By: TAYLOR HILL
Women and supporters in the Michiana area flooded the Civil Rights Heritage Center on the evening of Monday, August 26. Some may recognize this date as Women’s Equality Day. The Michiana Women Leaders Inc. (MWL) used this day to honor women in our community who have impacted others through their hard work and dedication.
The MWL states on their website, “Not intended as an awards ceremony, the event launches an educational local women’s history exhibit.” The exhibit is currently in the Civil rights heritage center and includes photos of each honoree along with an individualized word collage that provides a small hint of their stories.
Founder and president Terri L. Russ said that she founded the MWL out of a desire to better document local feminist history. The MWL has recently been given the status as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization.
The MWL’s work includes collecting stories from local women about their lives and achievements and documenting their history. The organization plans to host more events in the future to further support and inspire other women.
IUSB’s new Chancellor, Susan Elrod, spoke at this event.
“One of the things that drew me to the position of chancellor at IU South Bend was the university’s engagement in the community. One of the best examples of this engagement is our Civil Rights Heritage Center, here at the Engman Natatorium. This is a special place, and a powerful symbol of the civil rights struggle of the members of this community. But more importantly it is a symbol today of the progress we have, and will continue to make in achieving greater equity and inclusion” explained Elrod.
While women have made huge strides in the historical struggle for equality, there are still hurdles to overcome. While addressing the crowd about the importance of this event and their group at large, Russ gave a telling example.
“Over half of all college undergraduate degrees are awarded to women. However, we don’t see the same progress translated to areas of leadership. As of June 1st, only 6.6%, or 33 of the Fortune 500 companies were led by women. And only one of these 33 leaders is a woman of color” said Russ.
While this counts as record breaking, it still shows a vast disparity.
One of the speakers was the Interim Director of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, George Garner. He made an important acknowledgement of the history of feminist movements excluding black women and other people of color. He also mentioned the Centers history as a segregated pool.
This year the honorees were made up of 12 women. They varied in age, race, profession, religion, and background. Small biographies were included at the event, giving a glimpse into the lives of these remarkable women. These biographies will be made available on their website: https://michianawomenleaders.org.
Attendees were granted the opportunity to meet and learn about the lives of women such as Stephanie Mirza. Mirza is the owner of the Innisfree bed and breakfast and director of the Noor Program, which prepares children for kindergarten and fosters understanding and growth in their Islamic Identity.
The MWL also chose to highlight a prominent woman, Gloria Frankel, who opened the first gay bar in the Michiana area in 1971, while homosexuality was still illegal in Indiana. Frankel’s bar was named “Seahorse” and it served as a safe space for the LGBT+ community while it was open.
Frankel passed in 2007, but is clearly still remembered and honored for her work in South Bend.