Warrior For the Dignity of Women
Long before the Women's Rights movement began in the 1960s and escalated in the 1970s, one Dublin woman was out there in the streets, inside board rooms and in the work place fighting for the rights of her fellow women workers, the right to be treated equal, the right to fair pay and the right of decent working conditions. This is the story of a local young girl who took on the male establishment and accomplished her goals, winning a few important battles on the way.
Selina Burch Stanford was born in Laurens County, Georgia on September 24, 1927. She was a daughter of Roger Burch and Jane Smith and grew up in the Burch District of Laurens County. Selina attended Laurens County and Dublin schools. At the age of seventeen, Selina went to work for Southern Bell Telephone Company as an operator. Along with many of her fellow workers, Selina joined the Southern Federation of Telephone Workers.
Miss Burch's first true experience with labor relations came in 1947 when she and her fellow union members endured a strike which lasted nearly seven weeks. That same year, telephone workers across the nation began the process of consolidating and forming a more powerful and unified single union organization under the banner of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Following the labor action, Selina was transferred to Charleston, South Carolina. After five years she was elected Secretary of Local 3407 of the Communication Workers of America. A year later in 1953, Selina was elected as the recording secretary of the Charleston CIO.
At the age of 27 in 1954, Selina Burch became the first woman to be elected president of her local union and any union in South Carolina. She said, "I guess the rebel in me really began to come out somewhere between 1952 and 1954 when I discovered that I was doing all the work and a male was getting all the credit." In 1955 she was chosen to serve on the staff of the Communication Workers of America as a representative and organizer. The satisfactory resolution of a violent strike that year by 50,000 employees led to her election to a leadership position on the district level when she became director of the North Louisiana division of the union.
It was in the Creole State where Selina's interest in politics began to surface. She spent tireless hours to build the state Democratic party. She joined the campaign for Congressman Hale Boggs who served as majority leader of the United States House of Representatives and was a leader in establishing the Interstate Highway System and was also a member of the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
In 1964, Selina was reassigned again. This time, she came home, or close to it. Miss Burch, still yet unmarried, enjoyed Christmas visits to her old home in Dublin. Her brother J.B. Burch was a popular service station owner in downtown Dublin. She was especially close to a close-knit group of aunts known to some as "The Burch Sisters." These ladies, Ilah, Celestia and Emily, all school teachers, were also unmarried and lived together in their large two-story home on South Calhoun Street.
Seen as a tough and demanding woman on the outside, away from her formidable duties as a labor union secretary and an advocate for the rights of women to work outside the home, Selina was described as a soft-spoken women who loved to bake. She was described as a natty dresser and a woman who exuded intelligence and dignity as she spoke. Her stepdaughter Margaret Pavey said of her cooking, "Her lemon pound cakes were legendary, and so was her generosity in giving them away."
The 1960s were a decade when women for the first time began to find their way into the top echelons of governmental, religious and private organizations throughout the country. Selina Burch was no exception. With great honor, Selina held the position as Secretary of the 450,000 member Communication Workers of America union. In 1969, she was invited to Singapore, where she taught Asian telephone workers on different facets of the telephone industry.
Burch saw her role in the union and in life as a protector of the dignity of women. She told a reporter from the Malay Mall, "In the past, a woman's only intention was to marry and settle down. But now she is competing with man in every field - from engineering to electronics, and as she competes with man in his preserved fields, she must form unions or actively participate in the trade unions that will protect her rights and dignity as a human being." Selina disavowed any special privileges on account of her being a woman. "I will make sure I am not discriminated against because of my sex. Merit should be the only criterion - not sex," she said.
During the 1970s she allied herself with Atlanta mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Jackson, organizing phone banks of callers in their successful mayoral campaigns. In 1974, Selina was appointed director of Georgia-Florida District. In 1976, she worked tirelessly for a fellow Georgian, Jimmy Carter, in his campaign for president. It was during that same year that Selina accepted an appointment by Governor George Busbee as the first female member of the Georgia Board of Offender Rehabilitation. As a member of the board, Miss Burch began to see the disparity of vocational rehabilitation between male and female inmates. With the aid of a friend, she instituted a program of instructing women on the skills of being a telephone operator. Always a faithful member of the Democratic Party, Miss Burch served as a delegate to two National Democratic Party Conventions.
In 1978, Selina Burch was again transferred, this time to Washington, D.C., where she served as an administrative assistant to Glen Watts, President of the Communication Workers of America. In 1980, she once again returned to Atlanta, where she served as an assistant to the vice-president of that organization.
In 1981, at the age of 53 , Selina finally began to settle down. She married Morgan Callaway Stanford, a labor lawyer. Ten years later in 1991, she finally settled down and retired from the Union after 44 years of service. Selina Burch Stanford died on October 19, 2002.
Joseph Yablosnki, a Washington labor lawyer, eulogized Selina Burch by saying, "She was a pioneer in the women's labor movement. She showed that women in the CWA were not only entitled to a place at the bargaining table, but could serve the union's members at the highest level of the union itself. She could be as hard as nails when she had to be, but she was the sweetest friend and best client I ever had." Former regional union director described Selina Stanford as "a tireless worker, dedicated to the CWA membership and a person with a brilliant mind."