Breaking Barriers: Marcia Anderson
When Marcia Anderson became the Army’s first-ever African American female major general, her staff presented her with a picture frame that they cracked with a hammer. On the hammer, they affixed a plaque that reads, “Thanks for breaking the glass ceiling.” Seven years after she was commissioned a two-star general, the gift still hangs in her office.
For Anderson, who retired from the Army position two years ago, the historic achievement serves as a personal point of pride and a reminder of how she can take her success and encourage a new generation of women to lead. She takes that lesson with her as Clerk of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western district of Wisconsin and member of the Green Bay Packers board of directors.
In 2011 Anderson was already celebrated in her brigadier general role as the Army’s highest ranking African American woman. Then came word that she was to earn her second star to become major general.
“It felt like a burden for a minute,” Anderson said. “But then it really hit me. I realized this was my chance to kick the door open for other women to follow me.”
Anderson was born in Beloit and moved to East St. Louis, Missouri in second grade. Her parents divorced and she lived with her mother and grandparents. Her mother worked tirelessly to provide as much culture as possible for Anderson despite the difficult economic climate.
“It was a challenging place to grow up,” Anderson said. “She did the best she could as a single mom. I thought everyone grew up with Time and Newsweek subscriptions and an appreciation for opera music.”
Anderson learned early on that she alone could choose the direction her life took. She flunked kindergarten and was teased mercilessly by her classmates.
“That kind of drove me,” she said. “I wanted to prove to them that I wasn’t slow.”
That’s one facet that resonates when she speaks to groups of children. She especially enjoys returning to East St. Louis to highlight how these children can take a negative and turn it into a positive.
Anderson’s father Rudy Mahan served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.
But that path wasn’t necessarily on Anderson’s radar when she was enrolled at Creighton University in Nebraska. She ended up needing a science course and learned the ROTC military science would fulfill that requirement.
She said the military’s structure appealed to her, and she stayed on past her initial commitment. While serving in the early part of her career with the Army Reserves, she earned her law degree from Rutgers Law School in 1984. She led Reserves on the East Coast, worked for the New York federal appellate court and in environmental litigation for a private law firm. In 1998, she was appointed the Clerk of Court of the Wisconsin Western district Bankruptcy Court.
Just as all members of the U.S. military did, Anderson’s career met a fork in the road on Sept. 11, 2001. She had served her full commitment and had to decide if she should she retire or double-down on her service. She chose to stay the course and was immediately funneled to Fort Benning, Georgia, followed by numerous 1- to 6-month assignments across the Army Reserves.
Anderson carried a lot of historical baggage with her as she progressively rose in rank. Her father faced discrimination during the Korean War. As an African American, he wasn’t considered for promotion. He sought a bomber pilot position, but was tasked with driving trucks. And she was intensely aware of the paths paved by African Americans in World War II – in particular the pilots.
“I was walking in the footsteps of the Tuskegee Airmen,” she said. “They fought a lot of battles to make it possible for me. I vowed I would never do anything while serving that would dishonor or minimize their sacrifices and conducted myself above reproach in their honor.”
When Anderson was promoted to major general she left her brigadier general post at Fort Knox, where she had been overseeing the entire Army's human resources operations, to work at the Pentagon as deputy to the chief of the Army Reserve. During both assignments she was on leave from her job with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
“The good news was that I was getting a second star,” she said. “The bad news was that it was at the Pentagon. I really wanted to work with the soldiers on the ground. I didn’t want to see ‘how the sausage is made.’ But it turned out amazing. I got a full understanding of the policy side and learned about all of the humanitarian projects that no one ever hears about: from drilling wells in Africa to building schools in Afghanistan for children who had never had one.”
Throughout most of her military career, Anderson also maintained her civilian career. Since 1998 she has overseen the Western Wisconsin Clerk of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court – from the judges to lawyers and support staff.
“It’s similar to being a general in many ways,” she said. “Ultimately the buck stops on my desk. People tend to have a negative view of bankruptcy. But it helps provide a fresh start. Nobody runs their business or farm into the ground on purpose. It’s one part of law that I really like.”
Three years ago, Anderson was contacted by the Green Bay Packers, who were looking to fill a seat on the Board of Directors. Thanks to her mom’s fan status, Anderson grew up cheering on the green and gold, though they never had enough money to attend a game.
“My mom would’ve gotten such a kick out of this,” Anderson said. “She died of breast cancer while I was in law school.”
Now she serves as one of the 43 members of the board as well as a trustee on the Green Bay Packers Foundation, which allocates grant funds for community organizations throughout Wisconsin.
The Packers organization is unique, as the only publicly-owned franchise in the 32-team NFL organization.
With her military background, Anderson brings a knowledgeable voice to the board. Just like soldiers, football players face a significantly greater chance of head trauma. She said she has noticed both NFL players and soldiers adopt similar mindsets in regard to injuries: they both want to continue the fight with their teammates. So just as the U.S. military branches continue to combat brain injuries and support veterans, so does the NFL with its current and retired players afflicted with CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Anderson’s input is valuable on both fronts.
With her legacy as a glass-ceiling breaker firmly intact, Anderson aims to encourage other women to press further – to change leadership compositions so her story is no longer unusual.
Anderson said. “We have to force ourselves to be uncomfortable. There’s hesitation. But we need to speak up and say ‘I know I can do this.’ It is incumbent on people who are in positions of leadership to really, really step outside their comfort zone. Someone took a chance
on me. They saw I didn’t fit the traditional profile of Army leadership. And just like it is important for people in power to consider women for positions, it is just as important to uphold your end of the bargain when someone takes that risk and chooses you.”
That’s the crux of what Anderson plans to speak about as featured speaker at the Women’s Fund for the Fox Valley Region luncheon.
She plans to address “the power that we have as women to change not just our immediate circumstances, but the towns, cities and companies where we live and work,” Anderson said. “Our voices bring a richness to the discussion and it is incumbent upon us to insist that we are not only at the table, but that we drive the agenda.”
The luncheon is Thursday, Sept. 6 from 11:25 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Red Lion Hotel Paper Valley, 333 W. College Avenue, Appleton. Details can be found at womensfundfvr.org. w