Karen Young: Salisbury's first woman on council lives a life for social change
Like many women in the 1960s, Salisbury resident Karen Young took up decoupage. Perhaps it's no surprise in that period of social change, ladies took to cutting out pretty pieces of paper and varnishing them to objects to make their homes pretty. It was, after all, a simple — albeit small — way to control and influence the world around them.
But Young, as local history has affirmed, was never an ordinary housewife.
For the lady who would became the first woman to serve on Salisbury's City Council, her handicraft was decidedly more socially aware than geared for aesthetics. It was a craft aimed at remembering and showing reverence. Even today, Young, now 75, keeps her treasured wooden decoupage box within reach in the living room of her condo just off the bustle of Jake Alexander Boulevard. It tells the story of her life in Salisbury, much like a time capsule. That box, however, does not reveal a traditional narrative expected of a housewife in the late 1950s and early 1960s. On its side are emblems for civic advocacy organizations of the time, such as the National Organization of Women, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the National Association for Retarded Children, all sealed tight against the wood grain.
“I'm not a scholar. I'm a generalist,” she says plainly. “I'm interested in everything.”
In late 1968, Young became the first woman on the city council when she was appointed to fill the seat left vacant when Earl Ruth was elected to Congress. It was a big year of change politically for women in this state. That same year, Margaret Taylor Harper became the first woman to run for state office when she put her name in the ring for lieutenant governor.
It was a big opportunity for Young. The year prior, she had put her name on the ballot, but had come in 8th in a ten-candidate race. “I think my candidacy interested a lot of other women,” she told the Salisbury Sunday Post after she was appointed to the city council in November 1968, reflecting on that failed election. “At least I showed that it was not such a horrible experience.”
Start of Something
“I wasn't proving a point when I went into politics,” clarifies Young, sifting through old clippings and photo albums. A child of a populist, liberal family, she simply believed she could do anything. The sepia colored memories scattered before her on her table top confirm it, from yellow newspaper clippings of her achievements, to a photo of her with Eleanor Roosevelt and a letter from President Eisenhower.
“I'm a student of journalism. I grew up in a family that did not go to the movies or out to eat. We took magazines,” she explains. Her perception of the world was shaped by magazines such as Life, Time, Newsweek, and The New Yorker. “My family was very aware.”
That awareness was sharpened by her education and honed into action in Salisbury. As a young girl, she attended St Genevieve-of-the-Pines girls' school in Asheville. The experience shaped her inquisitive nature, she said. It wasn't by accident. The nuns, hailing from an order in France, had a mission: to shape girls like Young into leaders. The nuns were strict, but also a powerful role model.
“All those nuns who educated me were also single, educated women,” she said.
She went on to the University of Tennessee, which is where she met her late-husband, psychologist Dr. Warren Young. In 1959, when she was 22 years old, they moved to Salisbury when he began practicing at the Veterans Hospital. She had a newly minted English degree and was ready to take on the world.
“I wanted to be a journalist,” she said. “My heart is still in journalism because I have an opinion on everything.”
Politically speaking, those opinions were both a blessing and a curse as she blazed new ground on the city council. “I think their expectation was that I would be decorative and novel,” she said, admitting, “I really was not a very good politician because I was so direct.”
Reflecting over her four-year involvement with the city council, she claims her one concrete accomplishment was providing the swing vote that saved the chunk of weed-ridden land that is now Hurley Park from becoming a hospital parking lot. Being the first woman also prompted a clarification of her legal name after a nameplate was made for her reading, “Mrs. Warren Young.” When attending functions, people made a point to ask where her where her two young sons were, she remembers. “No one asked if you played bridge. They asked if you made provisions for your children.”
Her four-year involvement with the city council forged her into ardent feminist, she freely admits. “I got more out of it than I ever put in.”
Much has changed in Salisbury since Young first arrived in 1959 when the city, like much of the South, was segregated. It was a detail that caused the liberal leaning Young great consternation. As an active member of the AAUW, for example, she found herself a champion for racial inclusion after she learned about a group of women from the historically black Livingstone College interested in starting their own organizational chapter. The national AAUW office had turned them down since there was already an active chapter operating in Salisbury.
“I said 'We have to invite these women.' It was obvious to me.” It was not, however, obvious to many of the old-South members in the existing Salisbury chapter, she remembers. Young made it clear she would have to resign if the Livingstone women were not offered membership. It was the catalyst needed that eventually led to the organization integrating, making it the first integrated civic group in Salisbury.
It was enough for one AAUW member to take Young aside and tell her what she thought. “You do everything you can to make things better and nothing to make things worse,” she remembers the woman telling her. “That's been a good guideline in my life,” she says.
While her stint in city politics was short lived, Young went on to find other ways to give back to Salisbury. She was president of the local Association for Retarded Children. Her work teaching pregnant teens in the city school district inspired her to go on to get a Masters in Social Work at UNC-Chapel Hill.
That led to work as a guidance counselor in the county school district, where she devoted herself to working with exceptional children, as well as abused and neglected students.
While her life's path has been varied, she sees the trajectory as straightforward. “I've followed my interests all my life.” These days, her interests are steered towards keeping current on the news, gardening, traveling and her dog, Fate.
She also keeps a keen eye on her granddaughters' interest and political leanings. But, she admits, they are growing up in a different time.
“I definitely feel a difference in time,” she says. “I don't think the norm [today] promotes civic involvement. The norm promotes materialism, power, or recognition.
“Things have changed for women,” she says. “Whether they're good or bad, I don't know. I certainly think I grew up in an ideal time to get things done. We really believed we could change the world.”