The Supreme Court Puts the Mike in Diane Joyce's Hands, Giving Feminists a Major Victory

updated 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Each, you might say, was just grabbing for another rung on the ladder, trying for a better job, a few more bucks in the paycheck. Neither had any desire to be a crusader—certainly not to see his or her name splashed across the nation's front pages. Paul Johnson had simply gone and applied for the $480-a-week position of "road dispatcher" with the Transportation Agency of Santa Clara, Calif. He assumed—given his dispatching experience, his interview score and the fact that he was already in the post on a temporary basis—that the application was a formality. What Johnson hadn't counted on was Diane Joyce, who had less experience and a lower interview score but a keen sense of the resources available to her as a woman. When Joyce heard rumors that Johnson would be picked over her, she simply called her county affirmative action representative and said, "Hello, my name is Diane Joyce. I'm No. 4 on a list for which there are no other women applicants. Are you interested?"

The affirmative action people proved to be very interested indeed. They leaned on the county hierarchy and got Joyce the dispatching job, inducing an outraged Johnson to sue and subsequently to appeal the matter in the highest courts of the land. The final chapter in Johnson vs. Joyce (actually, the Transportation Agency of Santa Clara) was written three weeks ago. In a landmark decision the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the Transportation Agency. By a 6-to-3 majority, the Justices found that in striving for sexual and racial balance in the work force, employers may sometimes hire and promote women and minorities over better-qualified men and whites. In his dissenting opinion, however, Justice Antonin Scalia said he believed that the Court had turned a 1964 antidiscrimination law into an "engine of discrimination" against men and whites. Not in so many words, Paul Johnson would agree.

Johnson was born 62 years ago. His parents were Kansas farmers who just scraped by. His mother was pregnant with a fifth son and Johnson was 8 when his father died of pneumonia and he and the other boys were parceled out to relatives. He spent his high school years in Gladewater, Texas and World War II on a Navy submarine. After the war he worked as a roughneck in the oil fields, then married Betty Elliott, now 54, with whom he has three sons. In 1948 he joined a building and road supply firm. He first hooked on with the Santa Clara transportation agency in 1967 and worked behind a desk for 10 years, followed by two with a road crew. In 1979 he was made temporary dispatcher, thus setting up the competition with Diane Joyce a year later.

If Johnson came up hard as a child, Joyce, 50, came up feisty. Born and raised in Chicago, she was the only child of working-class parents, both of whom were union stalwarts. "My father got rid of seven foremen," she says. "They'd tell him to do something that wasn't part of his job. At the hearings, he'd always win." Joyce says that she always preferred male activities and male role models. "When I was in kindergarten they sent home a note asking, 'Why does she only play with the boys?' " After a stint at the University of Illinois, she had what she considers to have been a formative experience. "I thought I'd get me a good job. There was one in the classifieds that looked good—as a trainee computer programmer." Joyce took the battery of aptitude and IQ tests required by the company and was told, she says, that she did very well. Then "they told me, 'These jobs are reserved for men.' "

Joyce married in 1955 and raised four children, now 20 to 30. After her husband died in 1968 she moved to California and first worked for the County of Santa Clara in 1970 in the Office of Education. A year later she passed a test and was promoted to a clerical job with the Transportation Agency. The assignment put her in the same office with a road dispatcher, whom she ascertained was making $5,000 more than she was. When told that she could not apply for dispatcher without road experience, she spent the next five years driving trucks and shoveling and patching highways. All the while, like her father, she filed grievance after grievance against her bosses, until 1980 came around and she and Johnson went head to head.

Johnson, who is now retired, says that when a friend called him up and told him that the dispatcher job had been awarded to Joyce, he "felt like tearing something up." He says that he is upset by what he sees as the disparity between his and Joyce's qualifications for the job. "If it was in any way close, I wouldn't have had any problem. But she wanted a middle-level position right off, without having to work for it like I did. I would never ask for preferential treatment, and that's what she was doing. All I was interested in doing by suing was to make this wrong a right. Remember, I've got three sons."

Joyce, meanwhile, says she was "elated" when she heard the Supreme Court decision, adding that she expected to lose, given the male majority on the Court. Hard but honest, she warns people not to turn her into something she is not. "I'm not a heroine," she insists. "I'm not a pioneer. I went in for the money. It was pure greed. I'm more a rugged individualist than a feminist." As for the blow to Johnson and the issue of fairness, she says she can't help thinking back to 1955 and the programmer's job and the opportunity that it might have offered. "Why should I feel guilty now?" she asks. "I've already given up 30 years of big bucks."

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