Because it’s a clip from the game show “To Tell the Truth” and, as anyone who’s familiar with the show’s format knows, there’s an element of mystery involved until Garry Moore says “Will the real ….. please stand up.”
You don’t actually need to watch the video in order to appreciate this story but you might not want to see what Wilma Schneider looks like before trying to guess which of the three women she is.
Also, Kitty Carlisle and Peggy Cass each say things in the video clip which connect directly to this story.
Kitty recalls seeing a newspaper photo of Wilma and Peggy questions the wisdom of putting women in such close proximity to men who have been without female companionship for any period of time.
Here’s the link, watch or don’t watch –
And here’s the story –
In December of 1972, the Reagan administration announced that on June 30, 1973 it would be closing down California Youth Authority’s Los Guilucos School for Boys and Girls (coeducational since the Fricot School for Boys closed in April 1971).
The school, once solely for delinquent girls aged between 11 and 17 years old, had been operational since 1945.
In 1972 there were 160 employees.
The facility’s staff was assured that “every effort would be made” to find them jobs.
However, CYA director Allen F. Breed didn’t shy away from the truth when he stated “It is only fair to note, however, that the previous closing of two institutions has reduced the number of placement opportunities and we cannot guarantee that we will be able to offer positions to all displaced staff.”
And this is how Wilma Schneider became San Quentin’s first armed female guard.
Wilma, then 30-years-old, had been working at Los Guilucos for three years when the announcement came. She was employed as a group supervisor and assigned to the visitor’s center.
The school’s closing was a real blow to Wilma because she was in the middle of divorce and the mother of three young children, aged 1, 5 and 7 years old. She couldn’t risk being unemployed so she agreed in February 1973 to accept what, according to Wilma, was “supposed to be a lateral transfer” to the San Quentin Prison’s Visitors Center.
Much to her surprise, on day one of her new job, Wilma, who was wearing a pink pants suit because there were no uniforms for women, and another gal named Georgia Gruver, were told that they would be expected to work the same job assignments as the male guards and that they had the passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 to thank for it.
Georgia, 26-years-old and the wife of a fellow San Quentin guard Lawrence Gruver, quit before the week was out. Wilma, however, needed that $753 a month salary and didn’t feel as though she had the same option.
|Is this the photo Kitty Carlisle saw?|
It was big news in early March 1973 that, for the first time in San Quentin’s 121 year history, there would be a female guard and the press were all over it.
Wilma’s picture appeared in newspapers across the country and she eventually made the game show circuit, appearing as a guest on To Tell The Truth (April 4, 1973) and later What’s My Line? (June 14, 1973).
However, Wilma’s appointment was not a popular one.
An anonymous editorial in the March 3, 1973 edition of the Spokane Chronicle started off with “Whoever assigned Wilma Schneider to her present job ought to be kidding, but apparently he isn’t.”
The same article finished with “Prisons never lack for problems. This one San Quentin hardly needs, even in homage to equal rights.”
There was also much controversy revolving around of the awkwardness of female guards being assigned to supervise the showers. Captain of the Guards William Merkle said “I don’t think the courts were thinking of all of these things when they acted. They may have to take another look at the situation.”
The inmates concurred, especially when it came to Wilma seeing them naked.
Edward Jones, a 40-year-old inmate serving time for manslaughter, complained that he feels it’s “an invasion of my privacy to have a woman watching me while I’m taking a shower. It makes me feel small and uncomfortable and I just don’t like it.”
The Men’s Advisory Council, a group of elected convicts which investigates prisoner complaints, organized a petition.
Wilma was sympathetic to the inmates’ feelings and said “All I can do is handle it the same way a doctor handles an examination; I’m not going to gawk at them. It will take time but eventually they’ll feel more comfortable with me around.”
Inmate Ben Rasnick, 52-years-old and serving a life sentence for his part in the shotgun murder of Lloyd Green, compared the hiring of a female guard to “putting someone who’s starving in front of a locked delicatessen; there’s bound to be trouble.”
Although, seemingly more concerned for his own safety than Wilma’s, Rasnick further stated, “I know it will make me nervous if there is a female on the block. I’ll wonder if someone’s going to attack her and who will get shot as a result.”
Wilma certainly felt a lot of pressure. She told the Associated Press, “I can’t help but think that if I don’t succeed, I’m going to ruin it for all women.”
Georgia Gruver’s departure opened the door for Mrs. Bonnie Briggs, who began training as San Quentin’s second female correctional officer on March 5, 1973. Briggs, then 29 years old, was a former dispatcher for the California Highway Patrol.
Both Wilma Schneider and Bonnie Briggs were defendants in a March 1973 lawsuit filed by inmate Larrance Hand.
Larrance Hand, in his early 40s and serving a term of 8 years to life for his 1972 rape, sexual perversion and kidnapping conviction, alleged “cruel and unusual punishment” because the women were “in a position” to watch him bathe and carry out other biological functions normally performed in private, or at least out of the presence of women.
Hand was especially bothered by Wilma’s supposed strong physical resemblance to his wife; a woman with whom Hand claims to have enjoyed a normal marital relationship prior to his imprisonment. Wilma’s presence was a daily reminder of his inability to continue his marital activities with his wife.
|Wilma “Willy” Schneider, 1973|
[Let me just comment at this point that Hand’s “loving normal marital relationship” is called into question when you consider his crime. Also, ironically, the complaint was filed before the “To Tell The Truth” episode in which Peggy Cass suggested it would be “cruel and unusual punishment” for the inmates to be in close proximity to female guards.]
Hand demanded that the two women be fired and he be awarded $1.99. That’s not a typographical error.
Not surprisingly, on June 28, 1973, Hand’s case was dismissed.
Larrance Hand eventually changed his opinion on women guards.
In a letter published in the November 1973 edition of the San Quentin News (a prison newspaper), Hand wrote, “I can now sincerely say that they (the women guards) are a credit to the staff and place no threat to anyone on either side of the bars.”
Hand added, “I feel it is only fair to express my views after the eight months since “Willie” Schneider broke the ice and became the first female guards at San Quentin.”
Although Hand still maintained that while he had “some reservations about the women supervising a shower area or giving a skin search, I welcome them to work in all other areas of our city.”
By November 1973, there were 5 female corrections officers at San Quentin.
Hopefully, by then the male guards had also changed their opinions regarding women in the workplace as there was some genuine resentment when Wilma started. How much of a difference had 8 months made for them?
In March of 1973, the male guards expressed their concerns about a woman’s ability to back them up in a violent situation. Captain of the Guards
William Merkle told reporters “You’re substituting a strong arm for a
weaker one and it’s impossible to know what will happen.”
Wilma stated at the time, “I wish I knew the answers to all the men’s concerns about safety. I want to convince my colleagues that I’m not here for self-glorification, that I’m serious about my job. My biggest challenge will be letting them know I can handle the job.”
In an attempt to drive home how vulnerable she was, some of the other
guards would purposely put Wilma in potentially dangerous situations.
a 2015 interview with California’s Sierra Star newspaper, Wilma said “That first
week was the worst. They used every tactic they could to scare us off.
They sent us all over the prison, into the towers, put us on every
shift. They sent us to blocks (Wilma was sent to East Block, where 950
inmates were housed) and told us that we had to shower the inmates. It’s
only because the inmates threw such a fit that we were pulled from that
duty. They took us into the black museum, where there were ghastly
photos. Weapons made from toothbrushes, toilet paper holders, or carved
out of wood were lined in neat little rows. That’s all it took. Georgia
left, but I was stuck because of my personal circumstances. I think I
kind of got mad about then, and decided if I was going to leave, I would
do so on my own terms.”
From that same interview comes
this anecdote – “Some of the games the guards would play” Wilma said,
“… one time I worked in the library alone. There was supposed to be a
librarian and another guard, but I was alone. In walks a guard with six
black inmates, and that guard leaves. One of the inmates walks over to
me and says he wanted to show me something. What he showed me was the
broom closet, and he says to me ‘looks like they have set you up again.
If anything goes down, just get into the closet.’” Fortunately, nothing
happened that day, and Wilma never felt physically threatened as a
guard, believing as a Christian, that she was protected by God.
everyone was a jerk though and Wilma found a friend in Sergeant C.E.
Bud Jordan. According to Wilma, Sgt. Jordan promised to walk the yards
with her “until these clowns (the guards) get used to seeing you around
here,” he said.
“A lot of the guards thought I was a woman’s libber, thought I was going to go after the easier jobs,” Wilma added, “and one day, Bud asked me what a good-looking gal like me was doing there, so I explained my situation to him, and things got a lot easier for me because when Bud likes you, everyone likes you.”
Sgt. Jordan also put in a good word
with Lieutenant Molloy who oversaw the prison’s visiting center and
about four months after being hired, Wilma was transferred to the job
she had initially sought.
After 2 1/2 years at San Quentin, Wilma quit. “It was just too depressing,” she said. “I guess the pressure finally got to me. It’s like a drop of water constantly hitting a rock in the same spot – eventually, you wind up with an indentation.”
She made the decision to quit one day in August 1975, after leaving work. Wilma drove through the gate and thought to herself “I’m a creative person, I need to get the hell out of here.”
Wilma said she didn’t want to become hardened like the inmates or even some of the guards and considered her quitting a matter of survival. Although the quote attributed to Wilma in the press, at the time of her departure, was “I was losing that softness all females should have.”
Wilma used her two weeks vacation as her two weeks notice and cut all ties with the place.
It was reported in the September 1, 1975 edition of the Honolulu Advertiser that Wilma would be working with ghostwriter Norman Singer on a memoir called “Lady in the Bullpen.”
After she quit, Wilma was almost immediately approached by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and asked to become a civil rights activist and give speeches but she declined.
Wilma never viewed her position as anything other than work.
“I wasn’t down there for any kind of women’s movement,” she said, I was there to do a job and to feed three kids.”
Now that she was gone, former Captain of the Guards, William Merkle, who had hired Wilma Schneider, said “She had to absorb a lot of criticism from a lot of people. I have to give her credit for that. The sex barrier that she broke will never be rebuilt.”
In an interview with San Quentin’s remaining 6 female guards, printed on September 15, 1975 (two weeks after Wilma’s departure), corrections officer Betty Holland acknowledged that “certain guys will never accept us. I just tell them I’m here for a job, not to be a woman’s libber.”
Wilma supported herself working as freelance artist for children’s books while she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Relations and Administration from the University of San Fransisco. She then worked as a mental health clinician until her retirement. Wilma reinvented herself so much so that she now goes by the name Wendy Woods.
In 2015, Wilma finally finished that memoir. It’s called “Flowers and Guns” and she dedicated it to Bud Jordan.
Wilma says the title is a reference to the roses she says the San Quentin inmates would give her as gifts.
Wilma laughed and said, “I always thought I would call it ‘Roses and Guns’ but we all know why I can’t do that.”
I’d love to tell you my opinion of the book but it’s out of print and over-priced. The second printing is even more expensive than the first. As of this writing, Amazon has the book listed for anywhere between $894.00 and $1,012.90.