Women's Contributions Noted, Lauded
By Carla Garnett
Photos by Ernie Branson
On the Front Page...
NIH's annual salute to women's history reflected sadness as well as hope as the aftermath of Sept. 11 was once again viewed, this time through the eyes of five women directly involved in the emergency responses. Held on Mar. 20, the first day of spring, the program also reflected a spirit of renewal that seems to be occurring not only in the nation and community, but also in women as a group and as individuals.
"Although not evident at first during the truly tragic events of September 11 the destinies of women and our most basic rights are irrevocably intertwined with those events," remarked Dr. Arlyn Garcia-Perez, assistant director of NIH's Office of Intramural Research, who noted that issues such as pay parity for women and recruitment of women to top leadership positions may initially seem less important in the shadow of the attacks. In fact, she said, such topics gain in relevance given the world's current climate.
"Before September 11," Garcia-Perez continued, "the plight of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime had been a footnote, relegated to specialized news programs and public broadcasting documentaries. Our intervention in Afghanistan has now liberated at least initially those women, providing them the very basic right to be educated, to learn how to read and write."
What an appropriate way to celebrate Women's History Month, she said, acknowledging that the first official day of school for Afghan women and girls would also be marked at the same time in history. "So they'll never forget as we won't as women and leaders in the greatest free nation in the world that everything we do, everything we strive for, everything we struggle for, everything we aspire to and everything we gain sets an example for women all around the world. That example should always remain nothing but the most shining beacon of light for our less fortunate sisters to be guided by, because indeed we are all connected."
Also during the observance, a panel of five women shared firsthand accounts and photos of their roles in the aftermath of the nation's worst terrorist act. Blanche Williams Corey, president of Blanche Williams World-wide Inc., moderated the panel. Five NIH women were also honored for their outstanding performance to NIH following 9/11.
"President Bush proclaimed March as Women's History Month," said Joan Brogan, deputy director of NIH's Office of Equal Opportunity. "As part of this observance he encouraged every American to learn more about the important contributions that American women have made to make our nation free, strong, a voice for peace around the world. He encouraged all of us to learn more about these legacies, and this is what we're about today."
NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, a history-maker in her own right who has spent more than 46 years in various leadership positions at NIH and who now has led the agency for more than 2 years longer than some former NIH directors appointed permanently to the position encouraged the assembly.
"I was not at all surprised by the way our nation rallied to the aid of those who needed comfort or rescue," she said. "Nor was I in the least surprised by the fact that women contributed so much to the emergency operations in New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania, and to the long difficult rebuilding that is still going on. Part of my hopeful attitude comes from my long association with this institution and with the women of this institution, who have been dedicated to bettering the lives of Americans and strengthening our security for more than a century.
"Here at NIH, health and security are one," she emphasized. "At NIH women and men are working every day to fulfill a promise made to the American people on this campus on October 31, 1940 by President Roosevelt, a promise to provide the scientific knowledge needed to improve the health, prolong the lives and enhance quality of humankind regardless of race, creed, age or gender. Roosevelt said, 'We cannot be a strong nation unless we are a healthy nation.' Improving the health of American citizens through medical research goes hand in hand with bolstering our economy and our civil defense system. Both constitute domestic national security."
Offering details of local emergency efforts was panelist Tiffanye Costello, lead instructor for the Arlington County fire department, who said perspectives from 9/11 are necessarily different for those who were involved in emergency operations that day. "Unlike the images of the World Trade Center, where you see everyone rushing from the building and running away," she said, "the images I remember most were the people running to the Pentagon to help. The urgency there was to help anyone and everyone. I come to you on behalf of not only the eight women from my department who responded, but also for all the countless women who responded to the Pentagon. It was women who were the main reason why our department was able to respond so completely. [Despite the tremendous focus on the Pentagon crash scene], there was not a call that was not answered in Arlington County during that time."
Deployed to ground zero on Sept. 21 with the PHS National Disaster Medical Assistance Team, panelist Betty Hastings, a medical technician, described herself as "a social worker in uniform." She recalled the scenes of devastation and grief that met her team at the start of their shift and said she relied on her experiences as a Girl Scout to help her through 9/11. "What it taught me was that 'On my honor, I will try to serve God and my country' and help others whenever I can," she said, recalling words and sentiment of the Girl Scout Promise.
Panelist Brenda Rabbit, a lieutenant at the D.C. fire department who helped with fire suppression and rescue at the Pentagon with 80 other members of her station on 9/11, recalled being moved by the American flags she saw everywhere. Following their presentations, the panelists were given mementos of appreciation by Rudene Thomas, president of the Bethesda chapter of Federally Employed Women and event planning committee chair.
Congratulating all the women, NIH acting deputy director Dr. Yvonne Maddox said, "I would venture to say that these women who were outstanding after 9/11 are also women who were outstanding before 9/11, in terms of their tenacity and in terms of their commitment. It's great that as we learn about the heroism and courage of people all over the country post-9/11, we can recognize some of our own women, women who belong to the family of NIH."
She also briefly discussed the month's national theme, "Women: Sustaining the American Spirit," and noted that historically "in times of catastrophic events, women who considered themselves ordinary became in fact extraordinary." Maddox acknowledged that in the past decade the nation and NIH in particular have urged the traditional caretakers to take better care of themselves. "We've always recognized that women have cared about their families and their communities," she said, "but with the establishment of the Office of Research on Women's Health in 1990 and with a lot more emphasis on women's health, we've been able to say perhaps women will now focus on themselves and their own health."
Capt. Patricia Haynes of the NIH Police Branch and panelist reflected on changes to her profession both locally and nationwide. "I have been in the law enforcement arena for more than 23 years," she said, "but law enforcement now is totally different than it was before 9/11. Prior to 9/11, at NIH the police department's primary focus was catching the everyday criminal. After 9/11, our focus was not only on your everyday criminal, but also on the threat of bioterrorism. We had to develop new strategies and policies to meet these objectives."
Noting that the safety of employees, patients and visitors had always been given highest priority and that the priority never changed, she admitted that "now the nature of the dangers has changed."
Women, she said, have demonstrated extraordinary capabilities holding positions in scientific laboratories, in hospital settings, in roles of leadership and in government offices. "There is no field in life, no position in government or in civilian society where women are not equally capable," Haynes concluded. "For women post-9/11, we need to begin the healing process in our homes and our communities. We have a real opportunity today to use our moral authority, our hearts and our minds to help ensure peace for our children and our children's children."
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