Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Mary Robertson, August 13, 1979. Interview H-0288. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Lack of female leadership in unions and full female participation in the economy

Robertson ignored the gender stereotypes that might have kept her out of union leadership, she claims here. She decries the lack of substantive female leadership in the union movement and describes the barriers that keep women not only from union leadership but also from well-paying jobs.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Mary Robertson, August 13, 1979. Interview H-0288. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
I want to ask you both of your personal experiences and what generalizations you might make about your role as a woman, the way you've been treated, opportunities you've had. What effect did the fact that you're a woman have?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Of course, when you ask me personally, I am me, see, and the way I'm treated is me, and that doesn't mean that if another woman sat in this seat that she would have the same experience. But personally, I'm just one of the bold, brash, bitchy-type women who just ignore the fact that I'm not supposed to be in that area.
JACQUELYN HALL:
But there are ways that it gets communicated to you that you're not supposed to be doing certain things that you've done?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Oh, yes, and finally get told outright, and I just say, "The hell with you" [Laughter] , you know. But nationally, the labor movement as a whole has a very, very poor record. There is not a single international union in the United States that has as its president a woman. There are very few international unions who even have a token woman in the window, on their executive boards. And they usually decapitate her, in the sense that she's only a figure. The same is true of state organizations, and that includes North Carolina. I know that Wilbur Hobby has his little bevy of little girls working in the office there, but you know they're not real.
JACQUELYN HALL:
[Laughter]
MARY ROBERTSON:
They don't make decisions, and if they try to make decisions, they're more often than not either ignored, bypassed, or even squelched if there's an excuse for it. Wilbur Hobby would sit right there and say that I'm a damn liar, but it's true. Because look at it: the Executive Board is made up of men; the decisions are made by men. Two women, I think, is about all we have on the Executive Board. We have Barbara Brown of the Teachers' Union, and we have a girl whose name I can't remember, a young black woman from the Ladies' Garment Workers. Now how is it possible, you see, for these two women to really effectively make decisions when they're outvoted by some sixteen or twenty men? I mean when there are that many more men. And all of these international leaders, all the local union leaders, there isn't a single woman who's the president of a local union. Yes, there is one small local in western North Carolina that has a woman as its president. It's Excello, a little textile plant; it's just been organized. And that young woman has not really had a long enough time… Now all of these men will tell you that oh, that isn't so; we just go out of our way to make it possible for women to serve. And they probably really believe that, but it isn't true, because go out of their way is sort of like you go out of your way to have what the blacks refer to as "a nigger in the window." [Laughter] It's meaningless; it's an effigy; it's a playhouse. It isn't real. So the truth of the matter is that women have not, except where they have just bulled through and forced it, reached any decision-making role in the labor movement nationally. In the building trades or the craft unions, those men would die before they'd see a woman plumber working with them. And they avoid it. They'll tell you that isn't so, that the reason there isn't a woman plumber is because of this and because of that and because of that. The truth of the matter is that what they're doing is they're avoiding it.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What are the barriers, exactly? How does it work? How are women prevented from moving into these ?
MARY ROBERTSON:
In the first place, in industry--now in the building trades there have never been women--but in industry women have always been relegated to the lower-paid, the less desirable jobs. That's particularly true in textiles, furniture, the paper industry. These are the big industries in the South. Women have always been relegated to the lowest and most undesirable jobs by the management. And, of course, society has relegated women to the background, so that women themselves don't think of themselves as being capable of doing these jobs. They assume that a man can be a supervisor or a foreman, a man is better able to operate an intricate machine, he's better able to drive a truck, the desirable jobs. They assume, on the whole, that he is more capable of doing it. It naturally follows, then, that he is also more capable of running the union. And that is especially true in areas and industries where by its very nature a local does not have the finances to have fulltime leadership personnel. More often than not, in that case, the man who is elected to be president is the man who has a job with a company that gives him more free time and more energy to give to the job. So he usually is in one of the better jobs. It just naturally follows. You know if he's digging ditches all day, he does not have the energy to go that night and conduct a union meeting. This is one of the reasons. Another reason, of course, is because the men just naturally resist the idea. They've been taught to resist it, so they just naturally resist it. And they think they're being fair, but the truth of the matter is, they're finding all kinds of reasons for not… The same reason that a woman doctor is still not up there on equality with her peers. Or in any other profession.