At the invitation of Michael McMillan, I traveled to St. Louis last week to address the annual Salute to Women Leadership awards luncheon. For seven years, McMillan has been sponsoring this extravagant event. The fact that a man would sponsor it and have the temerity to invite another man to serve as the event’s keynote speaker makes a significant public statement: It’s fine for women to honor one another, but it’s equally important that males honor and respect women.
Violent assaults on elderly women, rape, offensive rap lyrics that refer to women as synonyms for female dogs and garden tools, domestic violence and lack of basic manners are all deeply rooted in male attitudes toward females. And there’s no better way to change such negative attitudes than by instilling in males, beginning at an early age, a respect for the opposite sex. After all, they all have mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, girlfriends or wives whom they would like to see respected by males.
McMillan is the license collector of St. Louis, but operates his glowing tribute to women in his unofficial capacity. He is unopposed in this year’s election and therefore is not seeking any political gain from his decision to recognize successful women or his other events to spotlight education and the plight of poor people.
This year, 14 “she-roes” were honored: Olympic star Jackie Joyner-Kersee; Gwendolyn D. Packnett, director of the Office of Multicultural Relations at the University of Missouri-St. Louis; Donna Wilkinson, a local fund-raiser and wife of legendary University of Oklahoma football coach Budd Wilkinson; Merdean Fielding-Gales, a prominent gospel music leader and co-host of the Bobby Jones Gospel Hour; Debbie Pyzyk, a realtor with offices in eight states; Carol Daniel, a local TV host; Pat Shannon-VanMatre, a St. Louis restaurant owner; Cheryl D. Polk, a United Way official; Alderwoman Marlene E. Davis; Comptroller Darlene Green; Thelma E. Steward, a registered nurse and tireless civic volunteer; Lois D. Conley, an expert on African-American history; Sister Mary Jean Ryan, CEO of SSM Health Care and educator Johnetta R. Haley, the first female president of a Southern Illinois University campus.
Each honoree received 32 gifts, including a dozen roses, monogrammed chocolates, wine, champagne, a designer hat, a custom-designed necklace, a field pass to a St. Louis Rams football game with access to the owner’s suite; a mink monogrammed draw string purse, a Neiman Marcus gift set, free use of the Cabanne House in Forest Park and a White House pen set and tote bag.
I speak at events around the country, but I’ve never attended one that comes close to matching this one. As elegant as this event was, we cannot lose sight of Michael McMillan’s original vision, which was to honor women.
Society can’t be reminded enough that African-American women carry the dual burden of being Black and being female, earning less than all males and White women. Despite passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, White females earn 73.5 percent of what White males are paid; Black males earn 72.1 percent; followed by Black women at 63.6 percent or less than a third of the pay of White men; Latino men receive 57.5 percent and Latino women, 51.7 percent.
Black girls suffering from poor selfimages would benefit from seeing successful women like those honored in St. Lois. We all know about the ground-breaking experiment that Kenneth B. Clark and his wife, Mamie, conducted in 1939. They administered a doll test to African- American kids, ages 6-9, showing them dolls that were identical in respect except color. Most of the children picked the White doll as being nicer than the Black doll. The couple’s research was used in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.
In 2005, Kiri Davis repeated the doll experiment with children in Harlem.
Although she used a small sample, 71 percent of the children said the White doll was nicer. In 2009, the year Barack Obama was elected president, ABC-TV decided a conduct a similar test, this time altering the question to: Which doll is pretty? In that test, 47 percent of the girls described the White doll as the pretty one.
Clearly, there is plenty of work to be done among both girls and boys. Perhaps in our various manhood training and rites of passage programs, we should add a component that focuses on respect toward females. Organizations such 100 Black Men should also host programs that honor the hundreds of females in their local community.
It’s not enough for women to honor women. It’s time that men break the gender barrier and realize how all of us benefit from women being honored and respected.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.