The group was dynamic — single mothers, married women with children, secretaries and skilled laborers.
Some grew up in Dayton, some moved to Dayton to join efforts started by the Dayton Women’s Center and DWW.
Wherever they were at in their personal journeys or careers, collectively, the women were all instrumental to moving Dayton women forward. Here are some of their stories:
Noreen Willhelm was 22 years old when she moved to Dayton with her young daughter, in part to work for Dayton Women Working. Willhelm waitressed until the organization had enough money to pay Willhelm as an employee.
Eventually, Willhelm became the second DWW director, following its founder Sherrie Holmes.
“The turning point for Willhelm was ‘being thirteen in 1968," Ezekiel wrote in "Feminism in The Heartland. "'and having a television on in our living room all the time.’ She watched the coverage of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Democratic National Convention, and the student riots in Paris. 'I understood that there was something really momentous happening, that the world was beginning to shake beneath our feet.”
First serving as DWW program director, Willhelm held workshops to help women know how to advance on the job and gain confidence.
“I mean, it was such a completely different time,” Willhelm said. “In terms of the way women were treated, there is the presumption that all women would be secretaries and that the men would be the bosses.”
During Willhelm’s time with DWW, she attended training sessions and conferences with 9 To 5 in Boston and with other national women’s organizations at the time.
Willhelm was also instrumental in getting Jane Fonda to speak at a DWW fundraiser cocktail party during a tour Fonda was on for the 1980 film “9 to 5.” Fonda spoke to about 400 attendees at a downtown Dayton hotel.
Noreen Wilhelm and Jane Fonda in Dayton in the 1970s. CONTRIBUTED
"When you’re in your twenties, you think everything has to happen today, you know, and I was once was in my 20s and it was like, 'Oh, we’re failing. We want to change the world today. And it’s one of the nice things about being older is that you have perspective. So I can know today that some of the work we did, some of the education we did, we helped individual people, and we helped change the culture. There is no presumption that women should be relegated to a pink-collar ghetto anymore.”
Willhelm has since served as the national director of The Grail, an international organization that empowers women to work for world transformation, has worked as a reporter and editor for the Dayton Daily News and is currently a senior fellow at The Dayton Foundation.
“It’s astounding how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go,” she said.
Kathy Ellison helped organize the annual LunaFest film festival and the Jewish Film Festival. A memorial celebration of her life will be held Jan. 19 at The Neon movie theater.
Kathy Ellison (in the words of her daughter, Lindsay Meck)
Though Dayton-born and current New York City resident Lindsay Meck was not born until 1985, she is a living testament to her mother, Kathy Ellison, a lifetime advocate for women.
Meck’s mother was an early DWW activist, employee at the Dayton Women’s Center and divorce attorney in Dayton for 33 years until her death in 2014 after an 18-month fight with breast cancer.
Kathy Ellison and daughter Lindsay Meck. CONTRIBUTED
Ellison worked her last case from her hospice bed, four or five days before she died. Meck described how her mother came from an entire family of attorneys, including Meck’s grandfather. But Ellison saw herself differently and saw her role as an advocate for women and families.
“She (believed) divorce wasn’t a bad thing for men or women ... She just she saw it as like, ‘this is something that’s not serving you anymore and now I’m moving. I’m moving forward. It’s an active choice for self-betterment.’”
The way that we talked about divorce, and the work that she did when I was growing up was like, not in any kind of ‘Throw someone’s stuff out the window' like, you know, acrimony. It was like, ‘No, this person needs to get out of that situation and I need to advocate for that.’"
Ellison was 38 years old when Meck was born, so Meck’s lens of what was going on in Dayton in the ’70s has been shaped by stories and lessons passed down from her mother.
Following the path Meck’s life has taken, it’s undeniable that Ellison’s advocacy lives on through her daughter.
Kathy Ellison and daughter Lindsay Meck. CONTRIBUTED
Before the pandemic, Meck, who now works for the Wall Street Journal, began a startup project in New York called “Onward” that serves as a “post-breakup concierge service.” The concept of Onward very much aligned with the work that Ellison was doing in Dayton. In New York, it can be difficult for people to leave a long-term relationship, Meck explained, because of moving challenges and other logistics in a huge city.
“I can’t believe my mom did that for 33 years. I don’t know how she had the fortitude to hear these tragic stories for 33 years and like still be optimistic about the world. ... she really kind of served a niche (in Dayton as an attorney.) Even after she died and we were trying, as a family, trying to move her caseload to someone else, you know, there’s no one who would take those cases.”
Ellison is remembered today by many in Dayton as a groundbreaker and someone who opened doors for future generations.
“Kathy had a lifelong commitment to equality and fairness. She worked in Dayton’s first all-women law firm, she was the primary author of our study of discrimination in the banking industry and throughout her life she worked for justice. Kathy and others like her paved the way for women today,” Noreen Willhelm said.
Margaret Austin and Brenda Gaines together in 2020. CONTRIBUTED
Margaret Austin and Brenda Gaines
Margaret Austin and Brenda Gaines met and started dating in 1987 while working in Dayton. The couple got married in Santa Ana, Calif., in 2014, as same-sex marriage was still illegal in Dayton.
Austin, an active member of Dayton Women Working, was a bookkeeper at a Dayton law firm when she became involved in the women’s movement. It was Noreen Willhelm who handed Austin a DWW informational flyer on Courthouse Square during Austin’s lunch break at the law firm.
“Once I got involved in it, it just all made sense to me,” Austin said. Basically, I considered myself a feminist since that day Noreen handed me the flyer, you know? It stayed with me all my life. I still consider myself a feminist. I think I am much more aware of things. I think I am much more willing, or able and willing both to help people when I hear problems and stuff, even things that came up when Brenda and I first met."
Margaret Austin and Brenda Gaines together in 2001.
Gaines, who had not yet met Austin, said she didn’t know there was an ongoing women’s movement at the time of Dayton Women Working as she was making her way in the workforce. Today she says she wished she had known there was a network of women that could have offered support during those times.
Before Gaines became the City of Dayton’s first Black woman water meter reader in 1974 — and only the third woman to work in the field — Gaines was in a terrible job situation that left her struggling as a single mother, making $1.60 an hour, or minimum wage at the time in Fairborn.
Brenda Gaines became the city's first black woman water reader in 1974. CONTRIBUTED
Just a year before the city hired Gaines, the very first woman meter reader was hired.
“I got the job. My first paycheck was more than I got in a month on Aid to Dependent Children,” Gaines said.
For the first time, Gaines was able to get sick leave benefits and a cost of living check every three months from the city.
“I was just so happy to have that. ... I found out that my supervisor had gotten injured in an accident. ... But he had used up all his sick leave. So he was off without pay. And I made up my mind, ‘I will never be sick.’ Yeah, as a matter of fact. I have seven years of perfect attendance.”
Gaines lived the women’s movement in Dayton through experiences outside of Dayton Women Working and the Women’s Center, just as many other Dayton women did.
“If I had known that there were people there, you know, like (that could support women dealing with) abuse — I’ll tell you, a friend of mine, she brought back this book and gave it to me. And it was called “Self-Assertion for Women.” I didn’t even know that books like that existed. ... I have been reading self-help books ever since. I had no idea. And there were so many women out there who didn’t know that there are (books), there are people out there (who want to help), that these types of programs were in existence.”
Today, Gaines, a 1999 Antioch University graduate and a 2004 master’s graduate, owns Watchful Eye Optical LLC eyewear company.
“I don’t know how good a job we (DWW) did in making people aware of the necessity of what we were doing and what we could do for women,” Austin said. ... I (still) see everything through my eyes from that time still. ... It just became an integral part of me.”