Anne Van Vechten, and Thomas J. Watson, Sr., at a Hundred Percent Club meeting.
March 8, 2013 is International Women’s Day, and IBM will be sharing some stories from our corporate archives in honor of the event.
On March 24th, 1935, a 21-year-old student of the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School wrote a letter to IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson, Sr., requesting an interview as part of a class project. Anne S. Van Vechten wanted to ask Watson, then one of the highest salaried business men in America, for advice on her future in business.
Anne had a bit of an in – she had been a classmate of Watson’s daughter Jane both in grade school and at Bryn Mawr College. Still, her timing was impeccable, because the role of women in IBM recently had been on Watson’s mind.
Watson had long been a proponent of women’s rights. In his earlier years, Watson had lived for a time in Rochester, New York, stronghold of noted suffragette Susan B. Anthony, and he recalled on several occasions during the 1930s that he had supported her suffrage movement and was gratified when women received the vote. In 1915, in an address to IBM employees, he expanded his famed ‘man’ employee motivational speech to include “ladies too – all mankind.” And he was good to his word. Women were included among IBM’s earliest Quarter Century Clubs in the mid-1920s. In the fall of 1932, he noted in a company publication that he considered secretaries as acting bosses when their managers were on the road, and that he wanted to find advancement opportunities for these ladies within the IBM organization. And, just two days before Anne wrote asking for an interview, Watson gave a speech at the Career Women of New York City Tribute Dinner, where he spoke about his long interest in the question of women’s rights. It was likely that when he agreed to meet Anne on March 29th, the agenda he had in mind was somewhat different than what Anne expected.
When Anne arrived at the IBM offices at 270 Broadway at 3:00 that Friday afternoon, she was ushered into the library adjoining Watson’s office. While she considered the library unusual, decorated in English prints, she later recalled that what she most remembered about the room was relief that she wouldn’t have to talk across an imposing desk. The meeting lasted about 45 minutes, and the topics of conversation ranged from what qualities Watson looked for in his secretaries to philosophy to religion to family.
Watson was impressed enough with Anne to offer her a job on the spot. He told her that she had inspired an idea for him – he wanted to hire and train 19 more just like her. To do what, he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – say. But, Watson was so committed to this initiative that the very next day, in a speech to the Institute of Women’s Professional Relations, he announced that he planned to hire 19 women to be Systems Service Engineers (SSE).
Anne jumped at the offer, and that summer joined the now 24 other women, who were especially recruited from colleges and universities, in a three-month systems service training class – Systems Service Class No. 126 – at IBM’s Endicott, New York, educational and plant facilities. There the ladies received training on the principles of configuring and operating IBM’s tabulating equipment product line. At the consolidated graduation of the 180 students from the four training schools (including 67 men who comprised Systems Service Class No. 125) that Endicott hosted that summer, Watson proudly proclaimed, “In this school we are pioneering in a new field, that of combining men and women in the development of our sales. So far as I know,” he continued, “this is the first time such a policy has ever been pursued. We have adopted it because we believe the young women can assist the young men in the development of a bigger, broader and better sales policy.”
And, in a prophetic warning to the men in the audience, students and executives alike, Watson said, “One thing uppermost in my mind this morning is the success of you young women.” Lest anyone doubt the sincerity of that statement, he went on to clarify his personal interest in their success. “What I am most interested in, and what I want all of my associates, not only in the school but in other branches of the business to be interested in, is helping the young women make a success of this work. It is very, very important, and I know you young ladies will have the cooperation and help of everyone in our business.”
As for Anne, Watson embarrassed her by singling her out in his morning commencement address as his “great pioneer woman,” who – by inspiring him – was responsible for all the women receiving this opportunity to work for IBM. He surprised her by chatting with her for about a half hour at lunch. He further surprised her that evening by having her sit as a guest of honor beside him at his dinner table. Not done with her yet, he then danced the first dance with her – she recalled he was an excellent dancer. Heady stuff for the young lady, who was so thrilled by her day (which included a 7:00 AM golf lesson before the graduation ceremony and an afternoon round of golf afterwards), that she was up at 3:30 in the morning typing a detailed-filled letter to her parents, recounting what she called, “the most exciting day I have ever had in my life.” In just a few months, she wrote, IBM had changed her. “A great turning point was affected (sic) in my life,” she told them. “I became a woman of maturity with something more than joke-telling ability.”
But Watson still wasn’t done surprising her yet.
by Paul Lasewicz,
IBM Corporate Archivist