By Gretchen Wehmhoff
March is Women’s History Month and we, Melinda and I, write history. That’s the major afterproduct of a newspaper – the place for research about what happened in a town, nation or country. Newspapers record history.
We are also part of history as women owners of a media outlet in Alaska. We aren’t the first. Take a quick look around the state to Anchorage Daily News, The Nome Nugget, The Petersburg Pilot, The Sitka Sentinel, The Wrangell Sentinel and more. All have been, or are currently owned, partially or in full, by women. Historically it has been the newspaper business that opened the door for dynamic and driven female journalists like Nellie Bly, Helen Thomas, Connie Chung and Barbara Walters – only a few of many women who pushed the limits while writing the truth.
According to studies by WalletHub, Alaska has the highest share of women-owned businesses in the United States at 24.71 percent. Great – we are ahead at being behind.
Women make up about 50% of the population of the planet, and the U.S., yet only 27% of legislators in the U.S. are women and only 25% hold board seats with Fortune 500 companies. In fact, the U.S. ranks 27th in the World Economic Forum study of gender equality in 146 countries. We improved from 30th the year before.
Skagway is represented by a vocal and successful group of women owned and run businesses. Just drop into the Skagway Biz messenger group and you will meet most of them.
The other day I watched an NBC news story about a woman who fell in love with her 1974 Volkswagen. She was the second girl to take auto mechanics in her school, and after enduring work in the field where she felt she always had to prove herself, and knowing she was always being watched to see when she would fail, she started her own business where she taught and engaged women in the love of cars – Bogi Lateiner’s Girl Gang Garage
Yes, it happens. Whether subconsciously or overtly, generations of women have had to endure, ignore or push back on the critics.
When I coached squirt hockey in the 80s, I decided to take the first level coaching course from USAHockey. I was the only woman in the class of about 30 fathers, uncles and other coaches just looking to learn more about coaching kids. The instructor was another story. While I was irritated, I pushed back at times – like the time he referred to me as Sweetpea.
“My name is Gretchen.”
“I know, Sweetpea, but I need to move this box.”
“My name is Gretchen.”
At this point, the man who was assisting him backed away with hands up, a motion that said, “Hey, it’s not me.”
The trainer also had trouble figuring out how to address the group with a woman present.
“Okay men (guys, boys – insert the common words here) and lady.”
I was irritated, and actually surprised, that the materials we were given followed the same path. All the cartoon-like illustrations show “Dad” helping the coach in the box and “Mom” bringing the cookies.
I understood what Bogi meant about being watched. The first day of training was in the classroom. The second day was on the ice. I didn’t think about it as I stepped on the ice, but I saw it when I turned towards the instructor for directions.
Most of the men were parents who wanted to be involved in their kids’ lives. Some of the men had young daughters who wanted to play. Many were new to skating. There was no judgment from my classmates, rather, I saw several of them look uncomfortable when the instructor drew attention to me.
I could skate. I put on skates when I was seven and practiced on the rink my dad made in our backyard. I started playing hockey in the first year of women’s hockey in Anchorage. Getting on the ice and passing the puck was not a worry for me, but I felt the eyes. Mostly curious, but I felt them watching.
I do see hope.
When my granddaughter was 8 or 9, she was surfing through cable channels. She stopped on Ironman, then groaned and changed the channel.
“Why are women always being rescued? Why can’t they do the rescuing in movies?” she said.
As streaming brings back decades of television, we can see that trend of women in the films and television.
I used to show the movie “All the President’s Men” to my journalism classes until I looked at it from a different angle. Have you ever wondered why the only mention of Katherine Graham, the owner of the Washington Post at the time, was in one line that mentioned “getting her panties in a bunch?” Have you watched the interactions with the women in the film? I stopped showing it and dropped it from my tool bag.
In the past decade we are seeing what we missed. I think one of the greatest movies that speaks to “herstory” is in the film, “Hidden Figures” where a group of Black female mathematicians check and calculate the numbers used by NASA in their space program. Their employment survival depended on their ability to work together and learn new technology to engage with computer programming.
We didn’t know much about these strong, intelligent, capable and dedicated women – because they were kept in a separate place and treated – well “badly” is the work I can print. These women endured. They chose their battles and pushed forward. They made way for their children and grandchildren.
If you look on page 12 of this issue, you’ll read about young women in Skagway who are succeeding. Adalia Deach is looking at five digit scholarships – more than $90,000 to pursue her talents. Callia Fielding has become synonymous with powerful orations. Tessa Murphy and Fielding will be headed to nationals with a refreshing interpretation of “The Princess Saves Herself in This One.”
Mina Lee literally climbed mountains to raise funds for those in need, then found a corner in the historic part of town to fill with music. Beautiful, skilled and “listen to me” music.
Women have now become the majority of students enrolled in colleges and universities. Several young women from Skagway and other parts of the country are earning scholarships, entering military academies, going into space and standing up.
Girls who participate in the local robotics program are being introduced to careers that were rarely in their reach.
The US Women’s soccer team decided that they had endured enough. They pushed back. They pushed back because the world was finally watching. The women had to win more, promote more and succeed more than their male counterparts in order to finally be seen. And they used that platform to make a difference for all young girls.
I watched in the classroom. Every five or six years there was a change. It wasn’t sudden, but it was different. Boys and girls interacted together in sports, sciences and academics. It was more natural each year. And these young people became part of society and insisted we include more. They no longer endured, they pushed forward because the barriers became weaker.
There definitely is hope.