One woman alone can make a difference — but a group of committed women can bring about real changes in their lives and in society as a whole.
That’s the word from the Western Carolina Women’s Coalition, which held its “Women Cultivating Change” conference March 8-9 at UNCA.
“This conference is a time to explore some of the contemporary issues facing women and how to care for ourselves,” Coalition President Ellie Franklin told the dozens of women in attendance. Alluding to the many meanings of the word “cultivate” — to reap and sow, to nurture, to bring about — Franklin said, “We hope you will leave here with more skills and more inspiration to get involved.”
Harriet Keyserling — the first woman ever elected to the Beaufort, S.C., County Council — epitomized that message. “If I can do it, you can do it,” she proclaimed during the opening address.
From those political beginnings, Keyserling (now in her 70s) moved on to the state legislature, where she served for nearly 20 years, spearheading such efforts as blocking the transportation and storage of nuclear waste in her state. But back in the 1960s, she was a newcomer to Beaufort — a liberal New York Jew transplanted to a conservative Southern town, she told conference attendees. Trained in labor, management and industry relations, she found herself in a town of about 3,000 where there was no industry and no unions. So Keyserling focused on being a good housewife, though she also became active in efforts to bring arts and cultural events to Beaufort and eventually got involved with the local branch of the League of Women Voters.
Her first run for office, joked Keyserling, might have had something to do with having “too much wine at dinner” — she’d been attending County Council meetings for the League and had bragged over dinner with friends (who included a local journalist) that she could probably do better than the men in office. The journalist friend dared her to run.
“I almost backed out,” confessed Keyserling. “But to everyone’s amazement, I won — [possibly because] my husband had delivered most of the babies in Beaufort.”
After parlaying her County Council experience into a successful bid for state office, Keyserling recalled how intimidating it was to be one of only nine women serving alongside 119 men. Even today, she observed, the relative scarcity of Southern women in office may reflect the lack of role models, the persistence of the good-ol’-boy network, and the lingering Southern concept of a woman’s place. “But if we care about what our lives are about, we have to care about who we elect,” said Keyserling. And sometimes that may mean taking the plunge and running for office.
She described a time in the 1980s when the S.C. legislature had tried to eliminate the funding for its women’s commission. After quietly listening to the proposed amendment (and the scarcely veiled sexism coming from her peers), Keyserling took her turn at the lectern. Waving a recently released report that ranked South Carolina near the bottom on a host of women’s issues (such as salaries, child care and education), she demanded to know how the commission’s funding could be cut when South Carolina was doing so poorly by its women.
The amendment was axed.
“We have to fight for our successes and stand up!” declared Keyserling. She urged women to get involved and press for changes in public policy on the issues that matter to them. In one woman’s copy of her book Against the Tide: One Woman’s Political Struggles”, Keyserling wrote, “If you run, you could make a difference.”
A series of workshops at the conference — “Remarkable Women, Unfair Pay”; “What Women Need to Know About Money”; “Finding Your Niche as a Volunteer” and “Women Going Where No Man Has Gone Before: Selling the Frontiers of Cyberspace” — outlined key concerns and ways to make a difference.
A recurring theme in many of these workshops — echoed by feminist/author Louise Bernikow, the second guest speaker — was that women need to get involved and stay involved, both to maintain past advances and to press for further change. Internet expert Dr. Clarisse Behar Molad reported that women’s enrollment in engineering and computer-science programs has dropped drastically over the past decade. Susan Markham, the former director of N.C. Equity, noted that women’s pay still lags behind men’s (in North Carolina, women earn 74 cents for every dollar earned by men in comparable positions). And Annaleah Atkinson, the former president of the Buncombe County Women’s Commission, pointed out that there are still very few women serving on local boards and commissions.
Showing slide after slide of women who’ve made a difference in American history (though they’re often barely mentioned in textbooks), Bernikow declared: “The attitude today is, ‘It’s all been done; everything’s fine.’ [But] there are many battles unwon.” She urged conference attendees to do as so many women before them did: Band together for change, even if it takes time.
Bernikow recalled the determined women who pressed relentlessly for the right to vote: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony. Others, she continued, were active in the civil-rights movement, in the anti-war protests of the ’60s, in the revived women’s movement of the ’70s. “This is a history of civil disobedience [against] bad laws,” said Bernikow. “These are your … gender ancestors,” she argued — and when a woman today advocates for change, she’s standing on their shoulders.
“All it takes [to change things] is a few women sitting around and coming up with what to do,” she concluded.