History is Our Strength: a Woman’s Perspective

Below is President Glasser's address "History is Our Strength: a Woman’s Perspective" given at the USDA Lab in Peoria, IL on March 24, 2011.

My instructions here say that I am to “give a seminar presentation on a suitable topic related to women’s history.” The theme is “our history is our strength: a woman’s perspective.” My audience is to include as many as 100 P-H-D scientists, many of whom I know to be among the smartest in the world.

Wow! You really know how to intimidate a speaker, don’t you?

So let me begin by saying that your invitation presumes more expertise than I possess. Now we have those experts on the Bradley university campus, and one of them is Dr. Stacey Robertson, who recently co-authored two books relating directly to the history of women.

My expertise on the history of women stems largely from the fact that I am one. And that my life, and my career, parallels what we now call the women’s rights movement but which really is an extension of the civil rights movement that began with a focus on race. Women were a problem left to be settled later.

I do have some expertise in the law. It may be limited and a bit out of date, for it’s been a long time since I graduated from law school, but it’s enough to cause me to reflect upon our legal history.

As a lawyer, and as a woman, and mostly as an American, I have been perplexed by the failure of those who created this shining democratic light of a nation to even consider granting democratic rights to women. It is symbolic, I think, that a woman proudly sewed the first American flag -- but not one woman signed the declaration of independence or the constitution.

We should not construe from this that women in our history were not actively engaged. They were, right from our founding.

I think it’s worth remembering that America’s first feminist, Abigail Adams, was home taking care of both the family and the family business while her husband was off creating a new country.

“Remember the ladies,” she famously wrote to him. Does anyone here know what Dr. Adams wrote in response? “I cannot help but laugh.” I cannot help but laugh.

We also need to remind ourselves that civil rights legislation continued to overlook women into the 20th century. Cokie Roberts tells how her mother, Congresswoman Lindy Boggs, was reviewing a draft of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in the year 1974. Mrs. Boggs quickly discovered that the proposed legislation forbade discrimination on the basis of race, national origin or creed – but said nothing about gender.

So the Congresswoman snuck into a back room, added the words “sex or marital status” and handed out revised copies to her virtually all male colleagues.  “I’m sure the omission of women was just an oversight,” she declared. The law passed – with the changes.

As I said, I am perplexed. I just don’t get it. And so I consulted with someone I thought might have perspective: Dr. Stacey Robertson, Professor of American heritage at Bradley and an authority on women’s history.

Here’s what she said.

Back in the time the founders were declaring that “all men were created equal” there existed no example anywhere, in any nation, of women participating in the political system. It is telling, Dr. Robertson says, that the writers of the constitution didn’t even think to exclude women from the rights given – to declare a woman three-fifths of a person, for example, or otherwise refer to women.

They simply assumed that women, of course, would not be included. Apparently this assumption deprived our forefathers of the foresight to see the hypocrisy in what they were saying and doing. But if some had been able to see, the odds of success would have been zero anyway.

Some 80 years later, during the debate over the fifteenth amendment, which granted voting rights regardless of race, an argument was made to extend those rights to women. In fact, the abolitionist Parker Pillsbury refused to cast his ballot in favor of the amendment because women were excluded. He was not alone in thinking that in a democracy, rights could not be granted some and denied others. But in the end, political pragmatism won out.

The American people just weren’t there yet, and in order to pass the amendment, women had to be omitted.

Stacey Robertson reminds us that much more was at stake than a simple ballot. Men at the time cast what was believed to be a family vote. Put women in the public sphere, give them the same rights, and where does that leave men? Where does it leave the family?

If you were to let women vote, then you had to rethink women … period. A half century later the nation was ready to do that -- the times had finally caught up with the democracy and the law.

Now you have the perspective of an expert. But I would like to look upon women’s history from the perspective of an amateur. I intend to approach the subject from three viewpoints:

First, as the first female president of a university where 53 percent of students are female. But more about that later.

Second, as the proud resident of a city whose own women’s history is extraordinary. More than most, and perhaps more than any other city its size, Peoria can claim to have produced women who changed history. More about that later, too.

And third, as a woman and a daughter.

That’s where I’d like to begin.

When I think about the history of women in this country, I first think about my mother. Perhaps you think of yours, too.

Wise, smart, passionate and generous, mom was the anchor of our family of six – seven if you include her mother-in-law, who moved in three weeks after mom and dad married … and never left.

Mom was brilliant, but she didn’t go to college because women didn’t do that in the 1930s. She was strong when women were assumed to be weak. She was a whiz at numbers, keeping the books for my father’s dental practice when she wasn’t looking after us. And she understood, long before others did, that things were about to change.

As far back as elementary school, I recall her telling me that I would go to college. “You must be able to lead an independent and purposeful and resourceful life,” she said over and over, sounding coincidentally a bit like Lydia Moss Bradley. For both my mom and Mrs. Bradley knew a good education would be required for a good future.

I got one – in political science. But I didn’t quite know what to do with it. It was my mother who suggested I go to law school. My father was skeptical, not because he lacked faith in me, but because he lacked faith in the system to treat me fairly, even to admit me. “Let her try,” my mother argued. “She needs to try.”

Abraham Lincoln famously said that everything he was in life he owed to his “angel mother.” So do I, and so do many of you.

In the preface to the 2004 edition of “dreams from my father,” President Barack Obama mused that perhaps he should have written a different book, one that talked about the mother who was “the single constant” in his life rather than the father who left when he was two.

I mention this because when we reflect upon the history of women, sometimes it seems as if we dismiss it in the manner of Julius Caesar: “she came, she saw, she didn’t do much.” Raising the next generation is a big deal, and in America it was primarily women who did that. To the extent they continue to do so, they will write history. Increasingly – and fortunately -- men are doing the same.

But American women changed history in other ways, and I’m not sure they’ve gotten the credit they deserve. That leads me to the next point I want to make today: for its size, Peoria has been the home of an unusual number of women who changed the world.

One has become quite familiar to me over these last four years – I see her image every time I go into my office on the Bradley campus. And I see her work in the face of every student we graduate.

Of course, I speak of Lydia Moss Bradley.

            If you have lived here any length of time, you probably know the basics of Mrs. Bradley’s tragic story. She gave birth to six children, none of whom lived past the age of 14. Her husband, Tobias, was killed in a freak accident. She was rich, and she left her money to establish a technical school that would become Bradley University.

This is all true. But it doesn’t give Mrs. Bradley the credit she is due.

Did you know, for example, that she took her husband’s place on the board of directors of the First National Bank of Peoria – breaking the state’s gender barrier against female bank board members?

Were you aware that when Tobias died, his estate was valued at a very healthy $500,000? Doubters argued against her even managing the funds, arguing she would lose it. Hardly.

Mrs. Bradley used the money left her to buy up cheap farm land. And when it didn’t produce as well as she’d anticipated, she set out to learn why. She sent soil samples to the University of Illinois for analysis, and there she heard about fertilization.

When she began applying potash to the soil, production soared -- on her farms and on those of neighbors who’d been watching and wondering what she was doing. Of course, land values increased as well – from ten dollars an acre in one case to more than 140 dollars. In a short time, that $500,000 estate grew to be worth two million dollars.

And then she set about changing history by giving it all away. Her donation of 130 acres of land to create Laura Bradley park, together with political pressure she applied, prompted Peoria leaders to establish the first municipal park district in Illinois.

Her gift of land on the East Bluff to establish Bradley hospital proved the genesis not just for OSF St. Francis but for the health care complex that is now Peoria’s second largest industry.

And then, of course, there is Bradley University. Can you imagine how much poorer this city –this region -- would be without it? I am proud to say that from the very beginning there was no gender or racial barrier at Bradley.

Women came, women saw, women didn’t do much?

With the exception of those who set up a little company in Peoria to make tractors, I would argue that no man has been responsible for more Peoria history than Lydia Moss Bradley.

Here’s another Peoria name you should know: Betty Friedan. She was born Elizabeth Goldstein in 1921 and raised in a house on Farmington road, not far from our campus. She left to go to Smith College but later would say Peoria never left her. It was here, from her mother’s work primarily, that she learned about “the power of community.” It was here she was taught that if there is a problem, you can organize to deal with it.

The problem that Betty wanted to deal with, of course, was the one that few acknowledged existed – she called it the “problem that has no name.” Her research discovered that women were unfulfilled and unhappy in the limited roles assigned to them – taking care of their houses and their families but unentitled to their own hopes and dreams.

The book that grew out of that research was called “The Feminine Mystique.”

It made Betty Friedan an icon, but it didn’t make women equal. What was missing, she and a few other women decided, was a pressure group that would do for women what the NAACP had done for African-Americans. And that was the genesis of the National Organization for Women, with Betty Friedan at its helm.

Let me share with you how opportunities for women have changed in the last 50 years.   

In 1960, when Betty Friedan was working on her book, fewer than 3 percent of all new doctors, dentists and lawyers were women. Now 50 percent are.

In 1960, fewer than one-third of all bachelor’s degrees went to women. Today three out of five do.

In 1960, so few women headed institutions of higher learning that the American Council on Education didn’t even keep track. Today nearly one out of four college and university presidents is female – and I wish there were more. “The Feminine Mystique” has been declared to be among the 100 most influential books of all time. 

Women came, women saw, women didn’t do much? I don’t believe it.

To your list of female history makers from Peoria, please add the name Nancy Goodman Brinker. You may know the outlines of her story, too – how her sister Suzy died of breast cancer at the age of 36 and how Nancy promised she would do all in her power to end the disease.

The foundation that resulted bears Suzy’s name – Komen for the cure – and is the largest private source of breast cancer research funding in the world. Komen for the cure has given away nearly $1.5 billion worldwide since its inception just short of three decades ago.

For women and the men who love them, Nancy Goodman Brinker’s promise has changed history. Today the breast-cancer survival rate with early detection is 98 percent, up from 75 percent when Nancy first got involved. I am fortunate to be among those survivors.

Today 75 percent of women over 40 get regular mammograms, compared to fewer than 30 percent three decades ago, which enables more cancers to be detected early. And by getting women’s special health needs out of the closet, the work that Nancy began has dramatically changed how medical research is done. No longer, for example, is it acceptable to test drugs for heart disease on men alone, failing to appreciate that women’s bodies may react differently.

I would be remiss if I didn’t allude to the work done by female scientists to change history. I have heard about one of your own legends, and I wish I’d had the opportunity to know her.

I am speaking, of course, about Dr. Odette Shotwell, who was credited with developing several antibiotics and conducting important research on aflatoxin. That would have been enough for me, but it wasn’t for Dr. Shotwell.

Like many women before and after her, she decided it was her job to make Peoria a better place to live. With that as her goal, she was elected President of the League of Women Voters and appointed to the mayor’s commission on human relations. Perhaps most importantly, during the turbulent 1960s she chaired the Peoria NAACP’s Education Committee as it pushed for school integration.

Disabled by polio, Dr. Shotwell did all of this from a wheelchair.

She came, she saw and indeed she conquered.

I am in awe of that, as I am in awe of what you do. And I feel privileged to share this mile of university street with you.

That leads me to the final perspective I want to offer today – as the president of a university where 53 percent of students are female. You know, women are thriving on college campuses, and they are thriving at Bradley. Nationwide, they constitute 57 percent of all undergraduates and 60 percent of graduate students.

At Bradley, women routinely comprise three-fourths of our academic hall of fame honorees. Nearly 70 percent of students enrolled in our leadership and public service program are women. Our leadership lifestyles floor is entirely female. At Bradley we are committed to developing leaders, and female leaders are in the forefront of that effort.

So why do I believe it’s important for me as University President to motivate and inspire our female students? Why do I think they still need someone who will encourage them to dream big?

Part of the reason is that I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to those who went before me and, with great courage, helped change history. I believe that younger women need to know that things weren’t always like they are today; they need to understand how routinely doors were shut, opportunities denied, on account of gender, and that this continued to happen in their mothers’ lifetimes. They need to hear our stories. And they still need the mentors and role models that few women in my generation had.

Another reason I am committed to developing women leaders is that I don’t believe the glass ceiling really has been shattered. Yes, it has been cracked, but the higher up you go in the professional world, the less likely you are to meet a woman there.

I don’t know what it means that just 15 percent of contributors to Wikipedia are women – maybe nothing – but I am disturbed about a report that came out almost simultaneously with that one. This report found a $17,000 pay gap between new female and male physicians. The gap is growing, not shrinking, and exists across all specialties and without regard to number of hours worked.

I am also disturbed that in a time when 40 percent of all managers are women, just 15 of the fortune 500 CEOs are female. And I sure wish I would see more women when I go to University President meetings. I am fond of saying, “We’re halfway home and a long way to go.”

So why only halfway? Again I turned to Dr. Stacey Robertson.

It begins, she says, with our stereotypes about what it means to be a woman and to be a man. Much as we think we’ve changed, these stereotypes are deeply entrenched. Among other things, they affect the kinds of careers we choose. Women, for example, still choose female-dominated, nurturing professions, where the pay is lower.

And then there is that whole issue of nurturing and the tacit assumption that nurturing children is primarily a woman’s job. Stacey says women in her classes often express concerns – they ask her questions -- about balancing career and family. But the men in her classes never ask.

We certainly see more men doing the work-family juggle, but we don’t see them fretting about it when they’re young. Fatherhood expectations aren’t taught from day one, she says, and that is one of the things that needs to change in how we parent.

But the issue is bigger than parenting. It involves what our church leaders say, what we learned from our own parents, what role models exist -- or don’t -- and what society at-large expects. It also involves still-existing biases – not deliberate, perhaps not even understood. The assumption, for example, that women are less competitive, less aggressive, less savvy. And the simple fact that people like to hire and promote people who look and act like they do – people you can play golf with, people you can have a beer with.

Perception is important. Women may have the education, knowledge and leadership ability to shatter all sorts of ceilings, but they won’t until they believe they do. So is Dr. Robertson optimistic or pessimistic?

“Absolutely optimistic,” she says. “Because I see the women in my classes and the men too.” In the coming generation, she says, you do see a change in the attitude toward women’s roles.

I have suggested that the phrase “She came, she saw, she didn’t do much” is an unfair and inaccurate description of women’s history. It’s certainly not true in this community. But as I’ve looked at that line, I’ve wondered how it should be revised to describe the present time. Here’s a suggestion:

“She came, she jumped in, she has the potential to conquer.”

I plan to be around to watch history declare victory in our community and our nation.

Thank you so much for inviting me and for listening to this little history lesson.