In high school my favorite shirt said: A Woman’s Place is in the House. And in the Senate.
When I bought it in the 1970’s, the workplace was still getting used to the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). Okay, it’s been over 50 years and we still don’t have either of those working well yet.
In the late 1970’s, the women’s movement was focused on allowing women to have their own checking accounts and credit cards, no fault divorce, the right to make reproductive choices, and ending pregnancy and housing discrimination. The Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution even looked like it might pass. It didn’t.
It wasn’t until 1980 that Paula Hawkins, a Republican from Florida, became the first elected woman Senator. (Other women in the Senate had acquired the seat to finish the term of their father or husband). In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed as the first woman Supreme Court Justice by Ronald Reagan.
It was the time after birth control pills were commonly available but before sexual harassment was recognized as a form of illegal gender discrimination in 1986. And men were still wondering what women were doing in the workplace competing for their jobs and status. They mostly figured it was so women could either serve them, date them, or preferably, both.
When I graduated from law school and start working in the late 1980’s, sexism was just part of showing up for work. Men felt free to tell me what to wear (heels and skirts, preferably high) and how to talk (rarely and softly). I was always the one asked to go get coffee or lunch (just grab some petty cash on your way out the door). A judge once sent me home without hearing my case because I wore pants to court. He continued my matter until the next day, so I could appear in ‘proper’ attire. I never argued the motion; the firm sent a man instead.
Sexual harassment was the standard, not the exception. I was regularly asked out for drinks by attorneys, clients, and complete strangers. Men felt free to brush against my breasts and slip their hands under my skirt or around my waist simply because I was in proximity. I was once trapped in a conference room chair while the men around me discussed who would get to take me home. And then there was the night I got really drunk and my boss started kissing me and said he was going to make me partner and I should have sex with him. I did. He didn’t. (Like I said, I was really drunk.)
The difficulty was not just the men. Since female attorneys had little power or status, no one wanted to work with us, especially the women legal assistants and paralegals who had their own battles to fight for credibility. Even my relationships with other female attorneys were difficult to navigate because opportunities were so scarce. We had to compete with each other for the token spots on the trial team or the million-dollar deals.
In the early 90’s when sexual harassment lawsuits finally began to hit law firms, the response was not equality and more opportunity. It was just the opposite. Men were afraid of getting blamed for sexual harassment for just being themselves. They did not bother wondering whether their actions or behavior was the problem; clearly, it was working with women that was the problem. The response was a full-on Pencification of the workplace before Pence and his beloved ‘Mother’ were a thing.
If the assignment involved late hours, one-on-one meetings with a man, travel, or pretty much any kind of real human communication, I was not included.
I had grown up during the Women’s movement of the 1970’s and was told I could do anything and be anything. But there were very few women who had actually done it and could show me the way.
So, I just kept going. We made progress slowly. We knew cultural change takes time. We were patient.
We are done. This is the White Guy’s Last Stand.
As I watch the MeToo movement and join other women standing up for ourselves and each other, I am awed by the courage, power, compassion, and brilliance of so many extraordinary women and men who are fighting to make civil rights, both civil and rights.
I am encouraged by the discussions of intersectionality and the importance of addressing all kinds of bias and discrimination. I am looking at my privilege of being a well-educated white woman.
I am celebrating Women’s History Month by honoring all the women marching, writing, running for office, voting, and speaking their truth. Thank you. I am with you. More please.
We have come too far to only get this far.