AAUW: Remarks as prepared for delivery

I’m honored to be standing before a room filled with women whom I have long admired for their intelligence, generosity and resilience.

And, yes, I know that I’m supposed to come up front and re-introduce myself, give those of you who don’t know me a better understanding of what this event’s organizers have gotten you into. … I promise I will get to that in a minute.

First, I need to make a confession. This speech is the latest of many I’ve written for tonight. I penned the first one months ago, the day after I agreed to speak. That was January, before the theme of this event was chosen, and days before the presidential inauguration. When I came back to those pages, I found them to be passionate — oh my, were they passionate — but not very inspirational, inclusive or even entertaining. So I opened a blank page and started again… and again.

Then on Tuesday I ran into a friend and we spoke about how much we both missed Nancylee Ziese, a local activist who died this past February. On Wednesday, I hit a wrong key on the keyboard and suddenly I was staring at the email messages Nancylee and I  exchanged. There she was once again with her gentle prodding to “Keep on keepin’ on!” That’s just who she was — quick with praise, long on encouragement.

Thursday night I was at one of The Gazette’s Pints & Politics events. Once again I was approached by a woman who spoke about Nancylee. When I got home that night, I called Sue Jorgensen to confirm information about this event, and we wound up talking about Nancylee as well.

Perhaps, if I had been better tuned in, Nancylee wouldn’t have had to beat me over the head to get my attention. But since it seems that I’m not, it was 10:30 last night when I finally knew what I needed to say, and what I think you need to hear.

At one of my last lunches with Nancylee, we discovered something we had in common. When we looked back on our lives, deciding who among all the people we’d met had the most influence on us becoming feminists, we both credited our fathers.

So, for those of you who do not know: I am Lynda Waddington, a columnist with The Gazette and a member of the paper’s editorial board. I’ve covered Iowa politics for more than two decades and have been blessed — or perhaps cursed, considering your point of view — to chat with three Iowa governors, five American presidents and more presidential hopefuls, congressional candidates, members of congress, U.S. cabinet members, members of the statehouse, other state’s governors and assorted politicians than I can count.

But way, way back when … I was what my mother mistook for menopause. My mom was in her late 40s, my father in his late 50s when I was born. Before I turned five, dad was retired and drawing social security checks.

And while my arrival was a surprise, my father decided it was an incredible gift. He was also convinced that I’d be boy — but to his credit he never let ovaries or breasts dampen his plans.

He saw another child as an opportunity for something he’d never really had before, and something he very much wanted. He’d have time for hunting and fishing trips, and whittling and working on engines. He could spend time talking about his ranching philosophy — all true Southerners have one, by the way — instead of just going through the daily grind. In short, he would finally have uninterrupted time to spend with his child — and so he did.

And while I have no doubt that most little girls look upon their father’s with a sense of awe — my sense of awe has only strengthened with time.

Old photo of Lynda’s dad, E.W.

My Dad was born in 1916, the year the first woman was elected to Congress and four years before women earned the right to vote. He was five when the Tulsa, Oklahoma race riots broke — when about 300 black people were murdered and more than 8,000 were left homeless. The picture I have of him sitting on an old car and gripping a moonshine jug suggests he joined the fight against prohibition, but he always changed the subject when I asked. He witnessed Roosevelt’s New Deal and the devastation of the Dust Bowl. He bore the scars of World War II but, again, didn’t want to discuss it.

All these and other pieces of history, good and bad, were part of my father’s life, things he experienced directly and, despite having only a sixth grade education, somehow rose above.

My father made waves in our rural community when he hired black men, and paid them the same wages as everyone else. Our church pastor made a special home visit when it was learned that my father had hired a known alcoholic to help with home renovations. The pastor wanted my father to pay the man in food, saying money would simply be lost in a bottle. My father told the pastor that dignity, doing honest work for honest money, was also important.

But the thing about my father that most ruffled local feathers was — me. I was taken out with the road crew, allowed to keep company with black co-worker’s children and – gasp – brought to church in jeans and boots. I could out-fish and out-hunt most of the boys my age, and was baling hay as soon as I was strong enough to lift the bales. I shot snakes in the hen house, helped birth cattle and was taught how to do whatever chores needed to be done.

When I started school, both my parents told me education was my priority, and they spoiled me as rotten as they could with trips to the library, museums and historical sites. I cannot think of one activity during my school years where at least of my parents weren’t there. Not one.

When I was about 11 or 12-years-old, our church planned a tent revival. For those of you who have never experienced a revival of that sort — it is really held in big tents. Sometimes these are set up next to the church, other times they are on wooded or lake-front property owned by a congregant. People from all over are invited, and special guest pastors come in from miles and miles away to preach. Main services often take place a night or later in the day — especially when the revivals are held during the heat of summer.

I was taken to so many of these while growing up — usually stuffed between my brother and sister, a physical barrier intended to keep them from maiming each other. We’d sing, shout “Amen” at the visiting pastors and pray like there was no tomorrow. To be honest, I mostly remember praying for rain or a breeze because even in the evenings it was really hot in those tents.

The revival that summer was extra special for me because I’d been asked to sing a solo. I’d been singing in church for a few years, but this was going to be a really big audience. I was nervous and excited all at the same time.

My name was announced and I got up from my place in the makeshift pews. Our pastor welcomed me to the stage, handed me a microphone and the piano music began. I opened my mouth and sang in an absolutely petrified and wavering voice. I gulped and kept going. My eyes searched for and found my family.

Mom and dad, E.W. and Neta, and their four youngest children, (from left) Terrie, Gary, Lynda and Kenny.

My brothers, of course, were snickering. My sister was fixing the bow in her hair. But my dad was beside her, his arm resting across the back of her chair, his fingers tapping out the beat. He was smiling so big, and he had his legs crossed in that way he always did. And although I couldn’t see it, I just knew the boot up in the air was swishing up and down along with the music. I smiled back and sang louder, “Just a closer walk with thee.” And I swear to you that on that night in that revival tent I was channeling Patsy Cline.

Afterward I was jittery with pride and adrenaline. I hopped off the stage, headed right for my dad. I re-entered the makeshift pew and his arm was extended to me, beckoning me to hurry up so he could hug me.

My brother’s foot darted out so quickly, I had no time to react.

It was one of those moments when so much horrible is happening your brain can’t keep up and everything slides into slow motion. I was going down — in a dress that was likely to fly up and expose my rear end. And I wasn’t wearing tights. And I knew I’d have to suffer through classmates teasing me about not being able to walk in girl shoes.

When the full mortification sunk in, the world sped back up and my face hit. It wasn’t a soft thud. But it was immediately followed by the sound of about 500 people gasping in shock.

I lay perfectly still, praying I’d broken an arm or a leg — a serious injury might mitigate the teasing. Murmuring began and I knew I had to do something.

I popped up as quickly as I could, making sure to run my arms down my sides to push my dress over any exposed parts, and flung my arms in the air above my head. As loud as I could I yelled, “Tah-Dah!”

I’m pretty sure that’s when rain dropped off my Momma’s prayer list. My father stood, laced his fingers with mine and hooted with laughter. And my father’s laughter was contagious.

I was still holding my father’s hand as we made our way through the processional at the end of the long, hot evening. The line was slow — as it always was — but we finally made it to the end of the line and one of the visiting pastors chucked me under my chin, telling me, “Don’t give up, Buttercup.”

I think I would have been fine with the “don’t give up,” but the “buttercup” didn’t sit well. I had a name and a nickname and neither one was “buttercup.” But this was an adult, a very well known and respected visiting pastor, and I thought it would be disrespectful to correct him. Instead I mumbled something in return — I think it was that I’d keep trying — and waited while my father made his good-byes.

When we got outside, Dad brought me to his eye level. He asked what was wrong. I didn’t want to say, but finally relented and told him that I didn’t like being “buttercup.”

My dad said, “You found that belittling.” He wasn’t asking, just stating a fact. “Next time, you need to decide if you can live with those feelings, or if it’s worth saying something. You could have told him that your name is Lynda and that you’re no quitter.”

OK — I fudged that last part some. My father’s exact quote was, “You could have told him that your name is Tooter and that you’re no quitter.” Use your imagination about the nickname — but, trust me, it’s embarrassingly straightforward. It’s also a great example of how my Dad operated — he liked to dispense serious stuff in light-hearted packages.

So, why have I made you sit through this insufferably long sentimental journey? Things have changed, right?

Yes, they have. And, no, they haven’t. And neither happened immediately.

My father never missed an opportunity to tell me to be myself, to be proud of myself, or that who I was and what I thought was not only good enough, but important. He wanted me to be as fearless as he was, to always be comfortable in my own skin and confident in my abilities. It’s amazing to hear when your 12 — even better at 22 or 32. But, at least for me and most women, I think, much more difficult to put into practice.

My first job in journalism was a fluke — at least that’s how I thought about it for very long time.

My mother had been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer and I returned home to help my father care for her. At first we were told she only had months. Since my mom rarely did anything someone else told her to do, we should have known she’d never agree to an expiration date. She also didn’t like me — the daughter she’d raised specifically not to be a homemaker — playing one in her house. So, I needed a job.

I’d studied psychology and sociology and wanted to work as a school counselor or a social worker. I quickly found out those positions don’t open up very often and, even when they do, most required a master’s degree.

I was flipping through the help wanted ads when I saw a tiny one-liner: “Small town paper needs reporter.” The phone number was from my hometown and, when I called, the editor agreed to meet me for an interview at a downtown diner. He told me to bring “clips” and I had to call the journalism department at my former school to see what those were. Turns out he wanted writing samples. Cool — except that I had no newspaper writing experience. So instead I gathered up all types of academic reports and papers I’d written, stuffed them into a folder and headed to the diner.

What I remember is him sitting across from me in the booth, college reports fanned out across the table top. He liked that I was a local, and that I knew the lay of the land. That alone had prompted the in-person interview. But as he took in my college essays and reports, one of his hands came up and palmed down his face. His head rested in his hand for a few beats. Then he slowly and deliberately began to gather up the papers. As he tapped them on the table to align the stack, I was mentally preparing for the “thanks but no thanks” brush-off.

He thrust the stack toward me, but didn’t let it go. My eyes met his.

“I’m desperate, and you’re crazy,” he said. “I’ll see you Monday.” It was under those hallowed words that my career in journalism began.

That same editor took me under his wing and taught me everything. He came with me to my first city council meetings, spent hours teaching me how to write nonfiction that people might actually want to read. I won my first journalism awards that year — no one was more surprised than I was.

And, through it all — late night council and school board meetings, shooting photos at the football game, tracking legislation through the statehouse, uncovering corruption, documenting crime trends, being humbled by the people who allowed me to tell their stories — I knew I was where I was meant to be. The problem was I didn’t think I deserved it.

There was nothing I wouldn’t do to learn more. I attended everything I possibly could, absorbed all that I could. I even toyed with the idea of going back to school to get the degree I supposedly needed for the job I already had. I was always on the lookout for the amazing secret I’d convinced myself all my journalism-degreed co-workers knew.

Under it all and through it all, I was absolutely terrified. When would all of these people who had encouraged me, who had praised me finally discover that I was a fraud?

And, yes, looking back, I do realize how crazy that sounds.

Let me remind you that I’m Lynda Waddington. I’ve interviewed members of Congress, governors, presidents and more politicians than, truthfully, even I care to remember. I’ve have had words with Madeleine Albright and and sat down with Helen Thomas.

But out of of all of those credentials, do you know which part couldn’t have been said without a pause just two years ago? It is the first — the “I am Lynda Waddington” part.

I hadn’t yet taken my father’s advice — I hadn’t really embraced that I was worth saying something, worth defending.

There have been instances in my life that have made me woke, as the younger and hipper set likes to say. It’s a state of being awake, of having one’s eyes open in such a way that they never can possibly close again. I’m woke to my privilege – and my disadvantages. I’m woke to those around me who haven’t given up, who won’t give up – and those who seek to tear down. I’m woke to myself, my place in this community, and why I am – just as my father told me – valued and important.

Just as Nora Ephron — another incredible woman and inspiration for this speech — encouraged 20 years ago: I’m finally willing to take the stage as the heroine, not the victim, of my own life — whatever it is now, whatever it maybe tomorrow or 10 years from now. It’s a journey that can’t be completed on eggshells or in glass slippers.

Know that it is no longer my goal to be a lady. I learned the rules a long time ago, and have played by them for much longer. Now I’m interested in learning what happens when I purposefully bend a few.

We’ve spent this day exploring how we can come together. How we can make our voices heard, whether that is through newspaper columns, running for office or becoming the best in a field not known for its female leaders.

My life and career path hasn’t been majestic leaps from peak to peak to peak. My guess is none of yours have either. Or, if you are just starting out, I’ll predict you’ll skim across highs and battle like hell through some lows. It’s that way for everyone. If you don’t believe me, maybe we can get Hillary Clinton on speaker phone.

At the Women’s Equality Day event, I encouraged those present to waltz across the shattered glass ceiling. My teenage daughter informed me this was not just a little bit, but “totally” dumb. I asked her why and she said that if people go waltzing across a shattered glass ceiling, they’d all break through.

At first I laughed. If only it was that easy, right?  But later, I thought about what she told me. She said “people.” Not person, but “people.” Not woman, but “women.”

And, please don’t inflate her ego any further by telling her this, but I think my kid is onto something. And I think all of us, right here, right now are onto something.

End the call with Hillary, because this isn’t about her. It isn’t about me, or Nancylee, or Sue, or Jean, or Libby — It isn’t about any one of us, but about all of us at the same moment in time, with the same force of will, waltzing across that shattered glass ceiling and stomping the ever-loving, nearly-transparent, been-existing-entirely-too-long daylights out of it.

We’ve been dancing one at a time, each of us performing different steps.

The first cracks didn’t appear because of one woman; the ceiling didn’t ripple with fractures because of the next one woman.

It has to be a group effort.

And since I no longer consider my journalism career a mere fluke, I’ll let you in on one of the things I’ve learned: There’s not a single institution that isn’t petrified that we women will one day wake up to the reality that we are the majority. And this is especially true of political institutions.

But in order to get there, we need to be willing to follow my dad’s advice and own ourselves. So, I am Lynda Waddington, and every interview I’ve ever conducted in the statehouse or in the jail house I made happen. I hit the ground running, I worked tirelessly. Sure, I stumbled, but I surrounded myself with sisters, people like Nancylee, who grabbed my hand and pulled me forward.

Not only have I earned the resulting success, I’m duty-bound to share it. Not just with those who helped, or in honor of those who came before. I must especially share it with those not fortunate enough to have my father, or Nancylee’s father or the sisterhood so many of us enjoy.

There are women in our community right now who are suffering. Women who are working two jobs or more, relying on public transit, wondering how they are going to put food in their children’s stomachs. There are also women who, for someone on the outside looking in, have it all. They are on multiple local boards and commissions, quietly working on behalf of others and wondering when someone is going to notice. There are women all around us on every path in-between. Some juggling children and balancing careers; some doing time on the PTA, others doing time in the county jail.

All of them are gritty, generous, intelligent and resilient women who deserve to know that we’ve got their back — and we won’t give up and we won’t go away.

As I look around Iowa, I see women filled with the same passion that marked the very first speech I wrote for tonight. It’s passion that needs an outlet.

So local women are coming together — they really are — but they seem to be doing so with women that look and think most like themselves.

We see it in organizations like One Strong, which boasts strong women from predominantly minority communities working to tackle issues of inequality in terms of community violence.

We see it in newer organizations like the Cedar Rapids NOW chapter, or the ongoing work of women who became active through the massive women’s marches. They are tackling issues of inequality in terms of reproductive justice and sexism.

We see it in more longstanding organizations like this one and the local Leagues where women are coming together to tackle issues of inequality through education and mentoring. And through institutions like the Carrie Chapman Catt Center and 50/50 in 2020, where women are tackling inequality among elected officials.

And, what I want you to understand is the powers that be like it this way; they’ve benefited from women working this way.

When you look back to the turn of the 19th Century when some of the arguably biggest strides for women took place and where ones that would carry women through the next 50 years were born, what do you see? You see women of all skin tones standing as one. You see women from different social and religious backgrounds daring anyone to cross the same line in the sand.

When feminists were derided as “manly” those whom society viewed as more feminine stood taller, and draped their arm around whatever woman was closest. When they were attacked for affronting religion, those with strong religious stakes grabbed hands with whomever was closest and moved to the front of pack. When the powers that be attempted to break women apart by locking the most vocal in prisons, previously silent women roared in one voice of outrage.

We’ve forgotten, except in the most dire of circumstances, that we are all fighting to end the same thing — inequality. That doesn’t mean we stop being who we are, or that we all must hold the same level of passion for reproductive rights, gun rights, gay rights or whatever rights. It means we must remember how to work together. It means that we need to stop underestimating how much antagonism there is toward women, and how many people, even in 2017, would like to turn back time.

I hope you remember my father’s advice, dismiss what belittles and speak up.

When society hands a woman who’s been hurt on the job a pain killer and then later jails her and takes her kids away because of opioid addiction, I hope you take that personally.

When you learn that less affluent women right here in Cedar Rapids must walk home in the dark after work or school because this community refuses to invest in public transit that runs after 7 p.m., I hope you take that personally.

When neighborhoods are emboldened by elected officials to fight so that “those people” can’t have homes built in certain sections of the city, I hope you take that personally.

When any number of women who step up and run for elected office are held to a different standard, discussed based on their age or appearance, or dismissed as emotional, I hope you take that personally.

When elected officials decide its fine if only some women have access to legal and affordable health care, I hope you take that personally.

When you find out that your company is likely hiring men and women for the same job at different wage levels, I hope you take that personally.

Underneath it all is the persistent sentiment for women to go back.

So if you are battling for a safe community, for freedom of religion, for access to birth control, for affordable housing, for the right to bear arms, for equal pay — realize that you are fighting for equality.

Please don’t be the girl who reluctantly exits the church as buttercup. Don’t let it take two or more decades before you choose to claim and defend yourself.

Think about those who came before us and, please, don’t be content to merely pay it forward — leave a big fat tip.

I am Lynda Waddington, a writer, a daughter, a wife and a mom. And while I’m incredibly pleased to be standing before so many women I’ve long admired for their intelligence, generosity and resilience, I’m most looking forward to standing beside you, linking arms and rebuilding a movement that includes us all.

Let’s take it personally … risk falling face first between the pews … and never stop speaking up.

Remarks as prepared for delivery by Lynda Waddington to the American Association of University Women (AAUW) State Conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on April 29, 2017.