Marion Keisker

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Marion Keisker

Until her death in 1989 at the age of 72, Marion Keisker blazed a trail for women in many fields, including broadcasting, theater, writing, the military and women’s rights.

In the 1950s, while working as an assistant to the owner/producer of Memphis Recording Service and Sun Records, Sam Phillips, she was the one who had first contact with Elvis Presley when he came to record a song for his mother. “Call this kid Elvis,” she told Phillips, “I’m telling you, Sam, he’s got something.” The rest is history.

Her broadcasting career includes 10 years (1945-55) at the top of the ratings with her WREC radio show Meet Kitty Kelly. At one time, she was responsible for daily programs on every radio station in the city. Hers was the first voice heard on WHER, the first all-female radio station in the country, where she read the news from 1955 to 1957.

Shortly thereafter, Marion joined the Air Force with direct commission as a captain. After training at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, she was assigned to Vance AFB in Enid, Oklahoma, where she was the only woman officer (other than nurses). In January of 1959, she was transferred to Ramstein AFB in Germany, overseeing the largest armed forces television station in the world. Next, she served as the only woman line officer at Patrick AFB in Florida. She retired in 1969 as a major and returned to Memphis.

It was then that she became deeply involved in the women’s movement. As founder and president of the Memphis Chapter of NOW from 1973 to 1974, Marion led the fight to “de-sex” the classified ads in local newspapers so jobs would no longer be classified by gender. Promoting the Susan B. Anthony silver dollar, she said, “They finally gave us our money, now let’s show them its effect on the economy.” Through her membership in the Women’s Media Group, she fought discrimination against women in the media.

In the 1970s and 1980s, she became known for her theater/broadcasting work. She was voted the city’s Best Actress three times. She also led the “Shy Persons Club” and organized to keep Prairie Home Companion on WKNO.

Always on watch, Marion’s frequent letters to the editor of local newspapers often spotlighted incidents of discrimination against women. In one such letter printed in 1986 in The Commercial Appeal, Marion responded to the issue of a lax attitude toward sex discrimination saying, “… gains are accepted as the norm by those who benefit from them. Those who grow weary in the fight for equality (i.e. justice) relax. Progress slows or is reversed.”

Marion Keisker’s spirited service to the community and steadfast crusade for equal rights has benefited all women of Memphis and Shelby County. Her call to remain diligent is a strong reminder that the fight is not over.

Lois Freeman

Women of Achievement

for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Lois Freeman

For decades, Lois Freeman has worked steadfastly for equal rights for women and minorities, for voters’ rights, for opportunities for individuals with disabilities, for better lives for children and for open community dialog and discussion.

Raised in segregated communities in a loving family environment in East Tennessee, Lois married and moved to West Tennessee in 1951. In Memphis she became conscious of the inequities of society and began what was to become a lifetime of activism. In 1964, at the height of the Civil Rights struggle, Lois was one of a biracial group of women who began the integration of restaurants in Memphis simply by showing up for lunch at a different location every Saturday. After the addition of women to the Civil Rights Act in 1972, she became active in voter registration drives in Mississippi. There was still an atmosphere of violence so workers drove unmarked cars and spent nights away from the communities in which they were working. More than 30 years later, she was recertified by the Department of Justice as an official election observer.

Recognizing that the way to change is through politics, Lois has served as president of the Memphis Women’s Political Caucus and has been active in the Democratic Party. Through these organizations she has worked on behalf of candidates who support the causes in which she deeply believes. Among those whom Lois has helped elect to public office are Judge Bernice Donald, U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman, City Councilwomen Mary Rose McCormick and Barbara Swearingen-Holt and State Representatives Carol Chumney, Henri Brooks and Kathryn Bowers.

Throughout her career in human resources, Lois observed all kinds of discrimination in the workplace. In the late 1970s, Lois cofounded the Equal Employment Opportunity Council of Greater Memphis. This marked the beginning of a network referral system and exchange of job information, which resulted in improved job opportunities for minorities and women. She served as president of the organization and was a member of the Governor’s Committee for the Handicapped.

Always interested in women’s issues, Lois has worked with the YWCA since 1985. She chaired the 1991–1993 Abused Women’s Services Committee and oversaw the opening of a second shelter. Lois is a founding member of the Public Issues Forum, a group dedicated to providing a medium for the public discussion essential to a healthy and progressive society.

Believing that children are our future, Lois serves on the board of Tennessee Mentorship, a group that works with at-risk children ages 3–6. She also is active with EdPac, which promotes opportunities to improve public schools and endorses effective school board candidates.

When asked which of her many endeavors has been most meaningful, she identified her work during the Civil Rights movement. What Lois has learned from her life of activism is that our future lies in appreciating diversity and respecting cultures different from our own. Lois’ steadfast efforts over the decades are clear proof of that belief.

Lois Freeman passed away on May 17, 2018.

Janann Sherman

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Janann Sherman

Janann Sherman didn’t start out to be a historian. After high school she married Charlie Sherman and they both worked as electronics technicians in an Arizona Motorola factory. Ten years later, as a side effect from some medication, Charlie lost his eyesight. Moving to Arkansas, Janann started community college at age 35 on Charlie’s G.I. bill. After finishing her degree in history and psychology at the School of the Ozarks, Janann was awarded a full five-year fellowship to Rutgers University to pursue a master’s degree and then a doctorate in history based on a senior thesis written about Lady Bird Johnson. “The program was very difficult, but I was too stubborn to quit. I had discovered women’s history, discovered my history. I got excited and, consciously or unconsciously, made it my mission to share their history with women.”

Her mentor at Rutgers suggested she investigate Margaret Chase Smith who served in Congress for 33 years, 24 of those in the U.S. Senate. Most of her time as senator, Smith was the only woman. She left office in 1973, but kept all of her private papers and limited access to them. After winning Smith’s trust, Janann spent six years in conversation with her, gathering information that would become her doctoral dissertation in 1993. The entire work, No Place for a Woman: A Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith, was highly praised by The New York Times Book Review in February 2000. Janann said, “Margaret didn’t live to see it, but she knew her story would be told and her place in history assured.”

In 1994, the year she turned 50, Janann accepted the position of Assistant Professor of History at the University of Memphis. Then she met Carol Lynn Yellin and Paula Casey. Her collaboration with Carol Lynn became The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage. And thanks to Paula Casey’s fund-raising, this book has been given to every school and library in Tennessee.

Janann is currently working on an anthology about Betty Friedan, the mother of modern feminism. At the University, she is team-teaching a course with Dr. Beverly Bond called “Parallel Lives: Black and White Women in American History.” Sherman and Bond plan to produce a textbook so the course can be taught in other schools. Janann has also begun work on the story of Phoebe Omlie, an aviator who owned an air circus, won the first transcontinental race for her airplane class in 1929, and, with her husband, opened the first airport north of Memphis.

Dr. Janann Sherman is soon to be an Associate Professor of History at the University of Memphis. Her community involvement includes board membership with Memphis Heritage, Inc., serving the Memphis historical community; coordinating Tennessee History Day, an enrichment program for students in grades 6 through 12; and as editor of Network’s monthly newsletter. Janann remarks on her commitment to women’s history, “I get so many of my personal needs met by telling these stories.”

In 2003, Janann and Beverly Bond published Memphis Black and White, a short history of the Bluff City.

Jodie Gaines Johnson

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose heroic spirit was tested and
shown as a model to all in Shelby County and beyond:

Jodie Gaines Johnson

Jodie Gaines, daughter of a wealthy owner of a furniture factory in McKenzie, Tennessee, had just turned 18 when she was kidnapped April 18, 1978, by three men and held captive five days.

She grew up in Carroll County, about 115 miles northeast of Memphis. Starting in the 10th grade, she attended Lausanne, a private school in East Memphis. She’d make the two-hour drive to Memphis on Sunday evenings and return to McKenzie on Friday afternoons. On one of those Fridays, she had dinner with her parents at the Carroll County Country Club and was stopped by a car with police lights shortly after she drove away. Three men claiming to be conducting an undercover drug bust forced her into the back floorboard of her car. She was imprisoned, first in her car in the Henry County woods, and then in a concrete-block fishing cabin on Kentucky Lake where she was handcuffed to a bed. She was beaten repeatedly and raped.

On Monday afternoon, the men left to arrange and collect a ransom. They returned once, to get an answer to a question that would prove to her family that she was alive. The men left again and for hours, Jodie beat on the bed. She kicked it and hit it all night long. Sometime after dawn on that Tuesday, the bed broke and she freed herself. Meanwhile, authorities arrested the kidnappers, who never got their hands on the $250,000 her father had borrowed and placed under a river bridge. Two attackers pleaded guilty; Jodie testified in the trial of the third, who was convicted as a result of her testimony.

Jodi went on to college at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, but sometimes felt suicidal and hated men. She moved further from McKenzie, to California, worked as a waitress and met a firefighter named Jeff Johnson. They married about 18 months later and he persuaded her that McKenzie was a great place to raise a family. With Jeff as her rock, she rebuilt her life and they are raising four children.

Of her attackers, one remains in prison and one was paroled in 1986. Another, who masterminded the kidnap plan, was freed from prison in 1999 and returned to the McKenzie area to live and work. When state officials would not tell her when her attackers would be released or what they looked like, her campaign for victims’ rights legislation began.

“I have four kids and I don’t want to be in the grocery store and run into them because I’m not that strong,’’ Jodie has said. “I’m going to do whatever I can do … I’m going to speak out, especially for those people who don’t have a voice.’’

She has spoken to legislators in Nashville to push a constitutional amendment and bills providing notification and other rights to victims of crimes. She met with Vice President Al Gore regarding similar federal proposals and spoke at the 2000 Democratic Convention. A 1996 state constitutional amendment guaranteeing victims’ rights passed in Tennessee and now Jodie wants the same thing to happen across the nation.

Anne Shafer

Women of Achievement

for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:

Anne Whalen Shafer

A native Memphian, Anne Whalen Shafer has generously given energy and time for more than 50 years to improve the quality of life for all inhabitants of Memphis. She has faced anger and ignorance with grace and determination. Anne believes in and works toward the elimination of racism and sexism in families, religion, and society.

In the mid-1960s, Anne was appointed chair of the Memphis City Beautiful Commission, a post she held for three years. She organized a group of women from different ethnic neighborhoods who cleaned up areas plagued with open sewers, filth, and disease. They stood up to traditionalists who wanted to maintain segregation in Memphis. In 1964, the Memphis City Beautiful Commission was integrated with the addition of three African-American members, in part due to the encouragement Anne gave Public Works Commissioner T.E. “Pete” Sisson.

On her first day as the chair of the commission, Anne integrated the office of inspectors by moving two African-American inspectors from the cloakroom into the main office. The elimination of a separate “Negro Division” fit Anne’s sense of values. As it turns out, this created the first integrated office in City Hall. During her tenure, segregation fell by the wayside on every front. She integrated the annual Clean-Up, Fix-Up, Paint-Up parade and the poster art contest, and she worked for a single Miss City Beautiful contest open to all.

Openly working for integration in the 1960s in Memphis required courage and earned her a few enemies who didn’t share her strong sense of what is right, but Anne sought and won the position of Shelby County delegate to the 1965 Tennessee Constitutional Convention that reapportioned the state legislature.

Over the past 50 years, Anne has been active in the League of Women Voters, Church Women United, UNICEF, Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, and the Panel of American Women. She and her compatriots crossed an invisible boundary that imprisoned people who were marginalized by the hue of their skin or their gender or heritage. That boundary was an attitude that kept people in their place. “When the time came for me to step over that line, I had to do it,” she said.

Today, Anne continues to speak up for issues she passionately believes are right. She is one of the founders of the Public Issues Forum, an association whose purpose is to stimulate civil discussion and debate on current issues. They focus on the need for tolerance both locally and internationally.

Always an advocate for the inalienable rights of every human being, Anne Whalen Shafer embodies the essence of courage in a world that does not always accept with grace the diversity of cultures, issues, and beliefs. She stands tall as a role model for courageously and actively living one’s beliefs.


Anne Shafer passed away at age 90 on October 2, 2013.

Debbie Norton, Jalena Bowling and Denny Glad

Debbie Norton (left), Jalena Bowling and (seated) Denny Glad (right).

Women of Achievement

for a woman who solved a glaring problem despite
widespread inertia, apathy or ignorance around her:

Debbie Norton, Jalena Bowling and Denny Glad

What if you didn’t know your birthmother? Your birthfather? Your birthsiblings? For some of us, that might seem to be an option we might momentarily enjoy. But, quickly we would realize that it is these very people who make us the unique and special individuals we are. For millions of adoptees this lack of knowledge is an emotional struggle and a physical challenge. Jalena Bowling, Denny Glad and Debbie Norton understand this feeling and have taken giant steps to help.

These three women epitomize determination. They are adult adoption activists who have achieved tremendous successes in connecting parents and their adopted children. Through a long and difficult struggle with the Tennessee State Legislature and numerous court delays, Bowling, Glad and Norton have fought for the right to know. Now, because of their efforts, thousands of birth records have been unsealed and hundreds of families have been reunited.

As Debbie Norton explained, “This is a civil-rights issue. What is more basic than the right to know who you are and where you come from? What most people take for granted, we have had to fight for.”

The final bill allowing this new freedom of information also protects those parents and adult children who truly do not wish to be contacted. By instituting a “contact veto” provision, which includes both civil and criminal penalties, this special bill has become a model for other states seeking to work through this difficult and emotional issue. Through their determination, Jalena Bowling, Denny Glad and Debbie Norton have made a difference in countless lives.


Denny Glad passed away on May 12, 2008 at age 70.

Cordell Jackson

Women of Achievement

for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Cordell Jackson

“I consider myself an inventor,” says internationally acclaimed rock ’n’ roll guitarist Cordell Jackson. “I’m just richly blessed with ideas … I have now more than ever. If I think of it, I do it.” Initiative has been the driving force behind this colorful music pioneer since her childhood in Pontotoc, Mississippi. Inspired by her musical father, Cordell began learning at age 12 to play piano, bass, mandolin, banjo, harmonica and the guitar. “When I picked up the guitar, I could see it in their eyes, ‘Little girls don’t play guitar,’ they thought. I looked right at ’em and said, ‘I do.’”

And play she did. In 1943, she graduated from high school and moved to Memphis. In 1946, she purchased her own recording equipment. During this same period of time she met and married William Jackson Jr. and went on to become the country’s first female recording engineer. She was the first woman to write, sing, accompany, record, engineer, produce and manufacture her first record. Cordell also became one
of the first women to start her own record label, Moon Records, in 1956.

During the next few decades, Cordell continued to pursue her love of music and to distribute her Moon Records products to 48 states and 35 countries. One night during the 1960s, Cordell was in the audience at a fundraiser where Alex Chilton and Tav Falco were playing. To Cordell’s surprise, they were playing her music instrumentally. When Falco later told her it was “new wave from London,” she informed him it was hers and invited him to hear her recordings.

But it was writer-producer Celia McRee who truly cast the spotlight on Cordell. In 1985, Celia brought Cordell to New York for the New Music Seminar. While there, she joined old friend Tav Falco on stage at the Lone Star Club. “I started playing, and they stood up in one swoop, like a gust of wind,” says Cordell. History was being made again, and Cordell was a star.

Soon after, Cordell had an award-winning video in the New York Film Festival and on MTV, and then was featured in New York’s Interview magazine. And things haven’t slowed down. She’s been named Memphis Musician of the Year, Memphis Songwriter of the Year, honored by Who’s Who of World Women, and been included in the Smithsonian Institution, the Rock ’n’ Soul Museum in Memphis, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Cordell also has made numerous television appearances, including 1992’s award-winning Budweiser commercial with famed guitarist Brian Setzer. She’s currently writing a book, The Brighter Sides and My Music, and recently completed work on a movie, Wayne County Rambling, which will feature one of her songs, “Jazz Fried.” In addition to her ongoing recording career, she found new success as an accomplished artist and has sold paintings to collectors in London, Japan, Stockholm and across the U.S. In Memphis, her work can be seen in Jay Etkins’ Gallery.