LEWISTON –The annual March commemoration of Women’s History Month has Myrna Young looking forward to the day when there’s no need for such a thing.
“I’ll be glad when we don’t have to have a Women’s History Month,” said Young, executive director of Everywoman Opportunity Center, where she has worked for 35 years. “While much progress has been made – not enough.”
The center, with branches in Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Olean, Dunkirk and Tonawanda, was founded in 1978, shortly after the State Legislature passed an amendment to the state labor law mandating services for “displaced homemakers.”
Many of Everywoman’s clients are in need after the end of a relationship with a man – through death, divorce or breakup – who supported them financially. Or they must find work after a husband loses a job or becomes disabled. These women need help launching careers because taking care of a family at home doesn’t always lead to conventional resume ingredients.
Now, some 1,200 clients annually get support finding jobs and a career direction with guidance from Everywoman’s staff of 12.
In recent years, when budget and funding permits, staff numbers have climbed to 25 which then allows the centers to serve closer to 2,500, said Young.
“What we do is we help them devise a five-year plan,” she said. “Then we provide lots of resources and support for reaching those goals.”
In her view, there are still a lot of changes to be made to improve women’s history in the years ahead. While women make up about half of the population, they don’t hold half of elected offices or hold a representative share of other positions of power in the country, Young said.
“Neither do women make equitable salaries as men,” she said. “We still don’t have family-friendly workplaces everywhere.”
Flexible hours and accessible child care would, she said, be an improvement. For now Women’s History Month is an important way to highlight women’s issues, such as the fact that there is no federal policy on family or children that could encourage such things as paid pregnancy leave for both parents and covering child care needs while parents work.
“For one thing it has been shown that when women are involved in the highest levels of business, that business does well and makes more money,” Young said. “So we, as a country, need to use all of our talent.”
Can you tell me about a woman in history whom you admire?
I would have to say Elizabeth Cady Stanton. A woman suffragette, right out of Seneca Falls, put her life on the line to get you and me the right to vote. She and several women who were jailed and vilified and threatened and force-fed, and all kinds of things, for me to pull a lever and vote for who represents me. I will forever be grateful for their sacrifice.
You say the U.S. doesn’t have a family policy. Doesn’t the Family Leave Act count?
That only works if you’re working for a company that has over 50 employees, and it’s still unpaid. That’s just one bill. It’s not like a national policy.
Is there anything else that you think is working well?
Title IX. It’s a positive. Requiring colleges and high schools to provide equal facilities for sports for girls is a great move forward … How to be a member of a team. Often young boys get that experience playing sports.
Can you tell a story about a woman who was helped by the center?
At our event last night, I met a woman who came to our center in 1978. She said that she remembers very well the day that she went to the Everywoman Opportunity Center. She was welcomed, and they took her resume, sent it out, got her an interview, and she got the job, a better job, that started her career that basically lasted the rest of her life. She was just telling me that Everywoman had gotten her start that made everything possible. We take people where they are and, mutually with them, plan where they want to go.
What led you do to this kind of work?
When I was young, my mother, who also was a homemaker, her kitchen was the gathering place for the neighborhood, and often I would be doing my homework and listen to the conversations.
During a fairly short period of time, I heard two stories. One was a woman in our neighborhood who had a couple of children and was in her late 40s, and her husband had suddenly told her he was no longer in love with her and was getting married to somebody else.
She was crying in my mother’s kitchen about how she didn’t know what she was going to do. She had never held a paid job, and she didn’t know what she was going to do.
Not too long after that, another woman, this woman was in her 50s, had been widowed suddenly by the love of her life, and her husband had not prepared for that. There was no insurance, and she was very upset, telling my mother she was going to lose her house. She couldn’t afford to pay. She had never managed a checkbook. She, too, was saying she didn’t know what she would do.
I remember thinking how unfair that was that both of these women had done everything that our culture had asked them to do. They had married, had 2.3 children, had been homemakers, volunteered in their community, went to church regularly, were good friends and neighbors, and all of the sudden they were not rewarded for that choice but punished for it.
It was really, in some respects, life-changing. It made me angry, it was so unfair. So unfair.
You grew up in the Southwest and El Paso, Texas. What brought you to this part of the country?
Following a man. I was married for about 20 years. I fell in love with Western New York, and he didn’t. My father was in the military when I was growing up, so we moved around a lot.
I always had a list of everything I liked, and Western New York fulfilled almost all of them. Being on an international border brings around a wonderful flavor. Being around water. Having seasons. That within an hour you could be in New York City and Toronto. Within an hour, you could be anywhere doing almost anything.
And then there’s the people. Western New York people are friendly and giving. They’ve always answered the call.
In my time at the Everywoman Opportunity Center, there’s never been a time when a participant woman was in need, whether that need be a stove, clothing in a hard-to-find size or a small amount of money to do something needed like buy a pair of steel-toed shoes for her job, that when we put out that need in the community that someone didn’t respond and fulfill it.