Well, finally.” she harrumphed, “someone has come along and made women’s issues as socially respectable as a disease.” The comment was hissed by a longtime local feminist just as two well-respected women community leaders were proudly reporting that they had raised nearly $100,000 for the Women’s Foundation annual lunch. “It must seem odd to you,” I whispered, “to have worked for several decades on behalf of Dallas women, and only now see widespread support.” She shot back: “You’re damn right it is!”
Odd or not, women’s issues are hot. Until fairly recently you could live in Dallas for years and not run into the women’s move-ment. Today, subjects such as child care, child support, family violence, sexism, the feminization of poverty-once the exclusive province of so-called feminists-are at least on the middle burners in both public and private circles. As newscaster Linda Ellerbee slyly puts it, the F-Word (Feminism) has inspirit, if not in name, become Fashionable.
That traditional “women’s issues” have attracted the attention of individuals who might not have cared several years ago is a fact. Whether or not that focus has resulted in substantial progress for women in this community is a matter of opinion.
There are still precious few women running for political office, despite the fact that Mayor Annette Strauss has proven that a woman can run city wide and win. Other than Diane Ragsdale and Lori Palmer, who are seeking reelection to the City Council, most of the new faces in the other council races are men-Helen Gid-dings and Harriet Miers being notable exceptions. The Dallas area sends a few women to the state legislature, but their ranks are not likely to grow rapidly. As for the federal level, it’s been more than six years since any woman mounted a serious race for one of the area’s House seats.
On the business front, the statistics are harder to get at. But while women in Dallas have a lower rate of unemployment than men, they are still far from the rarefied air of the upper strata. The Dallas Citizens Council, made up mostly of CEOs of local corporations, has only seven female members out of 275. And only one-Ruth Collins Sharp-is on the DCC board of directors. Worse, this same handful of women are virtually the only females who consistently appear on corporate boards, and few new names are being added to the hopper.
But despite that, women are exerting more influence over the community than ever before. That broader base of concern- which may be underscored by fears of a dependent, impoverished pink ghetto-has paid off where it counts, in the pocketbook. The Women’s Foundation is a case in point. Formed three and a half years ago to fund the grant requests of local nonprofit organizations serving women and girls, the organization has raised more than $1 million. Most of that money, reports foundation executive director Pat Sabin, comes from women opening their purses and writing a check in whatever amount they can afford.
There are other positive signs. For one, leadership programs at the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce, which used to sport seas of white male faces, are now one-third to one-half women. That means increasing numbers of employers think enough of increasing numbers of female employees to invest in these crash courses in community involvement.
National trends portend even more progress, though it may be gradual if not downright slow. According to an article in the January issue of Savvy Woman magazine, women can look forward to a time of better banking relationships, fatter paychecks, acceptably sagging eyelids-and more dust bunnies. The Nineties, according to trend-watchers, will see some 60 percent of new businesses begun by women, forcing financial institutions to aggressively pursue female entrepreneurs. In addition, a labor shortage caused by declining birth rates fifteen to twenty years ago will result in higher pay for women. “The last time American business leaders gave women a warm reception was during the labor shortage during World War II.” Savvy writes, “and that was, of course, only because they had to.”
There are changes coming on the home front as well. The next decade will see more and more time pressures on families (no surprise there) resulting in a decline in the family dinner hour and less attention to housekeeping chores. Happily, however, these forecasters don*t subscribe to the theory that the family itself is being abandoned along with the pot roast. In fact, recent polls show more Americans than ever favor staying home with their families as their preferred pastime.
Finally, futurists predict that our collective obsession with fitness and beauty will subside, if only because the vast number of aging baby boomers will make flabby thighs and drooping chins socially acceptable.
Ait of these topics and more will be fair game at the upcoming D Magazine Women’s Conference on March 16 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Adolphus Hotel. (For registration information, see page 121.) This is the second conference devoted to women’s issues sponsored by D, the first having featured probing assessments of women’s progress in Dallas, and a touching and hilarious address by Linda Ellerbee.
“Dallas Women: Challenging the Status Quo” will kick off with a panel discussion on political access, legal roadblocks, the corporate workplace, women’s needs, and the concerns of women who own small businesses. Panelists include City Council member Lori Palmer; attorney Louise Raggio; Nancy Huggins, managing director of First Boston Corporation; Sharon King, director of the YWCA Women’s Resource Center; and Valerie Freeman, founder of Wordtemps, Individual table discussions will follow the panel, and everyone will have a chance to contribute. D is proud to be bringing the godmother of women’s issues herself. Gloria Steinem, as keynote speaker.
Come, let us define the future together.