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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Grace Jemison Rohrer, March 16, 1989. Interview C-0069. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Role of Republican women in North Carolina politics in the 1960s

Rorher explains the role of women in the Republican Party in Forsyth County, North Carolina, during the late 1950s and 1960s. According to Rorher, women played a prominent role in the effort to establish the Republican Party in North Carolina and to get women into public office during those years. Elected as vice-chair of the state party in 1970, Rorher explains that throughout the 1960s she actively worked to get women involved. In particular, she sought to transform the Federation of Republican Woman from what she calls a "social club with their hats and their white gloves" into an active group with politically involved women.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Grace Jemison Rohrer, March 16, 1989. Interview C-0069. 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

KATHY NASSTROM:
When I think about what you've said, that a lot of the groundwork for bringing Republicans into local offices was done in, am I right in saying, the very late '50s and through the 1960s.
GRACE JEMISON ROHRER:
Yes.
KATHY NASSTROM:
Were many of these local and precinct workers women? What role did women play in that transition?
GRACE JEMISON ROHRER:
I think women played a fairly important part in it. And I can only speak for Forsyth County. No woman achieved county chair at least in Forsyth, although in some of the other counties they did. I ran for vice-chair of the state party and won. And the reason I ran, I ran in 1970, the woman that was vice-chair, the only thing that was important to her was that she be at the head table. She had no vision of what her opportunities were in terms of women. And so I ran, and it surprised people. I wasn't that well known, but the Forsyth delegation, led by my father, lobbied the convention, and I won. And the woman who was Republican national committeewoman was Thelma Rogers, and she pretty much controlled the vice-chair, who was Helen Verbillio, and Helen did what she was told. But Thelma Rogers was a real feminist, although she might not have appreciated that name. She did fight the bias against women within the party, and people hated to see her coming. Well, when I came in, she had no control over me because we had no relationship. And she was very difficult at first until she realized that my goals were the same as hers. Then we became very close partners in this effort to pull women into significance within the party. And she backed me all the time. In fact, there were times that she would come to me and say, "Maybe you can do this. Looks like I can't." And I backed her. She's dead now. But she did a great deal. She and I and Charlie Griffin were the three Republicans that worked very hard for establishing a North Carolina Women's Political Caucus. You're talking about names, Mary Charles Griffin is another person who was very active. She's from Asheville. Thelma Rogers was from Charlotte. Charlie is no longer involved, but she was very highly involved in the '60s and '70s and was significant in bringing in Republicans into power in that area.
KATHY NASSTROM:
It sounds as though, you mentioned, I think your phrase was, "She didn't realize that we had the same goals at that point." What would she have thought your goals were? How would she have thought they differed from what she wanted to accomplish?
GRACE JEMISON ROHRER:
I can't really answer that. She was struggling so hard within the party [that] to have somebody, my perceptions, to have somebody come in that she could not control and count on, was disturbing to her. And when she found out we were working for the same things, then that threat was lifted. She didn't have to control me. She attacked me at one meeting, one of the first board meetings. As vice-chair I was automatically a delegate on the executive board of the Federation of Republican Women. And boy, did she let me have it. And I just stood up and very calmly said, "Well, this is what I hope to accomplish," and hoped that she would be willing to work with me. And gradually that worked out.
KATHY NASSTROM:
What would you say you were hoping to accomplish at that point?
GRACE JEMISON ROHRER:
Well, I encouraged women to run for office. I encouraged them to run for the county chairmanships. In fact, I was pushing so hard that when I would call up a county chair, the first thing he probably would say was, "I'm working on it. I'm trying to get these women to run." I wouldn't even have to open my mouth.
KATHY NASSTROM:
[Laughter] He knew why you were calling.
GRACE JEMISON ROHRER:
And I'd say, "Yes, I know you're working very hard at it." It wasn't so much that the men were against it. It was that it had never occurred to them to push women. Or "Do you really want to do that?" That was sort of the impression. Many of the women, they were involved with were in the Federation of Women's Clubs. And I'm sure the Federation has trained a lot of women, as the Democratic Women does, for roles in politics. But I didn't come up through the Federation. I came up through the precinct organization. I came up through the party. My whole approach to politics was lots different than those women. The Federation was more the social club with their hats and their white gloves, and I had gotten my hands pretty dirty, walking the streets and calling on people and running campaigns. And it was trying to remove them from that into the actual function of the party that was my goal. And with the men seeing the Federation as it was, I think there perception was, "Well, these ladies are having their fun. They're not interested in really getting involved." So it was pushing the Federation and pushing the party to bring women into decision making areas of the party. I was chair of the state party for a short time, and at the convention that I reigned over, and all the committees, half of them were women. But I appointed half women and half men, pulling in a lot of women into committees that hadn't been done before. And had I stayed on, and that's another story, I would have had a chance to do more, but at least it opened the door and it said something.