Women’s Herstory Month

Womens Herstory Month

Madeline Phuong

Amid the March Madness craze for basketball and the growing dread of Tax Day, one vital celebration is too often disregarded: Women’s History Month. This annual declaration is centered around International Women’s History Day on March 8.

On a national level, Women’s History Month originated from a push by former Representative Barbara Mikulski and former Senator Orrin Hatch to designate the week of March 8 as Women’s History Week. Their actions came to fruition in 1987 when Congress declared March as Women’s History Month.

The transition of women in American society from domestic to public life is rooted in gradual historical change. From the 19th century ideal of the cult of domesticity to the 20th century achievement of female suffrage, the past centuries are witness to vast developments toward gender equality. Women fought for opportunities of higher education and careers in politics, law and business. Despite this, past inequities have persisted.

“I do feel that women are not viewed as equals in certain industries – and that shows up in the wage gap,” Advanced Placement United States History teacher Kara Squires said. “One of the things that continued (through history) was the dichotomy of being a woman, where there’s that balance between career and family. That’s a continuing role conflict that women have.”

The role conflict between history maker and homemaker was a familiar one to women first entering professional roles. Revealingly, it is still one that women face today. According to the Center for American Progress in a March 2020 report, the average woman earns 82 cents for every dollar earned by the average man. While 18 cents may not seem like much, it can quickly add up: a woman with a full-time job could make an annual salary that is over $10,000 less than a man with similar credentials.

Beyond the imbalance in wages, women are also faced with overcoming social stigmas when entering what were, at the time, male-dominated fields. Squires noted one such leading figure to be Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, who ran the newspaper during the 1970s Watergate Scandal.

“Her story is really one that touched me in that she was a major trailblazer for women in what was a ‘man’s world’ in publishing and news at the time,” Squires said.

Closer to home, Indiana has seen exceptional female leaders in all fields. What follows gives insight into the successes of four Hoosier women who are living legends and current leaders. Pioneers in public service, politics and law, each has worked to create unique versions of groundbreaking herstory.

 

JUDGE SARAH EVANS BARKER

“History is supposed to teach us things. It doesn’t stop just because it’s a thing of the past – it’s supposed to inform the future,” Judge Sarah Evans Barker said.

Barker never planned the pioneering path of her career – one in which she was the first woman to be a United States assistant attorney, federal judge and chief judge in Indiana. In fact, when the idea of entering law school was first suggested to her by close friend Arden Mueller, Barker was taken aback.

“I didn’t know any women who were lawyers. I didn’t know women went to law school. It seemed to be off limits, sort of something that was out of reach,” Barker said. “If she had said I ought to be an astronaut, it wouldn’t have seemed any more farfetched to me.”

Nevertheless, Barker soon aspired to go to law school, attracted by the idea that she could make an impact on the world in a meaningful way. Knowing that her aspirations were uncommon, Barker was hesitant to tell others. She recalled having to overcome both personal and public doubt of her ability to succeed in such a male dominated field.

Opportunely, the ongoing push for equal rights (seen in the debate over the Equal Rights Amendment) influenced the public to embrace less restrictive views of female roles. American feminists and civil rights activists like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem further encouraged support for women to take part more fully in public and civic life.

“It broadened our understanding of the importance of women participating as full and equal citizens,” Barker said, contrasting the period with prior confinement of women to domestic roles. “I was fortunate because there were men who were in positions of responsibility and power who thought it was appropriate to expand the opportunities of women, and they opened doors for me.”

Even as doors began to unlock, Barker was crucially left with few guiding female figures. The nature of her position was founded in a shortage of other female professionals. In addition to the uncertainty of success in the legal field, Barker had to learn to balance her professional and personal lives, as she was also a wife and mother. Her establishment of the networking group The Gathering, in which female professionals socialize four times a year, in the 1980s helped other women do the same.

A member of numerous civic, educational, cultural and religious organizations, Barker’s groundbreaking achievements have been recognized with several honors, such as the Indiana Commission for Women’s Trailblazer Award in 2008 and the Indiana Historical Society’s Living Legend Award in 2010.

Barker attributed her past and present accomplishments to two things: her passion and her foresight. She continues to maintain the same boundless love for the law that initially sparked her legal career. Moreover, her ability to make decisions for her long-term success permitted her to take advantage of later opportunities.

“You have to trust your own abilities and your own instincts and your own sense of self,” Barker said. “Those are factors that will keep you on the cutting edge of an interesting life.”

 

GENOIS BRABSON

“A lot of people did not expect me to be successful,” Genois Brabson said. In 1975, Brabson became the first female dispatcher at the Fort Wayne Fire Department. At the time, the only other woman hired by the department was the secretary. Four years later, Brabson entered the department’s training academy and made history as the first sworn female firefighter in Fort Wayne.

“Just think: for over 100 years, the (Fort Wayne fire and police) departments had gotten away with not having women apply. They figured that the dispatcher and firefighter positions were just a ‘man’s job’ and they wanted to keep the pay scale a certain way,” Brabson said, noting that her addition to the department was part of a national movement pushing fire departments to hire women. “I don’t think they even thought about (reaching gender equality) like that at the time. They were just interested in how we can be modern.”

When offered the opportunity to enter the fire department training academy, Brabson did not hesitate. She took the job and “never looked back.” Within the course of a decade, she graduated from the academy, worked as a fire educator and inspector and eventually the fire education director. Additionally, she was President of the Black Firefighters Association.

Originally wanting to be a teacher, Brabson always held an interest in public service and social work. She fulfilled this goal during her time as the department’s fire education director, when she took the opportunity to establish and train a team of fire safety presenters. Her proudest accomplishment was the creation of fire safety programs aimed at preschoolers and the hearing impaired. Additionally, she and her team paved the way in supplying smoke detectors to locally disadvantaged homes.

During her time at the department, Brabson received several accolades in recognition of her trailblazing. These include the YWCA Women of Achievement Award in 1986 and being named the American Legion Firefighter of the Year in 1990. Brabson was the first female African American recipient of the latter.

Looking back, Brabson observed that the department was slow to make adjustments as it hired more women. Without a mentor, she faced various physical and mental obstacles alone, including rigorous physical training in which injuries were common and the assumption of firefighters not making it out alive during emergency situations. Women who initially followed in Brabson’s footsteps did not fare much better, as Brabson recalled the lack of department guidelines for female academy trainees who were pregnant or overweight.

Now, over four decades later, the Fort Wayne Fire Department has 12 female firefighters in a department of 349 sworn firefighters. Deputy Chief Adam O’Connor reported that, in the last application process, approximately 5.7% of applicants were female. In the ‘Career Opportunities’ page on its website, the department recognizes the increasing number of women entering the public safety field, providing resources which give “a glimpse at the day and the life of a firefighter.”

“It is very heartwarming (to see more women at the fire department),” Brabson said. She is “so warmed and humbled” knowing that she continues to serve as a role model for local firewomen.

 

COUNCILWOMAN SHARON TUCKER

“Throughout all the other 11 months of the year, we don’t elevate women in the way that we need to,” Councilwoman Sharon Tucker said. “And I say that realizing that, without having a month to be celebrated, (women’s history) probably would be washed away completely.”

Tucker represents the 6th District on the Fort Wayne City Council, where she is the first African American woman to hold the seat. Similarly, during her five years on the Allen County Council, she was the only female and African American Democrat on a council of all white men. Her career in civic engagement began with the Allen County Democratic Party, for which she served as Treasurer and later Vice Chair.

Much like with the notable absence of female mentorship at the Fort Wayne Fire Department, there were few figures to support Tucker during her entrance into the realm of politics. An encounter with a man filled with blind hatred during a campaign parade prompted her to make change for women who would come after her. She founded the Woman in Politics Forum in 2012.

“That was the turning point for me: I was going to help women get through that kind of ignorance. I wanted to be the one who removes that barrier for all women who want to get involved in politics because I truly, truly believe that we are better when we bring all the voices into the conversation,” Tucker said. “We have to be able to protect ourselves, and there is a way to do it without degrading yourself and without allowing someone else to disrespect you. That’s what I want to help women understand.”

Through the annual forum, Tucker advises female political campaigners and speaks on the importance of empowering women in politics. She aims to create a community of safety and support. In particular, she hopes to address the fear which often fuels opposition to the inclusion of all voices in matters of importance. Furthermore, she emphasizes the necessity of sharing roles of power to ultimately achieve diversity.

Often the only woman in the room, Tucker brings much needed diversity of thought to council tables with a “limited sphere of experience.” The absence of diverse interests in county and city councils is prominent, as the same people – mainly white men – are continually chosen to be on city boards and committees.

“When we have people at the table making decisions without that berth of experience, then you get exactly what we have right now,” Tucker said. “We can be more intentional to pick people that don’t look like our normal picks, and, if they do look like our normal picks, then we want them to be sensitive to the needs of others.”

Of her own experience with representing one of the most diverse districts in Fort Wayne, Tucker chooses to be aware of her community’s needs by connecting with people. She expands her awareness of those she represents, overcoming everyday obstacles like language barriers. Tucker fulfills the principle objective tasked to every elected or appointed public official: speaking to and for her community.

 

FAITH VAN GILDER

“A feminist is just somebody who wants to see equal treatment and gender equality in every place where important decisions are made,” Faith Van Gilder said. “I celebrate the progress that we are making, but we still have much room for improvement.”

Van Gilder, who is one of the four co-founders of the Advancing the Voices of Women (AVOW) organization and the Marketing and Development Chief Officer of Girl Scouts of Northern Indiana-Michigan, considers herself a feminist. Her advocacy for equal treatment permeates her roles of leadership at both organizations.

AVOW first began after observing the growing incivilities of public discourse seen during the 2016 presidential election. The AVOW co-founders strove to create an environment in which women and men are comfortable having difficult conversations on polarizing political topics. They wanted to help all people learn to respect, if not entirely agree with, opposing viewpoints. They organized regular public guided discussions called Civil Conversations, which provides common ground for people from different backgrounds. The discussions are recorded and broadcasted on WBOI, and occasionally featured in local media outlets.

Another way in which AVOW promotes the voices of women in public life is through a weekly Women’s Opinion column in The Journal Gazette, a sponsor of the organization. The local newspaper noticed that nearly all people sending in letters to the editor and op-eds were men.

“We wanted to change that and make it a more equitable male-to-female ratio. We try to have a very diverse group of women’s voices – diverse as far as age, ethnicity, background and religion. Many of the women had never been published before,” Van Gilder said. “We now are at the point where some women submit their op-ed directly to The Journal Gazette.”

AVOW also holds a Women’s Campaign Institute to guide women interested in joining boards and committees or running for office. Similar to the organization’s other two programs, the mentorship program answered a widespread need: local guidance on how women can overcome common barriers to entering the political sphere.

“When you look at the results of elections, it’s predominantly men. That’s a real problem in Indiana – we’ve never had a female governor and we’ve never had a female U.S. senator,” Faith Van Gilder said. Three Women’s Campaign Institute programs have been held annually, and the organization plans to hold a fourth this fall.

A trend that Van Gilder and the other AVOW co-founders have tracked on a local level is men replacing retiring women in positions of influence. Van Gilder said that, while newer male officials may be qualified, keeping a gender balance would be preferable. In addition, she added that economic and domestic parity are still yet to be reached.

Van Gilder’s focus on women’s rights in every aspect of her life also translates to her role as Chief Officer of Girl Scouts of Northern Indiana-Michigan. During the month of March, when the Girl Scouts organization was also founded, troops engage in a week of activities which include learning and celebrating the history of the organization and the women who started it. Troop leaders and Girl Scout members often find sources of inspiration and strength in one another.

“Girl Scouts is all about empowering girls to be their best and learn leadership skills, and to be in a place where they can try new things and be challenged,” Van Gilder said. “All of that develops their confidence, which helps them in the future as they grow and continue their education and start careers.”

From supporting women in public life to teaching girls to be future leaders, Van Gilder feels that she has truly come full circle.

Originally Published in the Spartana Issue 6 (March 2021)