The fight for equal rights continues for Roberta Madden

Shelly Frome
Special to Black Mountain News
Black Mountain resident Roberta Madden answered the call to fight for equal rights for women 70 years ago. Her efforts continue to this day.

You could say it all began some 70 years ago when Robbie Madden was about 12 years old.

“My mother worked for many years at a supermarket in Ames, Iowa,” Madden said. “And she was the most dependable person they had. She was a stock clerk and performed all kinds of jobs to perfection. When the manager of the store retired, they were looking for a new manager to promote from within, but they didn’t even consider my mother who would have been great. Instead, they gave it to a bag boy. Mom came home and said ‘If I were a man, I would have gotten that job’ and that really made me mad. That just wasn’t right.”

From that point on, Madden became a strong feminist.

She realized that at that time women’s rights and the prospect of living up to their potential simply wasn’t at issue and never questioned, but Madden questioned it a lot.

By the early 1950s she was reading such works of existential ethics as "The Second Sex" by Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan’s "The Feminine Mystique."

Soon, young women everywhere were talking about “the problem that has no name,” alluding to the fact that their gender was neither appreciated nor patently not equal.

“It all came to a boiling point,” she said, “around nineteen-seventy-two when the Equal Rights Amendment came out. Though public speaking didn’t come naturally to me, I remember Sally Kempton, the journalist and radical feminist, saying ‘It’s difficult to fight a battle when the enemy has outposts in your own head.’

"I went on to follow the path of activism and organized people around some of the pressing issues of the day like sexual harassment and the active search for ways to empower women," she continued. 

Subsequently, among Madden’s endeavors and accomplishments over the years are the pursuit of justice centering on major causes leading to her involvement in labor struggles, anti-racism, anti-poverty, women’s health, consumer protection and, above all, ratification of the ERA, especially in Louisiana and N.C.

She has also been field director for Common Cause in Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi, board chair of the Southern Mutual Help Association, founded Ratify ERA-NC, helped organize the ERA-NC Alliance and served as co-president.

The collection of her letters, speeches, testimonials before committees and other memorabilia has reached the point where she now envisions fashioning a book entitled Six Decades an Activist.

“It’s turning into a picture of the times,” she said. "Like my op-eds promoting women’s humanity and equality. You see, I’m not sure people understand what’s it’s been like during past years. All the facets of the various struggles involving racism, workers’ rights, politics and ethics.

"To just key on women’s issues, it was taken for granted that we were the second sex. We weren’t as smart, were too emotional, impractical and not at all good with numbers. Our place was in the kitchen and we were supposed to stay there," Madden continued. "There are gaps between the present day and what people understand about the evolution of consciousness in this country. When Betty Friedan’s book came out, there was a counter revolution by conservative women who declared that we were put on this earth to make men happy. That’s what we were here for.”

A glint came into Madden’s eyes as she began to cull through more material and realized what she went through in all its ramifications did indeed have a noteworthy place in women’s studies.

For a moment her gaze settled on a testimonial she gave at a labor union in Louisiana in which she quoted Sigmund Freud: "The great question which was never been answered  through all my years of research is ‘What does a woman want?"

In this talk, she went on to say that it was the same as men’s desires, to be a free and independent person.To use all our talents and improve our own lives.

Economic security for our families. 

“And it goes on,” she said, as the glint in her eyes continued to glow.