The second annual Women for Women Summit sponsored by the College of Charleston School of Business features an impressive lineup of speakers including the 93rd lieutenant governor of South Carolina, the first female president and CEO of South Carolina Ports and the first female to sail the seven oceans and climb the highest peak on each continent. Local women’s rights advocate Jennet Robinson Alterman is among the accomplished group of women who will share inspiring stories of trials and triumphs in the ongoing quest for equal rights.
Alterman’s involvement with the College started when she was a child. Her father Emmett Robinson ’35 began teaching in the theatre department at CofC in the 1960s and she recalls stories about her father that include an unforgettable evening production of Romeo and Juliet in the College’s iconic Cistern Yard in 1934 using miles of extension cords to light the Cistern. It was an event that left a lasting impression on the audience. In recognition of her father’s contributions to theatre at the College, several colleagues established the Emmett Robinson Memorial Scholarship in Theatre for undergraduates. His name became a permanent fixture on campus when the Emmett Robinson Theatre was built in 1979. Alterman says having a “Renaissance man” as a father was especially empowering as a young woman.
“My father kept files in his study on every single period of history, costuming, paintings, art, geography. He literally was a wealth of knowledge, and the greatest impact he had on me was that he told me very early on that I could do anything I put my mind to,” says Alterman. “I never heard anything about ‘when you get married’ or ‘when you have children,’ or, you know, any of the sort of traditional advice that one might give a child back in the late 1960s, early 1970s. And he set me on a very strong path as a result of that. And I’m also happy to say that almost 50 years later, from the time he received his honorary degree from the College, I also received one (in 2008). And I found that a particularly nostalgic and sentimental thing to embrace at the time.”
Alterman joined the Peace Corps in 1976 and was sent to Afghanistan during what she describes as a peaceful period. Her first assignment was to work with traditional midwives who were being trained to facilitate more hygienic births because the infant and maternal mortality rate in Afghanistan was dangerously high.
“I started going out to these small villages working with the trained midwives and realized these women did not have access to prenatal or postnatal care, access to education, the right to vote, and were powerless to the men in their family,” she recalls. “It really it did shock me to my core.”
That experience inspired her passion for women’s rights advocacy. She returned to South Carolina and went to Columbia to work for Nancy Stevenson, who was the first woman ever elected to serve as lieutenant governor.
“I got to watch how women were treated at that level by the legislature and state government. And it wasn’t pretty, it was one of those things where we had to fight every day to be heard and taken seriously,” says Alterman. “My career just sort of evolved from there into other areas of working with women’s rights advocacy.”
Alterman lead the nonprofit Center for Women for 12 years and worked with the “magnificent” Allison Piepmeier, a former faculty member, to expand CofC’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program. More recently, she was invited to participate in the second annual Women for Women Summit presented by the School of Business.
“I think it’s very important for the women who are attending this conference to understand that they have a responsibility now to push for changes in the workplace that benefit families, things like paid family leave, for example. There is nothing more important,” she says. “That’s going to be one of the messages that I hope to get across in conference.”
“Jennet is a great role model who has tirelessly fought the fight to help women advance toward their life goals,” says Women for Women committee member Mary Garrett.
Joanna Lau, Women for Women co-founder, founder/CEO of Lau Acquisitions and member of the School of Business Board of Governors agrees.
“Women have been fighting for gender equality for decades. The pandemic temporarily slowed our momentum and in order to achieve our goal of gender equity, we must have the stamina to persevere,” says Lau. “We need to make ourselves grittier and stay the course for this generation, and generations after us. If not this group of inspiring women then who? If not now, then when?”
Alterman has not slowed down her efforts of advancing women’s rights and encourages young women to get involved with local organizations such as the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network (WREN), a movement advancing the health, economic well-being and rights of South Carolina’s women, girls and their families.
Passing on her father’s advice, Alterman wants to spread the message that women can do anything they set their minds to.