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A Chat with Founding Feminist Activists at UGA

When we walked into the room, we couldn’t help but smile at the sight of warm reunions amongst women who had not seen each other in years. More than 40 years had passed since they were spearheading feminist activism at the University of Georgia (UGA) in the 1960s and 1970s.

This panel discussion hosted by UGA’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) on March 24, 2016 shared the stories and history of the feminist activism movement in Athens and UGA. The OLLI@UGAorganization offers a space for individuals over the age of 50 dedicated to meeting the intellectual, social and cultural needs of mature adults through lifelong learning. OLLI graciously allowed us to stream live via Periscope and live tweet on Twitter. Please view part of the discussion here.

Collective pins were lying on a table and read Jeannette Rankin Brigade, Catalyst for Change, and Shirley Chisholm for President. A woman even shared her 1972 first edition copy of Ms. Magazine, the first national publication focused on the advancement of women’s rights. Unapologetic mediums on feminism including: books, letters, papers, t-shirts, and photos were also present.

We were in a room filled with feminists who had decided as students at UGA that they would speak out and advocate for gender equality, around the time of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and long before the 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling. Two of the panelists, Sue Bailey and Margaret Holt, helped found the Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund in 1976 with $16,000 in seed money from Rankin’s estate. The third panelist was Sharron Habbon, founder of the Athens National Organization for Women (NOW) Chapter in 1982.

The panelists shared that for many women, including themselves, coming to UGA for school was their first time ever away from home. When most of us recall our experiences as college students and young adults, organizing housing protest sit-ins in the president’s office and marches on Washington (Jeannette Rankin Brigade) aren’t exactly the first thoughts that usually come to our minds. They laughed at learning to master a pelvic exam on each other at a friend’s house during a time when women’s health was not a societal priority or even a public topic of discussion. Those shared times were challenging, yet laughter and sisterhood often kept them centered amidst opposition.

During their time at UGA, job postings were organized by gender preference. It was normal to see an advertisement in the UGA career services office that read, “Seeking accountant. Must be male.” In the Athens Banner Herald, “Help Wanted” postings with “Male” jobs were on one page and “Female” jobs on a separate page with women historically limited to secretarial or administrative roles.

We were shocked to learn from the panelists that if a female student married a man from out of state, she would have to pay out-of-state UGA tuition even if she was a Georgia resident. Only after being married could she then own a credit card and her husband’s name still had to be displayed. One participant in the discussion shared her struggle of getting a credit card with her first and last name, without Mrs. and without her husband’s name on it. She recalled that at the time her husband was in law school so she was the breadwinner for the family, but still his name was required for validity.

These challenges that the panelists and OLLI class participants had to endure may seem dated and ridiculous to us today, yet here we are in 2016 still advocating for gender equality and a woman’s right to education. We’ve certainly come a long way though from remarks like “why would anyone want to take a course about women?” a direct quote from a former UGA dean. But as we learned from the panelists’ account of their grassroots efforts, the work is not done yet.

As scholar bell hooks eloquently says, “feminism is for everybody” and it continues to be molded and shaped today by women and men, young and old, of all races and backgrounds with the common goal of gender equality. Because of the efforts of the golden men and women on this panel, in the audience, and in the community, feminism was brought to the forefront in the small town of Athens, GA. It is important that we remember that feminist activism is alive and there are more stories for all of us to create.

Thank you to the everyone at OLLI@UGA for inviting the Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund (JRWSF) staff to listen to your stories that continue to provide fuel to the our organization’s mission. In 1978, JRWSF awarded its first scholarship in the amount of $500. For four decades JRWSF has provided more than $2.3 million in college scholarships and support to low-income women age 35 and older to nearly 800 women.

For more information on how you can be an activist of feminism TODAY and empower women through education, please click here.