At the most recent event celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the landmark legislation of Title IX, six accomplished Clemson women discussed their experiences, imparted life lessons and shared what Clemson has meant to their journey at the Clemson University Women Trailblazers Panel held at the Watt Family Innovation Center auditorium.
In front of a gathered audience of nearly 200, Alesia Smith, Clemson University Title IX Coordinator and Assistant Vice President, began the event reciting the “37 words that changed America,” the text of Title IX – No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
The six panelists were Dorothy Ashford and Delores Kimes Barton, members of the first cohort of African American women to graduate from Clemson; Susan Hill-Whitson, the first woman to receive a full athletic scholarship to Clemson; Trustee Patti McAbee, the first woman member of Clemson University’s Board of Trustees; Rita Bolt Barker, the first woman undergraduate student body president; and Amy Smith, the first woman Clemson gymnastics coach.
The discussion was moderated by Jean McKendry, Director of Research Development in the College of Education, who kicked off the discussion by asking panelist if they felt – during their time at Clemson or following – like trailblazers. “Absolutely not,” said Barton. “But through the years, as I worked at IBM and Spellman College, I recognized my experience as being a “first” has been of value to others.”
The women featured at the panel cleared the way for others to achieve similar success and go further. “I certainly didn’t think I was a trailblazer,” Barker said. “And I’m reluctant to even use that word, but I certainly have recognized when I’ve been the only woman in a board room. And I know it shouldn’t be unique.”
The panelists also discussed challenges they faced along their paths at Clemson and during their careers. Hill-Whitson and McAbee described the environment at Clemson and the support provided. Ashford discussed a support system found in professors and the nearby church community. “The dedication of the teachers at the time made me feel like I could accomplish anything,” said Ashford, “I learned not to be afraid, to stand in my own truth.”
“Being a Trustee at Clemson wasn’t something I wanted to do just to be ‘the first,’ but because it was something I wanted to do in public service,” said McAbee. “And I received some great support and advice. When I was deciding to run and was elected for the first time, one trustee told me, ‘If you don’t do this. That void will be filled by a man, and it may be a long time until another woman fills that role.’ And that really resonated on the impact I was making.”
The hour-long session ended with the six trailblazers offering one bit of wisdom to the gathered students, and each struck a common theme of both focusing on what’s important and enjoying their time as students at Clemson. “I feel like I was in a daze – with a focus only to graduate and get out,” said Barton. “In hindsight I would have been more involved.” Barker discussed the impact of technology today as both a positive and a burden in the necessity of filtering through a lot of misinformation. If she could go back to Clemson and do something differently, Barker said she would “savor it.” Smith offered advice to students on the importance of goals “State what your goal is – that’s the very first step. Embrace when things get hard, be adaptable and resilient and push through to achieve. Often, nothing that comes easy is going to be worthwhile.”
McKendry, who moderated the panel and serves as the Chair of the Commission on Women, commented afterwards on the honor of welcoming the six women who each walked a path at Clemson that had never been walked before. “It was interesting to listen to their stories and take away that being trailblazers was not their goal,” McKendry said, “Doing the hard work instead was their intent which carried them on in life and inspires us today.”
The Title IX 50th Anniversary Celebration Soup and Substance Series event was sponsored by Clemson University’s Title IX 50th Anniversary Celebration Committee, the Commission on Women, the Division of Inclusion and Equity, and the Watt Family Innovation Center.