Suffrage's legacy: It's time for women to step up
By Kay Slaughter
Walking down a narrow alley through a sea of men, desks and typewriters, amid the clouds of cigarette smoke, I spot a small clutch of women to my left— in an area segregated from the sprawl of the city room of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Patriot-News.
Fresh out of college, I report for my first day in the women’s department, meeting Carol and Judy, two colleagues my age, as well as four other women in their 40s. The boss arrives, and I discover the women’s pages are headed by a man.
No women in the pool of reporters, on the copy desk, or in the editorial department. In the early 1960s, I wasn’t surprised: that’s the way things were. I was glad to have a job and dug into my assignments.
That summer, I wrote a story on Women’s Suffrage Day about the women who had marched for the right to vote. I thought then that the main obstacles to women’s equality were past: We women had the vote, were educated, and could find jobs. What more could we want?
A few years later, I began to have questions. Married with two children under two, I’m reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique between washing diapers and carting my kids to the playground. Despite my enjoyment of the babies, I miss work.
In retrospect, my own mother had it tougher than I— her college career ended abruptly with the death of her father, and she had to work, learning shorthand and becoming a stenographer. Even though she characterized herself as having to work to help support our family, she appeared to relish her identity outside family and spoke proudly of her employer, the National Education Association.
Several years later, I walk into another newspaper office, in the basement of a Washington, D.C. townhouse. The desks at the weekly women’s paper, off our backs, are crowded together, the women poring over layouts or pecking at their typewriters. I’m writing an article on the lack of child care for mothers like me. Later, I’ll pen a piece about Capitol Hill waitresses picketing because management has ordered them to wear sexually provocative uniforms. “The times they are a changin’,” as Bob Dylan wrote.
After a decade of varied jobs and children having left the nest, I stop deferring a dream of becoming a lawyer and apply to law school. I am accepted to the University of Virginia where my class has 35 percent women, the largest percentage of females as of 1986. Women professors increase 100 percent when Mildred Robinson joins Lillian Bevier as law faculty.
At the end of my first year of law school, I attend the National Democratic Convention that nominates Geraldine Ferraro as Vice President. Daily I attend the women’s caucus to learn politics from Congresswomen Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, and Pat Schroeder. Yet I’m also awed by other women who speak during the open mike sessions: “I’m treasurer of Wisconsin;” “I’m running for commissioner in Illinois.”
They inspire me— after law school— to run for Charlottesville City Council, becoming the sixth woman so elected. Four years later, City Council gets its first female majority. The “Mommy Caucus” votes to increase daycare support for needy women. We have all been working mothers. Still, sexism remains: Campaigning for Congress in a Fredericksburg strip mall, I hand a flyer to a man who smiles and pronounces: “Another empty kitchen!”
More women leave the kitchen in 1994 when the late Emily Couric, along with Mary Margaret Whipple, Patsy Ticer, Louise Lucas and Janet Howell, are elected to the Virginia Senate. Each becomes an articulate spokeswoman for issues relating to the environment, education, and women’s health.
Yet while we have succeeded in opening some doors, our political institutions do not reflect state demographics. While women make up more than half the population of Virginia, only six women hold seats in the 40-person Senate and only 18 women in the 100-person House of Delegates.
Over the past two years, male-dominated politics in Virginia has dealt setbacks to reproductive rights. Legislation increasing regulation of women’s health clinics has resulted in the closing of one Northern Virginia facility, and the mandatory ultrasound bill requiring all women seeking abortions to undergo this procedure was enacted. Gay marriage is prohibited, early education is lacking and gun control, nonexistent.
The only female ever elected to statewide office in Virginia was Attorney General Mary Sue Terry in 1989. No female Governor or Lt. Governor. Leslie Byrne is the only Virginia woman to have served in the U.S. Congress.
Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, it’s time for women not only to climb the corporate or professional ladders but more important, to learn the political ropes to create a more just and equitable society for all people.
Women’s Suffrage Day offers an opportunity for resolution: Become politically active, work for a campaign, write letters to editors. Don’t wait to be asked: If you are a woman, consider running for office. Talk to those who’ve gone before you. Foist yourself on your party. Act up. Or encourage your friend— or your daughter— to run for office.
More than ever, we need you now.