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Hear Me Roar

Uppity women on a bumpity road

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Had I fallen to earth a woman 15 minutes ago, I would be wise to fall in front of the Levine Museum of the New South here in Charlotte. This would be my first stop - to see Purses, Platforms & Power, the current show on women's ascent to power in this city in the 1970s. This exhibit would show me where I am by laying out how I got here. After seeing this show, I would better know my place, and on leaving, I would drop to my knees and thank the nonspecific gender God that Charlotte did not sleep through the 70s. Praise the Lord, hear me roar.

Purses, Platforms and Power opens past the double glass doors upstairs. We walk into a cubed cave-like room, a dark rectangle with one illuminated wall projecting the images of professions unavailable to women in Charlotte in the dark ages — the years before 1970. In Charlotte, there were no architects, doctors or pro athletes and few business execs or ministers. You could be a teacher, nurse or secretary. Sad. But things have changed.

The next room provides a quick overview of women's lot in America and, more specifically, in Charlotte, before the Age of Aquarius. Through the air floats the voice of Tom Jones: "She's a lady, whoa, whoa, whoa, my little lady..." And here's June Cleaver, mother to The Beav, Ward's wife, and model American woman circa 1960. She is quaffed, curled and imminently presentable. This woman wears pearls above her spotless apron when she cooks, and she never roars. She purrs.

This room includes early century activists — anomalies, those women who stand out as precursors to, and role models for, the Uppities invading Charlotte in the seventies. Gladys Tillett stands chief among Charlotte's early feminist models. She was that unlikely brew of wealthy society woman and political activist, and her enthusiasms spanned most of the century. She campaigned for women's rights in the 1910s and fought for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 70s. From purr to growl.

Check your white gloves and Easy Bake Oven at the door, girls, and step through the beaded curtain on the right.

Here is counterculture's laboratory, a dorm room circa 1971. Hanging macramé baskets, afghan bed covers, record albums in a wooden box. EmmyLou Harris, Carole King and Carly Simon — busty, braless and smiling on the cover of her album No Secrets. Germaine Greer, Virginia Woolf and Gloria Steinem sit on the bookshelf. On the lacquered table beyond the bunk beds is a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, the movement's Bible you held in one hand as your raised your fist with the other.

On the record player, Gloria Gaynor belts out "I Will Survive." A Wonder Woman for President poster on the wall.

Throughout the show, descriptive storyboards, quotes by locals and national luminaries and photographs describe Charlotte women's rise with the national feminist swell. The Dilworth neighborhood was the hub of Charlotte's modest counterculture with the formation of Dilworth Community Association, the Charlotte Women's Center, the local chapter of the National Association of Women, and other egalitarian, social focus groups cobbled together to unite the like-minded and recently muffled community voices.

Staff Historian Dr. Tom Hanchett curated this show with the help of his staff, period experts and locals who knew the feel of Charlotte in the 70s. Hanchett and his crew did an exceptional job corralling this boatload of historical information into a venue that flows from event to person to image without bogging. It coulda been tiresome; it isn't.

Throughout the gallery are video interviews of women expressing what this time meant to them. These are women who lived through the timid time before the ascension, and who came to the fore when the time was ripe. These testimonials lay flesh and blood over the set designs, print and photograph bones of the show. The walk through this decade in Charlotte is a total immersion into a time that changed lives — both men's and women's — then, now and forever. Young women of Charlotte can witness how they got where they are now.

Many firsts are documented.

Liz Hair was the first woman on the Board of County Commissioners. When Hair ran in 1972, she unexpectedly received more votes than any other candidate. This outpouring for Hair demonstrated the good citizens of Charlotte felt the Board had been manhandled long enough. And though tradition called for top vote getter Liz Hair to assume the Commission Chair, she was not granted that position until the next go round. We boys don't like change, and we hate the surprise, overnight kind.

A Democratic Party leader had asked the question that led to Hair's candidacy: "Liz, you gotta help me think of another man for our ticket."

Charlotte's first female State Legislator was not elected until 1976. Ruth Esterling won that seat at 65 years old and served until age 91.

"While I believe the home is still the center of the family and even community life, I do not think it is enough for a woman. The challenge, the stimulation, the satisfaction of accomplishment of the world outside the home is as necessary for a woman as for a man." So said Ruth Easterling, uppity woman, in 1971.

In her time in office, Easterling improved staffing at day care centers, helped craft "Smart Start" for preschoolers, and won passage of laws guaranteeing women equal treatment in divorce settlements.

Local luminaries are given their due: Bertha Maxwell, founder of the Afro American Cultural Center; Caroline Meyers, founder of Crisis Assistance Ministries; and Sarah Bryant, founder of Planned Parenthood's local chapter are a few.

Ms. Bryant looks like a docent for a garden club; she could be the poster woman for Southern civility — coifed, at once both demure and stately. She sits in her parlor beside her red phone, her information hot line phone. It's a photo of the first office for Charlotte's Planned Parenthood.

There's a photo of six young women in white dresses. The dresses were worn to honor the spirit of women's suffrage campaigners of the 20s. The six women stand in front of a banner for the Charlotte Women's Political Caucus. The women are unnamed in the photograph. I'm surprised to see my sister Jenny Miller in the photo.

These are front line troopers who represent the anonymous swell of local uppities who collectively composed this unquiet insurgency. They lost this particular battle — the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment — but this crew and this show and this decade are testament to a will to power that sees defeat less a failure than a head's up.

The struggle heated up and burned hot in the 70s. Enormous gains were realized. The fire's only smoldering now, but be careful — it's likely to flare up anytime.

The exhibit Purses, Platforms & Power will be on display through January 16, 2006, at the Levine Museum of the New South, 200 E. Seventh St. For details, call 704-333-1887, or go online to www.museumofthenewsouth.org.

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