By Shelley Hill Young
Jennet Robinson Alterman shares story after story, each incredibly moving: An older woman had been abused by her husband for years and was finally ready to leave. A woman needed clothes for a job interview. A woman needed a loan to start a small business. All the women asked for help and turned the assistance they received into a catalyst for changing their lives and those of women around them.
“It’s just a strong affirmation of how such seemingly small gestures can help positively impact an entire family,” she says.
Jennet has many more stories to tell.
She’s been working as a passionate advocate for women’s rights to have equal opportunities since she was elected lieutenant governor at Palmetto Girls State when she was in high school.
About 10 years later, Jennet volunteered for the Peace Corps and was assigned to Afghanistan. There, she says she saw firsthand the lack of human rights, and in particular health care, for women and girls.
“Seeing 12- and 13-year-old girls pregnant is a picture I couldn’t get out of my mind,” she says.
Her experiences at Girls State and in Afghanistan motivated Jennet to dedicate her life to making both small and larger gestures to fight for women to have access to affordable housing, to health care, to education, to living wages and to representation in government.
Jennet went on to work for the Peace Corps as a country director and in the D.C. headquarters for nine years. After returning to Charleston for family reasons, she served as the executive director of the Center for Women for 12 years, attracting the attention (and money) of Oprah’s Angel Network in 2005.
“I saw the potential for the Center for Women to be the go-to place for personal and professional development for women,” Jennet says. “Nothing like that existed here.”
Today, Jennet’s name comes up in conversations with just about every organization that works to empower women. She’s the chair of the city of Charleston’s Commission on Women and is the chair of the board of the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network, or WREN, a statewide organization based in Columbia. She’s a community adviser to College of Charleston’s Women’s and Gender Studies program, and she’s on the national Vision 2020 coalition, which is working to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote and to raise awareness about what still needs to be done to ensure women’s equality.
In June, Jennet taught a business networking class at the YWCA of Greater Charleston, and this month she’s helping to host a workshop aimed at advocating for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. She’s also founder and CEO of J. Robinson Alterman LLC, which offers consulting services to nonprofits.
“It sounds like I’m stretched thin,” Jennet says, “but all these pieces fit together.”
As the chair of the Charleston’s Commission on Women, Jennet was instrumental in getting City Council to adopt a resolution that supports the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls. Charleston was the first city in the state to adopt the resolution when city council did so in February.
“It gives us a platform to move forward,” Jennet says. She says the commission is now working with the city to potentially update its maternity and family leave policy. Other issues the commission hopes to address are the wage gap, affordable housing and representation on government boards.
At WREN, Jennet has been working to encourage the state Legislature to pass the Pregnancy Accommodations Act, which would require businesses to give pregnant workers reasonable accommodations, such as sitting on a stool rather than standing, so they could work further into their pregnancies and continue to earn income for their growing families.
About 50 years after she attended Girls State, Jennet sees an increasing number of women who are advocating for their futures and the future of other women and families.
“The momentum is happening because women and girls of all ages and stages are paying fierce attention to what is going on around them and its impact if they don’t come together and act.”
“There are threats to our basic human rights that we can’t ignore,” Jennet says. “If we do, shame on us.”