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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 >>

Refusal to defer to party leaders

Keesee-Forrester explains her advocacy for a bill that would have banned corporal punishment in schools during her freshman term in the North Carolina General Assembly. In offering this anecdote, she describes the active role she immediately took in the legislature and explains how she believes it was her refusual to defer to party leadership that led to her failed bid for reelection in 1974. According to Keesee-Forrester, her obligations were to her constituents (both Democrats and Republicans), and not the Republican leadership. Her comments are revealing of political dynamics, especially within the Republican party, during the early 1970s.

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

You mentioned a few minutes back one of the parts of your platform was the strong support for public education. In those first few times you were running what other elements of your platform were there?
Well, it's hard to think back to every issue that one might have had to deal with from the mid-seventies all the way to the late eighties. I was always interested in environmental issues. And I guess those were two strong areas of mine, education and the environment. Women's issues were also of importance to me, and there weren't a lot of just specific bills introduced early in my political career, dealing with women's issues other than say the Equal Rights Amendment, which we tried to ratify in North Carolina. One issue that I did introduce that was very controversial and people have suggested that it helped to defeat me in my reelection bid after my first term, had to do with corporal punishment. Since I had taught in public schools, I was aware of and I also was teaching at a time, we were going through desegregation in this community and across the state, and I was concerned, and there was a lot of emphasis on human relations and trying to work to improve the climate in the schools. The school that I happened to be teaching at had gone through several workshops working with the Glasser, Schools Without Failure. He was a psychologist, I guess, from California who had worked very heavily in reality therapy, and how you can have discipline in a classroom if you establish the right kind of climate. You don't have to hit children to get the kind of behavior that's appropriate. So I had literally laid down my paddle and accepted and adopted the Glasser method. So I introduced this legislation, and it wasn't something that I decided to do, it was after a number of people came to me and asked me. They couldn't find any of the men in our delegation who would touch it. And I felt like it was most appropriate, since I was a classroom teacher and I had put down my paddle, that I could offer this as a reasonable alternative. Well, I became known as "the spanking lady." I think a lot of people were incensed because I was a freshman legislator, and freshman legislators are supposed to be seen and not heard. It was like I was an upstart. I didn't know my place in Raleigh. I was supposed to sit on the back row and keep my mouth shut, and after I had served the appropriate time, then I could start offering ideas. And I was just naive and innocent enough to not realize that or not to care about it. Well, I got a lot of ugly mail from people, and a lot of it came from educators. I was distraught about that. I was referred to as the Benedict Arnold of the teaching profession in 1974. It was just really amazing, the reaction to that one bill. Obviously, the bill did not get passed into law. In fact, North Carolina still permits the use of "reasonable force" in the public schools. But every so often somebody else will come forth and offer legislation to try and do what I tried to do in 1974. I think that one good thing that came out of my efforts was an awareness, a sensitivity on the part of a lot of classroom teachers and parents and educators and persons who now give a lot of attention, a lot of focusing on child abuse. And it was being perpetuated through our public schools in the name of discipline. I never tried to make an issue of it, but it was brought forth to my attention that most of the kids that were getting abuse, getting corporal punishment used upon them, were black, because they were the ones who were very active. The younger children were the ones that were getting it, not the high school students. Because it's very hard to get your hand around the arm of a six foot two high school fellow and bend him over and work him over with a paddle. But it's not that hard to take the arm of a five year old and work them over with a paddle. So there's a built in distinction. I even got a call from Tony Sargent with CBS News in 1974 from Atlanta asking me if he could come and interview me. That's the way these news broadcast people find out what's going on, is they read their newspapers. This was making the news in papers all around the countryside, I guess. But he called and wanted to do an interview for television, their CBS Morning News in '74. And he came to Raleigh and interviewed me, and I think all this was just really too much for some of the people I served with.
I bet. They didn't expect that out of you.
You mentioned the fact that you think that was the cause of your losing the next election. How did you come back from that?
In 1974 when I ran for reelection . . . I have to back up a minute. When you're a freshman legislator, you're not supposed to know anything. You're not supposed to say anything. You're not supposed to do anything. One thing you are supposed to do is to call back home and check with your party leadership, and if you're a Democrat, you call back and talk to the Democrats who are leaders in your party, and if you're Republican, you do the same with your Republican colleagues at home, and get their guidance and advice and ask them what they think you should do about these particular issues that come before you. And I didn't do that. I just went to Raleigh, and I was very independent. I wouldn't get on the telephone and call home and ask the party chairman what he thought about anything. And I think my independence was a little bit abrasive to them, but then I was trying to be a representative for Guilford County. And Guilford County has a larger Democrat registration than Republican. So I was not elected just by Republicans. I was elected by Democrats, a larger percentage of them. And so I tried to be as nonpartisan as possible in my actions. And I didn't feel that I had to call home and ask to speak to the chairman of the Republican Party to get advise on how I should act in Raleigh. I finally got it after the fact, you know. They wanted to say it was because I was too liberal, that I was for ERA, and that I was trying to take discipline out of the schools. But I think the bottom line was I didn't show enough humility to the leadership of my party. I was too headstrong and independent. So they found another woman to run in that election. And in the primaries she was elected and I went down the tube.