Farewell to fem­i­nist pi­o­neer Doris Thom

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - JAMAKAYA

While pre­par­ing for the Women’s March, I learned Janesville’s Doris Thom, a fem­i­nist pi­o­neer in Wis­con­sin, died last Novem­ber. She was 97.

I in­ter­viewed Doris in 1990. The fol­low­ing quotes and anec­dotes are from my 1998 book Like Our Sis­ters Be­fore Us: Women of Wis­con­sin La­bor.

Doris was born in Janesville in 1920, the youngest of six chil­dren of Al­bert and Alv­ina Schu­macher. Al­bert was a switch­man for the Chicago & North­west­ern Rail­road. He was “a strong union man” and took the fam­ily to union-spon­sored events.

When Al­bert died in a workre­lated ac­ci­dent, the rail­road of­fered his wife a life­time pass as com­pen­sa­tion. Alv­ina de­clined and held out for a fi­nan­cial set­tle­ment, which en­abled her to sup­port her six chil­dren through the Great De­pres­sion.

“It wasn’t un­til later years when I re­al­ized ex­actly what she had done and what an ac­com­plish­ment it was,” Doris said. “My mother was a strong woman — ap­par­ently that’s where I get it.”

Doris grad­u­ated from Janesville High School and mar­ried Henry Thom in 1938. They had three chil­dren to­gether. Henry worked at the Rock River Woolen Mill, where stamp­ing wool in con­fined quar­ters dam­aged his lungs. He later worked at Gen­eral Mo­tors, where he got bet­ter pay.

In the 1940s, while Grandma Thom cared for her first­born, Doris found work at Gil­man En­gi­neer­ing, which built emer­gency land­ing gear for Grum­man F6F Hell­cat fighter planes. “The war was on. The fel­lows were gone,” Doris said. “They needed work­ers, and I was in the sec­ond group of women to come in.”

Af­ter a while, Doris and other women asked why they couldn’t do the things men did, like sharpen their own tools and dress their grind­ing wheels. At first, the fore­men were “over­joyed” the women were will­ing to take on more tasks. But when they asked for com­men­su­rate pay, Doris said, “Boom! The next day the or­der went out: ‘Women will no longer touch any kind of tools.’”

Doris got in­volved with Ma­chin­ists Lo­cal 1266 where, as a woman, she was seen as an “odd­ity.” She lis­tened, learned and was elected record­ing sec­re­tary. But even her po­si­tion as a union of­fi­cer couldn’t save her job when she be­came preg­nant with her sec­ond child. In those days, preg­nancy meant au­to­matic ter­mi­na­tion. She spent the postwar years rais­ing her kids and do­ing sea­sonal la­bor.

De­ter­mined to im­prove her fam­ily’s fi­nances, Doris be­gan to work on the cush­ion line at the Gen­eral Mo­tors Fisher Body plant in 1955. When she was de­nied a trans­fer from the fe­male-staffed cush­ion line to the all-male trim depart­ment, her long but suc­cess­ful griev­ance helped open all of the plant’s jobs to women. She be­came the first fe­male ste­ward of United Auto Work­ers Lo­cal 95 and the first woman to sit on its ex­ec­u­tive board.

Doris also served as pres­i­dent of Rock County Demo­cratic Women for 15 years, fu­el­ing the suc­cess­ful cam­paigns of John F. Kennedy, Gay­lord Nel­son and other lib­eral icons. She served on the Gov­er­nor’s Com­mis­sion on the Sta­tus of Women in the 1970s, lend­ing her ex­per­tise as a union ac­tivist. She never missed an op­por­tu­nity to share her wis­dom and en­thu­si­asm with younger work­ers and ac­tivists.

Doris, who re­mained ac­tive into her 90s, said she was “very def­i­nitely” a fem­i­nist: “I’ve had to fight for nearly every­thing I’ve ever wanted. If you hadn’t pushed back, you would have ac­cepted what you were of­fered, and I wasn’t will­ing to do that.”

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