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Women break down political barriers
Ladies form breakfast club to level playing field
The women hold their regular breakfast club meeting on the first Thursday evening of the month at Luna’s restaurant in downtown Gainesville. For the past 25 years, the club has provided a place for encouragement and sharing among Gainesville’s female community leaders. - photo by NAT GURLEY

An emailed reminder mentions the breakfast club will have its regular monthly meeting at the usual place and time — 5 p.m. on the first Thursday of the month in the private room of Luna’s restaurant.

A few moments before the meeting begins, a trickle of the most influential and community-minded women in Gainesville and Hall County start strolling into the small corner room of the restaurant. By a quarter past five, some 20 women have arrived.

Though nearly every spare space in the room is occupied, more women are expected to come and go during the hourlong meeting. Layers of individual conversations drift through the open doorway. For a moment, the room quiets and gives way to laughter. Almost certainly, the result of one of “Sissy Lawson’s jokes.”

Lawson, a former mayor of Gainesville, is a favorite at meetings for her sense of humor. And she’s just one of the club’s many accomplished members.

All of the women in the club are at the top of their game and represent almost every facet of the community, ranging from academia, the arts and business to courts and politics. But finding so many enterprising women in one place was unheard of three decades ago in Gainesville. That is until a small handful decided to run for political office in 1986.

The club started after that summer when more women were breaking onto the political scene. At that time, only a few women occupied elected offices. Lawson served on the Gainesville City Council and Kathleen Murphy was the first woman to chair the Hall County Board of Education.

But that year, a few female newcomers were campaigning for an elected position. Lydia Sartain was running for solicitor of the state court, Kathleen Gosselin was running for state court judge and Jane Hemmer was running for Hall County commissioner.

“That summer of ’86 was the first time that many women had run for those sorts of positions,” Sartain said.

While campaigning, the women were advised to stop at various coffee and breakfast clubs around town. The coffee clubs met early in the morning at different breakfast shops around town and were “all 100 percent male membership,” Hemmer said.

“So we all just spent that whole summer and fall running around just campaigning like crazy,” Sartain said.

Gosselin and Sartain leaned against a wall in the restaurant’s small room and reminisced on those early days in their careers. Campaigning as a woman wasn’t easy at that time.

Sometimes the candidates were given a hard time because of their gender. Some voters expressed concern over whether or not the women would cause trouble, or be able to balance a family and their careers.

“They were saying ‘Oh you can’t elect two women, they’ll just cat fight all the time,’ blah blah blah,” Sartain said.

Sartain said its hard to believe the trouble women had as recently as the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Gosselin joked it was beneficial all three women had dark hair at the time, because some of the men in the coffee clubs had difficulty telling them apart. If one of the other candidates had already made a visit to one breakfast group, some of the men mistakenly thought they’d already met.

The women laughed and said they just had to roll with it and do their best to get their names out there.

Sandra Bailey, former publisher of The Times and a longtime member of the group, said the club was “triggered” by the women’s campaigns. She said if the women candidates had to visit all of the men’s clubs, then male candidates should have to visit the women’s clubs. Bailey explained only one women’s group existed at the time. They met for coffee at Roses Department Store at Sherwood Plaza in Gainesville, and the women felt another group was needed.

“By golly we formed one and the men would come around,” Hemmer said with a laugh.

In the beginning the women met at the Cake Box on Thompson Bridge Road, later the group moved to St. Ives Coffee, across from the Civic Center, both of which are now closed.

The club grew through word of mouth and joined the ranks of local breakfast club campaign stops.

“We used to have candidates that came,” said Kayanne Massey, a longtime member of the club and former Miss Georgia. “When Nathan Deal came, he was a Democrat then. I remember his coming.”

Massey listed off a few other candidates who came to the group, but said not as many are stopping by these days.

“We’re a bit low key now,” Hemmer said.

After a while, many of the men’s breakfast clubs dissolved, though a few still meet regularly. And like the other breakfast clubs, the women’s group has seen some changes. The group stopped meeting in the mornings for coffee every week and instead opted for an after-work cocktail every month.

Since the club’s first meeting 25 years ago, it has gradually drifted away from its political roots. Now, there is no formal agenda. The women mill around the room, say hello and talk about family, travel and the community. If a member has a particularly exciting piece of news to share, everyone quiets down to listen.

Though it’s still as much of a vibrant and effective social network as it ever was.

Lawson said she’s been coming to meetings since the beginning because of the encouragement always present in the group.

“It gives you such a support system,” Lawson said. “You feel like you can call on anybody if you need anything.”

In the club’s early days, the women used the meetings as an opportunity to share information and learn from each other.

“We had no computers at that point,” Lawson said. “Now at this point we’ve (been) enhanced.”

The group’s members said it’s the friendships and sense of camaraderie that keep the members coming back, though not every member can attend every meeting.

Several of the women present at the August meeting took a moment to observe who did attend the meeting. The women all had the same thing to say “this is just a great group of women.”

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