Over the weekend I attended an event titled Women Making Waves. It is an annual breakfast/conference/meet & greet, arranged by IL State Representative Carol Ammons, and shines a spotlight on elected women at the state and local level. Along with the all-female panel discussion, there were also tables featuring women entrepreneurs selling their wares. This was the second annual event and, as with last year, I found it inspiring.
One of the questions posed to the panel was along the lines of who initially inspired them. Of course, most of those on the panel answered with a nod to their mothers. The question made me stop and wonder, who had inspired me? I'm not a woman, obviously, but we all have someone who has, for whatever reason, inspired us or at the very least captured our imagination enough to help propel us to better ourselves. After some thought, the personal answer to the question crystallized with two answers: my mom and Joan Severns, Champaign's first female mayor.
We'll start with Severns. She was Champaign Illinois's first (and, until 2015, only) female mayor. Her term of office was from 1979-1983 and, when I somehow found out as a little kid that our city's mayor was a woman, it blew my mind. Looking back, the weight it carried seems both odd and understandable. Women in public office still weren't nearly as common as they are today (and, even today, they're under-represented). Regardless, Champaign having a woman mayor was the coolest thing ever to a young Matthew.
In the early '80s there was Margaret Thatcher leading Great Britain. She, too, enthralled me, though as the years went on and I became more aware of her union busting agenda and anti-gay rhetoric, her legacy left me rather cold. Yet, there she was, a powerful woman in a political ocean of men. During the same era, only 4% of the U.S. Congress was made-up women. Today that number (though still too low) is 19%. There were two women in the U.S. Senate in the early '80s. Now there are twenty. And this was decades before we were on the cusp of possibly electing our first woman president.
I remember bugging my mom about seeing if Mayor Severns could meet with us. Mom was unsure. One day, however, there was Joan Severns on our doorstep. She briefly said hello, and I was rather starstruck and awkward, but the meeting solidified her awesomeness in my mind. For kindergarten Career Day, I went as the mayor (wearing a pen-drawn mustache and a Stetson hat). Mom made a key to the city out of cardboard, painted it gold, and I gave it away to a classmate.
My mom, of course, was and is a strong woman, and a great influence. She was always there to encourage me in my pursuits, whether they were artistic, scholastic or social. Not always an easy task for a shy, difficult (at times), bullied and overly-sensitive boy. She did her best, though, and without her enthusiasm and support, I wouldn't have made it out of childhood alive.
I think mom knows the impact she's had on my life. Joan Severns, who died in 2003, no doubt never grasped the importance she had during my formative years. She only served one term as mayor, but left an indelible mark. As one of the many who have come and gone in Champaign city government, I can only hope to attempt to do the same.