Despite her college degree, Dorothy Nelms says, she had to start her government career at the bottom in 1950, beginning as a GS2 negative stripper for the Government Printing Office and earning $2,700 a year.
"There were very few opportunities for blacks and even fewer for black women," says Nelms, now 53. "I ended up taking what I could get."
By 1978, when Nelms retired, she had climbed to a post as director of executive resources at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and was a GS15 earning about $50,000. Along the way she worked for the Army and the Social Security Administration.
"I was proud to work for the federal government," says Nelms, a New Jersey native who lives in the District. "I looked on public service as a great opportunity to do something, and you ought to kick anybody in the teeth who says it's not."
But because of the deteriorating image of government workers recently, Nelms says that taking a federal job would be "a last resort" and "not an inspiring way to go" for her today.
Having become a lawyer since retirement, she travels a lot and says she has never seen so much animosity from "people who really believe that doing something to federal workers will save the country."
Nelms, a past president of Federally Employed Women, says she used her position in government to change personnel policies and "raise the consciousness of my peers and others in terms of women and blacks."
The turning point in her career, says Nelms, was in 1963 when she decided to confront racial and sex discrimination head-on and seek a management position. She says she struggled for a year and watched white males with less qualification get promoted above her. Then she threatened to sue.
"I had 10 interviews and a job in management within 30 days," she said.