Fired for not wearing makeup, woman now feels empowered

JOURNEY FROM NAIVETE TO MAKING A DIFFERENCE

May 11, 1992|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

Just one year ago, Teresa A. Fischette, 39, of East Boston, Mass., worked from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. five days a week as a ticket agent for Continental Airlines at Logan International Airport.

She earned $9.05 an hour and got travel discounts. She and her husband, Patrick Mark, an airline consultant, traveled to Australia, New Zealand, Belize and Alaska.

Ms. Fischette, a dedicated volunteer for animal rights and for the hungry, also used her passes to go to conferences and legislative hearings in Washington to lobby on behalf of her interests.

It was, she says, a good time of life.

"I loved my job because I like dealing with the public, and I was deeply involved in my volunteer work," said Ms. Fischette.

Continental then issued new appearance standards requiring its female employees who deal with the public to wear foundation makeup and lipstick.

It was no longer enough for a woman to be good at her job -- which Ms. Fischette was -- she had to look beautiful, too.

"I've never worn makeup, never, not even for my wedding," Ms. Fischette said at the time. "I believe that the public cares more about airport safety and customer service than if agents wear makeup."

But last May, because she refused to wear makeup, Ms. `D Fischette was fired.

The subsequent deluge of international media attention, her rehiring, her four-week unpaid leave of absence during which she made appearances for 9to5 of the National Organization of Working Women, her lobbying for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, her return to work in July and her ultimate resignation from Continental -- all these changed her life.

"It was a learning experience and it changed me," Ms. Fischette said in a telephone interview.

Today she is unemployed by choice and works as a full-time volunteer for women's organizations. Ms. Fischette has completed a course in mediation at Harvard University and works in a court as a volunteer in a community mediating program.

The former Continental employee and her husband no longer travel to "exotic" places to study wildlife. Instead, Ms. Fischette gives free talks nationwide on subjects ranging from sexual harassment and discrimination to how to right wrongs.

Her audiences include high schools, Lions Clubs, the National Organization for Women and other advocacy groups. After the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, she helped organize a sexual harassment workshop in Boston.

And Ms. Fischette still doesn't wear makeup.

"I wanted my job back, but I wanted the rule tossed out," she

said.

The media blitz forced Continental to rehire her, but Ms. Fischette was uncomfortable when she returned to her former job.

"Although I received a lot of support from fellow workers, the high visibility I had created unreconciled feelings for some of them. I don't know why," she said. "I made no money on the TV shows, I didn't ask for back pay and even when the company offered to pay for my leave of absence, I said no. I dropped my lawsuit. I never did it for money. In fact, it cost us about $3,500."

And Continental did not rescind its appearance policy; instead, it left it "somewhat unclear," according to Ms. Fischette, by changing the requirement to "guidelines."

She says she failed to convince Continental she was right, but "my personal success is that I learned so much and, in the process, became confident."

According to Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney for the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union in Boston, Ms. Fischette is an example of how "ordinary people can make a difference, especially when you have public support."

Ms. Wunsch, who represented Ms. Fischette in her sex-discrimination suit against Continental, says the former ticket agent "used to be on the sidelines. Now she knows that everybody needs to speak up about these issues."

One of the first groups Ms. Fischette called for help was 9to5, based in Cleveland. "Terri was somewhat naive," said Barbara Otto, national spokeswoman for the group. "She could not believe they would actually fire her for not wearing makeup. She was a great employee, had excellent performance reviews and had a professional appearance."

Ms. Fischette, says Ms. Otto, "is an example of what happened to other women during the Thomas-Hill hearings: She became politicized. She made the connection between what happens in corporate headquarters and in Washington with what happens in her daily life."

Ms. Fischette has indeed changed. "A light bulb went off in her head," said Ms. Otto. "And when the light bulb goes off, women start seeing the world in different terms. They are empowered because they know one person can make a difference. And Terri is a perfect example of that."

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