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Indomitable spirit defines feminist leader

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Throughout West Virginia, she's recognized as a champion for women's rights. State president of the National Organization for Women from 1988 to 1992, Bettijane Burger fought fiercely to correct gender inequities.

Equal pay, reproductive rights, domestic violence, harassment -- she tackled it all with a fearless, progressive spirit inherited from her trail-blazing mother.

Threats did not deter her. Lawsuits and demonstrations, lobbying and letters to the newspaper, she did whatever it took.

It would take a chunky book just to chronicle her achievements as a feminist leader, not to mention the kudos she earned as an innovative English teacher, writer, radio commentator and community theater performer.

A newspaper column can't tell it all. There are stories galore lurking between these lines.

Settled into a new role as caregiver for her beloved granddaughter, Olivia, she looks back on a life that has made a definite difference.

Like mother, like daughter.

 

"My mother came to Morgantown in 1928. She was asked by the Presbyterian Church to start a Sunday school because the Presbyterians were very concerned about the poverty in Scotts Run right outside Morgantown. Then kids came to her with hunger and no shoes and she realized she had to do something else.

"It evolved into a community center. In 1931, she got an old company store from the coal company and named it The Shack. All these years later, it's the Shack Neighborhood House. I donated her diaries to the state.

"I wish I had thought of the marker while she was alive. She died in 1988. I petitioned the state and raised the money, and we put the marker up as a memorial to her.

"My parents were very progressive. My father was an accountant. In 1954, he was with the Christopher Coal Co., and they laid him off in a merger with Consol. He was devastated and humiliated. He became depressed.

"There were three children to raise. I remember my mom laying all the bills on the table and putting a few dollars on each one. My mom literally looked at her hands and said, 'I have to save this family.'

"She started making doll clothes and eventually established a very successful business called the Doll House where she restored and costumed dolls and sold dolls. What I learned from her is creativity and innovation.

"We didn't have money for dancing school, so she made the recital costumes, and we got the dancing free. We couldn't afford piano lessons, so a piano teacher came and taught from the upright Steinway in our house, and we got free piano lessons.

"She was a political activist. She went to Vietnam with Church Women United and came back radicalized, and she marched for Martin Luther King and started several social action things around town. I grew up with a lot of political discussion around the table.

"My parents belonged to the NAACP in the 1940s. I grew up knowing there were causes and problems to be solved. My mother's father was a Presbyterian minister and he was a social activist, too.

"He had a Sunday school class with 300 people in it. Out of college he went to the Philippines and helped start the public school system there.

"Because we needed the money, we rented a spare room to foreign students. I learned so much from those people. It was an international kind of house. There was never a dull moment.

"In ninth grade, I decided to be an English teacher. I wanted a classroom full of creativity. I never wavered from that. That was my career for 27 years, full-time teaching in four different states.

"In 1981, I taught at the State Police Academy. They all had to stand at attention until I sat down. That was fun. The class was technical communications. They had to learn how to do research and to speak.

"In high school, I was in the band. We marched in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. Band students weren't allowed to take journalism, but I always loved to write. I was the third sister in my family to write the weekly column for the then-Morgantown Post called Town Teens.

"In the summer of '66, I went to England to study for a month and went to several countries. We think something is old when it's 50 years old. In England, things are 700 years old. You see history come alive.

"When you travel, you are never the same. Your world widens. You are never small again.

"I was the first language arts major at WVU. They realized that English teachers often end up advising yearbooks, newspapers, having speech club and running theater. I had classes in all that, and I did all that.

"When I was a sophomore, I was editor of the club section. Then I went for the biggie. The university marked its centennial in 1967. I had a love of history. I made my pitch about writing a history for each section and they chose me. My father had been editor 50 years before, so I named him honorary associate editor.

"It was 408 pages and it sold out. After all the bills were paid and enough was put away for the next year, the treasurer and I were allowed to split the remaining profits. I got $1,000, a lot of money then.

"I guess my first feminist act was writing a letter to The Daily Athenaeum at WVU wondering why the WVU band was all male. It was a holdover from the ROTC tradition. They didn't change it until 1973, and the band doubled and became best in the nation.

"After 21 years in Morgantown, I thought, 'Where can I go that is most unlike Morgantown?' I spent one year in grad school at the University of Hawaii and one year teaching high school.

"I could write a book about that. I was in a graduate dorm with people from all over the world. It was a totally diverse experience. I learned how to relax. I shed the girdle, the coat and gloves. We wore muumuus and flip-flops.

"I cried all the way home. Hawaii was a dream come true, and I had to leave it. But I was going home to get married and be an Air Force wife, so that was exciting.

"As an Air Force wife, I started in California and then went to Florida. I taught in a horrible school there, 7 through 12, an awful combination. Some students never believed we had landed on the moon even though you could see the rockets going up from their backyards. It was 1971 to 1973. I took them to plays. I took them to Orlando. We did a yearbook.

"The base closed in Orlando. We went to Pease Air Force Base in New England. It's cold from October to June. We joked that you would have summer on July 4 between 2 and 4 p.m.

"In New Hampshire, I worked at the YWCA as program director. My boss guided me into feminism. I began to be aware of battered women. It was shocking.

"When I got to Charleston and joined NOW, Sherri O'Dell said we needed to start a battered women's shelter. I was on the planning committee. Women had no place to go. They couldn't get money for months. We fixed all that, but we didn't get rid of the problem. Every year, 1,000 women are beaten to death.

"I was president of Charleston NOW from '80 to '82 and state president from '88 to '92.

"We did a lot of things. Reproductive rights. Sexual assault. Pay equity. Sexual harassment.

"There are two laws that I thought of that are now part of West Virginia Code. In 1980, I read an article in Parade magazine about people being injured on amusement rides. I wondered if we had a law.

"Sen. [Si] Boettner introduced it in 1980. It sailed through the Senate but got stuck in the House. The majority whip was on the board of the State Fair. He said, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' He didn't run the next year. The bill passed. It took us eight years.

"I read an article in the Gazette about pregnant women prisoners being shackled during labor and delivery. You don't shackle a woman during labor and delivery. It's unsafe.

"Delegate Bonnie Brown introduced the law against it. It passed about four years ago with no opposition. There were only 250 bills that passed that year and mine was one of them.

"Picture the West Virginia Seal. You've got two men and a big space in the middle. I would love to see a mountain momma put in there.

"We still have sexual harassment and battered women and sexual assault in the military. And reproductive rights are eroding. The right-wingers know they can't override Roe v. Wade, so they have chipped away at it until it's not available to 80 percent of the country. We have so many restrictions that it is hanging on for dear life.

"In the '90s, when I was teaching at St. Albans High School, I had the forensics team, and we were county champions for four years.

"That was the last place I taught. The activism began to sap so much of my energy. The state NOW presidency was like a second job.

"When people get to my age, it's so important to remain fit and intellectually active. I want to dance at our granddaughter's wedding.

"I still write and advocate for things, but it's not a full-time job anymore. I wish I had the energy to lead West Virginia NOW, but I'm a grandmother. We baby-sit our granddaughter, Olivia, full time. She's a total delight."Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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