State lawmakers honored the late, great Bertha ‘B’ Holt last night at the Legislative Building. Though highly appropriate, it’s too bad they couldn’t have done it while she was still alive and kicking because she deserved it and, I think, would have enjoyed it. Holt died in 2010 at the age of 93.
‘B’ was a lawyer and a fine state legislator who represented Alamance County for almost two decades. She was a fighting progressive on any number of issues, but will be best remembered as a tireless champion of women’s rights who broke dozens of barriers that had formerly existed for women — especially in the South.
I got my first and best opportunity to work with ‘B’ when I was a relatively new lobbyist at the General Assembly in 1993 working on behalf of poor Legal Aid clients and, in particular, victims of domestic violence. The subject of our collaboration was a bill to reform state rape laws.
As amazing as it may now seem, just 19 years ago, North Carolina law included a specific defense to the crime of rape that forbade prosecution if the victim was married to and living with the accused.
A group of energetic young anti-domestic violence advocates from the Legal Aid community had drafted a bill to repeal the defense and ‘B’ had quickly emerged as their champion in the General Assembly.
While the bill ultimately passed by large margins, I’ll never forget standing outside the House chamber with some of the other advocates as we discussed with Holt the debate that was about to transpire on the House floor. We were particularly concerned about one hostile lawmaker (who shall remain nameless) from whom we were expecting a hostile interrogation and we were attempting to brief her on how she might best respond.
‘B’, who was already well into her 70’s, was engaged and wary too, but at one point she just jutted out her chin and stated confidently that she was not afraid of the man. She pointed to her left shoulder where she had affixed — as was her tradition — a pin of of a buzzing bee. She tapped it and assured us that no one could hurt her while she was wearing the bee and turned around and marched onto the House floor where she acquitted herself marvelously.
I have often thought of and been buoyed by that image through the years when approaching a debate with some hostile right-winger. Thanks B’! Keep giving ‘em hell wherever you are.
(Photo by Judith Sivglia is from a tribute that appeared in 2010 on the website of the N.C. Council of Churches).