Remembering and celebrating the life of a trailblazing feminist

Remembering and celebrating the life of a trailblazing feminist

The late Jan Allen (left) with the author.

“We are in it for the long haul”

Jan Allen used to conclude her Lillian’s List events with this phrase, “we are in it for the long haul.” The audience understood because, like Jan, most of the people in attendance had been feminist activists for decades.

Respected and dignified with a slight chip on her shoulder, Jan was a part of every modern wave of feminism in the United States. She was revered for her institutional knowledge and leadership in the women’s rights movement for more than four decades.

If there was beacon on which Jan always fixed her gaze, it was the goal of winning full and complete equal rights for women.

She was smart and intellectually curious. Jan was built for leadership, and attained it at IBM. One of the earliest female managers in the company, Jan earned her stripes alongside and in front of her male counterparts. She was breaking ground, but that was a familiar rite for this life-long trailblazer. Effective at work, courageous and forthright in the movement, Jan carved out a place in history that is hard to match.

Other notables and compatriots like Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and Ellie Shmeal fortified her. With each wave in the women’s movement – the establishment of NOW, the campaign for the ERA, Roe v. Wade, Anita Hill, the Year of the Woman, EMILY’s List, Planned Parenthood, NARAL and Lillian’s List – Jan was deeply involved. Let’s all remember that, for a while, Jan was the National Organization for Women in North Carolina.

Jan was not only riding the wave, she often was the wave. She knew until her last breath that barriers to women’s economic, social, cultural, gender equality were many and that the fight would be difficult. After being “downsized” from IBM in the 1990’s – her word that she frequently repeated with a wry half smile at many a social gathering – Jan was ready to employ all that she had gained in business, in marriage, in motherhood, and in sisterhood. Gaining confidence and training during the ERA struggle, Jan immersed herself in the political and policy arenas.

Jan did not crave the spotlight; she wanted results. The heartbreak of North Carolina’s failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment only fueled her resolve. She found other sisters in the wider political action movement with organizations like EMILY’s List, Planned Parenthood, NARAL and NOW.

That’s where I met Jan Allen, at an EMILY’s List Majority Council Conference. As a feminist upstart in my mid-thirties I felt the “urgency of now” after the infamous Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings. Women’s reproductive freedom was my entry point into greater involvement and EMILY’s List was a natural fit for me. Of course, Jan moved through every EMILY’s List conference at ease in her quiet power. She knew everyone because she deeply enjoyed that intense, interpersonal communication between people and understood that those intimate conversations led to greater and more impactful collaborations.

I on the other hand, was green and restless. My patience had worn thin after witnessing the debacle of the Hill/Thomas hearings and seeing so many of the same indignities that Hill endured being visited upon other people on the margins of society. Not too much later, Jan and I met again at an EMILY’s List event in Chapel Hill. We both bemoaned the fact that, despite the activism that had arisen after the hearings and during the 1992 “Year of the Woman,” we were still not seeing much change in our own home state of North Carolina. It was out of that impassioned conversation that Jan and I were moved to take action.

Building a women’s political organization was a hard thing to do. It took courage and determination. It was NOT born in a vacuum. Jan assembled her colleagues from the ERA movement, a couple of female stars from the General Assembly, some brother allies, young aspiring political operatives, and some legendary North Carolina female leaders who were all dedicated to equal participation for every woman in every aspect of life.

I brought energy and a can-do boldness that combined with Jan, my comfortably introverted and quiet leader, to set in motion a novel approach to moving women into seats of power. And thus Lillian’s List was born at the RDU Airport food court. Through it all, Jan was the manager, the organizer, the low-key collaborator, the forge-ahead architect, exceedingly prepared

An odd couple to be sure, Jan and I, but successful we became. Being in the same orbit as Jan Allen opened the door for me to more knowledge than I could have ever gleaned in any hall of higher education. I studied at the knee of this trusted and highly respected consensus builder.

Jan encouraged others and she was a good listener. She chose her words carefully and reserved her best comments for the appropriate time. She led with an appreciation that everyone had a role to play. She was always finding a way to include more and more constituencies in Lillian’s List. For Jan, the journey was about moving everyone forward. Sometimes unnoticed or underappreciated was her uncanny ability to take on uncomfortable moments, move through them in her unassuming way and come out the other side undeterred.

Receiving the Order of the Long Leaf Pine was an honor we shared. An incredible award bestowed by our state’s first woman governor, Bev Perdue. Standing between Jan and Bev and in that room filled with those women who stood before and beside us was an awesome sight to behold. Jan received many well-deserved accolades and awards. She even had a day named after her in Chapel Hill.

For me, Jan Allen was my mentor and my “she-ro” and resides deep in my heart and the hearts of many. She imbued our country, our state, our communities, and our lives with a sense that, with patience and persistence, we can make lasting change for the better.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize one of Jan’s favorite feminists – the iconic Buffy the Vampire Slayer of the 1990’s TV show of the same name – who once observed:

Even if you see them coming, you’re not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So, what are we, helpless? Puppets? Nah. The big moments are gonna come, you can’t help that. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.”

Or, as Buffy and her cohort Willow put it even more succinctly in another episode:

Buffy: And what are we if not women up to a challenge?

Willow: Exactly, I mean did we not put the ‘grr’ in ‘girl?”

It has been an honor Jan.

Laura B. Edwards is the co-founder of Lillian’s List.