By Laura Foti Cohen
Each Ebell member has a personal history that intersects with and adds to women’s history. In honor of Women’s History Month, we profile members who had to overcome obstacles and those for whom the road was smooth. All have made and are continuing to make a difference in their community of Los Angeles and the greater world beyond.
New member and photographer Devin Ford (devinford.com) left her native Alabama because she felt she would have greater opportunities in Los Angeles. “There’s the good ol’ boys club mentality there,” she says. “As a young woman deciding what I wanted to do, I thought I needed to get out of the south.”
Devin, a member of the board of the National Political Women’s Caucus, has had a series of female mentors who have encouraged her in her photography career. “Once I got to LA I kept meeting all these feminists.” One was Ivy Bottini, a founder of the first chapter of the National Organization for Women who led a takeover of the statue of Liberty in 1970. She is now working on creating an AIDS memorial in West Hollywood, where Devin has served on the committee of the West Hollywood Women’s Leadership Conference.
“Women make up 51% of the population, but less than 17% of elected and appointed officials,” Devin points out. “If you think about it, through the history of the world, the group most discriminated against is women. When I do business with women and gay men, immediately I’m treated as an equal, as if I know what I’m talking about. Often, doing business with men, I have to spend time proving myself.
“Women’s groups and organizations are important because we have to support each other up the ladder. As soon as I came to the Ebell, I had to join. I saw it as a room filled with mentors. I think a lot of women feel the same way.”
Kathie Gauld holds a Masters degree from Long Island University’s Guidance and Counseling department in the School of Education. She taught and interviewed applicants to Duke, where she received her undergraduate degree, but spent much of her life as a stay-at-home mom. Of changing attitudes toward working women she says, “In the 1960s and ‘70s it used to be that the only acceptable fields for women were nursing, secretarial work and teaching. You had to be awfully driven to get out of those areas.”
Kathie respected those who did, saying in fact, “I had a prejudice toward professional women, meaning I thought they would probably be better than their male counterparts because they were women, because they’d had to overcome so many hurdles and obstacles. Many of the professional people we used were women because we found them to be so good.”
Although she spent almost 40 years on Long Island, Kathie grew up in Los Angeles, and returned here almost 10 years ago. Growing up, she lived in a family compound a few blocks south of the Ebell. Says Kathie, “All my father’s family lived in that block in different dwellings,” with her paternal grandmother living in the “big house.”
Of her grandmother, Kathie says, “She ran a commercial laundry and also worked in commercial real estate. She was very much a businesswoman and worked every day, which was unusual at that time.” Kathie’s grandmother also created and tended exceptional gardens: “a formal rose garden like they have in Exposition Park, tropical fruit trees and other tropical plantings, all very beautiful and elaborate.”
While Kathie lived in New York, the property was taken through eminent domain, the houses razed, the gardens destroyed and the property turned into Harold A. Henry Park, named after a local City Councilman.
Mary Toolen-Roskam, the daughter of Greek immigrants, grew up wanting to be a psychologist. “Because I was an only child, they gave me so much and expected so much from me. I had private lessons in French, art, dancing, piano from age four, Greek – I hardly had time to play with other kids!”
While at Immaculate Heart High School, her parents informed her she would be going to USC, to become a teacher. “Teaching was the last thing I wanted to do,” Mary says, “but my mother called my friends and had them talk me into it. It ended up that I loved teaching, so it was probably lucky that my mother did that. I won outstanding teacher of the year and all kinds of awards and made a career out of it.”
Mary did go to USC and did her teacher training at schools in the area. She remembers, “While I was training, I was being interviewed for jobs. Principals would come and observe. I got an offer from Third Street School, which was walking distance from my house. I was willing to go there, but my training teacher told me the principal was a married womanizer and I shouldn’t take the job. I wound up in Pacific Palisades. Driving was a pain so after about two years I applied for another job and moved to Hancock Park Elementary on Fairfax. I taught fourth, fifth and sixth grades.”
Mary became a training teacher for USC, doing demonstration lessons. “That means prospective teachers come to the classroom for training. I would demonstrate a lesson, they would take notes and give me lesson plans for approval. Then they would teach the class and I would evaluate them. UCLA heard about me and I started doing training for them as well.”
These days, Mary belongs to 11 organizations and is most active in Freedoms Foundation and the Assistance League. In her 18 years with the Assistance League, Mary has received five volunteerism awards, including the Mannequins’ Eve award for Outstanding Philanthropy. For10 years, she served as President of the College Alumni Auxiliary. She and her husband Gordon live in her parents’ former home.
Mary believes, “There were no restrictions put on me because I was a woman. I did what I loved and had a great career. It wasn’t a job for me. It was just something to help children.”
Sandra Roussell holds a B.A. in Education, an M.A. in Psychology and an Ed.D. in Early Childhood Education. She spent the first 10 years of her career with LAUSD, then 30 years as the owner and operator of three Montessori schools.
Sandra says, “I started my own schools because public education was not what I thought it should be. I said, ‘OK, Lord, I’m going to step out on faith.’ Fortunately God is still on his throne and it all worked out.”
She adds, “I sold the schools and within a year the person I sold to went bankrupt. He changed the curriculum immediately – well, of course that was why people were coming to the schools. He changed the whole atmosphere. It was like losing a child.” Sandra now works as an educational consultant and teaches Early Childhood Education at the University of Beijing.
“The Chinese are so into education, it’s very structured and they’re very strict,” Sandra says. “It’s interesting they were drawn to Montessori because it’s not so structured, but I came up with a combination called ‘Modified Montessori’ – the children can work at their own rate, speed and ability, usually one year above grade level. “
Sandra goes to Beijing three times a year to teach seniors who will be teaching the following year. Back here in Los Angeles, she recently initiated a new program, placing schools in churches. In a pilot program funded by the International Montessori Society, the first school, a modified Montessori, opened last September at the Westchester Methodist Church. Like their Beijing counterparts, its
10-12 children in kindergarten and first grade are reading and doing math a year above grade level. “The aim is to see how it goes and to start another in the Los Angeles area, then expand throughout California if it works well,” Sandra says.
In general, she notes, “women have been highly involved in education because that was a field they could go into. Now, unfortunately and using my own daughters as an example, women are choosing not to go into education because it lacks the respect, dignity and status it used to have. They may teach for a short time if they can’t get into a grad school program they’re interested in. But education is not attracting bright young women the way it was 40 years ago. Now women do it until they can do something else.” One of Sandra’s daughters is a lawyer, the other an entrepreneur with two advanced degrees who runs Speaking for Success, a corporate training company specializing in public speaking.
Teaching, Sandra points out, was “one of the few fields where pay was equal.” Among the changes over recent decades are the faculty dress code and a high level of respect. “When I first started teaching,” she says, “when the principal came into the room children had to stand up.”