By Brandon Martin
Becoming the first person to break a societal barrier doesn’t come easy, and often comes at the cost of a lot of shoe leather.
Originally a term used in journalism, “shoe-leather” eventually became a metaphor applied to any effort that is based on walking around to meet people face-to-face to accomplish a desired goal. This constant walking would in turn cause wear on said person’s leather shoes.
Along with journalism, the method was also proven effective for political campaigns, as demonstrated by Critz native Mary Sue Terry.
She employed the technique in her campaign for the Attorney General post and became the first woman in Virginia to be elected to statewide office.
Before that, Terry won the support of a majority of Patrick and Henry county voters in a successful bid to become a member of the House of Delegates.
She said she was initially inspired to run for office because of the issue of drunk driving and a disparity in electricity rates between West Virginia and Virginia, even though the two states shared the same provider.
“The only way that I got elected was shoe-leather,” Terry said. “I went to every country store and I went to every fire department because I figured if those firemen could get to know me and call me Mary Sue as opposed to ‘that woman’ that they might consider voting for me.”
The decision to run for office wasn’t viewed as a courageous for Terry.
“You can have fear, and I had fear,” she said. “But it is walking through it.”
Terry said she was the assistant commonwealth attorney under then Commonwealth’s Attorney Martin Clark. After deciding not to run for the vacant House of Delegates seat himself, Clark threw his support behind Terry.
“I worked hard and after a while people started saying ‘she works hard,’” Terry said. “These folks that think they can run for office by just sending out a letter for a fundraiser, that never works. I had to call people to get money.”
The game of politics is won and lost by who has the bigger pocketbook, according to Terry.
“When I positioned myself to run for attorney general, I was told that my money would be matched around Virginia in northern Virginia, Richmond and Tidewater by what I could raise down here,” she said. “Not being a person of independent wealth, I went to work.”
Terry said she sought to raise a total of $1 million. To accomplish this, she sought donations from “flagships” in Martinsville for $5,000 contributions.
“The first people that I sat down with were Bill and Carolyn Franck,” Terry said. “I explained to them why I was running and that I really hoped they would be a flagship.”
The wear on Terry’s shoes seemed to pay off as Bill Franck asked, “would you take more than that?’”
“I said certainly, and I thanked them and I left,” Terry said. “The next thing I knew, I was getting a check for $15,000.”
Terry kept up the hard work, eventually raising more than $250,000 in local money.
“I never resented raising money because that was the goal,” she said. “The only way that I could win and try to make a difference in Virginia was you had to have money. You have to lay the foundation.”
By putting in the work early, Terry said she was able to “wipe out” the competition by time the Democratic primary came around.
“I never had opposition for the nomination to Attorney General, I never had opposition the second time and I never had opposition for governor,” Terry said. “You just can’t sit in a phone booth and call people. I say this as an encouragement. You just have to get out there and work hard. Women know everything about working hard.”
But, Terry told those assembled at the Martinsville-Henry County Heritage Center and Museum that simply reminiscing about old times wasn’t her end goal for the May 23 program.
“I’m here to encourage you to do something that perhaps some of you have never known, and that is to step-up,” Terry said.
The audience consisted of mostly women. Terry’s lecture was hosted in conjunction with the Heritage Center and Museum’s exhibit, “Agents of Change: Female Activism in Virginia from Women’s Suffrage to Today.”
Only one person in the crowd appeared to be under the age of 18. After Terry’s personal story, that person asked one question: “What advice would you give to those that are looking to get into politics?”
“Get involved with your local Democratic committee, let them see you as a worker bee,” Terry said in response. “You have to be a worker bee. That’s what I was. Once you are known as a worker bee, then you’ll get more and more responsibilities. Then, they can get to know you and they can trust you.”
Even when she was initially running for office, Terry said there were certain characteristics of women that tended to hold them back.
“Women do not gravitate towards power, which is a good thing,” Terry said. “Studies show that women will often say to themselves ‘well, I just don’t feel qualified.’ Women are instinctively insecure about qualifications, but that does not mean they are unqualified.”
If a potential candidate can instead maintain focus on why they are running for office, Terry said they will be successful.
“That’s the reason that it is important for people to circle around a woman who might be interested, and provide that support and encouragement,” Terry said. “The next time there is an opening for the board of supervisors or the school board, some of you need to caucus and think of somebody that you really think would be good and you need to surround that person, tell them you will be with them, that you’ll work for them and that you will expand the network. That’s the only way to make a difference.”