Q: This is an interview of Esther Lawton by Jean Rainey on a Sunday, January 18, at Esther's apartment in the Watergate. And Diane Christian, Dr. Diane Christian, her niece, who is with your husband, I believe, director of the Center for Studies in American Culture at the State University of New York, SUNY, Buffalo, is joining us.
So, Esther, we're delighted that your niece can be here. But we're going to start with the first question for her. She tells us that you've been a very important figure in her life and a role model for her. And before I begin talking with you, I want to ask her about why your aunt has been such an important person in your life.
DC: Well, this is going to take the whole tape.
EL: What'd you say?
DC: I said this is going to take the whole tape and the entire time. So I'll say it shortly. Well, there's the public story and the private story. The public story is that Esther was a great success and all my life she as an exciting and glamorous aunt to come and visit.
She was the first woman ever sent by the Ford Foundation as a consultant abroad. She was Federal Woman of the Year. She won more awards and more citations and more decorations and more honors from foreign governments than anybody I knew. She was Deputy Director of Personnel for Treasury. And so she was an enormous professional success and very exciting. She was also glamorous and had great clothes. She used to buy me lots of clothes. She had a wonderful sense of family. So she was very exciting. And that's sort of the professional story.
And I went on to get an education, to become a doctor, which she really should have been. She was a born teacher. In another time if she hadn't lived through the depression, she would have been a doctor probably and a teacher, too.
But she wound up in government which was great for the country and great for the government. I wound up in education. But she had a profound commitment to education and to the humanities and to art. She's a musician and a lover of all things cultural. All of those things were very direct powerful influences on me.
And privately, which is a more complicated story, she was an influence for liberation in a sense and freedom. I had a very Catholic upbringing. I used to say when people said to me why did you become a nun in 1961, I used to say, well, in 1961 in my world even if you thought you were liberated--I'd lived abroad, I had done different things--you were either a mother or a virgin. And interestingly being a virgin and being a nun looked more liberated to me than being a mother. I had the most wonderful mother in the world and she was great, but it looked very hard and kind of boring to be domestic.
So I became a nun. I knew nuns who had Ph.D.'s, who were educated, who traveled. The convent in fact sent me to The Johns Hopkins University where I got a Ph.D. and in a sense gave me wonderful things. But after eight years I decided it wasn't for me. And when I left in 1969, I came to Esther and outfitted me. And I said, you know, I'd be really grateful if I could stay with you for the summer because I'm sort of embarrassed to be in Rochester and be a 29 year old ex-virgin. I'd like to get away. She said, I will never ask you why you left. I might ask you the question which I've always had, is why did you go in the first place?
So she was always in a sense a different model, a model who wasn't a mother or a virgin. She was married. But she was the idea of a woman who could be a professional person, who could act in fact like a man and not totally give herself to domesticity. The Catholic idea was very domestic in a way. It's either completely maternal in the house or organized by the boys in the church to some sense for God. And it has a lot to recommend it. But the sense of being able to be professional and be public, Esther was my model for that.
In a sense, that's the life I went on to take. I married a fellow I met my first day at Buffalo who was a Jew, who was divorced and had three children. I immediately to some extent became my mother because I took care of those children. And I loved those children and I had the benefit of family life. But I chose not to have children myself and to have a life of education and maybe spiritual motherhood, maybe it's the same old routine.
And in all of that, Esther was the only one in the family I could always talk to. The worst times in my life, I came to her. So she's a complicated, straightforward, wonderful professional model, but she's also in some sense a personal model for me, a real heart.
Q: That's a wonderful testimonial to you to begin this.
EL: You forgot to mention--
DC: Oh, yes. I wore this today. What I'm wearing is great Aunt Mary's beautiful brooch, which belongs in the family and which Esther gave me because she wanted to be sure it moved in the family in the female line. It's rose cut diamonds from Europe.
Q: It's beautiful.
DC: It's so beautiful.
EL: She's the daughter of my brother.
Q: I know.
EL: He was a wonderful person.
DC: Yes, he was.
EL: He was so exact about everything.
DC: So generous and kind. Yes, absolutely.
Q: Esther, your niece has shared with me that oral history that you did for the federally employed women project. And I found that fascinating reading. And particularly in learning more about the discrimination against women in government in the 30s and on through the period that we're studying, '69 to '74. But I'd like to begin with the period in the early '60s when you served on a committee I believe that was established in the Treasury Department to discover the extent of discrimination against women within the department. Can you tell me about that?
EL: The whole situation, of course, was at a time when women weren't being given appropriate recognition of what they did do. No one even thought to be particularly brilliant. And, of course, that was sort of a mistake because I had earned a Phi Beta Kappa key and other awards. It was impossible to think of me as stupid just because I happened to be a woman. So I was determined that I would never show off my abilities, but they would come through and people would recognize them. And that's exactly what happened and that's why I succeeded in the Treasury Department. Because the men there said, well, she knows what she's talking about. And that was their response to anything I said.
Q: Do you recall the committee that was established presumably to study discrimination against women in the department?
EL: It wasn't a special committee at that point. It was the fact that I was active and associated with the conditions in the Treasury Department itself. And I wanted to make sure that everything was going right.
DC: But Esther, there were five other women with you, weren't there? That formed that--remember Dillon put together a committee to analyze discrimination in Treasury.
EL: Oh, yes.
DC: Do you remember those other women?
EL: No, because those were all temporary women.
DC: Oh, people who came in for it.
EL: From different parts of the Treasury Department. We purposefully wanted that because we knew that in various parts of the Treasury there were different problems.
EL: So we had to recognize the fact that there were. Otherwise, they wouldn't work out.
DC: So how did you analyze it? I mean, how did you try to figure out?
EL: Well, it all depended. I used to change my mind every time I thought of a new idea. And I would say, well, what do you think about so and so? And I would mention a particular problem that had just come up let's say yesterday or today. And I would examine what did we talk about? Well, we talked about thus and so. I would put down all the little facts and make sure that they understood that I wasn't telling people what to do, but I was telling them what not to do.
Q: Do you have any idea why Dillon established this group to begin with? Why was he interested in whether there was discrimination against women?
EL: Why he established it?
Q: The committee.
EL: Well, for one thing he was a very adroit person and he knew what he was talking about. He was one of the few actual people in government that I admired because I knew that he knew the problems. And so all you have to do is to say to him, well, you know if you would only change this around, it would make a difference. Or try this. Or tomorrow do this. Or next week send a letter to everybody. And I gave them a lot of suggestions about how to reach the person who could make the, what should I say, the right attitude to use for certain people who were the objectors all the time.
Q: Do you have any of the papers? Did you write memoranda, et cetera? Do you have any memoranda from that?
EL: Well, if I do, they would be in my own writing. As a matter of fact, I tried to read some of my writing yesterday and I couldn't.
DC: It's very readable, though; she refers to handwriting. I've been going through Esther's papers. You know, this project has interested me. In fact, I'm trying to get her to write a book of some of these talks. They're wonderful. They're absolutely fresh. They're absolutely current. They're still all the same problems. And she has many, many files of this. I haven't been able to find this particular report, but I'm sure she's got it because she kept everything. And that's one of the wonderful things. She's got a great richness of archival material.
EL: I always wanted to make sure that all of my facts were right.
Q: So as a result of that committee, Dillon did issue some suggestions, orders? Some actions were taken as a result of this committee.
EL: Yes, that's right.
DC: And I would just say that two things are very important. One, they analyzed that one of the ways to try and figure out that women were being under utilized was to look at their education and the experience. If you had a woman who was a lawyer and doing a clerk job, she was probably being under utilized. So they figured out structural ways, analytical ways, not just kind of ways of redress or momentary ways, but good, competent, solid ways of analyzing and then they would use that and then formulate lists. She did that with Barbara Franklin as well, of people who were very competent and who were interested, who would want to do things. And I think both of those tactics still hold, currently we evaluate in the universities this way. It's one of the ways to use people.
EL: I wanted to make sure always that my facts were exactly correct, that nobody could ever say, well, it's very peculiar about some details. I never was. Everybody knew that when I said something, I really meant it. Sometimes I would even use a very different accent in my voice because I used to have a better voice than I have now, by the way. It's been distorted from a stroke, but it's going to get better. I've been taking care of it.
Q: I saw some reference in your biographical information to a Woman's Day Program. Was that a product of the committee's work? A Woman's Day Program. Can you tell me about that?
EL: About the Woman's Day Program? Well, that was one of the things that I sponsored and started so we would always have a day that we could say this belongs to the women.
Q: And this was of Treasury, right?
EL: Just at Treasury. Because that was all I was working for. So I didn't try to butt in on anybody else's terrain in my effort. I had to work independently.
Q: Did any other departments pick up on that idea?
EL: A few people who knew me personally because I belonged to a lot of organizations, a lot of women's organizations, a lot of other people who belonged, men and women. And I didn't care as long as they had the right issues involved and as long as they considered all of the possibilities that were available, little known people. So I always spent a lot of time with people to say how wonderful I felt people were.
Q: Good. And what about the Decade of Women?
EL: I beg your pardon?
Q: The Decade of Women? Was that an initiative of the Treasury Department or the federal government? There's a reference to that.
EL: What was the name of it?
DC: The Decade of Women.
EL: Oh, the Decade of Women. I think that was just a title that just came back automatically. I don't know--I don't think there was any particular--they wanted a term to give it.
DC: It was important in the '60s and your period to just begin doing those things. They really hadn't been done before.
EL: That's right.
Q: During the late '60s and early '70s, you had consultancies.
EL: I beg your pardon?
Q: The Ford Foundation period is what I'm asking about. You were the first woman to be chosen by the Ford Foundation.
DC: To be sent abroad.
Q: To be sent abroad. And also to go into Muslim countries, right? How did they become persuaded that you were the right person for that?
EL: Well, first of all, I was always very conscious of what was going on around me and I was particularly interested in any group that had a purpose in mind. They wanted a certain result coming out of something else. Well, the Ford Foundation at that time was particularly active. If you remember in the '60s and '70s, it was still a time when they were groping for further attention. I worked not only for the Ford Foundation, I also worked with the Ford Foundation. Let's see, I was trying to think of the foreign countries that I went to with them. I went to--
DC: Lebanon and Jordan.
EL: And Jordan. That's right. Those were the most important ones. Because there was also a question of women there who were not even being looked at as if they're people.
DC: Oh, sure. She observed the customs also as you saw in that-
Q: Well, one thing that fascinated me in that oral history was that when they interviewed you and asked you how you would go about doing the job in the country. And your response was we would listen first.
EL: I always said I always used tact for one thing because I felt they have lived this way for generations. How can I possibly change them? I can only tell them, oh, we don't do that in the United States. But that sounds like a good idea. Maybe what we should do is to change our point of view. Just even saying that would make them feel good. And I always tried to interject something that would indicate how much I thought of what they were doing instead of what we were doing. And it was amazing. I got along with some of these men who had never talked to a woman before.
DC: Much less one they had to take orders from in French.
EL: That's right. Except mothers. They had to take their mothers'.
Q: Were you involved in that Kennedy era Commission on the Status of Women?
EL: I beg your pardon?
Q: The Kennedy Commission on the Status of Women?
EL: The status of women? I was involved in anything that involved women. But sometimes I didn't have let's say a significant role. Sometimes I would just be asked to come to a meeting. Sometimes I was asked to write a paper on a particular subject. They asked me to do all kinds of things and I could write extremely well. I wrote many, many pieces that were published and printed. And I have some copies in my files. That poor lady was looking at my files yesterday. She spent most of the day looking.
Q: I'm looking forward to seeing those.
DC: Yes, they're wonderful. And the thing is that Esther had really a unique position. Because she was regarded as the best pay and classification analyst in government, not just in Treasury, but in government--
Q: Well, in the world for that matter.
DC: Or in the world, that's right. So because she had that, she would be invited all the time to talk about issues of classification. And so she could interject a feminist consciousness or a lot of the analysis and the remarks, not as a feminist agenda, not in terms of looking at women directly, but just as an issue of fairness or objectivity.
And she would point out how people presumed that women couldn't do executive positions because they imagined they would be having children. Or they thought they couldn't travel. And here she was, someone who had traveled for the government and for the Ford Foundation, but many times in her own life was passed over because of the bedrock stereotypes and prejudices that people had just in general about women. But she could neutralize and really analyze a lot of that very directly.
EL: That's right.
DC: Because it was her position to make those kinds of adjudications because everyone always believed and knew she was so fair and so decent and so straightforward and so objective and so honest. She would do things very straightforwardly. It's a very hard job. When people would come to her and they'd want to get classifications raised and she knew that they shouldn't, it would be very tricky, very political and very difficult. She would just say, you know, you have to have responsibilities. So if you want to raise that classification, you must give the person more responsibilities. All of that is such tricky stuff. So she could make a lot of hard gender analysis because she was making hard money analysis all the time.
Q: For the benefit of people who may not understand what classification is.
EL: Yeah, that's right.
Q: Because there are a great many people who are not familiar with the whole term. Can you give us a little more explanation about what it is?
EL: For one thing I noticed, don't argue with people who obviously have a fixed point of view. Just point out to them cases where it didn't work.
DC: But define for the audience who is reading this, define what classification is, what your job was.
DC: No, no. But you say what it is for this recording so people will know what it is. For people who don't know what it is, explain it.
EL: You had to be aware of whether things that were there existing that some people just had never known us before. But you had to examine everything in order to have a true picture of what was really going on. Because sometimes people say things that they don't really mean.
Q: A classification, for example, for me, and I think I know what you're talking about, but let me ask this. I, for example, came into government as a Grade 3 and that was a classification was it?
DC: So explain the numbers, the grades. Explain what the classification numbers mean.
Q: What was different about Grade 15 from Grade 3?
EL: Oh, you mean the grade numbers?
EL: Oh, that was a simple determination based on previous experience and identified as closely as possible with the actual functions and knowledges and experience that you would have and your ability to voice them clearly. That was the other part of the issue, because even if you had a brilliant idea that you couldn't express it, there was no point getting involved because they wouldn't understand it anyway.
Q: So that was part of whether someone was promotable from one grade to another was the ability to express ideas?
EL: That's right.
Q: Did that apply, however, to the--weren't there some lower grades from which that was primarily the typing, filing skills.
EL: Clerical stuff.
Q: Clerical. Then after that you got into the other grades, the higher grades, where--
DC: In 1970, Esther gives the statistic, 80 percent of the women were in the lowest grades, were in grades one through six. And in the super grades, in 1970 this is which is already, I mean, you were in a super grade. In 1970, 1 1/2 percent of the super grades were women, 98 1/2 percent of them were men.
EL: That's right.
Q: That's a very important figure from our perspective.
EL: Very important.
Q: So are there statistics available for year-by-year to track that?
DC: Yes, I think there are.
Q: Because if we could see where it happened by 1974--
DC: It would be fascinating.
EL: That's right.
Q: Although I'm sure it was minuscule. But there had to be important--
DC: It was.
EL: It was very important.
Q: A percentage.
EL: Things that came out as a result of the women's activities. I had a wonderful time.
Q: I guess what I'm looking at now, and we've been talking earlier more about the early '60s and the time prior to that, I'm looking right back to '69 to '74. Now, in '69 and '70 you were abroad, right? You came back.
EL: Part of the time.
Q: Part of the time.
EL: Some of the time.
Q: Okay. This is a period when very significant progress appeared to have been made, particularly from 1971 to '74. What do you think accounted for that as compared with the earlier years. Why was progress made then?
EL: Well, because, first of all, I went to foreign countries where there had never been that much activity. Any idea that you could come up with was important to them because they had never had any experience from other people from the other point of view. It was always condensed into their own activity, into their own situation, into their own people, into their own problems, into their own perspectives. They couldn't change immediately. They had to be exposed.
So they used to ask very pertinent, good questions of me. And they'd say, well, what would you recommend to change that? Now, if I could come up with a very discreet idea without changing their whole works, I would say, well, have you ever thought, what can you do with your own children, for instance, if they do something wrong? What do you do with them?
And they said, well, what do you mean? And I said, well, sometimes children do things that are not very good, not very clever, very stupid sometimes. What do you do to them to make them change their attitudes? How do you change their thinking? What do you do?
Well, they couldn't think of anything. I said, well, for example, do you sit down with them and say, well, let's read this book. I want to read this book to you because it has some very, very interesting things in it. And when you read it, you'll find out that there are some things that you don't do that you ought to be doing. It's in the book. And so it's easy to find. You don't have to do anything. Why don't you try that?
And I used to work with them. One time I spent three years in the same place in Europe. I explained to them you can't learn about a country in just one day or in just one talk. You have to see it in operation. You have to see what you have done, what has changed them and what has made them think more clearly.
So I know that to this day I still get letters from people in Europe at the Christmas holiday, even though they don't express it, they don't acknowledge Christmas, but they send it to me because I send them a Christmas card, because that's my way of saying it was so nice to be with you and I learned so much from you. Thank you. This made them very happy. Part of it is my own uniqueness in being able to talk to people. By the way, I was a very good teacher at one time in my life.
Q: I've read that.
EL: Yes, I used to teach at college and high school, anyplace, church. There's a church frequently they had a man at the church who'd say, Esther, we need somebody like you to talk to people who will understand what you're saying. Okay. I'll be glad to do it. Just tell me when to come. And sometimes without even thinking I could come up with a whole lot of words because I loved to talk. Maybe I talk too much.
Q: Coming back to the--I'm looking at the '70 to '74 period here now. And earlier you were talking about 98 1/2 percent of the super grade people were men and a lot of progress was made during that period. How did that happen? Why do you think that happened?
EL: Because men were considered more useful and I don't know-
Q: Well, what changed it? What made it possible for women to make progress? Was the Nixon Administration commitment important?
EL: It hadn't changed very much even at that time.
Q: But was the Nixon Administration commitment important?
EL: There was still a lot to be done. When you become aware of the fact that just because a person's a different sex doesn't make him brilliant.
DC: But it is true that when the President paid attention, when the President decided to pay attention to this issue, things happened. Tpat happened with Kennedy. It also happened with Nixon. And you got to be Deputy Director in '72. A number of women, the number went up in this period. Was it many things together? Was it the fact that it was building and there was a time of social change and it was also political?
EL: You know, eventually even stupid people begin to see things.
DC: Well, think of the women like Esther, there were a number of women in different areas in the Civil Service Commission and Esther's husband. He was such a great feminist. There were a lot of people who knew all along, who worked quietly, who acted structurally. And much of it got reaped in this period. And partly, you have to give Nixon credit. I mean, if you decide to do something as President, you can do it.
EL: Sure, that's right.
Q: Because you had been so involved in trying to change things for women at Treasury, were you able to share that experience with other departments particularly as a result?
EL: In other departments? It depended on the departments. For instance, I belonged to a number of clubs, organizations, and I would talk to some of my friends in those other agencies. And I would say have you ever tried so and so? Have you ever done this? Have you ever, you know, and I'd ask them questions. They often would try something in their organization to see if it woulwork.
I said, maybe it won't work in your place. Maybe you have a boss who's so determined that he's going to have everything his way and no other way whatsoever. Well, that doesn't work. You have to try things out and you have to be very careful about any changes you make immediately. Just be slow about it. Don't try to force it down their throats. Just maybe pick out one little incident that happened with them and that you were aware of and then you say, now, you know what I could have done?
I could have said throw the kid out. I wouldn't say that. I would say let's find out why we did that. And so my suggestion always was get to the bottom of the thing. What is the really fundamental issue that's involved here? And it worked.
DC: And she did big consulting for the Atomic Energy Commission, for Agriculture and for the Pan American Union. She had reestablished or established a whole classification system. It's true, too, that a lot depended on who was in charge.
EL: That's right. Who was in charge at the time.
DC: Leaders matter.
EL: Sometimes if the person in charge.
Q: Now, Barbara Franklin was able to help you and other women. Tell us about how she helped you and other women at Treasury.
EL: Barbara Franklin?
Q: How did she help?
EL: Barbara was always very gracious. She was a perfect lady and lived a perfect lady's life. And she was wonderful because she didn't yell at you or point out that something was a very stupid mistake. She never said anything like that. She said I think maybe what was wrong was you were not given all the facts or you didn't observe all the facts or something happened where you forgot essential matters that could have effected the whole change.
I said, well, some of the problem is with most people is that they don't have time to think of what should I do now? I think that what we don't realize is that some people need more time and they've got to have more time in order to do exactly the right thing at the right moment.
Q: Did she not help you to become appointed as Deputy Director of Personnel? Was she important in that?
EL: She was important in every way to me. It was very significant that she had as much trust in you as she did. And I was very, very pleased because she was a wonderful woman to work with. And I found her extremely helpful, extremely.
DC: And capable.
EL: And what?
DC: And capable. I mean, you were saying she was so smart. And capable.
EL: Of course. That's what made her so smart.
Q: I recall some anecdote in that other oral history about her visiting Treasury and one of the men observing that women didn't have accounting backgrounds.
EL: That's right.
Q: And she said, I beg your pardon. I do and I'm a woman.
EL: Yes, I know. Yes, I remember that incident. I think I was there.
DC: You were. You tell the story. What was her position?
Q: She was Assistant to the President, who was originally from Manpower. Would you believe that?
Q: But shortened to Special Assistant to the President.
EL: How did she become, what did she become? Where is she now?
Q: She most recently has been Secretary of Commerce.
EL: Oh, really.
Q: And currently, she has returned to her board positions and international trade interests.
EL: Oh, great.
Q: She has come a long way.
DC: Was she in government before?
Q: The White House was her first experience. She had been in banking and at the Singer[?] Company and had an MBA from Harvard. Are you aware of the Departmental Action Plans for each department to make progress?
EL: How recent is it?
Q: This is back in the '70s?
EL: Back in the '70s, I go back.
Q: One of the administration's, one of the President's efforts was to have Action Plans for each department to make progress on the number of super grades and political appointments. So I've been reading her papers and there were in effect quotas established by each department. They established their own for the number of women who would be appointed.
EL: That's right.
Q: And Barbara monitored those Action Plans.
EL: Yes, that was a big change in operations.
Q: Because that had not existed before.
Q: I thought your niece said to me at one point that you had said that it was ironic that the Democrats, who are believed to be more friendly towards women, had not done very much as compared with the Republicans.
DC: No, I didn't say that.
Q: Somebody said that to me.
EL: That is not true.
Q: That the Democrats are--what is not true? Tell me where I misstated. What would you say about the--
EL: All I can say is that I'm not an active party person at all. It depends entirely on the incidents that I'm involved in. Some of the incidents I could say, gee, that's a Republican idea. Some of the others, gee, that sounds like a darn good Democratic idea. I don't know. I have to examine the facts. Because words can be so misleading and lots of people don't understand what they read completely.
DC: Well, I might have said to you, maybe this is it. I might have said to you that I was surprised to hear that Nixon had been--I said this to Esther. I was surprised that there had been a very strong women's initiative. I didn't know that. And you said, oh, yes. That's true. I mean, she simply, she knew that it was a fact. But I didn't. And I might have believed that as a sort of stereotype.
But I mean you have to be very careful, especially in this town, of stereotypes. It's crazy. But I knew the, well, of course, I spent a lot of the '60s in cloisters. So I missed a lot. There were a lot of things I really didn't know.
But the whole sense of women's issues in government is one of the things that I think is fascinating because it seems to me that the federal system is so powerful because it's so enormous. You have millions of people influenced by any change. All of a sudden if you say, okay, pay attention to this, you can influence millions of people.
So there were a lot of people like Esther who were in a sense not high profile people--high profile in government, but not high profile nationally, not like a President or something like that--who did the constant, wonderful work or the work that they did.
EL: That's right.
DC: Where they were really making changes that were building into the system and would go on. And so lots of times the political people, they want to do the right thing, but they're responding to so much emphasis and pressure. Everybody's pressuring them. Everybody wants stuff.
Q: So your point is it's systemic reform which has long term impact.
Q: Political leader come or go.
DC: Right, right. Although, I think political leader, I mean, Esther and I were talking about this yesterday. If the President says do it, all of a sudden you have the muscle to do it. So it's wonderful if the President says do it. I mean, it's terrific. You can just cut through so much. And people also accept it. I mean, otherwise, they lapse into their own stereotypes.
Nixon for me--I demonstrated against him--he was someone who did so many things contrary to his stereotype. I mean, he opened China. Who could have imagined this? And a lot of people said, well, a guy who wasn't an anti-communist probably couldn't have opened China. So that as Esther says, words can be often misleading. And in this issue I think it's such a--gender is such a hot topic. Everybody's got one. So everybody's got a position. It seems to me that the systemic change
[break in tape]
Q: --to have a woman in the White House charged with helping all of you in each department to get things done? How important was it to have Barbara Franklin there supporting you? Did you go to her for advice? Or did she come visit you? What sort of relationship did you have with her?
EL: With Barbara Franklin? Well, it was a very friendly one. But I can't tell you that it was a personal relationship. It was mostly, what should I say? An academic relationship. Because we liked to talk about the same kinds of things, the general things, the overall picture. That's the way we always talked with each other. It was a wonderful relationship with her and I enjoyed it very much because I thought she was a brilliant woman.
Q: And did she come to see you once a month?
EL: Did she what?
Q: Were you the highest ranking woman in Treasury at that point? You were, were you not?
EL: Well, I hate to say that.
Q: It is unfortunate.
EL: But it was true.
Q: You deserved to be much higher ranking than you were. But at the time you were the highest ranking woman, right?
EL: I think so.
Q: So were you the person that she was in contact with about how things were going at Treasury?
EL: Oh, yes. We always saw and we always talked things out. If we had any questions, we asked each other. We didn't ask other people about her. We talked to her to find out what do you think? My association with people was always what do they themselves think about this particular subject? And that's the way it works out. At least I have found it so. And that's because I --
Q: So it was useful to you to have a White House contact.
EL: Very important. Very important. Just to have somebody behind you who understood what you were doing.
Q: And to talk with.
EL: And to talk with.
Q: And to exchange ideas.
EL: Exchange ideas.
Q: About what you could do next.
EL: And also discuss ideas and say, you know, I've been thinking lately about such and such a problem. I think we should do something about that. And then she'd say, well, what do you mean? Then I would explain to her, well, I think it's done wrong. It's not properly outfitted to be acceptable to everybody. I said, something's got to be done to change the details. That's what's wrong. And sometimes I was right.
Q: You received the Federal Women's award in 1969 and the Secretary's Honor Award in 1970.
EL: That's correct.
Q: Now, what specific achievement were those awards given for? What did the Federal Women's Award honor? It's just one woman per department given that award, right?
EL: I really don't know how awards were finally rated. And I don't know how or which one of the things that I did was so significant that they felt they ought to recognize it. I just don't know.
DC: Six women were chosen.
EL: That's right.
Q: That was your overall record of achievement over a period.
EL: I was more concerned with what was really happening and what changes had been made because of anything I did or said or wrote. That was more important to me. And that's what I felt had to be explained.
Q: Now, you have told me several times about the organizations you were active with. And I guess they included the International Alliance of Women and the National Women's Party. EL: Oh, yes.
Q: And the National Washington Network for Women.
EL: That's right.
Q: And Women's Equity Action League.
EL: That's right.
Q: Now, were they important in advancing the progress of women in government?
EL: That's right.
Q: As organizations?
EL: That's right.
Q: I'm looking for examples of advancing women in government, not just women's rights but women in government. Is there one organization that did something that was really helpful? For women in government I'm talking about. Not just women's issues.
EL: Yeah, I know. It really happened because circumstances don't occur just because you're ready to take care of them. My feeling is that what you do is too late for a time when something does happen that requires help. And that's when you should step in and be very active because otherwise, you lose the whole point.
Q: So what would happen is there'd be an opportunity or a problem. One of the organizations would, what? Pass a resolution or provide publicity or--
EL: Yeah, that's right. It depends on the organization and what's available at the time. Sometimes it's just a question of time.
DC: And though Esther was enormously active in all of these and really so generous, she would always have people here and let there be meetings, whatever, she sometimes had to tread a very delicate line because she would have to rule on issues of classification that might have affect women.
EL: That's right.
DC: So, for example, your boss that one time--was it Amos--one of the papers I was reading one of your bosses said he didn't think it was a good idea for you to be an officer in the--was it the Women's Party?
DC: She could be a member, but not be an officer. So she always was very careful of--
EL: I tried to be.
DC: Tried to be very-
DC: Even and objective and all the rest of it. That makes for a good high level of performance.
EL: I was so glad that my brother and I were brought up in such a way that we could do this or any children we might have. I never did have any children. So it didn't matter. But my brother had this wonderful daughter and you have a brother, too?
DC: Three sons, three brothers. But one died when he was just thirty of testicular cancer.
Q: You said something interesting about the way you were brought up. Do you think that made a difference as far as you and other women of this period? Is there any kind of background instilled by your family that enabled you to go ahead and succeed? Can you think about the qualities that you were taught that were important to you in later life as far as perseverance, objectivity, commitment to other women, equality?
EL: I spent my life always thinking about all the issues that are involved. If I make this decision today how is it going to affect tomorrow this woman that I was talking to yesterday. How is it going to affect her? I was always concerned about any action that I took. I wanted to be sure if I was making the right decision before I made any commitment whatsoever.
DC: Ask her about the family value.
Q: So that was a family value that you got from your parents then, from your upbringing.
EL: Oh, yes. And especially my husband. He was a brilliant man. He came here when he was only seven years old.
DC: Your father.
EL: In the late 1800s. And when he was 15 years old, he recognized the importance of the new car that had just come out. Guess what he did? He opened up a garage. He had the first garage in New York City.
DC: And the first driving school.
Q: A true entrepreneur.
EL: He took advantage of every situation. And that's what you have to do unfortunately because life works that way. Things happen very fast. There are other smart people, too, and that's what you always have to remember.
Q: I'm reflecting again on the oral history I read, your earlier one. And you mentioned repeatedly, you mentioned often that men who have been fair to you have been very important in helping you move along.
EL: Oh, yes. Men have been wonderful. But I've never taken advantage of it and that's the important difference. Too many women think that they can use their personal charm to get exactly what they want. I never had to work that way. My feeling was always in my brain. I had to make sure that this was right and was working right.
Q: But the men who helped you, do you feel that perhaps they had been more exposed to other competent women perhaps--
EL: Oh, that could be.
Q: --than some who did not understand? That the more men are exposed to competent women, the more possible support for women? EL: It's quite possible. Quite possible. Because women have grown because they have seen what's happened to other women. And they know that it can be done. So they might as well try.
Q: What was the leadership of Treasury during the years you were there, the latter years? Who was Secretary, Charles Walker or who was Secretary of Treasury?
DC: In the '70s?
Q: In the '70s. Was it Charles Walker?
EL: I'd have to look at my records to see who was. Frequently some of these people would be on for just a year or two and you never knew what they were going to do.
DC: That's another federal truth.
Q: Oh, and they barely find out what they're doing by the time they're on their way.
DC: Exactly, yeah.
Q: Another thing we're interested in are why women of that era, and I'll now go back to the '30s, accepted the discrimination that existed.
EL: In the '30s? What could they do?
Q: It's the way the world was.
EL: They were hampered by their husbands, by their families, by society.
DC: No television.
EL: They couldn't do anything. If a woman tried to be different, I saw a movie not too long ago where they showed a woman who was going to be really strong and show how smart she was and she could this and she could do that. And all she did was irritate everybody because she didn't know how to take care of it. She didn't know what to do to make it successful.
Q: So in your case, you and your husband took the civil service examination on the same day, I believe.
EL: Yes, that's right.
Q: You received virtually identical scores. You came to Washington a couple of weeks or so apart. He was immediately assigned a Grade 3 and you were a Grade 2, right?
EL: Except that he got promoted immediately at the time that he got the results of the exam. He became an important figure in the Civil Service Commission. Very important. Everybody thought he was brilliant. Well, he really was.
DC: He wrote the COLAs that we're all still collecting.
Q: The Cost of Living Adjustments?
EL: Yes, he was a brilliant man.
DC: Absolutely. And a great feminist.
EL: He felt so sorry for me because he realized that I had been badly treated. Because we had taken the same exam within one point of each other. One point.
Q: But you did not allow yourself to be defeated.
EL: No, no. I insisted on going on.
Q: And you did become a super grade.
EL: That's right. I just decided to improve myself.
Q: It took you more years.
DC: Yeah, a lot more years.
EL: That's why I decided to improve myself. I was the one who was lacking. I had to prove to them that I could do more than I was doing.
DC: But if you had been a man, you wouldn't have had to.
EL: That's right. I'm glad you said that because I'm going to use it.
Q: You've been candid in expressing some bitterness about not having been made Director of Personnel. You struggled to be named Deputy Director.
DC: She kept training all the people who would then be made deputy. Terrible.
EL: And that's a silly distinction. It really is. It doesn't mean anything.
DC: Deputy does the work and the Director gets the prestige.
EL: That's right.
Q: So you decide to leave government at that point then after you were passed over?
EL: I never left government.
DC: Well, you retired.
EL: Until I retired.
DC: Yeah, that's what she's talking about. She's saying when you were passed over for the fourth time for the directorship, you quit.
EL: That's right.
Q: You retired from government, but you remained active.
EL: That's right. I haven't given up my life.
Q: And you've had a very successful consulting business in the meantime.
EL: I keep going to the Center all the time. I keep going to the theater all the time.
EL: I am living a life and it's not going to stop me from living a life. That's why, for example, I love having her here with me, and we talk and we joke. We laugh at each other, tell stories, and we live a human life.
DC: And also, she still is classifying and analyzing. She does clippings every day and she builds her files. She builds the archives. She's very interested in all the news, in everything that's still going on. Wonderful.
EL: And have you got some coffee?
DC: When we finish maybe we'll have some.
Q: We're going to have a break in just a minute, is that all right? As a matter of fact, let's take a break right now. [Break] Well, at certain times. And I only need for the purposes of the tape recorder to be able to identify--I'm a little worried now about why I don't see a green light. I wonder if my battery has gone down.
DC: Do you have another one with you? [Break.]
Q: All right. We have now gotten back to my feeling reassured we have a battery. So I want to resume my questions about your memories of events that were important in advancing the cause of women in government, our topic. And why and how they happen. Either from your personal memory or from your observation of other people. So I guess my question also has to do with how important was that era in government for women?
EL: Well, the experiences themselves important and influential in my life. Is that what you're asking?
Q: That's one of the things, yes. Let's talk about that.
EL: Well, what period in my life were you--
Q: Any period that you think was important and influential in helping us understand.
EL: Because it varied from time to time, from the beginning when I first started in this kind of atmosphere that where I wanted to do something constructive and build up on it. I didn't have maybe too much of an experience at the beginning because I was feeling myself out and feeling myself in relation with the other people especially the men. Because all the men were in much higher grades than I was. I didn't want to take advantage or disrupt their attitudes. So I took things very easily.
For example, if I would get an idea and I thought it was a good one, I would say to the major person, man, in the group that we had, committee kind of situation, I would say, well, tell me what do you think about this idea?
And then I would tell them roughly what my idea was. And then they would say, well, do you think that such and such a thing that you suggested would really work? And I would say, well, I don't know, but I think knowing people, that some people would certainly be very much interested in what I'm suggesting.
This is something new. I have never heard anybody else bring it up.
So he said, well, that sounds very interesting. Keep on. So I talked some more. And I said, well, you know, I'm always trying out new things because you never know what new thing is going to work. I said, so what I'd like to do is to try out something, see if it works. If it does, I want to improve it right away. Because if it's that good, it's got to be improved to be really effective and useful.
So he said, now, that's an interesting thought. I never heard anybody else say anything like that, that they want to make sure it would be improved by somebody else. Well, of course, I said on the basis of experience they'd have something that would happen in their particular situation that was so different from any other that I had ever heard of, I want to know what happened. And what did they do about it? So he said, good thought, I liked that. So I got along with a lot of the men.
I also was very careful in not explaining how wonderful women were, but pointing out things that they had done in such a way that it looked, gee, that really is wonderful. I tried to do it by using the right kinds of words and phrases that would point out to them women are a heck of a lot smarter than most people think we are.
DC: You can't tackle prejudice directly.
EL: I beg your pardon?
DC: Sometimes you can't tackle the problem directly.
EL: Yeah, I know. That was the only way to do it. I felt that it had to be done that way because the attitude about women at the time in that year in the late 1800s and the early 1900s were not treated very well. They weren't. That's why a change had to come. And fortunately--unfortunately, I'll put it that way. Because that's what the situation was.
Unfortunately, things couldn't change that quickly because now we're in the 1900s. And in the 1900s, the men were still way up on top. They had the top jobs. They had the best situations. Women were usually in low grade jobs. They were in clerical jobs. They were typing and simple things of selling. It was very interesting watching the growth.
Now, of course, I was not born until 1910. And when I was born in 1910, I was still a little baby. But my said that I was very bright, that I used to talk when I was only nine months old. I'd say mama, mama, mama. And my mother would come to me and say, yes, honey? What do you want? And she would come. She was so sweet. My mother was a doll. And she had been brought up to be a very good mother, because she came from a royal family. I don't know whether I had told you that, but she came from a royal baronial family in Italy. And when our family came here, they were determined to become 100 percent Americans. So that's what they strove to be. So that's the way we were brought up. We never spoke Italian at home. I'm sorry about that because Italian, if it's beautifully done, is a very beautiful language. And as a teacher of languages, I'm very upset at the idea of not speaking Italian at all. It was very bad. It should have continued.
Somehow or other languages make people more understanding.
So anyway, this is my thought. My family said go ahead. Talk to the nice lady. You just be nice to her and then she'll be all right with you. So I grew up that way. In my early teens, I was a very smart kid for a child in her early teens. And they said, well, now where did you learn that? If I brought up some subject that they had never heard another child speak. And I said, oh, I read a lot.
And she said, well, where do you get the books? I said, well, I go to the library every day. I go in the afternoon and then I get a book and then I read it at night. And then in the morning I finish it. And then I go back and get another book. She said, you mean you go every day to the library? I said, of course. That's how you can get more books. I was real smart, you know. Of course, you go to the library to get books.
But anyway, she was very impressed with the things that I said because I was just a nine-year-old child. So I got good grades from her. So my family said, I think we've got something in her. I think we better see that she gets a good education. So my father and mother decided they would see to it that even though she was a girl, she was going to go to school and get a complete education.
Q: And that was not typical.
EL: That was not still not typical.
DC: But I think also, Esther, a lot of it was your drive. Because you really had a passion.
EL: Oh, I was so interested in everything. Anything that involved words, I had to know more about them. So, anyway, that's how my life was spent. And as I grew older. all I did was to get more. And then my family moved. From New York City, they moved back to Brooklyn. They moved to Rochester where they had originally come from. And that's where your family was. So that's how--
DC: I came to be.
EL: Anyway, it's amazing how much it meant to me to have people so interested in things, I mean, words, and making sure that words were current and understood and that they meant something.
Q: And accurately used.
EL: And that they were being used. That was even more important.
So many people in my mother's generation couldn't talk as well as my mother did. And that was because she was concerned with more words, and my father was more concerned with more words. That's why he became a very influential man and became wealthy enough to take care of me as a child and send me to school. Because he felt that was a very important way to get to know things in general.
I had a very important life with my family. Because I also learned something of the family background and what it meant to my mother's family. Because it was her father who was a royal baron. And he was a wonderful man. He was so smart, you could talk to him even if they spoke English. He would say slow, slow. So they would talk to them so that he could hear the words and know what they really said.
I remember him, my grandfather, so I knew that there was something in the family that was very important. And it wasn't just my father. It was my mother's family, too, that was so smart. And that was a very important lesson for me to learn, especially in the early days in the 1900s, that language is a very important thing. And it took a heck of a long time for people to get out of that feeling. They wanted to know more about this strange phenomenon of people who could understand English that well.
Anyway, I had a very beautiful life as a child growing up. And if it hadn't been for both my mother and father, I don't think I could ever have obtained the honors that I was seeing all through my school years. When I went to college, for example, we moved from Brooklyn back to Rochester, New York. And we went to the school, university there at--
DC: University of Rochester where you met Dave.
EL: University of Rochester. And there I became a prominent student.
DC: Phi Beta Kappa.
EL: My Phi Beta Kappa key, my other awards. This was a different award for something else. Ihad all kinds of awards because they recognized worth and that was important. And so it was important to me.
DC: Also the work ethic. I mean, there was a real belief that you should give yourself.
Q: Work to prove yourself.
DC: Exactly, yeah. And do good.
EL: Anyway, I got along very well. And so I got along very well in school and college. And that's when I first met Dave. I met him in one of my classes at the University of Rochester. And he was a wonderful person. Although I hated red hair. And my friend who was sitting next to me in class said, see that red-headed guy coming in the door? I said, yes. I went like this, made a face you know. And she said, what's wrong with him? I said, he has red hair. I can't stand it. So she said, he'll get over it. He never did by the way. He always had red hair until he died.
Anyway, my success was due as much to him eventually, when I realized what had happened, because my father got another promotion, came back to Brooklyn. And so Dave and I started writing letters for three years. Every day we wrote a letter to each other except for days when he would come to Brooklyn from Rochester and come to see me. And he would stay with his uncle at his place, which was not too far from where we lived. So you just had to walk about ten blocks and then he'd be right near where my family lived.
Anyway, we finally got married in October of '36. I'll never forget that day because I finally married a man with red hair. Fortunately, we never had children because none of them had red hair. We didn't have any children, but we had loads of--
EL: Our feeling was we don't have to have children. What we have to have is people around us. And he was very smart in that way.
He said, what we need is more stimulation. He said, children can't give us stimulation. We have to give it to them. So every Christmas I would have at least 29 godchildren. Godchildren. 29 godchildren every year and give them presents. And I spent days wrapping up presents and so on. Every night I'd come home from work and I would wrap up more packages because it used to take me so long.
Twenty-nine kids at one time. And they could bring their parents. So I had to give them a list. Some of them should come at 1 o'clock. Some of them should come at 2 o'clock. Some of them should come at 3 o'clock. Otherwise, we couldn't get them into the apartment. There wouldn't be enough space.
So we had a wonderful life and people used to come from all over to our house, and my husband turned out to be a wonderful person who was fantastic for the kind of man that he was and the background that he had. He was fantastic. Do you remember him at all?
DC: Oh, sure. Very well.
EL: I didn't know whether you did or not. Anyway, it was just wonderful, the family. It turned out that he became, what should I say, a hero to other people. He was fantastic. He was just a wonderful man, wonderful person. Everything he did always turned out extremely well because he worked at it. He worked at it very hard. He wanted to make sure that everything was going out properly. Is there anything else?
Q: I'm going to change the tape before we go any further. I think we're very close to the end and I don't want to--
Q: We're starting again. And this you may have to think a little bit about the answer to this question. I guess I'd like to ask you if you can think of the single most important to you achievement during your period in government service. What was the most memorable moment in your career in government?
EL: I think it was when I got my first acknowledgement of acceptance of a project that I had recommended in 1967.
Q: And what was project was?
EL: I wish I could remember the title of it. It had to do with something about the utilization of women and making sure that their backgrounds were always sufficient to prove the point that they could perform exactly what the title said. I thought that was very important that they had to prove it to make sure there was no question about women being able to do what the title said they did.
Q: Is there another high point that you'd like to think of also?
EL: That I think was the point that I wanted to make sure that all the people involved in making decisions were conscious of that particular point. That they looked not at what the person said, but what they had accomplished, what they had done, what effects they had brought about, what changes they had brought about in the utilization, proper utilization, of women. That I felt it was the most important thing to have accomplished. Because I was
Q: I guess that you are saying through your emphasis on this that you feel that it was important for women to be promoted or appointed, not just because they were women, but because they had demonstrated they were able to--
EL: They were able.
Q: --to fulfill the job with excellence.
EL: Absolutely. Absolutely. That was the important point. I said I'm not just saying that because maybe I can do it. I know that there are dozens of women and in some of the organizations that I belong to, and I belong to a great number of them, some of them are not completely just all women. Some of them have men and women in their organization. I said I purposefully belong to a lot of organizations to find out whether it's just me or whether I'm thinking out loud because I want it to be that way. I said, I find that there are a lot of very, very intelligent women. And women have not been recognized completely and fully. And this is true in the '60s, in the late '60s. That's why I got an award in '69. Because they realized women still hadn't been completely recognized everywhere. What I wanted was 100 percent.
Q: So where do you think we are now?
EL: I wish I knew. Because I haven't been around in any organization in the last few years. I would say the last six years I have been dealing primarily with improving my writing, my reports, my philosophy and putting it down in writing so that it would be available to the next person. And that's what I've been doing. Primarily because I wanted to make sure that some of the things that I was saying were not just hysterical mountings on the basis of an stupid woman, but important considerations for life and living. And that is important to me.
Q: Do you have a book or a paper that you're working on that eventually we will be seeing?
EL: I don't think I have it in writing because a lot of these things I used to say automatically talking freely with people just as I'm doing now. Maybe I haven't even used the same words as I used to use, but they're saying the same things.
DC: I'm trying to get her--in fact, your project stirred me to do this. I've just been going through things and I'm reading all this wonderful stuff, and I'm trying to persuade her to make a book of some of these addresses and papers exactly on this theme, on the theme of the position of women and the classification of women and what she can say about it. Because she has a really extraordinary unusual take on it. She has as a professional she spent all her time looking at this, but then also seeing a lot of the dissonance. So I found all these talks that she'd given that I had seen before, in Omaha in the '60s. I was pulling out these things. And I'd like her to make a book of that.
EL: Be sure to do that this afternoon, give me some pointers on what you want me to include. Because I could write it very easily. Once I get the idea, based on what you're saying, the idea is to me very good. I could write a bunch of stuff.
DC: Yes, you could. I mean, you've got enough right now just in terms of the papers because they're funny and interesting and available and very well written. They have an historical interest in that they're written at that time. But they also have a continuing interest.
EL: There's one thing I'd be sure to do and that is to make it palatable to the reader. Because so many women could be affected by bad exposure, something that is not so well presented in some ways. And because of my interest in language and because I've always been interested in languages, I learned to speak German, French, Italian, English and those basic ones that I could use daily with anybody.
Q: That's wonderful.
DC: Isn't it?
Q: Do you have any sense then of how women of that era compared with women let's say for purposes of this of the early '90s. That is, you said in the last six years you've been focusing on your writing. But the comparison between the women of the '60s and '70s and the women of the late '80s, early '90s.
EL: I noticed that there were subtle differences because women finally realized that things aren't always what they seem. And so when I tried to point out to those women in my talks with them when we have meetings and I belong to so many clubs and I would say the same things, maybe slightly different words here and there, depending on the nature of the people. And what I tried to do was be to present it to that particular organization in a way that suited them and their work. Because sometimes the work itself can control what you do about it. Some things you can't correct. There are some things that you can correct and you don't, which is even more important. For me it is anyway, because anything that can help in any particular situation to me that helps women to realize that they're not perfect, but they have to be as perfect as they can.
Q: Strive for the best.
EL: Exactly. That's the only way I think they can afford to keep their heads high.
Q: Now, Diane, is there anything we haven't talked about that you think I might find interesting or my colleagues might find interesting about your aunt's career or that era?
DC: There's a lot. One of the things that interests me as someone interested in American culture and history and education is that a lot of the basic principles that Esther espoused in her job and in her speaking and in teaching are the ones that we're still looking at, are the ones that stand out that are really solid and useful. I mean, things like concentrating on getting the job done, on competence, on clear senses of analysis, on really making things work in a way that you can explain and that you can distinguish and that you can respect.
It's very hard to argue and to understand even a lot of the issues of power that go on in gender issues, that go on in any kind of organizational issue. We're always jockeying with things that we don't even understand in our family dramas or our personal dramas. But it's useful to try and understand and also to take public positions and to have discussions in a nice friendly way and to try and come to some good social sense.
I mean, the line you hear all the time of her saying be careful, be tactful. I mean, the poet in me wants to sometimes say to her, well, maybe we're not ambitious enough. Or maybe we shouldn't have to be so careful. And why do women have to be so careful and men don't have to be. There are a lot of questions like that, that you could ask. But the truth is that the generous spirit is always trying not just to push the self forward, but to look at the project or look at the family or look at the issue that we share.
And so much of her career has been in a really tricky business of trying to make distinctions on which things are going to ride. People's self-esteem, how much money they make, all sorts of things. And you can't solve every problem in the same kind of way, but you can try to use words and to use your wits to do the best you can to analyze those.
And there's that wonderful clear light that you see in all her work and in her writing which is very, very precise and says this is what we're looking at. Can we solve everything? Probably not, but let's try. And so there's a sort of energy and clarity.
There's a lot of material which I'm now going to spend more time helping her organize and I think it might be a good useful thing for you guys.
Q: Well, anything that you feel that you can give us, we would be grateful for. Because hopefully this project is going to go through a second phase that will go on for another two or three years and will be a really major look at--
DC: Well, I spend one weekend a month always with Esther. I come down from Buffalo. And I can see that we can work in the next couple of months and assemble a package for you that might be really helpful and outline it so they could say what it was.
Q: And you can call me. All right. Anything else from either of you?
DC: Well, I spend one weekend a month always with Esther. I come down from Buffalo. And I can see that we can work in the next couple of months and assemble a package for you that might be really helpful and outline it so they could say what it was.
Q: And you can call me. All right. Anything else from either of you?