Betty Tianti dedicated her life to the advancement of the labor movement. In doing so, she made history in 1985 when she was elected president of the AFL-CIO in Connecticut, becoming the nation’s first woman to head a labor federation. Tianti further made history three years later when she was appointed to be the state’s first female Commissioner of Labor—a position that had been filled by men since its inception in 1873.
Tianti was born in Plainfield, Conn., in 1929, the daughter of Theodell and Evelyn Mathieu. She graduated from Plainfield High School and attended the University of Connecticut and the University of Massachusetts. She moved to Danielson and, in 1956, started working as a machine operator at the American Thread Company in Willimantic, where she immediately joined the Textile Workers Union of America. Within a few months, not only was she promoted to machine fixer, becoming the first woman to hold that position, but was chosen union steward. After two years, she was secretary-treasurer of Local 460, and soon thereafter, was elected president of the same union.
In 1967, Tianti left the thread company to become the first woman deputy director of the union's Committee on Political Education (COPE). She returned to Connecticut three years later to become the first woman agent of the State Board of Labor Relations. In 1974, she accepted the position of Connecticut's Director of COPE and was later elected the first woman secretary-treasurer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO federation. When she was elected president of the state AFL-CIO in 1985, she used her leadership skills to coordinate legislative, educational and community services for member unions.
She also served on a number of state commissions, including the Governor's Committee on the Status of Women (1973) and the Committee on Objective Job Evaluations and Pay Equity (1986-1987). In 1988, Governor William O'Neill appointed Tianti to be the state's Commissioner of Labor, a position she held until her retirement in 1991.
Betty Tianti died in Alexandria, Va. in May 1994.
During This Time
1966 - Today: Struggle for Justice
Feminism in the late 1960s was aided by President Kennedy, who formed the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and his successor, President Johnson, who backed passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, or religion. Difficulties in implementing the law through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) led a group of women in 1966 to create the National Organization for Women (NOW), demanding “action to bring American women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now.”
A younger group called for a more radical approach to social change than simply considering what was possible to achieve politically. “Women’s liberation” demanded freedom without limitation. Some took part in consciousness-raising groups, others demonstrated against the Miss America pageant, and many discussed their expectations of mutual enjoyment of sex. They established rape crisis centers, domestic shelters, and women’s studies programs. Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act also increased pressure on universities to hire more women faculty and expand the number of female college athletes. Activist protest among gays and lesbians, such as the Stonewall Riot, symbolized this group’s potential to resist oppression.
Under pressure, many states repealed legislation prohibiting abortion. In 1973, the Supreme Court legalized its availability to women in Roe v. Wade. Also in 1973, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the ERA, and states began its ratification.
Yet, dissension arose in the ranks of the movement, as it had earlier after passage of the 19th amendment. Feminists disagreed as to whether pornography should be banned or protected as a form of free speech, and whether lesbian identities should be kept secret or disclosed. Black women were more concerned with poverty and welfare in their communities than with personal career advancement; for them, sterilization abuse was more important than abortion, and they were deeply insulted by attacks on the African American family as matriarchal and dysfunctional.
A backlash was growing in the 1970s, along with a New Right in politics. The ERA was defeated and opposition to abortion increased. Conflicts between pro-life and pro-choice candidates have impacted every presidential campaign since then.
Still, gains have been made in many areas. From 1960 to 2000, increasing numbers of women sought entry to higher education, and bachelor’s degrees awarded to them increased from forty to sixty percent. Definitions of marriage have changed, as when courts gave full rights and responsibilities and the name of marriage to same-sex civil unions in Connecticut in 2008. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 highlighted concern about sexual harassment on the job, and the number of sexual harassment cases filed with the EEOC have increased, as have judgments in favor of the women. Finally, in 2009, women crossed the fifty percent threshold and became the majority of the American workforce. Once largely confined to repetitive manual jobs, now they are running organizations that once treated them as second-class citizens.
The Women’s Movement has changed women’s lives, influenced the economy, and made debate about their roles, family life, and sexual conventions central to national politics and American history.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.