|By Rob Schuette, Public Affairs Staff
The guest speaker at the Fort McCoy observance of Women’s Equality Day
thanked members of the Fort McCoy community for the freedom the country
has, and said she wanted to show that thanks by presenting a talk about
women’s equality, including her personal experiences.
“Your service to the country is greatly appreciated,” said Cindy Zahrte,
the superintendent of the Tomah Area School District. “My father, a
Korean War veteran, actually was deployed from Camp McCoy in August
Cindy Zahrte tells the story of the events that led up to
Women’s Equality Day, and interspersed examples of how the
movement affected her own life.
(Photo by Anita Johnson)
“I also have a sister and brother-in-law who are retired Air Force,”
she said. “My sister is a veteran of Iraqi Freedom. From her
experiences, I gained some real understanding and insight into the
challenges and sacrifices that are made by you and your Families to
ensure the rest of us enjoy the freedom that we have in this wonderful
country. It’s great to have this opportunity to give just a little bit
back through this presentation.”
Zahrte’s presentation covered women’s history from the late 1800s
through the 1900s. She interspersed personal stories throughout to help
illustrate how the movement affected her and her Family.
Zahrte’s career advancement stands in many ways, in stark contrast to
her mother’s career and many of the women who came before her. The
daughter of educators, Zahrte said she experienced, first-hand, how
unequally her mother and father were treated.
“My mother and my father were both college graduates who went into
education,” Zahrte said. “My mother was paid less as a teacher because
she was a female, despite having the same workload as my father.”
When her mother first became pregnant in the 1950s she wasn’t allowed to
continue working. So she became a stay-at-home mother.
That continued until 1970, when her mother went on strike from her
household work, mirroring the 1970 National Organization of Women strike
and marches for women’s rights. Zahrte, her siblings and her father were
dumfounded, but it became clear things were changing in their household.
“Her rights had been violated from not being treated the same as males
in her chosen profession,” Zahrte said. “And, I’m quite proud of the
fact that she had the audacity to stand up for herself.”
“Her activism, even though it was just in the small circle of Family and
home, certainly encouraged me not to be afraid to stand up for what I
believed in,” Zahrte said. “And she’s always supported me in the small
endeavors I’ve made to change the status quo.”
For women before her mother’s generation, it often was much worse, she
said. Those protesting at the Women’s Suffrage Movement in 1848 and in
subsequent times before the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920 were
arrested for trying to advocate and advance women’s rights.
“One woman was jailed and went on a hunger strike,” Zahrte said. “She
was force-fed three times a day for three weeks, which was very painful.
I’m not sure I could have endured that.”
Even in her generation it could be a struggle to advance, she said.
There was resistance, but the groundwork had been laid by past
One of the first instances Zahrte related was how she wanted to be an
acolyte at her church in the early 1970s when she was a sophomore, but
only boys were allowed to perform those duties. Zahrte said she kept
pursuing it and finally a more-liberal youth pastor supported her
position and helped convince a senior pastor that females could be
acolytes as well as males.
Fast forwarding to her college career at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison in the mid- to late 1970s, Zahrte related how one of
her friends wanted to take an engineering class, and was told she could,
but that she wouldn’t pass the course because she was a female. Her
friend went on to take the course and did pass it.
The economic explosion from the 1950s to the 1970s helped more women
enter the workplace. In her own instance, Zahrte rose through the
educational ranks until she became the first female superintendent for
the Tomah Area School District. It was an event she didn’t fully
recognize or appreciate the significance of, but she began receiving
messages of congratulations from many people in the community, including
past and present members of the education field.
In recent months, Zahrte remembers playing golf at the Hiawatha Golf
Course in Tomah and being outperformed by two women who had competed on
the Tomah High School girls golf team.
That was in direct contrast to one of Zahrte’s best friends in high
school who wanted to play golf in the early days after Title IX went
“She was able to practice with the boys golf team (there was no girls
team), but was not able to compete,” Zahrte said. “Equality in sports
for females was just becoming more common when I was (in high school).”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX, which guaranteed equal
rights for women in the educational field and related activities.
“The act was far-reaching as it was the first step to develop skills and
gave women a fair chance to secure jobs of their choice,” Zahrte said.
“My mother did not have that choice.”
Title IX was only one of many legal acts/judicial events that have
affected women’s rights in the past 20 years. Others include the Roe
versus Wade Supreme Court decision, the 1978 prohibition of
discrimination against pregnant women in employment, child-support laws
and pension rights for divorced women and widows, and legislation
addressing violence against women. Zahrte also noted it will be
important for women to exercise their right to vote in the upcoming
Today, female students in the U.S. graduate from both high school and
college at a higher rate than their male counterparts. Yet improvement
still is needed. More than three women per day in the U.S. are murdered
by their husbands or boyfriends. A University of Michigan study
indicated that 56 percent of people older than 18 living in poverty are
women — a statistic that can be attributed, at least in part, to more
single-parent households being led by a woman and men earning higher
The time has come to ensure everyone, not just women, can reach their
ultimate goals, no matter if it is in career fields or positions
considered traditional or nontraditional for both men and women, she
Zahrte said although the climate is improving in the U.S., it isn’t in
many places in the world. Two-thirds of the illiterate people in the
world are female. In developing countries, more women than men die
before their fifth birthdays or are denied educational or work
opportunities that could improve their lives.
People still have to be vigilant to ensure that everyone has equal
opportunities to succeed in life, Zahrte said.