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Lesbians who fought gender bias at Home Depot honored

by David-Elijah Nahmod

Impact Fund inductee Vicki Butler, left, and her spouse, Twyla Rowe, joined fellow inductee Kimberly Stoddard and her spouse, Margaret Allison, at last week's ceremony. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
Impact Fund inductee Vicki Butler, left, and her spouse, Twyla Rowe, joined fellow inductee Kimberly Stoddard and her spouse, Margaret Allison, at last week's ceremony. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland  

Two lesbians who challenged gender discrimination on behalf of 6,000 women at Home Depot two decades ago were honored by the Impact Fund and inducted into its Class Action Hall of Fame.

Vicki Butler and Kimberly Stoddard, who were co-defendants in a Title VII class action lawsuit challenging gender discrimination at Home Depot, attended the February 16 luncheon at the Hotel Kabuki with their spouses. Both women had been denied promotions and equal pay because of their gender.

Their case was settled in 1998 for $87.5 million. Under the agreement, management replaced assumptions and interest with a validated sales aptitude test and computer registry. As a result, the percentage of women in sales and management jobs rose from 7 percent to 28 percent. The value of these jobs was $100 million per year. After the decree expired, Home Depot continued to use the system because it reduced turnover and increased productivity.

"By stepping forward, Vicki and Kim obtained good, high-paying jobs for women at Home Depot and throughout the home improvement industry," Impact Fund deputy director Teddy Basham-Witherington told the Bay Area Reporter. "They challenged stereotypes about what jobs women can perform and are interested in performing."

Founded in 1992, Impact Fund provides leadership and support for litigation intended to achieve economic and social justice. It provides funds for impact litigation in the areas of civil rights, environmental justice, and poverty. In addition to technical support, training and expertise, Impact Fund serves as lead counsel, co-counsel, and amicus counsel in select class action and impact litigations.

Butler and Stoddard were among the 10 inductees in Impact Fund's Class Action Hall of Fame ceremony. They are the only inductees this year who publicly identify as LGBT.

"I experienced gender discrimination in wages and job placement," recalled Stoddard, speaking from the podium. "When I experienced a lack of promotion I spoke to my attorney and brought a class action suit against a big corporate giant who said they never lost, ever."

Butler talked about having to be deposed during the case.

"Plaintiffs are uniquely trained for the torture known as deposition," Butler told the audience. "You have to choose your words carefully. Don't give the opposing side a chance to use something you wouldn't want to see in the media. We changed how Home Depot and other companies treat women."

Both women spoke to the B.A.R. after the ceremony.

"I feel great," Butler said. "It was extremely painful at the time, but I felt determined to protect the other women who were working at Home Depot. That's what helped me carry on. I came out much stronger for the experience."

"I'm proud of my accomplishments," added Stoddard. "I'm most excited that the lawsuit grew from seven Western states to the whole country. They changed their hiring and promotion practices to be more inclusive of deserving women. I have personally seen that there are more women in management at Home Depot."

The women's spouses said they were proud and were there to offer support during the case.

"I'm very proud of what she did to become recognized," said Margaret Allison, Stoddard's partner. "She's paved the way not only for women to work in the industry, but to be recognized by the industry."

"I'm glad I was there to be able to support her through the really hard depositions," said Butler's wife, Twyla Rowe, noting that the two have been together for 35 years. "I'm pleased that the fund recognizes everyone - breaking stereotypes is a good thing and I hope it encourages others."

Other Hall of Fame inductees included: Christian Rodriguez, who challenged an unconstitutional curfew provision that put him in a public battle with the Los Angeles Police Department; D'Angelo Foster and Amanda Underwood, who challenged a local debtors' prison and mobilized those wrongfully jailed for their inability to pay parking fines and court fees; Lynne Coates, who championed equal pay for women attorneys employed as in-house counsel; Dustin Jones, who fought the New York Subway to become accessible to people with disabilities; Elaine and Walter Barry, who challenged the practice of denying food assistance to those mistakenly classified by bureaucratic red tape; and Patrice Daniels, who led the fight for adequate treatment for over 11,000 mentally ill prisoners in Illinois.

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