It’s been a good year for women’s memoirs — Netflix turned former First Lady Michelle Obama’s bestselling memoir, “Becoming,” into a documentary; World Cup champion and Seattle Reign FC player Megan Rapinoe released her memoir, “One Life,” about her fight for social justice, equal pay for female athletes and LGBTQ rights; and former United States Secretary of State and seven-time New York Times bestselling author Madeleine Albright reminisced on her decades-long career in her newly released memoir, “Hell and Other Destinations.”
But what happens when you’re a woman with a story to tell but no national or international name recognition to back it up?
That was the predicament Sandra Smith Gangle, of Camas, found herself facing last year.
“When you write a book, and you’re not Michelle Obama, you can’t get that book published,” Gangle said.
Not that Gangle, Oregon’s first female labor arbitrator — who didn’t even attend law school until well into her 30s — would let a small roadblock like that stand in her way.
Instead, Gangle relied on her own ingenuity and worked with Luminare Press, a professional self-publishing company based in Eugene, Oregon, to release her book, “Madam Arbitrator: Working Toward Social Equality and Employment Justice,” in mid-March.
The result is a 316-page memoir described by retired Oregon Supreme Court Justice Robert D. “Skip” Durham, who penned the book’s forward, as “providing keen insight into the personal professional life of … one of the Pacific Northwest’s most accomplished labor arbitrators,” and as “essential reading for its candid review of modern principles of ethical arbitral decision-making for today’s workplace.”
Gangle, who is best known in the local community for the nonpartisan “Great Decisions” foreign policy discussion group she leads at the Camas Public Library, recently talked to the Post-Record about “Madam Arbitrator” and her path toward publishing a memoir.
The basis of the book started way before Gangle ever put pen to paper.
“This actually began in about 2004, after I’d had breast cancer and three joint-replacement surgeries,” Gangle said. “I wasn’t sure if the breast cancer was totally cured or what the outcome might hold, so I wanted to leave my early life stories for my children.”
Gangle said she wrote “the first third” of “Madam Arbitrator,” then, but soon found herself thrown into a busy work and social life again.
“My health got much, much better and I went back to work,” Gangle said.
In fact, some of her most active work years occurred after she survived breast cancer and recovered from her surgeries in 2004.
“When I finally retired in 2017, I had time (to write) again,” Gangle said.
In 2019, during a trip to New York for her 55th college reunion, Gangle stopped off to visit her son and daughter-in-law in Massachusetts.
“My daughter-in-law is a poet and she wanted me to bring a couple chapters of my book to share with her writing club,” Gangle recalled.
The writers in the club listened to Gangle’s stories from her years as one of the only women in law school and then as the first woman to become a labor arbitrator in the state of Oregon and their response convinced her she needed to finish her memoir.
“They were just very enthusiastic,” she said. “They said, ‘You have a story to tell. You should finish that.’ And they couldn’t have been any more insistent.”
Gangle mulled over her memoir during her trip from Boston to New York and again on her flight back to Washington state.
“I thought, ‘They’re right. My story might be very interesting to women and especially to women of color … because (labor arbitration) is still, today, a white-male-dominated career,'” Gangle explained. “I wanted to explain how I became an arbitrator so people can see that it’s possible.”
‘A long way from where it should be’
In her book, Gangle describes growing up in the blue-collar factory town of Brockton, Massachusetts, where, as the book’s introduction describes “mostly first-generation American workers resided in three-decker tenement houses.” She saw her mother face various forms of discrimination — in housing, employment and even banking — and soon realized her mother’s fate was in the hands of an all-male cadre of lawyers and judges.
One of those lawyers, however, showed Gangle how the law could make the world a better place.
“As a young girl, Ms. Gangle admired the legal skills of a talented Massachusetts lawyer who helped her family through a painful dissolution of marriage and, later, with a serious automobile accident tort claim,” Durham writes in the book’s forward. “She saw firsthand how a talented lawyer could change lives for the better.”
Although drawn to law, Gangle’s first career was as a foreign language teacher and college instructor. She was 34 years old and a married mother of two when she attended law school at Willamette University in Oregon.
“There were just no women going to law school right after college then. In 1977, there were about 20 of us in a class of 120,” Gangle recalled. “Most of (the women in law school) were older. I was 34 and the oldest, but most were (in their late 20s and early 30s).”
All of the women shared similar stories — they had been drawn to law, but discouraged from entering the profession by society or, in Gangle’s case, her high school guidance counselor.
“Now. it’s entirely different,” Gangle says, citing statistics that show slightly more women than men are enrolled in law schools across the United States. “Only about 10 or 15 percent (of the new law school students) are minorities. And that is a tragedy because we need to have the legal profession look like the general population — the same for juries.”
In a recent interview with Patty Rose of the “Spent the Rent” podcast, which covers politics, human interest stories and music out of Eugene, Oregon, Gangle said the field of labor arbitration, which is often used as an alternative to strikes and lockouts to help solve labor disputes over wages, benefits and other issues important to workers, is “still heavily dominated by white males” and that women and people of color still struggle to enter the field.
“It’s gone up, but only about 25 percent (of labor arbitrators) are women and for Black arbitrators (men and women), it’s only about 10 percent,” Gangle recently told the Post-Record. “It’s a long way from where it should be.”
Gangle herself struggled to get as far as she did in the field.
“There’s still this glass-ceiling effect,” she said. “Going to law school is just the first step. You cannot become an arbitrator right out of law school. That takes several years … and you have to secure the parties’ trust.”
For a woman or a person of color, that can be easier said than done, Gangle said, as there are no requirement for management or union leaders to be “fair and equitable” when selecting a labor arbitrator.
“Management is still primarily upper class, white males, and they’re going to look for white males on the list (of labor arbitrators). The unions aren’t far behind, as their leaders (also) are often white males,” Gangle explained. “My recommendation has always been that (labor arbitrators) should only use their initials. Of course, even then, (management or union leaders) would just have to call up one of their buddies and ask, ‘Who is this?'”
Despite the challenges, however, Gangle said she has always loved being an arbitrator. And her work gave her a unique take on the danger of the rising inequality between workers and management in this country.
“One of the points I make in my book is that the wage separation between the earners and corporate owners and investors has spread to dramatic levels and this troubles me,” Gangle told Rose on his Spent the Rent podcast.
When management was forced to sit down at the table with union leaders, Gangle said, they had to listen to their workers’ needs. Likewise, unions were able to collect information about the company’s profits and see where the money was going.
“Without the unions and the collective bargaining process (corporate owners) can hide things,” Gangle said. “They can get workers who will do things for less (money). They just don’t listen, and that creates more division and hurts workers in that they’re not valued.”
‘Thrilled’ with response
Since releasing “Madam Arbitrator’ in March, Gangle said she has been thrilled by the response to her memoir.
“It’s just been amazing,” she said, adding that she’s already had requests from prominent organizations, including the Global Center for Advanced Studies, an educational and research institution based in New York City and Dublin, Ireland, to give lectures and write blogs.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t slowed Gangle down too much. If anything, it opened her horizons, as many of the lectures and talks she’s been asked to give would have normally required flying long distances.
“Being able to do these things on Zoom is, frankly, something that appeals to me,” Gangle said. “It would be different if I had to fly off to Philadelphia or Dublin.”
Gangle also said she’s glad to live in Camas during the pandemic.
“It’s a much safer place than Salem (Oregon), where I lived for 27 years,” Gangle said. “My husband (Gene Gangle) and I have not had any health issues. We wear our masks and cooperate with all of the rules. And my daughter and her family live just a half mile away, so we’ve been able to go to each other’s houses and ride in the car together. Last week, I went down to the Camas library and picked up three brand new books … So, we’re good. We’re thriving.”
The one drawback is the fact that Gangle’s Great Discussions group, which meets monthly to discuss foreign policy issues at the Camas library, has been put on hold throughout the pandemic.
“I’m hoping next year they will want to come back,” Gangle said of her Great Discussions participants. “We had such a dedicated group.”
Until then, she plans to keep “thriving” with her family in Camas and promoting the ideas of social equality and employment justice she discusses in her memoir.
“I would encourage young people who like to read and write and be involved in legal and academic issues to not give up and do something else because they believe they’ll never be able to get into the field,” Gangle said. “And I would encourage the (gatekeepers such as other, more experienced labor arbitrators) to encourage young people to get into these careers.”
To learn more about Gangle and her memoir, “Madam Arbitrator,” visit madamarbitratorgangle.com.