Three friends look back on how they got involved in the women’s movement
In 2011, Myrne Roe published the book, “Radiating Like a Stone: Wichita Women and the 1970s Feminist Movement,” which included essays by Liz Hicks and Gloria Bonwell, among dozens of others. Today, all three women live at Wichita Presbyterian Manor. This month, Myrne will be one of three honorees at the annual She Made a Difference banquet, presented by the Wichita chapter of the National Organization for Women. Liz was a 2015 honoree. For Women’s History Month, celebrated every March, we spoke with Myrne, Liz and Gloria about their experiences and activism.
Growing up in the 1950s, Myrne Roe knew that she wasn’t interested in the life of a homemaker like her mother, aunts and grandmother.“I knew that what I wanted in life was not what they had,” Myrne said. “I learned as I was growing up that something was missing for me because I was female.”
A college counselor laughed at Myrne when she said she wanted to go into law. Her career options were made clear: teacher, nurse or secretary. Thanks to an anonymous donor, however, Myrne’s education at Southwestern College was paid for, and she did become a teacher. But she also went on to a series of successful careers: newspaper columnist, playwright, chief of staff to Rep. Dan Glickman and Executive Director of University Communications at Wichita State, to name a few. And she advocated for the rights of women wherever she saw inequality.
When she was honored in 1998 with a brick at the Plaza of Heroines at Wichita State University, her husband, longtime Wichita Eagle columnist Jon Roe, wrote an essay detailing her storied life so far. “She fought inequality wherever she found it, which led to some strange battlefields,” Jon wrote.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, women still couldn’t get their own credit cards. Myrne was stunned to hear she needed her husband’s approval to get a Wichita Public Library card. Thanks to her efforts, the policy was abolished. She went on to serve as the first woman president of the South Central Kansas Civil Liberties Union and executive director of the local Planned Parenthood. She was the first president of the Wichita Commission on the Status of Women.
Privately, Myrne fought clinical depression at a time when no one talked about it. She and Jon were raising an adopted son, Matt, who had major hearing loss. Myrne was teaching at WSU, and she found a group of women who met once a week just to talk. “I remember bursting into tears because I was so relieved to know I was not crazy. That was a real awakening for me,” Myrne said. She would later write syndicated columns about depression that received national awards.
After she retired, Myrne began asking other women if they would like to contribute essays about the women’s movement in Wichita for a book. She quickly had 79 contributions from 69 women that made up “Radiating Like a Stone.” It remained on the bestseller list at Watermark Books for more than three years. Myrne also had three poems recently published in “Kansas Time + Place,” a poetry anthology.
Myrne said she’s pleased to be honored at this year’s She Made a Difference event, which is given in memory of one of her closest friends and fellow feminists, the late Colleen Kelly Johnston. When she looks back on her participation in advancing women’s rights, Myrne said, “I think it’s amazing what progress has been made, and it’s taken too long.”
A button that said “59¢” helped lead Elizabeth “Liz” Hicks into lifelong advocacy for equality and women’s rights.The button represented the pay gap; at the time, women earned 59 cents for every dollar a man was paid. Soon Liz joined the Wichita chapter of the National Organization for Women, led by her hot-air ballooning pal Diana Forshee. One year for Equal Pay Day, the group demonstrated at Wichita City Hall, giving men three-quarters of a pie while the women received a whole pie. She laughs about it even now.
To be sure, Liz was already aware of imbalance in the workplace. She became a pharmacist when the field was male-dominated. Only 18 out of 87 students in her graduating class were women. Liz recalls being the only woman at pharmacy seminars for many years.
Liz also advocated for seniors early in her career. While working in continuing care communities, Liz saw a lot of medication errors. So she developed new systems and standards for dispensing medication and medical documentation, to protect residents and educate employees.
Giving back to the community has always been a priority. Liz has served organizations including the Wichita Commission on the Status of Women, Wichita Academy of Pharmacists (including a term as president), and she has even run for state office. “There is nothing heroic about it,” she said. “It’s how I’ve stayed in contact with the things that matter to other people.” She also developed “Women You’ll Wish You Had Known,” a slide presentation and reenactment series with Liz portraying figures such as Elizabeth Blackwell and Louise Caldwell Murdock.
Today, you can trace the history of Liz’s activism and hobbies through the collection of buttons in her apartment. From marches on Washington, to campaigns for female candidates, to her love of hot-air ballooning, Liz’s buttons tell the story of a life dedicated to equality, community and a lot of fun, too. “We are building both where we live [home] and where we live [community],” she said. “Every chance someone gives you –take it! It can be exciting. It can be something new.”
One of Gloria’s daughters came home from kindergarten mad one day. She said only the boys were allowed to play with the set of big wooden blocks in her classroom. Later, when her daughter was in junior high, the boys were going on a tour of the Vo-Tech center. Gloria’s daughter wanted to go, too, so Gloria spoke up and got the principal to take girls, for the first time.
“As I advocated for her, I became aware of a lot of things,” Gloria said.
Like her friend Myrne, Gloria had dreamed of going to law school but became a teacher – and married a lawyer, Bill Bonwell. She went on to earn two master’s degrees, her second at age 58. “Learning is forever,” she said. Gloria worked to promote reproductive choices for women and desegregation of schools.
Once, her women’s studies instructor at WSU had the class write all the derogatory terms for women they could think of on a blackboard. Gloria said they filled it edge to edge. Then they repeated the exercise, but for men. They wrote about five. “That really did it for me,” Gloria said.
She also had noticed an imbalance of power at the school district, with men holding most of the better-paying administrative positions. For example, the school librarians were all women, but their boss was a man, and not even a librarian. She researched hiring practices in the Wichita Public Schools and was asked to present her paper at a hearing for Title IX, the federal law against discrimination by gender in schools.
“As I understand, they did investigate. I feel like it made a difference in their hiring processes,” she said.
Future generations owe a debt to women like Gloria, Liz and Myrne for breaking down barriers and improving opportunities for women. We’re so pleased to have these lively, energetic, caring women in our community.