(Craig Crawford, The Orlando Sentinel, 7/19/1987) — One day in the spring of 1980, Diane Joyce took a break from her northern California job shoveling asphalt, put a dime into a phone outside a convenience store and helped expand the rights of America’s working women.
The call was to the affirmative action coordinator of Joyce’s employer, the Santa Clara County Transportation Agency. Joyce complained that because of her sex, the agency had refused to promote her from road maintenance worker to radio dispatcher.
“I was angry,” said Joyce, 49. “Five years earlier I applied for it, and they told me I had no experience on the road crews. So I got the experience, and they still weren’t going to promote me.”
Joyce is a widowed grandmother who wears jeans to work and curses freely. A supervisor once wrote in an evaluation that she “doesn’t act like a lady.” Years ago she grew tired of conforming to expectations.
“I challenged what I was told about who I was supposed to be,” said the thin, chain-smoking Chicago native. “But you know the attitude: A woman with an opinion is ‘argumentative.'”
Recognizing that it had fewer female workers than did the area’s private employers, the county relented and promoted Joyce. But Paul Johnson, the man in line for the job, sued the county, claiming reverse discrimination.
A federal judge voided Joyce’s promotion, saying the county had violated laws against discrimination by considering her sex in the decision. So Joyce, who was not a party in the lawsuit, was forced to return to the road crew.
Then, in 1985, a federal appeals court in San Francisco decided Joyce’s promotion was fair because the agency was trying to remedy an imbalance in its work force. Of the 238 employees in the job grade that included radio dispatchers, none were women at the time of Joyce’s promotion.
After the appeals decision, Joyce regained her dispatcher’s job. Johnson took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it became the climax of a long struggle among the justices over whether affirmative action amounted to unconstitutional discrimination in reverse.
In March the justices agreed with the appeals court and upheld Joyce’s promotion. It was the first Supreme Court endorsement of affirmative action for women and the first ruling to give minority and female workers special treatment on the basis of statistical evidence of hiring imbalances rather than proven discrimination.
The decision, along with an earlier 1987 case in which the justices allowed strict quotas, has given companies their first clear signal to move ahead with affirmative action.
Joyce, who once refused to join the National Organization for Women because “they’re too hard on housewives,” became a model for feminists. Her picture was on the front page of The New York Times. She appeared on Donahue and was interviewed by reporters from as far away as Italy and Japan.
On the job last month in the tiny green building where she keeps track of the county’s maintenance crews, Joyce berated a driver over the radio.
“Knock off the coffee and get on time,” she told him. Then, off the radio, she added, “That should embarrass him.”
Joyce relishes her work, which, in addition to keeping track of the drivers, includes organizing time sheets and completing maintenance reports. She scoffs at the notion that some jobs and lifestyles are for men only, an attitude that haunted her during Supreme Court arguments about her promotion.
She recalled that Justice Antonin Scalia argued that no woman had filled the job of dispatcher because none had wanted it — and that he later wrote a bitter dissent to the majority opinion. “Well, I’d like to meet him in a boxing ring with a pair of gloves,” Joyce said. “You’d see a 100-pound woman who could lift a ton.”
Joyce is used to resisting what she considers prejudiced men. Her high school guidance counselor in Chicago wouldn’t let her take a shop class because “nice girls don’t.”
At the University of Illinois, her faculty adviser discouraged her from majoring in architecture and pressured her to study liberal arts. “After several weeks of dance and other junk, I dropped out.”
For a while Joyce thought about joining the Army, but friends told her that “only women who were lesbians went into service. I figured it would be a good way to meet men.”
Later, she often fought her husband over her “masculine” habits, which included getting a full-time job. When he died of cancer in 1969, she moved to California with her four children and started working for the transportation agency.
“There was no women’s liberation then, and no assertiveness classes,” Joyce said. “It was just me against all the brainwashing. Even today, a lot of women are brainwashed into thinking they can’t do some things.”
The Supreme Court victory “restored most of my faith in what they taught us about equality in civics class,” Joyce said. “One of my duties at work was to raise the flag each morning. For a while I cursed the thing all the way up the pole. Now I feel proud of it again.”
[Update: Diane died in 2011. Over the years we stayed in contact, sporadically. I’ll never forget her favorite saying: “The sin is not to try.” — Craig]