November 1, 2012

You've come a long way, baby...

I must confess that Women’s Equality Day in August escaped me this year.  It celebrated passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote.  No matter, perhaps it’s better celebrated next Tuesday, November 6, when men and women march to the polls in the 2012 general election.

You’ve come a long way, baby” was an advertising slogan developed by the Leo Burnett advertising agency for Virginia Slims cigarettes back in the 1960’s.  It was designed to encourage women to further break away from traditional female roles -- and, of course, smoke their brand of cigarettes.

It’s interesting that we’ve seen a resurgence of gender issues in this political season.   Probably an indication that while much has been accomplished – much needs yet to be done.

There are, indeed, still challenges for women in “breaking through those glass ceilings,” but there have been some successes over the years. 

Dean Finley Herbst
I was reminded of one such lady this week when I learned that Dean Herbst had died in Austin, Texas.  The wife of my boss at the University of Texas–Austin Communications Center back in the 1970’s, Dean was a lady who “broke out of the mold” many years earlier.  She had a remarkable professional career – and yet managed to also embrace the importance of rearing children and focusing on family.  Dean Herbst died earlier this year at the age of 88.

First, a disclaimer.  While I did not know Dean well, her husband and I worked closely at KLRN-TV/KUT Radio in Austin, where he was Station Manager and General Manager for many years.  Much of what I recount here was shared in her obituary.

Dean Finley was born in Houston, the daughter of Frank and Lila Finley.  Frank worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and spent most of his career in the federal building in Austin.  Dean graduated from Austin High School in 1940 and then went to the University of Texas, majoring in Journalism and serving as the first female night editor for the Daily Texan newspaper.

With her bachelor’s degree in hand, she headed for New York City, where she worked as a publicist for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).  She later moved in to the top floor of Washington Irving’s old home and became associate editor and production manger for Tide magazine.

She returned to Austin in 1946 and became a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman and later was promoted to Women’s Editor.

But in 1951, Dean was offered the job “of her dreams.”  She was off to Kabul, Afghanistan to become Assistant Information Officer at the U.S. Embassy.  She would become the Head of Public Affairs at the embassy and the “only ranking woman” in the Kabul diplomatic corps.

Dean Herbst’s obituary noted “At the request of the Queen of Afghanistan, she offered an informal seminar for wives of Afghan diplomats who were going to serve in foreign embassies.  When Dean left Afghanistan, she was presented parting gifts of jewels and needlework form the Queen and the Prime Minister in appreciation for her contributions to Afghan culture.”

In a story reminiscent of the many adventures of Julia Childs, young Dean Finley made friends with the King of Nepal during the sea voyage home from the Middle East.  It occurred only after she apparently “ordered him out of her assigned deck chair, causing great consternation among his attendants.  The only person laughing was the King himself.  After the incident, Dean joined the King and his entourage and became his dancing partner for the evening.  It was an experience we might have more likely expected of Julia McWilliams Childs during her O.S. S. adventures during World War II!

Flight to Afghanistan
When she got home, Dean went to work again for the Austin American-Statesman.  In 1955 she married Harvey Herbst, another “media type” who worked for an Austin television station.  They would have two children:  Frederick Lawrence and Marian Alice. 

While raising her children, Dean wrote Flight to Afghanistan, a novel of mid-air adventures for a high school girl on her way to Afghanistan to visit her parents.  The book apparently received good reviews and was honored at the “Writer’s Round-Up” of best Texas writers of that year.

Tapped to conduct research for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board regarding medical education in the state, Dean accepted the three-year challenge, which resulted in her later being offered the job as Assistant Commissioner for Health Affairs at the Board.  She remained there until her retirement.

Dean's many achievements were impressive, but one particular event seemed to reflect her priorities at the time.

With children still in school in the 1960’s, Dean agreed to take a leadership role with Theta Sigma Phi, the woman’s national honorary journalism society that was based in Austin.  She presented the board with a plan to reorganize the society, which resulted in relocating its headquarters to Washington, D.C. in 1972 – and changing its name to Women in Communications (WIC).  The organization pushed hard for the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Not surprisingly, WIC also chose to allow men to become active members of the organization.

Dean’s obituary notes that she was offered the position of national director of the organization, which she declined, saying, “I’m first a mother and a wife, and both those jobs are in Austin, Texas.

Lorraine Collins
Good friend Lorraine Collins, whose book Gathering My Wits reflected her sound judgment, clear thinking, and crisp writing, is another woman who comes to mind during the election discussion about gender equality.  Her achievements, too, have been quite remarkable. 

While Lorraine no longer pens her thoughtful essays for the Black Hills Pioneer or our Black Hills Monitor website, her commentaries on South Dakota and the “outside world” are always fun to revisit.  You can read many of Lorraine's essays here. 

Her years as a journalist  -- including stints at Time magazine and as a free-lance journalist  – were achieved during those years when women were seldom found amongst the throngs of men who dominated journalism.

Alas, she recently moved from the Black Hills to Billings, Montana to be closer to family as she cares for her ailing husband, Keith.  Keith and Lorraine were good neighbors, and they are good friends.  We miss them both.

Like Dean Herbst, Julia Childs, and many other women of 20th century journalism, Lorraine broke that “glass ceiling.”   We’ll soon be telling you about Lee Hall, another lady who left her mark on journalism in an era when it was unusual for women to be in the newsroom – let alone leading the way.

Perhaps all of these ladies were ahead of their time.  See you at the polls!

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