The story was much the same for Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the late 1950s. She finished at the top of her Columbia Law School class, yet no law firms were interested in putting her on the payroll.
These two future U.S. Supreme Court justices are pioneers because they persisted in the face of ridiculous gender bias. These are inspiring stories to tell my teenaged daughter, as well as my 11-year-old son.
In 60 years, there has been much progress to celebrate in the cause of women’s rights. Yet, now is not the time to fold our arms and agree that the matter is solved.
In a recent NPR interview, O’Connor, who stepped down from the Supreme Court in 2006, spoke matter-of-factly about her initial rejection from law firms. “It just came as a real shock because I had done well in law school, and it never entered my mind that I couldn’t even get an interview.”
In a March 11 New Yorker magazine profile by Jeffrey Toobin, Ginsburg comes off as wise, focused and undaunted by the initial challenges she encountered as a new law school graduate. The Clinton appointee turned 80 last week. As is often the case for justices in their ninth decade of life, speculation over retirement is an obsession among court observers.
Relax, she told Toobin. “As long as I can do the job full steam,” she’ll remain on the bench.
When she steps down, there will still be two women on the court — Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — which we can take as another sign of progress.
As Toobin said recently, “You know, here you have O’Connor, this tall, outgoing, rangy Westerner, and Ginsburg, this bookish Brooklynite. And they both like the idea that it shows that women aren’t just one way in the world, that women are complicated and different from one another, yet it’s important that women also be represented. And both of them are fierce advocates for more women judges and more women in all positions of power.”
We should never diminish the struggles that broke through barriers that once held women back. The women who endured the slurs, slights, whispers and outright rejection based on nothing more than gender are owed honor and gratitude.
Yet, we should also note that whatever ignorant beliefs once aligned against O’Connor, Ginsburg and millions of other women have faded. Perhaps there are still men who prefer to reject law school graduates based on their gender, but these days it’s unlikely they would go public with their bigotry.
This is the point where 2013 Harry M. and Edel Y. Ayers Lecture Series speaker Diane McWhorter would remind us of the human tendency to sanitize the uglier parts of our history. McWhorter’s book, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, forces readers to confront a past that those who benefited from segregation would just as soon have us forget — or at least speak of it in ways that disconnect the terrorism inflicted upon blacks from real space and time.
McWhorter’s remarks Thursday at Jacksonville State University were powerful. She says she is a “moral scold.” I say she’s a journalist upholding the highest traditions of telling hard truths while comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. It occurred to me that this is not the role her privileged Mountain Brook upbringing prepared her for. Yet, her well-reported book and clear voice attest that this is a task that suits her. Despite what others may have once said about a woman assuming this role, it is the one she was made for.
Yet, McWhorter and others also tell us that there’s more work to be done.
In their 2009 book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn introduce readers to the immense challenges women face in the Third World. “Honor killings, sexual slavery and genital cutting may seem to Western readers to be tragic but inevitable in a world far, far away,” Kristof and WuDunn write, yet “many decent Europeans and Americans” in past centuries felt the same way about slavery.
Half the Sky is filled stories that lead its authors to conclude, “In the 19th century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the 20th century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.”
Let’s call it a mission field for future truthtellers, journalists and moral scolds.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at: @EditorBobDavis.