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September 14, 2012


Women’s Equality Day: Speaker talks about history, personal experiences

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 1950.”
PHOTO: Cindy Zahrte tells the story of the events that led up to Women’s Equality Day. Photo by Anita Johnson
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 generations.

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 into effect.

“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 elections.

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 wages.
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 said.

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.

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