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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 17, 1979. Interview C-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Gender equality and discrimination at North Carolina Mutual

Turner discusses incidences of sex discrimination she experienced and witnessed as a female employee at North Carolina Mutual over the course of her career. According to Turner, early in her career she discovered that her salary was lower than that of a male employee who held the same position. When she drew attention to the discrepancy, it was immediately rectified and Turner eventually became the first woman to serve on th executive board of North Carolina Mutual. Though she recalls facing few obstacles to her own success, she also asserts that she believed her friend, Bess Whitted, was inhibited in receiving promotions purely on the basis of sex. In this regard, she alludes to a mixed record in gender equality on the part of North Carolina Mutual.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 17, 1979. Interview C-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Now, this one is an answer to your question. We come along here, and we get to a point where they've got to do something for some of us that have been working diligently. And the company wants to show their appreciation. So they make you an assistant to the Treasurer. That's very nice. And you're real pleased that somebody's taken note that you are really trying to do, you know, and you're very happy about it. Well, at the same time that's done—usually two or three people get the same sort of thing happen to them. So, in my case, there was another assistant to the Treasurer. Well, that's OK; I never had much of a jealous streak in that area. So, that's fine. Well, North Carolina Mutual was always very slow. I guess most institutions maybe are. Very slow to add a little money along with the title. That comes mighty slow, but finally you get a little something. And you go along very happy. So, then, after a while, because you've done such a good job, you get to made, not assistant to, but assistant. Now, you know you're making progress. And at the same time, a young man comes along and gets made assistant, too. Well, you see, I don't mind. But then one day, you suddenly, for some reason or other, inadvertently—you aren't even curious at the time—but some way or another something happens, and you discover that the other, the male, assistant is making more money than the female assistant. Now, also, all during that period, you have been hearing from every source, how smart you are, and how unsmart that particular individual is. And you already have your own opinion about how unsmart the individual is, and then you have it verified. And by the same token, you've been told all along the way you've done a good job, you're doing a good job, and then you get the promotions that say they mean it. Well, you know, you take that a little while, but you can't take it forever. So, when that happened, I mulled it over over an evening, and then, on a Saturday—I believe by then we were not having the Saturday Forum; I think we stopped having the Saturday Forum then. But anyhow, I went from my boss to every single official in that building, and sat down, and made my speech. And my speech was, which I won't go all into, exactly the last thing I said to you. ‘You have told me from time to time to time that I was doing a satisfactory job, that I was doing a good job, or that I was doing a very good job. I have heard you, and I agree with you, time and time again, that Mr. X was not. And I know he was not. But I didn't complain at all about his promotion. That's quite all right with me. But when I see the check, I just want to ask you one question: were you kidding when you said I was doing a good job, or did you mean it? If I'm not doing a good job, tell me. If I am doing a good job, explain how he can get what he's getting and I'm getting what I'm getting.’
WALTER WEARE:
What was the answer?
VIOLA TURNER:
I never had any more trouble with that.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Is that right? They gave you the raise?
VIOLA TURNER:
They couldn't answer it. [laughter] Are you recording? Well, I'm not going to mention the name. I had one person to tell me about the difference in our training. This person had gotten these number of years of training. And my response was, ‘He's still dumb; can you refute that?’ So I never had any more trouble with that. And I never had another time in my life, I never asked. And I never knew what anybody else made. And I had every opportunity, because all the checks were signed by my boss until I became the Treasurer and I signed them myself.
WALTER WEARE:
Are there other times in your life when you were conscious of sexual discrimination?
VIOLA TURNER:
Not anything worse than that, nor any more than that. I probably had a little here and there, things, I would guess so. Most women do, one place or another. Some time, for no reason at all, except that they are women. But that's the only one that ever hit home with me, that I really was ready to do something about, and did.
WALTER WEARE:
What about other women in the company?
VIOLA TURNER:
Oh, certainly. I think in our company—and I will always feel that this was discrimination of the worst sort—and that's Bess Whitted. Bess did a beautiful job of what she was doing. She was the best we had, and as good as anybody could have had in her day, and in her time. And she did. She might have not done many other things the way you would have wanted them done, or somebody else might not have wanted them done, but so far as her job, and what she meant to North Carolina Mutual at the time, nobody could have done better, I don't believe. Yet, she did not make any thing like the progress that I made in later years. And she was there long enough to have made some of it. And when I would raise the question, which I did on more times than once—and she would probably have never realized that I did—I was told two things. One was, she could not handle her financial affairs.
WALTER WEARE:
Her private financial affairs?
VIOLA TURNER:
Yes, her private financial affairs. Which was quite true, to this extent. And I think there was a clear explanation for that, too; her background and everything probably was why she spent money like it had gone out of style, for clothes. And sometimes they'd just be hanging there; she wouldn't even have worn them. And she'd have five or six beautiful dresses, or anything else you wanted. And she did that all the time. Now, she paid when she got ready. And so, of course, people would be coming over there to collect, or they might call sometimes. Not often. She was quite a card. She'd be sitting at her desk. And we had a little glass like this, over here, and she's over here. And the man got off the elevator, she'd look up and she says, ‘Now, Mr. Andrew.’ Now this would probably be the manager of the biggest department store in Durham at the time. ‘Now, Mr. Andrew.’ Right out for all of us to hear this. ‘You may as well get right back on that elevator and go on downstairs. No need coming over here. I don't have any money for you. And when I get ready to pay you, I'll be over there to bring it to you. And you know I'll bring it to you when I have it, or get ready to pay you. No need to come up to my window, just get right on back.’ [laughter] And she would do that to anybody. And there wasn't a thing they could do. And they weren't thinking about stopping her. Because, I'll bet there wasn't a person in Durham, regardless to what the amount of their wealth was, that spent more money in their stores than she did. And she would pay them. When she got good-and-ready. She just wouldn't have no money after spend. And she made a lot of money. She made good money for the time. So, she didn't know how to handle her financial affairs. That was the reason they couldn't do these things. OK. They admitted that she had never done one living thing with one penny of the company's money. And I knew, personally, almost every one of the top officers didn't handle their money well. It ran through their fingers like water. Mr. Merritt was the best manager of money of anybody in the top set of officials, like Mr. C.C. and Mr. , and even my dearly beloved Mr. Cox. Money just ran through his fingers like that. OK. So that was legitimate. That was sex. I'd argue that. I don't see how in the world you can say that. And another thing: Bess has such a horrible temper. How in the world? We'd just tear up the meeting. How can you say that, when there is nobody living with a worse temper than Mr. Cox? And, you know, I love him. I love him to death, but you know, you can hear him all over the third floor when you all rile him in there. You know that. That was the truth. He was firey. He could drop off like that [snaps fingers] if you make him hot, that quick. And he would explode on anybody. And they tolerated that, because he was a good man. He was an excellent worker. And a beautiful personality, when you hadn't riled him up. They took that in stride. ‘Oh, that's George Cox.’ But they couldn't take that, and they never did do as much for Bess as they might have done.
WALTER WEARE:
Were there other women that you think were either held back or didn't receive fair treatment?
VIOLA TURNER:
That is the only person that I really felt very strongly about.