Virginia ‘Jinnah’ Kelson, ‘fierce advocate’ for Utah women, dies at age 90

(Tribune file photo) Virginia Kelson

The women were all set to work in Tooele coal mines. They were trained. They were going to make a good salary. Plus, they enjoyed the job, Virginia Kelson said.

But in just a few months, all the women quit.

The reason, Kelson said, was criticism from their families. Their relatives “did not like their assertiveness” and “felt that it was improper to be taking ‘men’s jobs,’” she said.

Kelson, who had helped prepare the women for mining jobs, spent decades challenging social norms and advocating for the empowerment of Utah women. Described in her obituary as “a pioneer in women’s equality in the workforce,” she died July 14 at her Salt Lake City home at the age of 90.

An open house is scheduled from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday at Forest Glen Clubhouse, located at 2560 Elizabeth Street in Salt Lake City.

Kelson, commonly known as “Jinnah,” recounted the story of the failed mining experiment and other moments from her career for an oral history project with the University of Utah in 1988.

“She was really someone who I think really helped lift all women,” said Debra Daniels, director of the Women’s Resource Center at the U. “...I knew how to be a community activist by watching her be a community activist.”

Kelson established the Phoenix Institute in Salt Lake City in 1971, which helped women secure nontraditional jobs. She also founded Network Magazine, a women’s publication that circulated primarily in Utah.

She went on to help with federal and state legislation. She worked on the Displaced Homemakers Act in 1986, which assisted Utah women who had previously stayed home and wanted jobs. She supported the Equal Rights Amendment, to ensure people would not be discriminated against based on their sex. And she was on Sen. Orrin Hatch’s women’s advisory committee and worked with the Utah Republican on child care issues.

“Jinnah Kelson was a soft-spoken but fierce advocate and voice for women,” former Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham said in an email.

Former Congresswoman Karen Shepherd, who was Network’s editor and publisher from 1978 to 1988, and former state Rep. Genevieve Atwood, who was on the Phoenix Institute’s board, estimated that Kelson must have helped thousands of people over her career.

“Our family is very proud of my mother's accomplishments, her legacy in the community and her voice in changing our culture’s perception about the role of women,” Leslie Kelson-Probert said in an email. “As Jinnah’s daughter, I was influenced by her strength and dedication to the things she believed in and worked toward.”

Empowering women

Kelson studied history at the U., but said she planned to “do what every other young woman did” in the 1940s. “I believed that I was going to be a homemaker, and I wanted to have lots of children, and I didn’t aspire to a career,” she said.

She married her husband, A.W. Kelson, shortly after graduating in 1950. They had two children, and Kelson also helped raise her sister’s children.

When Kelson was 40, she returned to school to study business. She was one of the few women in the program, and “we stood out like sore thumbs,” she said. But it was a moment during this time that Kelson said sent her down her career path.

When Kelson asked a male instructor why she had received a grade of C+, after routinely scoring higher on work, he told her she didn’t need a higher grade, she said. She later realized that “what he meant was because I was a woman, I didn’t need it.”

“It was the first time that I ever felt discrimination, and that was key. … That was the beginning of an interest in civil rights, discrimination and equal opportunity that led to the founding of the Phoenix Institute,” Kelson said.

Kelson helped women train to work in nontraditional roles, such as electricians and mechanics. This was partly to help them get higher pay, she said, but also because not all women fit into traditionally female jobs, such as a secretary or waitress.

She stressed that economic independence was “by far the biggest issue in the whole women’s movement.” If a woman is dependent on her husband, she can’t leave a bad relationship, Kelson said.

“If she knows that she can sustain herself and her children with or without him, then she willingly is in the relationship with him because they both have power,” Kelson said.

Kelson ran multiple programs at the institute. Daniels worked for Kelson helping adolescent girls. Kelson also held a class to teach women assertiveness.

“She realized that women don’t get anywhere unless they have confidence. And they don’t have confidence if they don’t know how to speak with confidence,” Shepherd said.

Paving the way

Kelson knew that by helping women succeed, it helped everyone in the community, Atwood said. Kelson had a talent for uniting people around a cause, she added.

In her oral history, Kelson recalled a watershed meeting in 1977 at the Salt Palace that was part of International Women’s Year activities. Thousands of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attended, “responding to their church’s call to insure the support of ‘correct principles,’” The New York Times reported. From that, Kelson realized “we had to have a better way of communicating our problems and our positions on things,” she said, which resulted in Network Magazine.

“She kept her pulse on every avenue and opportunity that she could give to women through her connections, through grant writing, through mentoring, through education, to help them ... find the organizations that they could go and get trained and be treated with respect,” Daniels said.

Kelson said she believed that “it’s only through the education of the next generation that we will get some changes.”

“I never would have tumbled into it if I hadn’t come back to school,” Kelson said. “I wasn’t born into it. I had to be discriminated against to feel it.”

People in 2019 may think that women’s issues are “all taken care of,” Shepherd said, but “in those days, nothing had been taken care of.” Women like Kelson “were doing it from scratch,” she said.

“Many of the strides Utah women have made in the last several decades have been built on her work,” Durham said.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.