THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“It has been both passion and privilege to be part of the women’s movement.”
Interviewed by Karen Fishman, VFA VP Membership & Development, September 2021
KF: Hi, this is Karen Fishman, and I’m here with Nancy Kreiter, a longtime friend and a longtime advocate for women’s economic equality. Hi, Nancy, it’s good to see you again.
NK: Hi, Karen.
KF: Can we start by with you giving me your full name and telling me when and where you were born?
NK: Sure. Nancy Kreiter and I was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1947.
KF: Tell me a little bit about your background, your family background, your early years, the things that might have influenced the future direction of your life.
NK: I was raised by two parents in the city. I went to public schools for all of my education before college, but half in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago and then the other half in the North Shore of Chicago. I came from a two parent family, and I was one of four with two older brothers and a much younger sister and just a wonderful upbringing from my standpoint. My parents themselves were very, very active in politics. That was part of my life whether I liked it or not.
I would say the thing that’s memorable about my upbringing is having two older brothers. I was treated by both my parents from the very beginning, as was my sister once she came along eleven years later, as if we were absolutely all the same in terms of our responsibilities, the expectations, the opportunities. Looking back, I have always said that my mother was way ahead of her time before there were labels for feminism or women’s libbers or whatever everybody was called in those days, because she constantly harped on both my sister and myself that we would have all the same opportunities as my brothers to do anything we wanted and we could do anything we wanted in life.
But we had to come out of it being self-sufficient, taking care of ourselves, never depending on anyone else. And interestingly, we could do and be anything we wanted except a teacher, because at that time, that and secretarial work were considered the only opportunities for women. She wanted us to do more than that and we did. So she was the first major influence on telling me I could do whatever I wanted and to go for it.
KF: Where did you go to school and what did you study? What direction did you take once teaching was foreclosed.
NK: Well, interestingly enough, it wasn’t difficult. I was kind of weird in that I loved math, and I looked for a college, a women’s college because I loved girls’ camp, that owned its own mainframe computer so that I could learn computer programming. That was really hard to find back in the ’60s and I ended up at Goucher College, the sister school to Johns Hopkins, taking advantage of both those schools. I got halfway through that major and it wasn’t applied math anymore; I needed something different and somebody suggested economics. I loved it and I became an economist.
I went to London School of Economics for graduate school and then came back to Chicago and went to work in a bank of all things.
KF: Tell us about your early career experiences and how that led you to become involved in the women’s movement.
NK: Basically, I was very wide-eyed and bushy tailed, very naive when I went into banking. I went into the Economics Department. I was building computer models to forecast interest rates. Banks are, especially then, microcosms of pretty much any type of stereotypic discrimination one thought of, from religion to age to gender to race, which again, I was pretty naive about and also pretty blind to because I was working in an ivory tower academic environment. That all changed when I found out that not only were the male counterparts who had come in with me bank officers, which I really didn’t care about because I wasn’t into that corporate stuff until they also told me that they had much better benefits than I, that they had better pay than I did, that they were getting bigger raises, etc.
I’ve never been shy. I started asking around to my bosses and challenging why those things were happening and of course, could get no good reasons. I got a lot of reasons, but I was able to explode the myths very easily and I just kept clawing and fighting. I was eventually made an officer of the bank, which was pretty unusual in those days for a woman; I therefore became very visible, not only at the bank I was at, but within the banking community. People started coming to me–women and minorities–telling me their stories of what had happened to them. The more I heard, the more the injustice really got to me.
I inadvertently got involved with the women’s movement when I decided what I really wanted to do was work nonprofit; I really didn’t care about forecasting interest rates to make more millions for our customers and started looking around and read about this organization called Women Employed, which was trying to get off the ground and organize women who really wanted careers and were being stuck behind, in those days, typewriters, clerical jobs, etc. I applied for a job and like the good organizers that they were, the one and a half people who worked there said, “Great, let’s have lunch.”
That was the beginning of my toe in, foot in, full body in, for the rest of my life to the women’s movement. I got involved with Women Employed in their early organizing days and eventually I decided to leave the bank to really look for nonprofit work, knowing that Women Employed had nothing to offer me because they had no money. Lo and behold, they scrounged up some resources and asked if I would ever consider coming there to do economic research because I was an economist; I wasn’t an organizer, yet. That’s what I did in 1976. I went there full time after being at the bank for six years.
KF: What kinds of issues and what was Women Employed like then, other than small. What kinds of issues was the organization involved in?
NK: I think our basic goal was to get the laws on the books enforced. Our naive selves were all career women, women who wanted careers, had different skills, but were not getting equal pay, were not getting opportunity. We learned the laws. We learned about EEOC and the Department of Labor and figured if we just got the laws enforced, then we could go back to our careers because everything would be fine. The very early days were very much organizing along industry lines in the urban setting of Chicago–banking, insurance, law firms, engineering–and just getting women to tell us their stories. What really happened that kind of changed the trajectory of the organization and certainly the rest of my time at Women Employed was being thrust into the national scene in an effort to save affirmative action. In those days we had Title VII of the Civil Rights Act being enforced by the EEOC, and we had various agencies–Treasury for banks, Social Security for insurance–enforcing affirmative action, equal opportunity for women and minorities. We educated ourselves and started trying to not only coalesce with other organizations across the country, but also to get those laws enforced with those agencies.
KF: And this was during the Carter Administration, because particularly if I recall correctly, the federal contract compliance stuff was completely tamped down during the Nixon Administration.
NK: In my first week of work at Women Employed, when I thought I was going to be digging into statistics and numbers for a good amount of my job time to document the economic status of working women and figure out policies to bring about change, there was a three to four inch thick envelope that came to Women Employed addressed to Research Director. Mind you, I’ve been on the job one week and there had never been a Research Director. They obviously thought we were bigger than we were.
It was given to me and [they] said, “You’re the Research Director.” I opened it up and it was a draft, a secret draft, of the Ford-Nixon Administration’s plan to gut affirmative action on their way out. Thus, it was actually before Jimmy Carter that we had to begin organizing, before he was elected in that year, and my job became, well, how do you do that?
We reached out to the Washington groups and found out that Women Employed was the only one that had this draft. We had to read it to people, couldn’t do anything digitally in those days. I screamed and yelled a lot on the phone to get people’s attention about how important this was. This was going to kill us all.
Finally, I was able to organize a meeting in Washington where the key civil rights and women’s groups, probably one hundred strong individuals, got together to figure out a strategy. I walked in the room and introduced myself, Nancy Kreiter from Women Employed, and the reaction pretty much was you’re Nancy Kreiter? Evidently my voice and my alarm over the phone predicted a much, much bigger presence than I physically presented at that time.
That was really the beginning and unplanned trajectory of Women Employed into the entire national policy scene, which continues to this day, basically, representing what was really going on. Women Employed was considered the grass roots. We were organizing the women. We were the ones who could say what policy impact occurred, whereas the Washington groups were the legal groups, were the organizing groups around legislation. We used to come into meetings ever since then and they would say that the grass roots are here. That wasn’t something we anticipated would happen when we started in Chicago.
KF: Tell me a little bit about what happened then, when there was a friendlier administration and how you proceeded.
NK: Jimmy Carter came in. His first act was the Civil Rights Reorganization Act that we were asked to be a part of. They took the agencies that had been responsible for different industries and consolidated them all under one Department, OFCCP Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs in the Department of Labor, charged with enforcing affirmative action. That also began decades of working with different administrations, vetting regulations, changing regulations or trying to resurrect them, depending on the political flavor of the four years.
Women Employed became experts on the enforcement agencies, OFCCP and the EEOC, in particular those two. We got involved with others, but we worked with our sister and brother organizations, civil rights and women’s groups, to hold accountability sessions with officials in EEOC and the Department of Labor through every administration and really became the technical experts on all of this. We testified before Congress, proposing reorganizations, new plans and eventually new legislation or revised laws.
KF: All that technical expertise was grounded in the real experiences of the women who were members of Women Employed and who continued to share their stories with you, right?
NK: Exactly, and we documented them. When we testified, we were testifying about real case studies. We were testifying with numbers. One of the things that I brought to the table, unlike other groups at that time, was my economic instincts and my quantitative way of analyzing things. Women Employed became the organization that basically said, show us the numbers, show us the data, show us your case processing, prove that there is equal pay going on, make employers come up with numbers. What are the time tables? We tracked those things.
KF: Are there particular cases or employers or experiences that you had that stand out in your memory?
NK: Well, the one that probably first put us on the map, but kept us on the map the longest, was what we call the Harris Bank case. In 1974, we documented discrimination of varying types at the seven largest banks and at that time, savings and loan associations in Chicago. We brought the suits vis-à-vis the enforcement agencies, half of them Department of Labor, half of them EEOC. We wanted such radical changes, like job posting, equal training programs. We weren’t even asking for big money. We had one equal pay case at one of the banks.
Six of those banks out of the seven sat down with us, came to terms, settled, so to speak. They never really had to go much farther. We set precedents on novel things like job posting. Harris Bank took an attitude of we won’t talk to them. We won’t acknowledge them, and we certainly will do nothing to change our policies. We’ve done nothing wrong. They stuck to that position for 14 years. We got representation. Women Employed became a third party to the Department of Labor in that case. We got representation from the National Women’s Law Center.
It went through depositions, it went through various court proceedings, and they kept thinking that these naive little girls could be intimidated, that they would go away. We didn’t go away. After 14 years, the bank was bought by the Bank of Montreal and the first thing they did was get rid of the law firm, get rid of the people who kept this going, brought in a mediator and settled the case for the largest amount of money in a Department of Labor discrimination case at that time. It was $14 million, and by the time they paid with interest, it was $16 million, that went to 8,000 employees that had been found to be part of the class.
That put us on the map. WE was in the headlines. It put us on the map because we persevered. We weren’t intimidated and we won. That was, I would say, in terms of thinking of a particular company or a corporate experience that defined us, that would be the one.
The other thing that stands out in my mind in terms of our presence in Washington and the approach we took going back to show us the numbers and monitoring these agencies that were in charge of enforcing the law, is when Clarence Thomas was first nominated to the Appellate court in Washington DC, one year before he got nominated to the Supreme Court. Because he was an African American and it being in the early ’90s, none of the civil rights groups or women’s groups felt comfortable really testifying against him. They were a little queasy about it.
However, Women Employed had a history with Clarence Thomas not enforcing the mandate that he had been charged with when he was Chairman of the EEOC. We had had many meetings with him. We actually brought him to Chicago for an accountability session. He didn’t like us that much. When it came time to have hearings on him, Women Employed was asked if we would testify based on our experience. We said yes because it wasn’t about race. It wasn’t about gender. It was about qualifications to be an appellate judge for someone who was not enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. That was what our testimony was about. The ironic story behind that is we had already testified a lot about EEOC in general, and Clarence Thomas in particular, by then.
WE worked with our Congressional members andmany of the members of the Senate and the House. I went to Washington to testify at that hearing and beforehand, I was just saying hello to various senators in the room. Ted Kennedy and Paul Simon were standing together and I wanted to greet them and say hi because I had worked with them. I said to them, “You cannot let Clarence Thomas get to the Appellate Court because if you do, he’s going to end up on the Supreme Court.” To which they said, “Nancy, we would never let that happen.” I replied, “I hope not. But I’m telling you, don’t let him on that Appellate Court.” It was one of those times in life, being a mom is another one, when you really hope you’re not going to be right about things.
We were really right. When he was nominated very shortly after that to the Supreme Court and all the legislators came calling, asking if WE was going to testify? Are you going to testify? WE said, “You know what? WE will let the others testify this time. We have a record. We said what we had to say about him and we don’t have anything else to say.” That was another time that Women Employed was in the headlines because we had a mission and we stuck to our mission no matter what that meant not doing.
KF: You also did lots of work with local employers in Chicago and with the local offices of the EEOC. Talk about those relationships a little bit.
NK: I think one of the most exciting times for Women Employed was getting past being adversaries or threatening lawsuits or any of those tactics that were used in our very early days to get attention and make a point that we were serious about having the laws enforced. We established what we called CAP, Chicago Area Partnerships. Along with the Department of Labor and one of the major employers in Chicago and Women Employed, we convened a group of employers, civil rights groups and women’s groups to sit down at the table and figure out where we had common ground and could implement voluntary policies to increase equal opportunity.
It was an exciting project. It was an exciting idea. Best of all, it was very successful. It lasted for many, many years. We forged very strong relationships with various corporations whose headquarters were in Chicago. We published two studies: one, Corporate Best Practices to Shatter the Glass Ceiling, and one regarding equal opportunity and compensation. They were consensus studies. We wrote every word together. We had press conferences to issue them and that started a whole other avenue of voluntary compliance, voluntary best practices and working with corporations to get to the same point.
KF: Describe the impact of your work for working women, both at the time you were doing it and now.
NK: Well, looking back, I think saving affirmative action. We had to do it locally in Illinois and certainly nationally and we prevailed. There were changes, but “mend it, don’t end it” became the motto and affirmative action today stands. Affirmative action really has been one of the most significant achievements in getting women and minorities into jobs that had been closed to them, business opportunities and educational opportunities. Without affirmative action, I don’t believe we would have had the influx of women and minorities into jobs that had been closed to them, promotion opportunities, and training opportunities. It was really, really the key.
KF: And remind me when you left Women Employed and tell us how you’ve been involved in women’s economic issues since.
NK: Sure, I retired from Women Employed, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been involved ever since. I retired from staff in 2003. I had been through, I think, six administrations already, was feeling like I didn’t want to knock my head against a wall much longer. I also felt that it was time to hand down the baton to what we needed: the optimism and naiveté of someone younger and less cynical than I was politically at that time. I gave the organization a year’s notice, trained someone who shadowed me for a year everywhere. It was a very smooth transition and I was giving myself permission to leave and figure out what was next without knowing what was next.
I certainly wasn’t retiring from work. I should have known that. I started working when I was 16, I’ve never stopped, and my work ended up always being about women’s work. Fortunately, before I even left Women Employed, a couple months before, I was approached to be an appointed monitor on a big settlement in a discrimination sexual harassment case. I had done one while I was at Women Employed under the auspices of Women Employed.
I had been a monitor the first time EEOC appointed outside monitors on a big sexual harassment case against Mitsubishi Motors. I did that with the help of Women Employed behind me while still being Research Director. When I left, I was handed another opportunity to be a monitor. This time it was Dial Soap in Illinois. I have been fortunate enough since 2003 to be working on one case or another as an appointed monitor overseeing settlements and making sure companies are changing their policies, adopting best practices
I went from Women Employed to applying everything that we had preached, everything that I had learned, using my regulatory expertise and getting to apply it in the laboratory, so to speak. I look back on my career, and it has been one of both passion and privilege to be part of the women’s movement and try to move things forward in a very unplanned way.