By Sheila Collins
Noreen Connell, a long-time NJFAN activist and member of both the Board and Executive Committee, has had a distinguished career as an advocate for women’s rights and employment equity. She holds a Masters in Sociology from the New School. Her activism began when she was a graduate student during the re-emergence of the feminist movement in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. She is the co-editor of Rape: The First Sourcebook for Women (New American Library, 1974) which published the transcripts and papers that were presented at the 1971 New York Radical Feminists conference and speak-out.
Noreen’s concern about economic justice developed early in her life as a result of the economic uncertainty her family faced. She helped pay her way through Beloit college by serving in the cafeteria as well as stuffing envelopes in the alumni office. During her field work assignment, which was in a women’s prison, she saw for the first time how low-income women are treated in the justice system. As she puts it:
This was a dramatic introduction to how the uglier side of laws, education, and the justice system impacted very poor women, White, Black, Latino, and Native American. When I was trying to teach the prisoners Spanish, no one in my class knew what a pronoun was. I found that out of more than 40 women prisoners, only two had graduated from high school. A good number had dyslexia and didn’t know how to read or even compute numbers. Imagine trying to work as a waitress or store clerk with these limitations. So, they passed bad checks, went into prostitution, hung out with gangs. Not too many were in for drugs—that was still to come. When I went back to Beloit and volunteered in the parole office, almost all the parolees had the same difficulty reading and computing.
But the issues went beyond education. When I taught sewing in prison, I found out that my star pupil had gotten a life sentence for murdering her husband after years of brutality towards her and her many children. Unbelievably, some of the women were sent to the prison because they lived in rural communities where some judges viewed having out-of-wedlock babies as “lewd and lascivious” behavior. This was in 1967, when abortion was illegal.
Noreen would go on to graduate school at Northwestern and the New School, helping to work her way through by waitressing. That experience presented yet another insight into women’s economic plight. For six years she worked in what she called, “lousy” restaurants. “To work in better ones,” she recalled, “very often you had to pay a bribe of two or three hundred dollars. Now the bribe amounts are much higher. Worse, New York’s lack of labor law enforcement means that waitstaff sometimes earn less than minimum wage.”
In the early 1970s, Noreen co-founded Women Office Workers (WOW). During her tenure at WOW, she filed age and sex discrimination complaints against five employment agencies. Her own commitment to eliminating gender discrimination in employment was reinforced by her three decades as a volunteer on the Women and the Workplace Committee at the city and state levels of the National Organization for Women (NOW), where she served as New York City Chapter President (1977-1979) and New York State President (1984-1988).
Working with attorney Barbara Rochman, Noreen was able to secure federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) funds to secure dockworker jobs for low-income women in Brooklyn and New Jersey. Ultimately, this CETA program was transformed into the federal Job Training and Partnership Act (JTPA) to help women secure jobs in the direct-mail industry. She and former New York State Assemblymember Sy Posner created a successful coalition allowing pregnant workers to collect paid maternity leave–among the first programs to do so in the nation.
“These victories are bittersweet,” said Noreen, “because the workforce remains largely sex-segregated for low-income women and because 40 years later there is still no federal paid parental leave. Ronald Reagan’s election ushered in a backlash against affirmative action and enforcement of anti-discrimination laws that is ongoing.”
From 1983-1984, Noreen served as Assistant Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor from which she resigned after being elected President of NOW-New York State. She served for 18 years as Executive Director of the Educational Priorities Panel, a coalition of organizations dedicated to securing more funding for New York City public schools. She has also served as a board member of the Workers Defense League (WDL) for more than 40 years. WDL helps workers receive Unemployment Insurance in the State of New York.
Noreen joined the National Jobs for All Coalition (NJFAN’s former name) at the urging of co-founders Professors Sumner Rosen and Helen Ginsburg. She had worked with Helen in a 1970s coalition on behalf of federal full employment legislation. This is how Noreen expresses her commitment to NJFAN’s goal:
I admire the collective effort to restructure our economy, “to ensure that everyone has a job at a living wage.” Before President Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security Act was created, old age or the death of a working parent meant the poorhouse for many millions, generation after generation. In 1944, 78 years ago, Roosevelt proclaimed his Economic Bill of Rights in which the right to employment was the most fundamental. Our greatest challenge today is to educate the public that unemployment and low wages can be eliminated. The economy now works mostly for monopolies and profiteers at great human cost. We can change this.
Sheila Collins is Professor Emerita of Political Science, William Paterson University and Co-founder and member of the Executive Committee, National Jobs for All Network (NJFAN). The author of numerous books and articles on politics, public policy, social movements, and religion, her latest publication is a biography of a leading human rights activist: Ubuntu: George M. Houser and the Struggle for Peace & Freedom on Two Continents (Ohio University Press, 2020).