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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Margaret Keesee-Forrester, April 21, 1989. Interview C-0065. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A woman's career in teaching and politics

Keesee-Forrester describes her decision to first pursue teaching as a career in the late 1960s and then her subsequent decision to go into politics. As Keesee-Forrester explains, although she loved teaching, she felt that it was one of the few career paths women were encouraged to pursue during those years. In addition, Keesee-Forrester explains her growing frustration that women were not adequately represented in politics and her growing interest in feminism. As a result, she decided to run for the state legislature in 1972 and was elected as the first woman representative from Guilford County at the age of 27.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Margaret Keesee-Forrester, April 21, 1989. Interview C-0065. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

KATHRYN NASSTROM:
If when you graduated from college, you didn't think that politics was going to be your career, what sorts of things were you looking to? Was it teaching at that point?
MARGARET KEESEE-FORRESTER:
Teaching, yes, in fact, I used to practice teach with my younger sisters. I remember having a chalk board that my father, he's in the office supply business, got me for Christmas one year. So I'd sit my three younger sisters down and teach them in the afternoon, on weekends, as we were growing up. It just seemed like the natural thing. And also I think that, prior to the younger generation, women didn't have as many options, I think, to select from career-wise. Your options were to be a teacher, a nurse, a secretary. Women didn't aspire to being doctors and lawyers and accountants and the different fields that women can go into. Now, that was an honorable profession, teaching, for women. I wasn't like a lot of my friends who figured they would work a couple of year until they caught them a husband. I think a lot of young women of my generation weren't really pursuing careers so much as they were pursuing a husband. They would do something until such time. Teaching was the kind of thing, even though I wasn't looking for a husband, that you could do part of the day and be home and have your summers off and play around. But I wasn't looking at it as just interim thing. It was my job. It was my profession and career. The political activities really came, I think, from my interests outside the classroom, involved in the women's movement. I was part of the North Carolina and the Guilford County, Women's Political Caucus in the early '70s. That group was encouraging women to get involved in the political process, actually becoming decision makers, not just helping the men get elected. That's what we'd been doing.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
For years and years and years.
MARGARET KEESEE-FORRESTER:
Years and years, and we were electing men who would promise us things. "Oh yes, please vote for me, and I will do this for you." I felt like, a lot of women felt like, we were being taken for granted. They would tell us what we wanted to hear and then going to the courthouse, statehouse, the Congress, and not really coming through.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
Was your interest in your political career then partly to change that fact? Because that seems to be true from what I've heard for women who became active in the early 1970s in North Carolina.
MARGARET KEESEE-FORRESTER:
I think that's a strong part of it. We just felt like we could speak for ourselves. We didn't have to have a man taking care of us. I was very much a radical feminist in my early political days and did get into trouble with my party because of that. I tried to temper it, but sometimes, you know, that feminism will surface and folks will find it offensive if they don't agree with you. And I just felt very much that women should be involved in decision making positions, then women had to offer themselves for those decision making positions. Even though when I was first asked, my response was, "Oh, I can't do that," even though I was saying, "Oh yes, I can do that." "I really can't, how am I going to do that?" It was like the T.V. ad about the guy, "Yeah, I'm going to do this. How am I going to do that?" And I thought I'll just have to jump in there. It's not the sort of thing you can really prepare yourself for. There are no educational courses about how to be an elected person at whatever level. It's on the job training. So I felt like I had just as much a shot at it, perhaps, as anyone else. Perhaps I was awfully naive. I was twenty-seven years old when I was first elected. I was a baby compared to most of the people that were serving in the North Carolina General Assembly. I was in a primary. I was the only woman to survive a primary in 1972. It was a wonderful experience. I really don't think I thought I was going to win. I thought I probably would not get elected because I had never run before, and generally candidates don't get elected the first time out. I just enjoyed the opportunity to meet people and get up in front of groups and talk about what my background was, what I was interested in, what I would like to do if I was elected. And I got to know all the other candidates. The one thing I used to joke with folks about, I knew who to vote for when I went to the polls because I'd heard every one of the candidates talk. And most people who go to vote have no idea how candidates feel on a multitude of issues. So I felt like even if I didn't get elected, I was a very well educated voter. And I did lose on election day. I was running at large throughout Guilford County. I was running for one of seven seats in the house. Guilford County has the second largest delegation after Mecklenburg. So we had seven house members and three Senate members. I was running on a ticket with six Republican men against seven Democrat men and one American Party candidate who was a male. So I was the only woman to run. Lost on election day but I wasn't devastated because I already didn't think I was going to win. Two days after the election, they found an error in one of the precincts and I won by twenty-seven votes. Needless to say, the number twenty-seven has special significance to me, at that time in my life. But I had prepared myself to go back into the classroom. In fact, for about three of the, let's see, I was there for six terms, at least half of those terms, I was still teaching. I was teaching part of the year, would take a sabbatical, leave of absence without pay, when the sessions convened in January, right when we'd have our Christmas break. And they would find a full time substitute to come in and take over my class.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
Would that person take over for the whole semester?
MARGARET KEESEE-FORRESTER:
Yes, the remainder of the year.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
I wondered about that because as I read your resume, it seemed that you were concurrently carrying on two careers. Can you say why you decided to do it that way?
MARGARET KEESEE-FORRESTER:
Well, I was a single woman. I was a third owner of a house. I had to pay my bills. I wasn't inclined to ask my parents to support me, and the kind of money they pay a state representative, will not let you, you know, retire from the business world. So it was not a matter of either-or, I had to do both, and I was fortunate that my local school board would indulge me and let me teach a half of a year and then hire someone as a full time substitute with the assurance that I would have a place the following fall. So I did that, and it was not easy because even when there was a year when I wasn't in Raleigh for a half a year, I'd be involved in another campaign. So I would be campaigning in the evenings and on weekends. I had to decline all campaign opportunities during the day because I was teaching school. So it was not easy but I didn't have any options. I had no other choice.