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The first woman radio DJ in Indianapolis was a spitfire. After graduating cum laude from Butler University in 1933 with a bachelor’s degree in public speaking, Gwendolyn Schort Burris, like most college-educated women of her era, had very few options for applying her education. She did what smart, ambitious people have always done when they can’t find a slot in the world: Burris created her own opportunity.

A little nobody

Burris earned a living as a private drama teacher. In 1937, she caught a lucky break when a radio producer at WFBM, the ancestor of what is now WRTV, asked her to co-host a local radio program aimed at women. She went on to host two other radio programs. “In those days, women just did not do anything,” Burris said in a 1977 interview. “I just couldn’t believe it. Here I was, a little nobody, and yet I was going to become a radio personality.”

Burris died in 2008 at the age of 97, but not before demonstrating that she was far from “a little nobody.” She was active in numerous civic affairs, including the Women’s Affairs Committee, the Stub Club of the Civic Theatre, the Indiana State Symphony Society, and held progressive leadership roles in the Women’s Department Club’s Literature and Drama Department and the Indianapolis Council of United Church Women. Burris was also a Girl Scout leader and participated in fundraising for the American Red Cross and the United Fund.

What really caught my eye, though, was her involvement as a leader in her church where she taught classes for all ages, served as a deaconess and was eventually elected as an elder—a leadership role that is still reserved for men in many churches today.

Here I was, a little nobody, and yet I was going to become a radio personality.

Losing her voice—and her dignity

Burris would have been 66-years-old when she was interviewed in 1977 for the Indiana State Library’s oral history collection. What is so poignant about her narrative are small traces of evidence that show how women were marginalized, discounted and quite often humiliated while making their way through a male-dominated society.

Hear what she says about losing her voice after being selected to read a cigarette commercial during a broadcast of Benny Goodman and his band, playing on a local stage.

There were two of us who were asked to try out, and bless Pat, I was selected! Talk about excitement. Well, here I was, as I said, so excited to be on the radio in the first place in Indianapolis. Well, the funny thing is, I was just too excited, because in the middle of the commercial […] I just couldn’t talk. I swallowed, and then I swallowed a second time—fortunately, probably at the right pause place. But, oh, I shall never forget…never forget how I was frowned upon by Mr. Goodman himself, who thought, ‘Well, here’s a nincompoop from Indianapolis who can’t even read.’ I was as low as low could be, but again, Ray, it was just the stage fright.

Three decades have passed since Burris gave that interview, and women are still working out their place as equals in God’s kingdom. All too often, we women don’t own the confidence and courage God designed all human beings to have.

Lately I’ve been drawing inspiration from some of the women profiled in Karen Karbo’s book, In Praise of Difficult Women. Karbo shares insights drawn from a band of sisters who’ve made their mark on the world, survived injustices and paved the way for other women by being “difficult.”

 Are you up for being difficult? What keeps you from being the confident woman you should be? 

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.