Donna Hanson is a bleeding heart in a chief executive officer’s suit.
For 30 years, she has been a champion of women and children in Spokane and throughout the world.
She challenged the pope, face to face in front of 3,000 people, to be more understanding and inclusive of minorities, homosexuals and women in America.
She has traveled the world on relief missions and raised two sons. She was the first woman and the first layperson to run Catholic Charities, the largest private charity in the Inland Northwest.
Earlier this year, the same pope she had questioned awarded her the highest medal a layperson can receive for her lifetime service to the Catholic Church.
Next week, Hanson will travel to Beijing as a voting delegate to the United Nations Conference on Women.
She is one of six people from five continents representing Caritas International, a Rome-based umbrella group of Catholic charities and relief organizations throughout the world.
Hanson will attend both the official U.N. gathering and the parallel non-governmental forum.
By attending the conference, Hanson steps into a hotbed of controversy over the Beijing gathering. But she refuses to become mired in the politics that are dividing conservative religious groups from more liberal women’s organizations.
It’s a familiar position for Hanson, secretary of social ministry for the Spokane Catholic Diocese.
A Junior Leaguer, a devout Catholic and a member of Leadership Spokane, Hanson has conversed with heads of state, bank presidents, even the pope.
As a social worker and a feminist, the 53-year-old mother of two also is comfortable talking to poor single parents in roach-infested motels, sleeping in a hut without running water or taking a stance that sometimes shocks those who judge her by her appearance.
“I think she’s a saint,” said Mary Ann Heskett, who is Hanson’s coworker, friend and fellow parishioner. “I truly think there are saints among us, and she is one.”
As a social worker in the 1960s, Hanson worked for Catholic Charities and then Spokane School District 81.
In the early 1970s, she worked for the community colleges, teaching and coordinating the first parent cooperative preschool in the county.
Hanson delicately joined the debate on women’s rights and roles in 1976 when she was appointed to the Washington State Coordinating Committee for the Washington Conference on Women.
She was chosen, she said, not because of her qualifications but her connections. “I was from Spokane, I was Catholic, I was Caucasian and I was president of Junior League.”
The conference, a precursor to the 1977 United Nations Conference on Women in Houston, dissolved into two factions: pro-equal rights amendment and Christians, Hanson said.
The rhetoric over this year’s U.N. conference is almost as contentious.
On one side is the Catholic Church, some evangelical Christians and conservative politicians who fear the agenda will promote abortion on demand, minimize the importance of traditional families and support the homosexual lifestyle.
Moderate mainline churches, feminists and liberals say the conference will enhance the struggle of women around the world to gain equal footing with men.
“The platform for action is an agenda for women’s empowerment,” states the opening sentence of a 150-page document to U.N. members about the conference. The agenda covers issues of violence, education, war, children and health care.
Americans tend to forget the U.N. conference is about women everywhere, not just Western women, said Sue Bratton, a Whitworth College associate professor. Bratton also is a member of the Pew Global Stewardship Initiative, a Washington, D.C., policy group which urges religious participation in population and environmental issues.
“The word ‘empowerment’ might be frightening some American Christians,” Bratton said. “You’re talking about some very basic issues, like keeping women in school through 12th grade, paying them a decent wage, ensuring they have health services, not just reproductive services, but treatment for things like parasites.”
Hanson insists on sticking to that global view and not aligning herself with either camp. Instead, she is focused on four issues: poverty, violence, education and the treatment of female children.
“Donna’s traveled enough and walked with these people enough to know their pain and suffering,” Heskett said. “She has a way of cutting through everything else.”
In preparing for the U.N. conference, Hanson dug up her files from the meetings almost 20 years ago.
“A lot of things have changed,” she said, looking at a newspaper article that identified her as Mrs. Robert G. Hanson. “A lot of things still need to change.
“It doesn’t matter what happens (at the conference) in Beijing,” she said. “It’s what happens here, day in and day out. If you are hungry, if you have no housing, those are the issues. Are people being permitted to develop their potential? Do they have the necessities to live a life with dignity?”
At the 1977 conference, the big argument was over child care, Hanson said. Conservatives said if the recommendations for day-care standards were passed, it would encourage mothers to leave their children.
In fact, 40 percent of all mothers in the United States already were working, Hanson said. Her concern was providing the best environment for those children. The recommendations ultimately were passed.
As a working mother herself, Hanson was a pioneer. When she took over as director of Catholic Charities in 1978, she could have coined the word “flextime.”
Her boys were 9 and 7 years old. Before taking the job, she stipulated that she would be in the office while her sons were at school, working from home when they were home.
“There is no question in my mind that I will put as much time into this as anyone else would have on regular 9-to-5 office hours,” she said at the time.
Besides running the charity which serves more than 175,000 people a year, she volunteered on dozens of local and national boards and committees. Always, her goal was improving the lives of women and children, spiritually as well as physically.
In 1987, Hanson was asked to address Pope John Paul II and 3,000 clergy and lay people during a papal visit to San Francisco. All she said in advance was that her topic would be the laity.
What she said made headlines around the world. She told the pope that as a laywoman, she felt her views were not always being heard in the Catholic Church. She urged him to reach out to women, homosexuals, the divorced and people of color.
“My culture compels me to keep questioning those in leadership positions,” she told Pope John Paul II. “Not to question, not to challenge, not to seek understanding is to be less than a mature, educating and committed citizen.”
As a result of the speech, she received the U.S. Catholic Award, given annually by the editors of Catholic magazine to the woman who has done the most to further the cause of women in the church.
The pope awarded Hanson a medal for lifetime achievement earlier this year.
The medal is too big to wear, too small to hang, so it sits in her jewelry box on her dresser.
Hanson attributes her accomplishments to her upbringing and the support of her parents, extended family and friends - things every woman, every female child deserves.
“I was loved uniquely,” she said. “Just the thought that not every child is treated that way, oh, it crushes me.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THE HANSON FILE Donna Hanson, 53, travels to Beijing next week as a voting delegate to the United Nations Conference on Women. Some facts on Hanson: Secretary of social ministry for the Spokane Catholic Diocese. Member of Junior League and Leadership Spokane. Once challenged the pope, as 3,000 people looked on, to be more understanding and inclusive of minorities, homosexuals and women in America.