Categorized | Anachnu, Harrison_Donald_H, USA

Anachnu: Former U.S. Rep. Lynn Schenk

Former congresswoman discusses politics and local feminist history 

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

lynn schenk portrait

Lynn Schenk

SAN DIEGO – Former Democratic Congresswoman Lynn Schenk, who also served as chief of staff to former California Gov. Gray Davis and today is backing Hillary Clinton for President, says she finds it strange that some young women today tell pollsters that it doesn’t matter to them whether a woman is elected president.

Perhaps, she suggested during a recent interview, they have no idea how stifled women felt as recently as the 1970s.

“When I was younger, I wanted to change the world for women,” Schenk recalled. “It was easier then in a way because the discrimination and the roadblocks were so much more obvious.  Women could not get credit in their own name.  They couldn’t get a line of credit for a business. If a woman was a lawyer, they couldn’t get jobs; the law firms weren’t hiring us.  So we either went to work in public agencies, which had only recently hired women, or opened our own shops, and if a woman who opened her own practice went to a bank for a line of credit, they wouldn’t hear of it without a male co-signer.  If she didn’t have a brother, didn’t have a husband, but had a father who was not well, and on a disability, they would say, ‘well that is okay’ – even if the woman in actuality was supporting her father.”

Schenk related that when she married prominent San Diego attorney and USD Law Professor Hugh Friedman, she kept her maiden name, which was unusual then, but “I didn’t want to be seen as doing anything on his coat tails.  Besides I wanted to honor my father.”

Following her wedding in 1974, she went to Security Pacific Bank, and tried to open a joint checking account under her name and that of her husband.  “The woman at the desk asked if we were married, and when I said ‘yes, to each other,’ she said ‘well, we can’t do that. … It is against the law.”

Schenk told the clerk that she was a lawyer in the state attorney general’s office, and it certainly wasn’t against the law.  “Well,” the clerk replied, “If it is not against the law, it is against the policy of this bank, we don’t do it.”

That incident typified the kinds of obvious acts of discrimination that could be remedied either with court cases or via public pressure, Schenk said.

“When I went to re-register to vote after we got married, you had then little windows with the choice of “Mr.”; “Mrs.”; or “Miss,” said Schenk.  “If ‘Mrs.’ denoted married, then ‘Mrs. Schenk’ denoted my mother.  And ‘Miss’ wasn’t right because I was married; but they wouldn’t give me an alternative.  So I couldn’t register to vote. So I sued the State of California and it was in federal court.  My lawyer was my former law school roommate, Sheridan Reed, who went on to become a (Municipal and later a Superior Court) judge.  The federal judge at the time sees Hugh in the audience and leans over to him and says, ‘well, Hugh, if I did what your wife is asking and ordered the state of California to register her as Ms., what would I tell my wife?’  These things were obvious.  For a judge to say to a woman, ‘you may not wear pants in my courtroom, you need to wear a skirt’ in front of a jury – today the discrimination is much more subtle.  A judge won’t say that, but he may be thinking it.  It is much more subtle.  The fact is, though, women still are treated differently.”

While all were government attorneys, Schenk; Judy McConnell (then an attorney for CalTrans and today the presiding judge of the state’s Fourth District Court of Appeal); and Elaine Alexander (then a deputy attorney general) all went  in 1971 to the Grant Grill, which at the time had a sign that said “No women before 3 p.m.”  A male colleague, Sam Alhadeff, made a lunch reservation in his name but didn’t accompany the women to the eatery.  Located inside the U.S. Grant Hotel, the Grill was famous for its mock turtle soup and was known as a meeting place for bankers, lawyers, and city officials.  The three women attorneys—tired of having limited lunch place choices—wanted in.

“In New York there was a bar called McSorley’s Old Ale House,” reputed to be one of the oldest bars in New York City, which was off-limits to women, Schenk related. “Some women sued in federal court and the federal district court judge found for the women.  The decision was later overturned, but we found out about the decision, and this was before faxes or Internet.  I got a copy of the decision which had no bearing on San Diego, or anywhere except in that district.”

When the three women arrived at the Grant Grill, they were greeted by the maître d’, with a big smile, who said, “Ladies, let me escort you to the Garden Room,” which was located on the other side of the hotel’s lobby.  “Oh but we have a reservation here,” the women said.  “Oh, that is not possible, you see the sign.’  We gave Sam’s name.  He said, “Well, he should not have done that, and he is not here, so we cannot seat you.  Besides your ears would be offended by the conversation that goes on.’”

Schenk said the women assured the maître d’ they had heard such language, and were not easily offended.  “I pull out a copy of this case. I said, ‘Here is a federal case.’  I asked ‘Are you a private club?’ He said ‘No.’ Judy asked another question, and we said, ‘Well, you are not a private club, and you have a liquor license from the State of California’ and ‘I have a federal case here that says you must seat us.’  He didn’t know what to do.  He seated us, and everybody there booed.  All these grand gentlemen of San Diego, they booed!  So we made another reservation, and this time he was ready for us.  The Grant Grill has an entrance on Fourth Avenue; they have a vestibule with frosted glass where you could hang your hat and your coat, and that’s where he set up a table for us.  He never asked for that case, or gave it to the lawyers there.  Today they would take the case to their fancy lawyers, and they would say ‘this is baloney, it doesn’t apply.’  We went back a third time and we took a table, and they took the sign down.”

Today the Grant Grill displays a plaque commemorating the courage of Schenk, McConnell and Alexander.

After serving as deputy attorney general, Schenk was hired as an attorney by San Diego Gas & Electric Co.  Even though the company put her picture on the front page of the company newsletter, trumpeting the fact that women now were being hired in professional positions, Schenk said she encountered discrimination at SDG&E, which she immediately challenged.

The situation started when Schenk was in the elevator and SDG&E’s CEO Walter Zitlau got on at another floor.  “I am wearing boots and a skirt,” and later “my boss, the general counsel, calls me in, and he wants to remind me that there is a dress code for the ladies at SDG&E and ‘you may not wear boots.’  I was stunned.  I said, ‘You didn’t tell me that when you interviewed me,’ and he said, ‘Well, it didn’t come up,’ and he shows me the employee handbook. There is a dress code for the ladies, but no dress code for the men. I said, ‘That is illegal; men wear boots all the time and you can’t have a dress code that allows them to wear boots but not the women.’  He says to me, ‘If you do a legal memo for me, not on company time, but on your own time, I will take it to the chairman.’

“So I went to the Law Library and I researched. In those days there was no Internet, and I came up with a plausible legal memo, and then I didn’t hear anything.  In those days, the company had, like in high school, a loud speaker system, which the principal used to make announcements, and we hear, crackle, crackle, cough, cough, ‘This is your CEO and Chairman Walter Zitlau.  I have been informed by the lawyers that we can no longer enforce the dress code for the ladies where we prohibit them wearing boots or pants, so from now on ladies will be able to wear boots or pants, but let me say this: in my mind, women who wear pants or boots look like ladies of the night.’”

Ever since then, Schenk said, she has been known by SDG&E employees and retirees as “Boots Schenk.”

Someday when they write her epitaph, she said, people will not remember the good she did as Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing, in Gov. Jerry Brown’s Cabinet, nor her accomplishments in Congress, nor her work as Governor Davis’s chief of staff.  Instead, she said, they’ll remember the Grant Grill and ‘Boots.’

A postscript to this story is that Schenk now serves on the board of directors of Sempra Energy, parent company of San Diego Gas & Electric.   “It only took me 40 years to get from the 17th floor (where the lawyers worked) to the 19th floor (where board meetings are held.).

Asked what impact Hillary Clinton’s election as President might have on women, she responded: “I think it will make a huge difference in the goals of children who are girls, who will see they can be President of the United States, just as I think Barack Obama broke that open for Americans who are people of color.

“Looking back on my at my own time in Congress, brief as it was (January 1993-January 1995), or the longer time that I was in Sacramento (1977-83 under Governor Brown, 1998-2003 under Governor Davis), there were many, many men—my late husband included—who were very supportive of women’s issues and the need to make change,” she said.  “But I have never met a single man in office who was willing to horse trade his vote for an issue that pertained only to women.  Let’s take the issue of equal pay or abortion funding.  For the women in Congress, these issues were priorities, and if someone came to them needing a vote on some other issue, the answer would be ‘well okay, but here is what I need a vote on…’  While men would vote for the issue, they weren’t willing to do the horse trading for those issues.  So that is how it makes a difference in priorities.”

Agreeing that there was a close analogy in terms of symbolism between Obama as the first black President and Hillary Clinton as possibly the first woman President, Schenk was asked her reaction to her fellow Jew, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who could become the first Jewish President.

“He doesn’t really identify as Jewish,” Schenk responded. However, she added, “I think it is great that Bernie Sanders is running for a lot of reasons; that (being a Jew who has won some state contests for President) is one of them.  I think also that he has helped sharpen Hillary Clinton’s campaign.  He has brought out young voters, and I remember when I was young the big division in my household was that my mother was for Robert Kennedy, and I was for Eugene McCarthy.  I think the idealism that young people have is very important for the process.  He has brought them out to vote, and I think that is terrific.  I have no quarrel with Bernie Sanders.”

What does she think of the Donald Trump phenomenon?

She responded that when she was canvassing Democratic households in Nevada for Hillary Clinton on Valentine’s Day weekend, “I had more than one look to the left and the right and then tell me, about Trump, ‘I can’t stand how he is saying it, but what he is saying, there is some truth to it.’  He is a stem-winding populist.  But he has the press penned in, and if he doesn’t like what a photographer is photographing he’ll have him thrown out.”

Does she hope another Republican might beat Trump?  “I like John Kasich,” she responded. “I served with him in Congress. He is very conservative but he is a straight shooter. He and a Democratic congressman from Minnesota by the name of Tim Penny created the Penny-Kasich Caucus which tried to bring together the middle from both parties to talk about issues and legislation.  He was a practical, down-to-earth guy.  I liked John, though I wouldn’t vote for him against a Democrat. But I think in him, what you see is what you get.”

On the refusal of Republicans in the U.S. Senate to consider anyone President Obama nominates to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court caused by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, Schenk noted that her fellow Democrats had suggested doing the same thing during Republican administrations, the lesson being, “Be careful what you ask for.”

However, she said, “I think President Obama is right, he has another ten months, it is his job, and they ought to consider.”

Will their refusal to consider anyone help or hurt Republicans? I asked.  “I  read that some of the Republican senators from the more moderate states worry about that,” she said.  “I long ago stopped trying to predict.  I have been wrong so often.  That is one of the things that comes with age–you look back and you see how often you were wrong when you tried to predict what the electorate will do.  I am reasonably hopeful that Hillary will win, so if we don’t get someone named by Obama, we will get someone named by Hillary and they will have to act.”

We turned to California’s race for U.S. Senate, in which California Attorney General Kamala Harris is opposed by Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez.  Schenk has remained neutral in that contest, but she said she wouldn’t be surprised if Harris came in first and Sanchez second in June and that contest continued until the November election.  “It is interesting that we have an African American woman (Harris) and a Latina (Sanchez).”  In a State Senate race she has endorsed former Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins of San Diego.

Schenk also has endorsed Barbara Bry, “a longtime friend of mine,” in the First District San Diego City Council race.  For the most part, however, Schenk says she has become weary of many political races, explaining: “Gray (Davis) had a saying: ‘I’ve seen this movie before and I know the ending,’ maybe not the same characters, but we have seen the plot line.”

Her major political passion is helping to get Hillary Clinton elected.  Besides canvassing door-to-door in Nevada, she organized a fundraiser for the former First Lady and Secretary of State that was held at the La Jolla home of Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs and Joan Jacobs at which $600,000 was raised, which “is pretty good for San Diego.” By comparison, in 2008, it took two fundraisers to garner the same amount for Hillary Clinton

Besides on the Sempra board of directors, Schenk also serves on the corporate board of Biogen, which researches and develops pharmaceuticals.  Additionally  she sits on the boards of the Scripps Research Institute, and the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

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Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via [email protected]. Comments intended for publication in the space below must be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the U.S.)

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