Women’s Foundation of Minnesota President and CEO Lee Roper-Batker recently sat down with Julie Corty. Julie is a friend, member of Lee’s President’s Advisory Committee, and former WFMN trustee. Julie is a transformational WFMN supporter with a generous giving record since 1995, a planned gift, and a donor advised fund at WFMN. Lee asked Julie to reflect on her life as a woman and philanthropist, and why she believes it’s critical to invest in gender equity.
LRB: Describe yourself as a young woman. What are some early life experiences and memories that shaped your worldview and your belief in what you could accomplish as a woman?
JC: I was a shy but very curious kid. I was raised in southwest Minneapolis in the ‘50s and then Edina until I went to college. I had a huge curiosity about the adults around me and asked a lot of inappropriate questions. My mom had to shush me a lot. I guess it’s no surprise that I took up writing and journalism and later psychology because of that curiosity about people and their lives.
I had a tight group of girlfriends who really got me through high school, which is such a difficult passage for a lot of kids, as it was for me. This is where I learned a major life lesson—the importance of women friends. I don’t know how I could have come through tough times in my life — different losses and crises—without my girlfriends and my two sisters. I understood SISTERHOOD long before I was a feminist.
As a kid I was a voracious reader and I read all the little biographies (now called American Patriot series) in the school library, especially the ones about women. Instead of being amazed at how few women were included I remember just being surprised there were any. I was fully indoctrinated into believing women just weren’t cut out to be famous. Of course, it was only that they had very few opportunities, but I didn’t realize that then. So, I read about Amelia Earhart, Clara Barton, and, I think, Marian Anderson.
I really didn’t understand the barriers women faced and how the culture was rigged against our full participation until I read The Feminine Mystique in 1970. I remember being pretty gobsmacked. I was only 20 then but the book made me think a lot about my mom who had quit work as a secretary to become more-or-less an indentured servant to her four kids and husband. I talked to her about the book and she had mixed feelings. Like many housewives of that time she didn’t want to feel her life’s work was being belittled or discounted, but she said she wished she had been able to have a career. So, she really encouraged me and my sisters to grab hold of our lives in a different way than she had.
I always had the feeling that whatever career I had, I was doing it for my mother, too. But think of the progress that implies! By the time I graduated from college it was just assumed women would have a career, or at least a job, whereas in the post WWII years women, if they worked, were funneled into certain low-paying fields and expected to quit when they got married. Of course, as I say that, I realize the college and career option has historically not been available to women with less financial support behind them. And that continues to be a huge obstacle for too many.
LRB: What barriers did you experience as a young woman? What skills and qualities did you develop as a result of facing those barriers?
JC: I was so lucky in all the jobs I had, except one, to have had great, supportive bosses, both male and female. The only time I experienced harassment at work was when I was trying to make money to pay for University of Minnesota tuition and working in a Minneapolis department store selling shoes.
My manager would trap me in the storeroom, push me against the wall of shoeboxes and grope me. I never filed a complaint — I doubt there was an avenue for that. I just quit instead. Almost every woman I know has a story about an encounter like that. It’s why there was this big cry of Yes! when the #Me Too movement emerged. We’d all been there.
Another, I guess you’d say barrier, I see in looking back was the lack of training for young women to take on leadership roles. I always wondered if that might have been different in an all-girls’ school or college. Because of that I was never comfortable taking on jobs that demanded more assertiveness and agency. I worked well on a team or as an assistant editor or in a one-on-one situation. And I don’t regret that.
BUT I am so heartened to see how the next generations of women are more at ease in high-power roles in politics, in business and in the arts. This is one of the reasons I am a big supporter of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota — their long-time commitment to encourage leadership in young girls through programmatic focus.
I helped out financially and as an editor for the Young Women’s Initiative* and was in awe of some of the young women as they spoke to a large gathering about their own challenges and their perceptions of what was needed for their future economic success. You could just see the new leaders among them being formed. This idea that we would first go to the girls themselves and consider them experts in their own lives was really thrilling to me. I have been an advocate for girls in various ways over the years, but this got me so excited about the entire project.
Something similar happened with MN Girls Are Not For Sale.** The staff and board saw there was an issue that needed addressing on multiple fronts. It was one that needed research, that needed wide community input, needed public education and funding and it needed legislative changes. The Women’s Foundation stood up and said, “We’ll take it on.” And against a lot of skepticism, we did it. But without Lee’s vision and passion, I don’t think it would have worked. I know it was the result of a lot of people working very hard, but it would have been an orchestra without a conductor.
LRB: Thank you, Julie, I’m incredibly proud of the success of MN Girls and what we accomplished together. And I’m happy to know the Foundation will continue to support the deconstruction of systems that lead to pervasive sexual violence in our state and beyond through the WFMN Fund for Safety. Can you tell us more about why you have been such a committed donor and advocate of the Foundation?
JC: First, because I have seen progress towards gender equity in my lifetime, certainly in the U.S. and in other world democracies. We still have mountains to climb in many regions of the world where women continue to suffer from cultural patriarchy and we can’t forget that either. But I like to focus my philanthropy locally and the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota is the best organization I know that can take on the mission of securing a safe, fair, prosperous future for the women and girls of Minnesota. WFMN is not just reactive. It is strategic in the long term and flexible in the short term. I also feel the organization has a big heart and is not afraid to show it. Lee sets the tone by being so warm and inclusive. And funny, too! Attending events or board meetings, I always walk away impressed with the spirit of optimism and hope in the air. We need that right now more than ever. I also have confidence that the next executive director will embody many of these same traits and be guided by WFMN’s successful past while looking to the future.
LRB: What are the values that you hold closest and who influenced you in shaping those values? How does philanthropy fit into your value system?
JC: According to Buddhist philosophy there are three poisons in the world — Greed, Hatred and Delusion. When you look at the headlines you can link almost every sad story to one of those poisons. War, climate change, sexism and racism can all be traced to those three factors. But the teachings also say there is an antidote to each of these poisons and that’s where I am trying to live from as much as I can. The antidotes are Generosity, Kindness and Wisdom. Generosity speaks for itself, and incudes philanthropy but also everyday gestures, service tips, money for friends or relatives in need. Of course, it could include being generous with one’s time and energy, too.
Kindness also has so many everyday opportunities in how we talk to our loved ones as well as strangers we encounter. Just knowing life is not easy for anyone can lead to a kinder more compassionate attitude. Wisdom is maybe the toughest. I’m hoping reading The New York Times and fact-based journalism every day can help with that. But of course, it’s more than that. It’s, I think, a deeper spiritual wisdom that is harder to come by, but mindfulness practice and the awareness of our fragile human lives is pointing me in the right direction.
LRB: A WFMN staff member recently met with your son, Lucas Erickson, who is a contributor and a member of our Advancement Committee. He said he learned his values from you and that’s why he supports WFMN. Why is it important to raise our sons, as well as our daughters, to be engaged in supporting equity for girls and women?
JC: That makes me feel good to know Lucas said that. You never know when you raise your kids — I have two sons in their 30s now — what they are absorbing and what they are discarding! My kids know how much I value learning and being informed, and they live those values. I’m hoping they saw how much I valued my friends and family and so they do too.
But I think the feminist part of my being was harder for them to understand. So, I literally sat them down at various times in their lives to talk about “the old days” and how things were for women for generations before them. They also saw that their dad (my ex-husband) and I had a very equal relationship and division of labor so that helped as well. But really, I think young men need to see that feminist values work for them as well. They realize that gender and cultural stereotypes are constricting for everyone, not just females. So, because Lucas lives here, I invited him to meet with WFMN as he started his own philanthropic efforts. He just took it from there. I’ll catch the other one when he comes to town! I can’t stress this enough — how important it is to get the men in our lives involved. The issues of equity and justice are issues we all have a stake in.
LRB: Seven years ago, WFMN was invited by the African Women’s Development Fund to meet with women driving social and economic change in Africa. We were both so fortunate to be part of that life-changing experience. What were some of the highlights of that trip for you?
JC: Those women have become iconic for me. As you know, we met women on all strata of the economic scale and they took our breath away with their strength, eloquence and joy. Remember how we were greeted (in Nairobi, Kenya) with dancing and singing even in the middle of Kibera, the biggest so-called “slum” in the world? No one was giving up. Not the disabled women who were running their own brick factory or the lesbians who had to take their radio show underground in Uganda because of death threats. And I think of the huge gathering in Ghana of women, most in traditional dresses and headwear, who represented leadership across Africa. It was all so inspirational. I’d love to take another trip like that someday to link up with other women in other parts of the world.
LRB: As I approach the next chapter of my own life, I’m reflecting on legacy. How would you like to be remembered?
JC: Legacy is a word that makes me feel very old. But I also have an acceptance of the march of time and I have no delusions about the phase of life I’m in as I approach 70. When my mom went in to have a mastectomy, a couple years before she died of breast cancer, I remember her being wheeled away from us and I heard her asking the nurse all kinds of questions about her life. I remember thinking, “Wow, even at a time like this my mom is thinking about the other person.” That’s that source of kindness I was mentioning as a value. I hope I would be remembered above all as kind. Well, as fun, too. But kind above all.
Second, I’d like to be thought of as a woman who cared about the global status and plights of women. I love being a woman and identify with women as “my tribe” in a way. I was an editor of a news magazine called Twin Cities Woman and at the Minnesota Women’s Yearbook in the late ‘70s. I got such a thrill out of the accomplishments of so many women against such odds at the time! But I also am becoming more aware of the continuing inequities and structural economic barriers so many women face. There is still a lot to do!
*Launched in 2016, the Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota (YWI MN) is co-led by WFMN and Minnesota’s Governor’s Office and is the first partnership of its kind in the U.S. Centered on the leadership of young women of color (ages 12-24) and those with the greatest disparities in outcomes, YWI MN focuses on increasing access to economic opportunity, safety and leadership. Young women design and drive YWI MN because it is founded and operates with the belief that equity in design leads to equity in outcomes.
** Beginning in 2012, WFMN invested $7m over 8 years in Minnesota Girls Are Not For Sale campaign, and created sea change in MN’s response to sex trafficking, including shifts in policy and statewide infrastructure.