Mary Mountcastle has always been a feminist. “People often separate out women’s issues. I believe all issues that improve women’s lives, improve everybody’s lives.”
This is why Mary devotes so much of her time and energy to women’s issues, with a particular focus on economic justice. “In my work, I focus a lot on economic issues, things like paid leave, affordable childcare, access to living wage jobs… creating a ladder that you can move up,” she says. “I think those things continue to be incredibly important.”
Mary was part of the original brainstorming group that led to the creation of WomenAdvaNCe, and has been an active supporter ever since. “Women AdvaNCe engages and informs women of all ages and all statuses in life. It’s really important that people band together and fight smart,” she says.
Mary has worked in the nonprofit sector since obtaining her MBA from the Yale School of Management, and supports a number of nonprofit organizations and foundations here in North Carolina.
“I was really lucky to be able to attend the Yale School of Management,” says Mary, “because when it was formed in the late ‘70s, it was specifically developed as a management school that puts equal emphasis on nonprofit, for profit and public-sector areas. All three of those sectors were brought into every single course you took.” Mary says this gave her perspective on the intersection of economic development and community development, insight into the business discipline of the private sector, and a view on the ways in which unfettered business can be really detrimental to people.
Mary spent much of her career at Self-Help, a family of member-owned credit unions, a nonprofit loan fund, and a policy advocacy organization, directed at expanding ownership and economic opportunities for all. “My day job was around responsible lending and responsible financial services,” she says.
Once the state became politically polarized, Mary saw a need to beef up issues-focused work in the legal and political realm within the progressive community. Part of Mary’s more recent work has been focused on helping progressive nonprofits come together to work in a collaborative fashion on issues of mutual interest through Blueprint NC, of which Women AdvaNCe is a member. Collaboration reduces duplication and increases the effectiveness of the work, and provides a network to connect citizens in our state with the resources that matter to them.
“We are lucky in North Carolina to have a lot of progressive organizations working on different issues,” she says. “But I saw a host of nonprofits who share values and want to see the state move forward for all people, but were working in silos. Blueprint NC provides an opportunity to get organized and align activities together, and to think strategically about how to best engage and inform voters.”
The state of things today
“I think all of the recent events around sexual harassment and assault that have been in the news is another example of how women need to band together and use our collective voice for progress,” says Mary, recalling a job in Washington D.C. early in her career. “I remember my first day at work, somebody pulled me aside to tell me ‘here are the three men you are never alone with.’ And so much of that cultural attitude is still there today, particularly in male-dominated sectors.”
What’s happening today elevates the need for women to join together and speak up about issues that impact us. But, as Mary points out, it can’t just be driven by women. There needs to be mutual respect for everyone you work with and we need to speak up for each other, she says. “Men have to speak up for women. White people have to speak up for African Americans. We all need to speak up for one another when we see something that’s not right.”
That’s the value in events like the NC Women’s Summit, she says. “Getting together with women from different backgrounds to embrace our similarities and differences, and see how cool it is to learn about all of these different perspectives. We have to continue to learn how to open up those lines of communication.”
What can women do moving forward to advance change?
“I thought we’d beaten all these issues 40 years ago… but some days it feels like we’re going back to the 1950s,” Mary says. “It feels like there was real progress made for all kinds of people, including women, and now it seems like someone is turning the reel backwards instead of forward.”
While that is discouraging, Mary sees it as a reminder that we need to fight and fight smart. Staying informed and engaged through organizations like Women AdvaNCe, voting in every election, getting involved in politics and pushing for things like fair districting. “The way our state is gerrymandered is at the heart of why we haven’t been able to make as much progress over the last five or six years,” she says. “Peoples voices are being muffled, and we have to band together to make sure that we can speak out loudly.”
Progress is being made! Women all over the country are stepping forward and running for office. Groups like LeadNC seek out, cultivate and encourage this new generation of community and civic leaders. Non-partisan leadership training efforts are growing.
“Whether it’s the school board or city council… we need to remember that government can do really important things that work for people,” says Mary. “Government has been under attack for a long time, and we need to take our government back and make it work for people again.”