While preparing for the Women’s March I learned that Janesville’s Doris Thom, a feminist pioneer in Wisconsin, passed away last November. She was 97. I interviewed Doris in 1990. The following quotes and anecdotes are from my book Like Our Sisters Before Us.
Doris was born in Janesville in 1920, the youngest of six children born to 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 work-related accident, the railroad offered Mrs. Schumacher a lifetime pass as compensation for her husband’s death. Doris’s mother 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 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 post-war years raising her kids and doing seasonal labor.
Determined to improve her family’s finances, Doris began 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 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."
Jamakaya is an award-winning writer and historian based in Milwaukee.
Janesville's Doris Thom leaves a legacy of feminist and labor union activism.