February 2009

On Equality: AAUW works to shatter a glass ceiling

Author: Kate Hanzalik

Barack Obama’s campaign has reinvigorated the spirit of civil rights; his election to the presidency is clearly a milestone, and it is one that invites Americans to take a closer look at all facets of liberty—including women’s equality. Critics say the glass ceiling that limits education and employment is just cultural paranoia or an antiquated viewpoint. Yet the American Association of University Women (AAUW) has been a leading voice in women’s rights for more than 125 years, and members in the south of the Broad chapter beg to differ. This impressive group of women includes some of America’s first college-educated females, some of the country’s first feminists and some of today’s finest activists for the fight for equal pay, equal education and equal opportunity.

Dorothy Anderson, 88-years old, was the founding president of the Hilton Head chapter of AAUW, and she has seen it all since she joined the Cleveland chapter in 1940s, a time when African-American women were not allowed to join (that policy was subsequently shredded in 1952). In her early years as a member, Anderson devoted much of her efforts to researching inequalities in education with her AAUW study group, Status of Women.

“We’ve worked for years for equal work, equal pay,” Anderson said. “During Roe vs. Wade, we lost a couple of branch members because they didn’t believe in abortion…We try to keep people informed on things that are of particular interest to women and their welfare.”

Today Anderson is chairman of the board of trustees of the Seabrook House, a co-op retirement community. Between her meetings for the Seabrook, her monthly AAUW meetings and luncheons, and her bridge club get-togethers, she still finds time to raise funds for Literacy Volunteers of America, an AAUW partner, by selling vintage jewelry.

The local branch, which spans Hilton Head Island, Bluffton and Sun City, is now the largest branch in South Carolina and one of the most active in the state and the community, according to Bev James, president of AAUW of South Carolina. However, with just a few women in their 20s and 30s in the club, the new generation of AAUW members south of the Broad has not arrived, and neither has equality.

“Women continue to face pay inequities, particularly in South Carolina as we rank 47th in the nation,” said James. “Also, women are still not encouraged to obtain degrees that would enable them to earn larger salaries—what we call STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math. Young women need to be part of the process of creating a more equal work and academic environment for themselves and future generations.”

Local public policy chair, Pat Batten, seeks to address the problems within the educational system in South Carolina as well as with pay equity. “We will be monitoring the new administration and congress as well as the courts to further our goals of education and equity for women and girls. We do not support any political party or politician but do support legislation that corresponds with our agenda.”

Work Hard, Play Hard
Mary Ellen Harkins, the current president of the local chapter, devotes her time to organizing social change and to social engagements. “I took on this challenge because I felt I was at a stage of my life when I was able to devote the necessary time to be an effective leader of the organization,” she said. Harkins also said that, during her presidency, she hopes to increase membership to include more individuals, and more individuals regardless of gender, race, creed, age, sexual orientation, national origin, disability or class. In fact, a member’s husband recently joined.

“I also wish to be able to continue our 14-year tradition of offering scholarships for the mature woman (age 25 and over) returning to or continuing her post secondary education. Last year, for the first time, we gave our three scholarships to women who lived in Beaufort County (south of the Broad),” said Harkins.

Harkins is leading the planning of events throughout the year. A Christmas luncheon was held on December 3rd at Moss Creek at which donations were collected for the Children’s Center of Hilton Head. Upcoming events include a presentation about Orphan Train Children on February 7th, and the organization’s main fundraiser, the 14th annual scholarship luncheon and fashion show, March 7th, at the Country Club of Hilton Head. The event includes fashions from Palmettoes, a raffle and silent auction. “This is the event where we raise money for next year’s scholarships,” said Harkins.

Gigi Harris, a newer member of AAUW, taught the Artful Investing workshop on January 10th. She recently moved from New York City, having previously worked for Christies and Sotheby’s in both Manhattan and Australia. Harris is now director of communications and client Services at The Bedminster Group, a registered investment advisor in Bluffton. She and her colleagues host another educational workshop, “Smart Women & Their Money,” at venues all across the Lowcountry throughout the year.

“I moved to Hilton Head from Manhattan for the quality of life,” said Harris. “But it was extremely important to me that I continue surrounding myself with women of all ages, backgrounds and perspectives who are involved in their communities and recognize the importance of education, both academic and social. Making the commitment to support and generate programs that positively impact the lives of young and mature women is one of the greatest gifts to community that we can give.”

To Bev James, it is rewarding to know that she has made a difference in someone’s life. “The women I have gotten to know through AAUW are the most amazing and most intelligent women I know,” she said. “I think we have been able to change the lives of some young women through our scholarships, our encouragement, and mentoring.”

All are welcome to attend the meetings. If you wish to join, please contact lodon67@aol.com. For more information about AAUW and all of its initiatives, visit aauw.org.

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