When Joyce Clarke was growing up, few jobs were open to women. She didn’t want to teach, so she took a YMCA course to learn about secretarial duties.
She took a temporary job in a small New York City firm. “I didn’t know what they did, but they were very nice people,” she recalled last week in her warm, sunlit Saugatuck Shores home. “I learned a lot.”
What they did was public relations. Joyce was ready to live out her career as a secretary. But war intervened, and when her boss was called away, her life changed.
That would be World War II. Yes, it was a while ago. On February 11, Joyce — who went on to found a pioneering, legendary women-led PR firm — celebrates her 103rd birthday.
She formed the company with Sally Dickson, a Westport woman whose family was known here for its heating and plumbing business. Starting with $500, a typewriter, telephone and 1-room office, they found a niche — and succeeded nicely — in a very male-dominated profession.
Sally Dickson & Associates concentrated on “home ec”-style accounts. They were hired by a Fortune 500 company that became the largest American supplier of rayon; helped revive the Good Housekeeping “Seal of Approval”; created a pattern contest for Vogue that was featured in Life Magazine; wrote a book called “A Woman’s Guide to Financial Planning,” and spent 23 years managing the Ocean Spray cranberry account.
Good Housekeeping trusted them with a list of over 30,000 women’s clubs across the country. The firm used that gold mine to target mailings for clients like Procter & Gamble, S&H Green Stamps and Borden.
“It was good to be a woman in that industry,” Joyce says. Her vision is gone, and she does not hear perfectly. But — 3 years past the century mark — her mind is incredibly sharp. She remembers names and dates perfectly.
She spent her career in PR because she liked “the freedom of using my mind inventively. I could decide what to do, express my ideas, and then go out and do it.”
The firm’s warm, stylish offices became a comfortable hangout for clients (including men). Account executives brought their daughters to talk to the female founders.
The only discrimination Joyce and Sally faced was from a banker, who said he was not in business to finance “young women.”
Sally Dickson & Associates grew to a staff of 30. Most were female. In 1971 the firm was sold to Donald Creamer. The women continued working, retiring in 1980.
“In the ‘Mad Men’ era, Joyce and Sally found a way to put females in the forefront,” says Matthew Cookson, founder of his own PR firm who also teaches about the history of the profession.
“That’s important, because the majority of consumers were women. She was excellent at networking, personal relationships, and partnering with clients over the long term.”
Westporter Kim Shaw interned at the firm Joyce founded. “She retired years earlier,” Kim recalls. “But the mere mention of her name commanded such enthusiasm and respect. She was a trailblazer among trailblazers.”
Near the end of their career, Joyce and Sally bought several lots on Saugatuck Shores. On one, they built a home. Sally died in 1999, at 86. Joyce still lives there.
Buying those waterfront properties was “a very good investment,” Joyce laughs knowingly.
She regrets very few things. (One is selling her New York City co-op.) She is proud of her work, as a professional as well as a woman. (In 1945 the firm earned one of the first prestigious Silver Anvil awards ever, from the precursor of the Public Relations Society of America.)
“Being women worked for us, not against us,” Joyce says. ” We weren’t the greatest agency in the world, but we were successful enough to be hired!”
In the 21st century, Americans marvel at the long-ago, male-centric world portrayed in “Mad Men.”
But in real live New York — starting 2 decades earlier — Joyce Clarke and Sally Dickson were quietly, determinedly and very effectively proving that women could play that game, too.
On February 11, Joyce turns 103. She’s still going strong.