
MJC: That’s an amazing story. What happens after that?
LD: I always knew I was a little different from my girlfriends and found some role models. There was a neighbor who I can still see singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow in the backyard overlooking her back porch, and thinking, she’s knows something I did not know.
Math was always pretty easy for me so I went to college to be a math major knowing I didn’t want to be a teacher and I didn’t want to be a secretary. This turned out to be very fortuitous, graduating in 1960 with a math degree. What to do?
Well, computers were just coming into being. I was hired as a computer programmer in 1960 in Schenectady, New York. I was making more money than I could have ever imagined – five thousand dollars a year, which doesn’t sound like much now, but at that time, it was above average for even men. I really lucked out, it was a wonderful career that I had in the computer field.
MJC: You went to work and were you staying at home?
LD: No, I moved out. Schenectady is about two hours from Binghamton. Some of my college friends had an apartment in Manhattan. So I moved in with them after a year in Schenectady. It sounded good as I needed something more than I had professionally and personally. This is 1961, so I had to look for a job under “men wanted”. The jobs for women were the secretarial positions and so forth. I got a wonderful computer programming position with a consulting company in Manhattan. I lived there for almost four years where I worked with some wonderful women – they were New Yorkers and they showed me the world. It was just a life-changing experience.
MJC: So now we’re in the mid ’60s.
LD: In the mid ’60s, all my girlfriends were getting married. I dated a lot but thought marriage isn’t for me, but I better do something about that. Then I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, staying up all night reading it in my Manhattan apartment. She wrote about what I had feared, with some hope, leading me to think that marriage might be OK. I could still be me and not give my life over to a man.
The man I was dating at the time asked me to get married and I said, “Sure.” In 1964, I married a very nice man who really supported me in my career. We had one child. And then all of a sudden, I’m a housewife in the suburbs of Chicago.
MJC: Was there a job change?
LD: Yes, my husband was transferred to Chicago and I followed him. First, however, as my husband was living in Schenectady I moved there right after we got married, knowing he would be transferred. I had a temporary computer programming job in Schenectady for six months. I was fortunate to be in the computer field because I could get a six-month job – they knew it was going to be only six months. I worked for the General Electric Research Laboratory and it was just wonderful. And then I moved to Chicago and I worked for the General Electric Computer Department. I traveled a lot – had fun – it was just a wonderful position – a woman’s career dream at that time. I had some problems, certainly I was treated differently in a lot of ways, but relative to what my other girlfriends were doing, I was in heaven.
MJC: So you’re in Chicago. When do you get an inkling of the organized women’s movement?
LD: Not until really the early ’70s. I had primary responsibility for a child and wanted a part time job. I ran across some of the women’s organizations, one called Flexible Careers, the other Catalyst. These were organizations who helped women who wanted and did have part-time positions. I was working 30 hours a week with no benefits and no job security and something needed to be done. I found a couple of letters I wrote to my company at the time about benefits. They ended up putting me in the pension plan, which was very good. So I made some changes.
I’d done things before – I want to tell this story. I was living in Manhattan as an independent woman with lots of charge accounts, then moved to Chicago as a married woman. Back then you needed to have separate charge accounts with different department stores. I said, I’ll get some in my name – I had taken my husband’s name. When I went to Sears Roebuck, they said they could only give a charge account in your husband’s name. I told them, “I have good credit and I want to speak to a supervisor.” I told the supervisor my story and Sears gave me an account.
I did the same thing at Marshall Field’s in Chicago. “Talk to your supervisor.” They said, “No, that’s our policy.” I never shopped at Marshall Fields after that. Then NOW came out with the open credit law initiative, whatever it was called. I wrote to NOW about Marshall Fields. I was part of this suit that happened and a couple of years later Marshall Field’s contacted me and I was able to get credit in my own name.
Just being in the professional field, I had to put myself out there. Here I am. I have a child. I want to continue in my professional field, the women’s movement is blossoming. I lived in Hinsdale, which is a fairly conservative suburb of Chicago, and we used to go to Evanston, which was more liberal. I remember going to a bookstore in Evanston and I saw all this literature, so I picked it up. So I started to follow the women’s movement and joined NOW.
Last night, I picked up this booklet, it said the New Feminist Bookstore. Who signed this? For freedom, Mary Jane Collins-Robson.
MJC: Yep, I was married at the time also.
LD: I thought, what a coincidence, this is really great. I just found this last night.
MJC: Amazing. I suspect we probably met back in the day.
LD: You were much more active than I was. So – the ERA. I was following all this into my professional career. And a group of women at a computer conference in Washington, D.C. in 1978 got together. We realized we had some pull. We drew up a petition and presented it to the Board of Directors for the Association for Computing Machinery, demanding that they do not hold conferences in those states that had not ratified the ERA. We got that idea through NOW, because that’s what NOW had recommended in 1977. This was 1978.
They said, “No, we don’t take part in political things.” Well, we women joined together in a meeting afterwards and said, “We need an association, we need to bring all the women together.” In the spirit of NOW, we put our five dollars down and said, “We’re forming the Association for Women in Computing.” We used the guidelines in that sense from NOW. We formed this organization. I was the first president. So for a couple of years I led it, but did not remain active after that.
About seven or eight years ago, I received an email from a woman from the Association for Women in Computing, who had been trying to find me. They had this President’s Day little celebration. Just this week, in preparation for talking with you, I looked through to see if the Association for Women in Computing was still in existence. They have chapters in five or six locations, mostly on the West Coast, and they meet regularly and support each other – so it’s still going.
I did things personally. For example, I went to a computer conference where the keynote speaker made a joke about rusted coathangers. We knew at that time that the use of the term rusted coathangers was referring to illegal abortions. I approached the man who was chair of the conference and said that’s just not acceptable. I spoke with a couple of other women and talked to the conference chair, saying the speaker needed to make an apology. They approached the speaker and he said, “I didn’t say anything wrong.” But he ended up making a public apology.
I was taking some personal actions related to my position in the computer field – not part of any feminist organization.
MJC: Well you formed your own organization!
LD: So here I am in the computer field. I attended computer conferences in 1963 or 1964 when there was a lot of women. Then I noticed that further on in the late ’70s and early ’80s, there were fewer women attending with few taking part in the leadership roles. It was happening at work, too: they weren’t hiring as many younger women. There didn’t seem to be managers that were women.
I was friends with university computer women who were professors in computer science departments and they’d tell me of their problems being a woman. Throughout my career I continued to be promoted but at times felt not as fast as some of the men, but I had a very good career. And had problems with some of the male bosses, holding my own, most of the time, until I had a major blow with one. I left this company that I’ve been with for 20 some years and started my own consulting company. When I was 50, after about two years of this, I said, “I don’t know if I want to do this for the rest of my life.” I’d always wanted a PhD. I went back to college at Syracuse University in a PhD program, and at the age of 54 I got my PhD.
MJC: Are you back in New York now?
LD: Oh, yes. After the divorce in 1973, I moved back to upstate New York, transferred by the company I was working for in Chicago, which was IIT Research Institute. They opened up an office by the Air Force base to do research in computers for the Air Force in Rome, New York, a small town. That’s where I became the manager and ran the office. It was a lot of fun. But getting divorced, that was the hardest time in my life. My husband insisted on having custody of our one child. I don’t think I’d do it the same way now, but I felt guilty for leaving him. I didn’t want to contest it. So he had custody.
MJC: What age was your child?
LD: She was five years old. At that time in Illinois there was no joint custody. If he had custody I knew she would always have a mother. But if I had custody, I don’t know if she would always have a father. That’s when I moved to Rome and I’d travel back a lot to Chicago. She spent vacations with me including all summer. That was the hardest time of my life. We have a very good relationship now. I’m really proud of her – she’s a math major, but much smarter than me. She has a PhD in math and is a professor at Boise State University, is married with two children, and doing very, very well.
MJC: Going back, you’re starting your own company.
LD: I started my own company and then went back to school doing some consulting while I was in my PhD program. Then worked for a technology company in Utica, New York for three or four years – always wanting to live in the Adirondacks. I was trying to figure out a way to do that. I was almost 60 and I ended up back doing some consulting and moved to the Adirondacks. It’s hard to continue with the consulting in such a remote place in 2000. So here I am in the computer field where things are changing so fast you had to be at the top of your field and it was almost impossible to do that while I was out in the boonies in the Adirondacks. By this time, I’m in a relationship with another man who was a professor at Syracuse University. We had been together for many, many years and he ended up retiring, and now we’re both in the Adirondacks.
In Chicago I was in a consciousness raising group. That was probably the reason I got divorced. It was we can do anything we want to do. We don’t have to stay in any traditional relationship. I had some great friends in Chicago in this consciousness raising group. Rome is a very conservative town and I had no friends there.
I found this letter to the editor in Ms. Magazine in 1974 from Marie Deyoe. She said they were opening up a women’s retreat for the summer in Paradox, New York, which is in the Adirondacks. As this was in the summer and my daughter was with me, the two of us drove to this woman’s retreat in Paradox, New York. I just got enthralled with what they were doing. I only went for a weekend, but I continued to follow what these independent women were doing.
Seven of the women who met at that retreat summer bought their own place in Athol, New York, which is even a smaller town than I was in. On twenty three acres they started this community, this commune. They left their husbands, they left their jobs and started a commune, called A Woman’s Place. I visited there twice after that when I was living in Rome. I never lived there, but I visited just those three times.
MJC: And then you decided to write a book about it.
LD: And then I decided to write a book about it. I had written two books before, one a memoir about growing up in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s and my desire to live in the Adirondacks. I titled this book And I Know Too Much To Pretend taking a cue from having listened to Helen Reddy singing “I Am Woman” so many years ago. It’s a take-off of the 3rd line “And I know too much to go back and pretend.”
My second book is about my love for the lakes, ponds, and rivers of the Adirondacks, titled In Praise of Quiet Waters. Much of the book is about women who loved paddling the waters. In the early 2000s I started meeting some wonderful women in the Adirondacks who were independent in different ways than I had found in my career. These were women who went hiking by themselves, they went canoeing. I hardly knew them when six of us went canoe camping one weekend. We ended up coming back in the middle of a hurricane on an Adirondack lake. We felt so empowered that we bonded and every year thereafter, we took canoe camping trips, for 15, 16 years now. I was 65 at the time, the oldest woman was 80. I’m 82 now and I can’t imagine – what Ruth did was just wonderful. We went together for 15 years and we would start to help each other more and more as we grew older. This second book is about Adirondack women having fun and moving themselves forward.
About my third book. I’m really enjoying writing, so what am I going to do now? I remembered A Woman’s Place, just to write an article. I made some connections and started asking around. Then I met more and more of the women who were part of A Woman’s Place, and what they were doing now. They’re now in their 60s, 70s and 80s, the ones that originally started it. I’ve made some really great new friends through doing research on this place.
MJC: Can you imagine any of these different organizations or groups happening without the women’s movement? Do you think they reflected the women’s movement or how would you talk about that?
LD: Yes, things changed because of what was happening in the women’s movement. While I was so taken up in my career and wasn’t actively involved, men became aware I was the only woman in the meeting and needed to be part of it, for example. There was an awareness with the men, at different levels – kind of funny things, but it showed the awareness. I was working with a man and the two of us were walking up to a door to an office building and he said, I don’t know what to do – whether to hold the door open for you or not. So there was an awareness of that, he was a really nice man, but didn’t know what to do.
I wouldn’t have felt as empowered as I felt in doing what I did if I hadn’t known that there were other women out there fighting. There were other women right out there in the forefront even though I wasn’t. I was benefiting from what you all did. I watched the 2013 NOW conference and thought how grateful I am that there were all you women out there doing it. You were out there at the forefront. Even the women that I went paddling with, we couldn’t have done that before. It’s so far reaching that it’s hard to even describe.
MJC: How about the women in the Woman’s Place. Did you think the existence of the commune was reflective of other things that they thought of because of the women’s movement?
LD: Absolutely. They talk about how they were discriminated against. This one woman who basically was the leader said she had just recently been divorced and said, “I was just there, I needed to have power.” And she went back to school and that’s when she started A Woman’s Place. The other women who came in were all independent women. In November of 1974, there was an article in the New York Times about A Woman’s Place, and it talked about the women who visited there, who came to retreats and how they felt that here was one place where they could be themselves. You don’t have to wear makeup. You don’t have to wear bras. You can just wear clothes you want. That was a basic recognition that these women were doing something different.
MJC: You’ve mentioned a couple of articles, but I think in general I’m not sure the next generation even knows about the existence of these initiatives that came out of, on the edge of the women’s movement back in the time. So have you put that on the record?
LD: When I retired, I was living up in the Adirondacks. That’s when I started taking writing classes and going to writing retreats just because it was fun. I was at a week-long writing retreat in Old Forge, New York and I didn’t know any of the people there. I didn’t even know the man that was leading it.
I had started to write what I call memoir vignettes, little things that were significant to my life and some of them having to do with the difficulties I had at work and how I was treated as a woman. I read some of these to the writing group. Then this one younger woman said, “but look at all we have to take care of now, you didn’t do anything.” I just yelled at her, “you don’t know what it was like.” That really convinced me my story has to get out.
Just last week I was at Lake George. It was the first time that I was able to give a public program because of Covid. We were ten feet apart and it was outside in the tent, with 20 women. It was at a center for women in Lake George, New York, called Wiawaka Center for Women, which is another story in itself. It was so much fun talking about those times because most of [the women] were older. But the younger ones were like, “So what happened here and what happened there?” Telling stories is wonderful and we have to continue to do it and to show to younger people this is how far we’ve come.
MJC: Are there things we haven’t talked about that we should?
LD: I’ll tell one little story. So I’m working with all these men, I traveled a lot of times with men who worked for me. I’d go up to a hotel clerk to say our names to check in and the clerk would look at the man. They’d talk to the man and they wouldn’t talk to me. One time there were three of us traveling, including two men who worked for me, in the winter expecting to fly from Newark from Rome, New York. But Newark Airport got snowed in.
We were stranded at the airport and all the hotels were booked. So we got in our rental car and we drove south on Route 1 in New Jersey. We finally found a motel that had a vacancy sign so we stopped in there. The first clue that things were not right was a sign that said rooms by the hour. We asked for three rooms. The desk clerk said, “I do have them, but one room would be better, you’d have much more fun.” I’m the boss and then I’m being put into this kind of situation.
Now, it was a big joke in the office. I always felt it was really demeaning to me and my position, as it was in other places like early on in Chicago. It was probably ’67 and my new boss from Chicago was coming into town. We were to meet at one of the hotels on Michigan Avenue. He was sitting at the bar, so I went and sat at the bar with him. The maitre D’ came up and said, “This woman can’t sit at the bar.” My boss tried to defend me, but we basically got kicked out.
Here I am trying to have a professional career with my new boss. They’re going to promote me so I can meet with clients, but I can’t go to the cocktail lounge with them? So those are the difficulties of trying to live in a professional world and how I was treated at that time.
MJC: So any other thoughts, Lorraine?
LD: I really appreciate you doing this. I met two women as part of the research that I was doing for A Woman’s Place who now live in Florida. They suggested that I join you guys. When I saw that you were doing this work, I thought, “This is great and I would love to tell my story.” I wish I’d met you all then. I wish I’d been with you. Sounds like you had a great time going out there and marching. My daughter and granddaughter went to the Women’s March on Washington in 2016. They flew in from Boise, Idaho. I was in Florida and thought, “I don’t know if I can do this.” I didn’t go and that’s one regret. You all doing this wonderful work and it is just great. I really appreciate this. It’s so important to keep our stories alive.