The 150 women cheered and applauded as the the big, black woman spoke: "I may LOOK like a mayor. Traditional mayors don't look like me. But I AM a mayor you see."
Unita Blackwell, mayor of Mayersville, Miss. population [WORD ILLEGIBLE] operates her office out of a trailer. She now runs the community where she couldn't even vote in the 60's.
She was one of the Rural American Women who have come together for the first annual leadership conference this week at the Chevy Chase 4-H Center. They came from the foothills of the Ozarks and Alaskan Indian tribes, from Minnesota farms and California cattle ranches. They came with diverse and common problems.
And that is why they are here - to voice their concerns and to learn from each other. They share the problems of urban living - employment, education, sevices such as mental health and battered-wife facilities. They also share a mixed rural experience - a schizophrenia of a sorts, a sense of isolation coupled with a love of their land.
Rural American Women, Inc., a non-profit organization of rural American women, sponsored the session, with many federal government grants. Sen. Muriel Humphrey opened the session. Others will follow this week - Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall, Judy Carter, president's daughter and ERA spokesperson for the White House, Lola Redford, Robert Redford's wife and Consumer Action advocate, Liz Carpenter and Gloria Steinem, Sens, Patrick Leahy and Robert Dole.
But in the opening hours, the not-so-familiar names seemed more important than the famous people.
Mary Jane Fate, pretty, dark-haired, had a blister on her toe, rubbed raw by her biege sandals. THe shoes were new for the Washington trip. She had been spending the winter in more familiar gear, mukluks. Fate is an Alaskan Indian of the nomadic Athabascan tribe.
"We had to take the dog teams when we were 10 or 11 years old. Mom and Dad worked as a team and we stayed on the trap line, living in tents, all winter while they trapped muskrat. Often we were left alone. Some might call it child abuse, but to us it was necessity.
"We fished for a living in the summer. We had to follow the animals. The whole goal of life was just to survive.The Athabascan were the poorest, most nomadic of all ethnic groups in Alaska." Fate knew no roads or television, never saw a telephone until she went away to high school - 1,000 miles from home at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. "When I cameback home, there wasn't a home. My dad had passed away. In our villages we see our relatives die in the winter, without medical help, without planes coming in and out."
Fate now livies much of the year in Fairbanks with her white dentist husband, who tends, to Indian villages. Their daughter is studying law at Dartmouth.
Fate works on problems of Indian handicapped children and of women. The biggest concern of Alaskan rural villagers, is what Fate terms the "packaging of Alaska into a national park." "We are not allowed to run a dog team into our land that has become national parks. If a village is starving and a moose walks in out of season, what are you to do when your children are starving? Not shoot it? We are fighting federal control of our land.
"We want to share with the United States, but the conservationists and congressmen should see Alaska as a state and our survival problems. We need our land to hunt and fish and trap. For many, it is the only way they know to live."
Unita Blackwell, Mayersville's mayor, says "I owe everything to my mother. She couldn't read and write, but she was determined I would." Blackwell was born in 1933, the daughter of a poor sharecropper. "When you worked on a plantation, you worked when the Man says. They didn't have schooling for blacks much. So my momma sent me to my aunt's in West Helena, Ark.Still, I worked the fields all my life until 1964 when they wouldn't let me because I was a troublemaker, fighting for the right to vote."
In the '60s, Blackwell wanted some "decent books for my son" at his segregated school. Civil rights lawyers said, "Why not segregate the schools?" And Blackwell said "All right." The school suit went to the Supreme Court. "I am the 'Blackwell' in the State of Mississippi vs. Blackwell." Her smile lights up. "My son is now at Mississippi State University, studying engineering."
Blackwell tells of the poverty and lack of education of Mississippi rural women and says the conference is important, if for nothing else, "to get the rural perspective. We all been out here, but fragmented. People in urban areas seem to think they has more sense and think we're backwards. We don't have all the push-buttons but anyone who lives with the land and is moved by the vibrations of the air has a real feeling for life.Urban life is but the icing on the cake. There has to be an inside - and we are the inside. We're not pretty and sophisticated, but without us and the food we bring, there wouldn't be any urban."
Marianne Bruesehoff, an "old-fashioned farm woman" raises everything her family eat on their Minnesota farm - sheep, beef, pigs, poultry and vegetables. "I milked 30 cows by myself up to the day my last son was born." (Her children are ages 23 to 13).
She lives in conservative John Birch country and is considered "notorious" because she champions women's rights. Isolation, she says, leads to mental health problems and "terrible alcoholism" for many farmers "because there's not a damn thing else to do."
"For me, the solitude is an opportunity to read and think and do what I want to do; not be subject to the pressures of the city and other people's expectations. We consider it a luxury just to live here."
Brueshoff sees among farm couples "mutual respect because there is this mutual need." Still. "There is so little value placed on the woman's contribution. She is a partner all her life and when her husband dies, she often has to pay an inheritance tax, that can break her and force her to sell the farm. When she dies, he doesn't have to pay anything."
A husband and wife with marital problems have it both worse and better than urban couples, she feels. "It is so unfeasible to separate, to give up the land, that we're certainly going to work it out to a higher degree.On the other hand, this dependency could make some feel really trapped. But when things go bad, you can always go out on the back 40 and swear."
In California, rural concerns include the encroachment of subdivisions - and cemeteries.
"This woman called, hysterical. A body had washed up against the fence next to her dairy farm. The cemetery situation is just deplorable. They dig such shallow graves that bodies do float to the top. After that woman called me, we fought for and got bills to force them to dig deeper graves."
Ramona Adams-Davis, a former peach grower who runs a radio call-in show for rural women in Modesto, Calif., hears all their problems. "Rural women know more than you think. The farm woman is upset and mad about a lot of things and is a lot more forceful and interested in affairs than the urban women.She fights for change in our legislature. She really cares about the fact that there are so few medical services in the community, for example, that she is isolated. Take wife beating. Everyone thinks it's urban problem, but a farmer can beat holy hell out of his wife and no one will ever know.We're working on crises centers for battered wifes now. Farm women are becoming the latest organized group in America, in case you people who live in the big cities don't realize it."