Women’s rights activists reunite 40 years later to campaign for Hillary Clinton

“Once the sleeping giant is awakened, watch out.”

CREDIT: Erica Hellerstein
CREDIT: Erica Hellerstein

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA — Last week, Bonnie Steussy landed in North Carolina on a mission. The 73-year-old retired schoolteacher traveled thousands of miles to throw her hat in the ring for Hillary Clinton in one of the most important states in the presidential election.

For Steussy, who hails from Issaquah, Washington, the trip was as symbolic as it was pragmatic. More than four decades ago, she founded the first chapter of the National Organization of Women in Greenville, South Carolina, alongside her close friend Nelda. As twentysomethings in the early 1970s, the duo traveled to the nation’s capital to lobby former South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond to support the landmark Equal Rights Amendment. They also formed a feminist guerrilla theater back in the Palmetto State that drew heavily from the 1972 children’s book, Free to Be… You and Me, which promoted gender equality and individuality.

“Considering we started our friendship in women’s rights, having a woman running for president, it just felt fabulous to be back together.”

So it only seemed fitting that, more than 40 years later, the pair would team up once again — this time, as volunteers for the Clinton campaign in North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County.

“Considering we started our friendship in women’s rights, having a woman running for president, it just felt fabulous to be back together,” Steussy said.

The duo would be hard-pressed to find a more critical battleground state. Polling released on Monday forecast a tight race in North Carolina — with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump deadlocked at 44 percent, and GOP Sen. Richard Burr narrowly leading his Democratic challenger, Deborah Ross, 46 to 45 percent. In fact, the Tar Heel State is so crucial to the electoral calculus that both presidential candidates stopped by Raleigh on the eve of the election to make their final pitches to voters.

For Steussy, the stakes of this election were just too high to stay at home in her solidly blue Washington county. Flipping comfortably red South Carolina blue seemed a little “hopeless,” Steussy said, but “North Carolina looked possible.”

As the longtime activist contemplated whether she could have conceived of a woman president in her days marching for women’s rights in Washington, she recalled the legacy Billie Jean King, the female tennis champion who defeated Bobby Riggs in the iconic “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in 1973.

“It took women organizing to make a difference.”

“This election has brought back those feelings to me, except the stakes are so much higher now. Each of those victories gave us a feeling of more. It felt like we were making inroads, just chipping away at it one piece at a time,” Steussy said. “It took women organizing to make a difference.”

“Once the sleeping giant is awakened,” she added, “watch out.”