TRAVERSE CITY — These days Mary Sutherland is more likely to be identified as the mother of the area’s entrepreneurial “Sutherland boys” — Tim, Paul, Bob, Matt and Michael — than as the firebrand who marched on Washington for equal rights.
At 83, the former public speaker, political activist and women’s rights leader is trim, energetic and still very much in tune with causes dear to her heart. But now she does a different kind of work: selling and making up gift boxes two days a week at son Bob’s Cherry Republic, where her picture and anecdotes about her illustrate product labels and catalogs.
Working and walking three or four times a day with golden retriever companion Rosalind Russell Sutherland help keep her healthy, said the grandmother of 17, whose Glen Arbor home is just minutes from the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail.
“If I didn’t have her, I’d probably lay in the house reading,” said Sutherland, whose book list includes the national bestseller “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”
Hers is a respected name in the village, where Sutherland and her husband moved with their family in 1970 after vacationing in the area since 1955.
But it wasn’t always that way. Originally a tutor and teacher of everything from lifesaving and remedial reading to debate and drama, Sutherland said she caused consternation when she left her family every week to return to school to earn her master’s degree in communications and women’s studies.
“I left on Sunday to drive to East Lansing so I could come back on Friday,” she said, adding that her son could pour milk for his own cereal when he was 5. “People thought I was terrible.”
Eventually she built a career as a professional speaker and workshop leader on topics like assertiveness and self-esteem. Along the way she helped found a local NOW organization focused on passing an Equal Rights Amendment, a Women’s Political Caucus aimed at getting women elected to public office, and a Women’s Resource Center designed for survivors of domestic and sexual violence.
She also wrote freelance articles and a book, “Claim Your Self,” which had its fifth printing in 2012, courtesy of son Matt, managing editor of the independent book review journal ForeWord Reviews.
Marsha Smith, executive director of Rotary Charities, worked with Sutherland as a co-founder of WRC.
“I always think of her, in this region, as the mother of assertiveness training,” said Smith. “In the early days of the Women’s Resource Center, from my perspective 40 years ago, she was this really cool older woman who just had this amazing energy and this skill set she wanted to share with others. And that was how to get across what you need and what you want in a way that wasn’t threatening or aggressive.”
At the time, domestic abuse was an issue that was kept quiet, and women who advocated for themselves and others were labeled “libbers,” Smith said.
“She gave us a new way to be presented,” Smith said.
Friend and neighbor George Weeks said Sutherland worked with his late wife, Mollie, on several projects, including the first campaign of Elizabeth “Betty” Weaver for probate judge. They also helped local attorney Dean Robb with the defense of battered wife Jeanette Smith, who was acquitted of second-degree murder in 1979 after stabbing her estranged husband.
“You should see the back of Mary’s car,” said Weeks, an author and political syndicated columnist. “What a splash of political bumper stickers it is. It’s a billboard for political activism.”
That her friends include well-known journalists, artists and politicians on both sides of party lines is proof of Sutherland’s success, Smith said.
“She had a group of power women who didn’t necessarily share her political views but she knew how to bring them together and coalesce around things they agreed on. That was another important thing I learned from her. And I think, though she was very respected, she didn’t have a lot of ego.”
Sutherland grew up in St. Clairsville, Ohio, where she recalls accompanying her father when he campaigned for election to various public offices. The experience sparked an early interest in politics and a sense of confidence in what she could accomplish, she said.
“Every woman who succeeds at anything has a father who valued her,” she added. “I grew up believing I had some value. I learned early it was going to be my brains that got me anywhere and not my beauty.”
She was a varsity debater and competitive diver at Ohio State University when she met her future husband, a Michigan State University student, while both were on spring break in Ft. Lauderdale. She was teaching lifesaving; he was training to become a lifeguard.
The two became engaged three weeks later and married during Christmas break of her senior year.
After they finished school, the couple moved to the Detroit area, where her husband took the first of several jobs in education, special education and social work. They started a family in 1953, but Sutherland almost always held down a part-time job, whether at an office, a YWCA, a nursery co-op or a home-based toy party.
“A woman has to keep one toe in the labor force,” she said, noting that making a living became particularly important after she was widowed at 50. “If you don’t, you get down, you lose confidence, you think you can’t do anything. You have to develop your skills. Educated women become so depressed unless they use their minds.”
Sutherland was an early advocate for natural childbirth and breastfeeding, equal education and equal pay. But she said she never heard the word feminist until a friend gave her the 1960s book, “The Feminine Mystique.”
“I was standing up for women, but I didn’t know the word,” she said. “The book put it all together for me.”
Sutherland is particularly proud of her children — including daughter, Patricia — but said both children and their mothers are better off when the mothers have other interests.
She encourages young women to strike a healthy balance in their lives and to take care of themselves as well as they take care of others. She believes trying to “do it all” at once can lead to compromised immune systems and cancer, like the kind she was diagnosed with at 45.
“I see women in their 20s, 30s, having children, working 80 hours a week. They’re killing themselves,” she said. “Women have time. We don’t have to do it all in our 30s and 40s. A woman doesn’t reach her prime until she’s in her 50s. Our best work is often done in our 50s — and our 70s.”