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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Martha C. McKay, June 13, 1989. Interview C-0076. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Growing interest in women's issues and efforts to understand women's status and inequality

McKay describes her involvement in Terry Sanford's gubernatorial campaign in 1959, her subsequent appointment to the Democratic National Committee, and her role in the formation of a commission on the status of women in North Carolina. Emphasizing her growing interest in women's issues, McKay explains how activists such as herself, Anne Scott, and Grace Rohrer were increasingly intent upon exposing women's inequalities in the workplace. In addition, she explains that to a large extent, women's progress in politics during those years was in part facilitated by the support of governors such as Terry Sanford, and later Jim Holshouser.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Martha C. McKay, June 13, 1989. Interview C-0076. 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

I mentioned to you before we started that part of my interest is in documenting women's political activities in this period, in your case it fits neatly right at the end of the war, '45, up until the resurgence of the women's movement in the late 1960s. I suppose my first question is really a general one of what issues did women organize around in this time? Was it determined largely by the Party or were there women who had there own ideas about what they wanted to see happening in the political process?
You really have to look at campaigns, I think. When Terry ran, I really in effect co-managed his campaign. Bert Bennett was his campaign manager and I was head of the women's activities, but I was involved in all the smoke-filled room meetings. Terry had me in all of them. But I also had a women's group and our theme, because this was Terry's theme and this was the way we were able to organize women, was education. It was that simple. For education, the money situation in North Carolina has never been good, but it was very bad at that time and people were really concerned and so we organized the people. We had mass meetings at six or eight places around the state, had a steering committee. Now it wasn't just to organize. We reviewed position papers and brochures and so on and so forth. I think Liz Hair of Charlotte was a part of that group. We were into the substantive part, which is the way Terry operates. He doesn't put people off to the side, and so we were operating on both levels, organizing and working on the education agenda. Education, clearly, in that election was preeminent. Now, when he was elected, he asked me if I wanted to go on the Democratic National Committee and indeed I did go on it and then I became a member of the Executive Committee of the Democratic National Committee. Then Doris [Cromartie] and I organized all these Democratic women's clubs around the state. In terms of issues that I was interested in, I think we wanted, back then even, to get more women on boards of commissions. I went to Terry at some point and asked him if he would form a commission or a council on the status of women. He said that he certainly would, for me to get up the list, and so I did. And I got Anne Scott, 2 who still lives in Chapel Hill, to agree to be chairperson of that commission. 2 Professor of History, Duke University. I went for people like Anne, and there were others, although she's certainly outstanding. I didn't want it to be a club-type thing. I wanted it to be issue-oriented. Now, we didn't know enough to go for money and didn't go for money. We must have had a little bit for maybe traveling and stuff. But Anne did, she and the group - I didn't go on it myself - did a report on the status of women in North Carolina, mostly as far as work is concerned, that's my memory. That report has got to be somewhere, I don't know where it is. But it was a good report. But we didn't have any money, we didn't really know enough, as I say. It seems to me the first time we asked for money, and got it - I don't even know that we asked for it before this - was when Jim Holshouser was governor. Grace Rohrer and several of us who were active in the Caucus [North Carolina Women's Political Caucus] went to see Holshouser about appointments and also money for the Council on the Status of Women and we got some money, no doubt from the legislature, but Holshouser supported it. Prior to that time, I certainly was beginning to be conscious of the status of women. I remember in the early '60s I gave a talk to a group of women students and my talk was based on Simone de Beauvoir's book, The Second Sex. I think our Commission on the Status of Women - and as I say, I can't remember if it was called a council or a commission - was the first in the country. Terry just did it by executive order.
So even before Kennedy's national one or following immediately after?
Well, after, I mean Terry and Kennedy went in at the same time. So that was January, '61. I went to him probably in about '63 on this commission, council on the status of women, and it was formed, and it's been there ever since. As I say, some of us were certainly aware of women's issues. Women's wages, you know, women had been exploited in North Carolina textile industry lo these many years and labor has never gotten a foothold to amount to anything in this state. It's here but it's not a powerhouse. You know, we're the least unionized state in the country. So certainly we were aware of some of those things. At least, I'm talking about the leaders, I'm not necessarily talking about the person in the street. People continued to be concerned about education, public school education. I will say that the whole time that Sanford was governor, I had the opportunity to submit the names of women for all the boards and commissions and, as a matter of fact, Terry was receptive to all this. I think all of them went past me. In other words, all those openings. He was prepared - and I'm not sure he announced this, he may have even announced it - [to place] a woman on the highway commission, and then the men that were on there just had a breakdown, just went bananas. He had to back down. I can't remember whether he announced this and then had to back down, or the word got out, or whatever. It was a woman in western North Carolina who would have been terrific, but the backlash was very bad so he backed down on that. He did put a woman on the Board of Conservation and Development, which no longer exists. Back then the Commerce Department had a Board of Conservation and Development and he put Gladys Bullard of Raleigh on that board, who had worked very hard in his campaign and is a terrific woman, still lives here. She was the first woman who had ever been on C and D, that's for sure. I was conscious of that, and others were. I certainly had optimum chance to make input into that kind of process. That's for me.
So it seems that a lot of the progress in this period had to do, really, with Terry Sanford's willingness to appoint women to positions.