Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 31, 2017

Strong women

Mom was afflicted with crippling arthritis from her 30s on - so much so that she had all the joints in her hands replaced with plastic ones. Still, she helped Dad on the farm; raised brother Dave, sister Gaila and me; got her education degree by traveling weekends and summers to a teachers’ college in Emporia, Kansas; taught elementary school for 31 years; painted and gardened throughout her life and still found time to tell us how to live ours.

My grandmothers Ethel and Hulda, aunts Edith, Hazel and Kay, and mothers-in-laws Rita and Donna were also strong women.

None were part of the suffragette crusade of the early 20th century or what were later called women’s movements. But I think of them often, and especially during March - Women’s History Month - which this year is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued the first Presidential Proclamation declaring the week of March 8, 1980 as National Women’s History Week. Within a few years, many schools and communities joined in. By 1986, 14 states had declared March as Women’s History Month. In 1987, Congress made it a permanent national celebration.

Earlier this month, husband Art and I made a trip to Upstate New York for our research on Velma Carson, a Kansas State University journalism student during the World War I years. Another strong, unconventional woman, she married and divorced twice, kept her maiden name throughout her life, combined a writing career with domestic life, supported her daughter Cynthia through college, and was the driving force for her hometown to adopt a French village and help it recover from the effects of World War II.

We included a visit to the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls. It was the site of the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Mary Ann M’Clintock, Martha Wright and Jane Hunt. On July 19 and 20 of that year, more than 300 attended the convention, where the “Declaration of Sentiments” was presented. That document declared that “all men and women are created equal” and it demanded equal rights for women in property and custody laws, educational opportunities and participation in religion, the professions and politics. The convention was the beginning of a 72-year-old fight to gain the right for women to vote in the U.S.

That right was finally won in 1920, 10 years after mother-in-law Donna was born.

On March 16 of this year, daughter Mariya and I attended a speech by former Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The event, sponsored by K-State’s gender, women and sexuality studies department, underscored the importance of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. It protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. Joyner-Kersee, winner of six Olympic medals and named “the greatest female athlete of the 20th century” by Sports Illustrated, said that while Title IX has helped women, “the fight is not over.”

Now, almost 100 years after women gained the vote, we’re still fighting. That was made crystal clear on Jan. 21, when more than 500,000 participated in the Women’s March on Washington. Estimates are that somewhere between 3.3 million and 4.6 million marched in various cities across the U.S. They were joined by thousands of supporters in cities around the world, including Paris, London, Berlin, Nairobi, Stockholm and many others.

According to organizers, the march was meant to “send a bold message to the new administration [in Washington] on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights.”

Niece Gabriela, who completes law school in May, participated in the Women’s March on Washington. She waited an hour to get on the subway to attend the march, but she said others who didn’t have metro cards waited three hours in line to buy them.

I started the day on a packed metro, where families, kids, women, and men were sardined into a metro train. It was amazing to see everyone trying to get to know each other and learn why they came to march. (This is a rare scene because people on the DC metro on a regular day isolate themselves in their headphones or newspaper while rushing to work.) I met people from all over who were coming to bring awareness to women’s health issues, education, immigration, LGBTQ issues, gender equality and so many more important matters. There were so many people that the original path of the protest to the White House was too short! So people marched around the national mall and all the way into Chinatown. Also, the signs people made were so incredibly unique and spot on. My favorite: “Can’t believe I still have to protest this shit!”

Mariya and partner Miriam attended the march in Topeka, which drew more than 3,000.

The women’s march was such a fantastic event after the turmoil and negativity of the election. The sexism, racism, xenophobia and homophobia made the world seem dark and unsafe. The women’s march was a chance to get together with people who work to lift each other up. The focus was on working together to create change and make the world a better place. There were speakers from groups like Planned Parenthood, politicians, artists and activists. It was such a positive, loving and affirming event. So many amazing women and others were there speaking, chanting and sharing their stories, experiences and goals for the future. It energized many of us to continue fighting for change in the months (and years) to come.

After reading the words of two members of this new generation, I have a hunch that the strong women in my past would be proud of them. Art said he’s sure his mother would have felt that way and also just a bit amused that this column appears on what would have been her 107th birthday.

Top-left: restored Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, where the women's rights meeting was held in 1848; bottom-left: chapel interior. In 1848, there were balconies on both sides; top-middle: 2017 Women's March in Seneca Falls. The building at the right with the chimney is the Wesleyan Chapel; bottom-middle: sculpture in the National Park Service museum in Seneca Falls representing visitors to the 1848 meeting; top-right: Gabriela, left, and two friends at the Women's March in Washington, D.C.; bottom-right: Miriam, left, and Mariya at the march in Topeka.

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