My Aunt, Chemist, Black Belt, Plaintiff

Sharon Leijoy Johnson. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibrarySharon Leijoy Johnson. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library
By Ben Miller RI '15

The elephant in the yard exits the Schlesinger Library in the afternoon as I stroll in mind-enlivening circles during my fellowship year at the Radcliffe Institute. The elephant, as I think of it, is the enormous fact that 18 cartons of my aunt’s papers are included among the library’s holdings on the history of women in America.

Having had a personal relationship with the historical figure being studied makes research a different—and trickier—endeavor. Before digging into those cartons, I must be able to sit at a library table like an adult intellectual, not an obese nephew cringing in perilous rooms.

Sharon LeiJoy Johnson, a chemist, was the mysterious aunt who purportedly “got away” from the family melodrama playing out in northern Illinois and eastern Iowa. She gardened and she traveled. She sent her older sister (my mother) an African thumb piano that made a sound like paper clips confessing secrets in tinkling code. I used to play it on the back stoop and wonder what.

My aunt had earned a black belt in karate and displayed the skill during rare visits. After being denied tenure by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in the early 1970s, she filed a sex discrimination suit and was represented by the civil rights lawyer Sylvia Roberts. The case became a cause—a losing cause, it turned out, but the ACLU, NOW, and celebrity feminists helped make it a tough battle.

I learned of the archive’s existence right before arriving at Radcliffe, while attending the wedding of Sharon’s younger son. The older, learning of my fellowship, mentioned that Sharon’s court case papers were in Boston. “At the Schlesinger?” I asked. He wasn’t sure, but I braced for a head-on collision. They would be there waiting.

Ben Miller. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff PhotographerBen Miller. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff PhotographerThe previous year, after reading my memoir, River Bend Chronicle, these cousins had separately contacted me to express fascination at certain ways that my childhood in a home of ideals-gone-off-the-rails mirrored their own experiences.

My aunt graduated from MIT with a PhD in chemistry in 1959. Earlier, my mother had earned a law degree from the University of New Mexico. This educational success—at a time when few women felt free to enter either field—says everything about the audaciousness and intellectual force of the sisters. It is even more impressive when one considers that they came from an impoverished Midwestern family dominated by a violent male. Their mother could barely read.

The degree to which childhood abuse contributed to the personal and professional difficulties the sisters faced throughout their lives remains difficult to parse. It is essential to note, though, because I looked into their faces and saw the toll—one grief tangling with another—and the resulting confusion. Getting the schooling, hard as it was, turned out to be the easiest element of their respective journeys.

The sisters, who could confront and impress the professors (most of them), graduated and met faceless hordes of barriers to career success. Though aeons ahead of their times, they were also trapped by those times and by the gender-based prejudice (casual and formalized) that limited opportunities.

During this fellowship year, I’ve heard firsthand accounts—from colleagues in a startling array of fields—of obstacles still slowing the progress of women in male-dominated institutions. This has brought into revolting (what other word?) relief the situation that my mother and my aunt must have encountered in the early 1960s as they tried to utilize the education they had studied night after night to attain.

What logic could subdue such an irrational foe—the entrenched intolerance that kept reinventing its poisonous schemes and its linguistic veils?

Aunt Sharon and my mother reacted to their systematic oppression and the myriad ramifications in opposing ways. The precocious lawyer quit practicing law and married the wrong person, an ineffectual attorney to continually upstage. She brought six children into the world in swift, absurd succession—any dream of “getting away” more abandoned with each birth. The ideals that fired her educational achievement interestingly still simmered, while coupling with an abiding bitterness or antic despair that led her to detail for preteen me the adulterous affairs of any male leader I mistakenly voiced respect for—MLK to John Kennedy.

The chemist’s anger winged outward in some equally absurd ways (karate-chopping phallic lampshades), but she continued cultivating her true talent—working as a chemist in the 1960s at the Mellon Institute, Westinghouse Research Labs, and Vassar before arriving at Pitt and then filing the suit that brought her notoriety.

This was the sort of case, I believe, that my mother dreamed of filing versus the tyranny of men. Her checkout line rantings were a poor substitute for a seriousness lost, mourned by herself and any listeners to theatrical sighs punctuating the accusations.

Often I have paged through the voluminous finding aid document kindly sent to me by Ellen Shea, the head of research services. Between the listings for court testimony and photographs and “SLJ jottings,” I see my own memories of raucous visits, exotic gifts, and cruel family gossip fouling a sleek research apparatus like oily sand.

At the end of the finding aid is a fascinating page called the Separation Record, which details items removed from the collection owing to redundancy or nonapplicability. One listed item is an “Oversize poster of Mark Spitz,” the multi–Olympic gold medalist. Is it the “silly Playgirl spread” I heard about as a little boy?

Memory, though, has no Separation Record. There is no reliable way to carve out all the subconscious imaginings and deletions that plague perceptions of events—no way, sometimes, even to filter surprisingly raw, decades-old emotions into an innocuous hum. And no juncture of ascendance can be honestly sequestered from the whole of mixed outcomes. What gets in stays in—and the gray weight of the vital and the non-vital lumbers into motion whenever the legacy is pondered.

For instance, I cannot “separate” from my SLJ record her bare foot hovering inches below the unshaven chin and lit Salem cigarette of her inebriated father. She executed one near-miss kick after the other that night, Bud can in hand. Each time, her leg halted in midair with such suddenness—so close to payback yet tragically short of justice—that the callused heel looked paralyzed by black darts of his stare.

Mostly, though, my aunt preferred not visiting and instead sending us rambling accounts of the case and its positive effects on her life. She wrote about her growing collection of pig figurines, male chauvinist stand-ins, sent to her by women across the nation. She leafleted (by air!) a Pitt football game to stir up support. Amid impressive stories of clever lawyers and cold judges and fancy activist friends were too few mentions of my cousins. I always wondered how they were dealing.

One day, in a large stiff envelope, came a photograph of Sharon onstage with Lily Tomlin at a fund-raiser. At the time, I was incredibly impressed. I adored the disorganized, squinting telephone operator Lily played on Laugh-In. Now I believe the photo was, in part, not-nicely meant to taunt the sister who had stayed behind and given up her career for 10 years. My mother did not have the shot framed.

She did, though, wrinkle it expressively and prop it up in a corner of the bill-cluttered mantel, where the image oversaw our long-winded discussions of whether Kmart or Target was more likely to have what we, the family, lacked.

Part of me does not want to enter the library with the carton of my head packed with the sadder facts of the situation: the case’s effect on a loyal husband and sensitive sons, and my aunt’s career aftermath in various labs where the most toxic substance may well have been her knowledge that something priceless she had earned had been stolen from her and never returned. She died in 2013, at 79, in Annapolis, Maryland.

Part of me wants my aunt’s newsworthy struggle to rest pristine and untouched in the archive, without my reading between the lines. But I know she liked attention, and she deserves it too. In May I will start research certain to continue during future visits to the Radcliffe Institute, a campus corner I now consider another home.

A slippery word, “home.” Many meanings collude in four letters. I am thinking here: Home is where the dream lives. The dream being the battle for equality, dignity, education, and health that must continue until every person receives their share.

The presentations of scientists, scholars, and artists in the Radcliffe Institute Class of 2015 have offered remarkable glimpses into what might have been possible for two sisters had they been able to overcome challenges posed by bias and personal demons.

I have taken voluminous notes: lines of windows to revisit. It is no solace to see an injustice clearer, but it is always better when history’s smoke parts a little.

The Tenure Denial That Sparked a Court Battle

As 1971 came to a close, Sharon LeiJoy Johnson probably had reason to celebrate. An assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine for more than four years, she had been awarded a number of grants from the National Institutes of Health and enjoyed a successful publishing record. But in January 1972, instead of receiving news of her expected tenure, Johnson learned that her appointment would be terminated in June 1973. She fought back, sparking an intense sex discrimination lawsuit backed by the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund (now Legal Momentum) and the ACLU.

The next five years would bring a string of injunctions, suits, and countersuits over the university’s right to make “arbitrary and subjective judgments about women faculty.” Johnson’s pro-bono lawyer, Sylvia Roberts, sued the University of Pittsburgh for sex discrimination, and Pitt in turn sued Roberts for professional misconduct. Johnson succeeded in keeping her professorship during litigation, but in August 1977 the state found that the university had not discriminated against Johnson on the basis of sex, citing teaching and research concerns as legitimate reasons for denying tenure. Johnson left Pitt for good at the end of June 1978, moving on to the New York Polytechnic Institute and then the National Institutes of Health.

At the conclusion of the case, Johnson donated her case materials to the Schlesinger Library. In addition to transcripts, exhibits, depositions, notes, and publicity, the collection includes files from Roberts, at the time a NOW attorney well-known for taking on sex discrimination cases.


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