While the percentage of women in the workforce increased steadily from the 1950s through the present, women did not make a significant impact in the Post Office until the 1960s and 1970s. There were not enough women in the service to justify a need for a standardized female uniform until the mid 1960s.1 Skirts had been made an official uniform option just a few years before in 19552. Some areas of the Post Office Department were more progressive than others. Women were not allowed into the U.S. Postal Inspection Service until 1969. Although when women entered that service in 1969, they were among the first employed as federal agents in any U.S. agency.
As their employment opportunities grew, women faced problems more challenging than finding well-fitting uniforms. Although Postmaster General George Cortelyou claimed to offer men and women equal salaries and opportunities in 1906, this practice was not legally established until President John F. Kennedy passed the Equal Pay Act in 1962. The act guaranteed that all federal employees receive equal pay for equal work. President Johnson followed up with his “equal opportunities” for women program and executive orders to implement its findings in 1967.
Women only comprised a mere eight percent of postal employees in 1964, but grew to represent over eighteen percent of the system just a decade later.3 These numbers include a significant increase in female letter carriers. While only 307 of the 125,000 city carriers in 1965 were women, that number had grown to 8,600 of about 165,000 in 19744. Women’s numbers in the postmaster field were already strong in the mid 20th century. In January 1976, women represented 20.86 percent of postal employees. The same year they were also 37.25 percent of the service’s postmasters.5 Progress stopped at the postal service’s headquarters door. Only 1.79 percent of postal executives were women.6
In 1974, the Postal Service declared itself “one of the world’s largest employers of women, the product of a long-standing postal tradition of providing career opportunities to women.”7 This news release did not appease those bothered by the lack of women in top management positions. A decade earlier, in 1962, Ellen Fairclough was named the first female Postmaster General in Canada.
Women looked to Fairclough’s example8 and appealed to U.S. Postmaster General E.T. Klassen for representation.9 In response Klassen founded the Women’s Program with the help of Mary Valentino, who had been hired “to design and implement” the program.10 She created a program that would, “identify women with potential for placement in high level jobs” and provide them with the needed tools and training to succeed in middle and upper management. When the program began in November 1974, women comprised 20.8 percent of the Postal Service, this number had increased to 25.1 percent by 1980.
When Valentino was hired to head the Women’s Program, she became one of the top three ranking woman in the Postal Service. She was appalled to find that only 16.5 percent of while-collar postal positions were held by women. It was, in fact, the lowest percentage in any federal agency at the time. Unfortunately, she lacked the authority to “to impact the whole system,” and found that “the program [she helped] develop was only on paper.”11 In 1977, Valentino filed “a class action job discrimination suit on behalf of all 155,000 women in the Postal Service.”12 Lillian Smith, a postmaster from Arizona, was one who benefited almost immediately from the Women’s Program. “It made me realize that I had a chance to leave the office and go out into management, and a district manager took a chance on me.”13
Other women have served also served as role models. Like Mary Valentino, Dr. Beatrice Aitchison did not have to rise through the ranks of the Post Office. When she entered the Post Office as the Director of Transportation Research in the Bureau of Transportation in 1953, she became the “first woman to be appointed to a policy level postal position”14 and the highest ranking woman of the Post Office Department. Three decades later, in 1985, Jackie Strange became the highest ranking woman in the Postal Service when she was appointed Deputy Postmaster General. In 2015 Megan Brennan was named the highest ranking woman in the organization when she became the first female Postmaster General of the United States.