Kathy Wilson, 54, whose frustrations as a woman in the '70s-era workplace fueled her rise to the chairmanship of the National Women's Political Caucus and who, in more recent years, served as director of an innovative day-care center in Alexandria, died of a heart attack Sept. 1 in Rehoboth Beach, Del.
After working briefly just out of college as a flight attendant for Trans World Airlines, Mrs. Wilson took a job in sales for a Kansas City, Mo., hotel. She rapidly became the company's leading salesperson and was so successful that the company asked her to train two new men. That's when she discovered that the two trainees were being paid $100 more a month than she was, simply because they were men.
"It hit me like a Mack truck," Mrs. Wilson told The Washington Post in 1981, recalling the experience that brought her into the women's movement.
She quit her job and in 1977 moved to Washington, where she helped found four state chapters of the National Women's Political Caucus, including the Northern Virginia chapter, and was elected first vice chairman in 1979. In 1981, at age 29, she was elected to the first of two terms as chairman of the 77,000-member organization.
In 1991, she became director of the Abracadabra Child Care and Development Center, a nonsectarian ministry of Baptist Temple Church in Alexandria. Under her leadership, Abracadabra became the demonstration preschool in the area for the "high/scope" approach, a Michigan-based program that emphasizes the importance of a planned curriculum for preschools.
Kathleen Anne Higdon Wilson was born in Quonset Point, R.I., and grew up in St. Louis. She received a bachelor's degree in education, with an emphasis on special education, in 1973 and her master's degree in education in 1976, both from the University of Missouri at Columbia. After moving to Washington, she worked for three years as a social science research analyst with the U.S. Department of Labor.
Her swift ascendancy in the women's movement was surprising not only because of her youth but also because she was a Republican who grew up in a Republican family and married a Republican right out of college. Attending the 1980 Republican National Convention while an expectant mother, she wore a "pro-choice" button, which caused a furor among antiabortionists. She strongly supported the Supreme Court appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor.
In the run-up to the 1984 presidential election, she called President Ronald Reagan "a dangerous man" and urged him not to seek a second term. Under her leadership, the caucus endorsed the Democratic ticket of former vice president Walter F. Mondale and U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (N.Y.).
"I don't believe that the Reagan administration's heart is in the right place," she told The Post in 1985, after Reagan's reelection. "But I do believe that we changed some minds over there."
She continued speaking out -- for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, for abortion rights, for equal pay, for the election of more women to political office.
She was reluctant to switch parties but eventually did. "As I tell people," said her husband, Paul O. Wilson, a Republican campaign consultant, "she was a Baptist who went to church three times a week who left the reservation."
"This woman is so tough that when she burned her bra she kept it on," Democratic media consultant Robert Squire remarked at a 1985 roast honoring Mrs. Wilson as departing chairman of the women's caucus.
The "munchkins," "wizards" and "genies" at Abracadabra were more familiar with their friend "Ms. Kathy" than they were with the outspoken political activist. Under her direction, everyday activities at the school were much more than extended baby-sitting. She made sure the planned curriculum included play, which she believed was integral to learning.
In May, Mrs. Wilson saw a dream come true when Abracadabra dedicated an $80,000 sensory integration playground she had designed. The playground, called Alakazam, features bleached sand, river rocks, water tables, painting easels, play saws and hammers and a miniature grand prix racetrack.
Parents marveled at her special connection to youngsters, who seemed to have an intuitive awareness that she was on their side. As the mother of a professional actress and comedian, she was known for her own irreverent humor. A bumper sticker on her car read: "I hope I'm as smart as my dog thinks I am."
Survivors include her husband of 30 years, of Alexandria; two children, Casey Rose Wilson of New York City and Los Angeles and Fletcher Todd Wilson of Philadelphia; her father, Marion "Red" Higdon of Pensacola, Fla.; and a brother.