Smashing The Glass Ceiling

Martha Teichner, Sunday Morning, Bios, 2003 correspondent
(This story originally aired May 14, 2006)

Say Traverse City, Michigan and anybody who's ever been there automatically thinks of cherries. In early May at this time of year, just outside of town, acres and acres of cherry blossoms cover the hills overlooking Lake Michigan, recalls CBS Sunday Morning contributor Martha Teichner.

In July, the self-proclaimed "cherry capital of the world" holds its national cherry festival and crowns a cherry queen.

And so it's been as long as I can remember, Teichner says as she paid her hometown a visit recently to monitor the progress of women in her lifetime.

There isn't much left of the old Munson Hospital. When I was born here 58 years ago, on January 12, 1948, there was exactly one woman doctor on staff.

One woman to 45 men. Her name was Dr. Mildred Herkner. She was a pediatrician.

Today, the ever-expanding Munson Medical Center is Traverse City's largest employer, and Deborah Ochs, a pulmonologist and intensive care physician, is one of 72 women out of the more than 300 doctors -- that's slightly below the national average of just over 1 to 4.

It's not 50-50, but the change in my lifetime is pretty remarkable.

"I think the climate here has been do the job, gain the respect," Ochs says bluntly.

And as if to make the point, Ochs never wears a white coat.

Once upon a time, if a woman doctor didn't wear a white coat, somehow people wouldn't necessarily believe she was a doctor.

"That's what needed to be overcome," Ochs says.

What Linda Smyka had to overcome when she was appointed to the Traverse City planning commission 16 years ago was being treated as if she were invisible.

"I would often come home from a meeting and tell my husband that I had made a point at a meeting and that after I had made it a male would make it again and then someone would say, 'I really agree with so-and-so' -- the male opinion," Smyka recalls.

But talk about how times have changed.

When she ran for mayor in 2003 and won, Smyka beat the incumbent, also a woman.

"I think as the boomers aged, that wave sort of went through," Smyka says of the sexist attitudes she faced.

Of the 4,100 municipalities the National League of Cities keeps track of, 16 percent have women mayors.

"I kept my maiden name on my business cards even though after we got married I changed my name to my husband's," says Barbara Benson, who won the Athena Award in Traverse City. The Athena Award is given in more than 500 communities to leaders who advance the status of women.

Benson explained her name change, saying she did it because "people would then know that I was part of the family that owned the business."

Until she retired a year and a half ago, Benson was vice president of Schmuckal Oil, started by her father. It employs 300 people. Traditionally, in Traverse City, the best opportunities for women were in family businesses.

With a population of around 15,000, there haven't ever been lots of big corporations here. In fact, downtown doesn't look all that different from the way it did in 1957, when Kay Jerome was cherry queen. These days Jerome's realm is the women's clothing store she owns on Front Street, where women rule.

Jerome remarks that up and down Front Street, every other business is owned by a woman.

Traverse City is right in step.

Nationally, the number of women-owned businesses is growing at twice the rate of all businesses, but look around. In Traverse City, at least, we're talking about small businesses.

"When I was a kid, people asked me what I was going to do and I always said, 'I'm going to be president and so now I am," says Juliette Schultz.

Being president of her own company, Spark Marketing, women like Schultz avoid the glass ceiling issue. Besides herself, she employs two people, one of whom is her husband.

If you look at Fortune 500 companies, a measly 2.2 percent of the CEO's are women. And seats on boards of directors: 14.7 percent.

"Definitely had to work harder as a woman starting in this market, knowing that it was dominated by men," Schultz says.

So why did she do it?

Like women all over the country one big reason was so she could manage her family life. Spark Marketing is located in Schultz's basement. Whenever she wants, she can just go upstairs to spell the baby sitter, who watches her son Rowan all day.

"It has been wonderful to -- for me, from my perspective, to juggle all the balls," Schultz says.

One big difference now from the Traverse City of my childhood, is that then, there wasn't much in the way of support for women. There was no Athena Award, no Women's Resource Center and no bridge program at Northwestern Michigan College.

The program gives students whose lives have gotten derailed the tools to make it in college. For Nickie Grays, a single mother whose parents both died from AIDS, it was life-changing.

Two years on, she goes to school, works full time at a group home for the disabled and cares for her children, Montanna and Roman.

"I made it with the support of others," Grays says, adding, "We have a future."

When I spoke to a journalism class at Traverse City Central High School, already the girls were struggling with the same issues as the women who took part in a new .

Three out of four say they have to work to support their familes. And nearly that many are conflicted about working and raising a family.

The students Teichner spoke with reflected these conflicts.

"You gotta push and you gotta push and you gotta push, cause that's the only way you're gonna get anywhere," says Lynden Baesch.

"If you have a really good career going for you and then you have kids and you feel you have to make the choice between your career and your kids, I kinda feel that you need to go with your kids," Maureen Stych says.

"I want to be able to have kids," says Margaret Parsons. "I want to be able to have a job. I basically want it all."

Dr. Deborah Ochs and Juliette Schultz, Nickie Grays, Barbara Benson and Mayor Linda Smyka, with her own children and now helping to take care of a grandchild, all agree with the poll's results: that considerable progress has been made.

And for what it's worth, they've found that in Traverse City, sometimes it's even possible to get the balance right.