Women’s Herstory Month – Spartana


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…



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