THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Dr. Allie Latimer
Dedicated to a Lifetime Journey of Working Towards Equality and Justice for All.
Veteran Feminists of America welcomes Allie Latimer, Founder of Federally Employed Women (FEW), at the Seventh Regiment Armory, New York City, April, 1998. “The Strength of an Organization”
Connie Comer: When I read about her and I spoke with her, I thought, “My God – she’s everything my mother would have wanted.” She finished at the Hampton Institute, then she went to Howard University, got not only a law degree, but an additional degree. She worked for the government. She had training courses at Harvard Business School, The Kennedy School of Government. She is most remarkable. And if we’re not related, we will have a transfusion after this. And from now on I can say we are blood relatives. Allie Latimer – wonderful meeting you.
Allie Latimer: We started FEW back in 1968 about two years after NOW started, because we found that no one was really focusing on the world’s largest employer and what they were doing about sex discrimination in the government. President Lyndon Johnson had recently passed an Executive Order 11375 at the urging of a group of women who had won the Federal Women’s Program Award since 1960.
And these were women who [had been given this award since its inception, for all manner of accomplishments]. For doing things like photographing the back side of the moon. You had to be exceptionally smart or do something very exceptional to get that award.
They were invited to the White House and they urged, along with some others, for the president to add sex as one of the prohibitive forms of discrimination. As you recall in 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed, sex was there, but it did not apply to the federal government. It only applied to the private sector, but not to the world’s largest employer – the federal government.
At that time 80 percent of the women in Federal Government were GS-8 and below. Many of them were sixes and below. It was when we went to – and Florence Perman is sitting over there, as one of the people attending a seminar – what turned out in those days to be a highly sensitivity training course. I asked how many had heard about the new executive order and Macy, who was then the civil service commissioner chairperson, had asked as a result to implement the executive order, a “federal women’s program.” How many had heard of the Federal Women’s Program?
Florence Perman and June Chunnie were two who were with the Atomic Energy Commission had heard of it at that time. So, we turned this seminar, this sensitivity training, into asking about the issue of implementing this new executive order in the federal service. NOW was so busy in the private sector, so they didn’t have time to look at us. The labor movement and the unions weren’t doing anything about this.
So on the last day of that session I asked Helen Dudley, who was then the teacher for this sensitivity training program, if she would make an announcement to find out who might be interested in determining whether or not they would like to form a group. I had recently come out of the civil rights movement. I took a train with people to Selma. We went down in Selma every Monday morning to be in the line with the voters. And so, as a result of that experience, I thought we needed to also activate something in the Federal Service to focus on ending discrimination against women.
What we did in those early days was to make sure that the organization would represent all of the women. I remember we had a woman doctor in that group who said, “No this should be an organization of executive women.” But these were the women that had gotten a half a rung on the ladder above the bottom and feeling that they could not reach down to pull the others up. We wanted to make sure that this did not become something that did not involve all women, races, gender – because we had men in their early days and colors – so that we could be stronger in our commitment of ending sex discrimination in the government.
So, it was with that vision that we started – just like NOW. Some of us did start with NOW, but our interest was more in where we were. I started out in the Federal Government as a lawyer, as a Grade 7. I ended up, and at that time there were only very few women and only one black in the Office of General Council. One of the things they did not do in those days was let women into the General Counsel’s offices and I was determined that I would get into it.
I organized like I would anything else, and went to every agency. Some turned me down and so finally I would go and look on the board in the lobby and find out who was the General Counsel and go and ask for them by name. So, I was very determined, and we were very determined in those early days. I ended up being the General Counsel of that very agency. I was determined that we would have plenty of women and minorities in the General Counsel’s office.
One girl said to me one day, “We have so many women and minorities in the General Counsel’s office.” She thought the whole agency was like that. Well she went somewhere else and she was very surprised that it did not look like that. But you have to have a conscious effort to do these kinds of things. You just can’t expect someone else to do them.
Kennedy, who was not a feminist and said so when someone asked him to compare his wife with Eleanor Roosevelt and he said, “You must be one of those feminists,” did something in 1963 when the legislation was passed to end discrimination of selecting people on the basis of sex and the civil service system. But it was Lyndon Johnson passing this executive order that put all of the things that had come together out of the labor movement, out of Sputnik, out of the Cold War, out of a lot of things. Like the modern civil rights issue, like the abolitionist days brought women into the fore. This brought women to focus on their issues and their particular problem.
And so it is with that that we wanted to focus specifically on what was going on around us. This has brought a number of women. We now have some 250 chapters all over the world that are very active in looking at what has happened to them. And then when these women come together, they find that their problems are not unique. There are other women suffering. And that’s the strength of having an organization rather than individuals. Thank you very much.