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Beacon Senior News

Intolerance of inequality

Dec 30, 2019 03:25PM ● By Melanie Wiseman

When Mary Sornsin graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1970, she was denied an application for a credit card due to her status: female and single.

When I graduated from college 10 years later, thanks to Sornsin and thousands of other feminists, I got a credit card, no questions asked.

“It was a very rebellious time,” said Sornsin, 75, of Grand Junction. “Things were happening to my age group that we struggled with. I wanted my life to be different as an adult woman and I was being presented with limitations and expectations all around.”

Becoming an activist

Even as a sophomore in high school, Sornsin began questioning her church’s position on women. She cringed at the expectation that women should be engaged by the time they finished college.

As a college student, she was frustrated that the things women could study didn’t interest her. What really lit her fire was a desire to work for the National Park Service; however, females weren’t allowed to take the necessary course work in the late ’60s.

“I went and sat in on some of the classes anyway,” said Sornsin. “That was part of my training in learning to be an activist.”

Things began to change as women learned to talk to each other and embrace their feelings. In the ’60s, she and other women began attending consciousness-raising groups that came out of Betty Friedan’s book, “The Feminine Mystique.” These groups were powerful in the development of the women’s movement’s intolerance of inequality.

Sornsin credits the anti-war movement for her jumping into the women’s movement with both feet. As she petitioned door to door with a male partner, Sornsin found many women responded to anti-war questions with, “I don’t know how I feel about that,” or “Come back when my husband is here.”

“The condition of women was horrifying to me and I wanted nothing to do with it,” recalled Sornsin. “I’ve always had a willingness to speak my truth.”

By the time she graduated in 1970, the women’s movement had gained momentum. In fact, Sornsin was put into a leadership role almost immediately. Although her demeanor was quiet and low key, she found her voice in the National Organization for Women (NOW) activist marches, meeting with politicians, teaching classes and facilitating consciousness-raising groups. Many women attended in secrecy, fearful of what being open about their opinions would mean for their marriages and relationships.

Their mission was to raise public awareness that it’s not okay to treat women as sexual objects, lesser persons or to limit their educational opportunities. This raising of consciousness was needed in every institution, but Sornsin turned her attention to education.

The Task Force

Believing that teachers were one of the best ways to have an effect on society, Sornsin and five other women formed the Emma Willard Task Force on Education. The nonprofit was named after a Vermont teacher who, in 1819, went before the New York legislature to present her plan for improving female education.

Collaboratively, they wrote the book, “Sexism in Education,” which went on to sell 9,000 copies over six years. The Task Force gave hundreds of presentations on equal opportunity to teachers and students. In the beginning, they had to learn to deal with threatening, hostile responses from students and adults, both male and female. Sornsin personally knew teachers forced out of their jobs for identifying with feminism.

“No matter what we did, we were considered radicals. We were asked why we hate men or want to be men,” said Sornsin. “The bra-burning was, initially, a mythical term created by the media. They portrayed us as ugly and angry.”

Working with the Minnesota Department of Education, the Task Force helped pass a law requiring the state’s teachers to take a 60-hour human relations course in order to keep their positions.

“I was in on the ground floor of the National Women’s Political Caucus,” said Sornsin. “I became the independent liaison between democrats and republicans. Those were exciting years for me.”

Sornsin participated in Ms. Magazine meetings and with feminists like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug in New York and Washington, DC. Those dedicated years in feminism came at a cost, but one that Sornsin and other women were willing to bear.

“Could I have gotten a job in the Minnesota education system? Probably not,” said Sornsin. “Women like me were less likely to be hired for jobs. We spelled trouble to bosses.”

Despite the difficulties, Sornsin didn’t give up.

“We were busy, passionate and our numbers were growing—we just had to keep moving forward,” said Sornsin.

The continued feminist wave

The feminist movement history is often viewed as a series of waves. The first wave—celebrating its 100th anniversary this year—gained women’s right to vote in 1920. There was a notable connection between the first wave and the slavery abolition movement.

The second wave similarly coincided with the black and anti-war movements. Sornsin was involved in this second wave, broadening the debate to a wide range of equality issues beyond the first.

A third wave began in the early 1990s, rising partially as a response and backlash against failed initiatives from the second wave. This wave also expanded feminism to include women with a more diverse set of identities.

The fourth wave started around 2013 and is characterized by the empowerment of women through their use of the internet and social media tools.

Today, Sornsin continues to view life through “the lens of a feminist.” Every interaction, everything she sees and says, everything she engages in, even now, has that criteria.

She continues to be a member of NOW, which boasts 500,000 members with chapters in all 50 states. Sornsin was also recently the volunteer coordinator for the Grand Junction Community Center Campaign and is active in global warming events.

“What I carry in my heart about the feminist movement was meeting women from all over the country and having an instant bond,” said Sornsin. “It was very empowering for all of us to celebrate our love of femaleness. We changed the world, but it’s not done.”


A bit of HERstory

  • It took 150 years for women to gain their right as citizens to vote in 1920.
  • Women could not attend Yale and Princeton until 1969. Harvard until 1977.
  • Until 1973, women could not serve on juries in all 50 states.
  • Until 1977, a woman could not take legal action against workplace sexual harassment.
  • Until 1978, a woman could be unceremoniously fired for the “offense” of getting pregnant.
  • Although the pill was approved as a contraceptive in 1960, it wasn’t until years later that it was approved for use by all women, regardless of marital status.
  • Until 2010, a woman could not obtain health insurance at the same monetary rate as a man.