By Ann Holbrooks
Recently, I have seen a repetitive commercial that begins “WHAT IF……?” It’s definitely a positive commercial that appears directed to young people, but a good question for all ages to ponder. It is probably why a local women’s organization (no longer active) began in 1979. In the 70’s, throughout the nation, women’s groups were organizing for their voices to be heard. Some were rather radical, some rather docile. One thing was clear, they were going to fight, get publicity doing it, and perhaps make changes. Many women in Lexington wanted to be a part of the wave to make some positive changes here, in Davidson County. One group said…..WHAT IF? and got to work. First, they decided to affiliate with a national group and chose The Women’s Political Caucus. There were already Caucuses in Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, Asheville, Edenton, Charlotte (the first to organize). Small town Lexington joined them, and Burlington followed the next year.
Locally, the Women’s Political Caucus was selected because it was non-partisan. Members were white and black, Democrats and Republicans, and even one or two unaffiliated. Ages were between 35 and 75. Perhaps they were rather naïve in thinking Party didn’t matter; they just held the belief that women’s voices needed to be heard and women’s participation needed to happen. Perhaps they were naïve to think fighting for equality was not partisan. After all, women were over 50 % of the population. They knew that opportunities were there for men, why not women? Teachers, social workers, one or two business women, even one lawyer belonged to the local Caucus. Most were housewives with college backgrounds. More opportunity for themselves was not the primary reason, but logic, and thoughts of their daughters, and the future of women were the main points. They also knew that at that time, women, doing equal work, earned 59% of what men made.
They did rally and work hard for women’s equality? WHAT IF they didn’t?
Locally, there was a lot of immediate success. One of the members ran for County Commission, and won! One ran for City Council and won! Later, a couple ran for offices but lost. Some worked their way onto important boards and commissions such as the ABC board, the Chamber of Commerce, Domestic Violence Board, etc. Politicians and others began to pay attention. Our voices were being heard. Each year, as a Fundraiser, The Caucus presented a “Good Guys” Award to recognize businesses and organizations that hired, worked with, and promoted women. Soon, people wanted to attend those award “parties” and began to understand what the Caucus women were achieving. That became a plus and later a minus. Examples of Good Guys: a local State legislator won the award because he voted for women’s issues in Raleigh; the president of the Community College won because he, probably more than any, supported placing women in important positions, even having a known national woman as The Commencement speaker.
The Dispatch devoted 3 or 4 full pages to the Caucus calling them “women to be reckoned with,” noting how much they were contributing to local boards and issues, and to many aspects of the community. Although that helped the Caucus’ ego and gave them courage to keep on working, it also awakened a very strong partisan group who saw only what they wanted to see—Democrats winning elected positions. They didn’t seem to care that most of the time and labor was spent to help domestic violence or with workshops to encourage young women to work for their dreams or just to place women on decision making boards so that their voices would be heard. And that was the beginning of the end of the Women’s Political Caucus in Davidson County. That same downward trend was happening throughout North Carolina and the rest of the country. The country was becoming more and more partisan as if Party, winning and controlling, not logic or basic human rights were the most important things.
One of the major goals of the Women’s Political Party was the passage of ERA. That is another story; books can be written on the Amendment That Never Was. It has been around for one hundred years and never passed. Many are quite proud that they have never supported it, calling it unnecessary. Sometimes Republicans included it in their platform and in more recent years, they fought against it. In the 1940’s the main group for it was middle class Republican women. Even very Democratic Eleanor Roosevelt was against it during her time. The 1960’s brought multitudes of fights for change, including a revised amendment and a big push for the passage of ERA. In 1980, North Carolina was one of the last battlegrounds for passage. At that time, the Republican Party was against its passage and the Democratic Party was for it. Regardless of party affiliation, the local Caucus was for it. They chose to march in Raleigh and in Washington to show support. In Raleigh, they saw not only North Carolina women and men march for it, but also many buses loaded with people from other states both for and against including Utah’s Phyllis Schlafly’s buses. On a personal note, my Mother (born in 1915) drove from Concord to Lexington to hitch a ride with the Lexington group. She was excited just to be able do something, and to be with those who felt as she did. Bett Hargrave’s Mother (who as a child marched with her Mother to support the Suffragettes who dressed in those long white skirts with purple banners) and at 90 plus also went to Raleigh and to Washington to march for women once again.
All these women worked hard; tried to make a difference, and all asked, WHAT IF?
Trying to remember all the Lexington Caucus members has been fun and a chore; after all it has been over 40 years ago. Some who came to mind are no longer with us either because of death or a move to another town. This is a list of those I do remember: Joan Athay, Winsie Blanton, Clara Benson, Sue Beck , Arnetta Beverly, Margaret Buggs, Jean Brooks, Helen Brinkley, Betsy Evans Buchanan, Mary Bolstad, Janie Carter, Gayle Davis, Sally Dodd, Minnie Dukes, Rithia Ford, Bett Hargrave, Frankie Hedrick, Lynn Mack, Kristie Miller, Maryanne Mortimer, Marcia Michaux Patterson, Phyllis Penry, Laura Phail, Nancy Potts, Navalia Quensenbery, Charlotte Roberts, Gail Rogers, Aurelia Smith, Patty Younts, Tere Wagner, and Jane Whitehurst. There were others that I don’t recall now, but there were at least 50 Davidson County women who wanted to be a part of their time, their history that was calling.
Perhaps the best thing about working side by side for something you believe, is the people who work beside you. To this day, I would completely trust any of those named above. Some I no longer see; some have become best friends, but all said WHAT IF…. and did their best.
WHAT IF is what the Women’s Political Caucus asked, and perhaps what each of us could ask ourselves every day. The question offers a choice; it has a double edge.