I first met Karen Perkins sometime in the early 1970s. I was a young reporter in a constant struggle with my editors to get news about women taken seriously. The New Women’s Movement was growing, and I wanted to cover it. But the male news editors didn’t care. Women’s news belonged in the Women’s Department, along with society and cooking news, with child rearing advice and wedding photos.
So I took them at their word and began writing stories for the women’s section about women running for office, doing interviews with women like Sissy Farenthold, Sarah Weddington, Barbara Jordan, Liz Carpenter, and Ann Richards in Texas, and women like Billie Jean King, Gloria Steinem, and Bella Abzug nationally. I wrote about Fort Worth women seeking changes to rape laws, and women trying to enter or re-enter the work force, about women trying to change the laws about credit, or service on juries, or laws affecting battered women. And women in Fort Worth responded. They created the Rape Task Force, which morphed into the Rape Crisis Center. They set up the Women’s Center. They set up Women’s Haven.
Karen became a news source, an ally, and my friend. We were blatant co-conspirators in informing people about the struggle for justice and equality for women. I would report on an issue or a problem facing women, and Karen would organize the follow-up letters and phone calls to the necessary people in power to get the problem solved.
I don’t know how many car trips we made together to Austin, her to testify in some hearing on a women’s issue, and me to cover it. We laughed our way up and down Interstate 35. We laughed and chanted our way through marches in Austin and Washington, usually with our amazing daughters.
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I could always find her in a crowd, even though she was no taller than I am. She was always in the midst of a gathering of people, all of whom were listening to her. The first clue to her presence was the laughter. Always the laughter. Karen was so good. She’d make some wonderfully outrageous statement, and then follow it with that infectious subversive chuckle. And everyone around her would start chuckling too, even those who were pretty sure what she’d just said was probably dangerous.
And it usually was. Karen was dangerous, in the way change makers are to the established order. Karen was that most dangerous of human beings — a courageous, intelligent, focused, pissed off woman.
You see, Karen knew righteous anger is not a bad thing. Karen knew, like Augustine of Hippo knew, that “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”
Karen was a leader, a very specific kind of leader. There are the folk who lead from behind, shepherding people in the right direction. There are leaders from the front, who create visions and inspire people. And there are leaders from the middle, who create visions and then create the networks to make them reality.
Karen was a leader from the middle. She was a visionary, and so much more. She wasn’t satisfied with creating new ideas, new visions, new dreams. She wanted them to become reality. That’s why her photo should be beside the word “networking” in the dictionary. She could work a crowd better than anyone I ever knew. And the minute she got to know you, she’d begin matching you up with folks who needed you, or that you needed – even if you didn’t know you needed them.
Karen was a vision carrier — she’d infect person after person with a vision until she’d created a critical mass of people working to make that vision a reality.
See, what she did was create an air of inevitability. The Borg had nothing on Perkins. Resistance was futile. If you don’t believe me, just ask any national or state representative, mayor, city council person, county official, police chief, district attorney, judge, or donor in this city or state. Just look at the crowd for her memorial. Just look at this city and this state!
Karen was the woman about whom the devil said every morning when her feet hit the floor, “Damn! She’s awake!”
Karen was the woman who made sure uppity women united.
Karen was the woman who, when called a bitch, would reply, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
And I’m pretty sure that storm with the near constant thunder and lightning we had the other night was Karen getting God’s attention so she could explain to Her there are some things that need God’s attention right now in the United States.
Karen would be OK with us gathering today to tell stories. But don’t think that’s an excuse for slacking off. She’s expecting us to wipe our tears and get on with it. There’s work to be done! And if we don’t do it, who will?
Katie Sherrod is a Fort Worth writer and producer.
If you want to honor Karen, make a donation to the Karen Perkins Memorial Fund in The Women's Center of Tarrant County Foundation.