Dr. Anna Penk joined the faculty of the Oregon College of Education in 1973 and served as a professor of mathematics until her retirement in 1993.
Dr. Penk earned undergraduate degrees from Whitman College and Reed College before receiving a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Oregon. Despite holding multiple degrees, Dr. Penk found herself being treated as a less valuable faculty member than her male counterparts.
While employed at the Oregon College of Education, Dr. Penk endured many inequalities: receiving substantially less pay than male colleagues while teaching as many, or more coursese than them; repeated denial of tenure-track positions; and being assigned shared office space with other women while men were given private offices.
She grew tired of constant gender discrimination and gender inequality, she eventually sought out legal assistance.
Seeking equality for herself and all female faculty in the state’s eight colleges and universities, she pursued what would turn out to be a landmark sexual discrimination suit. The first class-action suit in the nation to be brought against a statewide, multi-campus system, Penk vs. Oregon State Board of Education charged the board with the violation of federal civil right laws.
The suit was brought to federal court in 1980, and the first trial began on Feb. 8, 1984, lasting nine months. The trial was one of the longest and most expensive in Oregon history.
The class action suit represented 2,200 women and sought $33 million in back pay and assurances that the state would improve its treatment of women in higher education. In the end, the court found that there wasn’t enough evidence that the university had intent to discriminate. However, the judge did grant three of the 58 individual claims. Dr. Penk prevailed on one of her four claims and was awarded promotion to full professor and $485.17 in damages.
Although the class-action case ultimately lost in court, it generated great public interest and support for improvements in hiring and promotion practices. Penk vs. Oregon State Board of Education helped pave the way to the passing of a law against discrimination in the Oregon’s institutions of higher learning.
In 1984, Dr. Anna Penk was the recipient of The American Association of University Professors' Georgina M. Smith Award for contributing the cause of working women.