A Penn degree was no guarantee for women in the Class of '64

Anne Sceia Klein was determined to major in corporate finance at the University of Pennsylvania. But an administrator there told her no woman would ever be allowed to earn such a degree while he was in charge.

At her first professional job in marketing at a predecessor agency of SEPTA,  she was furious to see herself described in an Evening Bulletin story as a “pretty blonde hostess who presided over a coffee urn and a pile of press kits.”

And later, a vice president of public relations interviewing Klein for a position at his Philadelphia-area company put his feet on his desk and asked when she planned to get pregnant.

“Women faced what I would call attitudinal harassment,” recalled Klein, 76, author of a new book, On the Cusp: The Women of Penn ’64.

“There was an attitude among men that we were invading their world. We had no career path. No professional ladder. We had to zig-zag toward whatever opened up. But I went for the jobs I wanted.”

Klein established her own public relations firm and ran it for 35 years. The 18 female classmates she interviewed for the book include lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, educators, an urban planner, a computer engineer, and an investment manager; another worked in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

“I’m sure the degree from Penn was very valuable, [at a time] when there weren’t many high-ranking universities accepting women,” said Klein, noting that women made up barely 25 percent of her graduating class of 1,600 (women make up 54 percent of the Class of 2021).

Despite the impressive degree, however, “we still found it difficult to find a job,” Klein said.

Anyone tempted to wonder whether pervasive “attitudinal harassment” was perhaps less than pernicious ought to read some of her classmates’ matter-of-fact accounts of aspirations cavalierly dismissed or opportunities cruelly denied.

“Girls are not allowed,” a female secretary at an advertising agency told Leslie Gallery-Dilworth when she inquired about an executive training program (Gallery-Dilworth later founded Philadelphia’s Foundation for Architecture).

“There are two places a woman belongs. One is in the kitchen,” an X-ray technician announced on the first day of Barbara Wong’s radiology residency at a Boston hospital. (“He was not the first nor the last misogynist I would encounter in my medical career,” Wong said.)

“ONE NITE ONLY — COLORED — NO RNS AVAILABLE,” read the notation, written in red capital letters, on a sign-in sheet at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, where nurse Betty Blount was working a night shift (a Cherry Hill resident, she’s now the Rev. Dr. Betty Blount).

Camera icon BETTY BLOUNT
The Rev. Dr. Betty Blount of Cherry Hill, who was interviewed for Anne Klein’s new book about the women of the University of Pennsylvania’s class of 1964

The oral histories in Klein’s book provide snapshots of a time just before the seismic cultural disruptions of the late 1960s began to open at least some space for professional women to rise and thrive.

“What I learned from the classmates I interviewed was that nobody had it easy … but that nothing would stop them,” Klein said, sitting at the dining-room table of the Medford home she shares with Jerry, her husband of 42 years.

There were great differences “between what we went through as white women, and what Betty went through as a black woman,” she noted.

“I can’t imagine being a woman of color in the 1960s. The challenges for us were great, but they were greater for women of color.”

The dining-room table is where Klein wrote On the Cusp after selling the Anne Klein Communications Group (now AKCG) and retiring in January 2017. Vilma Barr, an editorial consultant in Philadelphia, was her coauthor.

Klein self-published the book and is promoting it as well. Her schedule is packed with signings, personal appearances, and interviews.

“The book grew out of our 50th class reunion in 2014,” she said. “Some of the women began telling stories.”

Klein, whose personality could be described as sweet with a dash of salt (or iron), knows a thing or two about old-school storytelling.

I listened as anecdotes flowed, names dropped, and decades of dramatic change in public relations and communications — from typewritten to digital press releases, from The Media to social media — flew by.

“The days of walking into an assignment editor’s office with a box of doughnuts is gone,” she said. “Now, all correspondence is by email. … The rules of the game have changed. I’m not a fan of all the changes because there are no longer any personal relationships built.”

A self-described Italian Sicilian girl from Hammonton who still keeps in touch with her hometown high school pals, Klein said supportive parents and professors, female and male allies, and a “gregarious” personality helped her navigate the complicated and sometimes treacherous waters of the postcollege job market for women in the mid-1960s.

“I learned how to get along with guys,” she said. “I treated them like brothers.”

She also earned a sterling reputation during her half century in public relations for old-line Philly corporations such as Girard Bank and Sun Oil, and later, at the helm of her own company.

“Anne is a natural relationship-builder whose ability to connect the dots and fashion successful strategies for her clients is legendary,” said longtime public relations professional Dan Cirucci of Cherry Hill, who interviewed Klein for his internet TV show, The Advocates.

Said Klein: “The only reason I’m a legend, according to my husband, is because I’ve been around for 50 years.”

Although she completed interviews for the book before the recent explosions of workplace sexual-harassment claims against prominent men in politics, media, and entertainment, Klein said she did ask whether her classmates had what are now called “Me Too” experiences.

Anne Sceia Klein, at Taunton Lake in Medford, N.J., wrote a book at her dining room table about her University of Pennsylvania classmates and the challenges of being a professional woman in the mid-1960s.

Their collective answer, Klein said, was no. And if they could recall a man in the workplace acting inappropriately, “they told me they shut it down and moved on.”

Mind you, Klein does not aim to minimize the issues being raised by the women who have come forward about past or current sexual harassment in the workplace or elsewhere.

“There certainly are behaviors that should not be tolerated. Nobody should have to put up with that stuff,” she said.

“That’s the value of the conversation that’s been happening,” she said. “I really do believe that if you can change attitudes, you can change behavior.”

After all, she said: “That’s a basic premise of public relations.”