Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Part Two:
Married Women's Right to Work:
"Anti-Nepotism" Policies at the University of Washington in the Depression

by Katharine Edwards

Grace de Laguna was one of a handful of prominent women educators and professors who objected to the University of Washington's "anti-nepotism" policy, which did not allow the employment of married women. The policies aimed to preserve jobs for men during the Depression, and assumed that a wife's job and salary was of only secondary importance. When Prof. Lea Miller was fired by the University of Washington, her protests made the case a national one. This article is from the January 10, 1938 issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Click the image to read the accompanying article.

(Go to part one of this series on Lea Miller and working women)

The uncertainty of the Great Depression caused anxiety for the country, and as the populace searched for a reason and a solution to the employment crisis that plagued the nation, working women became a common scapegoat. Many people believed that wage-earning women, particularly married women, were greedily purloining jobs from unemployed men and their destitute families. In a desperate attempt to create jobs for unemployed men, employers commonly established policies barring married women’s employment, while many others implemented “anti-nepotism” policies. Although “nepotism” is defined as the preferential treatment given to relatives and friends of a person in power, most organizations used it as a blanket term to describe dual employment of any two family members of the same family in one organization. After years of deliberation, the University of Washington adopted such a policy in 1936. The termination of Professor Lea Puymbroeck Miller under the ruling prompted a heated debate within the University and attracted local and national publicity, as members of the community both decried and applauded the ruling. Many supporters asserted that women’s employment was the largest contributor to the economic issues of the period, while feminists charged that the Depression was used as a smokescreen for flagrant discrimination within the University and throughout the country. Miller’s termination was not exceptional but the media attention and community outcry it garnered were extraordinary: the case provided a focal point for a public debate on working women which continued for decades following Miller’s dismissal.

Women in both public and private positions were subject to the anti-nepotism policies instituted throughout the country. In December 1937, an anti-nepotism policy took effect in Olympia, Washington, barring married women from holding employment in state positions. Like many of the policies already in effect in other states and the private sector, this ban was intended to force “married women whose husbands [were] employed or employable…to make way for persons in families where there [were] no ‘breadwinners’…in a move to spread employment.”[1] In fact, such a policy had already been enacted in 1934 in the city of Seattle and in King County. Despite widespread opposition among women’s advocacy groups, such as the State Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, Governor Clarence D. Martin refused to amend the policy.[2] On December 31, 1937, most married women on the Washington State payroll found their employment unceremoniously terminated.[3] Women employed at the federal level were at risk as well. The 1932 Federal Economy Act included a proviso that married couples holding dual federal employment should be terminated first if staff reductions occurred.

Like other organizations, the University of Washington considered nepotism to be unacceptable and implemented a policy barring it in 1936, but the anti-nepotism sentiments had been growing within the University for some time prior to the official instigation of the policy. In 1934, Lee Paul Sieg was appointed president of the University of Washington. At Governor Clarence D. Martin’s behest, Sieg eagerly took on the issue of nepotism among the University faculty, admitting that the issue was already at the forefront of his agenda.[4] In fact, as historian Richard Berner notes, the Board of Regents had already “anticipated some of Sieg’s enthusiasm as early as 1928, when that body ruled that “no more wives of faculty men should be added to the faculty or office forces.”[5] This suggests that the attitudes of the administration against dual employment had existed since before the economic problems of the Depression, when the policies were implemented.

Even before Sieg’s appointment, the administration had taken preliminary steps toward an official policy barring “dual employment” among faculty, but Sieg’s involvement raised the situation to an extreme level and instigated a chorus of disapproval from the Instructors’ Association. In 1931, University of Washington Vice-President David Thomson had already begun implementing an anti-nepotism policy at the University amidst the intensifying employment crisis of the Depression. With the support of the administration, Thomson and the newly-appointed Sieg determined in 1934 to dismiss all female faculty members whose husbands were also in the University’s employ. In 1936 the policy became official but the Instructors’ Association vehemently protested its inception. Later the same year, under duress from the Instructors’ Association, Sieg agreed to add stipulations to the policy regarding dismissals.[6] The new policy declared that, excepting cases of “extreme aggravation,”[7] short-term faculty could be dismissed with timely notice, but that permanent and tenured faculty should be given one year’s notice prior to termination and should not be dismissed without “faculty consideration.”[8] Sieg also agreed to declare the ruling non-retroactive, also at the insistence of the Instructors’ Association.

Dr. Theresa McMahon, shown here in Seattle in 1938, argued against gender-based discrimination at the Uniiersity of Washington, where she taught as a professor of economics. Prof. McMahon was encouraged to retire under the new anti-nepotism policy. Click image to enlarge. (Courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry)

However, Sieg’s concessions were grudging. In a private 1936 letter to University deans and department heads, Sieg asserted that “the resolution was not retroactive. Nevertheless, it is the desire of the [Board of] Regents that as soon as it can be done without injustice, present cases of dual employment be reduced as rapidly as possible.”[9] Indeed, Sieg attempted to persuade couples whose dual employment occurred prior to the policy’s enactment to resign from the faculty, despite the clear distinction specified in the rule. One such couple, Edward and Theresa McMahon, refused to budge. Prof. Theresa McMahon, a longtime Economics instructor, was known as an unwavering and outspoken proponent for labor rights and labor unions. In a 1937 article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, McMahon alleged that shortly after the policy’s inception, President Sieg had approached her husband, a History professor, and advised that, while the ruling was “not [made] retroactive, [Mrs. McMahon’s] resignation would be welcome.”[10] Sieg’s attempts to purge the University of married couples who were exempt from the official ruling intimates an underlying crusade separate from any attempts at unemployment relief.

Tension developed between the administration and the Instructors’ Association over the implementation of the policy, and when Sieg ardently attempted to enforce it, a near witch-hunt developed. While several couples on the faculty were allowed, despite Sieg’s fervent disapproval, to keep their employment as part of the non-retroactive addendum, one couple in particular was not so fortunate. Lea Puymbroeck Miller, a highly regarded professor in the Art department, was dismissed in January 1938, under the University’s anti-nepotism policy. Miller took a leave of absence during the previous academic year to study abroad and pursue professional enrichment, during which time she married university Zoology professor Robert Miller. Prof. Lea Miller later alleged that she had never been informed of the 1936 policy, and in fact, was overseas at the time of its inception. Sieg had attempted to keep the (“semi-secret”, as it was called in later newspaper articles[11]) ruling under wraps from the media, but in later communication to Miller and in public statements, Sieg and the Board of Regents maintained that all faculty, including Miller, were advised of the ruling. However, it remains unclear how, if at all, faculty members were actually notified. At the time of the policy’s inception, Miller was not married, and would have been excluded if Sieg had chosen to notify only those faculty members affected. Nevertheless, Miller was terminated on January 4, 1938, only one term into the academic year.

The crisis of the Depression allowed employers in many fields claimed justification in disregarding employment rights and protections already provided to individual workers. In Sieg’s fervor to reduce the number of married faculty and campus staff, he essentially ignored Miller’s contract, which retained her for the entire 1937–1938 school year, as well as his previous concessions to the Instructor’s Association. The overall faculty and the Instructors’ Association viewed this transgression as a betrayal. Miller’s appointment was not short-term, as she had been a member of the faculty for seven years and was contracted to be retained for at least another academic year. Sieg’s amendment to the 1936 decree required faculty consideration and one year’s notice prior to dismissal for tenured employees, excepting cases of “extreme aggravation.”[12] Sieg alleged that Miller’s termination, despite her year-long appointment, was completely in accordance with the Regents’ ruling because “that resolution antedates any notice of appointment. At the time of…appointment [Miller was] not then married to a member of the faculty and, therefore, it was, of course, impossible to qualify [her] notice of appointment.”[13] However, the fact remained that she was appointed, and her employment record did not meet any of the criteria for “extreme cases” outlined in the anti-nepotism policy that would have exempted her from the stipulations of the amendment. In fact, Sieg lauded Miller’s academic performance. He acknowledged in a 1937 letter to Miller that the “ruling [had] nothing whatsoever to do with the passing of judgment upon a person’s ability as an instructor or anything whatsoever with regard to the past record of employment…Please remember that throughout this there is nothing whatsoever personal. We are all deeply appreciative of the splendid work you have done.”[14] If Miller’s performance was, in fact, splendid, then no cause existed to break her contract without notice.

Art professor Lea van Puymbroeck Miller was dismissed by the University of Washington after her marriage to UW zoology professor Robert Miller, as one of the first tests of UW's "anti-nepotism" policies. Miller fought but eventually lost her case. The "anti-nepotism" policies saw married women's jobs as expendable, presuming that their husbands would take care of them, and favoring men as the primary workers. This image from the January 4, 1938 edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Click the image to enlarge.

The University administration and the Instructors’ Association clashed bitterly throughout 1937 and into 1938, and faculty involvement only served to spur the anti-nepotism tensions on campus. In a letter dated January 4th, 1938, Francis Wilson, writing on behalf of the governing board of the Instructors’ Association, attempted to persuade Sieg to operate in accordance with Miller’s contract and the stipulations to which he previously agreed. According to Wilson and the Instructors Association, there was “no basis for terminating her appointment at the end of the fall term, and… [it would have been] in accordance with good academic procedure” to follow the conditions of both Miller’s contract and Sieg’s agreement with the Instructors’ Association by allowing her employment to continue through the remaining academic year.[15] Wilson went on to admonish Sieg for his blatant disregard for the policy agreed upon by Sieg and the Instructors’ Association regarding faculty input. “It was our understanding,” Wilson chided, “that in cases of dismissal a faculty committee would be appointed to consider the matter…this was the type of procedure which you had accepted some time ago.”[16] Convinced that Sieg would not comply with the agreement, the Instructors’ Association consulted the University faculty on Miller’s termination. The results indicated that 72% of the faculty believed that Miller’s case should be reconsidered, 69% believed that intermarriage between faculty members was not cause for termination, and a staggering 98% reminded Sieg that a full year’s notice was required.[17]

Furthermore, Walter Isaacs, Miller’s direct supervisor, appealed to the administration on her behalf.[18] He claimed that her dismissal would cause not only academic detriment to the institution, as she was a highly regarded and established professor, but also financial expenditure, as her wages were significantly lower than a male professor of her caliber would earn. On January 13, 1938, under pressure from the Instructors’ Association and the newly-involved faculty Teachers’ Union, along with the insistence of the University faculty, the Board of Regents held a meeting in which they discussed Miller’s case, but ultimately upheld their initial ruling.[19] Three days later, the Regents released a public statement saying that the anti-nepotism rule had been implemented as “a matter of sound public policy to prevent two persons of the same family from drawing two salaries from a public payroll”; that all faculty had been notified of its inception; and, as Miller’s case did not fall under any of the exemptions, that “the Board [had] no alternative but to reaffirm and sustain the rule” in her case.[20] Despite the opinions of Miller’s supervisor and the greater University faculty, or the attempted intervention by the Instructors’ Association, Miller’s employment was never reinstated. Miller accepted the Regents’ decision as final and discontinued her appeals for reconsideration. She eventually relocated with her husband to teach at the University of California in Berkeley.

While Miller may have accepted defeat, the controversy escalated and received a surge of local and national attention as the Teachers’ Union, as well as public figures and political organizations nationwide, openly reviled the university and its actions. Seattle City Councilwoman Frances Powell, Washington State Representative Margaret Coughlin, and State Senator Mary Farquarson all publicly condemned the ruling.[21] The National Women’s Party, in Washington D.C., protested Miller’s dismissal to President Sieg, and the University of Washington chapter of the YWCA filed written protests with the Board of Regents and Governor Clarence Martin.[22] Additionally, the State Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs released a statement “deploring the action and calling for the appointment of a committee to talk it over.”[23] The Teachers’ Union organized the Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights, which fought against such efforts to all but eradicate women from the workplace. Eleanor Roosevelt (though not speaking directly in regard to Miller’s case) openly condemned such campaigns as the “shallow thinking of those who expect to solve the unemployment problem by victimizing working women who happen to be married.”[24] Although such employment practices targeting and openly discriminating against women had long been utilized and widely accepted, the Miller case stirred an indignant and unprecedented response from the public.

Many feminists charged that such firings were a façade for blatant and widespread discrimination against women and that such policies simply served to penalize women for marriage, rather than provide any benefit for the unemployed population. Some alleged that women were being used as a scapegoat for the employment problem and the Depression in general.[25] The scapegoat argument is proved by commentary at the time, as many people indeed believed that working women were a significant element of the unemployment problem. Political journalist Norman Cousins asserted that the simplest solution to the dilemma lay in merely removing women from the workforce and thereby creating employment for all the unemployed, and presumably more deserving, men. “There are approximately 10,000,000 people out of work in the United States today,” he declared in a 1939 article. “There are also 10,000,000 or more women, married and single, who are jobholders. Simply fire the women, who shouldn’t be working anyway, and hire the men. Presto! No unemployment…No depression.”[26] The Women’s Bureau retorted that fewer than 25% of all adult women held employment, less than one-third of those women were married, and nearly one-third of women who held employment were completely responsible for the financial support of their families.[27]

Theresa McMahon and other prominent educators protested the anti-nepotism policy and Miller's firing. This image from the January 7, 1938 edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Click the image to enlarge and read the full article.

Historian Alice Kessler-Harris has charged that such attitudes were not the result of some desperate attempt to secure employment for the unemployed or to find meaning in a shaky, dire economic period. She and other historians contend that these widely held beliefs were an anxious response to the increasing liberation women had found in the decades prior, and the qualms of the general public that the American family structure and values would be abandoned in the upheaval of the uncertain time.[28] Historian Lois Scharf agrees that the fear surrounding women’s employment was rooted in the “conventional social attitudes and values” that many people believed were weakening as women found increasing opportunities outside the home.[29]

Notions of unfairness continued to reverberate throughout public opinion in the months following the Regents’ announcement. A great deal of the debate occurred in newspaper editorials as the common public were finally empowered to speak out, by the outcry of influential public figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and illustrious organizations like the National Women’s Party. A few opponents called attention to the fact that the 1932 Economy Act had been repealed in 1937, which “established the principle of a married woman’s right to earn a living”[30] and that, although the law did not apply to Miller, it suggested the unfairness of her dismissal given federal legal standards. Some noted that Miller’s dismissal “established a dangerous precedent”[31] that allowed an assault on a person’s rights.

Conversely, Miller’s termination also bolstered those who still supported the mass dismissals of women on the grounds of dual employment. Like the opinions Cousins expressed, supporters of Miller’s termination and of the termination of married women in general charged that married women were responsible for hoarding the precious jobs denied to out-of-work men. The Native Sons of Washington, a State historical society, publicly declared support for the ruling and claimed it spoke for all 7,000 members.[32] The Executive Board of the Central Labor Council agreed that women with employed husbands, particularly union members, should refrain from working.[33] After the initial outrage that Miller’s termination caused, the public protest surrounding the incident waned, but the entrenched hostilities on both sides of the debate continued.

Throughout the following decade, the improving economy remedied the employment emergency that had outwardly prompted the unfair terminations, but the anti-nepotism attitude and its friction among the administration and faculty continued at the University of Washington. In 1944, Sieg attempted to make the 1936 resolution retroactive once more, stating that the intent of the administration in enacting the rule was to “arrive at a condition in which there were no married couples on the University staff.”[34] While businesses and other entities had used the employment predicament as justification for enacting and enforcing such rules during the Great Depression, that level of economic anxiety was hardly rampant by 1944 when Sieg attempted to make the ruling retroactive. The ostensible objective was to remove women from superfluous jobs to provide positions to jobless men, but Sieg’s comments, nearly a decade after the policy’s inception, suggest that the timing of the initial resolution was simply coincidental. Indeed, the Board of Regents had already resolved in 1928 to discontinue the hire of married faculty members, before the employment crisis, and Sieg admitted in 1934 that, prior to Governor Clarence Martin’s request, he had already considered the issue of nepotism to be critical.[35] After another battle between the administration and the Instructors’ Association, the notion to make the resolution retroactive was withdrawn in 1945. Although the anti-nepotism controversy peaked during the 1930s, the policy was still in effect, albeit with periodic modifications, until 1971.

The tribulations of the Great Depression created desperation and uncertainty among the nation that, unfortunately, became the guise for discrimination against working women. Miller’s firing created the platform for a bitter debate over women’s right to employment, but her case was neither uncommon nor extreme: working women throughout the nation, some with employed husbands and some without, were discharged in throngs without any recourse. The public protest of Miller’s dismissal was an unexpected and prodigious reaction to a common practice, which made the case a significant event in the history of labor and the Great Depression.


Go to part 1 of this series on Lea Miller and working women, Lea Miller's Protest: Married Women's Jobs at the University of Washington, by Claire Palay

 Copyright (c) 2009, Katharine Edwards

[1] “Olympia,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, 13 December 1937.
[2] “Martin Firm in Miller Case,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, 9 January 1938.
[3] “Olympia,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, 13 December 1937.
[4] Margaret Hall, “A History of Women Faculty at the University of Washington, 1896-1970” (Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 1984), 223.
[5] Richard C. Berner, Seattle 1921-1940: From Boom to Bust (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992), 285.
[6] Berner, 285.
[7] Hall, 230.
[8] Hall, 224.
[9] Executive Board of the Instructors’ Association, letter to University Board of Regents, 27 July 1944, UW Presidents Records, Box 12 (Accession Number 70-028), University of Washington Special Collections Library.
[10] Hall, 238.
[11] “University of Washington Holds Vote on Marriage Case,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, 14 January 1938.
[12] Hall, 230.
[13] Lee P. Sieg, letter to Lea Puymbroeck Miller, 23 December, 1937, UW Presidents Records, Box 12.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Francis G. Wilson, letter to Lee P. Sieg, 4 January, 1938, UW Presidents Records, Box 12.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Hall, 230.
[18] Walter F. Isaacs, letter Dean Edward H. Lauer, 5 November 1937, UW Presidents Records, Box 12.
[19] “University of Washington Holds Vote on Marriage Case,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, 14 January 1938.
[20] “UW Regents Uphold Ouster of Mrs. Miller,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, 16 January 1938.
[21] Hall, 237.
[22] “University of Washington Holds Vote on Marriage Case,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, 14 January 1938.
[23] “University of Washington Holds Vote on Marriage Case,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, 14 January 1938.
[24] Hall, 241.
[25] Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (New York: Oxford, 1982), 256.
[26] “Question of Keeping Married Women on Jobs Being Studied”, Daily Kentucky New Era, 10 October 1939.
[27] Kessler-Harris, 256.
[28] Kessler-Harris, 256.
[29] Lois Scharf, To Work and to Wed (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1980), 43.
[30] Hall, 234-235.
[31] Hall, 234-235.
[32] Hall, 234-235.
[33] Hall, 233.
[34] President Sieg, letter to Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, Mrs. Savery, Mrs. Vickner, Mr. Martin and Ms. Earle, 25 March 1944, UW Presidents Records, Box 12.
[35] Hall, 223.