VIEW: Suzann Willhite, “Seeking Equality”

Betty Folliard and Suzann Willhite (right) at the passage of the ERA in Virginia; now ratification of equal rights for women as a federal law is part of the next active waiting process. Minnesota is one of the states in January 2021 that still has not indicated in the state constitution that women have equal rights to men.

Last January, I was there in person when history was made in the Virginia to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution.

My passion for focusing on the ERA was ignited after Trump was elected in 2016. To me, this was yet another backlash against the fundamental human rights of women, immigrants, and people of color. Being a practical optimist, I had to find ways to channel my anger into action and live into my core values of fairness, equality, and justice for the change I want to see in the world. 

My journey to Virginia started with a value for fairness growing up in rural Minnesota, and grew from my experience advocating for equal legal rights in 2011 with Minnesota’s “Vote No” Marriage Amendment campaign. I credit my mother for teaching me the values of sharing, working hard, and being fair and nice.  When I came out to her when I was in college, she gave me a look of concern and said, “as long as you are happy.”

As the youngest child in a large farm family of 13 siblings, I learned the value of “getting along” together. It was not easy growing up on a farm with crops, animals, chores and constant uncertainty. Everything seemed to “depend on the weather.” Mom planted a massive garden and canned everything literally under the sun. We always had food, but we were money poor. 

Similar to the Laura Ingalls Wilder books that we read together in the evenings, farming life was hard and we moved a lot. People in Minnesota’s rural communities are not always welcoming to newcomers, especially if you are perceived as poor or an outsider. I learned that not everyone shared my values.

I worked hard, did well in school, and I was the first in my family to graduate from college, complete a master’s degree, and qualify for good jobs with good benefits. 

Over time, I came to see that privilege and connections made it a lot easier “to get ahead” for people who had them. Benefits and opportunities came to me through government programs for affirmative action and gender disparities in hiring. Government agencies needed to hire more qualified women to professional positions, so I advanced in my career. As I worked into supervisory and management positions, I used those programs to support and hire people who were qualified, but might not have had family, friends, school, or connections to get a job with decent pay and benefits.

Columnist Suzann Willhite (she/her) is newly retired from a 30+ years career in natural resources, actively fighting for equal opportunities.

In January 2020, I took early retirement from a 30+ years career in natural resources. It was a choice I made so that I could be more active on issues I value. My main focus is to be an activist for securing equal legal rights for all persons through passage of the ERA as the 28th amendment. I volunteer with organizations such as ERAMNEqual Means Equal and ERA Coalition.

The ERA is even more important now as a legal foundation for equality because the pandemic and its consequences is having a greater impact on women and people of color, who are forced to leave or lose jobs as well as to manage childcare, education, healthcare, increased incidences of domestic violence, and low-pay service work in these strained times.

These “women’s issues” have not been adequately funded or supported since the founding of this country. To get there will take solidarity with other organizations and people with a shared vision of a more fair, just, and equitable world. Together we can be the change we seek. 

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3 replies
  1. Bonnie Hill
    Bonnie Hill says:

    What an inspiring story! You are a wonderful example of a person living out her convictions. I love your mother’s advice, which can be made into a motto…SHARE, WORK HARD, BE FAIR AND BE NICE! Thank you for all you do!

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