AT&T women's struggle rings true in 'The Bellwomen'

Issue August 2004 By Lisa C. Johnson

On Thursday, Dec. 10, 1970, Ma Bell got a wake-up call. David Copus, a young lawyer working for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and his colleagues picked up the phone and dialed "O." AT&T would never be the same.

The new book "The Bellwomen" tells the story of the sex discrimination case filed against AT&T by the EEOC that ended in a settlement awarding $38 million and consent decrees, requiring changes in corporate policy that benefited thousands of employees. It changed the way corporate America in general treated and perceived women workers.

The author, Marjorie Stockford, is a writer and consultant whose first job out of college in 1978 was in AT&T's management training program. Her access to the program was a direct result of the settlement. Stockford worked in corporate telecommunications for several years, but left in 1990 to focus on women's issues. Now living in Portland, Maine, Stockford has launched The 50/50 Project, which is dedicated to achieving a 50 percent female power structure in all sectors of American society.

Copus saw the same type of complaint over and over. His desk was piled high with complaints, mostly from black women in the south who were refused employment by their local telephone company office. He also had some complaints by white women throughout the country and black women in the north who were already working for their local AT&T offices as a telephone operators or clerks, but could not get promoted.

On the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 18, 1970, while reading the Washington Post, Copus read the headlines "AT&T Seeks Higher Long Distance Rates." Suddenly he knew how he could help these women. Stop AT&T from raising its rates until it stopped discriminating against its employees. The FCC would need to listen to an EEOC attack against AT&T's rate increase request. The FCC had just implemented regulations on Aug. 5, 1970, stating that any telephone company could be denied its license for discriminating against its employees. Within a month, Copus and his colleagues drafted the AT&T petition and delivered it to the FCC.

About the book …

Title: The Bellwomen

Author: Marjorie A. Stockford

Description: The story of the landmark AT&T sex discrimination case.

Publisher: Rutgers University Press

Publication Date: July 2004

Stockford pulls you into the story by writing about the regular everyday events in the personal lives of the key players and how the lawsuit impacted them. She describes how AT&T's director of employment hears the news.

"A tall, husky man with a long face and kind eyes, Liebers perfectly fit the image of a gentle giant. … "Don Liebers had taken the day off. It was Friday, December 11, 1970, just two weeks before Christmas. With their children at school, Liebers and his wife were stealing a day away to go antiquing and escape their hectic routine. He'd just been promoted, ten days earlier, … and already had a full plate. The phone rang while Liebers was upstairs shaving. He picked it up to hear one of his new co-workers ask, Did you see the front page of the New York Times? Knowing a call at home on his day off was never good, he hung up, headed quickly downstairs, grabbed the newspaper from his front porch, and read "U.S. Agency, Charging Job Bias, Opposes Rate Rise for AT&T."

The book is extraordinarily organized. Stockford interviews dozens of people. Before the first chapter, she provides a "Cast of Key Characters," listing the organizations involved with the case and the names and titles of each individual within that group. There is also a list of abbreviations. The end of the book has an alphabetical index, a notes section and a listing of names and interview dates. In chronological order, Stockford describes the case.

To add perspective and a sense of the times in between the chapters describing the legal aspects of the case, there are three profiles of "Bellwomen" who were beneficiaries of the settlement. In one of the beneficiaries profiled, Gwen Thomas, an African-American woman, recalled her experience as an operator at New England Telephone's Roxbury office.

"Male technicians were frequently called in to repair the operators' desks while they, in their required skirts, were forced to continue taking calls … [T]he supervisors maintained a cardboard, two-dimensional dog house with eight slots that housed the names of the operators who could leave their consoles to go to the bathroom at any one time. Thomas also remembers being escorted to the 'quiet room' when she had menstrual cramps, where the matron handed her a 'greenie,' a little green pill that knocked her out. Forty-five minutes later, when her lunch break was up, the matron would wake her up and send her back to her operator's console. Although Thomas never heard the results of the chemical analysis done when an operator smuggled a greenie out of the office, it was clear a doctor should have been prescribing them, not a Bell System employee. As Thomas says today, 'In that era, we tolerated it because of job survival, needing the wages. You sit back today and you laugh.'"

The chapters relating to the hearings and testimony also show the daily humiliations that many of the women had to endure. Women were yelled at to sit up straight. During interviews women were asked if they were married and if their menstrual cycles were regular. An operator's training film called "Miss Index" showed a nude woman, except for a printed card covering her torso with numbers on it. Operator's schedules were called "tricks," while the men's were called "tours." At a time before whistle-blower statutes, employees who were scheduled to testify at the hearings were disciplined for poor job performance.

The Bellwomen is an important American story that appears relatively unknown. It is written with a cinematic flair along the lines of Erin Brokovich. A classic David versus Goliath story, where a new young attorney, aptly named David, decides to take on the biggest company in the country, because it is the right thing to do.