Imagine growing up with someone telling you what you can and can’t learn. Telling you what they want you to hear, even if it’s not the truth. Telling you to fear someone or something that really isn’t dangerous at all.
Such was the life of Carole Cato, and according to her, such is the life we’re all still living.
Cato grew up in rural Virginia in the 1940s, in “a very tumultuous era. My family owned a tobacco farm. We were fairly insulated.” She grew up in a church community “full of good intentions.” But she knew from a very young age that she was interested in the truth about public health and that she was not getting that.
“Men and women did not know anything about their bodies. Nothing. When certain things began to happen in their lives...and it happened to me, it was very frightening. We didn’t know the consequences of actions. We were just kept ignorant about it, or it wasn’t something that was talked about. Some of the things being taught were just off the wall.”
Cato began reading books and researching for the truth, she realized what she was being taught was “just wrong.” As she learned more about the world around her, she “began to rebel. My father would tell me, ‘you would argue with a sign post.’ And I would reply, ‘yes, if it said something I disagreed with’.”
Today, in an age where more and more people are standing up for freedoms to choose, Cato still sees that legislators are forcing their personal beliefs on others, a fact that she “deeply resents.”
“A woman’s freedom to choose is our freedom. When you begin to take freedoms away from a certain segment or society, like choice...it takes away freedoms from all of us and it creates a terrible burden for people who are closest to it and also on the greater society. It [would be] pretty good if state legislators would just stay out of the gynecological business.”
Cato’s upbringing not only showed her that society does not always get the truth, but also that those in poverty were put down. Seeing both still today throughout this state fuels her desire for health education reform. “South Carolina neglects greatly its greatest asset, and that’s its human capital. It seems to want to do anything and everything to keep a large segment in their place, as my father would say. The way you do that is you don’t furnish good healthcare...education...transportation, and you don’t do all these things that can help that person grow and become a contributing citizen,” she explained.
Many have put a stigma on these people, those on food stamps and on Medicaid, labeling them as “lazy,” Cato said. “I think to myself that anyone’s luck could change,” putting them in that exact same scenario. The problem is that not enough people are educated on these federal programs and the issues surrounding them, leading to the stereotype. She firmly believes if legislators were to spend a day or two in the shoes of the poor, particularly poor women, and see what they endure they would “have mercy and begin to fight for them.” She explained that “it is the state’s duty, and it’s in our constitution, to protect and educate, and they are not doing either.”
And it’s not just restricted to the impoverished. In the South, “it’s engrained in the culture” that men are the head of the household. “Not in any household that I’m part of!” Cato said. “A woman’s contribution in the home is very valuable, I’m not sure you can put a dollar amount on it. You can put a dollar amount on the man, but you can’t on the woman!”
Since Cato’s arrival in Columbia 13 years ago, she has met people who were working to spark the same changes she had sought most of her life. She first joined the Columbia Luncheon Club. Founded in the 60s, it was South Carolina’s first program where people of any racial community could sit down, have a meal together and be able to truly communicate with one another.
When Cato first began her journey with Tell Them!, she said she found a group of people whose beliefs and actions she could stand by 100 percent. She first met Director of Government Affairs Brandi Ellison, and Cato has grown to admire her and all of the Tell Them! advocates. “They are my idols. They do not realize how much they impress me. Their courage...they have no idea how much they influence other people, how many people admire them. It’s just wonderful.”
Cato credits these two organizations and her mom for sparking her desire to be an advocate. She has created an endowment in her mother’s name, the Ruby Elliott Hudson Foundation in University of South Carolina’s College of Nursing, to further women’s health and to gather enough money (they’re almost there!) to set up a center for women’s health and public policy, “anything that would help equalize the rights of women.”
“I am planning, if I live long enough, which I hope I will, as long as I have the energy, the mind and the strength, it will be devoted to women’s health and public policy.”
Do you have that spark to learn the truths and spread them throughout South Carolina? Do you believe in a society where every single person has the freedom to choose?