Women's History Month, The Octopus, March 14, 1997

by Aimee Rickman

Abstracting the social activism of Mary Lee Sargent, a woman who has fought indefatigably for civil liberties and human rights over past 45 years of history, proves inadequate, if not impossible. Inspired at a young age by her feminist grandmother who fought for suffrage, and by parents who believed the segregation of society was wrong, she embarked on a life of social activism as a Texan teenager during the civil rights movement of the 1950s. What began as solitary acts of support in the back of southern buses progressively expanded to participation in mass movements, such as sit-in demonstrations at segregated universities, and protests against the Vietnam War with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

"I had experiences of discrimination and abuse as a girl, but no awareness of them. It was a gradual progression to awareness." The birth of the Women's Movement in the 1970s brought previously suppressed questions of identity and gender to the forefront of political consciousness, and led Sargent to focus on the oppression of women. "The movement helped me to accept myself as a woman; coming out [as a lesbian] helped me to define what it meant to be a woman."

Feminism motivated Sargent to become active with the weekly consciousness-raising sessions at A Woman's Place, a battered women's center with radical origins. When the center threatened to fold financially, Sargent worked to transform the organization into a professional government agency with stable funding and support. She continues to serve on the board of A Woman's Place.

In 1972, Sargent's feminist efforts were further institutionalized when she created of one of the country's first academic Women's Studies courses. "I was already bringing women's issues into my Western Civilization class. Women felt left out, and I worked to bring them into the dialogue." Sargent worked with others to establish the Women's Studies program as a permanent department at Parkland, and after surviving five abolitions, the Women's Studies program was put in place in 1991. Since that time, it has taken on a committed community focus, frequently reaching out to gather women together and get them talking. "I am proudest of the feedback from the community about how much Parkland does for women."