By Karline Tierney – I was born in Auburn, New York, in 1926. My parents, Jane and Karl Koenen, already had a daughter and assumed I would be a boy, and I’d be Karl, Jr — so they did not plan any girl’s names. Thus, they added “ine” to my father’s name to suit the situation. Later they had another daughter. We three sisters never had brothers.
My mother, Jane Theobald, grew up in Waterloo and Seneca Falls, NY, living back and forth between her grandmothers because her father died when she was a year old. Her father’s family instilled in her a love of education and encouraged her to attend college. It did not happen, and she left school after 8th grade. But it was her determination that my sisters and I go to college.
My grandfather, John Koenen, had left Germany as a teenager on the advice of his own grandfather, who told him that he should go to America, for if he stayed in Germany he would be living in wars all of the time. He settled in Oneida, N.Y., where there was a substantial German population. He later married Veronica Loosman and the two moved to Auburn, NY , where he began work at the American Locomotive Co., and thus was exempt from the military.
During World War I my mother did clerical work in Washington, DC for military officers. Though she was there during the suffrage era, apparently she was not influenced by it. I regret that I never talked to her about those experiences, or her thoughts on the suffrage movement, but she was very supportive of my work for women.
My sisters and I attended our Catholic parish elementary and Holy Family High School, and later, the all-female Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y. Early in high school I was fascinated with science and went on to major in chemistry. It did not occur to me or the several chemistry majors in my class that there was anything strange about our taking chemistry, or that we as women would be inhibited in any way in such a career. I think that was one of the advantages of an all-girl college – we did not have to cope with competition from or harassment by male classmates. Part of this was the influence of WWII when demand for scientists was high and everyone was encouraged in those fields. In fact my chemistry courses were concentrated into the first three years of college because of the wartime need for scientists. The war ended prior to my graduation so there was no need to leave college.
My first experience with activism was as a college junior in 1947 when the National Student Association was forming. It was at the start of the cold war and “leftist” students (some actual Communist party members) hoped to influence and control the organization. Catholic colleges were encouraged to participate to counter that influence. The Dean, Sr. Teresa Marie, appointed me to attend the initial meetings at the University of Notre Dame in preparation for the founding of the NSA and subsequently its formation at the U. of Wisconsin, Madison. We were encouraged at Notre Dame to become active in the group and to begin recruitment of non-religious colleges in our area as a counterbalance to the “Communist” influence. I was elected Secretary of the New York State group, and began recruiting the U. of Rochester. This effort also provided a greater social life for me as I met young men there. Efforts to balance the participation in the NSA were successful and it went on to be a beneficial organization. My lesson: you can successfully effect change.
After graduation I was employed by the Federal government at the Office of Rubber Reserve in Washington, D.C. This office had been formed to oversee the development of synthetic rubber during WWII when the Japanese had captured the sources of natural rubber in Southeast Asia. Not long after I met Martin Tierney, a former chemist at Rubber Reserve who had worked in the synthetic rubber program during the war. He had studied chemistry in Germany and his ability to speak German opened major opportunities for him at the end of the war. We were married in 1949 and settled in Naugatuck, Connecticut, where his work then took him.
The years following our marriage were very traditional – I kept house, we adopted three children and opened our home to three foreign exchange students for one year each while they obtained a high school diploma in the U.S. We also provided a temporary home for several young children. In 1952, I joined American Association of University Women, which provided a stimulating environment for many college-educated women who were full time homemakers, as well as for professors and other teachers. During the 1950s my husband frequently traveled to Europe and AAUW was a great source of friends and intellectual activity during his absences.
In 1965 Marty’s work took us to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where AAUW provided new friends and activities. Sylvia Roberts, the lawyer who won the case against Southern Bell for the National Organization of Women (NOW) in 1966, informed us about the injustice of Louisiana’s laws toward women. The legal provisions of the community property system had been based on Napoleonic law and rendered women with few protections. I helped with efforts to change those laws, joined NOW and was involved in consciousness-raising related to the status of women in general. I had also begun teaching science in an elementary school. NOW was informing me of the high level of poverty among elderly women, so I resolved to work in a position that would provide a pension. My children were now grown and leaving home. I returned to college at Louisiana State U. to bring my chemistry up to date and also studied Environmental Engineering, as environmental issues were gaining prominence and the need for legislation was becoming obvious.
Led by Sylvia, Pat Evans and Margaret McIlhenny, Women in Politics was formed in the early 70s. Its purpose was to bring to light the discrimination toward women that existed especially in Louisiana. We petitioned TV and radio stations to increase the number of women on their staffs and worked to elect more women to the State Legislature. The group eventually evolved into the Louisiana Women’s Political Caucus. I served as Chair of Women in Politics for two years.
In 1972, after more than 50 years of effort by women, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment — “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.” Each state legislature now had to adopt this proposed amendment. To become a part of the Constitution, three quarters of the states – 38 – had to ratify the Amendment. In an afterthought Congress added that “there would be only seven years to accomplish ratification.”
The effort to get the ERA passed became a big part of my life and changed it – to this day! I set about to form a coalition of state organizations supporting ERA – all the major women’s organizations plus union, religious and justice groups. We reached a total of over 100 and called it ERA United, which I directed from 1972 through 1975. We opened an office, provided by one of our most ardent supporters, to coordinate lobbying efforts. We had a separate person to identify answers to objections to ERA: Francine Merritt, PhD, speech professor at Louisiana State U and a lobbying coordinator, Mary Metz, PhD, professor of French at LSU. In 1973 I became state Legislative Chair of AAUW. This provided access to whole areas of the state where women were seeking ratification. We lobbied every day the Legislature was in session. The League of Women Voters kept a hotel room across from the capitol where we’d gather for strategy sessions and rest between committee meetings. ERA did not get out of committee the first year of lobbying.
In 1974 Louisiana was selected by the national coalition for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERAmerica) as one of the states on which to concentrate that year. Many states had already ratified and the national coalition was now working where strong activity already existed. Several national organizations sent personnel to Louisiana to conduct lobbying and organize workshops. The National Woman’s Party sent their President, Elizabeth Chittick, who had successfully influenced conservative legislators in Washington, to help us. Although much progress was made, we did not achieve ratification in 1974.
I had been seeking work in the chemical industry for two years. In the course of interviewing, one company informed me that they had all male employees and would like to keep it that way. After notifying the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, I was given their approval to seek legal redress. With the help of Sylvia Roberts the lawsuit was settled in my favor.
Subsequently, that summer I was offered a position with Allied Chemical in their technical group. As I finished my workday I would go to the LWV hotel room to shower (my work was very dirty) and dress for the lobbying effort in the late afternoon and evening at the Capitol. In the late evening I was on the phone with ERA supporters using a separate phone line in my home paid for by the LWV. This was a hectic schedule! There were times when my husband and I would be shopping at midnight for the week’s groceries. On Sunday we would cook for the entire week and bring my clothing for the week to the hotel. (I must pay tribute to my husband for his patience and support during this and future times. There were women engaged in working for women’s rights whose husbands were not in agreement with them, legally or socially, and divorces resulted. My husband came to the Legislature, lobbied on several occasions and wrote letters to the Editor.)
The 70s were filled with women’s movement activities. Because of my AAUW activities and the ERA coalition I was giving speeches throughout the state. In 1975 I was appointed National Chair of the AAUW study/action topic “The 21st Century: Deciding Now”. When the committee (seven members from around the country) had its first meeting in Washington, DC, we introduced ourselves and it turned out that every member either had, or was currently engaged in lawsuits related to equal opportunity. I knew I had an activist group!
This position placed me on the AAUW Association Board and kept me in touch with the 21st Century committees throughout the nation. AAUW brought in futurists to make presentations and we put together a program on decision-making. This position also required me to travel to speak at state and regional AAUW conventions urging members to plan for and influence the 21st Century. At the end of the two-year study/action program, the committee put together a summary of actions taken by AAUW branches around the country.
In the 70s I joined and later became a Board member of the National Woman’s Party, the group founded by Alice Paul to seek ratification of the Suffrage Amendment. As most feminists know, following ratification, she composed the Equal Rights Amendment for passage by Congress, but it took over 50 years to be submitted to the states for ratification.
I attended many NWP events at the Sewall-Belmont House in Washington in the 80s and 90s. Elizabeth Chittick* was President all that time. Many prominent Washingtonians, including Cokie Roberts, Sarah McClendon, and Helen Thomas, worked with the NWP. The first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor, sometimes attended our events.
In 1974 and 1975 I was a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Women and Credit, chairing the group in 1975. In 1974 I received the Alumna of the Year award from Nazareth College, and in 1975 received the Advancement of Women Award from the Baton Rouge chapter of NOW.
The Houston IWY conference in November was a highlight for in the women’s movement. Activists in national and state politics and prominent feminists participated in drawing up a National Plan of Action. Roslyn Carter, Betty Ford, Pat Shroeder and other female members of Congress and writers and activists of all persuasions were present. It was there I met Barbara Mikulski from Maryland, who later became the first woman U.S. Senator elected in her own right.
We continued working for ratification of ERA in Louisiana and other non-ratified states. Supporters held an immense march in Washington to ask Congress to extend the seven-year deadline, which it did, with 1982 for final ratification. But only 35 states had ratified by the deadline. In Louisiana we held a Jazz funeral to note the demise of the original ERA and the start of “A New Day Beyond ERA”. The Amendment awaits further action. Removal of the deadline altogether was introduced as a Resolution in the Senate in 2012 by Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland. We who are still working for ERA support that resolution.
From 1974 on, I was working in the chemical industry. At Allied I had been assigned to the Environmental group to maintain compliance with the newly passed Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the purpose of which was to minimize toxic by-products and waste and to clean up previous dumping of hazardous materials. I began similar work in 1980 at CIBA-Geigy in St. Gabriel, LA. In 1985 I was transferred to CIBA’s headquarters in Ardsley, NY to work on Superfund cleanup. Superfund sites were those abandoned by unknown owners as well as others caused by known companies. The companies were required to clean these sites working with the Environmental Protection Agency. This transfer resulted in our move to Ridgefield, CT.
In 1983 I ran for the AAUW board position of Director of Women’s Issues and won a two year term. This again gave me a voice with members and I was able to advocate for the issues important to women in speeches nationwide.
In 1995, I joined a group from AAUW to attend the Women’s Conference near Beijing, China. As a member I provided a presentation on waste minimization. Interface with Chinese women was interesting as they began dipping into the mysteries of a competitive economy. Newly graduated women and men had the option of working for a state enterprise or of joining independent corporations usually partly owned by Western companies. The Beijing Women’s Conference was a wonderful opportunity for women from all the world to meet and work together and to again put forward plans for improving women’s lives.
As we continue our efforts to ratify the ERA, I speak on the subject whenever possible and support the efforts to remove the deadline. The work continues…
Karline Tierney now lives at the Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville, Maryland. She was the first resident to be elected to the governing Board of Directors. Karline was introduced to WYSK by her niece, Mary Lee Tierney.
A version of this article previously ran Veteran Feminists of America and is republished on Women You Should Know with the author’s express permission.
*Elizabeth Chittick had saved the Sewall Belmont house from destruction or removal to another location by using her “old fashioned” feminine wiles on the males in power — and she also saved the house from bankruptcy. She died in 2009 at the age of 100.
Images: Karline at Nat’l ERA March 1978, Washington, DC; National Karline at the Women’s Conference 1977 Houston, Louisiana delegation