TERRE HAUTE —
In the 1940s, Dorothy Jerse sat in a University of Illinois accounting class, listening to a guest speaker.
She was one of just two female students in the room. The speaker looked at the women and said, “I just want you to know, there isn’t an accounting firm in the city of Chicago that will hire you.”
Forty years later, the Tribune-Star chose Jerse and nine other “influential” Terre Haute women to profile in its 1989 “Women and Power” series. Newspaper staffers surveyed 62 “local movers and shakers” — 26 men, 36 women — asking them to name the “10 most powerful women” in the community. Women “who could pick up the phone, call someone and get things done.” Some chosen preferred the term “influential” instead of “powerful.” A secondary headline above the series’ initial story emphasized that distinction and added, “Decision-making, to some, still male domain.”
A quarter-century later, five of those women reunited in a downtown coffeeshop. They see progress in this community — in varying degrees — and broader acceptance of women in leadership roles. Retired now, but active as volunteers, they see fewer barriers for women of subsequent generations here. “The positions that women have come into in the last 25 years is unbelievable, not politically, but elsewhere,” Jerse said as the women gathered in The Corner Grind at Seventh and Wabash, in the heart of a city all speak of fondly.
“It’s changed. A lot,” Jerse said. “We’ve come a long, long way.”
Awareness about the contributions made by women to the community has improved. Congress enacted Women’s History Month in 1987.
Twenty-five years later, the United Way of the Wabash Valley began its annual Wabash Valley Women of Influence program, recognizing female leaders in Vigo and five surrounding counties. Now in its third year, the event will recognize 2014 honorees at a breakfast April 10.
A 2012 Woman of Influence, Corner Grind proprietor Boo Lloyd, chatted with the five women from the Trib-Star’s 1989 “Women and Power” group as they shared coffee and conversation. Lloyd praised the pioneerism of the women assembled in her restaurant — Betty Martin (former Vigo County Public Library director), Judy Anderson (former Terre Haute mayor and Vigo County recorder), Pat Mansard (former Vigo County clerk), Sister Barbara Doherty (former Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College president), and Jerse (former YWCA executive director).
The others selected in ’89 were Linda Burger (former Chrysler dealership owner), Mary Hulman (matriarch of Hulman family), Marla Keller (former WTHI anchor), Alane Meis (former Indiana Arts Commission chair) and Rosemary Travis (former Terre Haute Regional Hospital assistant administrator for community affairs).
As Martin put it last week, “None of us [in ’89] really thought of ourselves as powerful or influential.” Instead, she added, “most of us, in our professions, paid our dues.”
The number of women in various professions has grown since then. Nationally, the percentage of pharmacists who are female increased to 51.7 percent in 2000 and 53.7 in 2012 from 29.8 percent in 1985, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In ’85, just 18 percent of lawyers were women, yet today, more than half are female. Women have more career options. “When I was in high school,” Anderson said, “you could be a nurse, you could be a teacher, [or] you could be a wife.”
Vigo County trails the nation in some aspects of female presence in the workplace. In 2007, the most recent numbers available, 35.9 percent of U.S. businesses were owned by women, compared to 23 percent in Vigo County. That marked a slight improvement, locally. In 2002, women owned 22.1 percent of Vigo businesses (compared to 33 percent nationally).
Burger, who died in 2012, was a trailblazer in that realm. “The one of us that really broke the glass ceiling was Linda Burger,” Jerse said. In 1982, she became one of the first female Chrysler dealers in the nation. “She was absolutely fantastic, way ahead of her time,” Jerse added.
Looking to Doherty, the women from the ’89 honorees lauded Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College as an example of women’s abilities as leaders, administrators and role models. “I think the sisterhood [at the college and the Sisters of Providence] has always shown us women can do this in many different things,” Martin said.
In local government, the percentages of women serving on the city and county councils, and as county commissioners, is lower than the general workforce. Each of those elected boards includes one woman out of nine Terre Haute City Council members, seven Vigo County Council members, and three Vigo County commissioners. Women, of course, constitute half of the overall population.
Breakthroughs have happened, though. Anderson became the city’s first female mayor, serving from 2000 to 2003. A native of the city, Anderson grew up here, graduated from Indiana State University, married and moved to Fort Wayne, and then came back to Terre Haute with her husband to raise a family in 1973. Running for mayor of Terre Haute as a woman in 1973 “probably wouldn’t have happened,” she speculated. Decisions got made in “man-oriented, smoke-filled back rooms” in that era, Anderson explained.
Mansard added, “That was still going in 1988 when I ran for clerk.” She stuck it out and got elected, though. “I just decided I wouldn’t be bullied out of the race,” Mansard said.
As difficult as their paths could be, several noted that Terre Haute’s acceptance of women in leadership roles and the workforce isn’t too different from many Midwestern cities. The ideal mix of men and women in jobs and government representation, they added, would be 50-50. The community is more welcoming, most agreed. The downtown district shows a genuine revival. Terre Haute has room to improve areas; some of the women lamented their grown children had to move elsewhere to find jobs in their fields.
They also offered wise suggestions: “To try to take a fresh look at what an individual can bring to the community, whether they’re women or men, black or white,” Martin said, and to “be more inclusive of all age groups,” Anderson added. Jerse recommended people “to expand your world, to try to get to know somebody from a different neighborhood, a different church, a different race. Expand your universe. Everybody has a story to tell.”
Terre Haute’s present and potential appeal to the women. They’ve chosen to retire here.
“I love this place,” Doherty said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.