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Ellen Stern Overton
Service: September 17, 2017 (Sunday) at 11:00 a.m.
Location: Women’s National Democratic Club, 1526 New Hampshire Avenue, NW

Ellen Stern Overton, who devoted much of her professional career to government service and equality for women in the workplace, died peacefully of complications from pneumonia on August 21 at her home in Washington, DC. Born in Hamburg, Germany, she moved with her family to Bucharest, Romania in 1928 when her father became general manager of Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company. She attended a French school until faced with the possibility of war in Europe. Her parents then sent her to schools in England, where English became her third language, and in Geneva, Switzerland.

 

With the signing of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in August 1939, her family left Romania for England, but their plans changed when the French border closed, and they ended up in Switzerland. In the spring of 1940, Ellen departed from Genoa, Italy by ship with her mother and younger brother. They arrived in New York on June 10, 1940 and were reunited with their father, who had travelled separately to America. The family moved to Scarsdale, New York, where she graduated from Scarsdale High School.

 

Ellen attended Mount Holyoke College, graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and Yale University, earning a master’s degree in International Relations. While attending Yale Graduate School, her lifelong commitment to equality for women began to emerge. As one of three women in the political science department, she was not permitted to use the library’s periodical room or library stacks unaccompanied, and was restricted from using the pool and gymnasium.

 

In 1949, after applying for a position with the Central Intelligence Agency, she travelled to Washington, DC for an interview and was offered a position. When she asked what the salary would be, she learned the amount was lower than the one advertised. In her uncompromising style, she questioned the salary offer and after hearing the recruiter’s answer told him she did not want to work for an organization that prints one thing and then says another. Before she finished, the recruiter offered her the higher salary; another woman with similar credentials who started the same day received the lower salary.

 

While working at the CIA she met and married Edward W. Overton, Jr.  In the mid-1960s, when her children were of school age, she began looking for opportunities to return to the workforce in a part-time capacity. She soon learned that part-time jobs that would accommodate a woman’s responsibilities did not exist. Through research for a book on part-time job opportunities, an organization now called Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) was born. She became actively involved in WOW and with the US Civil Service Commission. Through her work with WOW and the Women’s Equity Action League, where she became director of volunteers, she worked on Title IX, which requires that women and men be provided equitable opportunities to participate and compete in sports.

 

Her commitment to women’s issues continued to grow and evolve. She was hired as the first Federal Women’s Program Manager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1977. She also attended all ten International Women’s Conferences as a delegate between 1975 and 2005.

 

In 1995, after 18 years of service to NOAA, she “retired.” After retiring, she volunteered to create the Global Women’s Task Force at the Women’s National Democratic Club. It was designed to implement issues in the Action Plan that was adopted during the 1995 International Women’s Conference in Beijing. The Task Force is still operating today. She also worked, in a volunteer capacity, as program chair of the Clearinghouse on Women’s Issues, an organization that arranges programs on public policy issues related to women. She then became president of the organization and later one of three Directors Emerita.

 

In addition to her professional accomplishments, she loved entertaining family and friends in her home; attending and supporting the arts and cultural events in Washington, DC; and was passionate about physical fitness and exercise including tennis, ice skating, swimming and roller blading—all of which she participated in well into her 70s.

 

Her marriage to Edward W. Overton, Jr. ended in divorce. She is survived by her beloved sons Roger W. Overton of Arlington, VA and Michael P. Overton of Hilton Head Island, SC; stepdaughter Wendy A. Overton of Gulfstream, FL; brother H. Peter Stern of New York City; nieces and nephews; grandnieces and grandnephews as well as numerous lifelong friends. Her stepson, Richard D. Overton, died in 2016.

 

A service to remember and celebrate her life will be held at 11 am on September 17, 2017 at the Women’s National Democratic Club, 1526 New Hampshire Avenue, NW in Washington.

 

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions in her name may be made to the following charitable organizations: The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, P.O. Box 5014, Hagerstown, MD 21741; UN Foundation, P.O. Box 96619 Washington, DC 20090-6619; The Outside Foundation, 50 Shelter Cove Lane, Hilton Head Island, SC 29928.

 

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