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Herb & Joan Peterman: Actively Seeking Equality For Women Since The 50’s

Special To Topanga Journal

They lived through discrimination against women in the 1950’s and beyond, but you’d think they were a millennial couple from their viewpoints. Herb Petermann and his wife, Joan, live here in Topanga. They’re both actively involved in equal rights for women and have been ever since they can remember. Herb Petermann found he became a feminist after he witnessed his Mom heavily discriminated against beginning in the 1950’s.

Kriss Perras headshot by Alan Weissman

By Kriss Perras

“It was typical of that time. Joan, you had similar experiences when you were working for the post office,” said Herb Petermann to his wife, as she nodded in agreement. “My mother was a supervisor in a company that made relays. She trained the men.”

ICYMI, this is huge! Today, women run large corporations, are doctors, instead of midwives, senators, governors, voters and even run for President and win by 2.9 million votes. A woman training men in the 50’s was rare, but there’s a dark side.

“They paid her less than the people she trained,” said Joan Petermann.

“Herb Petermann’s Mom had trouble getting paid for her skill, not just equal pay for equal for work.”

“I came from Vienna, Austria originally,” said Herb Petermann. “There my Mom worked as an electronics technician. She was very experienced with all kinds of electronics. Here she worked at a company in Whittier.” 

Herb Petermann said the management at the Whittier establishment told his Mom they couldn’t pay her more than the men. They said it wouldn’t be right, because she was a woman. His mom asked the company to at least pay her the same amount as the men were getting even though she was training them. The company refused. 

“I told her why don’t you just quit? There must be other jobs,” said Herb Petermann.

“It would’ve been the same wherever she went,” said Joan Peterman.

“It could’ve been different,” said Herb Petermann. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that, but I tried to encourage her to just find another job.”

Herb Petermann’s Mom had trouble getting paid for her skill, not just equal pay for equal for work. We didn’t yet have that law in the 50’s. It wasn’t until 1964 that Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act including the prohibition against employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or sex. Prior to this, there was a severe separation of the sexes.

“In those days they separated jobs listings in the jobs section of the LA Times, or in any newspaper,” said Herb Petermann. “If you had to get a job, if you were a man you looked at the men’s section. That’s the only jobs you could get. If you were a woman, you looked at the women’s section.

Jobs in the men’s section were typically engineering, and women’s jobs were secretarial, both the Petermann’s said. It wasn’t until 1965 case of Weeks v. Southern Bell, that didn’t end until the 5th Circuit Court decision in 1969 that marked a change. It was a landmark case that would pry open economic opportunities for women across the nation. 

In Weeks v. Southern Bell, a female employee of Southern Bell asserted the company refused to give her the job vacancy based solely upon her sex. 

Joan Petermann had a similar experience as in the Weeks case and Herb Petermann’s Mom. She wanted a certain job position and was told no, only men could have the job position she wanted.

“I started off in advertising art,” said Joan Petermann. “And I left when I found out ad companies didn’t hire women to do the artwork, but it would be real good if I could type well. I might get a job at the front desk, and then maybe somehow I could work my way in. A friend of mine got in while somebody else did the artwork. She just followed a sketch and pasted it up for a photograph for a print ad. I said phooey on that. I switched to fine art.”

“These are the paintings she did,” said Herb Petermann pointing around the room to Monet-esque paintings. The works were very much like Monet’s waterlilies and other Monet works.

“In art school, my paintings weren’t anything like this.” continued Joan Petermann. “These are personal. I had to work my way through. I wasn’t making much money. I was working nights at an insurance company doing filing.” 

Joan Petermann said she found out about employment at the post office. They were hiring for the night shift, because everybody would throw their mail in when business closed. Their main sorting station downtown wanted to have more employees at that point to come in around 5 o’clock. She was required to take a civil service test. Then she was told they didn’t hire women but their policy would change. The post office would be required put in a women’s restroom. 

It was 1960 when she finally got called in. She said there were seven women who walked into a very large place. It was a block, the Terminal Annex next to the train station in downtown Los Angeles. 

“We’d park our cars in a lot and walk through Olvera street to get to it, because their parking lot would fill up,” said Joan Petermann. “It was a weird feeling. Another prejudice was there were like 98 percent black men working there, because it was the one job they could get. There was so much discrimination against the blacks. On a job application it would ask for your race, religion and your sex. They could turn you down on any of those. If they didn’t like your religion, your race or your sex.”

In a burst of laughter denoting his feelings of how preposterous the whole thing sounded, Herb Petermann said, “I didn’t realize they discriminated against religion. One of the reasons the riots in Watts started was due to job discrimination and a lack of respect for civil rights.”

“Also Blacks couldn’t get jobs,” said Joan Petermann. “Women had an easier time, because they could get jobs as maids or housekeepers. I got a job teaching in South Central LA. When I would drive to work, it was right after the Watts riot. In fact, there were still a few buildings burning. You would see the black men sitting on their front stoops. They couldn’t get work. If you did see them working, before the automatic elevator, they’d be running elevators or cleaning the offices at night.”

“It was hard for them to get jobs,” said Herb Petermann.

“Porters on trains. They could get that job,” said Joan Petermann. “You never saw a black mailman going door to door.”

“But they could work in the Annex,” said Herb Petermann. “But they couldn’t work as postmen.”

“Where nobody saw them,” said Joan Petermann. “And the working conditions were so bad that nobody wanted to work there anyway.”

Herb Petermann recounted his experience with discrimination against minorities in the workplace during the Civil Rights Movement.

“I worked in the inner city as a machinist, as a tool and die maker. I didn’t see any blacks,” said Herb Petermann, who is now an engineer. “This was in 1961. I worked during the summer to make money so I could go to college. There was only one black man one time I saw in the company. This was on Slauson and Vermont. He was an apprentice. We showed him how things were done. That was it.”

Joan Petermann’s work life at the post office was arduous. She said a worker could never sit down during their shift. The orientations he received instructed her there were to be no breaks. She could leave her post once to get a cup of coffee, but she had to stand while drinking the coffee. If she went to the restroom, she had to be back in ten minutes. She said it was a big place. She had to walk quite a distance just to get to the restroom. 

“As a part time worker, I had a contract that said they couldn’t work me more than six hours,” said Joan Petermann. “They had to work me at least three. I was guaranteed a certain income. One time I went to the restroom, when I came back, a supervisor was going to write me up for taking too long. Three write ups and you get fired. He said I took eleven minutes. I didn’t have a watch at the time. There were clocks hanging from the ceiling. I pointed to the clocks. They were as much as five minutes apart in the time, so he couldn’t write me up. That’s where the term going postal comes from. Some people just crack.”

“It’s true. I had a friend who couldn’t stand it,” said Herb Petermann. “He was there for less than a day. He just quit. He couldn’t stand the regimen.”

“I was there for five years,” said Joan Petermann. 

The Equal Pay Act (EPA) of 1963 prohibited sex-based wage discrimination between men and women who perform jobs that require substantially equal skill, effort and responsibility under similar working conditions. According to statistics from the Institute For Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), women are almost half of the workforce. They’re the sole or co-breadwinner in half of American families with children. They receive more college and graduate degrees than men. These studies show female full-time year-round workers made only 80.5 cents for every dollar earned by men, a 20 percent gender wage gap. In middle-skill occupations, there’s a 66 percent wage gap for women. 

If this same slow change continues as in the last 50 years, it will take until 2059 for women to reach pay parity. For Hispanic women, it will take until 2233 and Black women until 2124 for pay parity, according to the same study. A recent regression analysis of federal data by IWPR showed equal pay would cut a working woman’s poverty by more than half and add $513 billion to the national economy.

The National Organization For Women (NOW) points out disparity in wages of women to men not only affects women’s spending power, it creates gaps in women’s Social Security and pensions. Even men working in the 20 most common occupations for women earn more than women in those same occupations.

While still a single woman, Joan Petermann was heavily discriminated against while trying to obtain housing on her own. While moving into an apartment, with the help of two men moving her heavy bed into her room, the people upstairs could hear male voices in her bedroom. They called the landlord who evicted her on the spot for having men in her apartment! While Joan Petermann was married, Herb Petermann was gone in Europe. Joan Petermann had more discriminating experiences while on her own here in the states awaiting his return.

“I wanted to get an apartment and turn the utilities on,” said Joan Petermann. “They told me I needed my husband’s signature. I said no, a law has been passed. You don’t need my husband. I’m good enough. So I had the utilities turned on.”

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) was enacted on October 28, 1974, and amended it 1976, making it unlawful for any creditor to discriminate against any applicant on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age or because someone gets public assistance. This law was a major breakthrough for women obtaining financing on their own and was in response to the credit industry’s discriminatory treatment against women. 


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