Marsha Weinstein, Women’s Rights Activist & Girl Leadership Advocate
Marsha Weinstein grew up in Huntsville, AL, and eventually moved to Louisville, where she would become a force for positive change for women. She has run for state office, worked in state government, represented Kentucky to the world in China and founded her own nonprofit organization — Louisville Girls Leadership — to help girls become empowered leaders. Now she is a consultant, activist and women’s history buff who fights for women through training future leaders, preserving women’s history and helping women everywhere. Meet today’s FACE of Louisville, Marsha Weinstein.
Tell us about your career
I went to Samford University in Birmingham and got an undergraduate degree in human relations, which is kind of a social psychology degre. Then I worked in the welfare department in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), single mothers on welfare with children, for which I was totally unqualified — I was 21 years old. They taught me a lot more than I taught them! So I also did volunteer work at the crisis center, and that’s where my path crossed with my husband, who was in medical school at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. We got married and moved to Nashville, where he did his residency at Vanderbilt. I got a master’s degree in social work from the University of Tennessee, and we moved in 1979 to Louisville. I joined the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) as a volunteer, and I got very involved in that organization. I really consider NCJW as my launching pad, because I had excellent women mentors who taught me and gave me the opportunity to testify before legislative committees in Frankfort and Washington, D.C. and attend national conferences.
I had really gotten the opportunity to learn firsthand how to be an advocate for women and children through NCJW, and I’ll always be indebted to them. Through NCJW, I helped start Court Appointed Special Advocates, I was on the board of Kentucky Youth Advocates, and I helped form this organization called Kentucky Women’s Advocates, which was a statewide coalition of women’s organizations working together to advocate for women and children and justice issues. Then when I went to the legislature, I saw the legislators, and I thought,Whoa, whoa, whoa, I can do a better job than these people!
And so you ran for office?
I ran in 1988 for state representative. I lost the race, but I met a lot of really interesting people. I highly recommend people run for office because you learn so much. The end result of that was I was later appointed by Governor Brereton Jones to head the Kentucky Commission on Women. That was a dream job!
I had access to lot of people in decision-making positions and served on a number of committees, the Judicial Committee on Gender Bias in the Courts, the Attorney General’s Domestic Violence Task Force, all those kinds of committees, so that was really eye-opening and educational. But one of the things I’m most proud of was workshops we had for the media. We would analyze the newspapers of when they covered women and when they covered men. We’d just just take a pink marker and mark every mention, quote, photo or byline of a woman and blue when a man was. So you’d just hold up a newspaper, and you can see what’s covered and not covered. Mostly the women covered were a spouse of someone. And so we had a workshop with the editor of The Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader.
What is something you’re really proud of?
I took a delegation of women from Kentucky to the United Nations World Conference for Women in 1995 in Beijing, China. They created a Beijing Platform for Action, which had 12 elements, like Women in Education, Women in Health and, for the first time, they created The Girl Child. What does the girl child need? She needs safe communities, she needs education and health care, but she also needs leadership opportunities. So, afterwards, I got involved with a local group of people, and we had a girls’ leadership conference at the Jewish Community Center. Out of that came Louisville Girls Leadership, which I helped found — it’s a leadership development program for high school girls. I’m so thrilled to say it’s still going on today. And some of the girls that were in the program in high school are now running the program or on the board, and it’s expanding. It’s just one of the biggest thrills in my lifetime to see what the girls have done and how they are running with it.
I also got Governor Jones to grant clemency for 10 women who were in prison for attempting to kill their abusers or conspiring to. They made a quilt about their abuse, and I was able to show the the governor the quilt at the Kentucky State Fair, and he started to cry and said, “We’ve gotta get these women out of prison, Marsha.” I was like, “yes!” The women were later on “The Phil Donahue Show,” and they went to New York to the Statue of Liberty to celebrate their freedom from abuse.
Tell us a bit about your work preserving women’s history.
When I learned suffrage history, I thought, “Oh, my gosh! This is the most interesting thing I’ve ever learned!” Then I got mad. I went, “Wait a minute — why don’t I know this history?” And then the light bulb went off — “You were never taught it in school.” The politicians who kept telling us why women couldn’t vote were giving us the same reasons why women today can’t have equal pay and other rights. I went, “Oh, this the same argument has been going on for 75+ years!”
1998 was the 150th anniversary of the first women’s rights conference in Seneca Falls, NY, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton called for women to have the right to vote. So there was gonna be a big event to celebrate, and I was like, “I have to be there. This is like the Super Bowl of women’s rights!
I met Elizabeth Jenkins-Sahlin, who is the great great granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and she was 14 years old and spoke at the event. I brought her to Louisville to speak, so I got to know her mother, Coline, and she’s my age, and we hit it off. So over the years, I’ve met a lot of people interested in women’s suffrage, so I got on the board of an organization called the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites.
Most people learn their history from visiting historic sites like Civil War battlefields. The problem with that is that they don’t tell the whole story. It’s the “Great White Man” story; it’s not the whole story about what women were doing and what people of color were doing. So our mission in this organization is to tell the whole story. In preparation for 2020 — the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment — we have a committee called the National Votes for Women Trail. We’re documenting all across America the sites where the women’s suffrage movement took place and putting it on a map, so people can see that this was truly a grassroots movement. And that’s how social justice takes place — at the grassroots level with local people actively engaged. When women got the right to vote in 1920, it expanded democracy to the majority of the population. I mean, it was a bloodless revolution. Very few people know the story.
Why is it so important to foster leadership in girls?
Because it’s such a huge untapped potential of leadership that this nation has not been able to take advantage of. You see this new wave of women elected to office; more and more women are running for office, and girls need to be taught. When I was in high school, if I had known then what I know now, I could have had a greater impact. So part of my motivation is to teach girls public speaking, how to write press releases, how to debate, how to analyze financial records. If they have those skills, they can question stuff. Because traditionally girls are taught to smile and be polite and don’t ask questions. Girls need to be strong and use their voice and believe in themselves.
How do you relax?
I have three wonderful grandsons. I relax by being with my family.
What books do you like to read?
I like to read, of course, books on suffrage and great women leaders. I like The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine Weiss, the new book out about the suffrage movement in Tennessee.
Tell me something that others may not know about you.
I can tell you my favorite thing to watch on TV is “The Big Bang Theory.” It’s my therapy. The humor in that is so funny, and of course there are strong women in that, too.
What are your favorite local restaurants?
What’s your best advice?
Be brave, and go for your dream. Be courageous. Be fearless. Just go for it. No regrets. Just do it. And always be a part of a good team.
With the exception of faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Passion for girls’ leadership development and women’s history, energy and good health