I Was An Activist in the Women's Movement

Louvinia T. Smith

In the early 1970's the Government office where I worked was shaken by a "youthquake." All the higher echelon managers (men, of course) were replaced by extremely young men. Many of the older supervisors were by-passed for promotion by much younger men. Those that were eligible retired.

I was a woman in a job traditionally held by a man and I was over 50. I was targeted to be replaced. I had clawed my way out of the secretarial pool into a professional field. My supervisor really didn't want to give me the job as the position required much traveling and field work in remote areas. But this was shortly after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of l964 and supervisors were having to conceal their prejudices about woman's place and discrimination.

I was definitely not the stereotype of a grandmother of that time. While in the office I dressed smartly and wore high heeled shoes. In fact, my five-year old granddaughter asked me one day, "Gramma when are you going to wear shoes like a real Gramma?"

I was the first woman in this area to do field inspections. And I do mean "field." I tramped around in cotton and soy bean fields and at new construction sites in all kinds of weather. On the day of my first field trip, I wore slacks to the office. The Colonel, who headed our offices, was flooded with requests by women to wear slacks at work. He reluctantly granted it. Nowadays, it's not unusual to see a woman in slacks and a hard hat at almost any construction site, but during the early 1970's it was unusual.

Life was not easy during this time. Most of the men resented dealing with me. One manager asked point blank, "What are they doing sending a woman to do a man's job?"

Another said, "Is your boss going to write your reports for you?"

I did not show any offense, only stated, "Let's wait and see."

After a few such unpleasant episodes in the field offices I gained the respect of most of these managers.

The men in the home office were a little harder to deal with. Surprisingly, it was the younger men who were giving me a rough time. Once a young man slammed a door in my face, commenting "You women libbers want equal rights? Well, open your own door."

Then came the "youthquake!" I was selected for an early "pushout." I was told I could retire(with a reduced annuity) or be demoted. My years with the Federal Government had been satisfying ones up to the 1970's and I really wasn't ready to retire.

So instead of retiring I choose a second career - cleaning up some of the rife discrimination in the Federal Government. It has been said that women have a natural talent for cleaning-up regardless of home or office. Rather than an early, forced retirement, I decided to stick around.

I became actively involved in Federally Employed Women, Inc. (FEW) and organized a local chapter in my area where I served as President. Later I was appointed as a member of the National Board of FEW and a Regional Representative which served several chapters in the south.

FEW was organized in Washington, D.C. in l964 with the goal to end discrimination and promote women in Government. I met some powerful women, but found they had little compelling force to change society except on a nationwide basis. With thousands of members all over the world, their collective bargaining was having some impact for women. We began to see some results in the selection of female astronauts, the alternate male names for hurricanes, as well as more women in high offices.

When a national representative of American Federation of Government Employees, (AFGE/CIO) asked me to organize and lead a local of their union in my area, I eagerly accepted. Ergo, I became a female labor leader or "Godmother." My first executive board meeting looked like the "Smith Family" as I had my daughters and daughter-in-law in key slots. Before long I had an awesome following and we negotiated a good contract for the union. I participated in the first union-sponsored informational picket of a Federal Office in this area causing some shock.

One male friend stopped me as I was walking the picket line and asked, "What are you doing here? You should be home rocking your grandchildren."

I smiled and replied, "I do that too."

To set an example for the women and minorities I worked with, I filed multiple claims of sex and age discrimination. Another first for this area. I won a promotion in the first one, but no other. The others were left in limbo in Washington, D.C. where most cases of discrimination stay.

From then on, I was treated like a bastard at a family picnic. I was submitted to all sorts of harassments. I was suddenly moved to a windowless broom closet office. My secretary of several years was taken from me and not replaced. Other employees were warned not to talk to me; I was isolated. I was given too much work, then too little. My work was carefully scrutinized, my competence was questioned, my work was constantly criticized, mostly in front of coworkers or outsiders. I was given poor performance ratings, and denied promotions and the chance to move laterally. I was removed from my area of expertise and given new work with no guidance and the most impossible deadlines. My Federal Income Tax was questioned. Supervisors(all males and white, of course) would be very rude if they saw me talking to one of their employees. Such comments as "Here comes that Women's Libber," as if it was a dirty word. However, some good came from the incidents - other women were hurriedly promoted - to prove they didn't discriminate.

For 12 years I tested the Federal System of Civil Rights and found it lacking. I became too familiar with the firing line of the system - with all its attendant hazards and frustrations. I saw too many bias victims, harassment victims, reprisal victims, whistle blowers - each surrounded by stacks of documents that invariably accumulate when you go up against the Federal Government. Paper should insulate, but it didn't.

I saw people whose homes had been sold, their marriages wrecked, and their careers canceled. I saw grievants who no longer argued their cases credibly because they'd been driven to nervous collapse by two, three, and five-year struggles for justice.

One disgruntled person told me, "You're spitting on a forest fire," or words to that effect.

I replied, "Maybe I can't put out the forest fire, but I can save maybe one or two acres."

I retired in 1982 completely exhausted mentally and physically from trying to end discrimination. I had walked in blood. I had ettisoned my own career in the Federal Government by filing multiple sex discrimination cases knowing full well that my career would be canceled.

I have no regrets. I agree with Betty Friedan, who said in her book, It Changed My Life, "I think some day we may look back and realize that these years of our passionate historic world-opening journey have been the most intense life we, or anyone, could ever experience. And men who never had such problems, and women who were too ladylike to get involved, will envy us. For we have lived the second American revolution, and our very anger said a new 'Yes' to life."

Life for me did indeed begin after 50. Rather than being an S.O.G. with P.I.P. (translated into silly old grandmother with pictures in her purse), this grandmother became an activist.

I'm still championing the "underdogs" through my writings. My first book, The Fourth Monkey, published in 1983, was widely accepted and is billed as a survival guide to women in government.

When I see my granddaughters and other women and minorities entering careers never dreamed of in my day, I know the battle was worth it.

© Louvinia T. Smith

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