By Marion Filler
Thirteen trailblazing Morris County women shared stories of pivots, pantsuits, and perseverance Sunday at Women First!, an event celebrating Women’s History Month.
Braving blustery cold on the steps of Morristown town hall, the speakers revealed candid and inspiring moments from their lives and careers.
They were introduced by Amalia Duarte, the first Hispanic mayor of Mendham Township and the first Democrat to hold that office.
Pushed back one day to accommodate the rescheduled Morris County St. Patrick’s Parade, the gathering was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Morristown Area, and co-sponsored by the Morristown Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and the Madison chapter of the American Association for University Women.
The afternoon also featured a dance piece set to poetry by young women from Dance Innovations, a Chatham group that won the 2018 Morristown Onstage competition.
Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty welcomed spectators. Morris Township Mayor Mark Gyorfy was among elected officials from both towns in the audience, which also included a representative from Rep. Mikie Sherrill’s office, and former F.M. Kirby Foundation President Dillard Kirby and his wife Adrienne.
PAGING DR. RUTH; BENCH-PRESSING 500 POUNDS
Some of Sunday’s stories were tinged with sadness. Caroline Icloo, a Morristown High School junior originally from Ghana, paid tribute to her mother who died when she was a child
Other speakers, like Donna Pepe, delivered one punch line after another as she described her rise to become the first female vice president at Johnson & Johnson.
Early on, Pepe was advised by her high school guidance counselor that if she didn’t want to be a teacher, nurse, or secretary, she should go to a college where pantsuits were allowed.
So she did. After graduation and several administrative jobs, she moved to an advertising agency, where she was recruited by J & J.
But it was her promotion of oral contraception drugs that ultimately put her over the top.
To advertise their efficacy, “I started doing things that were out of the box,” Pepe recounted.
She enlisted women’s rights heavyweights Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug as spokespeople. It was the mid 1980s, and Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s controversial radio show Sexually Speaking attracted two million listeners a week.
Noting that Dr. Ruth only mentioned diaphragms and condoms, Pepe put her straight.
“After that, all she talked about was oral contraception,” she said, to laughter from the crowd.
Morristown Administrator Jillian Barrick is the first woman and the first African American to hold that position in Morris County.
Barrick fancied a career in architecture, but after her first year at Georgia Tech, had a change of heart. She discovered city planning instead, interning and then working in East Orange. A series of jobs followed.
Noticed by the Obama administration, she was offered a position in Washington D.C. But before it was finalized, Barrick ran into her old boss, Mayor Robert Bowser of East Orange, who convinced her to come back to New Jersey.
It was another timely pivot. Barrick turned down what might have been a dream appointment, came back to East Orange, and eventually accepted the Morristown job.
“It was the right choice for me,” said Barrick. “I think the greatest level of government and the most important level of government is local government. We touch your lives every day,” she said, emphasizing the importance of working with others who share her passion for the community.
Heather Darling, elected as a Morris County Freeholder (now called Commissioner) in 2017, was appointed two years later as county Surrogate. She is the first woman in that spot.
Her mother died when Darling was 5 years old. She was raised by her father, who took her to boardroom meetings and left her with secretaries when circumstances required it.
“I was raised to be strong mentally,” said Darling. Physical strength was part of the mix. Gyms were not commonplace when she was a pioneer in women’s body building, working hard to eventually bench press 500 pounds.
“Being tough is what women’s history is about,” said Darling. “We have fought hard for our accomplishments.”
She described every woman on the program as a pioneer, competing for equal work, equal jobs, and equal pay.”The fight must continue,” the county official said.
‘GET COMFORTABLE BEING UNCOMFORTABLE’
Leslie Allen was one of the first African American tennis professionals, and the first Black woman to run a significant pro tennis tournament in 1981. In addition to coaching, she now is affiliated with West End Residential Real Estate in Morristown.
Her key to success: “Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
When faced with racism and sexism, Allen said, “discomfort is a daily thing, a given. When women step outside the norm of women’s roles, this is uncomfortable too.”
But she also knew what was necessary to change the tennis world and carve a path for players like Venus and Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens, and Coco Gauff.
“I got to center court in Wimbledon, I can help you buy or sell your house or be a better student athlete. You have to be willing to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and then you can change the world.”
Allen emphasized that such discomfort only pertains to breaking through glass ceilings. Women should not tolerate sexual harassment, she said.
Beth Krawczuk, a senior information technology specialist at LabCorp, is a strong advocate for getting more women into STEM. She is a programmer and web app developer, a male-dominated field she hopes to change.
“Marriage rates are declining for young people, which has significant implications for women especially,” observed Krawczuk.
“Technology defines the world around us. AI (artificial intelligence) is quickly taking over decision-making for health care, finance, pretty much everything. It is already gender- based.”
Krawczuk issued a wake-up call.
“Women need to take part in building this system to be represented fairly and accurately within it,” she said.
She believes women in the field must become role models. Working through the American Association for University Women in Madison, “I have chosen to make a difference for women and girls in my community. We can lift each other up and become stronger together.”
Carolyn Blackman is the first woman as well as the first African American mayor of Dover; she thinks she also may be the first in Morris County. Her motto: “Listen, Learn and Respect…if you can do that, you can lead,” she said.
She ran for town alderman in 2008 to fulfill a dream. “And then I decided in 2019, hmmm… I decided I would run for mayor of Dover.”
One of 12 children, she remembered being bundled into the family car to travel to Washington D.C. to march with Dr. Martin Luther King. His speech that day convinced her that she could be whatever she wanted to be. Yet it wasn’t always easy.
“I didn’t realize the challenges I had to overcome in 2019. I stayed in the race and I ran to win.”
HOCKEY RINKS AND WATER COOLERS
Donna Guariglia, is treasurer of USA Hockey, the first female officer in its 78-year history.
It began when her children started playing hockey at Mennen Arena in Morris Township. This led a board position with the New Jersey Colonials, and, in 2015, to USA Hockey, which she described as “the national governing body for all amateur ice hockey, from age 6 to the national and Olympic men’s and women’s and para-Olympic teams.”
“I’ve helped the development of female ice hockey players for over 30 years,” said Guariglia, relating how she faced “textbook comments” from the good old boys who dominated the sport.
“The problem never was- and isn’t now – with girls or women. The problem was with the environment and culture that needed to change,” she said, referring to sexual assault and molestation, mental health issues, pay equity and training, anti-doping, transgender opportunities, and a lack of diversity.
“Tenacity and determination of women will prevail just like it has throughout history,” Guariglia said. “Empathy and compassion are not our weakness, they are our power.”
Irene Treolar, daughter of Korean immigrants, is the first Chatham Borough Council President of Asian descent.
Although her family was traditional and patriarchal, “my parents both needed to work and my mother was my role model,” along with Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Treolar said.
She and her husband are attorneys, and have two children. Treolar credited her spouse’s views on partnership and gender equality with enabling her career. “Women must be role models for both boys and girls,” she said
Cindy Flowers and Kimberly Monroe represented the Morristown chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. Established 35 years ago by college women, the organization is committed to public service, with a primary focus on the Black community.
Flowers spoke about Minding My Black Owned Business, the Red Print exhibit on display through May in the Kirby Gallery of the Morristown & Township Library. It’s the fourth in Red Print’s series honoring achievements of African American women, including medical professionals and politicians.
Thie exhibit highlights female entrepreneurs such as Cathy Hughes, described as the second-richest Black woman in the United States. She founded the media company Radio One (now known as Urban One), and when the company went public in 1999, she became the first African-American woman to head a publicly traded corporation.
“Red Print refers to a physical fingerprint,” explained Flowers, “and the women in our exhibit faced adversity and left a permanent mark on the world.”
Ann Grossi, just the second woman in 284 years to become Morris County Clerk, also served for more than a decade as the first female chief of enforcement in the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights.
Women’s issues were of special interest to Grossi in that job. Changes she oversaw in the 1970s and ’80s are taken for granted today, she said,
Pregnant teachers no longer are forced to take two years of unpaid family leave. Dry cleaners are prohibited from charging more for women’s suits than men’s on the pretext of “more frills.” County clubs cannot exclude single women from joining. Mortgages and credit cards are available to financially qualified female applicants.
But sexual harassment remains a persistent problem, Grossi said. She recounted giving a talk about workplace harassment to an international company. Meeting a woman at the water cooler and asking her for a date is perfectly okay, she advised. But if the woman says no, it’s not okay to pursue her around the office and bother her every time she uses the water cooler.
“After I gave the speech, the president of this German company came up and said, ‘Well, we must have more water coolers.’ He totally missed the point.”
SIGNS OF THE TIMES
Leslie Bensley recently retired as the first executive director of Morris County Tourism Bureau. With few resources, she grew the agency into a driving economic force, helping to generate more than $2.3 billion annually for the region.
Bensley’s enthusiasm for tourism is undimmed.
“My mission was to put Morris County on the map,” she said, describing innovations that included joint promotions such as the Christmas Holly Walk and Revolutionary Times Fourth of July weekends, and historical walking tours.
She is especially proud of way-finding signs and dozens of pedestrian kiosks, “so you can always find your way to places that matter.”
Bensley reminded the audience about some of those places — the Ford Mansion,the Macculloch Hall Historical Museum and the Thomas Nast House. Morristown played a major role in the American Revolution and is birthplace of the telegraph. The American Craft Movement advanced at Craftsman Farms in Morris Plains.
She urged listeners to “help me by being an ambassador for this illustrious history, and keep putting Morris County on the map.”
The day’s talks resonated with 11-year-old Charley Meyer, who came with her parents, Elizabeth and James Meyer, and her sister, Penny, 9, from Branchburg.
“It’s cool that these people are speaking out. I’m certainly inspired by them,” said Charley, an aspiring fantasy author. One message stood out, she said. “The lady who played tennis: Be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”