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March 22, 2013

Panel showcases women’s ‘firsts’

TERRE HAUTE — Examining the progress of an attitude was the focus of Feminine Firsts Women in the Wabash Valley panel discussion Thursday,

“It’s about being on equal terms as a human being,” moderator Dorothy Jerse said during the noontime event at the Vigo County Public Library.

The panel featured eight women from a variety of backgrounds — professional, volunteer and politics — who shared their personal stories and motivations. In most cases, the women panelists said they had no intention of being a “first” woman in their fields.

Judy Anderson, who became the first woman elected to the Vigo County Council in 1996 and is now an elected county commissioner, said she never realized she was entering new political territory until the election night.

“I had a couple of firsts that weren’t planned,” Anderson said, “but I have always credited the voters of Vigo County for letting what happens happen.”

Jerse noted that another Judy Anderson, who was unable to attend Thursday’s event due to her ongoing recovery from a recent automobile accident, was the first woman mayor elected in the City of Terre Haute, following a long career in county government.

Senior Judge Barbara Brugnaux also added that she never intended to break the local gender barrier.

Starting her career as a journalist, Brugnaux reported on court news before going to law school and entering legal practice. She was later appointed as an interim judge by Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepherd, and was later appointed by Gov. Evan Bayh to fill the remaining years of a judge vacancy. Brugnaux was then elected to the Division 5 court bench, and since 2009 has been a senior judge.

Brugnaux said she received a lot of support from her male judge counterparts, especially then-Judge Dexter Bolin.

Attorney Rhonda Oldham, who has been an attorney for 31 years and was the first woman chairman of the Terre Haute Bar Association, shared a different type of story.

Oldham said she was born to a single mother who did not finish high school. Oldham followed in the female “family tradition” and also dropped out of school to get married at age 16. But she realized that she had no future ahead, so she earned a GED and entered Indiana State University, then continued on to law school at Indiana University.

She said her own mother eventually went back to school and became a therapist.

“I think there is something innate in us. Something that makes us survive,” Oldham said of the tough times that women can overcome.

Commissioner Anderson agreed. She shared that she was also a high school drop out and a young mother. But she credits her father-in-law with encouraging her to take care of her family first, and to thereby take care of the world around her. That later transferred into the work of caring for her community as a public servant.

Anna White shared a different early life. She was the first woman pilot for Britt Airlines, and has flown commercial flights in an industry with mostly male pilots.

She enjoys telling the story of how she tried to lower her voice into the male tones when she was radioing to the O’Hare Airport tower during incoming flights.

White said she was encouraged by her father, who owned an airport and plane, to become a pilot. He introduced her to a family friend, who later became the owner of Britt Airlines.

Panelist Mary Ann Conroy said she came to her leadership role as CEO of Regional Hospital through a different route.

A registered nurse by training, Conroy said she has a rich clinical background that has helped her tremendously as she worked her way through administrative roles in hospital.

“It’s very easy to converse with the physicians when you are on the same playing field,” Conroy said, explaining that because she knows the language of the medical industry, she has fit well into administration.

Sally Whitehurst and Lori Danielson both share firsts in the organizational sector.

Danielson is the first woman chairman of the board of directors of the Country Club of Terre Haute. Whitehurst is the first woman chairman of the United Way of the Wabash Valley. They were recruited for their leadership skills, and said they received a lot of support from their organizations.

Andrea Myers is the first woman athletic director at Indiana State University. A former basketball coach, she was appointed as interim athletic director in 1999. She received a lot of community support for her new role, and was then appointed to the job full time.

Myers said that while women in leadership roles may be considered “bossy,” and she had a good role model in her own mother, she credits a youth organization with giving her long-lasting leadership skills.

“I think all of the things I learned about leadership and decision-making was learned in Girl Scouts,” Myers said.

Jerse, a local author who initiated the Women’s History Month programs in 1986 in conjunction with the public library, said the Feminine Firsts program is an effort to uplift current women leaders in the community.

“It’s been a dream of mine for a long time,” Jerse said of Thursday’s program. “Since 1986, each year we had programs about deceased people, but I’ve always wanted to talk about today’s women who have broken through the glass ceiling.”

Interestingly, today’s young women often don’t want to be seen as “feminists,” Jerse said, because the word has taken on a negative connotation as a “bra burner” or a “femi-Nazi” who opposes men. Yet, women still want equal pay for equal work, and justice against rape and domestic violence, she said.

“If feminism were a course, it would be graded as an ‘incomplete,’” Jerse said, recalling a quote she once read.

She also noted that eight panelists was the limit for Thursday’s event. She said she knows there are plenty of other women who have achieved “firsts” in the Wabash Valley, and she hopes that they contact her for future programs.

Jerse can be reached by calling 812-235-5722.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.


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