Inspired to Build a Better Life For Her Kids, She Changed Her World, Too.
When Sonari Rhodes Glinton, a business correspondent for National Public Radio, thinks of his mom and her friends—the women who raised him on the South Side of Chicago–he thinks of the movie “Hidden Figures.”
Like those brilliant African-American women who toiled behind the scenes in a discriminatory era at NASA, Glinton’s mom, Dorothy, worked at Ford Motor Co.’s assembly plant in Chicago at a time when it was rare to have women working on the line, and even more rare for women to rise into management. Dorothy, like the women at NASA, not only helped to pioneer the role of women in a male-dominated industry, but she gave her kids the values and education to help them find a successful path, too.
Dorothy’s her friends were on a similar journey. “Her best friend was the first engineer at GTE. Another friend was one of the first female police officers. All of her friends were doing the same thing she was doing in different fields. They were hidden figures on their own,” Sonari says.
However, she spent years at Ford’s Chicago assembly plant training others –men– only to see them promoted over her. Ultimately, Dorothy joined a group of women who worked at the plant in a class action suit against Ford for sex and race discrimination. That case was settled in the late 1990s and Ford announced a number of changes at the Chicago assembly plant and a stamping plant in the south suburbs.
Who Wants To Work On An Assembly Line? A Mom Who Wants More For Her Kids
As a single mom to two kids, Dorothy jumped at the chance to work at Ford. In a Story Corps interview with, Sonari, who covers the auto industry among other fields for NPR, Dorothy talked about the opportunity:
I had worked in this store for four years, the whole time I was in school. So one of the clerks in the store had quit and got a job at Ford. She brought her check into the store for me to cash and when I saw her check I said, ’Mm. What kind of job you got making this kind of money?’
And I said, ’Is this two weeks?’
She said, ”No. this is one week.’
I said, ’You gotta be kiddin’!’
I could pay my daughter’s tuition. I could fill the freezer up and wouldn’t have to worry about the lights, the rent or nothin’. I didn’t want to work on the assembly line, but I thought I could do anything for a few months.
Success Is…Never Letting a Little Hard Work Get In the Way
A Miami native, Dorothy moved to Chicago with her kids and got a job working at GTE (General Telephone). When she turned 28, she decided to head back to school to get her degree and make a better life for the three of them.
“It was kind of hard with the two kids, being a single mom,” says Dorothy, who is now retired. “I did work study at DePaul. They had a good child care facility. That’s what enabled me to do that.”
When she graduated, she was working in a neighborhood liquor store—the store where her former co-worker came to cash that first Ford paycheck. Her friend’s pay for one week was nearly as much as Dorothy made for the month at the store.
That’s when she decided to apply at Ford, despite her friend’s attempts to discourage her.
“She said, ‘You just graduated. This work is hard. You don’t want to work out there,” Dorothy remembered. “I said, ‘Yes I do!’”
Dorothy had been planning to get a job with the state of Illinois. But even there, she didn’t expect to make as much as she could at Ford.
It Takes Tenacity to Ask For a Job… And Then to Stick With It
She applied and didn’t hear anything for a couple of weeks. So one day in July, 1976, she got in the car and drove to the plant.
When she arrived, Dorothy ran into some men outside doing electrical work. When she told they why she was there, they said, “You aren’t going to get a job unless you know somebody. So I said, ‘I know you. Can you sign my application? And these two old guys signed my application.”
It took a few more weeks, but she got the call to start work at the plant. The job was 10 hours a day, six days a week. And the work was hard—physically and mentally. At that time, women were just starting to take what had long been considered “men’s jobs” and there was plenty of resentment from her co-workers.
“They would put you on the hardest thing they could find to make you quit,” Dorothy recalls.
Taking the Next Step: Asking For a Promotion into Management
But she didn’t quit. Instead she decided she needed to find a job “I could do for 30 years.” She liked the benefits. She liked the health insurance. And she liked being able to “fill up the freezer and not borrow from no one.”
“One morning, I got up at 4am, got the kids up for school, put my little blue suit on and said, ‘I’m gonna get me a job as a supervisor.”
She drove to the plant and asked to see the plant manager. “We talked for an hour. I told him I chose Ford and I was overqualified for assembly line work. I wanted a job I can do, and I was curious to know why they don’t have any women in management.”
He gave her a test and she got the job as a supervisor.
“That’s when all hell broke loose. They didn’t want women bosses period,” she says. “They said, ‘You’re taking a job from a man.’ I said, ‘I’ve got two kids at home. If you die, and your wife came to Ford, wouldn’t you want her to have a good job?’”
How Change Happens: Demanding a Raise and Fighting Discrimination
More and more women were coming to work at Ford and one day Dorothy started to notice that the women weren’t being promoted.
“I had been there for 18 years and the guy opposite me would get promoted and I’m doing the same work he’s doing. One day, someone left the computer screen up and I saw how much he was making. I told them I wanted a raise. They told me never to discuss money. But if you don’t discuss salary, you stay ignorant.”
When hard times hit the auto industry, she was laid off—only to find out that men had been called back to work but she hadn’t. She had kids to take care of, so she demanded a job.
Ultimately, Dorothy filed the sex discrimination suit. She got a small settlement and a raise.
Would she do it the same way again?
“I certainly would. It was about being able to educate your kids, being able to send Sonari to a private high school, I couldn’t have done that without money.
“Believe it or not, I couldn’t have stayed there if didn’t like the job.”