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NOW is the time
Janice Walker looks back at equal rights fight that started with Alice Paul
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Veronica Coons Great Bend Tribune Janice Walker, Great Bend, has spent many years encouraging voter participation and working for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. A member of several groups dedicated to these causes, she looked back recently on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to China during the Fourth World Conference on Women.

Janice Walker, 70 of Great Bend, has spent the better part of her life working to advance the cause of equal rights for women. As a member of the Great Bend chapter of the League of Women Voters, she serves as the State Voter Service Chair. She is also active in the Barton County Chapter of Women For Kansas. But, her efforts began 45 years ago when she joined the Calaveras County chapter of the National Organization for Women after she moved to California. 

“I wanted to have a positive influence on my life and others as a woman,” she said. “It seems in general women think beyond themselves. Like, “is everybody happy here? Not just me.” Right. So it would be very nice for more of them to be into politics.”

She was active throughout the next 20 years, and in 1995, NOW President Tricia Ireland invited her and two other members of her chapter to travel to Beijing, China. They went as delegates of the Citizen Ambassador Program, launched in the 1950s by the Eisenhower administration. 

The trip coincided with the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. 


China experience 

Looking back through her photo album from that trip, Walker ran across the transcript from a presentation she made to her chapter upon her return. It brought back memories. 

The American women she traveled with, 600 total, met with representatives from the China Women’s Association of Science and Technology and the All-China Women’s Federation from Aug. 26 to Sept. 2, 1995. They were provided VIP treatment, including tours of historical sites, sumptuous banquets, and highly supervised visits with the Chinese cohosts, all top professionals in their fields. Congregating in small groups, either with the Chinese or even their own group members, was not allowed. 

“After breakfast one day, Patricia Ireland was with our group,” Walker said. Ireland suggested the group go over the day ahead together. “We just sort of huddled, you know, out in the breakfast area. Right away, one of the guys taking notes about our groups came over and told us it wasn’t allowed.” 

While their cohosts boasted early on about their pride in the ‘supreme socialism’ of the People’s Republic of China having made great gains in the advancing of the status of women over the past 46 years, it was not lost on Walker that they were not yet true equals to Chinese men in the areas of education, employment and salary. Also, they were subject to forced abortions should they get pregnant without a permit. This, in a country that claimed to treat all people, regardless of sex, as equals. 

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Courtesy Pictured here is Janice Walker, (far right) with members of her Calaveras County NOW chapter in Beijing, China in 1995 during the Fourth World Conference on Women.
Famous suffragist wrote the Equal Rights Amendment

There, as here, change comes slowly, and gains must be defended as the fight for equality continues. Walker has been working on efforts with the Great Bend LWV and with WFK to encourage voting this presidential election year. This year is particularly special, she said, because it marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. She’s looking forward to seeing the live performance Saturday evening at Jack Kilby Square that will feature a historical actress bringing to life the legendary suffragist Alice Paul.  

“Alice Paul realized the right to vote wasn’t enough.” Walker said. “She actually wrote the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923.”

It states, simply, “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 ERA was introduced every year to Congress from 1923 to 1972 when it passed both houses and went to the states for ratification, according to the Alice Paul Institute’s website. NOW took up the cause and has been involved in the effort since its founding.

For Walker, the passage of the ERA is something she hopes to see, now that the 38th state, Virginia, has finally ratified it. This was the last of the three-fourths majority of states needed to make the ERA law. But, because Congress set a deadline that the ratification had to occur before 1982, there is a dispute over whether or not it should automatically become part of the Constitution. 

Some claim it is no longer relevant because the rights it grants are already incorporated in the Constitution. But, there is no question an amendment is needed to ensure women’s rights are secured, Walker said. 

“Why are we afraid of it?” she said. “Would men feel just as secure if it was the other way around?” 

In fact, of the nine points to consider listed at the Alice Paul Institute website concerning the ERA, one stands out as all encompassing:

“The Equal Rights Amendment would prevent a rollback of the legal advances women have gained. It is important to remember that as governments change from conservative to liberal, citizens, neither male nor female, should not be subject to lose their right to vote, their right to free speech, or any other of their constitutional rights due to a change of political opinion.”

A second point is the assertion that the ERA is not just for women, but also for men: “Issues of custody, employment, and fair wages are important to both sexes and an Equal Rights Amendment would guarantee equal legal rights without regard to sex.”

Walker is hopeful that younger people are getting fed up with the status quo, and are beginning to understand the power they have to be change makers. She sees the recent ruling by the Supreme Court including lesbian, gay, trans, bisexual and queer Americans as protected classes of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the ruling that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states, as signs that things are changing for the better. She believes young people will continue to make positive changes in coming years. 

“We need you to make sure there are equal rights for all,” she said. 

Performance kicks off March to the Polls

The Alice Paul presentation Saturday evening starts at 7 p.m. at the band shell at Jack Kilby Square and is free to all. It will be 45 minutes long, with a discussion and Q & A period to follow. It is made possible in large part thanks to a partnership between the Great Bend LWV and the Great Bend Public Library. The event is also doubling as a kick-off event for the March to the Polls League of Women Voters State initiative. The nine state Leagues have identified wards and precincts that are low voter turnout neighborhoods in their counties. With the help of partner organizations (WFK in Barton County), they will be encouraging better voter participation through car caravans. Here in Great Bend, they plan to focus on Ward 4, by spreading voter information and setting up a voter registration table at the Thursday evening Summer Street Stroll Farmers Market. A voter registration table will also be set up at the Saturday evening performance, and members of the Great Bend LWV will be on hand.