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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 >>

Reactions of male legislators to new female legislators

Keesee-Forrester describes what it was like to be one of only nine women serving in the North Carolina General Assembly during the early 1970s. Here, she emphasizes reactions of male legislators to the women representatives. Whereas some of the men often mistook the women representatives for secretaries or wives of male represenatives, others were fearful of what they believed must be some sort of hidden female agenda. On the other side of the coin, Keesee-Forrester describes how efforts to make women feel included were often so overzealous as to seem isolating. Nevertheless, she alludes to a general sense of progress and growing acceptance of women legislators during those first few years.

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

o it was an interesting experience to be one of so few women, and, I've shared this experience, because there were so few women - there were four Republican women and four Democrat women in the House and one Republican woman in the Senate. So, say two or three of the women in the House, and if they were not of all the same political faith, say it was two Republicans and one Democrats or two Democrats and one Republican, if they were to sit down and have lunch together, it would be like this rumble going through the cafeteria. "Look at the women over there. They're talking. They're probably going to start a caucus or something." There was a sense, you know, the women's movement was just rearing its heard in the early seventies, and you had Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem and Ms magazine and marches and women were just becoming very vocal and getting in your face. And so a lot of the men were feeling most uncomfortable with having us there because they had to clean up their act. They couldn't say, they couldn't make off-the-wall comments about some woman if you're standing there, which they're inclined to do, men being men, quite often. They couldn't use vulgar four-letter words because you didn't do that in front of women. So our presence was felt even beyond the fact that we were elected the same way they were. But we forced them to have to change their behavior. Well, I remember the first day I was in the building, in my office, a senator came across the hall and asked me whose secretary I was, and I told him I wasn't a secretary. He then asked me whose wife I was. Then I told him I was not married, that I was a state representative from Guilford County, and he sort of did a double take because I didn't look like a state representative that he was used to. They were used to seeing women around if you were a secretary or somebody's wife. They weren't used to having you around. Times have changed a great deal. Even though we haven't increased our numbers as much as a lot of us feel we ought to, we only have 25 women now, I think, in the General Assembly. But that's a lot nicer than nine.
Yes, there's the point at which you reach a critical mass for yourselves. You mentioned some behaviors of male legislators were changing. How much do you think in those first years, let's say the first four years that you served, there was a change in attitude about women in politics?
I think after we were elected and served, there are certain perceptions about personality groups. I mean, you know, if you're a female, you're supposed to have PMS. Your monthlies will obviously interfere with your ability to perform the job. You are of child bearing age. Women can't handle the stress. We'll break down and cry if our bill doesn't get out of committee. If you attack me or say something ugly about a proposal I'm offering, then I'll have a temper tantrum. Just all sorts of perceptions about how we will behave if we're in that setting. Well, lo and behold, women didn't live up to their worst fears. We didn't have temper tantrums. We didn't have to run to our office, crying into our hankies. You couldn't obviously tell when we were having our monthlies. You know, most of the women there were very secure. They did their homework. They prepared themselves. Because of the attention that was given to them and focused on them, I mean, we were always getting profiled in the newspaper. Articles appeared about us being in Raleigh. So because of that, the fewness of us, and the fact that we were getting this attention, we thought that we had to be especially careful to be prepared and not do anything that might draw more attention to us. We didn't want to draw attention. We didn't want to be separated out from the pack. I remember I'd be the only woman on a committee, and for a long time the people who would appear before the committee would say, "And gentlemen of the committee, and gentlemen of the committee." And finally the chairman of the committee, because there were no chairwomen of the committees, they were all males who were chairing these committees, he would sort of lean over and say, "We do have a woman on this committee." And then it would be, "Gentlemen of the committee and Representative Keesee." I mean, I didn't want this special recognition. He could say, "Members of the committee" and include us all in one breath. I think now, after those first few years, a sensitivity to the fact that we are part of the group, you don't have to give us any special treatment. We don't have to have offices located close to the women's room. You can talk to us like you would talk to a male representative. Of course now, women have, because of their electibility, I think a lot of voters have a trust in women. They fell like they can trust them when you say something. So the men have to recognize that they can be defeated by a woman, and the women are getting reelected, and they're coming back, and they're not being unreasonable. They're being dignified and forceful, and they can wheel and deal with the best of them now. The attitudes have changed. They still had to clean up their act. They haven't gone back to their old ways before we appeared on the scene. But it's been interesting.