GARDINER — When Julia Walkling’s mother marched for women’s voting rights in the early 20th century, a man told her she should have been at home cooking dinner for her husband.

When Gilda Nardone first became aware of the gender pay gap, American women were making 59 cents for every dollar a man earned.

When both Karen Tucker and Helen Stevens were children and wore pants to school, administrators admonished them for not wearing more lady-like clothing.

Those were a few of the memories that surfaced on Monday morning, when Walkling, Nardone, Tucker and Stevens spoke to 35 students at Gardiner Area High School. Their panel discussion was one of several taking place this week as part of a unit on women’s rights.

Each of the speakers this week are Maine women who are older than 60 and have overcome, in one way or another, the obstacles faced by women of earlier eras.

Those difficulties included everything from lower pay and less job availability, to the stigmatization of divorced women and single mothers, to advertisements that portray women in an overly sexual or domestic light. None of those troubles have been eliminated — U.S. women now earn closer to 80 cents for each dollar a man earns — but each of the speakers agreed that we live in a better time for women’s rights.

The week’s slate of speakers includes current and former elected officials, social workers, attorneys and health care experts.

Walkling used to work as a computer programmer at IBM and now sits on the Maine Humanities Council. Nardone runs an organization that once focused on the economic empowerment of women, but has since expanded its mission to include all Mainers. Tucker works for a regional public health organization. Stevens produces artwork for children’s books.

In the small auditorium where they spoke Monday morning, hanging from the walls were photos of various women associated with the feminist movement, including supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, activist and writer Gloria Steinem, attorney Anita Hill and tennis player Billie Jean King.

Students have been learning about those figures and others as part of a larger unit on civil rights, according to Amber Dostie, chairwoman of the school’s social studies department. Students in the unit have also studied African-American rights and will soon be looking at rights in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

For the series of talks on women’s rights, the department looked for women who lived through the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the debate around the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have guaranteed equal rights for women but was never approved by Congress.

Dostie, who is 36, believes the firsthand stories of an earlier generation might lend her students a healthy dose of skepticism.

“They’re bombarded with media and advertising, and they don’t even realize it. Most of it is, ‘Oh, look, I’ll eat a hamburger while wearing a bikini on a truck.’ It impacts them now more than ever with the cellphones many of them carry,” Dostie said. “I hope when they see modern media that they can be critical about it.”

During the discussion, students took turns asking questions that they had prepared in their social studies classes.

When asked about their views of more famous women, the speakers praised Steinem, Hill, former supreme court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Maine politician Margaret Chase Smith and musicians Madonna and Janis Joplin.

“I always thought (Steinem) had a harder edge to her than I would have liked,” said Walkling, “but you know, sometimes you have to to get things done.”

But the speakers didn’t have warm feelings for Phyllis Schlafly, who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. While speaking in Maine in 2007, Schlafly made the controversial argument that married women automatically consent to having sex with their spouses and, thus, can’t be raped.

“She really drove me crazy,” said Stevens in response to a student’s question about Schlafly.

In response to one student’s question about the role of the birth control pill in the women’s rights movement, Tucker, who never married or had children, praised its development.

“I was never a slave to my uterus,” she said. “I’ve been able to live a full life and not have children.”

The speakers lamented that women used to not be able to land such jobs as astronaut and welder, and that those who wanted to work were once limited to flight attendant and secretary. They praised Title IX, the federal rule preventing discrimination in the U.S. education system.

All described themselves as feminists, though Tucker added that she also considers herself a masculinist and humanist.

Asked about the issue of domestic violence, the women said that it has become easier for women to report it and get out of abusive relationships, but that we still have a ways to go in addressing the problem.

After one student asked about women who have run for office, including current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Nardone urged the girls in the audience to think about one day running themselves.

The women closed out their talk by offering a few other pieces of advice to young women: find mentors, learn how to manage money, focus on the future and — despite the challenge it can present for some families — work toward getting a college education.

In an interview following the forum, juniors Treasure Pulley, Deanna Plaisted and Tyler Quirion all expressed their appreciation for the first-hand perspectives provided by the four speakers — perspectives they couldn’t find just by reading about the women’s rights movement.

Pulley, who wants to teach in a developing country, and Plaisted, who wants to go into fashion merchandising, took the mentorship advice to heart and said they would look for female role models in those industries.

Pulley also expressed concern about the negative way in which some people equate the word “feminist” with hatred of men.

“It’s not about hating men,” she countered. “It’s about wanting to be treated equally.”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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