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Women empowering women

Swan: ‘We can raise each other up’
Women empowering women
Women empowering women
Mary Chilpala of Grace House, right, talks with Melissa Swan following the first Crawford County Women Empowerment meeting last Wednesday at Crawford County High School. Swan and Chilpala spoke at the event. Photos by Stephanie Taylor Ferriell
By Stephanie Taylor Ferriell, Senior Staff Writer, [email protected]

Melissa Swan can pinpoint exactly what cemented her decision to pursue a career in journalism. It was 1974. She was a student at Leavenworth High School. The Watergate scandal gripped the nation. People were glued to their TVs, entranced by President Richard Nixon’s impeachment hearing.

Recalling media coverage the night Nixon resigned, Swan said, “I wanted to be one of those people,” referring to the journalists covering the historic event. “It was a calling; it still is. What makes this country great are the hard-working journalists who take their work seriously and don’t stop digging.”

Swan, who spent more than three decades at WHAS11 TV in Louisville, was the featured speaker at the inaugural Crawford County Women Empowerment event last Wednesday evening at Crawford County High School south of Marengo. Nearly 80 women attended the event, designed to motivate, inspire and provide an opportunity for local women to connect with others.

Swan enjoyed a successful career, garnering two Emmys and having “ringside seats to spectacular events” including 35 Kentucky Derbys and two presidential inaugurations. She reported from Ukraine on orphaned children, covered the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in Florida and visited Korea to do a story about soldiers who had trained at Fort Knox, Ky., and were stationed on the North-South Korean border.

Swan also reported on the event that changed America forever: Sept. 11, 2001. “It was my greatest career challenge and my most memorable,” she said. Anchoring live coverage with the Twin Towers smoldering behind her, Swan recalls lots of tears but also “the undeniable American will to persevere.”

While she had knowledgeable, dedicated and very caring teachers at Leavenworth, the reality was “I was woefully unprepared” for college. Her class of 33 students was drilled in the basics but lacked a library, science lab and other extras students from bigger areas had been exposed to. Swan was the first Leavenworth graduate in more than a decade to head to Indiana University at Bloomington.

Thinking she would just go off to college and become a great journalist, reality soon hit Swan full force.

When the phone call came from home, she knew it meant trouble. At that time, she explained, parents did not call to check in on their children. Her parents had received a letter from the university informing them their daughter was on academic probation.

It was not an easy conversation.

“I was sobbing and promising to try harder,” Swan said. “I realized I didn’t know what to do. … I didn’t know how to study.”

She said her roommate “saved my life.”

Taking Swan under her wing, the fellow student taught Swan how to take notes, to recopy them to help cement the information in her mind, how to prepare for a test.

“We spent hours every evening huddled over our textbooks,” she said. “ … It never really got easy, but I made it through.”

Reflecting decades later, Swan observed, “It’s odd how my destination turned on a dime.”

Although ill-prepared academically for the rigors of college, Swan had two big advantages over some students. One was the work ethic instilled by her Depression-era parents.

“Hard work was part of the recipe for getting ahead,” she said. “You didn’t question it.”

Another was her “Tiger Mom.” Laughing, she said, “I lived it before the term was popular.”

A Tiger Mom, she explained, is strict and pushes her children to high levels of achievement. The Tiger Mom also doesn’t mind to intervene when she sees fit. While Swan was still in high school, her mother one day stopped by The Corydon Democrat office, assuring the editor her daughter could write for them.

“Thinking ‘I can’t’ was beside the point,” said Swan. “I had been volunteered.”

She submitted an article featuring some survivors of the deadly April 3, 1974, tornado. “It was a full page, complete with photos.” That piece is one of the few bylined Missy Swan.

While Missy was a nickname she was used to, Swan abandoned it; “I wanted to be taken seriously, so I went by Melissa,” she said.

Forty years ago, the landscape for female journalists — women in most fields, really — was fraught with hills and valleys. Sexism was the norm, and there were no repercussions.

Working mothers were not viewed in a favorable light, and accommodations were nonexistent. When she was eight months pregnant and working at another station early in her career, Swan told her news director she needed the next four Thursday evenings off for Lamaze classes. Despite the fact she regularly worked long days, her boss was not understanding.

“He said, ‘Well, I guess you’ll have to pick your priorities’,” she said. “I looked at my belly and said, ‘I guess I already have’.”

Emotionally, standing up for herself was draining.

“I went home and cried,” she admitted.

She did the same after an embarrassing on-air incident in which, shortly after returning from maternity leave, Swan leaked breast milk while live on-air. Shortly thereafter, a letter arrived in the mail from a concerned female viewer, sharing how horrified she was by the incident.

“She went on for paragraphs telling me I should be home taking care of my child instead of being on TV, as if it were a hobby,” Swan said.

Although women have been told for years they can have it all, it’s not true, Swan said.

“You cannot have it all. Not by yourself,” she said. “ … The bottom line is you’ve got to have a support system.”

Employers’ attitudes toward working mothers has evolved greatly, benefiting women and their families.

“I’m amazed at how much more understanding my daughter’s employer is of her child obligations,” Swan said. “She has a lot of flexibility.

“They finally got it: if a female worker is happy, she’s a better worker,” she added.

Swan remembers back in the ’70s and ’80s, women were not empowering one another.

“There was a lot of jealousy,” she said. “… Times have really changed. … By the time I left, it was a whole lot better.”

The women who entered the workforce en masse, starting in the ’70s, paved the way for working women of today.

“We broke a lot of ground in those days, ground you don’t have to break today,” Swan said. “ … I truly believe if we’re going to empower women we have to put women in power and they will put others there.

“By supporting one another we can raise each other up.”

About Crawford County Women Empowerment

Wendy Broughton came up with the idea for the Women Empowerment group. Photo by Allison Howell

Crawford County Women Empowerment is a group intended to connect strong, motivated and smart women who are from, work or live in Crawford County.

“We are here to create networking opportunities for women. We are here to motivate each other and be proud of who we are and where we come from,” said Wendy Broughton, one of the founding members. “We have many women working in our community or who are from Crawford County that are inspirations to fellow peers and the future women of Crawford.”

Other Crawford County WE committee members are Katie Newton, a public affairs specialist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District; Savanna Saltsgaver, marketing coordinator for Crawford County Economic Development Corp. and aide to the Chamber of Commerce; and Allison Howell, committee member, Harrison County Hospital chief nursing officer.

For more information, like the Facebook page, Crawford County Women Empowerment.

So, how do we do this empowering thing anyway?

Women Empowering Women. What does it mean, really? And how does one go about empowering someone? The best approach may be KISS: Keep It Simple, Sweetheart. Melissa Swan, guest speaker at the first Women Empowering Women event in Crawford County, said it’s the small things that can make the biggest difference in someone’s life. She shared a story of a friend whom she recently gifted a sweatshirt. It wasn’t fancy; she’d picked it up when it was on sale. But it deeply touched her friend, who’s going through some tough times. “It made her day,” said Swan. “She was so excited.” And it made Swan feel great to have lifted another woman’s spirits. Swan said it all comes down to paying attention. “Notice what others are going through,” she said. “A little gift shows you care. … Start in your own home, work place and community.” Here are some ideas for how you can have an impact on women in your life:

• Write a note of thanks to a woman who’s had a positive impact on your life.

• Pick up a cup of coffee for the new mom in your office who’s struggling to adapt to a new, demanding schedule.

• Tell your sister, mother and/or daughter how much you appreciate them.

• Be a mentor to a young woman in your life. And if you’re the mentee, listen to the advice given

Members of the Women Empowerment planning task force were introducted by Wendy Broughton, who had the initial idea for the group. From left are Christine Harbeson, Katie Newton, Allison Howell and Savanna Saltsgaver.

4 components to success

Melissa Swan outlined four components to women achieving success:

1. Find people to push you

2. Look for those who know what hard work is

3. Find people willing to teach you

4. Find courage to say “I can do that”