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.
- KATHRYN NASSTROM:
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?
- MARGARET KEESEE-FORRESTER:
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.