A Morning-after Conversation with Asheville’s Mayor

| By Arlene Winkler |

“I stand before you as a product of the blood, sweat, and tears of our foremothers that marched before us to make every aspect of my life a possibility,” she told us on that glorious January morning. “And because of the women that marched before me, I can stand here as your Mayor! Women can be doctors, scientists, engineers, school principals, university chancellors. Women are firefighters, police officers, representatives and senators, all because of the women who marched before us.”

Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer

And after the cheering died down: “This past year is the first year of my lifetime, and in all of your lifetimes, that women did not take a step forward in their march to equality.”

Good morning–after, Asheville, it’s time to talk about next steps. Our first stop is Asheville City Hall and the Mayor is expecting us. It’s a first meeting for me and my immediate impression of Esther Manheimer is not so much visual as sensory, the fierce heat of an energetic intelligence.

“We have to become better listeners,” she says without hesitating. “Especially to those we don’t agree with. Look what just happened; we lost the voters in the rust belt states because they didn’t want to talk about issues anymore, they wanted to talk about jobs. And more than 50% of women in this election voted for Trump. Now we can’t change Trump, so while he may be a lost cause, I know that women are not. We have an opportunity to say, “I think we’re not that far apart.”

“People look to politicians for solutions to things they don’t like in their lives and the things they want in their lives, but unfortunately they are not well equipped for that job. Direct contact and conversation with each other can make a difference. “How’s your granddaughter doing?” may get you an answer you’re not expecting: “You know what, my daughter has to take her to a special clinic every week. That’s what worries me about giving up all of Obama Care – having a granddaughter with special needs…”

Or, “Have you had a chance to meet the women who bought the house next to yours?”

“You know what, I came around on this LGBT thing because of my niece – she didn’t come out until three years ago and she’s lovely and I like her …”

“Or, maybe you dread the holidays, being stuck with your extended family when you have nothing in common. Think of it as an opportunity. Family get-togethers are a good place to have personal contact with somebody who feels differently than you do. Whatever you do, don’t be like the woman I recently overheard at a community breakfast, ‘I’m so fed up,’ she said, ‘I de-friended all my Republican friends.’ But if we cut people off who don’t agree with us, we never hear the other side of things. How can we possibly find common ground?

“As a member of the North Carolina Leadership Forum, I am constantly inundated with data, but data alone doesn’t tell the story. For instance, one of the things that has really become clear for me is that more and more women are single moms. The numbers are growing. And because they are single moms, if they live in North Carolina, they are six times more likely to live in poverty. When you look at the percentage of single-parent households in this state, the lowest county is around 28%, the highest about 67% of households with children. For me the question is, why?

We have reduced the rate of teenage pregnancy to an all time low in this state because of the opportunity for birth control and education. We need to teach our women they have to protect themselves to have the future they want; that they are valuable, that they should prioritize themselves, and each other.”

Are you taking notes Asheville? It’s the morning after. Marches and speeches can inspire but unless we continue to make ourselves heard, they are only special events. It’s time to speak up in our communities, our clubs, our churches, with our partners: the people who make us comfortable and those who don’t. It’s time to get off-line and show up in person at our congress person’s office – repeatedly. And when we talk about issues, put the future and hope in the conversation. That’s what it’s really about and congress people care about the needs of their districts; it’s how they get elected.

As mothers and grandmothers and foremothers, we can help the young generation find its voice. Self-empowerment is hard; it takes time and courage and endurance. We must use our blood, sweat, and tears to teach our daughters by example.

Arlene Winkler moved to Asheville from New York in 2003. She deals with her culture shock by writing about the role of women in Western North Carolina.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker