Mary Sue Terry spoke on Sunday to a group at the Martinsville-Henry County Heritage Center and Museum about stereotypes, gender disparity, the past and her concern for the future.
“If a UFO came and stayed long enough to observe our situation, one gender has most of the power and the majority is second-class,” Terry said. “There is something wrong with this picture.”
There is an exhibit currently on display at center titled “Agents of Change: Female Activism in Virginia.”
To highlight the exhibit, which is being held in conjunction with the Women’s Suffrage Centennial, Sunday’s speaker was the first woman ever elected to statewide office in Virginia, only the second woman in the United States to serve as a state attorney general, the first elected official in the history of Virginia to receive more than 1 million votes — and she was born in Martinsville.
“I was born right after World War II,” Terry said. “Back then the debate was about guns versus butter.”
The guns referred to the military and the defense of the country, while butter symbolized domestic issues of the day.
No matter how you categorize those issues, Terry said, Republicans defend the guns while Democrats defend the butter.
“I cannot talk about women’s issues without being partisan,” Terry said.
Terry, 73, lives on the family farm in Patrick County, where she is retired from public office but not from politics.
“Mark Herring is stuck in the past,” Terry says in a current advertisement for Jay Jones, who is running for the Democratic nomination for Attorney General against incumbent Mark Herring. Herring “supported an animal rights office before he supported a civil rights office.”
Terry’s political career began in 1978, when she was elected as a state delegate and ended when she lost to George Allen in a bid for the governorship in 1993.
“It was a bad year for Democrats,” Terry said. “You can plan an outdoor wedding, and everything can be beautiful, but if it rains you’re not going to have an outdoor wedding.”
Also on Terry’s resume are eight cases that she argued successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court, something that could not have been imagined a century ago.
“A 100 years ago a man could beat his wife with impunity, women weren’t allowed to own property, they couldn’t vote, it was ingrained in them at a sub-conscious level to feel like they were not powerful,” Terry said. “Women have not been reared to step up in their own lives.”
Terry said the church and selective use of scriptures has also minimized a woman’s place in society.
“Jesus never talked down to a woman,” said Terry. “He entrusted a woman when he had risen from the dead to go and tell his disciples he was risen.
“People can pull snippets out of the bible, but they cannot pull one from Jesus that would support the proposition that a woman is second-class.”
Terry also said she was concerned about the future of the country.
“We’re in a tough place,” Terry said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m terribly concerned, even frightened, about our holding on to democracy in this country.
“Their are two choices: Democracy where everyone is equal or totalitarian.”
Terry spoke for almost an hour and when she had finished she said if her words were only found to be interesting, then time had been wasted by both her and the audience.
“I’m here to encourage you to step-up if there’s a seat open on the school board,” said Terry. “Women do not gravitate toward power ... and will often say ‘I just don’t feel qualified.’
“Women are instinctively insecure, but that does not mean they are unqualified.”
Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at 276-638-8801, Ext. 236. Follow him @billdwyatt.