Nancy Grasmick was walking through the halls of a Baltimore County school with a male colleague when a little boy stopped them.
The boy asked her colleague, the school principal, who asked who was the woman with him?
The principal replied, “Well, she is actually my boss.”
The little boy thought that was very surprising.
Grasmick, who became the state’s first woman superintendent and served in that role for 20 years, recalled the exchange as she spoke this summer about her leadership journey: “Even the children had a perception that the principal would be a man,” she said.
Being a “first” wasn’t easy but ultimately paved the way for many women to become local superintendents and even rise higher, like the current leader of Maryland’s schools, Superintendent Karen Salmon.
Now, Grasmick is working to start women’s leadership initiatives at Towson University and the Kennedy Krieger Institute, where she is the first female president of the board of directors.
In 2020, Maryland has many women leaders who are at the top of their organizations and have legal protections women did not historically have, but they are still working hard to ensure that all women have economic equity, equal rights, access to justice and a seat in the boardroom.
“In many ways (in the past) it was bigger issues compared to today, but I think the challenge, then, is that today it can be more insidious the things that we’re trying to fight,” said Michelle Siri, executive director of the Women’s Law Center of Maryland. “Because people say, ‘Oh look, you’ve got everything. You can wear pants, you can choose whatever name you want.’ So it’s a much more subtle and nuanced issue.’ ”
The center fought for women to be able to work during pregnancy in the 1970s and this year supported a bill that will prevent employers from making salary offers based on salary histories, which can perpetuate unequal pay gaps, Siri said. The center advocates for policies to make equal pay for equal work happen — eliminating loopholes for retaliation clauses and asking for greater transparency so women can demand equal pay. Economic security for women, including different races and immigrants, will help ensure justice for women too, she said.
Inheriting a passion for the rights of women, good of all
Looking back, one of the women who marched for the right to vote was Frances “Toni” Draper’s grandmother, who at that time was co-founding what is now the largest African-American sorority in the United States. The 22 members of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority marched together in 1913 in the Women’s Suffrage Procession with 5,000 other women, Draper recalls proudly.
Today, Draper is carrying on that legacy as the publisher of media company AFRO in Baltimore.
“It’s something I’ve grown up with in terms of being aware and sensitive to and advocating for the rights of women,” Draper said.
This year, AFRO released “To the Front,” edited by Draper’s niece Savannah Wood, about the history of how Maryland and Washington’s black suffragists fought for the right to vote.
“Black women have always been at the forefront of voting rights for women,” Johns Hopkins University historian Martha Jones said in the book. “And long after white women moved on to something like an Equal Rights Amendment, Black women kept at voting rights for women, for themselves, for men, for everyone. And that’s why I call them the vanguard, because they are always leading and they are always holding the bar high for this country.”
Today, Draper at AFRO is calling for women to help mobilize voters and hold elected officials accountable. She also believes women should sit on more boards of publicly traded companies, lauding a recent Maryland law “Gender Diversity in the Boardroom,” requiring reporting on the gender makeup of boards.
A seat at the table
Former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who was the first woman senator to be elected in her own right in Maryland, said that women like her were often viewed as a novelty. But over the years, more and more women have kept coming and adding value in their communities, she said in a recent interview about The Daily Record’s Top 100 Women.
“We often say we want to be at the table,” said Mikluski. “Congresswoman (Shirley) Chisholm, who I got to know when I served in the House, said ‘You know, if you walk into a room and they won’t give you a seat at the table, bring your own folding chair.’ ”
But there is still more to be done.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh is one of 19 attorneys general who have joined a court fight arguing for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, which says people must be treated equally under the law regardless of gender. The ERA was passed by Virginia earlier this year, giving it enough states for ratification. But a fight over a deadline for ratification that was included in the original bill is underway.
In Baltimore, the fight for economic equality is ongoing, according to Caryn York, chief executive officer of the Job Opportunities Task Force. She said women are also lacking the necessary support that will help them thrive in the workforce.
York said the current pandemic highlights the need for supports like the Maryland Healthy Families Act, which gave paid leave to workers who need to care for their family members or themselves.
“Now we see that something like paid sick leave is not something that should be considered a luxury, but just a given, a standard for all workers,” York said. “We see how this issue is much more pronounced in the midst of a pandemic, a public health emergency.”
She is calling for expansions to the law to allow workers 14 days to quarantine if needed, and possibly more to recover from longer-lasting sickness.
Grasmick, now a presidential scholar at Towson, considers the long, hard path to equality as a journey. She notes it took 72 years of hard work for women’s right to vote being upheld in the 19th Amendment.
She now sees so much potential in the students in Towson’s Women’s Leadership Program who are reaching out for opportunities.
“And they want to embrace these challenges, they’re not intimidated by it, and I am in awe of these young women,” she said.
|This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Women Who Lead: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Women Who Lead (formerly Path to Excellence) magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Women Who Lead.|