Martha Clampitt McKay never shied away from a fight. For more than five decades, she waged a one-woman crusade against racism, poverty and especially sexism until her death on Dec. 14.
Her efforts earned her a place at the helm of North Carolina's women's movement, notoriety as a powerful Democratic political operative and, eventually, the state's highest medal for public service. Although progress was often one step forward, two steps backward, McKay won more battles than she lost, and her take-no-prisoners approach to gender equality had a lasting impact on this state's women's movement.
Born in 1920 to parents who encouraged her to dream big, McKay defied gender obstacles from a young age. She arrived at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1939 to find that an all-male student government steering committee didn't want her. The boys feared they wouldn't be allowed to smoke and cuss in mixed company.
McKay planted her feet and replied, "Well, cuss or not, I'm going to stay," eventually going on to forge a lifelong friendship with fellow student representative (and future governor) Terry Sanford.
After graduating in 1941, Martha married fellow Tar Heel Herbert S. McKay and took a job with the N.C Shipbuilding Co. in Wilmington. Replacing a male payroll controller who'd been drafted, McKay soon discovered she was making less than her predecessor. When she confronted the company's comptroller, he matter-of-factly responded that women were paid less in the real world.
McKay swallowed her outrage and continued working until the birth of her first child, Alexander, in 1944. A daughter, Katherine, and another son, Brian, soon followed, and the family returned to Chapel Hill to open a wholesale food business.
McKay soon began dabbling in politics, urging then-state Sen. Terry Sanford to run for governor. He did, and McKay was put in charge of women's issues for the campaign. A post-victory profile in the Durham Morning Herald announced: "[She] Elected a Governor and Became 'One of the Men' Around Terry Sanford."
With Sanford's support, McKay soon established the N.C. Commission on the Status of Women. Sanford, in turn, appointed McKay to the Democratic National Committee, where she served during the administrations of presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
After a stint as a civil rights inspector with the federal Office of Economic Opportunity in 1965, McKay founded a consulting firm that trained women and minorities for leadership roles at major corporations. She also co-founded the state's Women's Political Caucus (slogan: Make Policy Not Coffee) and the Women's Forum of North Carolina, which brought prominent women together to "exercise their power more fully."
In a 1971 interview with the Greensboro Daily News, McKay summarized her philosophy, which increasingly stressed personal responsibility and cooperation. Women needed to form a power base and demand more than lip service from public officials, she said. But, she added, they also had to "bear some of the blame for their own situation. They haven't been willing to offer themselves for office or to support other women."
McKay practiced what she preached, never hesitating to offer her talents, said longtime friend David Cooley. Cooley, who took over the Memphis Chamber of Commerce just 30 days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., recalls McKay's pragmatic, to-the-point approach when he brought her in to map out the local power structure.
"Everything was up in the air," Cooley said, "But Martha was a very strong personality, a real pistol. She jumped right in and became tremendously valuable for me in dealing with the community."
McKay went on to direct affirmative action programs under Gov. Jim Hunt, who awarded her the state's highest honor for public service; teach at Duke's business school; and work on Terry Sanford's U.S. Senate campaign. She even toyed with a Senate run of her own.
Dementia began to claim her mind in the late 1990s, but, fittingly, her can-do spirit was the last thing to go.
Her daughter-in-law, Betty McKay, recalled that when Martha couldn't remember where her son's house was, she came across a state trooper and persuaded him to drive the rest of the way.
"She presented herself so well," Betty McKay said. "If she wanted something she would fight and would not give up. She was like a pit bull."
Her husband and two sons, Brian and Alexander, preceded her in death.