The legacy of Kay Bergin

Kay Bergin was born one year after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. She was just two years old when Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party first proposed the Equal Rights Amendment to eliminate discrimination on the basis of sex.

At the time of her death last week, Kay was still hopeful that someday, the ERA would become law; that this country would formally acknowledge that gender-based discrimination is wrong.

Although she didn’t live to see that day, Kay did see much progress in her 90 years, and was instrumental in bringing about much of it here in Connecticut. During the early 1970s – a time which gave enormous momentum to the women’s rights movement- Kay was on the ground floor of establishing two of Connecticut’s most influential women’s groups: she was the first director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) and one of the founders the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund (CWEALF).

It’s hard for most people today to realize that in the early 1970s, women were not allowed to stand in bars, could not get credit on their own, and found employment in a separate section for women in the want ads. Until the passage of Title IX (an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964) a girl had little hope of wringing from her educational experience anything close to that of a boy: Until then, despite federal funding, school programs–including sports, science classes and even school bands–could legally provide female students with little to no educational enrichment compared with that of their male classmates.

Kay Bergin was one of the state’s pre-eminent feminists who looked around her in the 1970s and said, “This has to change.” And this, and this, and this. Under her leadership, the PCSW worked with the General Assembly to enact a law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex or marital status in credit transactions (1973). The agency did a major study which led to the passage of gender-neutral language in the Connecticut General Statutes (1974) and, on Kay’s watch, Connecticut’s policy-makers established the Office of Child Day Care (1975).

Meanwhile, in the wake of the passage of Connecticut’s Equal Credit Act, Kay Bergin helped launch CWEALF as a women’s rights law firm focusing on cases concerning equal pay, equal credit and sex discrimination. CWEALF’s first case challenged the denial of Medicaid funding for abortions, and other early litigation included Title VII and Title IX cases. Kay was at the epicenter of it all.

Today, CWEALF and the PCSW continue to fight for the rights and opportunities that Kay helped to establish for women in Connecticut. In addition to her indefatigable passion for equality, Kay was also a strategist. She knew how to bring people together, and how to get folks with radically different views to the same table. She was a gracious presence, even as she refused to pull punches when it came to women’s rights.

She taught many of us how to challenge the system respectfully – and effectively. Each and every one of Connecticut’s 1,800,650 women is the richer for Kay’s having lived among us. And, because any improvement to women’s economic security, legal status, health, safety and education benefit all of society, every man in Connecticut owes her a debt of gratitude, too.

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