As a twenty-six-year-old cub reporter assigned to the "women's pages" at the High Point Enterprise, Betsy Gamble Hansen attempted to knock out the glass ceiling by applying for the police beat. Her editor's response: "We treat our women better than that."
Hansen didn't dare argue at the time, but she now has a strong rebuttal for men who dismiss women's potential in the workplace. In 2000, she founded the Oglethorpe University Women's Network, in Atlanta; its mission includes endowing a chair in the women's-studies department, spotlighting local women of distinction, and sponsoring discussions intended to rouse women, young and old, from their comfort zones.
Hansen patterned the network after Duke's Council on Women's Studies, an advisory group of influential women to which she belonged for three years. (The council disbanded two years ago, after Duke administrators assumed its responsibilities.) Council founder Jean Fox O'Barr, Distinguished University Service professor in Duke's women's-studies department, advised Hansen on developing the program at Oglethorpe, where her husband, Harald Hansen '55, serves on the board of trustees.
"I'm seventy-two-years old, and I see women whose lives are becoming more narrow, when instead they ought to be getting bigger," Betsy Hansen says.
She majored in English at Duke, where male writers dominated her contemporary literature classes. Back then, she says, the extent of her involvement in women's issues was serving as rush chairman for her Pi Beta Phi sorority.
After writing and directing puppet plays in Durham and starting a cottage industry that sold T-shirts for corporate events, Hansen became involved, in 1989, in raising money for her local chapter of UNICEF. She rose to the national board, participating in a fact-finding mission in the Dominican Republic, where, historically, male children are valued more highly than females: "The male children are seen as the future of the family, so the girls are denied a fair portion of food," she says. On her fact-finding mission, she says she observed that, since the fall of Rafael Trujillo, women were starting to overcome that bias and emerge as leaders.
Back on her home turf at Oglethorpe, women have also increasingly assumed leadership roles: Five more female professors have received tenure since the university's women's network was created, bringing the total to seven; four women's-studies majors have graduated from the small liberal-arts university; and the library has devoted a section to women's studies.
Hansen has made other contributions to Oglethorpe, including raising more than $100,000 for a two-day seminar on unsung heroines of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. The seminar, "Hear My Story" (conceived by Lee Davidson Wilder '73), examined the journeys of eighteen women, black and white, many of whom had to enter the movement through the back door because they weren't taken seriously by their male counterparts. Videotapes of the women's stories were subsequently distributed to colleges, libraries, and museums across the country.
"Betsy has a leadership position in the Atlanta community, so when she said, 'This is what I want to do,' a lot of people hopped on that train and said, 'Okay, we're with you,' " says Wilder, one of five former Duke Council members now serving on the Oglethorpe Women's Network. "She is a true Southern lady with an iron will."
Betsy Gamble Hansen '56
March 31, 2006