She is under control now.
Her voice is soft, her words carefully chosen; a determined, understated woman whose deep-set hazel eyes widen when she talks about her "case."
Deborah Katz, 31, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit two years ago against the U.S. Department of Transportation. A certified air traffic controller, she says her years as the only woman on an otherwise all-male crew at the Federal Aviation Agency's Washington center in Leesburg, were a "living nightmare," leaving her emotionally scarred for the rest of her life.
She was subjected to daily verbal abuse, was routinely referred to by her supervisor as "the ----" "the -----" or "the cow," while officials at the FAA facility ignored her complaints, saying a policy against sexual harassment was already on the books.
Every time she tried to transfer to another crew, she was turned down.
Women do not belong in air traffic, the male controllers told her. They cannot do the job. They cannot handle the stress.
Instead of quitting, she endured the taunts, turning away from the men who made obscene remarks about her, men who cackled and smirked and wanted to get together "on her measurements." Men who seemed determined--at any cost--to maintain their bastion of macho camaraderie.
"Maybe it was their own insecurities," is all she will say now about her former coworkers.
Last week, in what her lawyer calls a landmark decision, Katz won her case against the Transportation Department. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled that it was not enough for the government or private employers to have an official policy against sexual harassment; the policy must be actively enforced in the work environment. The ruling will affect employers in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
But Katz is not popping champagne corks over the decision. For one thing, she spent $30,000 pursuing the legal judgment. She says she almost suffered a nervous breakdown over the harassment, lost her job during the air traffic control strike and finally lost her fiance', another controller, over her determination to sue the government.
She says she went from a salary of $37,000 a year as an air traffic controller to $27,000 a year at the National Weather Service, where she now works as a communications specialist.
She would like to get her old job back.
"I set a goal, and I was determined to fulfill that goal," she says, seated on the couch of her Herndon townhouse. She has long auburn hair and wears little makeup, a loose-fititng blouse and skirt. The only jewelry is a pair of tiny earrings. "That job gave me everything I wanted. It gave me financial security. I was proud of my profession. When people would ask me what I did for a living, I'd tell them and they'd say, 'No, you're not an air traffic controller!' How many people can say they're in a job they really love?"
Her former supervisor, John J. Sullivan, is still employed by the FAA at the Leesburg center. According to the Circuit Court ruling, his verbal abuse of Katz was "intensely degrading." One male controller testified that Sullivan routinely referred to Katz as "the team ----."
When Katz applied for a transfer from Sullivan's team, another supervisor expressed reluctance and testified in court that Sullivan made an obscene remark about her. "Somebody would say, 'Look I want to swap with somebody on the crew,' and John would say, 'Why don't you swap with the ----. She's always good for a swap.' "
Sullivan, according to court testimony, told Katz that her problems would be over if she would have sex with another male controller who had approached her previously for dates.
Sullivan, in his own testimony, admitted that "some of the troops" used abusive language when referring to Katz. When asked if he told Katz to "screw" another male controller, he testified it was merely a "dumb attempt at humor."
Reached at his Virginia home, Sullivan said yesterday he was "surprised and disappointed" by the appeals court decision, but said he could not comment on it because he had not seen the decision. Asked if he had any women on his present crew, Sullivan said he did not.
In other areas of the Leesburg center, "A lot of women left," Katz says. "There are other horror stories there. It's still going on."
Born and raised in Prince George's County, Katz is the oldest of 11 children. Her father is a carpenter, her mother works for the Department of Agriculture. She was raised a Catholic, and after school decided to join the Prince George's Police Department, although her first love was aviation.
"One of my favorite movies growing up was 'The High and the Mighty,' " she laughs. "And air controlling was a public service job. I liked that."
She stayed with the police department as a clerk for several years, and married a police officer. At the age of 21, she decided to pursue a career as an air traffic controller.
"One thing the nuns taught us," she smiles, "was to be self-sufficient and independent. They prepared you to meet the world."
But no one could have prepared her for what happened next.
She started as a secretary at the Department of Transportation in 1971, then a year later took the air traffic controller test and passed. She then transferred to the Leesburg center for on-the-job training.
It was about this time that the federal Title VII became law. But, says Katz's lawyer, George Chuzi, the FAA was known to be resistant to hiring women and minorities.
"I think they the FAA felt intruded upon," Chuzi says. "Their bastion had been invaded."
The first five years of her training, she says, were relatively free of any harassment. She was happily married. "They didn't really bother me at all," she says.
Katz says the trouble began when she completed training in August 1980. "Once you get to that point, you're a threat." Her certification also coincided with her divorce.
Katz noticed that the male controllers began treating her differently. One man wrote her notes, asking her to join him for drinks. She refused. He became angry, Katz says, and began making disparaging remarks about her inability to handle the job.
Soon after that, she was assigned to Sullivan's team. Under Sullivan's supervision, Katz grew more and more aware of the language some of the male controllers used to describe her and other women. "There were a lot of men who were very supportive of me," she says. "There were a lot who were really upset about what Mr. Sullivan was doing, but they were in no position to do anything except to go along with what he was doing."
Because she had worked so long for the opportunity to be a controller, she says she put up with the harassment, burying it deep inside. "When I left work, I just tried to block it out." She didn't tell her friends or her family, but began keeping records of the mistreatment during 1981.
She also says she deliberately downplayed her own femininity.
"I would always wear slacks to work, pull my hair back in a bun. Ninety percent of the time I didn't wear makeup. I wanted to look professional."
The reason she ignored their taunts, she says, is that "I was petrified for my job, for my career. They could have failed me out at any time.
"When we first came in, they stated you had to have a tough skin," she says with a rueful smile.
But Katz says the treatment began to take its toll. She says she began experiencing anxiety, sleeplessness and a recurrent back problem. She sought the help of a psychiatrist, who told her she was "paralyzed with anxiety." At one point, she was hospitalized and was put under sedation.
"I cried for several days," she recalls.
On June 9, 1981, she filed the sexual harassment suit against the government in federal court in Alexandria. She says that because she was physically unable to report for work, she was fired from her job that fall during the air traffic controllers strike.
She spent the next year doing odd jobs, modeling, lobbying and working as a marketing representative. During that time, her suit was originally heard in U.S. District Court. She lost the first round. District Judge James C. Cacheris said Katz failed to prove that the harassment on the job was intentional. But her lawyer appealed the case, and last week, turning the dial on her television set, Katz learned that she had prevailed.
"I was numb," she says, recalling her intial reaction.
The appeals court noted that Katz was the victim of sexual harassment because she was forced to endure "extremely vulgar and offensive sexually related epithets" as a condition of her employment, and that the FAA's Washington center was "pervaded with sexual slur, insult and innuendo" directed against women.
But Katz still doesn't feel like a heroine. She knows it was worth the struggle. She doesn't regret putting up a fight.
"But I lost a lot of time and precious energy," she says, "that could have been used doing something else."