Local woman breaks barriers in Army; Encourages others to never give up
MADISON, Wis. — From a very young age, Marcia Anderson did not like being told no. Her persistence allowed her to become the highest-ranking woman in the Army and helped pave the way for others to follow in her footsteps.
Anderson started hearing the word “no” at an early age. She has held back in kindergarten, because her teachers didn’t think she was smart enough to move on to the first grade.
“That made me determined to prove those people wrong. That I was not slow, that I could really excel and succeed, “Anderson said.
The now retired two-star general not only passed kindergarten, but went on to excel and break barriers in her career in the military.
“I think about where I started. Born in Beloit and grew up in east St. Louis, Illinois. None of those things, they didn’t really seem possible for a person like me at the time,” she said.
Anderson became involved with the Army by accident. To satisfy her college science requirement, she signed up for army ROTC for school credit. She signed an 8-year obligation, and 36 years later she retired from the military.
“It’s probably the best mistake I have ever made. It exposed me to a lot of leadership opportunities,” Anderson said.
While a military career was not in her plans, her success was intentional made with daily victories over a three decade career, during which she was usually the only black woman in the room.
“I felt sometimes like an Army of one in a lot of places where I worked. There was no playbook for this. But I relied a lot on my instincts and common sense and my tendencies to ask people questions,” she said.
Anderson’s father served in the U.S. Army Air Force but never got to achieve the designations that his daughter would later reach. Instead of her father fulfilling his dream of flying bombers, he drove trucks instead. Anderson said that can be attributed to the lack of opportunities for blacks during the time.
Anderson drew inspiration from the Tuskegee Airmen and others like them. With every obstacle, she made her own rule book to make room for other women and African-Americans.
“I realized that I was a role model, whether i intended to be one or not. That gave me an obligation I thought, to go as high as I possibly could go,” she said.
She reached new heights in 2011. The once self-proclaimed shy and minimally athletic girl from Beloit, became the first African-American major general in the Army.
“Not only did I belong there, but I brought something special. To the table that that organization needed. And so when times get tough and people would throw up barriers or roadblocks. I would still feel very strongly you really need me. You may not know it, but you really need me and I’m going to show you,” she explained. “You can you can make some changes to organizations from the outside, but you really need to be in the room you need to be at the table.”
Her success in the Army provided more diversity that when she started her career in the 1980s did not exist, but eventually became a part of her experience.
“They weren’t paying attention to the fact that I was a woman. They weren’t paying attention to the color of my skin. They were really interested in my take on this particular issue. That didn’t always happen. But I could feel it when it did and that made me really happy that i had been persistent and that the people before me had been persistent.”
A missing piece, no matter what career a person is in, Anderson said, is a vital piece to be successful.
“I do truly believe that it’s important to have diversity of thought and experiences and how people process things,” Anderson explained.
Anderson retired in 2014. She spends her time encouraging others to never take no for an answer. She uses a quote from her husband to remind young students and those she mentors in the military to never give up.
“If you’re not at the table then you’re on the menu,” she said.
Since her promotion, two other women were promoted to three star generals. The Navy also welcomed their first four-star African-American admiral.
Anderson is living back in the Madison area and is continuing her work as Clerk of Courts for the United States Court for the Western District of Wisconsin in Madison.