THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Mary Lynn Myers
A leader in the mainstream of the Movement, Mary Lynn sought to focus efforts and energy toward actions that would make a meaningful difference in the lives of everyday women.
I’m Mary Lynn Myers and I was born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota toward the end of 1945. Just before the baby boom, but after World War II. My father was in the military during the war and my mother told him he had to be home for my birth. He was home in August of that year, and I was born in November.
I grew up across the street from a park in a charming, small South Dakota town, Sioux Falls, and it was an idyllic 1950’s growing up experience. But, like so many people in the 50’s, cited in Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, we grew up in a kind of an artificial society – that is, the men went to work, and the women stayed home. We girls learned that we were going to be teachers, secretaries, or nurses, maybe.
I found out very early that I didn’t want to do any of those things. I guess I was assertive in a lot of ways from the earliest days. My mother was a feminist, even though we didn’t call ourselves feminists then. Her mother was as well. Her maiden name was Adams and she was distantly related to Abigail Adams: the famous very early feminist of American history. We learned early on that we should speak up for our rights and the rights of others.
I learned this pretty graphically when I was 6. I was playing with a black friend in the park, a little girl also about 6, and some boys who I went to school with called her names and made nasty comments and told me that she wasn’t welcome at the park. She started to cry, and we went to my home and I told my mother what had happened, and she said, “Those boys were not raised very well. You must never use those kinds of words, because you will hurt people’s feelings in more ways than one. It’s a harsh way to treat people and it’s wrong.”
I was only six, but I never forgot that. As I grew up, there were other occasions when mom and my grandma reminded me how important it was to speak up when you saw injustice and wrong. So, I was an assertive person way before I was grown up.
My father was a traditional man of the 50’s. He was an attorney, an executive with an insurance company and he thought I should be a teacher, a secretary or a nurse, maybe. My sister and my mother both became teachers, and neither was very good at it. They admitted it freely. I knew that I didn’t have the patience or inclination to be a good teacher and I had benefited so much from good teachers.
I told my family that I wanted to major in Political Science. My father said, “You don’t major in Political Science, you drift into it” – as so many politicians do. But I was pretty determined. I had gone to Girls’ State as a junior in high school and I was convinced I could make a difference in the government. So, I persisted and went to college. I was a freshman in 1963, the year that Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique.
I hadn’t read it then, but I experienced a lot of sex stereotyping throughout my growing up and in college. We often were reminded that we should keep quiet lest the men think we were too smart and not be interested in dating or marrying us. We were there to get the “MRS degree” everybody said; we wanted to put that first. I didn’t keep quiet and fortunately met a man, Steve Myers, who didn’t seem to think I should keep quiet. We later married [during] the semester break of my senior year and moved to Chicago, where he could become a stockbroker. I could go to graduate school. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that, but that’s what I initially started to do.
But back to my college years. In the summers I worked as a lifeguard and water safety instructor for the city of Sioux Falls – the Park Department. They had an interesting habit of paying all the men guards 25% more than the women. The reason they cited was that the men could get jobs in construction which would pay more, and they needed a few men to keep order. We knew that was ridiculous because when we were on the guard towers we kept order. When they were on the guard towers, they kept order. It didn’t have anything to do with our sex.
In 1966, the state of South Dakota passed an equal pay act, like the federal law, which applied to the city of Sioux Falls. My father, being a lawyer, had the South Dakota code in his office. I told him I was going to threaten the city with a lawsuit if they didn’t equalize the pay. He demurred that he would not represent me. I said that was fine, I would represent myself.
I marched into the park superintendent’s office and said, “The law says you can’t do this and I’m going to sue you if you don’t equalize our pay.” And they did. We earned several hundred dollars more that summer, which was very helpful in returning to college. I was 20 at the time. It was very empowering.
The next year when I moved to Chicago, I started looking for the chapter of NOW, because by then I had read The Feminine Mystique and knew that I wanted to get involved. I couldn’t find them, because we didn’t have the Internet then, and they weren’t in the phone book. I did get a job with the federal government. I quickly learned that I didn’t really want to become a college professor in Political Science. I went to graduate school briefly, but then left and went to work for the federal government.
I was the first woman hired as a management intern with General Services Administration in Chicago. It was very lonely for the first year, because the men didn’t see me as someone they wanted to socialize with or invite to lunch. The women didn’t see me as a colleague because I was in management. I looked for alternatives, and I found Federally Employed Women, a national organization that did not yet have a chapter in Chicago.
I started the chapter in Chicago and became its first president and that helped me connect with NOW, because we started to get a lot of publicity. There was an article in The Chicago Tribune that had a picture of me and the officers of the chapter. In one way or another I connected with some wonderful women in NOW: Mary-Ann Lupa, Kathy Rand, Mary Jean Collins-Robson, Anne Ladky. We had some pretty heady times together from ‘68 to ‘72 when I was a member of that chapter.
I remember picketing Illinois Bell, which had horrendous practices and we made some impact on them. We picketed the men’s grill at The Berghoff and the men’s grill at Carson Pirie Scott. There were some pretty visible actions in the early ‘70s and probably the most visible one that I was very involved in was the Women’s Strike for Equality.
Betty Friedan had called to all of us at the NOW conference, held at the O’Hare Inn, a kind of a small off the way room. There were probably three hundred of us in the room at the time when she said – I think this was in February of 1970. “On August 26th, the fiftieth anniversary of the women’s vote, we’re going to have a national strike and we’re going to walk off our jobs everywhere.” Of course, there were maybe seven chapters of NOW at the time, I don’t remember. There were not a lot of us. Betty went off to write another book and the people in NOW decided- I guess we better have a strike. So we did.
In the Civic Center Plaza, there were probably ten thousand people. I don’t remember the size of the crowd, but the plaza was full. We had several speakers and we put up posters all over the city. Mary-Ann Lupa designed a poster that said, Don’t Iron While the Strike is Hot. It was a great logo. And we went out putting up posters, and I remember Steve saying to me, “Just don’t get thrown in the Cook County Jail.” I didn’t of course, but I did speak at the rally as president of Federally Employed Women and there were women from the labor movement, the civil rights movement, all sorts of organizations were represented that day.
The headline in the newspaper the next morning was “Sisterhood Proves Power.” It happened all over the country. The Fifth Avenue parade was a national headline. We went on from there to have a number of successes. Shortly thereafter I became National Compliance Coordinator for the National Organization for Women: NOW. Ann Scott, who was a mentor of mine in NOW, was winding down her efforts and asked me if I would take that on. I had worked in the Chicago Compliance Task Force on the Illinois Bell and the Sears projects and knew that that was something that I could help do. We organized compliance Task Force organizations all around the country in the chapters to help women fight discrimination in employment.
That was my big issue. They were very successful, and it gained national attention. I then went on the national board of NOW and was on the board until 1977. Probably the most significant thing that happened during those years to me was in 1975 [when] I was national vice president for finance, and we had a national convention that year in Philadelphia. There had been a lot of stress in NOW the year before on the national board between a group that was called the Majority Caucus and a group that was representing the more moderate wing of the organization, the group that wanted to continue to fight within the system.
The Majority Caucus had a philosophy that we should not stay within the system and that we should create revolution. In fact, the theme of that conference was It’s Our Revolution NOW. While there were very few differences in our philosophies in terms of what needed to be done, I think the differences really lay in how it should be done. One thing led to another and I became the candidate that had the best chance of defeating the candidate of the Majority Caucus, at least that seemed to be the case during the endless rounds of voting that went on in Philadelphia.
In the end, I didn’t succeed in becoming president of NOW. I lost by 98 votes out of about 2200 cast. It was a non-delegate conference and everybody who came could vote. Being in Philadelphia was easy for Easterners to get there, not so easy for Midwesterners and I was a South Dakotan at the time. I had been state coordinator for NOW in South Dakota. Started the Pierre chapter and several others.
My mother was president of the Sioux Falls chapter and she and I were at the conference together along with a delegation of about twenty-five South Dakotans. We were pretty much overwhelmed by the very heavily represented eastern group of NOW, which was much more aligned with the Majority Caucus. I stayed on the NOW board for two years after that. I was seen as the leader of a moderate faction. There were stories written in a number of national periodicals, Newsday, the Parade Magazine, about the division in NOW.
It was very sad, because it was a crucial time for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and I had been very active in that area in South Dakota. We ratified the Equal Rights Amendment the year it came out of Congress – the very next legislative session – by a huge majority in both houses of the South Dakota legislature, and I was in South Dakota from 1972 on, and we just thought it would happen. By 1975 we had thirty-four, I think thirty-five states. We only needed three more. But NOW was falling apart.
There was a lot of division and we were not focused on the ERA. Phyllis Schlafly had risen her ugly head, was traveling around the country promoting rescission. She came to South Dakota several times in the mid 70’s and on one of those occasions in 1977 I debated her at a standing room only Humanities Forum at one of the colleges. Everyone said I won the debate, but unfortunately we lost the war, because in 1977 the state legislature passed a null and void resolution. They didn’t rescind their ratification. They said if the deadline comes, which at that time was 1979, and if the national ratification has not occurred – we don’t have 38 states – then South Dakota’s ratification is rescinded. It’s null and void. And that in fact happened. It was a sad time.
I feel responsible in part that we didn’t manage to patch things up. There was a constitutional convention of NOW in 1976 in Kansas City. Both my mother and I went. Ellie Smeal and I worked very hard to try to bring some compromise, and I think we succeeded in part. There was a new constitution which balanced some of the issues, created a delegate system at the convention. Some other things that helped make NOW continue. In the meantime, the deadline for ratification of Equal Rights Amendment passed and we were not successful. I still have hope that before I die, we will get it ratified one way or the other. I know there’s a national project now to ratify – to declare that the deadline was never valid, and I hope that that succeeds.
Also, in the 70’s I had a very interesting work life. I was director of the South Dakota Division of Human Rights. When we moved back to South Dakota in 1972, my husband had been hired as the first South Dakota State Investment Officer managing the state’s retirement and long-term assets. There was a brand-new agency of the state also created that year, same legislative session passed both the State Investment Act and the South Dakota Human Relations Act, which led to the creation of South Dakota Division of Human Rights.
Both of us started our jobs on the same day: September 11th, 1972. I was director of the Division of Human Rights and Steve was the state investment officer. I held that position for the first four years of its existence. I wrote the rules and regulations, I hired the staff, I did many of the investigations. The law was extremely comprehensive. It covered all areas of discrimination except age and gender preference, which at the time were not considered part of the national law either. We were equivalent to the National Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, so we were a deferral agency of the EEOC.
In addition to employment we also covered education, housing, public accommodations, public services and labor unions. It was very comprehensive, and we enforced it rigorously. Some of our earliest cases were cutting edge cases that were going on elsewhere in the nation. We didn’t get a lot of attention in South Dakota, but we were among the first to require the Little Leagues to be integrated; to allow the girls to play on city parks because that was covered by public service.
We managed to integrate the help wanted ads in the state newspapers – the Argus Leader. I remember saying to the publisher, “You cannot segregate the help wanted ads by sex because you’re a public accommodation and segregating them by sex is not legal.” And he said, “Well how would you do it?” And I said, “Try alphabetical by job,” which is of course what happened. But that was in the time of the Pittsburgh Press case, which was a national case. South Dakota did it actually under the South Dakota division of Human Rights. We simply told them they had to do it and they did. We didn’t go to court. We just did it.
There were a lot of those kinds of actions. The school districts were letting women go when they were pregnant and began to show. Five months or six months – whenever they had to start wearing maternity blouses. That was the end of their tenure as a teacher. And of course, just when they needed their benefits, their insurance coverage, their medical care, they didn’t have a job. We also had a case of a lifeguard, interestingly enough, since that was my earliest involvement. A woman lifeguard who was pregnant in the city of Sioux Falls. They told her she couldn’t work as a lifeguard because it was dangerous. I had several expert witnesses, doctors who said that’s ridiculous it’s not dangerous; she’s not incapacitated, she’s just pregnant, and so they had to reinstate her and give her back pay.
Those cases from ‘72 to ‘76 led to a lot of publicity, of course, in the state of South Dakota and achieved some really significant and lasting changes that brought South Dakota into the forefront of the women’s rights movement really early in the time. That was my work experience and something that I’m very proud of. I left that job in 1976 to go to Washington as a White House Fellow, again probably because of the women’s movement. The year before that, 1975, there had been several women finalists who were not selected and up until then there had been practically no women in any of the White House Fellows classes of 15 or 16 people. There maybe were one or two and in some classes none. And the women of the 1975 finalists brought a suit against the Commission on the White House Fellows.
I think as a result of that the year I applied, which was the year after I lost the presidency of NOW, eight of the 16 White House Fellows were women. Three of us had been active in NOW. Susan McGee was president of the Seattle King County chapter and Lynn Schenck, who was later a congresswoman, had been active in San Diego. And I was on the national board. The three of us weren’t selected because they were scared of the lawsuit, I’m sure it had an impact on the advice that the lawyers gave the commissioners that year in terms of paying attention to not discriminating against the women because we had just as much right to be White House Fellows as the men.
That year I was a special assistant to the secretary of commerce who happened to be Elliot Richardson when I was selected – the fall of 1976. When Jimmy Carter was elected president, the secretary of commerce became Juanita Kreps, the first woman secretary of commerce and she and I became very close. My husband stayed in Pierre. Her husband stayed in North Carolina.
We traveled together, we often had dinner together, because we were simpatico. She was a wonderful mentor. And she, by a stroke of the pen, created men’s and women’s names for hurricanes. Up until then hurricanes had always been named after women, I guess because women are so hysterical or emotional or whatever they thought hurricanes were. And Juanita said, “Not going to happen anymore. Hurricanes will now be equally named for men and women,” and it’s been true to this day.
It’s one thing I learned about how to how to make change. Sometimes you can be more effective by being on the inside instead of marching around. And though I had marched around a lot in the early 70’s, when I became a White House Fellow and realized how much impact you could have inside, and of course as division of Human Rights Director, inside. I chose the rest of my life to do what I thought needed to be done inside.
After my White House Fellowship, I went back to South Dakota and became a banker. Even though I loved working in the federal government and as a White House Fellow, Elliot Richardson once said, “If I can move this bureaucracy a half an inch in either direction I sometimes feel like I’ve created a miracle.” I thought to myself that I might be able to make more difference if I tried to make a difference at my local level in an area which still needed a lot of help. And that was credit and economic equality for women.
I went to work for what was then National Bank of South Dakota. I became a commercial lender. I lent to women and men of course. I was the first woman commercial lender in Sioux Falls. I became eventually senior vice president and was often asked, “What difference did you make?” I hired a bunch of women. They realized that you didn’t have to be a man to be a commercial lender. I think if it had been even a few years later I might have become president of that bank, but South Dakota was still probably not ready for me to be president.
Two of the women that I hired in the commercial loan department later did become presidents of banks in South Dakota and I was very proud that they did and that I had some part in it. So that continues the rationale of trying to work on the inside. I was proud to be named Women in Business Advocate of the Year twice by the Small Business Administration in South Dakota because of my work to try to encourage women to start their own businesses and the bankers to give them credit. And that was an important part of my life.
I’m still involved in what I would call the women’s movement, but in a very different way. Another part of my determination to do what I could within the system led to my getting very involved in the Girl Scouts. I had been a Girl Scout as a young person and had kind of fallen away from it in high school and college. When I moved back to South Dakota in the early 70’s I was busy with the Division of Human Rights. After my White House Fellowship in 1978 when I went to Sioux Falls and became a banker, the local council executive director came to my office and said, “I know you were a girl scout in this council and here you are a bank officer. It’s time to give back to the girl scouts and I need a finance chair. Would you come on the board?”
It was the first time I had been asked to be on a local board since I’d moved home and I said, “Yes.” That was the beginning of 40 plus years of Girl Scout volunteering. I learned very quickly that the Girl Scouts was very cutting edge in terms of developing leadership and empowerment for girls especially at those critical times of their lives when they’re going into adolescence and they need to have confidence. I was on the council board for 12 years and ended as president and then they sent my name to the national office and I became national treasurer in 1990 and served in that role for six years. Then became national vice president during some fairly important times in Girl Scouts history.
There were a lot of movements to try to merge the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts both at national and world levels. And fortunately, we resisted them, because we felt it was important for the girls to have a single sex leadership building opportunity. We had read all the studies about how much more girls can develop in single sex environments when they’re not competing with boys and trying to look “not so smart” so the boys will like them – as we learned in college.
The importance of having those leadership opportunities at especially adolescent ages led us to fight the idea of merging with the Boy Scouts. With all of the difficulties the Boy Scouts have had in recent years, I’m certainly glad we resisted at the national level the entire time I was on the board. They still do that. Now the Boy Scouts are taking in girls and it’s primarily because their membership is dropping and they’re having trouble, so they’re going to see what they can do to encourage girls to join them.
I urge girls not to do that, because the leadership and empowering lessons they learn in girl scouting will never leave them. And you can see that in the surveys of successful women all over – in Congress, in the Senate, in all sorts of areas of life. So often they had Girl Scouts in their background. After I was on the national board in 2002 I was elected to the world board and learned very quickly that Girl Scouting and Girl Guiding as it’s called in some countries, is sometimes the only educational and leadership experience girls have in parts of the world.
We have Girl Guiding and Girl Scouting in one hundred and fifty countries in the world, over 10 million members, and some of those countries are places in Asia and the Middle East and in Africa where the girls would not have leadership experiences, maybe not even a good education without girl scouting. While I was on the world board until 2008, I traveled to more than 40 countries representing the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. I went to the United Nations a couple of times on behalf of the World Association to the Commission on the Status of Women and to the international conferences on women and girls.
And so those experiences helping empower girls and young women to become their fullest potential in every walk of life, that’s what Girl Scouting did and does around the world. I continue to be active in that. I’m a member of the Olave Baden-Powell Society, which is an international fellowship of both men and women that supports the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. I’m still active in Girl Scouting at the national level. I go to conventions, I go to other events, and I’m a financial supporter. Even though I’m now in my 70’s and not an active officer in any of these organizations, I still feel it’s important to support them and to speak on their behalf.
There’s one more thing I’d like to include before I conclude these remarks. It goes back to my earliest days in college when I was invited to join a sorority: Kappa Alpha Theta. It was founded by Betty Locke in 1970, when she and several other women who were among the first women admitted to Indiana Asbury College in Greencastle, found themselves faced with a great deal of hostility to their presence. A male friend of Betty’s invited her to wear his fraternity pin – a Phi Gamma Delta pin, as a show of support, not as a member. She declined, indicating that if she couldn’t become a full member of the fraternity, she couldn’t wear their pin.
Instead, she founded the first Greek letter sorority for women, and it persists to this day. Next year we will celebrate our 150-year anniversary, and the national motto, Leading Women, is as relevant today as it has been for 150 years for Thetas. I will go to the national convention to honor Betty Locke and the other visionary women who had the courage to face the hostility of those days, just as the women who were veteran feminists in the 60’s and 70’s faced hostility in our day. I’m proud to be a Theta, and I thank you for listening to my story.