The Women and Gender Studies program recently held a symposium celebrating Women’s History Month, an all-day event that served as a showcase for women in history who refused to let gender expectations hold them back from breaking through the glass ceiling of their respected fields.
Several panels were held last Thursday, with presentations discussing women who helped redefine gender roles and domesticity, such as America’s first female astronaut Sally Ride. Others highlighted iconic women in the fields of science, engineering, and government, and addressed a study concluding that biases exist as it pertains to student evaluations for female educators.
A speech given by keynote speaker and the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) 2016 Person of the Year award-winner Mary Helen Berlanga served as one of the event’s most compelling examples of why women should aspire to reach for the proverbial brass ring, whether they are encouraged to or not.
Berlanga, who attended the University of Houston and later graduated from the South Texas College of Law, began her practice in Corpus Christi in 1975, primarily in the areas of immigration and social security disabilities. Berlanga served as a member of the Texas State Board of Education from 1982 to 2012, where she fought diligently for the rights of Texas schoolchildren. Berlanga ensured that political correctness and corporate agenda never came before giving students the opportunity to study important lessons in science, as well as providing them with a broad history of our nation’s diverse culture.
Having been recognized multiple times for her outstanding humanitarianism and unhindered desire to provide a proper education for all Texas students, the city of Corpus Christi opened the doors to Mary Helen Berlanga Elementary School in 2012, in honor of all that Berlanga has accomplished.
Berlanga beckons to all women with one question: “Why have so many women not run for public office?” While it is not uncommon to see men groomed to run for executive or political positions, Berlanga says that, “the studies show that the reason why [women] have not run for office is because no one has asked [them] to run.” In a world dominated by men supporting other men, Berlanga proclaimed that now is the time to advocate women’s innate abilities as natural leaders, in order to redistribute the balance of power in our political system.
“Women are multitaskers…women never give up…If no one’s encouraging you to run, I’m telling you to run,” said Berlanga.
Berlanga credits much of her success to a mantra she developed at a young age, one she hopes to pass on to other women who might have even the smallest inkling of self-doubt. “Remember this: if you’re educated, you’re qualified.”
The edict is something the former Texas state board member attributes to a life lesson learned after being asked to try out for a spelling bee in elementary school. Fearing she might not make the cut, Berlanga received encouragement from her mother, who said, “Well, if the teachers ask you to be in the spelling bee, why don’t you try out? Because the worst thing that can happen is you’ll lose, but if you win, you could win a ribbon!” To Berlanga’s surprise, she ended up placing second in the contest, learning the power you can instill in someone simply by believing in them.
Berlanga used the same mentality when running for the Texas State Board of Education in 1982. At the age of 35, running as a virtual unknown, Berlanga recalls being told, “It’s impossible, you’ll never make it.” Even though she was pitted against candidates who were perceived to have much more experience than her, Berlanga used the motivation of her four children, insisting that there would be no better way to impact not only their education, but that of all children. It was a way to make sure that they had the best education possible. With her motherly intuition and nurturing character, Berlanga went on to beat all opposing candidates, going on to have a stellar career in education.
Dr. Susan Roberson, assistant dean for the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as the director for the WGST program, opened the event with an inaugural introduction and greetings. Roberson, after hearing the positive words Berlanga had for the women of Texas A&M University-Kingsville, says the message expressed can inspire everyone, regardless of gender. “It’s also a wonderful message to get across to our female campus students, to know that they should get out and be more involved in their communities…especially since my generation was not encouraged to do so, it’s fantastic to have a speaker of Ms. Berlanga’s caliber instill such empowerment upon our students,” said Roberson.
Follow Raul Altamirano on Twitter: @raulsotx