She Says: Women Employed Founder Day Piercy Reflects on the Women’s Movement
What inspired you to start Women Employed?
In 1970, the Chicago YWCA hired me as a program director. I organized discussion groups of women who lived on the southwest side of Chicago, a working-class community. Every day I listened to women talk about their lives and aspirations and learned about cultural, social, and economic barriers that prevented them from creating the kind of lives for themselves and their families that they wanted. Some also were experiencing domestic violence and were trapped in marriages where they were dependent on their husbands’ paychecks. The lack of economic opportunities was a priority issue for these women.
I thought, why not form an organization of working women in Chicago to improve women’s economic status?
When did you first become aware of the fight for women’s rights?
When I was in kindergarten, I got in trouble for playing row, row, row your boat in the doll corner and singing very loud with my friend Freddy as we sat on the floor, arms outstretched and holding hands, rowing with the dolls that we had placed in our pretend boat. When our teacher Miss Smith, yelled at us to stop, Freddy got up and ran away but I gathered the dolls and stayed. Miss Smith said that I shouldn’t play with dolls like that and that girls should not sing so loud. I replied that girls can sing if we want to and she sent me to the quiet table to learn how to be quiet. I never did.
When did you first become active in the women’s movement?
In the summer of 1968, Sara Boyte formed a women’s consciousness raising group in Durham North Carolina where I was living and invited me to join. I was amazed to discover other women who shared similar views and together we talked for hours as we struggled to find concepts and words that matched our inner knowing about being female. Next came long discussions and debates about solutions that would bring about women’s liberation inside ourselves, in the home and in society.
When I started graduate school at the University of North Carolina School of Social Work, I quickly became involved in protesting gender stereotypes in social work and discriminatory treatment of poor women as I first became involved in the intersect of gender, race and economic class. I also participated in women’s organizing against the war in Vietnam.
In the fall of 1969, I moved to Chicago and became one of the founders of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union.
What was the original vision for Women Employed?
Our vision was to create an organization of working women who would be leaders in developing a working women’s movement. Our goals were to enforce equal opportunity laws and to organize for women’s rights at work, including equal pay, equal opportunity, good pay and benefits, and employee rights. We were inspired by the farm worker organizing in California and women’s union organizing. At that time public employees, nurses and teachers were actively organizing local unions in Chicago workplaces.
What were the early days of Women Employed like?
While we knew that achieving women’s economic equality would be challenging, I didn’t anticipate the strength of employer opposition. By 1973, I thought that employers would be more welcoming. In the beginning, every strategy was an experiment, and we built next steps based on what happened. I was 26 and had never run an organization, and neither had anyone else who was involved.
How do you feel about the progress that women have made over four decades?
It’s remarkable. Every day I remember and celebrate the women who courageously stood up, spoke out, risked their jobs and often their reputations as opponents tried to smear women who rose to claim their rights. That’s the personal part. The public part is that the working women’s movement and Women Employed are a living testament to the power of women to make society a better place for all.