Wendy Marsh, director of the Buncombe County Council on Aging, says that of the 38,000 people in Buncombe County aged 65 year or older, 63 percent are women -- most of them living alone and 19 percent living in poverty. Katy Nelson/Carolina Public Press

Advocate: ‘We need to be on our toes’

More than 40 people attended the N.C. Women United Assembly for Buncombe County and Western North Carolina, held at the YWCA in Asheville on Saturday, Sept. 22. Click to view full-size image. Katy Nelson/Carolina Public Press

At the biannual Buncombe County/WNC Women’s Assembly held on Saturday, 10 leaders of regional and Asheville-based organizations previewed a statewide study of women’s conditions and spoke in support of women’s issues and advocacy.

About 40 women and a man attended the assembly, which was held at the YWCA in Asheville, one of the 30 member organizations of the progressive coalition N.C. Women United. Speakers addressed issues in the N.C. Women United legislative agenda, including access to healthcare, civic participation and equality, economic self-sufficiency and violence against women.

Advocacy on these issues have been challenges in years past. Kathleen Balogh, western director of the N.C. Council for Women, pointed to the 2011 General Assembly report card. Only one bill of 18 supported by N.C. Women United passed. Two failed, and three are pending.

“These are the results we are up against,” Balogh said. “We need to be on our toes to see what (new) challenges there will be to current law.”

Statewide study on women’s conditions underway

The assembly reviewed a preliminary summary released in August of this year’s Status of Women Report [PDF]. The N.C. Council for Women and Wells Fargo funded statewide research that focused on metropolitan areas, and Women for Women, a giving circle of The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, and the Mountain Area Health Education Center’s Department of OB-GYN added funds to include rural Western North Carolina-focused research.

The report, conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research, was last done in 1996.

Since the 1996 report, researchers say N.C. women have achieved higher levels of education than men, but continue to be paid less. Early findings from this year’s report, which will be fully released in October, stated that N.C. women earn 83 percent of men’s earnings compared to 79 percent nationally. According to the researchers, the median, full-time salary for women is $33,000 compared to $40,000 for men.

“I don’t think it’s totally different from 1996,” Balogh said.

The study also compiled available data on topics including education and job training, economic autonomy, financial education and health.

For example, researchers found that though 66 percent of women with children under age five are in the workforce, the cost of childcare remains more expensive than the average annual tuition and fees for a public four-year college in North Carolina.

Sandra Abromitis, an advisory committee member of Women for Women, said the report is long overdue. Progress on the issues discussed Saturday was discouraging, she said.

“I’ve been working on some of these issues since my early 20’s,” she said. “Now it seems like we’re going backwards.”

Creating statewide legislative goals

But organizers also reminded participants that the assembly was non-partisan.

“We are about advocating for issues, not people,” Balogh said.

Peggy Heilig, a director at large for N.C. Women United, said the comments made at the Buncombe meeting will be forwarded to the state organization.

“That helps to inform the legislative agenda and advocacy on these issues,” she said.

After receiving feedback from the assemblies occurring across the state, N.C. Women United will craft a “Women’s Legislative Agenda” to be presented to the N.C. General Assembly on Women’s Advocacy Day, in March.

There is a lot to choose from.

The ongoing effort to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, reproductive rights, immigration issues, campaign finance reform, affordable childcare and the effect of redistricting on the makeup of the General Assembly were among the topics discussed by attendees, who were mostly from Asheville.

After hearing the speakers and their calls to action, audience members had to make up their minds about which issues to support. The assembly’s organizers requested attendees commit to advocating for three issues presented during the meeting.

Heilig encouraged the audience to “not just be engaged and passionate, but to be informed.”

Katherine Hensley, an attendee who works in healthcare, among other areas, said after the meeting that she wanted to get more involved, to advocate for accessible healthcare, economic self-sufficiency and eliminating domestic violence.

She said the assembly encouraged her to “get educated” about the specifics of legislation, in part by signing up for email blasts—and reading them thoroughly, Hensley said.

“I plan on writing my legislators and getting involved in campaigns,” she said.

Susan Wilson, a Democratic candidate for the Buncombe County N.C. House 115 seat, was in the audience and commented on the need for women to vote and contact their legislators.

“Women stayed away from the polls in 2010,” she said. “We had half the number we had in 2008. We heard today what happened. Get your friends, your mothers, your grandmothers to vote.”

After a morning filled with speakers and statistics, Balogh, the Western Region Director of the N.C. Council for Women, said, “We’re giving you lots of information, but that’s what advocacy is all about.”

Other speakers included Roberta Madden of the ERA North Carolina Citizens Task Force, Tom Coulson of Common Cause, Angelica Reza Wind of Our Voice and Asheville Latin Americans for Advancement Society, Allison Jordan of Children First, Celeste Collins of ONTRACK Financial and Counseling Services, Vicki Meath of Just Economics, Emily Fitchpatrick of On Eagles Wings Ministries, Buffy Queen of REACH of Haywood County, Dr. Donna Burkett, affiliate medical director of Planned Parenthood Health Systems and Wendy Marsh, director of the Buncombe County Council on Aging.

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Katy Nelson is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at katy.nelson@gmail.com.

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