Had Juanita Harden been burdened with a stereotype, I suspect it would have been that of a sweet lady who put together a lot of church suppers, chaired a lot of garden clubs and delivered hot meals to the elderly confined to their homes.
Truth is, she did a lot of those things and more. In fact, I think she was happy that many people defined her by those roles. On the other hand, Juanita, who died earlier this month at age 84, was also a rebel and a woman who would stand her ground on matters affecting the public good. She knew how to play politics.
It’s been 23 years since she was last in public office, and in that time an entire generation of women now actively involved in myriad public and private careers has taken for granted a future for their genders.
Juanita was part of a generation that didn’t always have that option. In fact when she first sought and obtained office as a Bartholomew County commissioner in 1982, there was no precedent to follow. She was the first woman to sit on the county’s chief administrative body.
When she took office, the women’s lib movement of the 1970s had become past tense, especially in Bartholomew County. It had attained and secured advances for women in a variety of fields, but it had also implanted impressions that were applied in a universal fashion to many who were simply trying to advance themselves regardless of their sex.
Public attention, especially at the national level, tended to focus on the often incendiary (but true) comments of leaders like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug. Too often, legitimate issues, such as equal pay for equal work, became sub-headlines to antics such as bra burning.
In Bartholomew County at least, change was brought about in much more subtle ways. It was if we had a revolution and no one noticed. Juanita was part of a generation of local women who individually attained successes that would serve to forever change the social makeup of public and private leadership in their community.
Out of this group emerged women like Betty Essex, still regarded as a role model for county clerks; Nancy Ann Brown, the first woman to be elected county treasurer and mayor of Columbus; and Carolyn Lickerman, who brought about great change for her city as both an involved private citizen and member of Columbus City Council.
None of these women — and they are reflective of a much larger group — played the “woman’s card.” In fact, little attention was paid to their achievements of being among the first of their sex to attain the public success they did.
By the time she first sought office as a county commissioner, Juanita was well-known for her role as a longtime co-manager of Columbus Youth Camp. And yes, her name recognition was also helped through that network of garden and extension clubs, church groups and 4-H fair organizations.
Once in office she shied away from taking a back seat to her more seasoned colleagues and in time assumed a leadership role on a number of issues, ranging from the realignment of county roads to landfill sites.
She did not enjoy universal support for some of the positions she took. In some instances she was regarded as being flat-out wrong, but those assessments had everything to do with the issues themselves and nothing to do with the fact that she was a woman serving in a role that had previously been limited to men only.
Ironically, it was one of the major factors in her selection in 2002 as The Republic’s Woman of the Year. The accolades cited by a small army of nominators focused as much, if not more, on her work as a private citizen rather than her responsibilities as a public servant.
Juanita Harden brought about a great deal of change in her 84 years of life. Funny thing is, she stayed the same throughout the whole process.