|Ann Ruben presents at the Toonseum decked out in her Margaret t-shirt.|
When Ann Ruben was just 8-years-old she learned a lesson of equality that would become a credo she would trumpet for decades. The incident: Ruben was assigned the job of secretary for a make-believe business her cousin Irwin ran.
After a few days of playing the game, Ruben said “Irwin, it’s my turn to be president and you be the secretary.”
“And Irwin said ‘Are you crazy? Girls are never the president and boys are never the secretary.’”
After a small fight with Irwin, Ruben ran to her aunt who told her not to play with him because boys can be mean.
“And what she should have told me is that’s nonsense, women can be president,” said Ruben.
That event imbued the steadfast feminist in Ruben; which she would call upon decades later during a similar occurrence involving the declaration that a woman would be president and a big business telling her no. She wove three thematically similar events into a story during a presentation at the Toonseum, Saturday, March 19, 2012 for a small group of friends, family and museum patrons.
Dr. Ann Moliver Ruben, a retired psychology professor who lives in Squirrel Hill, has been a long-time advocate for women’s equality. She taught third grade for three years at Gladstone Elementary and spent some time as a mental health consultant at the Western Psychiatric Institute in Pittsburgh.
Preceding her recent life in Pittsburgh, Ruben spent much of her time researching children’s development of esteem during and after her doctoral studies at Barry University, Miami Shores, Florida.
She believes that much of a child’s sense of esteem is influenced by what they experience around them. As part of her doctoral program, she established when teachers felt acknowledged they expressed high esteem for their jobs, and it reflected in the students' increased appreciation of them.
Ruben conducted another study where she delivered questionnaires to five elementary schools near her home in Miami Lakes, Florida. Stemming from her own experience as a child, one of the central questions was if the children felt that one day they would like to become president. She said the results showed that more girls than boys wanted to be president one day.
“The one study I did with the 1,500 children, half boys and half girls, validated to me that little girls do grow up thinking they would like to be president,” said Ruben.
While this study in a way demonstrated that girls might feel as if they can accomplish anything boys can, Ruben and many other women continue to experience sexist attitudes. Ruben encountered such attitudes when advocating the idea of a woman being president in 1993.
One day her husband, Gershon Ruben, showed her a Dennis the Menace comic strip in their daily newspaper. Ruben said she had never read creator Hank Ketcham’s iconic strip before, but this particular comic was right up her alley.
It featured Dennis's female counterpart, Margaret, who argues back and forth with him in an attempt to join his boys-only club. At the end of the strip, Margaret proclaims “Someday a woman will be president,” to which Dennis replies “That's great. Girls can be whatever they wanna be except members of our club.”
“I think that she epitomizes a feminist,” said Ruben about how the red-headed character struck her, “and she stands her ground. She doesn't quibble with dennis, she just walks away and does her own thing.”
She was so inspired by the strip that she reached out to Ketcham and asked if she could use the image on a t-shirt. Ketcham permitted it’s use, as did King Features Syndicate which distributes the comic strip. Ketcham gets royalties from the Anne’s sales of the shirt.
The original shirt was white with the image of Margaret and the words “Someday a woman will be president” on the front. Ruben sells the shirts to women’s and equal rights organizations for them to sell for fundraising purposes.
Shortly after, Ruben went to a local Wal-Mart in Miami Lakes to try to sell the shirts to the retail chain. She showed the shirt to the store manager who said his daughter would love it and asked her to bring in six dozen of them to sell. Ruben went back the next week to find out that the shirts had sold out, and the manager requested an additional eight dozen.
She said a reporter who caught wind of the shirts interviewed Ruben then called the national office of Wal-Mart to get their opinion and ask about any complaints. According to Ruben, a representative of Wal-Mart said they would never consent to buying the shirts because they were politically charged and against the company’s family values.
“Apparently, Wal-Mart thinks women should be pregnant, barefoot and chained to a kitchen,” said Ruben during the presentation. “I’ve never gone to Wal-Mart since that. I don’t need anything from them.”
The Miami Lakes store was ordered to pull the shirts, which ended up drawing national attention from the media. Ann was interviewed by numerous TV news stations, newspapers and People magazine.
Public outcry from the incident resulted in Wal-Mart agreeing to buy 30,000 shirts from Ruben. She said 50,000 total were bought within the first year.
“When Wal-Mart threw out the shirts and banned them it was the members of the American association of women who protested and marched,” she said about the rallied support from the organization of which she is a member.
Toonseum floor manager and freelance illustrator Dani Grew was in the audience during Ruben’s presentation titled ““How Margaret from Dennis the Menace Cartoons Enriched My Life.” She said she has experienced the similar denunciation as a woman in the sense that some men still think that women don’t share the same interests as men.
“I’ll get people coming in and saying ‘So, do actually read comics or do you just work here?’,” said Grew. “Of course I work here for money, but I also love comics. People have a very, I say people but it’s always adult men, have a very hard time realizing that women also have varied interests just like men do.”
Interests in cartoon and comic characters can inspire people as they did with Ruben. Grew said her presentation was conducive to the mission of the Toonseum because it demonstrates that cartoons are universal and can deliver pro-social messages to all ages.
“And they can be interesting messages on t-shirts that make you go ‘Oh, maybe a woman could be president,’” said Grew.
Ruben’s message strikes deeper than the idea of a woman as president, as her statements of empowerment and equality have resonated through those around her. Her cousin Ronna Harris Askin, a retired psychiatric epidemiologist, said Ruben’s life has encapsulated the message that women can accomplish anything they can imagine.
“I mean, I know the back story. She was very poor, she came from a very limited background and she went on to get a bachelor’s degree at a time when her children were in grade school at a time when women didn’t do that,” said Askin. “Then she got a master’s degree; then lord help us the woman got a PHD. I mean, who did that in my mother’s generation?”
Askin said Ruben’s message has been passed down, empowering the next generation of women.
“My daughter is an exceptionally strong, capable woman,” said Askin. “She makes it clear to my granddaughter that she can control her world, that it’s hers to be whatever she wants it to be. And some days Raphael is a superhero, and some days she’s a princess, and some days she’s a truck driver. She can play whatever she wants to play. At age four that is appropriate.”
Ruben’s lifelong tenacity for her advocacy of equality has inspired the young men in her life as well. For grandson Aaron Ruben, an attorney living in Squirrel Hill, the idea of women as equals to men is no question. He said his brother and four cousins never thought any different, even when his grandmother made them think critically about what they saw on television as children.
“She would always be like, with all the cartoons, ‘Why aren’t there any female superheroes in these cartoons,’” said Aaron Ruben, “and it would lead to a thirty minute lecture on maybe there should be female superheroes. And everyone followed her message, it wasn’t even us questioning it.”
The message has evolved over the years too, as the shirt is now pink and has the words “Someday is now” printed on the back. Both Aaron Ruben and Askin predict America will have a woman president sometime soon.
Aaron said when this happens his grandmother is going to need to come up with a new message to rally behind, which he suggested is the Equal Rights Amendment she often talks about. The amendment has been thrown around in congress since the early twenties when it was introduced and would constitutionally guaranteed equal rights and pay for all women.
“As nice as having a woman president would be, that’s just one person,” said Aaron Ruben. “Why stop there? The equal rights amendment, frankly, it’s terrifying that we have to have something for that. But it’s something that will affect everyone.”
The ERA was three states short in becoming ratified in the 1970s, but there has been a renewed interest in the act. Recently, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke to the National Press Club and said that she would like to see it written in the Constitution so when her granddaughters learn about it, they can see women and men are of “equal stature.”
Additionally, Hillary Clinton is a 2016 presidential-candidate hopeful, so “someday” might be just around the corner.