The podcast host and longtime women’s rights advocate talk about high school, their moms and the moments that made them activists
Compiled by Shelley Hill Young
Photography by Libby Williams
Jennet Alterman is a longtime women’s rights advocate. She’s the chair of the city of Charleston Commission on Women and the board of the Women’s Rights Empowerment Network, or WREN, a statewide organization based in Columbia. She’s also a community adviser to College of Charleston’s Women’s and Gender Studies program.
After returning to Charleston where she graduated from high school, Tamika Gadsden quickly became a voice for black women and marginalized groups. She organized the 2018 Women’s March in Charleston, founded the Charleston Activist Network and hosts the Mic’d Up podcast.
Skirt recently invited the two powerhouse women to get together to talk about the need to balance the gender equality equation. During the candid conversation, Jennet and Tamika opened up about their experiences with racism and sexism, and while they are vastly different, the two women learned similar lessons about the need to build bridges and push for change to help all women.
Tamika: When you have those conversations and you have someone like me who identifies as African-American, who identifies as cash poor, it’s about intersectionality. So to even approach equality, we first have to acknowledge those identities and try to repair that and bring them as close to parity with our other female peers and counterparts, so at first acknowledging, not trying to be colorblind. …. Acknowledge the separate identities that make a person who they are and also what kind of systematic barriers they face, and try to build bridges to help overcome those barriers. … It requires us to reach across communities and work with other like-minded women, but we can’t talk about equality without first talking about intersectionality. … It doesn’t mean that white women don’t have barriers. Women do. Women, period.
Jennet: I did the REI (Race Equity Institute) training. I’m a history major, and I sat there and I went … “None of this was (discussed), I mean none of this.” And now I see how it’s a cumulative institutionalization of racism and sexism. They work hand in hand. … There was one quote that I just had spinning in my head. We talked a lot about white privilege. Somebody said, “White privilege doesn’t mean that you don’t have it hard, but at least the color of your skin doesn’t make it harder.” There’s just as many poor, uneducated white women … Single mothers who face the same issues that black mothers do, but they are still ahead of the game because they’re white and they have a better chance. … I have to say I didn’t grow up with that theory, growing up in segregated Charleston. … Then when I became a Peace Corps volunteer and went to Afghanistan and saw the rainbow of skin colors from Irish white to Nubian black, but they were all Afghans, and there was no discrimination that I could see, so when I came back to the States, it was like, you’ve got to do something to take care of this, you got to at least get people talking about it.
Tamika: With me, I come from a two-parent household. My parents have really good jobs. My mom worked in health care for the bulk of her life, her earning years. My dad had a great union job at a factory or a warehouse in New Jersey and we were raised in a nice home in a cul-de-sac in New Jersey. … It wasn’t until I had to finish high school in Charleston that I realized, “Oh, segregation is real.” All my years of school in New Jersey were my friend Tarik from Egypt, my friend Naomi from Korea, my friend Uy from China, you know Jignesh from India. You come down here and I sat in the middle of the lunch room reading my John Grisham “Rainmaker.” The black kids over here. I didn’t speak Gullah. I didn’t understand it. And the white kids over there. I had never seen anything like it. That was in ‘96. … I didn’t even get to the quality of the education. That was a whole hurdle. Teachers not committing my name to memory, telling me it would be better to work with my hands because I wasn’t smart enough to go school. … Thank God the Internet happened because I went to the library and I applied to all my colleges by myself … because the teachers really would not help me. That was when I realized how bad racism was. This is in the ‘90s.
Jennet: Well, I’m 180 degrees away.
Tamika: You have an open heart, though. You’re always listening.
Jennet: What I experienced a lot of the minute I got out of high school was sexism, I mean rampant, rampant sexism. I went off to college and I had an opportunity to go to an all-male college. They wanted a few women to come to see if women could handle the academic load, so they weren’t going to admit us. … None of us made below a B the first semester, so they decided oh, well, maybe women could handle this. We weren’t allowed to stay. We had to go back(to Mary Baldwin University) after one year, but I’ll give you the story that I tell that showed me that there was a way forward. I went (to Davidson) because they had an excellent history department, and I was a history major, and I wanted to take a particular course in English constitutional history and there was a very old professor, very old and very white, and I was the only woman in that class and I sat on the front row. I had the gonads to sit on the front row, and I didn’t know anybody else in the class. I got to know them all really well. And the first day he was calling roll. Mr., Mr., Mr., Mr., Miss Robinson, I mean spat it out there, like you worthless turd, what are you doing in my class, and I said, “here.” He started teaching, and he got about 15 minutes into it, and he turned around and he looked at me and he said, “Miss Robinson, What is the basis of the salic law?” Well, you know you get that clutch. I knew that I knew it, but I couldn’t remember the specifics, so I said, “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know.” He asked the guy sitting to my left and he said, “I’m sorry, Dr. Lester, I don’t know.” Then he asked the guy sitting to my right. He said, “I’m sorry, Dr. Lester, I don’t know.” And then he asked some smartass in the back of the room, who said, “Oh, that’s where women couldn’t inherit the throne,” and I knew it had something to do with women. I want you to know that those two men on either side of me did know and they saved me, you know? One of them, I introduced to my best friend and they’ve been married for 27 years. …
Tamika: That was a moment.
Jennet: That was a moment for me and I didn’t expect it. … This is the ‘70s. … I am embarrassed to say that race wasn’t something that I thought a whole lot about until my junior year in high school and the medical university nurses aides went on strike. Do you know about this? This was in 1969.
Tamika: When Coretta (Scott King) came down.
Jennet: Coretta came down. Mary Moultrie, who was local, she was one of the nurses aides. And the medical university was right there on Ashley Avenue, just that quad, and I’m over here at Ashley Hall, which is one block away, and the National Guard set up tanks in front of Ashley Hall. All I knew was that there was a strike, and we had a three-month curfew during the height of tourist season because at the time, before air conditioning, the tourist season was March, April, May, when the camellias bloom, the azaleas bloom. So by going on strike and then prompting the curfew, they were making an economic statement, which got people’s attention, so there was a push to solve that equation, and it was because the African-American women were paid less than the African-American men, who were paid less than the white women, who were paid less than the white men. … But I didn’t know that Coretta Scott King came, I never saw any of the marches because we were completely isolated from it.
Tamika: That’s how it works, though.
Jennet: Yes, it is. To go back to how women start movements, Mary Moultrie all by herself created a movement here. Unfortunately, she didn’t get a lot of help from the white community, but she got it done. …. So that was my intersectionality. Here I am at this private all-girls school, and I’m finding out what’s going on a block away because women have said, “We can’t live this way.”
On the role their mothers played in their lives:
Tamika: I look at my mom who would never call herself a feminist. She’s not against it, she’s just a country bumpkin.
Jennet: Excuse me, she raised you.
Tamika: She truly is the most fierce feminist I’ve ever met. She left one marriage with two kids on her own, relocated to the Bronx and then to New Jersey, brought her sisters up to help watch after the kids here so she could pursue a career. She tried working in a factory and learned, “Oh, this is a limited salary, let me become a nurse’s aide or something like that.” She learned really quickly about racism, but she powered through her nursing class. She did it as a single woman because she kept saying, “If I don’t work, I can’t do, I can’t provide.” … When you see women working, earning, that’s when you’re like “OK, she’s empowered.” My mom could do anything.
Jennet: Can I share with you my mom’s story because they are different but they are the same? My father ran the community theater here, the Footlight Players, and they got married in 1950 and started working with them in the 1930s, right after he got out of college. And when they got married, Dad said … – there was still a lot of suspicion around theater people of not being of the highest morals and this kind of stuff – and he basically said to my mother, “We need to live like a preacher and his family.” Mom was fine with that, although she was a bit of a bohemian, and she wanted to go back to work, and he said, “no,” so she started writing. She started writing plays, which were then produced at Dock Street. She then started writing mystery novels with her friend Nancy Stevenson, who was the first woman ever elected statewide, lieutenant governor. So (it was) her way of saying, “I won’t go to an office, but I will sit right here in my little studio, and I’m going to write books and I’m going to publish them and I’m going to make – not a lot of – money.” But that was her way of saying, “No, you can’t tell me that.” And they never would have discussed it at that level, and I didn’t figure it out until years later. … She was a role model for me in that you can do things outside of the box.
On the importance of education:
Tamika: Education and economic mobility, those are the things that free women up. It liberates so many people living on the margin. Education and economic opportunity, and I think that’s what I’m looking to hear from those who want to lead in South Carolina. … Education and equal pay, those things are going to impact girls really hard, and they are going to impact people living in the margins. It’s all about giving the tools.
On the Equal Rights Amendment:
Jennet: Someone said to me the other day, ‘Why are you still working on the ERA?” and I said, “Because we don’t have it. We do not have equal rights under the law.”