My Life As A Feminist
Volume XI, Issue Two | June 2016 My friend Jane Kirkpatrick, who writes extraordinary novels about women in history, wrote recently that when she was a young bride, many years ago, she applied for a library card. The librarian told her she had to have her husband’s permission. That story brought back a flood of memories to me and made me realize why my characters are always feminists—not feminists by today’s standards perhaps but certainly by standards of their own times. I am frustrated with young women today who say, “I’m not a feminist.” They have no idea the discrimination their mothers and grandmothers faced that, thanks to feminists, they don’t encounter today.
There are the major feminist issues, of course—equal pay for equal work (we’re still working on that one), equal opportunity in jobs and education, the right to credit in our own names, and so on. I had problems with all that.
But it’s the little things that I remember most. When I was married, I sent my new name to the department stores so they could change it on my charge cards. Big mistake. They cancelled my accounts and sent applications to my husband. In the early 1970s, I did a story for Business Weekabout BankAmericard (now Visa.) The man I interviewed talked me into applying for a credit card. The card arrived—with my husband’s name on it.
Some of my Business Week experiences were almost humorous. I was going into a mine (not all mines allowed women underground) and was dressed appropriately in corduroy pants, boots, and old shirt, a Levi’s jacket and hard hat. The mine manager wanted me to know there were no bathroom facilities in the mine and I should use the toilet before we left, but he was embarrassed to tell me. So he said, “Do you want to powder your nose before we go underground?” At press conferences, reporters were addressed as “Gentlemen…and Sandra.” I was frequently asked what my husband thought of my working and occasionally told, “You’re the smartest woman I’ve ever met.” “Smartest person?” I’d ask. “No, of course not. Smartest woman.”
As a reporter, you don’t want to offend people unnecessarily. My job was to get a story, not to flash my feminist credentials. I was on assignment in Utah, and having gone to high school there, I knew I should wear a skirt, not pants. I talked about my family, let the public relations man open doors for me, and I even let him pick up the luncheon check. I thought I’d been successful at portraying myself as only a little different from the secretaries in his office, but at the end of my trip, he confessed, “This is quite an experience. I’ve never been with one of you women’s libbers before.”
Of course, there was more serious discrimination. In the late 1960s, when I first applied to be Business Week bureau chief, I was told, “We don’t hire women for that job.” Fortunately, a few months later, a new editor-in-chief changed that, and I was the magazine’s first female bureau manager.
My husband and I decided to refinance our house, and since I worked near Western Federal Savings, which held the mortgage, I went in to apply. The loan manager asked what my husband did and how much he made. Then he went on to the next question, but I stopped him. “Wait a minute. Don’t you want to know what I do and what I make?” No, he replied. “You might get pregnant.” I protested, saying that was impossible since I’d had a hysterectomy. He said, “That’s beside the point.”
I objected to such discrimination, of course, but I didn’t make much impact, because men thought my protestations were funny. That was one of the hardest things about protest: People laugh at you. I was told over and over again, “Oh, Sandra, deal with it.” But I did make one contribution: I integrated the Ship Tavern bar at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver.
I’d always been annoyed that single men could sit at the bar while waiting for luncheon partners, but unescorted women had to wait outside the restaurant. So I sat in a raised waiting area where men walking past could stare at my legs. The Ship was Denver’s premier business restaurant, and I often interviewed people there. Men always told each other, “I’ll meet you at the bar,” but of course, I couldn’t unless they got there first.
One day, I was so annoyed with the policy that I insisted on being seated at the bar. I was told there was a nice table where I could sit, but I said no. I wanted to order a drink at the bar. I went back and forth with the maître’d, but he wouldn’t budge and said it was the hotel’s policy not to allow unescorted women to sit there. I left, thinking I had embarrassed myself to the point where I could never eat there again. But I wouldn’t give up. I went back to my office and phoned my lawyer, who said, “That’s terrible, Sandra. I’ll look into it.” He phoned the next day to say he thought the hotel policy was legal. Half-an-hour later, he phoned back to say the policy was a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and credited his wife, a lawyer herself, with finding the illegality. His wife is Pat Schroeder, who was later Denver’s representative in the U.S. Congress.
Not long after that, an editor was visiting from New York. He was staying at the Brown Palace, and when I met him in the Ship Tavern, I told him the story of how it was integrated. “I think the hotel management wanted to keep out prostitutes,” I explained. “It didn’t want anyone approaching men at the bar for sex.”
The editor laughed. “Well, they were right,” he said. “While I was waiting for you, I was approached—by another man.” —SD
The Last Midwife Wins Spur Award
The Last Midwife, the story of a midwife in the Colorado mountains in the mid-1880s, is the winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award for Historic Fiction. This is Sandra’s third Spur. She won for The Chili Queen and Tallgrass. The award will be presented at an awards dinner at WWA’s annual convention in Cheyenne, on June 23.