Howard County women who are leading in the age of #MeToo

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

The white, one-room schoolhouse in Rockburn Branch Park may be historic, but it hasn’t always stood in the Elkridge park. Pfeiffer’s Corner Schoolhouse, which dates to the 1860s, was moved to its current home in 2003, 15 years after former Hammond Middle School teacher Pat Emard Greenwald helped lead the charge to save the school after its original property was bought by a developer.

Pfeiffer’s schoolhouse is one of three Greenwald, 72, has helped restore. She led the restoration of the Historic Sykesville Colored Schoolhouse while serving on the Sykesville Historic District Commission and is now helping turn the Quaker School in Ellicott City into a children’s museum. Greenwald is first vice president of the Howard County Historical Society and lives in Sykesville.

“I think that we’re such a mobile society right now and people move in and out and particularly children have no sense of roots or something before them,” Greenwald said. “They need to know they’re part of a larger continuum, and I think we can give them that sense by preserving that sense of the past. I practice what I preach.”

Greenwald is being recognized for her preservation work as one of this year’s three inductees in the Howard County Women’s Hall of Fame, alongside Debbie Slack Katz of Sykesville and Joan Webb Scornaienchi of Columbia.

The awards, now in their 22nd year, are chosen by the county’s Commission for Women to celebrate women who have dedicated their lives to local service. Commission Chair Neveen Kurtom said she couldn’t discuss specifically why the three were chosen because the selection is a closed process, but that “their resumes speak for themselves.” She also declined to disclose the number of nominations the commission received. A ceremony and a reception are Thursday night in Ellicott City as part of Women’s History Month activities.

Slack Katz, a registered nurse, has spent years as a volunteer on local boards and commissions, including her current position as vice president of the Ellicott City Partnership and seats on the Historic Ellicott City Flood Workgroup and Ellicott City Master Plan Advisory Committee. She will be a part of the county’s first Opioid Crisis Community Council. A Howard County native, Slack Katz said the award “means the world” to her, especially after her mother Doris Thompson Slack was inducted in 2009.

“I’m an Ellicott City girl, a Howard County girl through and through. My family’s been here for like 14 generations,” Slack Katz, 63, said. “This is just the icing on the cake, it says that other people appreciate what I’ve done. A core value of our family is that we always get involved in the community.”

Scornaienchi is the executive director of HC DrugFree, a Columbia-based nonprofit educating families and teens about drug use prevention and treatment. She’s served at the helm of the organization since 2009 and is also active throughout the county; last year she served as chair of the Commission for Women.

Scornaienchi, 58, said the induction is especially important to her after nominating her friend, Ann Ryder, first in 2007 and again in 2008; Ryder died of cancer in March 2009 and was inducted posthumously in 2011.

“For me to be inducted now and to be put on the list with my friend who meant so much to me, that’s the beautiful part for me. That’s what this is about,” she said. “This isn’t about a recognition, this is really about being with women I admire, respect and celebrate and wanting to be part of them forever.”

Communities of women have taken center stage in recent months, as the #MeToo movement has surged around the world, leading to discussions of gender equity and demands for change. The movement took off in October 2017 as women began sharing their experiences with sexual harassment using the social media hashtag #MeToo.

“It was more meaningful [to be inducted] this year, because of women’s voices demanding to be heard and recognized and of the things that we do being valued,” Greenwald said. “#MeToo showed us that voices can be heard when a large group stands together.”

Kurtom said that while #MeToo hasn’t yet had an influence on the commission’s work, incorporating the movement into future endeavors is a possibility. Megha Sharma, the commission’s lone student member, said it’s something she’d like to see as part of future action.

“A lot of groups are just talking about problems,” Sharma, 17, said. “But I also value action behind that and making that change happen.”

For the inductees, gender disparity is something they’ve dealt with multiples times in their lives. Greenwald said it affected her career choice; as a student she had wanted to become a journalist but was discouraged by those around her at Northwestern University.

“It was, ‘girls don’t really do this.’ You didn’t have the options, in that sense of just feeling held down and not being able to do what I really wanted to do as a young woman,” Greenwald said. “I think today’s girls just wouldn't stand for that.”

Scornaienchi agreed that the movement has highlighted for her how much things have changed over the years. Like scores of other women across the country, Scornaienchi said she has experienced more than one #MeToo moment in her life.

“I give the younger generation so much credit for taking a stand and for just their willingness and their ability to say ‘we deserve a better future,’” she said. “We came up at a time when we said as much as we could say and yet worried about keeping jobs or about what was acceptable, socially [and] professionally and now younger women have opened the doors so that even our stories, we’re no longer just carrying them, we’re releasing them out into the world.”

Since the hashtag went viral last fall, #MeToo has spread across the globe to include millions of women and men, not only sharing their stories but demanding changes in law and workplace policy about how sexual harassment is treated.

To ensure lasting change however, Shawn Perri-Giles, Director of the Center for Political Communication and Civic Leadership at the University of Maryland with a specialty in women in politics, said continued advocacy needs to happen at not only the national level, but in local communities and governments, where she said many women get their start in politics and civic work.

“History would suggest that we’ll see high tides and some backlash, and it’s how we weather that backlash that matters,” she said.

Nationally, there has been a rise in women announcing bids for office ahead of the 2018 elections. In Howard County, six of the 16 candidates for County Council are women and 11 of the 23 candidates for the General Assembly are women.

“Women bring a diversity of issues that are not just seen as ‘women’s issues.’ They impact everybody. If women are underpaid it impacts everybody,” Perri-Giles said. “Trying to normalize and bring into the mainstream women’s issues brings women’s voices into a diversity of issues. Stop saying there are women’s issues and everything else. That just needs to stop.”

The importance of female leadership is something Slack Katz said she values; she cited Howard Community College President Kathleen Hetherington as a leader she admires.

“Everything starts in your own sphere of influence,” Slack Katz said. “You work in your own sphere and then it gets bigger and bigger.”

Greenwald said she works to expose youth in the community to local leaders, particularly at the Sykesville schoolhouse where she runs an after school homework club. Recently Greenwald brought in Sykesville Town Manager Aretha Adams, “because she was a local, realistic, attainable, somebody they could aspire to grow up to be.”

“It’s really important to be attainable role models, something that they can realistically expect to be [and] not just looking at the Hillary Clintons and Oprah Winfreys,” she said. “I think that’s what all women should do with young girls, just be a role model for them.”

One of those young leaders in Howard County is Centennial High School senior Julie Wang, who established the county’s first Girl Up club, a campaign and global network of clubs through the United Nations Foundation aimed at empowering girls.

Wang, 18, sai she started the club because she wanted to empower both herself and other girls. Since the growth of the #MeToo movement, she said it’s helped give even more meaning to her work, which has included a Girl Up convention and a feminine hygiene product drive.

“It’s really about empowering women and making sure we stand up for each other,” Wang said. “A lot of times girls in our club talk about supporting women but not putting it in action. Now it’s more important than ever to put our words into actions.”

“I encourage girls younger than me to embrace our passions, to be super dedicated about whatever they do, just to have the confidence to pursue their dreams,” she said. “They should never be afraid of raising their hands in class, of standing up for what they believe is right.”

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