February 08, 1988 12:00 PM

Muriel Kraszewski had patiently waited 18 months for the interview that would determine her future at the State Farm Insurance Company. Not that she was worried. After a decade of exemplary service as a secretary, then a manager in State Farm offices in California, she was confident the company would grant her request to become a sales agent. She already knew the business, having processed thousands of applications and claims. But her salary was only $10,200 a year, while agents routinely earned $65,000 to $95,000 a year in commissions.

“When they called me to Costa Mesa,” says Kraszewski of her March 1975 interview, “I was absolutely sure they were going to hire me.” Instead, agency manager Gene Miller began to tick off the reasons she would never be an agent. Chief among them: She didn’t have a college degree and she’d never run a business. “No agent I ever worked for had run another business,” Kraszewski replied. “Two of them worked for dairies. I grew up on a farm. I can milk cows, too.”

But Miller was in no mood to argue, and it didn’t take Kraszewski long to conclude that State Farm was rejecting her not because of her inexperience or her lack of education—she knew agents with the same credentials—but because of her sex. “He was so arrogant about it that I got angry,” recalls Kraszewski, 52. “I thought, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do about this. But this guy is going to have a few anxious moments because of it.’ ”

Kraszewski not only got mad, she got even. Two weeks ago, the U.S. district court in San Francisco, after nearly nine years of litigation, ordered State Farm to pay $1.26 million in damages for sex discrimination against Kraszewski and two other women—Daisy Jackson and Wilda Tipton. As part of a negotiated settlement of the class action civil rights suit, State Farm has also established a procedure to consider the claims of other California women who had been rejected for jobs as State Farm agents between July 1974 and December 1987. The ruling could make the firm liable for $300 million in damages in California alone, and possibly millions more if similar suits are filed elsewhere. The company is also setting aside half of its new California agent jobs over the next 10 years for women.

“You’d better believe I’m enjoying every minute of this,” says Kraszewksi, who has in the meantime become one of the top-selling agents for the rival Farmers Insurance Group, with a six-figure income and a wall full of awards. Early in the lawsuit, she discovered that, despite encouraging words, State Farm had never even put her into the agent candidate pool. Nor did it rush to mend its ways after she filed her complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 1974, when Kraszewksi first asked for an agent’s position, two of State Farm’s 1,454 agents in California were women; by 1981 that figure had risen to only 65 out of 1,847. Meanwhile State Farm fended off her suit with one legal maneuver after another. There were times, admits Kraszewski, when “I worried about outliving the appeals.”

It was not an ungrounded fear. Daisy Jackson, who joined forces with Kraszewski in the lawsuit after consulting the same civil rights attorney, died in 1983 at the age of 56. As off ice manager of a small Palo Alto agency, Jackson had known the insurance business so thoroughly that her boss, Ed Borgia, stopped by only once a month. When he was promoted to agency manager in 1976, he made Jackson a trainee agent, assuming she would stay in that office, serving her clients. But State Farm divided her lucrative client list between two male agents and shipped Jackson to a start-up office, where she fell ill, failed to meet a sales quota and was fired. A male trainee agent who had also missed his quotas was kept on for 19 months. Daisy got the message, and in 1979 she joined the suit she would not see to completion.

Jackson’s death “brought me face-to-face with my own mortality,” says Wilda Tipton, 45, the third plaintiff. “I told myself, ‘I absolutely refuse to die until this is over.’ ” Tipton, who has suffered from multiple sclerosis since 1984, took the State Farm agency manager at his word in 1974, when he said that a two-year college degree was essential to rise from office manager to agent. Divorced and raising a son on her $12,000-a-year salary, she earned most of the credits toward a night-school degree—only to learn she would be denied the job anyway. Angry and confused, Tipton suffered stomach pains and insomnia. In 1979, she read about the lawsuit and signed on. Then she transferred to another State Farm office, where she worked as a manager until 1984.

Like Kraszewski, Tipton says the money means less to her than the sense of vindication and the certainty that the settlement “will help other women in the company.” Ironically Kraszewski says she has encountered some hostility from women hired as State Farm agents after 1980. “They were very cold. They said, ‘You were just too impatient,’ ” she recalls. “I said, ‘You’re foolish if you think you would have gotten your job had somebody not pushed the company to the wall.’ For me what counts most is being able to say to State Farm, ‘You’re not going to do this anymore.’ ”

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