THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Mary Anne Sedey
“I Learned All My Best Skills in the Women’s Movement.”
Interviewed by Karen Fishman, September, 2020
MS: I’m Mary Anne Sedey. I am the oldest of six kids born in 1947 to an Irish Catholic family. Most of us were born in the Northeast and we moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, when I was a kid. I was raised in the South with northern parents and what they thought were northern values. When it was time to go to college, I knew I wanted to leave the South.
My parents wanted me to go to a Catholic women’s college. I looked for the most liberal one I could find in America. I went to Webster College, which was run by the Sisters of Loretto, who were a very liberal Catholic order, out of the state of Kentucky. Webster was a great opportunity for me. I was living in a bigger city; St. Louis is not New York, but to me it was a whole different experience. I loved it and I’ve lived there ever since. I eventually ended up going to law school and became an employment rights lawyer and I’ve been doing that now for forty-five years.
KF: What moved you in that direction?
MS: My active participation in the women’s movement moved me in the direction of that career.
KF: What year did you first become involved?
MS: I became involved in 1969. I had just finished college, gotten married, and somebody invited me to a NOW meeting. My propensity to be involved in the women’s movement really came from my family background. I am one of six kids, I’m the oldest, but we’re five girls and then a boy. My mother was very smart but had never gotten to go to college because of her family situation. She was bound and determined we were going to go.
My father really believed in achievement; he wanted his girls to do well. All five of us have ended up being achievers. But I remember distinctly reading The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan when I was in high school. I remember sitting on my parents’ bed and talking to them about The Feminine Mystique and my feelings about it. And they were always very encouraging. My mother actually died when I was quite young. My father remained a member of NOW even after I wasn’t a member of NOW anymore.
KF: Did your mother have a career?
MS: My mother was a secretary until she married at thirty. My dad came back from the Second World War. They got married and started having kids right away. She had seven pregnancies, six babies, in thirteen years. She was a busy woman, but she went back to work when it was time for us to go to college because they needed the money to send us to college. She worked in a real estate office. She didn’t sell, she ran the office.
KF: So, you read The Feminine Mystique and at that point, the second wave was just really starting. How did you become aware of it?
MS: In my sophomore year in college I had a roommate named Martine Bricusse and she had a mother who was a feminist. Martine’s mom was somewhat frustrated in her life, she really wanted to achieve. So, she taught her daughters feminist principles. I remember talking to Martine about it and I remember talking to her mother about it. That sort of got me interested. It was also the height of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement.
KF: Were you active in any of those?
MS: I was. I was a community organizer in college and very, very drawn to the struggle for racial equality. I would not say that I was a leader, but I started a little organization at Webster College called Social Action at Webster. We did a variety of things that were related to the anti-war movement and the struggle for racial equality. Becoming active in the women’s movement was a natural outgrowth of having been involved in those two things.
KF: Who invited you to the local NOW meeting?
MS: The person who remains my best girlfriend. That was the beginning of my really active involvement in the women’s movement. I pretty quickly became a leader in a couple of different senses. I became a leader in NOW, and I was the founder of the Equal Rights Amendment Coalition in Missouri.
KF: Was this while you were in law school or after?
MS: No, this was first. It was after college. I worked for a couple of years after I graduated from college and I started to get active at that point. Then I went to law school, but I remained very active in the women’s movement in school and after.
KF: Tell me more about your role in NOW and your role in the ERA.
MS: Because I’m the older sister, I’m kind of a natural leader. Whatever I got involved in, very quickly I got into various leadership roles. The NOW chapter was fledgling, brand new and pretty quickly I became the president of that chapter. We worked on things like trying to get rid of sex segregated want ads. I remember that project very well in the local paper.
KF: Did you succeed?
MS: We did. I remember we did lots of going out and speaking about the women’s movement – just pure education. We had a speakers bureau; we spoke all over the place to organizations and classes and college classes. Because Phyllis Schlafly lived right across the river, once we got involved in the ERA, some of us who were local leaders ended up debating Phyllis Schlafly. We did a project on sexism in textbooks, the portrayal of girls and boys in textbooks.
And then once the Chicago NOW chapter started the Sears project, we did a lot of work on the Sears campaign in St. Louis. Sears was headquartered in Chicago. There were a lot of aspects of employment at Sears that were discriminatory against women. There was an effort to turn that into a national campaign because they’re such a big company with stores everywhere. It became a really exciting campaign because it was possible to take the Chicago model and use it around the country and be part of a coordinated effort to have an impact on a huge corporation. We became involved by having demonstrations at Sears stores and making demands of the local management. I was always really drawn to employment work.
We got very involved in abortion rights and there was some activity around domestic violence. But I would say the two primary focuses were employment rights and abortion rights. We called it abortion rights anyway. Eventually as there became a focus on getting the Equal Rights Amendment ratified, we started a statewide organization for the state of Missouri, Missouri NOW. At that point, there was a chapter in St. Louis and a chapter in Kansas City.
I became the state coordinator and one of the really fun things that I did was to go out to smaller communities in Missouri. We might have three people who are interested in the women’s movement and eventually my coming became an event where they would gather up some like-minded people and talk about feminism and in some cases started chapters. I went to Hannibal, Missouri; Springfield, Missouri. I remember going down to the Lake of the Ozarks. It was a lot of fun; it was something I really enjoyed.
KF: You were obviously good at it. People wanted to talk to you.
MS: I like other people; I like to talk to other people. I love to hear people’s life stories. So, yes, that made me good at it. The most interesting thing to me was meeting these really unusual people out in rural Missouri. I went to Hannibal, Missouri. The woman who organized the meeting was an African-American woman named Hiawatha Crow. I went to Camden where the Lake of the Ozarks is and there was a woman who had a business with her husband. She was a very independent, entrepreneurial woman. I went over to the town where the women’s prison was at the time. The woman warden of the prison for women was the person who invited me.
Not surprisingly, there were all these very interesting people just out there thinking the same kind of things. Those of us in the big cities were thinking, having the same kinds of struggles in our own lives. A movement was so important because it wasn’t just me thinking about my life and how I would get more opportunities and be the person that I was capable of. Because there was a national movement and ideology and an enormous amount of discussion of these issues, there was support for having these thoughts and aspirations. It was going on all over Missouri, which was fascinating. I loved being state coordinator. That was really a fun job.
KF: I know that you’ve never given up your commitment to the fight for racial justice and peace. But you got focused on the women’s movement, obviously, as the main driver of your volunteer energy.
MS: I did pretty early on. We started to work for the Equal Rights Amendment and were like babies in the woods. None of us had ever been to Jefferson City, Missouri, where the legislature was. We would get together, take the names of these legislators, divvy them up and call them to see if we could meet with them and talk about the ERA. These guys thought we were cute. We were very young, and we were cute but very earnest. These guys would say, come on over to Jeff’s, we’d love to get together with you girls. It was just kind of crazy. But the ERA became the focus eventually for everybody.
KF: Was there a separate ERA coalition?
MS: There was. We weren’t politically astute, but we understood the importance of getting a coalition of all the organizations that would be interested in the issue. The coalition involved NOW, the Women’s Political Caucus, the League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women, Zonta, which was a women’s service organization. We needed to get labor support and support from the business community. In Missouri we had the support of the AFL-CIO, but not the Teamsters or we had the support of the Teamsters, but not the AFL-CIO, I can’t remember. We had some women’s political caucus folks in Kansas City who had connections to some high-level businessmen.
We got in touch with some people of the same sort of social and economic background in St. Louis: a woman who had been the Republican National Committeewoman, Margie Sussman whose husband was Lou Sussman, who had been the Democratic National Committeeman from Missouri. Getting involved with those people was really good for getting some bipartisan support, getting support from more establishment kinds of folks. Eventually we ended up hiring a woman to be a lobbyist. She worked with some of the labor and business lobbyists in Jefferson City.
There were always these tensions between how much direct action was a good idea versus how much lobbying – traditional issues that all social change organizations struggle with. I’m very impressed by the sophistication of the social change organizations that I work with currently. But also understanding clearly that both things are absolutely essential. We would have this push and pull: did we want another action, or did it make more sense to get this lobbyist in Jeff City? I now know very clearly you have to do it all. You need every tactic and then some.
We did not ratify the ERA in Missouri; we got close. We had some Republican sponsors in addition to the Democrats that we knew we could rely on. But there were Democratic leaders in the Missouri legislature who were vehemently opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment. Once I became a lawyer we started an all-women’s law firm in an office building downstairs. We relied on the help of other lawyers for many things.
At that point, we were young and didn’t know anything. I remember we would run upstairs one flight all the time to a law firm that was right above us. One of the partners in that law firm was a state senator named John Schneider, who vehemently opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. But that didn’t keep him and his partners from being extraordinarily helpful to us as young new lawyers.
KF: What year did you first practice?
MS: I passed the bar in 1975. In the summer of 1974, four of us decided we would not look for jobs and that we were going to start this women’s law firm. We did that in the fall of 1975. Janice Goodman who was from New York and an employment lawyer came to where I was going to law school and spoke about women in the law. She inspired us because she was in a women’s law firm. We saw that we could do that too. And so, we did.
KF: How did people find you?
MS: We were a novelty. We were on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that’s the big newspaper in town. There it was, this article about us. Right at that moment in time, advertising for attorneys was becoming possible. So, we advertised as the first women’s law firm in St. Louis. But the other thing, which was absolutely crucial, is that women were dying to get women lawyers for their divorces, to write their wills, to deal with their domestic abuse problems. There were a lot of things coming together: It was the women’s movement, the availability of advertising, the fact that we were a novelty, and women really wanted women lawyers.
KF: So, you were doing things other than employment rights?
MS: We were a general practice law firm. Mostly what we did was domestic relations, employment law and writing people’s wills, because women wanted somebody who would understand how they wanted their property divided and wouldn’t assume they wanted a conventional division.
KF: So, you managed to do this novel thing and still make a living.
MS: We were all married, and we probably could not have pulled this off if we didn’t have husbands who were working and providing health insurance and willing to support us. The other thing we figured out is that law classes were very popular in undergraduate schools, so each of us taught either a women in the law, civil rights law or constitutional law class at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, Webster College, or Phonte Bonnar, one of the institutions around. So that was another way we raised some money. That year, Christmas, we took our husbands out to dinner with what we had left after paying the rent and the expenses of running the practice. We had enough for dinner, but they had to pay for dessert. But then all four of us went on to have excellent careers in the law.
KF: Did any of you have children at that time?
MS: Yes. Lisa Vandenberghe. She was one of my partners who went on to become a judge and then a court of appeals judge in St. Louis and is still a really good friend of mine. She had her first child while we were in law school. In ‘78 I had my first child.
KF: In that period when you were practicing law, were you also still involved in NOW? I know you became Midwest Regional Director at some point.
MS: I was Midwest regional director while I was in law school. Then the focus became the equal rights amendment. I remember I was still the president of the ERA coalition while I was pregnant and maybe even after Nick was born.
KF: You were active in those organizations not only while going to school, but also while setting up a law practice, getting a business off the ground, having a baby.
MS: I have a lot of energy. Still, I would say, having just been walking in the woods. I was never willing to not have any part of it. I was one of those “We’re going to have it all” people. And I did.
KF: Tell me a little bit more about the development of your law practice. What were your important cases and where do you think you really had an impact? Obviously you had lots of impact on individual lives, but what about in the broader view of the law?
MS: I quickly realized the cases that I liked the best were employment cases. By 1982 when my second child was born, I had moved into a practice where I became a partner with a couple of guys who did employment law only on the employee side. And that’s really been my career. I have been an individual employment lawyer for forty-five years now. It’s like any law practice: somebody calls, wants an appointment, you see them, you do what work there is to be done and you make an impact on people’s lives.
Along the way I did several really exciting class actions. I had a case that went to the US Supreme Court and I argued in the Supreme Court and won. I started doing women’s rights litigation in the employment area but everybody else came too: African-Americans, older people, people who were of a different national origin who felt that they were being discriminated against. What started out as a focus on women’s employment rights got broader. At this point, my firm has seven lawyers and we do employment law only for employees. We’ve had a big impact in our town. We have made it our business to take everybody. It’s been extraordinarily interesting because you’re always learning about a new part of the economy, a different industry. I’ve had a lot of variety and it’s been just constantly fascinating.
KF: Tell me about a case that was particularly memorable.
MS: The car factory sexual harassment cases were interesting, and we had a number of them. Women were getting jobs on the line at a Chrysler and a Ford plant. And then I also got involved in a case against Mitsubishi up in Bloomington, Illinois, where we had like 20 women clients who’d been sexually harassed in different ways at different times by different people. I used to joke that they had classes in how to sexually harass women in these plants because I would hear these same stories over and over again. I felt like that was important because women were entitled to have those good jobs. Those were really good jobs for working class women.
There was a certain amount of harassing these women because the men were interested in sex with them. But much more these cases were about driving the women out of the workplace, getting them out. I felt that those are really important cases. The tragedy about all those cases is that most of those women’s settlements included them leaving because they were miserable. They left because they didn’t want to be there anymore, it was taking too much of a psychological toll. Some of them felt physically threatened that they could get hurt because factories are dangerous places. The other really unfortunate thing about those cases is that the unions all lined up on the side of the men. I was a fairly naive person, and I kind of expected the unions to at a minimum be neutral, but really hoped they would rise to the occasion and support the women members in these situations. They didn’t and they would help the men get their story straight.
KF: This is the ’80s, ’90s?
MS: This is the ’80s, ’90s.
KF: What things are you working on right now as a lawyer that you think are really important?
MS: One of the most exciting legal developments of the last five years is the expansion of the notion that discrimination based on sex includes discrimination based on sexual orientation. I used to say to people, it’s terrible, it’s unfair, it’s not illegal. I used to hate to say that to gay and lesbian clients. But that’s been a really exciting development that has opened up a whole new frontier. It’s not my case, but one of my colleagues in St. Louis got a $20,000,000 verdict last year for a St. Louis County police officer who remains employed there to this day who was discriminated against because they said he needed to be more manly.
It’s also a very hard time because the federal courts are filled with corporate identified lawyers who absolutely have no regard for the importance of the civil rights laws. In Missouri we had some fabulous state laws develop but the legislature is controlled by Republicans now. Unfortunately, there’s nobody there to veto these things anymore. We had a governor for a while who hung in there and vetoed a lot of this bad stuff. But now they’ve cut way back on employment law in Missouri. They’ve imposed caps on damages and limited the potential defendants.
Anything that’s run by a religious institution, including these enormous health systems, are arguing they can’t be sued anymore – it’s discrimination. It’s a tough time, but we’ve made it through tough times. You do this for 45 years and see this is probably the most politically sensitive area of the law, the changes that come with political change. I am pretty optimistic because I see the winds of change out there in people’s attitudes towards racism, certainly discrimination generally. Things are going to come back around.
KF: When you think about that very early involvement in feminist activism, is there a way to talk about how that shaped what you did? Are there some lessons or some series of experiences that you think have informed your life since?
MS: When I was a young lawyer, people would tell me I could talk. I love jury trials, for instance. I like talking to people about a problem and teaching and putting together the story in a way that people understand it. People used to say I could speak well because I’m a lawyer. And I would say, no, I speak well because that’s what I learned in the women’s movement. I was advocating from the time I was 21 years old. In that sense, the women’s movement informed my life enormously.
I came to my profession through the women’s movement because I was looking for work that I could do that would advance the status of women and be consistent with my values. That’s why I went to law school. There’s nobody else in my family who’s a lawyer. I found the law because of my feminism and my commitment to find a way to make a living. And now I’m very involved politically because I have more time. My babies are 40 and 37 and I am a grandma and I don’t work as hard as I used to.
KF: Tell me about what you’ve been doing as an activist recently.
MS: I met some really fabulous people who were running jobs with justice in St. Louis. One woman in particular decided to start something called a donor alliance in Missouri. I’ve been fortunate to make a good living, so she came to see me when she decided she wanted to do this. The idea is for people who have resources to come together and pool resources. We’re not George Soros. We’re progressives who have some money that we can invest in social change and our donor alliance is a long-term strategy to level the playing field so that progressives can compete politically again in Missouri.
It’s a disciplined approach. We expect it’s going to take 15 to 20 years. It’s incremental, it involves rigorous analysis of everything that we undertake. We don’t do the work; we fund social change groups that are on the ground in their communities to do that kind of work. I think back to the people that I learned organizing from. So, I think of Mary Jean Collins, I think of Kathy Rand, who were all involved in NOW with me. I think of Heather Booth who ran an organizing training school called the Midwest Academy. I never became an organizer, but I remember all those things I learned, and it educated me to know the importance of direct action and to know the importance of people on the ground doing the work and having the resources to do the work.
So, this is a very exciting thing that I’m involved in now because in Missouri at the moment, we can’t do anything. Not only can we not do anything in the legislature, we can’t stop anything in the legislature. There are terrible things going on in the Missouri legislature. We’ve had success with some ballot initiatives, but you can’t do everything by ballot initiative, so we have a long-term plan. We know all the pieces that we need, and we fund various things that will hopefully create an infrastructure that is long term viable. We don’t fund campaigns, but we will fund a local grassroots organization to do voter registration or turnout work.
We even try to help organizations that are just getting off the ground. For instance, the law has become very complicated so we will fund them to the extent of helping them with a bookkeeper or a lawyer who can give them advice about various issues so that they don’t make any missteps. We have funded a talent hub where the idea is to train both candidates and people who work in campaigns and then to keep those people who work on the campaigns in Missouri after those local campaigns end.
We have a brain drain in politics where people who come along get good at political organizing or they become the staffer for the statewide Democratic Party and then they leave. We want to make sure we keep our hands on the information about what happened. We rigorously try to evaluate everything we do and the long-term effects of the campaigns that occur in Missouri. It’s trying to think about everything that you need to do to make it possible for progressives to compete and win, and that’s a huge project. I come to that from the women’s movement with a lifetime of commitment to making a difference.
KF: Is there anything about your political, feminist, or personal life as a pioneer feminist, anything we haven’t gotten to or that you want to say?
MS: Yeah, actually. I said I wanted it all and I had it. I have an absolutely fabulous family. I have a great husband who’s always supported everything I wanted to do. He didn’t want to do what I wanted to do but was totally comfortable with me doing whatever it was and was around to help out. And I have these two fabulous kids that I raised. They’re both amazing. My daughter became a plaintiff’s employment lawyer on the individual employee side in Chicago. My son is an educator who has focused all his energies on educating primarily Black and Latino kids from very underprivileged backgrounds. I’m very proud of my family. I feel very fortunate to have had that experience be so central to my satisfaction in life. It’s very wonderful to be able to do all the things that I’ve done, takes a lot of energy, but I wouldn’t have missed any part of it.