When I was in college, I enrolled in one of the first Public Administration classes offered at the University of Oregon. It was a senior level class, taught by a new professor from Wayne State University. I don’t remember the professor’s name, but I do remember his admonition to me, in front of the entire class, that women didn’t belong in public administration, and that I would be taking a job from a man. Mind you, this was at the very beginning of the fledgling women’s rights movement, before the Equal Rights Amendment debates of the early 1970s, and long before Title IX and other progressive legislation, but I remember thinking “don’t tell me what I can’t or shouldn’t do.” More than once, I wished that professor could see me now, after a lifetime spent in public administration and elective office.
Sadly, despite meeting and overcoming multiple challenges on the path to equal rights, many women today are facing the same old attitudes that relegated them to a second or third tier years ago. Few women were encouraged to run for public office, and those who did faced questions that are not allowed to be asked in job interviews today. The recent obituary of former U.S. Representative Patricia Schroeder noted that, when she was asked about balancing running for political office and motherhood, she replied “I have a brain and a uterus, and they both work.” Bravo, Pat! You spoke for millions of women who have been balancing careers and parenthood. It’s ironic that such questions rarely are asked about men who have similar responsibilities, but different reproductive systems.
March is Women’s History Month, which highlights the achievements of women across the years, even though Women’s History Month only was designated as such by the federal government in 1987. Fairfax County has a long history of electing women leaders. In 1971, Jean Packard was the first woman elected at-large for county board chairman. In the early 1980s, when there were only nine members of the board, five of the members were female and, by 1988, six of the nine members were women, including Audrey Moore as chairman. When I first was elected in 1995, there were four women on the 10-member board, including Chairman Kate Hanley. Following the 2003 election, six of the 10 members were women; that number fell to five after the 2015 election, and the current three female members today. At present, only two women, Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik and Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smith, have filed for election to the board this year. To be sure, the job of Supervisor can be a tough one. Balancing needs, demands, and resources for tens of thousands of constituents is not easy, but nothing worth doing ever is easy.
As we extol Women’s History Month, it is appropriate to note that abuses of women suffragists during the “Night of Terror” more than 100 years ago happened right here in Fairfax County at the Lorton Workhouse. All they wanted was the right to vote. Today, girls in Iran are being poisoned at their schools, simply because they want to be educated. Similarly, girls in Afghanistan are forced to quit school, or allowed to attend schools where strict religious edicts are the only curriculum. Fear triumphs, and thousands of future leaders are discarded, simply because they are female. Never again should a girl anywhere be told what she can’t, or shouldn’t do!
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.