“The Women of Lees-McRae” discussion panel brings generations of Lees-McRae women together to reflect on their experiences

Women of all ages from Lees-McRae and Banner Elk gathered in Evans Auditorium Monday, March 28 for the Office of Inclusive Excellence’s second panel covering diversity and inclusion topics. This month’s panel, “The Women of Lees-McRae,” was held in honor of Women’s History Month, which takes place each year in March.

The women represented on the panel were multi-generational, multi-racial, and represented the three main sectors of Lees-McRae: students, faculty, and staff.  Having diverse panelists led to an interesting and enriching discussion about what it means to be a woman in the High Country and at Lees-McRae. Chief Diversity Officer Charles Gibson III hosted the event and served as moderator.

Jenny Harpold, director of the New Opportunity School for Women (NOSW), opened the evening with some words about the mission of this important local organization that was founded by Lees-McRae alumna Jane Baucom Stephenson ’57.

NOSW seeks to provide resources for women in the High Country who want to improve their circumstances and help their families. The school has a large clothes closet, provides a family-style meal each evening, and hosts classes, training, and counseling to help these women develop skills to become eligible for better opportunities.  

“In a week’s time Jane had created the grant, funded it, and started the New Opportunity School. In total over 900 women in the Appalachian region have been served by this program,” Harpold said. “When a woman comes on our campus, all her needs are met. It’s a time for them to reflect on what their life has been, but more importantly, what their life can become.”

As an incredibly important and meaningful part of women’s history at Lees-McRae, Harpold’s speech set the tone for the rest of the evening. The four panelists were Director of Summer Theater Janet Speer, representing the faculty experience; former Director of Advancement Services Frankie Ramsey Needham, representing the staff experience; and junior Emma Ryerson and senior Britney Augustin, both representing the student experience.

Each of the panelists shared stories about the relationships they have formed with other women while at Lees-McRae and the support and encouragement they have received from their professors, mentors, relatives, and friends .

“From the moment I stepped onto Lees-McRae campus I was greeted by women with open arms,” Augustin said. “The legacy of Susanna Lees and Elizabeth McRae lives on, because there are still women empowering women on this campus. We are still giving each other a hand and helping each other when we’re not feeling too well.”

The women talked about being inspired by those who came before them at the college, tracing the line of strong and influential women all the way back to the college’s namesakes. Lees and McRae were two women who founder Edgar Tufts found personally inspiring—Lees an important local donor and McRae an educator—and he honored their hard work in the community and in the world of education by naming the school after them.

“At the time it was probably really unique for the school to be named after two women,” Needham said. “I think that Edgar Tufts had an open mind. He did not care that they were women, but just chose to show appreciation for them because they were doing so much.”

While each of the panelists emphasized the supportive community of women that has been built here at Lees-McRae over the years, they also acknowledged some of the adversity that women have faced historically and even to this day.

The women spoke about dealing with poor leadership, discussed having their opinions discounted for being “too emotional,” and touched on the need for some women to fight to be heard and respected in the workplace.

“I think it’s important to know that I was privileged to be in a situation where women were treated well. I know that doesn’t always happen,” Speer said. “If I’ve learned anything as a woman it’s that everyone is equal, and you can’t constantly look for ways that people are treating you bad. If you’re looking for that all the time, you’ll find it. I know that’s easy for me to say because I had a good situation. That would be a lot harder to say if I had been in a bad situation. Sometimes you must be a warrior.”

As a Black woman, Augustin was able to provide a perspective that non-Black women may not understand due to the unique combination of racism and sexism that she experiences. She shared a personal story about an uncomfortable experience she had working at a local restaurant over the summer.

“In my experiences as a Black woman I have been stereotyped as the ‘strong Black woman,’ or people thinking that I have an attitude toward everything, and I have been sexualized in a way that I don’t care to be,” Augustin said, recounting an experience when a customer made a racist, sexually charged comment to her at work. “I got really offended by that and didn’t know how to react to it. There’s no proper reaction to that because if I had gotten angry and started yelling at him, I would’ve been stereotyped as the angry Black woman. If I had ignored him, it would make him think that’s okay.”

“The Women of Lees-McRae” was an excellent opportunity for women of different ages, races, professions, and backgrounds to come together and share their experiences with one another. The event led to a greater understanding of diverse experiences and world views, while still shedding light on the shared difficulties and triumphs that women go through as a whole.

“The Women of Lees-McRae” and future Office of Inclusive Excellence panels are live streamed on YouTube.

By Maya JarrellMarch 29, 2022
Campus LifeCommunity