About 300 people attended the 24th annual Fund for Women dinner and fundraiser on Thursday, Oct. 12, at Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center.

“The purpose of the event is to build awareness around women’s economic empowerment,” said Nicole Jenkins, chair of the Fund for Women. She explained that in 2016 the fund embarked on their “earn, save and invest initiative” which promises to help women of color become more financially secure.

“Most women are working paycheck to paycheck. If a car breaks down, you can’t get to work,” she said. She explained that the organization wants to remove barriers that stand in the way of women becoming financially stable.

To meet these needs, the Fund for Women awarded $75,000 in grants in 2017. Angela Davis, development director for the Madison Community Foundation, recognized the four grantees that included: Women in YWeb Career Academy (YWebCA), Onward Odyssey, Doyenne Group Evergreen Fund, and the Latino Leadership Academy.

Sagashus Levingston
(Photo by Diane Schwartz)

“When women win, we all win,” Jenkins said.

The highlight of the evening was keynote speaker Sagashus Levingston, a social entrepreneur and University of Wisconsin Ph.D. candidate. Levingston is the author of Infamous Mothers, a coffee table book that features stories of women who mother on the fringe of society who have gone on to accomplish great things in life. She is herself an “infamous mother” of six children and is a product of an infamous mother. She called her experience, once a source of shame, now her most valuable asset in serving women.

Referencing the Tina Turner song “Proud Mary,” she began, “On this journey with me, I’m gonna tell you all, it’s gonna be easy for a little bit, then it’s going to get rough, and then it’s gonna come back to easy.”

“We’re going to talk about some hard things, but they are so important to our work today,” she said. “It’s about to get real.”

She spoke about the story that inspired her research. Initially, she wanted to study incarcerated black men, but that changed when she heard a compelling story about a mother of three who killed her youngest baby. Everyone was asking about the baby and passing judgement on the mother. No one was asking about the mother. This story inspired her to research these mothers and to fill a gap in the literature.

“Everyone is focusing on the child, but what are the questions that I could ask the mom? What are things that are not being explored?”

“She had multiple children, so did she say somewhere during the course of her life and experience as a mom, by the time I get to my third child that’s the one? Did she say, well you know what, I don’t really want kids, but I’m gonna produce them anyway because I’m bored or because I want to ruin someone’s life? I don’t think that’s her logic. So the question for me became what exactly was it that would lead a mom of multiple children to take the life of one of those children?”

In going back to the story, she discovered something. She learned that the woman had gone to church. At church, a couple saw that she was struggling and offered to adopt her baby.

“She refused the help because she didn’t want to be seen as a bad mom,” Levingston said.

“The researcher in me was interested in this contradiction. By not wanting to be seen as a bad mom, she had done the very act that would permanently define her as a bad mom,” she added. “And so I wanted to understand, what was it that shaped her mind. What was it that influenced her?”

In addition, Levingston saw something else, something she didn’t want to see.

“The mom in me felt that if I explored this, I would be guilty by association, just by reading the article. Just reading her story would be an indication that I too am complicit in the very thing that she has done,” she said.

But worse than that, she saw something else. She challenged herself and the audience to see this truth.

“I had lived enough life to know that if she was capable of doing this act under the right circumstances, then I, too, could be capable of doing that same thing, that you, too, could be capable of doing the same thing.”

Levingston then talked about the enormous and unrealistic expectations that we put on mothers and how work structures are not humane for women. She talked about how her mother had gotten pregnant and then married because that’s what you did in the ‘60s, but was miserable and depressed because she couldn’t pursue her career. She took out her frustration on her young son. Gender norms may have changed since the 1960s, but they are still challenging for women, she explained.

“We need to consider the humanity of women,” Levingston said. “We are not superheroes.”

Tanisha Pyron performs a play adaptation of the Infamous Mothers book.
(Photo by Diane Schwartz)

She closed by going back to the woman who took her baby’s life because she was struggling with what it meant to be a good mom or a bad mom.

“What if that couple had changed and asked her a very different question. Instead of asking, ‘Can we adopt your baby?’ they said to her, ‘Wow, I see persistence in you. I see resilience. What can we do to help make that thing come alive? What can we do to help you pursue your dreams? In you, I see power. What can we do to release that?’” she said.

“I wonder if the outcome would have been a stronger woman. A happier woman. A woman who felt more complete. And a by-product of that would have been a healthier and stronger family and a healthier and strong community,” Levingston added. “I’m not proud to say that it was in the death of a child that I was finally able to understand and realize and see the mother. But I am proud to say that at least right now I see. And I’m hoping that all of you can do the same.”

Before and after Levingston’s keynote, Tanisha Pyron performed a preview of a play adaption of the Infamous Mothers book.

The evening resonated with guests.

Kynala Phillips, a student at UW-Madison, liked how Levingston broke down how to help women and better understand women. “I like how her stories are unfiltered,” she said.

Shannon Wall, a social worker said, “I understand her attempt to put a woman’s personhood first and foremost above all the roles that women occupy. I think that’s an important and powerful message.”

Infamous Mothers book can be purchased at www.infamousmothers.com.