“Harness anger and convert it into energy… keep marching forward.”
Mary Hopper first marched in the 1970s. Now, she’s in her 70s and still marching.
“I do it because I see the rights we worked so hard for being steadily eroded,” said Hopper, a beloved civic and political leader in Charlotte. She joined the National Women’s Political Caucus around 40 years ago, attracted by two goals: Put women in office and pass the Equal Rights Amendment.
Hopper recalled what it was like for women in North Carolina then:
- “I met a widow who told of using her dead husband’s credit card for a number of years only to have it canceled when she wanted it put in her name. The credit of a dead man was better than a live woman’s.”
- “If you wanted an abortion in North Carolina in 1971, you had to visit a psychiatrist and get a paper saying that having a child would cause you mental harm. And that was a step forward from the illegal abortions of my college years.”
- “In 1975, a very successful stockbroker friend lost custody of her children because her husband offered evidence that she had visited a psychiatrist.”
“And here we are almost 40 years later,” she said, “still having to fight for women’s rights.”
Hopper, a former public relations executive and longtime director of University City Partners, has worked to elect many women to political office. But she never got to celebrate passage of the ERA. North Carolina was one of 15 states that didn’t ratify the proposed amendment, which needed 38 states to be added to the Constitution. Hopper remembers every failed vote in the N.C. General Assembly as if it were yesterday: 1973, 1975, 1977, 1979 and 1981.
“Those close votes made North Carolina one of a handful of targeted states,” Hopper said. “Charlotte was always key, so we recruited pro-ERA men and women, ran campaigns and formed Political Action Committees. We quickly learned the value of having women at the table, as legislative men stalled and went back on commitments.
“North Carolina got visits from national advocates from ERAmerica, NOW and individuals like Alan Alda and Erma Bombeck. Erma’s famous quip summed up everyone’s thoughts nicely: “The ERA is the most misunderstood concept since ‘One Size Fits All’.
“In 1978, Charlotte held a ‘Suffragist Tea Party’ at Queens with Jean Stapleton and Liz Carpenter. Stapleton was at the height of her fame as Edith on All in the Family and Carpenter had been in the Johnson White House. It raised money and made us forget how tired we were.”
Hopper said she took the outcome of the 2016 presidential election personally. She blames herself for not doing more. “It was my fault for not telling younger women how things had been, and how easily rights slip away…. We’re fighting the same battles.”
She urges women to stay focused and not stay angry. “One thing I’ve learned is to harness anger and convert it into energy. Otherwise you burn yourself up. This way, we can keep marching forward.”
Mary Hopper is a retired civic outreach consultant, former Executive Director of University City Partners, and (self-proclaimed) aging, cranky activist.