Discussion explores women’s fights for gender equality, opportunities

A panel of three women talked in the Carillon room Tuesday about their walk through life and their experiences of being a woman.

This panel discussion commemorated Women’s History Month and celebrated the passage of the 19th Amendment, in which women were given the right to vote.

The panelists were Marcia McMullen, political activist and founder of Women Progressive Activists; Eve Fortson, who practiced medicine; and Letitia Byrd, the first African-American teacher in Ann Arbor Public Schools.

The discussion started with each panelist sharing a bit about her childhood and the way women were seen then.

“I was raised in a family that respected women,” McMullen said. “I grew up during a time when women were not seen as competition. We had separate schools for women and just a few went on to college.”

McMullen was asked why she thinks women and men get concerned about their body image.
“We are all immersed in propaganda,” she said. “I can’t remember people getting worried about, for example, being sexy or what not.”

After McMullen shared a bit of her childhood, Fortson shared how it was tough to get into medical school, just because she was a woman.

“During my childhood, we all went to a mixed elementary school, but once we got prepared for high school, girls went to girls’ school and boys went to boys’,” Fortson said. “The four years at high school, everybody was in the single sex school. Some women back then saved enough money to start up a women’s college that was from … the same campus.”

Fortson said she had a passion for psychiatry and psychoanalysis and explained how it took years before her application was accepted for medical school.

“During those times you had to go to medical school to study a course like psychiatry,” she said. “It took three years for my application to get accepted and after that I realized in a class of 100 we had just two of us.”

Fortson also talked about how her father wanted his children to learn how to make a living. “My dad told us he does not want us to get married and be supported,” she said. “Instead, he wanted us to have that financial stability.”

Byrd talked about how it was not only a gender issue, but a racial issue, as an African-American woman.

“You can call me an activist if you want, but what was important for me was to be a part of what was going on in the community,” Byrd said. “I was raised in a very small town in West Virginia – where I did not attend school for a couple years. I was really cosseted during my childhood because of my health.
My growing up was not only related to gender, but to race.”

“I later moved to Washington D.C. to become director of a sorority which tried to influence the legislation. It was a time of active learning, but it was not open to women of color,” Byrd said. “The objective of the organization was clear; we were making a community of successes for people where people were involved in something.”

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