Settlement Offers Sad Vindication : Win Comes After Illness Prohibits Agent's Job

Times Staff Writer

Wilda Tipton sits cross-legged in an easy chair in her comfortable Ventura duplex. Her walking cane rests nearby. And her tiny dog, Brandy, a Yorkshire terrier, is perched on her lap, looking as delicate and slight as his owner.

The appearance of this soft-spoken 45-year-old gives no hint that she was one of three women who battled nine years with the State Farm Insurance Co. over a landmark sex-discrimination case.

Her tired expression does not reflect that just last week she won more than $420,000 in damages when her highly publicized lawsuit was finally settled.

But it is not just the drawn-out litigation or the 15 years of futilely chasing a job as a State Farm insurance agent that has the blue-eyed, spectacled Tipton looking a bit faded.

In 1984, Tipton was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease that can lead to paralysis. With that news, she abandoned her long-held aspirations to become an insurance agent. And last week's legal victory seemed hollow.

"I do wish it was different for me after working that hard," Tipton said. "It was what I wanted to do for so long. But I don't dwell on it. I can't go back in time."

The year she was told she had multiple sclerosis, Tipton decided to end her 17-year association with State Farm. Her illness began to obstruct her performance level, she said, and holding down a full-time job was no longer feasible. She was plagued by dizzy spells, was often hospitalized or conferring with doctors and never knew when a bout of heart palpitations, nausea or vertigo would overcome her.

Her case, like the case of Daisy Jackson of Palo Alto, another of the three State Farm employees involved in the lawsuit, would be tinged with irony.

Neither will get to realize their dream. Jackson died of coronary disease in 1983 at age 54.

"I was devastated," Tipton said. "My concept of MS was wheelchair."

Last week, Tipton tried to put her physical problems aside when the settlement was announced at a San Francisco press conference. Since she felt well enough, she and her husband, Otis, flew there to speak with reporters from around the nation.

But Tipton did not broadcast the news of her illness to the press, or lament her rotten luck.

Instead, she told her story, thrilled that someone finally wanted to listen. She also spoke proudly of her case's helping other women advance at the company, and possibly at other corporations who took note of the settlement.

"She's a proud, proud person," said Nona Papageorge, a friend of the Tiptons' for 15 years. "It is an empty victory . . . because of her disability. But this is so delicious for her. At least this turned out right. She was determined that she was going to hold on. It seemed like it was never going to end."

Last week's agreement, which came after 15 months of negotiations, represents the "largest potential monetary recovery" in the history of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to Guy T. Saperstein, the Oakland attorney for Tipton and the other two plaintiffs.

Saperstein says the case could cost the company up to $300 million for discriminating against women who believe they were unfairly denied jobs as sales agents, but a State Farm spokesman has said that Saperstein's estimate is "highly speculative."

"It's a big case," Saperstein said. "It represents a complete restructuring of State Farm's opportunities for women in California and nationwide."

Under the agreement's terms, State Farm is required to set aside 50% of its agent appointments for women over the next 10 years.

"It's a restructuring of their corporate culture, and that will never change," Saperstein said. "They cannot go back."

Each of the three women who lodged the lawsuit--Tipton, Jackson and Muriel Kraszewski, 52, of Long Beach--had quite different temperaments, Saperstein said. He called Jackson entertaining, "busting out of her skin"; Kraszewski "very animated" and Tipton "quiet."

But there were a few common traits, he said. "They all demonstrated the ability to do the job as State Farm agents. They were all set back, but they all were persistent."

"I was never what you would call an advocate for the women's movement," Tipton said. "I just believe everyone should have a shot at what they have the ability to do."

For her, that seemed to be selling insurance policies.

She moved to Ventura County in 1967 from the small farm town of Lemoore in the San Joaquin Valley where she spent four years working for a variety of insurance brokers.

The 24-year-old divorcee came to know feminist issues just by doing her job.

In 1968, she was an Oxnard secretary eager to learn the insurance business from her boss, State Farm agent Bill Bremer.

She took claim reports, wrote applications, sold insurance from the office and outside it and played the role of roaming photographer, taking pictures of dented fenders and other minor mishaps.

In 1976, she was sent out to photograph the smashed fender of Oxnard Police Officer Otis Tipton's car, an assignment that sparked a romance and led to their marriage.

Tipton remembers first inquiring in 1969 about becoming a State Farm agent.

"State Farm doesn't hire women agents," she remembers Bremer saying. "He just said 'no' and wouldn't discuss it."

Her next appeal came in 1974. "I tried with a different agency. I thought I had a chance," she said. This time, she was told she needed a two-year college degree.

She argued that there were other agents without college backgrounds, but was told that they were hired from another regional office where the rules were different.

"Was I naive or what?" she said.

She enrolled in night classes at Moorpark College, but even that, she realized, was not a sure ticket to the job she wanted.

Over three years, she accumulated 50 units of credit, but stopped 10 units shy of graduating. "I saw this was not the real thing. I kept asking about openings and noticed the rules kept changing." Between 1974 and 1978, eight male agents were appointed in Oxnard and Ventura, Tipton said. "It became obvious to me that the agency I worked for was adamantly opposed to me becoming an agent."

Over the next few years, Tipton fruitlessly pleaded her case before company officials.

"I was incensed," she recalls. "I always thought that if I worked hard enough, they would have eventually seen that I was qualified. I kept deluding myself that I was going to get the job."

Over a cup of coffee one morning in 1979, Tipton read a news article about a class-action sex-discrimination lawsuit against State Farm filed by an Orange County woman.

She immediately telephoned the woman, Muriel Kraszewski, and her attorney, Saperstein.

Tipton's phone call was the third that Saperstein had received from female State Farm employees.

Jackson, the first to approach him, "told me an incredible story," he said. "Quite frankly, I didn't quite believe that she was doing 100% of the agent's work. As it turned out, what she said was 100% true," he said.

In 1979, Tipton joined the class-action suit, swiftly resigned from Bremer's agency and made a lateral move to become office manager of another State Farm agency in Oxnard. She said she believed Bremer "hadn't championed my cause," adding: "I wasn't happy with his opposition to me being appointed an agent.

"He would be gone for long periods of time. I was doing everything in the office, including his selling. The whole point was, I was doing the job of an agent but not getting paid for it."

Bremer, who is still selling insurance in Ventura, declined comment on Tipton's job qualifications. "She was an excellent employee," he said, "but she wanted to call her own shots with regard to her employment."

At the time, Tipton was paid $12,000 to $14,000 a year plus a few thousand dollars in commission.

Unlike her fellow plaintiffs, who left State Farm to become agents at a rival company, Tipton kept her job. "I was just waiting until this got resolved. One doesn't think it would take nine years. I had no idea it would take that length of time."

But, in 1984, her time ran out and she grew too ill to continue working. She complains to her husband, but not terribly much, she said. He retired from the Oxnard police force in 1979. "If I didn't have his support," she said, "it would have been far more devastating. I don't know how I could have handled it."

"We have to plan around it. When she feels well, then we do as much as we can," Otis Tipton said, such as visiting relatives in the Appalachians of Tennessee.

"I just might become a real feminist," she said.

"Oh, you don't have the health for it," her husband said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°