Umass Economics Sherry Barber

Remembering Sherry Barber, '43


by Nancy Folbre

In the fall of 1997, while in Washington, D.C. for a conference, I dropped in to see Sherry Barber, class of 1943. I had heard such great stories about her - not just about her arrangements for a generous bequest to the Economics Department, but also her experiences working for the War Labor Board and the Women's Bureau as one of the top women economists in the federal government.

Sherry Barber in uniform Earlier that year, I had met another dedicated alumnus, Izzy Rogosa, at a dinner at the Chancellor's House. Izzy also attended UMass in the 1940s, and fondly remembered Professor Philip Gamble, who gave him a job chopping wood so that he could earn some extra money to stay in school. That memory prompted Izzy to fund an endowment for the Economic Department's Phillip Gamble Memorial Lectures, which have brought many stellar speakers to campus, including John Kenneth Galbraith, Robert Reich, and, more recently Lani Guinier and William Spriggs. Izzy also helped energize our departmental efforts to build better contacts with alumni.

I told the students in my Introductory Microeconomics class that I would happily follow Professor Gamble's example and pay them $.25 an hour for chopping wood. It was a good lead-in to a discussion of the Consumer Price Index. More than that, my conversation with Izzy was a small reminder of the importance of personal connections in an increasingly impersonal world. It made me want to reach out more. I wrote Sherry Barber a note and asked her if I could stop by for a brief visit.

She welcomed me. Her first name was actually Mildred; Sherry comes from Sheridan, her middle name, a tribute to her mother's family. Born in Boston, the ninth child of an orphaned Irish mother and an Italian immigrant father, she came to Massachusetts State College (as our august institution was then known) at a time when her brothers and many other young men were fighting in World War II. As soon as she graduated she started working for the War Labor Board in Boston while continuing her education with a Master's Degree in Economics from Harvard and a law degree from Boston College.

Her work for the War Labor Board was fascinating because it involved implementation of the strict price and wage controls put into place between 1941 and 1945. She helped set wages for hourly workers in different parts of the country, establishing, as she put it, 'the minimum of the minimums and the minimum of the maximums.' Few workers were pleased by this process, which made it difficult for them to take advantage of labor scarcity and demand higher wages. Fishermen had been known to pelt War Labor Board members with tomatoes, and some watch makers who knew that Sherry was working on their case were somewhat belligerent.

Eventually, she moved on to the Washington D.C. office, both because it was an opportunity for advancement and because her sister was living in that area. As the war was winding down, the two of them managed to get away for a holiday on the Cuban beaches, where a Spanish prince invited them to visit his yacht (they didn't go) and they met Ernest Hemingway in a bar. He assumed they were nurses, and offered them pineapple juice with rum, explaining 'I'm very sick today. You better join me, I'll feel better.' And so he did.

Returning to Washington, Sherry moved to the Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training, then on to the Wages and Hours Division of the Department of Labor, helping enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act. She remembers the Coca-Cola Company trying to get an exemption on working hours restrictions for their truck drivers, arguing that they were 'outside salesmen.' About 1948, she joined the Women's Bureau as chief of their Economics Division. At that time, the Bureau was still riding high from Frances Perkins' leadership as Secretary of Labor, and energetically promoting opportunities for women's employment.

Among other things, the Bureau tried to help nurses and stewardesses challenge work rules that forced them to leave their jobs if they married. Other women workers were concerned about other types of discrimination. Sherry sometimes traveled around the country meeting with women's organizations and giving speeches. Once, a group of bankers in Phoenix, Arizona called the Women's Bureau to complain about this Boston-born agitator, but her boss Alice Leopold not only backed her up, but patted her on the back saying 'Right on, sweetheart.'

Sherry stuck with the Women's Bureau until about 1965, when she became Chief of Program Analysis for another subdivision of the Department of Labor that supervised Unemployment Insurance. Part of her job was to track down cases of fraud, and some of them were doozies that involved blank checks, mythical workers, and Swiss bank accounts. She was good at detective work. When she retired in 1980 her title was chief of data and reporting operations for the Labor Department.

What has she been up to in her retirement? Living in a comfortable apartment close to the famous Watergate, visiting the beach at Rehoboth, enjoying her family and friends, managing her investments with enviable skill, making the world a better place, entertaining visitors like me, cheering the next generation on. I told her a little about what our department was up to, and she seemed pleased. When I left, she gave me a big smile and a very special goodbye. 'Right on, sweetheart,' she said.

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