Karline Tierney

“The Women’s Movement Inspired Me” 

Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Board, September 2018

KT: My name is Karline Tierney. I was born Karline Koenen – that was my maiden name. And I was born in Auburn, New York, which is a little bit west of Syracuse.

MJC: And tell me about your family background including any ethnic background that you might want to share.

KT: Well, the ethnic part that I’m most aware of – my grandfather emigrated from Germany when he was in his late teens. And in fact I have his immigration papers. My grandmother and grandfather were the closest geographic relatives that we had – that was on my father’s side. And my mother’s family had an Irish English mixture background and must have come much earlier to the United States.

And my mother’s family lived in Seneca Falls and Waterloo. And when she was a year old her father died and she lived between two grandmothers – one in Waterloo – one in Seneca Falls. And I recall her telling me they would pin a little note on her and put her on the train and say – put her off in Waterloo or put her off in Seneca Falls and she lived between her grandmothers.

MJC:  Isn’t that a story? Amazing.

KT: I don’t think that was all that uncommon for that time, I would imagine.

MJC:  What else would you like to say about them? How did they help you become the woman you are?

KT: My mother was a determined person. 

And Her Goal From the Day We Were Born – Was You Must Go to College.

That’s the most important thing for you. And so we grew up with that expectation. But you know in those days you either had the money to go to college or you did not go. I mean it was purely simple. So we were very much in – not only was it the depression when you had to save – and where nobody really had much of anything.  But we were also very much influenced by her efforts to make sure – “I can’t get you a new dress because we’re saving for college.” And that was very much a big, major import in my family.

MJC: And that really shaped your life. Did you have a brother or sister?

KT: I had a younger sister and an older sister. I actually inherited the abilities and talents of my father more than my other two sisters did. So that was what guided me toward chemistry when I was in high school and I studied chemistry in college.

MJC: OK, so you’re a scientist. What was your life like before you got involved in the women’s movement? How would you describe that period?

KT: It was very traditional. I was married in 1949.

I Had Worked in Washington at the Office of Rubber Reserve.

And I married another chemist who was also working there and we had looked forward to having a family. And the family didn’t appear. And we adopted three children in the 1950s. And I stayed home with my children and I enjoyed cooking and I enjoyed homemaking and it was very traditional.

And in 1952 I joined the American Association of University Women and I think at that time AAUW was a wonderful outlet for married women staying at home, which was the normal way for married women to be at that time. And it was a great outlet for intellectual expression and learning and meeting people with your own interests and so on. And so that pretty much was typical of what I was doing in the 50s.

MJC: So you stayed active in AAUW while you were raising your kids? Do you remember when you first became aware of the organized new women’s movement?

KT: Oh I recall it because in 1965 my husband’s work changed and we moved to Louisiana. And I continued with activity with AAUW. And somewhere maybe 67 or so…

Sylvia Roberts Came to an AAUW Meeting to Tell us About the Horrors of Louisiana Law.

And the way those laws affected women. And I had not even thought about any laws – anywhere – of any sort that affected women in any case. And certainly our eyes were opened to the really anti female laws that existed in Louisiana. And it was a community property state.

Theoretically you owned everything that your husband did – except that in Louisiana he had the complete legal power. So although you owned your home – he could buy and sell your home without your signature or your agreement. So theoretically the community property was not – you were not actually and factually able to control your so-called community property.

MJC: Do you remember any of the other laws that Sylvia mentioned?

KT: Well, the buying and selling of your home.

Credit of Course Was a Serious Issue.

At that time women could not get a credit card without their husbands signature. But the particular laws in Louisiana came and developed out of the community property laws, which were not typical for other states. They were in some ways theoretically better, but operationally they were much worse. And certainly credit was a big one. The laws governing divorce were highly prejudicial against women. And, I don’t know that I recall specific ones.

MJC: Sylvia came as a representative of NOW. She was probably the Southern Regional Director at that point.

KT: Probably.

MJC: So how did that change your – I mean I would say that you were involved in the women’s movement through AAUW so I won’t ask you when you got involved, because you obviously had been involved. But this changed your involvement in the meeting – a NOW person did?

KT: Oh my – I mean I was horrified. Because I recalled at the time when we moved – my husband had bought a home in Louisiana. I had not seen [it] until I moved there. And I remember him talking about it being a community property state – we both owned the home and I remember thinking – how come I never signed anything?

That’s The Way Community Property Worked at That Time.

But I don’t recall Sylvia speaking about NOW. Now she may have. I’m sure that I joined NOW through her influence although the person that I recall most influencing me with NOW was Roberta Madden.

MJC: So tell me what roles you played in NOW and the other organizations. In AAUW were you an officer or were you an active member? And then what happened when you joined NOW and I know there are other organizations you want to talk about too.

KT: Certainly most of my understanding of women’s issues came from NOW. And AUW in Baton Rouge, unlike AAUW and maybe some of the northern communities was a little bit mixed in their interest in the women’s movement. Some people were very heavily interested.

There were women in the Baton Rouge branch of AUW who expressed a feeling of being threatened. And one member expressed to me that she felt her life had not been worthwhile living it entirely as a homemaker. Where I responded differently. Well this is a new understanding of life – of family life and married life. I didn’t feel threatened by it.

But in Any Case Most of My Understanding of Women’s Issues Came From NOW.

And AAUW was evolving certainly at the same time.  From its very early origins it was oriented toward equality for women in the field of education but not so much broadly in society as NOW was. And so we worked together. I think one of the more interesting projects was a coordination of Baton Rouge NOW and AAUW – when I ran for director of women’s issues in AAUW.

By that time I’d been branch president and branch state president and most of all Legislative chair – my interest – definitely having been sparked by Sylvia Roberts – was in legislation. I was running to become director of women’s issues in AAUW which was a national position and a national campaign – that was when this little pamphlet [came out].

MJC: Do you remember what year?


KT: I’m going to say 72. I’m not sure it was around then. Oh you know I don’t think there’s a date on there. But the most recent date in the pamphlet would have been the date that I was running.

MJC: Well your experience here goes through 82.

KT: I went on the board of AAUW in 83. So that was when this campaign took place.

MJC: Good. All right. So what issues were of greatest concern to you through the years and maybe they changed over time?

Issues of Greatest Concern

KT: Well in Louisiana – because that’s where I was at the time – certainly the laws that affected women were highly discriminatory. They were discriminatory over the nation, but they were even more so in many ways in Louisiana, because it being a community property state. And it was different from all other states in its treatment of women.

MJC: Louisiana has a different basis for their law don’t they? Instead of the British law they have the French.

KT: Yes.

MJC: I sort of remember that from the discussions at that time. So that may have shaped the laws differently.

KT: Oh it definitely did. Yes they were – I’m trying to think of the name – Napoleonic Code. And it was highly regressive as far as women were concerned.

MJC: So you were very interested in the law’s treatment of women. And I see over time that you’ve played a role in the Equal Rights Amendment campaigns. 

Sylvia Roberts Was an Enormous Inspiration 

KT: Well actually, [it was] 72 when ERA passed congress and went out to the states. Of course all organizations – NOW and AAUW were highly motivated to begin working toward ratification. And by that time I was active in NOW and in AAUW and I worked a great deal with Sylvia Roberts, who was an enormous inspiration. You know – she would give you suggestions – why don’t you do this – why don’t you do that. Immediately we would go out and do this or that – whatever it was.

I Certainly Was Very Active in the Formation of Our Coalition in Louisiana to Ratify ERA.

And NOW chapter of course was very active with that as was AAUW in a somewhat lesser role. But before the Equal Rights passed Congress the NOW chapter and AAUW worked on a little pamphlet. We were working on health issues at LSU – the NOW chapter was. And the NOW chapter was finding that female students at LSU did not have any information nor were they encouraged or allowed to get information on birth control or abortion or any women’s health issues.

So NOW took it upon itself to canvass the community and pull together a pamphlet of all the information that was available through clinics in Baton Rouge – where you could go in Baton Rouge for information. And I was able to obtain a project funding sum of money from AAUW and NOW pulled all the information together.

And together AAUW and NOW put together the pamphlet. I no longer have a copy of that. But it was where women at LSU could go for information on any health issue, which was not being provided by the university. So the grant from AAUW and the legwork from NOW put all of that together.

That Was a Pre ERA Effort Where AAUW and NOW Worked Together.

So that was something that we were happy to do. Well the founding – actually I worked with Sylvia Roberts in helping get the coalition together to ratify ERA and she was primarily involved with the specific legal issues. But she was very knowledgeable on all the groups in Louisiana and would hook us up with organizations to contact. So she was behind the scenes doing that sort of work.

Being a Lobbyist in the Louisiana Legislature  

MJC: What was it like to lobby the Louisiana Legislature for ERA?

KT: Oh that was a fun thing I want to tell you. That was an experience all by itself. I gave a whole speech on that to my college. Some of the professors at college had invited me to speak way after all of this and that was one of the things they were interested in.

Understand that the Legislature Had Approximately Zero Interest in Equal Rights for Women.

And they believed this community property law took care of everything anyway. And they really did not want to see women on the floor of the legislature lobbying. That was totally unwelcome. And there were two of us. The first year Linda Martin and myself were the only two people.

We went every day and lobbied every day. When you were lobbying on the floor of the legislature you were not allowed to wear slacks. If you lobbied and you were on the floor – you were in a dress. That was the rule and they were perhaps somewhat intrigued by the ERA but certainly not favorable to it.

And They Had A Million Reasons Why You Had No Need For It.

And in Louisiana you are “well taken care of”. And we had some interesting experiences. I recall one legislator who said – if you convince my mother, I will vote for it. So I recall an assortment of people – by that time we had a lot of people interested in working in the background and [they] located neighbors and friends and relatives of his mother and finally she was convinced that this was a really good thing. And she would speak to her legislator.

So after all of that and we approached him and he said – Oh yeah I know but you know – my mother isn’t really – she doesn’t really understand anyway. So his mother became much less important right afterward. She didn’t agree with him.

So anyway, we had a nun who was down river. I don’t remember the tiny little town south of Baton Rouge and I don’t recall how I met her – but she would come and lobby. The nuns at that time had given up the habit and were wearing ordinary clothes.

So there were people on the floor of the legislature – you might bring her and say she’s sister so-and-so and she works in – whatever little town it was and I recall one legislator saying well I like the nuns in the habits – if you bring me a nun in a habit then I’ll be glad to listen to her.

There Were a Million Excuses.

MJC: When did you leave Louisiana?  Were you in Louisiana this whole period?

KT: Yes we left Louisiana in 85

MJC: So after the ERA had already been not ratified – unratified?

KT: Correct. 

Working Toward The Same Goal

MJC: OK so you were also active – as I understand it in the National Women’s Party at some point in your life.

KT: Right, that developed out of the 72-75 period. Elizabeth Chittick was president of the National Woman’s Party and she came to Louisiana. I don’t recall especially why she did it. I don’t know whether she had met me when I went on the AAUW board in 82 and I would be in Washington for those meetings. I don’t recall the time I actually met Elizabeth but she came down to lobby. And it was around that time that she invited me to join the board. That was an interesting experience all by itself. 

MJC: I’m sure it was very right. So obviously that speaks to your ability to get along with a lot of people – with the variety of organizations you obviously were able to work with – the NOW people and the AAUW.

KT: Oh yeah. Well I mean my sense was we were all looking at the same goals.

MJC: Absolutely. What do you think were your major accomplishments personally and ones that you were also involved with in the women’s work?

KT: Well the women’s movement inspired me. It brought forth for me or reactivated – I shouldn’t say reactivated. I had had a desire to go back to work. And I recall from the work we did with NOW – the recognition that older women in the United States had no pensions.

And that it was important for women to become employed and work toward obtaining a pension.

And I had a desire to become employed – hopefully in chemistry and mixed with all of this time period when we began working for the ratification of ERA – I had gone back to LSU to bring my chemistry up to date. My chemistry was 20 years out of date or thereabouts.

So I took chemistry courses to bring my chemistry up to date. And during those early years – the early 70s – I was also looking to become employed in the chemical industry. And that was an experience all by itself also.

We Have All Men Here – And That Is The Way We Like It

MJC: Louisiana was a good place to be for that.

KT: Well there were plenty of chemical plants but there weren’t plenty of women in them. And actually The Civil Rights Act of 64 moved the large companies to begin looking for women. And I really had a lot of luck in that regard.

MJC: Excellent.  Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

KT: Well I applied for a position in a laboratory run by Rollins. Rollins the trucking company – but they also ran laboratories. And they had a little laboratory in the northern part of Baton Rouge. And I applied for a position in their laboratory and they said – well – we have all men here and that’s the way we want to keep it. And they were clearly uninformed about the law and didn’t really care.

And as a friend of Sylvia Roberts – you know – I understood right away what that meant. And she said put in a complaint to EEOC, which I did. EEOC came back and said – yes you really should litigate this. So I employed Sylvia to litigate this. And I particularly recall that when the individual gave his deposition – him saying – but we have all men here and that’s the way we want to keep it.

MJC:  Perfect. Right into the microphone. 

KT:  Totally uninformed. And so that was a very easily won lawsuit. Unlike – well the most prominent person recently who went through hell and high water and who has a law named for her. Anyway – this was an easy lawsuit.

MJC: So you won. Did you go to work there?

KT: No, no – they were forced to pay me a year’s salary. And that was very helpful. And ultimately the lawsuit hung with me because there was an advertisement in the paper from Allied Chemical and when I applied for that at the employment agency – I recall them taking note of the fact – this person had already filed a lawsuit – you’ve got to be careful of her.

But Allied Chemical had four plants in Baton Rouge – one of them was very very old and falling down. And they were getting ready either to sell it or abandon it. And there was a shortage of Chemical Engineers at the time. They were having a hard time finding a chemical engineer because no one right out of college or looking for work wanted to go to work in this plant that was clearly falling down and getting ready to be sold. But they needed people.

They Were Under Pressure to Hire Women Because of the Civil Rights Act.

And that opened the door for me. And I was working in a – it was called a technical group. They wanted all engineers. They had an engineer in charge of the group. But there were four of us who were chemists because those were the people available. And that was interesting. But if it gave me an opening in my field, it was very helpful. And I actually went to work in 74 with Allied Chemical and at that point I was heading the ERA coalition. 

League of Women Voters Had Installed a Telephone in My Own Home to Use to Call People All Over The State.

You know we’re talking with so-and-so legislator – he says he’s not hearing from his constituents. Then at nighttime I would be calling the NOW members who were all over the state and the NOW members and AAUW – but NOW members more often were the backbone of the lobbying efforts. And I would be doing that at night. 

MJC: Interesting. It was a busy time wasn’t it?

KT:  Yes and I went to work at Allied – and this was really extremely dirty work. League of Women Voters had a hotel room right near the capital, which they used, for their meetings and discussions and one thing or another. And after I worked at Allied – I would go there and get all cleaned up and go on to lobbying at the Capitol.

MJC: Amazing.

KT: It was a busy time.

MJC: It was a busy time. What would you count as your most memorable and important experiences?

KT: Well certainly lobbying for ERA. It was the most important – most important thing for women and lots and lots of other issues but we needed that so badly.

MJC: Right. Right. I’ll just ask you – how do you think the lobbying for the ERA affected other issues. In other words we didn’t get the ERA but do you think we got something out of all that effort.

So Many Learnings

KT: Oh – first of all women were taught to lobby and the need for lobbying. And of course when ERA failed there was now a body of women – probably all through the country – who had learned to lobby, understood it and immediately knew the issues that they had learned through the effort for ERA and were able to continue.

Although I do believe when the ERA failed every national organization connected with women that had worked for ERA had been bled dry – energy – money everything and there was a general giving up.

MJC: You saw that right after the ERA?

KT: Right right.

MJC: You think we’ve recovered from that?

KT: Oh yeah – we’re into a whole new world.

The Work Continues

MJC: We are. So after the campaign – after 82 you continue to be involved in women’s issues. Can you talk about that a little bit?

KT: Well that was primarily through AAUW and I went on the AAUW Board as chair of a National Topic. AUW had topic chairs at that time – there were four topics chairs at a time and I was asked to be chair of the 21st Century Deciding Now. That was a perfectly wonderful experience and I had a committee from members from all around the country.

And at that time AAUW had influence and money and were able to bring experts in and we developed a national project for each branch to follow on the whole subject of futurism. And how personally and nationally and legislatively we needed to be looking to the future. The committee that I chaired took as our topic the organizations and structures in society that governed women’s lives had not been formed with participation by women; and our goal for the 21st century was to change that.

And so we developed the whole program. That was a two-year effort and there was a chair in each state. And at the end there was a volume called The End Product of what each of the states and the branches had done during that time toward planning toward a 21st century that included women. That was a great experience.

MJC:  Excellent resource for everybody.

KT: And that afforded me the opportunity – traveled all over the country. It was wonderful. 

It’s About The People 

MJC: So you talked about NOW – kind of or being involved in the women’s movement inspiring you to go back to work in your field. There are other ways in which you thought NOW – I mean you obviously had a great impact on NOW, but are there other ways you’d like to talk about that NOW impacted your life? How did your life change because you were a NOW person?

KT: I certainly met a lot of wonderful people. And the NOW membership unlike AAUW was a very broad membership. And I remember and I don’t recall her name but she was an ironworker – and I’ve forgotten the name. There’s a title for that kind of job, which I’ve forgotten.

But anyway it’s so – and there were some very wealthy women in Baton Rouge. I recall one person whose husband owned an insurance company. It was a much broader membership. The head of the Women’s Welfare Rights Committee was a member of NOW and you know and my – it was a wonderful experience to meet the really broad membership of members NOW. And that was great. Clay Lattimer. That’s who the name was.

MJC:  I thought of the other name – Kim Gandy.

KT:  Oh of course. Yes Kim was a law school and we used to go to all the NOW county conferences that were the state meetings and regional meetings. And I recall we went to a regional meeting in Mississippi. 

And You Know NOW Was A Suspect Organization.

And there were – I’m saying FBI – there were people always interested. And it was funny because there was a man who came to every NOW meeting and everybody knew who he was. And he was there from the government. And we never minded him. It was interesting.

MJC: We should try and interview him. If he’s still here.

KT: Yeah – I’m sure we knew his name – he was very friendly. We all knew – he knew and we knew why he was there.

MJC: Everybody understood. Did you go to the International Women’s Year Conference in Houston by any chance?

KT: Oh yes I did. You can come in and see my poster.

Oh that was a fantastic experience. It really was. Well of course each state had its conference and I recall being the Treasurer of the Louisiana conference.  And Ollie Mae Butler who is a professor at Southern University was co chair treasurer with me. That was a whole project all by itself, but we did many good workshops in the state conference and then we elected a delegation to go to Houston. Oh Houston was a wonderful experience. This sounds strange but I recall the delegation from Alaska were Aleut Native Americans.

MJC: Amazing.

KT: That was my first experience –

MJC:  – with diversity?

KT: With that level of diversity.

MJC: Right. That’s amazing.

KT: Right.

Still Going Strong 

MJC: That was fun. Are you currently involved as an activist or how are you – how do you still be an activist?  – age takes its toll.

KT: Well I still – although I no longer get to the AAUW meetings – I still am active through AAUW with the lobbying and I keep track of the legislation. And I’ve contributed to the local branch newsletter keeping up with federal legislation and with the AUW Legal Advocacy Fund which files lawsuits and so on especially against universities. And so I keep the branch informed on all of those things even though I don’t get there.

MJC: Yes – excellent. So is there anything we haven’t covered that you would like people to remember about you or about your involvement or about the times?

KT: Well I’m not sure that anything quite comes to my mind. I think that – certainly I met wonderful wonderful people and I mean they’ve been lifelong friends. Like Roberta Madden and Kim Gandy who was just a student when we first roomed together going to NOW conferences and so on. And I keep in touch with – peripherally in touch with Clay Lattimer.

And I’m still a member of Southern Mutual Help Association which I met Lorna Bourg some time around Houston. And I know we were both in Houston and I went on the board of Southern Mutual Help in the early 80s. And I still serve and I participate by Skype in all their meetings and conference calls. So I still do that.

MJC: Wonderful. Well I want to thank you very much for your contribution to this project. Thank you for being interviewed. It’s great to meet you.

KT: Very welcome.

MJC: All right. Anything else?

KT: Not that I can think of, you covered a lot of things came back to my mind.