Aileen Devlin/The Daily Reflector
By Michael Abramowitz
Saturday, October 26, 2013
The lives of education pioneers at East Carolina University’s medical school would be enough to fill a book. One of them, the school’s first female faculty member, has written a book that chronicles her life from growing up on a tobacco farm to her triumph over gender discrimination.
That pioneer spirit does not shine more brightly than through the heart and words of Evelyn McNeill, the 84-year-old author of “Zero to Eighty Over Unpaved Roads: A Memoir,” released this month by Garcia Publishing and co-written with Daily Reflector editorial page editor and columnist Mark Rutledge.
The autobiography was inspired by McNeill’s recent battle with breast cancer and her wish to leave a chronicle of her life for her nieces.
“I wanted them to know that pursuing a career absent marriage and family, should they choose that path, need not be boring or unfulfilling,” she wrote in the book’s introduction.
McNeill was the second of six children born in Lee County to Lacy McNeill and Mary Lee Watson McNeill during the Great Depression. Her mother, despite being the first in her family to attend college, stayed at home and raised the children on the 30-acre farm operated by her and Lacy.
In her book, McNeill frequently mentions twists of fate that detoured her from marriage to the life of a single professional, but at the same time, she makes it clear that she was always independent-minded and treasured the pursuit of knowledge, adventure and public service. From her earliest years, she was “inclined to follow my own road map and determined to have no one else plan my trip.”
“I knew, even from my mother’s experience, how the prospects of college and career could be stopped cold for a woman once babies, housework and a husband entered the picture,” she wrote in her book.
After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, McNeill was trained as a physical therapist in the U.S. Army, then in 1972 earned her Ph.D in neuroanatomy from the Medical College of Virginia. Things continued to go well for McNeill, who wanted to teach at a college close to her mother. She was hired as an assistant professor of neuroanatomy at East Carolina University’s new one-year medical school, the first female faculty member. She also taught physical and occupational therapy classes and was paid by the School of Allied Health.
“This unfortunate arrangement would eventually cause much trouble for me, and for the university,” McNeill said.
Although she never married and produced no children of her own, McNeill’s relationships with her students gave her all the sense of family she needed, she said.
“I was considered an effective teacher, and I think it was because the love that other women give to their children I gave to my students,” McNeill said. “I was told (by the male faculty) that I mothered them.”
The comments were meant as an insult, she said, but she never saw it that way.
“Dr. McNeill was a major contributor to the overall culture of our school,” said Dr. Paul Cunningham, current dean of the institution now called the Brody School of Medicine. “She always impressed me as a kind and giving person, particularly in how she has gone out of her way to support her kids. She also cared very much about her colleagues.”
After several years happily engrossed in her work teaching medical students and allied health undergraduates, the medical school faculty member learned that a male peer hired at the same time at an equal salary was moving up the salary scale at a much faster rate.
It had never occurred to McNeill that such an unfair and unprofessional practice would happen in a university setting, she said. She thought that resolution of her complaint to the school administration would simply be a part of their daily routine. But her requests were ignored.
Aware of the law making it illegal to pay men and women different wage rates for equal work by equally qualified people, McNeill hired an attorney and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“For anyone intelligent enough to be in an administrative position to reject my request for fair treatment with the Department of Labor on their heels defies logic,” she said. “I was angry. I was a bit naive about the world at large, but I had a temper and it made me angry.”
The path to remedy the situation and restore McNeill’s position and pay to equal level is laid out in fascinating detail in her biography. It reveals the grit and determination that any working stiff must summon to right a wrong and get a fair shake.
McNeill acknowledged that her efforts to achieve her rightful place and equal compensation were not burdened by the added responsibilities of being a wife and mother. Her healthy attitude about the hand she was dealt and her life choices offers readers a clue to her ability to succeed at whatever goals she sets.
“I could have named this book, “Happy About Not Having It All,” McNeill said. “I couldn’t have children because of reproductive problems; that was not my karma. But I wanted my nieces to know that you make your own life. That’s what’s important.”
McNeill’s combination of magnetic charm, intellectual depth and emotional complexity are all clearly visible in the pages of her biography. More important, the twinkle is still visible in her bright blue eyes and certain testament of her proclamation that, regardless of life’s obstacles and challenges, “In the end, love wins.”
Contact Michael Abramowitz at email@example.com or (252) 329-9571.
via The Daily Reflector.