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They “Leaned In” and took action in federal courts

Happy Women’s History Month! Today’s blog post comes from Kristina Jarosik, education specialist at the National Archives at Chicago.

Recently, two powerful women in the Silicon Valley, (Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and author of Lean In: Women Work and the Will to Lead and Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo) provided the media and the public the opportunity to re-examine the role of women in the workplace. These exchanges, the dawn of Women’s History Month, and the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act encouraged us to step back “historically” and to look in our stacks for stories of women fighting for equality in the workplace through the federal courts.

We discovered several cases. Alice Peurala’s is one.

As a single parent working night shifts at U.S. Steel’s South Works in southeast Chicago in the 1950s, Alice Peurala wanted a day job. She heard that product testers in the Metallurgical Division had this appealing schedule. But these positions were not posted, as others were, for bidding.

In 1967 (after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act), a male colleague that Alice had trained was moved up to be a product tester after only four years. Just before he started, she called the hiring director and inquired about being considered for one of these jobs. His response, “No, we don’t want any women on these jobs.”

Alice filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charging sexual discrimination. Conciliatory efforts failed and the EEOC issued Alice a right-to-sue letter on January 17, 1968. As part of the EEOC’s duties in 1968, charges of discrimination first had to be brought before the EEOC for investigation and possible resolution before bringing the matter to the Federal courts. Alice had thirty days to bring her complaint of discrimination to an appropriate federal court and have the court appoint an attorney if she didn’t have the funds available.

Alice Peurala v. United States Steel Corporation, Case 68C305; Civil Case Files, compiled 1938-1995; U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division at Chicago; Record Group 21; National Archives at Chicago.

“Right-to-sue” letter, Alice Peurala v. United States Steel Corporation, Case 68C305; Civil Case Files, compiled 1938-1995; U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division at Chicago; Record Group 21; National Archives at Chicago.

Alice requested an attorney to file a complaint against U.S. Steel on her behalf. The court misinterpreted and delayed her request while the deadline for filing loomed. Finally the court responded with an attorney, Patrick Murphy. Alice contacted him immediately and left a message. He called her back at the plant, obtained the basic details, and rushed to the court to file the complaint without a day to spare.

In March 1969, Judge Hubert Will presided over two days of the bench trial. Even though several witnesses testified to intentional discrimination, Murphy told her the judge’s ruling could go either way. Judge Will encouraged the parties to come to an agreement outside of the court. After the meeting with the U.S. Steel counsel, Murphy came back to Alice with an offer for settling the case. The next time the position of product tester was open she would get it.

Alice hesitated to agree because she didn’t think U.S. Steel would keep its word. And they almost didn’t.

A temporary assignment doing research in old logbooks in a conference room allowed Alice to meet a female colleague who worked in the South Works office. Over the course of the week they got to know each other, eventually discussing Alice’s court case.

After Alice went back to her old job as a metallurgical observer, they kept in touch. Soon, her office friend called with news. “Listen, the steel analysts are doing the product tester work. They’re supervisors or bosses. They’ve got them doing the product tester’s job.”

Alice called her lawyer, and Murphy went before Judge Will with the news. On May 5, 1969, Alice reported for her first day as a product tester in the lab.

Alice’s fight and others like it paved the way for an agreement (“The Consent Decree”) in 1974 signed by nine major steel companies, the United Steelworkers of America, the EEOC, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Labor that made strides in eliminating racial and gender discrimination in the steel industry.

Alice went on to become the only woman to lead a basic steel unit in the nation. She was elected president of Local 65 of the United Steelworkers of America in 1979.

Discover Alice Peurala’s story and others who sought justice and equality through the Federal courts at the National Archives in Chicago.

Resources:

“Alice Peurala v. United States Steel Corporation,” United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division (Chicago), Civil Case 68C305
Roosevelt University’s Labor History Project, Oral History Interview with Alice Peurala, September 30, 1977, Chicago, Illinois, conducted by Elizabeth Balanoff

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