Connie Burns Phye deserves to be recognized in the Plaza of Heroines associated with Iowa State University. As those who know her would agree, there is a lot to Connie that makes her an admirable and notable person. Knowing her as my mother, there are two aspects of her life that stand out deserving of commendation. First her conviction that as a woman she should be treated as equally as a man. And second her pride in her work and helping those she works with.
Connie has always known that being a woman does not equate to being subordinate. She has been a feminist inspiration to me, though I doubt she has ever identified herself with that label. My relatives have shared memories with me of a young newlywed who walked out of a large family dinner after she learned that her new husband's family expected the women to prepare the meal and then wait to eat until after the men had finished. Connie chose a long walk home that evening over participating in that "family tradition."
My own memories of her include many times that I was along at a store when she wanted to speak to someone about a defective product or question a professional's diagnosis. Connie never cared that it was unbecoming for a young woman with a child to complain or that she shouldn't challenge the men in authority. Her tenacity was often embarrassing to me as a child, but it is admirable to me now. Those memories serve me well when I find myself in similar situations.
I also remember the weekly cleaning routine at our house. Being a working mother, Connie refused to do all of the housework herself. My father was very supportive and it was agreed that one night a week all three of us would divide the responsibilities of cleaning house.
I have to admit there was a period of time when that strong, assertive woman that I admired and respected became less of an advocate for herself and other women. Then in 1991, Connie joined the University Committee on Women. It was the spark she needed to re-ignite her passion for equality. She began thinking again and talking with others about the inequities that women faced in the University and beyond. She worked so that the voice of merit women and women of color could be heard more clearly. She carried the message of the committee to interviews with prospective administrators and sought their perspective on the needs of university women.
Most courageously, it was Connie and two other women who filed written and signed statements of sexual harassment against a fellow employee. I know how hard that decision and the ensuing process was for her. But as she began to think of how she had been treated and the number of other women who had complained to her because they felt no one else would listen, she realized that her voice would not only speak for herself, it would be louder than a single cry. It was a long and frightening process in which the women were met by some with suspicion and denial while others provided support. This exhausting and demeaning process went on for over a year until the employee was dismissed from his job.
Although I saw the anxiety, the anger, and heard the fear in her voice at times, I think it was an experience that renewed her conviction to the need for women to be free from discrimination and oppression. It certainly renewed my pride in her as a feminist.
Connie is also a very bright person. In 8th grade, she was Kansas' state spelling bee champion, and later the valedictorian of Harper High in 1953. Her musical talents earned her a college scholarship but with the dearth of women in college in the 50's and her need to stay close to her mother after the death of her father, Connie decided to forgo college and focus on raising a family instead.
She moved to Iowa State with her husband, who had accepted a position in the Department of Psychology. After I started school, Connie began working as a receptionist for the Veterinary Clinical Sciences and Teaching Hospital. After a couple years at that job, she was selected to be the departmental secretary. During that time, she kept the payroll and benefits records of the hospital employees, the class records for the senior students, the department's research accounts, correspondence, and the resident and intern program. Each of these responsibilities has a human component to it. They deal with knowing and keeping information about people that is sensitive and often times confidential. Many times people sought her advice or just a compassionate ear as they made decisions about class grades, maternity leave, or spending procedures for grants.
Connie knew the university procedure for each of her responsibilities well. But above that she added an element of understanding and respect to each encounter she had with faculty or students who came to her office. The faculty trusted and admired the thoroughness and accuracy of her memory and her records. The students appreciated the extra effort she put into helping them with travel requests and job searches. The residents and interns, especially the international students, were grateful for the orientation she gave of the clinic and of her detailed information about the relevant offices on campus they would need to know.
Connie now works in veterinary administration as an account specialist. In her 20 years with the clinical services, she never treated a dog's epilepsy, never did a colic surgery on a horse, never assisted with calving, and she never even gave a vaccination. But she was there, day after day for 20 years, doing more than her share so that the faculty and students could perform all of those procedures without hassle. Connie kept things in the department running while supporting all of the people who did those visible, praiseworthy things. They are good doctors who deserve our appreciation.
Connie, however, deserves our admiration for the pride she takes in her work, and our respect for her courage to advocate for her rights and those of other women.