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When feminism had mystique

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A few weeks ago, I had a chance to talk with Mary Turner Lane, a pioneer for women's studies--and women's rights--at UNC-Chapel Hill. Gracious, elegant and poised are some of the words that come to mind in describing her, but somehow, they fall short of truly capturing her persona. There was something else about her--a home-grown toughness of mind that broke through the charm on occasion like bright beams of springtime sunlight.

We sat in the living room of Lane's home at the Carol Woods retirement complex and talked about the status of women at Carolina. Surrounded by tasteful furniture, artwork and long, slanting shafts of that same sunlight, I felt transported back to a time when face-to-face conversation mattered, when thoughts were carefully composed before being uttered, when discourse was, above all else, civil.

Lane, who was one of the first female faculty members at Carolina, the first director of women's studies and the creator of an award to honor outstanding student research on women's issues, bemoaned the lack of appreciation for history that she sees in many undergraduates.

"Many young people really believe that all the rights have been established," said Lane, 86. "They don't know that Title IX [the 1972 law prohibiting sex discrimination in education] could go at any time. They were brought up in two-parent working families and don't know the struggle of women for a career."

Later, she shared a story that summoned up an era when public debate--even about divisive issues--was a lot more gracious and poised. Lane's tale was set in the late 1970s, when women's rights activists were pushing for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. The soul of legislative brevity (it says, "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex"), the amendment won Congressional approval in 1972. But thanks to aggressive organizing by conservative, anti-ERA figures such as Phyllis Schlafly, it failed to secure ratification by three-quarters of the states.

North Carolina was one of those unratified states and at some point, a local debate was planned between Schlafly and feminist icon Betty Friedan, an outspoken leader of the pro-ERA forces.

Lane was assigned to meet Friedan at the Raleigh-Durham airport and take her to the event. When she arrived, she found the author and organizer, whom journalists were fond of describing as "frumpy," decked out in a dark suit and stylish jewelry.

"You look lovely," Lane recalls telling Friedan, because, she says, "I knew she hadn't been told that in a while."

She also recalls the answer: "I knew I was coming South," Friedan told Lane. "And I knew I had to look elegant."

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