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By: Thomas Carson

In Honor of Women’s History Month: Mary K

Among the first class of women to graduate from University of Illinois and a gentle force of nature.

Women’s History Month, a time to recognize contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society, got me thinking about my grandmother. Born Mary Katherine Schwartz in an Illinois pioneer town in 1886, the aftermath of the Civil War, she was something of a “gentle” force of nature. Among other remarkable achievements, Mary K, as she was known, was one of seven women who were in the first class to graduate women from the University of Illinois in June 1907. In addition to being well-educated (maybe in spite of it), Mary K was a font of practical common sense learned from growing up, and then raising five children of her own, in a largely rural environment. From the perspective of a young kid, she was a steady woman who “did not suffer fools lightly”, as the saying goes.
She was also one of those people who influenced the behavior of others, not through coercion or bullying, but by conducting her own life with dignity and grace in such a way that inspired admiration and respect in those around her.

I have met women, and men, who believe that the way to effect change is to make lots of noise, cowing those whom they wish to influence into submission through intimidation. Perhaps that works, but I am not sure that kind of change lasts beyond the departure of the perpetrator.

I am not sure how much I consciously took from my grandmother – I was still young when she passed. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” Maybe that is the case for me. I do know that when raising three daughters of my own, we rarely talked about what they couldn’t hope to achieve. Instead, we talked about what they needed to do to accomplish the goals that were important to them, which almost always came down to the disciplines of focus and work. Did they experience gender discrimination growing up – most likely, but they did not let it define them or their limitations, and, much like their great-grandmother before them, they have each developed their strengths and found their successes in the world as it is. And I could not be prouder of them all!

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