Allie Latimer was the first woman and the first African American to be General Counsel for any of the major US federal agencies. But she’s better known as the founder of Federally Employed Women (FEW), an advocacy organization founded in 1968 to promote gender equity in the federal government, “because we found that no one was really focusing on the world’s largest employer and what they were doing about sex discrimination in the government”.

Latimer describes some of the early advocacy work she led with FEW in an interview (video, transcript). In August 1969, Nixon’s equal employment opportunity Executive Order was passed, and Latimer hijacked a mandated “sensitivity training course” to talk about the executive order and form a group pursuing its implementation in the Federal Service.

So on the last day of that session I asked Helen Dudley, who was then the teacher for this sensitivity training program, if she would make an announcement to find out who might be interested in determining whether or not they would like to form a group.

I had recently come out of the civil rights movement. I took a train with people to Selma. We went down in Selma every Monday morning to be in the line with the voters. And so, as a result of that experience, I thought we needed to also activate something in the Federal Service to focus on ending discrimination against women.

What we did in those early days was to make sure that the organization would represent all of the women. I remember we had a woman doctor in that group who said, “No, this should be an organization of executive women.” But these were the women that had gotten a half a rung on the ladder above the bottom and feeling that they could not reach down to pull the others up. We wanted to make sure that this did not become something that did not involve all women, races, gender – because we had men in their early days and colors – so that we could be stronger in our commitment of ending sex discrimination in the government.

Here’s another perspective on the workshop Helen Dudley was leading, from two-time FEW president Dorothy Nelms:

When Helen Dudley conducted Seminars for Women Executives in the Federal Government in 1968, she introduced an analysis of sex discrimination as part of the curriculum. Dorothy Nelms, an African-American woman working in the Social Security Program, attended one of the seminars as part of an executive development program. Recently divorced, raising two children on her own, Nelms was seeking ways to enhance her career.

During the 2 day meeting, leaders invited participants to describe their experiences of sex discrimination. Dorothy recalls that they all said, “we know what it is but it doesn’t affect us.” So the leader went around the circle asking, “Did you ever come up for promotion in your job? Did you get it? Tell me what happened.” She “made us all relive things we had experienced but had buried. Within four hours we were raging maniacs, we had become so livid.”

After a series of such seminars, a few women took the next step. They called themselves Federally Employed Women, with the pointed acronym, FEW. Nelms, who had already joined NOW and the International Toastmistress Clubs, joined FEW as soon as she heard about it in late 1968: 10 years later she was its president, and 30 years later she served a second term.

Further reading:

(I learned about Allie Latimer from Natan Last in the New York Times crossword.)