Inspired to a career in library science by her grandmother, who was a curator for the P.T. Barnum Collection at the Bridgeport Public Library, Ethel “Sue” Susan Palmer is an accomplished professional and a staunch advocate for equality and women’s rights. While she knew that she wanted to be a librarian from a young age, she faced a large amount of adversity and gender-based discrimination from the start and was never truly encouraged in her pursuit of her chosen field. During high school, she excelled in the sciences and was directed toward a career as a science teacher by her guidance counselor as well as by her parents. Matriculating at Cornell University, Ms. Palmer first earned a Bachelor of Science in secondary science education in 1965, followed by a Master of Science in genetics in 1969.
At Cornell, Ms. Palmer found herself wholly unsupported by her teachers, who invariably gave all their time and effort to her male classmates. A high point of her time at Cornell was getting to know visiting alumna Barbara McClintock, who was observing the department of plant breeding, where Ms. Palmer was the only graduate student working on male-sterile corn inheritance. After doing some work together, they ended up talking about gender discrimination, and Dr. McClintock shared an experience she had at a quantitative biology symposium in 1951 when her presentation on non-chromosomal inheritance was completely dismissed by her male peers, and she realized that she was not being seen as a researcher, colleague or equal. It was more than three decades later that Dr. McClintock received recognition for that work in the form of the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
After her graduation, Ms. Palmer worked in a series of low-rung, labor-intensive jobs, including food service, farm work and animal care, and garnered a wealth of practical experience in engineering, customer relations, product presentation and labor management. She spent more than a decade in various roles while raising her children before she pursued a second master’s degree to meet the base requirements that were being asked for her to qualify for new hire starting salary. In 1982, Ms. Palmer achieved her Master of Library Science at the University of California Los Angeles and found a position as the technical information specialist for the Chevron Oil Field Research Company in La Habra, California, that same year, bringing her expertise in chemistry and geology.
Not expecting to end up in the corporate world, Ms. Palmer put her unique skill set to work, seeking to bridge the gap between the corporate and educational worlds. She is particularly proud of what she accomplished as an instructor for Chevron’s Adopt-a-School Program between 1984 and 1999, also serving as a program coordinator from 1989 to 1991. In these roles, she was able to show a generation of children that women could be a valuable part of the workforce, and she also left a lasting impact on the Spanish-speaking students she worked with, as she was able to empathize with them about the struggles in learning and speaking a second language. Prior to her retirement in 1999, Ms. Palmer was additionally able to get the company’s scientific journals distributed at schools in the La Habra City School District.
Ms. Palmer’s tenure at Chevron was not without its struggles, and she notes that she often felt invisible in her role as a librarian, and every moment of influence she had was hard-won. She fondly recalls the time when she was able to change the company’s advertising program to be more inclusive for women and people of color. Above everything, Ms. Palmer hopes her story will encourage women to persevere and not let their present circumstances limit future career paths.
Throughout her career, Ms. Palmer has been active in a huge range of community endeavors and has continued that work in her retirement. One of her ongoing efforts has been collecting cans and bottles for recycling to bring in money to support the Community Action Project in providing aid to families living in mobile homes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. She is also a published author, having co-authored “The Distance Traveled to Use Public Libraries” and, more recently, wrote “The Peacock on the Roof: A Memoir About Life on the Road in California.” Ms. Palmer remains active with the Information Society of Sciences, the Association for Information Science and Technology, the Geoscience Information Society and the Girl Scouts of the United States of America.
For her excellence, Ms. Palmer has been the recipient of a number of honors and accolades, including early recognition with a grant from the National Science Foundation. She went on to receive recognitions from both the YWCA of Greater Los Angeles and the YWCA of Orange County, was named Volunteer of the Year with the La Habra Masonic Lodge Apple Award, and was presented with the Outstanding School Volunteer Award by Kraft General Foods and the Walt Disney Company. As a distinguished Marquis listee, Ms. Palmer has more recently been featured in the Marquis Millennium Magazine and honored with a Marquis Who’s Who Humanitarian Award and the Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award.