This week marks the start of Women’s History Month. To celebrate the occasion, Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman used this week’s Now & Then episode, “Women Change Makers: Three Legal Battles,” to highlight the roles of non-lawyer American women – Martha Bradstreet, Josephine Goldmark, and Rosa Parks – who pushed for more equitable national laws around divorce, labor, and sexual assault. In 1977, a Chicago secretary named Iris Rivera triggered another legal reckoning over the intersection of gender and workers rights after she refused to make coffee for her office. 

Iris Rivera worked as a secretary at the Illinois State Appellate Defender’s Office in Chicago, a state government agency that provided appeal defense for impoverished defendants in criminal cases. On January, 26th, 1977, the 35-year-old Rivera refused to brew coffee for her immediate boss, Attorney James Geis, and the rest of her 18-person office. 

Geis had circulated a memo updating the company policy, arguing that instead of taking turns brewing coffee – as had been the norm – Rivera was to consistently brew the pot. Geis argued that he was trying to avoid layoffs amid a tricky economic climate. 

Rivera refused out of hand. She did not drink coffee, and considered the task outside of her duties. Geis promptly fired Rivera, citing that she “refused to cooperate with other secretaries in fulfilling the responsibilities they have been assigned.” 

Rivera, however, was not going down without a fight. During her two-week notice period, she filed a discrimination complaint with the Illinois Fair Employment Practices Commission asking for reinstatement.

She also went to the press. “I can’t afford to lose my job. I’m a widow with three children, but there’s a principle involved,” she told the Chicago Tribune on February 3rd. 

“State regulations don’t say anything about secretaries making coffee, and I don’t think the state is paying me to stop work and make it for others,” Rivera further explained to reporters. “Ordering secretaries to fix the coffee is carrying the role of homemaker too far.” 

Geiss offered his own statement to the Tribune. “The use of time is my responsibility. And I don’t think brewing coffee is unrelated to work.” Then, Geis went on vacation to Mexico. 

The same day that Rivera filed her complaint, 40 secretaries appeared in front of her office to protest her firing. Protestors gave attorneys coffee grounds and a mocking pamphlet explaining how to operate a coffee maker. One step read, “Turn switch to on. This is the most difficult step, but, with practice, even an attorney can do it.” 

The protest was orchestrated by Women Employed, a fast-growing organization of women who worked in Chicago’s central Loop business district. The group had initially made waves in 1974, when it sued the powerful Harris Trust and Savings Bank for discrimination in response to the bank’s tacit near-refusal to promote women and minorities out of clerical roles. 

“Coffee Case – Grounds for Protest,” read the punny title of the Tribune’s coverage of the action the next morning. 

Rivera’s case was delayed on February 9th, when the Defender’s Office announced they would wait for Geis’ return two weeks later to make a final decision. Rivera was still not optimistic. “They may just be waiting for the publicity to die down,” she told the press. 

Over the following week, Chicagoans continued to come out in support of Rivera. Mike La Velle, a Tribune labor columnist who wrote “Blue Collar Views,” criticized a 1971 National Labor Review Board decision that denied secretaries the right to form unions. “The status of Iris Rivera is almost no status at all,” he wrote. “The appellate defender’s office is funded by the state on a yearly basis and even though she works for the state she has no civil service protection.” 

La Velle reserved his harshest words for Geis: “If Mr. Geis were to stomp on an orphan, his image would be complete.” 

The Tribune also published a letter from a Chicago woman named Marion Schultz, who argued a larger reckoning was at hand: “It is time that employers awoke to the fact that secretaries, particularly efficient ones, are bright, contributing members of society, and not slaves, or underlings, to be referred to as ‘the girl.’” 

The pressure campaign worked. On February 28th, Geis’ boss, State Appellate Defender Theodore Gottfried, ruled to reinstate Rivera. 

Rivera told the press she hoped that her case would reverberate. “I was hoping he would rule in my favor,” she said. “I’ve talked to a lot of secretaries since this happened. Maybe they can refuse to do things that aren’t related to their jobs.”  

Rivera still had a difficult road ahead. She had a kidney condition, and was unable to immediately return to work. She checked in to Grant Hospital for three major surgeries between February and April.

“When I went in for the first operation, I said, ‘Walk with me a little longer, Lord, because I have my sons to take care of,’” she told the press from the hospital. “He did, and if I didn’t have faith, I’d never have gotten through this.” 

Rivera continued her activism, rallying for more efficient disability pay after she waited months for hers to kick in. At one point she had $6 in her checking account. 

 She still managed to appear at a May 14th Equal Rights Amendment rally in Chicago, carrying an “ERA–Yes!” sign. 

And in late June 1977, Rivera returned to work. A new policy was in place: only those who consumed coffee would be required to brew, and they would take turns.

There was, of course, a backlash by anguished executives to the Rivera story. American humorist Art Buchwald poked fun at anguished executives in a June 1977 edition of his syndicated column. “It’s not the big things but the little things about women’s liberation that are throwing the entire country into a tailspin,” Buchwald facetiously reported, before sketching out an alleged conversation with his friend Simpson, “who works for a large conglomerate.” 

Buchwald reported Simpson’s breathless reminiscences of how his secretaries used not only to get him coffee, but to deliver the elixir “in a cup, with a sugar bowl and a cream pitcher on a silver tray.” In an extended humorous recounted dialogue, Buchwald pushed Simpson into further memories of secretaries delivering danishes, BLTs, dill pickles, and iced teas. 

If Rivera had alienated some bosses, she had galvanized secretaries around the country – a group that made up around one-third of the American female labor force. 

Similar stories of protest soon emerged. In Iowa in October 1977, Diana Becker, who had been a secretary at the Waterloo Community School District’s administrative offices for the preceding ten years, also boycotted coffee brewing. “All the years I made it, I thought, ‘This is not right,’” Becker told the New York Times in a lengthy profile

Becker commented on the collective cultural shifts toward feminism that had set the stage for her resistance: “I really didn’t think it would go this far. Years ago, the climate was a lot different, you’d just grin and bear it. But I thought now would be a good time.” 

She also offered a bit of humor about her larger relationship with coffee: “I quit drinking it, but really that’s not the reason. I think it’s stupid.” 

And she echoed Rivera’s criticism that the coffee-brewing duties reflected other stereotypically female roles. “When I took typing and shorthand they never taught me how to make coffee,” Becker said. “If I’d wanted to do this type of thing, I would have applied for work at a restaurant. I can’t be a secretary and a waitress.”

Soon, broader think pieces suggested a new epoch in secretarial work. “Better think twice before asking your secretary to make coffee for you this morning,” read the start of a February 1978 Wall Street Journal piece by labor reporter Joann Lublin. “You might suddenly find yourself confronted by her and her angry co-workers, demanding action on their grievances,” she continued. “If they don’t get it, they might bring reinforcements, with protest signs and television cameras in tow.” 

Lublin collected some of the more ridiculous tasks executives had given their secretaries. A secretary for a senior partner at the prestigious Cleveland law firm Kelly, McCann & Livingstone, revealed that her boss made her carry around freshly-sliced carrots at all times. 

The piece also included some choice quotes from intimidated businessmen. Roger S. Olsen, the senior vice president of Continental Insurance Company’s Chicago office, said, “I don’t want to have 10 to 15 women come up here, bring the news media along, pin me against the wall and throw darts.” 

By the time of the Wall Street Journal report, Women Employed – the organization that had rallied for Rivera – had recruited 820 paying members and secured $1.1 million in back pay and salary increases for women in Chicago. They had received a visit from President Carter’s Assistant Secretary of Labor, Donald Ellsburg, who promised “vigorous enforcement” of anti-discrimination law. 

Women Employed had also crafted national networks with groups of women professionals in other cities, like the Cleveland Women Working and Nine-to-Five in Boston. 

And Rivera’s quest seeped into mainstream popular culture. Nine-to-Five, for example, inspired Jane Fonda to begin developing a 1980 blockbuster of the same name. Jennifer Marlowe, the receptionist character played by Loni Anderson on the popular CBS sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati – which premiered in 1978 – repeatedly and pointedly refused to fetch coffee. 

When she was first fired, Rivera told the press that she was up front with her children: “I told them I’d been fired, and why, and they just said that I should stand up for what I think is right. They’re with me all the way.” As Rivera discovered, many others were with her, too. 

For more on 1970s protests against gender discrimination, read Sara Evans’ 2003 Tidal Wave: How Women Changed America at Century’s End

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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