Doris Thom speaks at a forum about local General Motors history at the Hedberg Public Library in 2010.

Women's rights pioneer from Janesville dies

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Frank Schultz
Friday, November 17, 2017

JANESVILLE--A working woman who broke down workplace barriers and became a Janesville community leader died Wednesday.

Doris Thom, the first woman to work on the production line at the Janesville General Motors plant, was 97.

In later years, she described how she threatened and persuaded plant management and union leaders to let her work on the all-male production line, where the pay was higher than she was getting in the woman-dominated cushion-making shop.

It was the mid-1960s, and Thom used newly minted civil-rights laws, threatening an equal-opportunities lawsuit in her quest to change jobs at the plant.

She had worked in factories for years by that point, including at Gilman Engineering & Manufacturing when it produced airplane landing gear during World War II.

“She blazed quite a trail for all of us,” said Mary Frederick, the chairwoman of the board at Blackhawk Community Credit Union who followed in many of Thom's footsteps.

No one would talk to Thom when she first moved to the all-male production line, she recalled in a speech at the Hedberg Public Library in 2010.

In addition to the cold shoulders, she endured long walks to the opposite end of the plant to use the women's rest room, often returning late to her work station.

She got so frustrated one day that she summoned her union committeeman and her foreman.

“I'm a married woman. I have two sons. There's nothing I haven't seen. The next time I have to go to the rest room, I'm going right up there,” she said, pointing to the men's room.

“They both said, 'You wouldn't!'”

“I said, 'You try me.'”

They soon made a place for her, she told local theater director Edie Baran, who was doing research for a musical called “Working” some years ago.

“It was just an incredible afternoon. Doris is an incredible storyteller,” Baran said.

Thom was incredible in many ways, not the least of which was working nights at the plant so her husband could work days, so they could split child-care duties.

Along the way, she became the first woman elected recording secretary for United Auto Workers Local 95 and helped found Blackhawk Community Credit Union.

Former credit union President Glenn Lea recalled Thom worked hard as a volunteer at the fledgling credit union, signing up members and taking loan applications.

“It was an honor to know her. The amount of time she put in for the credit union was unbelievable,” Lea said.

Thom eventually broke through the male wall of silence on the line. She brought two cakes for her birthday and invited them all to have a piece.

Afterward, they would say “hi” to her but quickly look away, she said in the library speech.

“She was always very strong in her beliefs. She knew she could win them over, and the cake story is a perfect example of that,” Frederick said.

“What's so funny is, she always did it with a sense of humor and a joy about it that even the people she was fighting with or whatever would enjoy spending time with her,” said her daughter, Pat Thom.

One thing many people didn't know about her was her generosity, Pat Thom recalled: “She was constantly helping people, both financially and other ways. When they were having rough times, she would just slip them a little something or make a call so they would get a job. She never wanted any credit for it.”

In addition to union and community activities, she became active in an AIDS support group after one of her two sons died of the disease, her daughter said.

Always energetic, Thom remained active with her union's women's committee right to the end, Frederick said.

Despite the early troubles, Thom's GM co-workers came to accept her, and she embraced them.

“These people I worked with were the best people in the world -- not only the women, but the men,” Thom said in her 2010 speech.

Still, it was a male-dominated workplace.

Frederick began working at the plant in 1973, and she would hear co-workers say, “I would never let my wife work here,” or “I would never let my daughter work here,” or “The only women who work here are ...”

Frederick said women continue to face workplace obstacles, and that's why Thom's example was important.

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