She won't shy from controversy

By REBECCA MABRY News-Gazette Staff Writer

There's a safe and easy way to get through life, and then there's Mary Lee Sargent's way.

Through the years she has participated in sit-ins and sit-downs for civil rights, marched for peace and led the charge for equal rights for women.

She describes herself as an activist and agitator, and in no way does she apologize for it.

Sargent, 50, loves the challenge of trying to change the world.

"I feel like I have two jobs," she said. "One I get paid for, and the other I pay to do."

Since 1968, she's been teaching at Parkland College, specializing in U.S. history. and women's studies. Likely, her radical views were not always appreciated by her colleagues. She once chained herself to the door of the Illinois Senate, for example, in her unsuccessful fight for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

BUT THOUGH THEY might not agree with her politics, her colleagues have come to respect her viewpoints.

"We're like an old family here," Sargent said. "We've grown old together. Where there may have been a lot of hostility before, now I'm just their sister, ya know? They may not agree with me, but there is a respect."

One of her colleagues, Greg Thom, president of the Parkland Academic Employees, said he's served with Sargent on negotiating committees for several years, and that she was always well-respected among the group.

"I think she contributes a lot to the college," said Thom. "And the feedback I get from students is that she's a very good teacher."

In a roundabout way, her activism has made her a better teacher, she said, because she knew that if she wasn't the very tees t she could be, she'd be fired.

"I always knew I had to be completely fair . . . and I've had to learn to be very respectful, to never name-call or silence (those with different points of view) and not to use a grade against anybody. So I think it's kept me honest - and also, I have a reputation as a very fair teacher."

IT'S NATURAL FOR Sargent to be an activist, she said, because she was raised in a family that encouraged it. Her grandmother was a feminist and suffragette in Texas, who worked hard for the vote.

"She was a real inspiration, and she wouldn't let me NOT be a feminist and NOT be an activist," said Sargent.

Sargent's mother was an active volunteer, while her father was a reporter for the Dallas Times Herald. Both her parents were active in civil rights, and encouraged her participation.

In college, she became active in politics, and worked in the civil rights movement. She also became an active campaign worker for John F. Kennedy.

"I idealized him. I idolized him. I loved him," she said.

SHE WAS IN AUSTIN when Kennedy was killed. That was to have been the next stop on his itinerary. She and a group of other campaign workers were going to be allowed to meet with Kennedy and take him to his Austin speaking engagement.

She was also in Austin in 1966 when Charles Whitman climbed to the top of a University of Texas tower, killing 18 and wounding 30.

"I was worried the whole time that my husband was one of them because we were supposed to meet in front of the library and there were all these dead and wounded people lying out there. I could see them through the windows," she said.

As a result, she became passionate about nonviolence. Her pacificism during the Vietnam War extended to concerns about handgun control and domestic violence.

She and her husband moved to Champaign-Urbana in 1966 when he was offered a teaching job at the University of Illinois. They later divorced, and she became one of the forces behind the creation of A Woman's Place, a shelter for battered women in Urbana.

AND HER ATTENTIONS turned to feminism. She created the Grassroots Group of Second Class Citizens, a small radical group of feminists who fought for the ERA by such tactics as fasting and writing the name of legislators in pig's blood in the state Capitol.

Many of the moderate, mainstream feminists opposed those actions, but Sargent believes that for social changes to occur, the extremists have to take direct action.

"Every other social movement had a direct action wing working in force with more moderate forces," said Sargent.

Later, she and others formed Women Rising In Resistance, a national network of feminists that still exists. Last week, the group staged a "speak-out about male violence" on the anniversary of the death of 14 women in Montreal, killed by a deranged gunman.

For one who fans controversy, one might assume she'd be barraged with criticism. The Illini Review, a conservative student paper at the UI, frequently picks on her, but other than that she receives little condemnation. In fact, the comments she receives are overwhelmingly positive, she said.

In the last few years she's spoken about incidents of sexual abuse as a child, noting that likely shaped her fear of male sexuality. And she's acknowledged she's a lesbian.

ALTHOUGH SHE'S sure students whisper about that behind her back, she's never been confronted with it.

"I can usually notice a little homophobia, I think, at the beginning of a semester, but by end...they realize I'm just a human being."

She also is reputed to be a manhater. She's not.

"Anger and criticism are not hate," she said. "They think I hate them. But of those who get to know me, they seem to like me. They want me to run for (union) offices, want to work with me, and they get along with me."

Sargent doesn't foresee changes in her activism. She'll always have causes. And she's encouraged that her vocation of stirring things up has resulted in positive changes for the country.

"I think every day I see reinforcement that my work has been productive and good because I hear what my students are saying compared to what they were saying 20 years ago, and it's like they're totally different human beings," she said.