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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Grace Jemison Rohrer, March 16, 1989. Interview C-0069. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Formation of the North Carolina Women's Political Caucus and their support for Governor Holshouser

Rorher describes the formation of the North Carolina Women's Political Caucus in 1971 and the election of James Holshauser, the first Republican to be elected governor of North Carolina in the twentieth century. The North Carolina Women's Political Caucus was a bipartisan effort by Republican and Democratic women to get women into official political positions. Here, Rorher explains how she and Martha McKay, a leading North Carolina Democrat, collaborated with other women to organize the caucus. Here, she emphasizes the 1971 meeting at Duke University and explains why the Women's Political Caucus supported the candidacy of Republican James Holshouser for governor. Ultimately, Rorher explains that the Women's Political Caucus brought together women of disparate political backgrounds out of a shared "loyalty to women."

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Grace Jemison Rohrer, March 16, 1989. Interview C-0069. 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

KATHY NASSTROM:
You mentioned a little earlier the North Carolina Women's Political Caucus, and I think of that as the first time that Democratic and Republican women came together in an organization. But again, that may just have been what I've been told. Is that true, and would you describe that process?
GRACE JEMISON ROHRER:
It was true. I got a call from Martha McKay, who I hope you're going to interview.
KATHY NASSTROM:
Yes, she has been interviewed before but I'm interested in speaking with her again, and it's a matter of finding the time to be in Washington for that.
GRACE JEMISON ROHRER:
I think she's pretty much around here now.
KATHY NASSTROM:
Okay.
GRACE JEMISON ROHRER:
Martha McKay called me up and told me what she wanted to do, organize this Women's Political Caucus, and talked to me about where she was coming from. After about a half hour, she said, "I think we're pretty much on the same wave length. Would you join me in this?" And I said, "Yes, I'd be glad to." She said, "Well, I'm also going to call Thelma Rogers." And as I said, Mary Charles Griffin was the other one. Marie Rowe may have been in on that. I think Marie probably was. Donna Yon and Marie were very good friends, both from Charlotte. So there was the four of us, which represented the Republican end of it. They had a meeting in the fall of '71 which I didn't get to. I had been out to Memphis on a political meeting and I came home deathly sick. I don't think I've ever been so sick with a cold and strep throat and all that stuff. And I didn't get to that meeting. But I did get to the ones that followed. Of course, we had the big meeting to pull the women together at Duke in January, a thousand women. That did a lot to elect Jim Holshouser because he was the only major candidate that showed up. The major Democratic candidate sent a letter and said he didn't have time to come, to just read the letter. And they [the women organizing the meeting] refused to read the letter. I went to Holshouser and said, "This is terribly important. You've got to come, and this is what they're going to expect of you." When he got up and saw thousands of women sitting there, he said to them, "You know the first word that comes to mind is fear." [Laughter] And he spoke and they asked him if he would appoint women, qualified women, and he said, "Yes." And he appointed me. I was not the only one, but he also appointed Isabelle Holmes to be Deputy Secretary of Transportation, and Libby Koontz to a major role. I think it had something to do with hunger. So he was gradually doing, this was first governor who had done that. I'm sort of backtracking, but you said did the two-party system start, did it occur with Holshouser. I would say it had its first strong beginning with Holshouser and it improved from that time. I don't think we had a two-party system by any chance, even though Holshouser got in and Helms got in. You still had the majority of counties Democrat. You just had spots here and there.
KATHY NASSTROM:
Before we get into the Holshouser administration and your work there, which I do want to spend some time on, one last question about the political caucus and then Holshouser's election. Is it too much to say that women played a big part in electing him, and can you relate that to his appearance there?
GRACE JEMISON ROHRER:
We do feel that it played a part in his election, because the women went out of there . . . They were annoyed at Skipper Bowles. These were women who had influence. They had constituencies. And they went out of there with an attitude, you know, the fact that he [Holshouser] answered all their questions. They couldn't fault him on anything he did, and he stood up there and had the courage as well as the interest to be there. And I think it did have an effect. The other thing that went for him was the fact that Skipper came out of a very wealthy family and was pouring money into the campaign. This is an economical, especially at that time, state in which people were thrifty and careful about their money because they didn't have a whole lot of money. And to see this person trying to buy the governorship, as it was perceived, hurt him. But I think it also hurt him because he did not appear. And most of the women that were there were in the leadership at that time [and] feel the same way, as far as I understand.
KATHY NASSTROM:
Was Holshouser's appearance at the meeting at Duke in 1971, did he sway very many Democratic women at that point, do you think?
GRACE JEMISON ROHRER:
Well, there were mostly Democratic women there.
KATHY NASSTROM:
Do you think they turned around and then voted for him, or is that just too hard to say?
GRACE JEMISON ROHRER:
At that point, and this was in January of '72, the issue was women, and there was a commitment that we were going to vote for those candidates who were either women or men who supported women. And of course, the Equal Rights Amendment was involved in that too and Holshouser had come out to be for it. And we were going to put those things above party. I voted for Democratic women. I worked for Democratic women. I worked for candidates who were going to support the Equal Rights Amendment because that's one of the basic points of establishing the Women's Political Caucus. Jane Patterson probably, or Betty McCain, probably did not. Now, I don't know about Betty. I know Martha McKay worked for me, and she gave me a fund raising party and got in quite a bit of trouble with the Democratic Party because of her support for women over party loyalties. It was loyalty to women. And when you have someone in the leadership like a Martha McKay that is doing this, this influences others. And she invited Democratic women to the party. They weren't Republicans, and they all gave me checks toward it. So this was the kind of thing that was going on at that time. That was saying, I ran in '72.