Women's rights activist Susan Kelly-Dreiss recalls the day she was in Washington, D.C., to appear at a press conference that was shining a light on the issue of "domestic violence."
"I will never forget one the senators who attended said he thought he was attending a press conference about terrorism in our airports," she said. "See, at that point, people didn't even know what domestic violence meant."
Kelly-Dreiss was one of three inductees of the National Women's Hall of Fame who spoke with a few hundred students and community members during the "Come Talk with Great Women" event on September 30 in the Irene A. Bisgrove Community Theatre at Cayuga Community College in Auburn. College President Daniel P. Larson and Executive Director of the National Women's Hal of Fame Christine Moulton welcomed the guests; and co-sponsors Lisa D. Miller and Eileen Price of Women, Wealth, and Wisdom served as the moderators of the event.
Kelly-Dreiss candidly described witnessing her father beat her mother throughout her childhood in Pennsylvania. "I remember going with my mom when she was seeking help, and the police would say that there was nothing they could do to help. The priest told her that 'she got married for life.' The family doctor was the most helpful, and he would sometimes take us away to be safe for a few days."
Those early experiences led Kelly-Dreiss into more than 30 years of advocacy on behalf of battered women and children. The highlights of her career are impressive. In 1976, Kelly-Dreiss lobbied for passage of Pennsylvania's first domestic violence law, and later that same year, she co-founded the nation's first domestic violence coalition‚ the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV). She was a founding member of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and has played a key role in drafting federal legislation including the Federal Violence Prevention and Services Act and the Violence Against Women Act.
For former Goodyear Tire manager Lilly Ledbetter, the motivation to become the "poster child" for equal pay arrived when she found a slip of paper that listed her and three fellow managers who all did the same job but for a dramatic difference in salary.
"It was never about the money," said Ledbetter who wore a bracelet that read "Don't settle for less". "I had to stand up because it was not right. It was illegal."
After Ledbetter discovered that she had been paid considerably less than her male colleagues, she filed a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and later initiated a lawsuit against Goodyear alleging pay discrimination. Although a jury initially awarded her compensation, the Supreme Court ruled that Ledbetter could not receive any money because she had filed her complaint more than 180 days after receiving her first discriminatory paycheck. Since then, Ledbetter has continuously lobbied for equal pay for men and women; her efforts proved successful when President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law in 2009. A book, Grace & Grit expected to be released in February 2012, details her decade fight for equal pay; and she is reviewing an offer for a possible movie version as well.
The final speaker, 88-year-old Helen Murray Free, said she had no idea what her male counterparts were making at the Miles Laboratories in Indiana, where she worked as a chemist and researcher for the company who made such medicines as Alka-Seltzer. In fact, at that time, there weren't many male counterparts, as America was involved in World War II so most of the men were serving in the military in some capacity.
"I fell in love with chemistry and have loved it ever since," Free said. "Once you find out the joy of discovery, you'll never let it go. I want to convey how much fun science can be and encourage our young women to consider it as a possibility. The span of careers is enormous in the sciences."
Free conducted research that revolutionized diagnostic testing in the laboratory and at home. Free is the co-developer of Clinistix, the first dip-and-read diagnostic test strips for monitoring glucose in urine. Along with her husband, Alfred Free, she also developed additional strips for testing levels of key indicators for other diseases. Today, dip-and-read strips make testing for diabetes, pregnancy, and other conditions available in underdeveloped regions of the United States and in foreign countries. Free is the recipient of numerous awards, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation and the American Chemical Society's 66th National Historic Chemical Landmark designation (2010).
All three women challenged audience members to stay informed on political, social, economic, and educational issues; and to take action to improve their piece of the world.
"Remember one person can be a poster child for an issue," Ledbetter said. "We have a voice and we have a vote."
Free and Ledbetter will officially be inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame October 1 in Seneca Falls. Kelly-Dreiss was inducted in 2009. For tickets and information, visit www.greatwomen.org.