I’m really incredibly lucky.
I was born white in the United States in 1956 to extraordinary parents. The economic middle class was growing, and Mom and Dad – who both had high school educations – planned and saved to be able to send their three daughters to college, determined to give us more opportunities than they had. My parents defied the stereotypes of the time by teaching us girls that we could be and do anything we wanted, provided we put our minds to it. Mom gave us a practical demonstration by taking courses at the vocational school to learn new skills, like upholstery, when she wanted to try a project at home. She also went back to work once all three of us were in grade school, balancing the demands of family and an outside job. She even started her own very successful business as a tax practitioner when the lawyer she’d been working for decided to retire. Dad taught us to use his tools to build and fix things, up to and including running our own little family auto body shop to repair rust damage on his Chevy.
I remember Dad telling us about the guys at work teasing him about his daughters because we all stayed single until we finished college. They figured college was just the place where girls went to find husbands; the idea that we went for the benefit of our own education, and that Dad was happy to keep on paying for us to be there all the way through graduation, struck Dad’s co-workers as strange. They were happy when their girls dropped out to get married, figuring that’s when their daughters’ real lives – being wives and mothers – began. Dad celebrated our intellectual achievements, going to college graduation ceremonies for a philosopher, a nurse, and a little-bit-of-everything who then went on to law school. He was proud that we were all strong, intelligent, and independent.
He was also happy when his oldest girl got married to a college-educated man, but that’s another story.
When I was in high school, I took a summer course in city and county government. Our classrooms were in City Hall and the County Courthouse, and we spent part of our time assigned to work in the office of our choice. I applied for the District Attorney’s office, and the D.A., Michael McCann, decided he had to ensure my parents understood and would be okay with their little girl being exposed to criminals and violence. They both laughed because it hadn’t occurred to either of them to be worried about it; they trusted my maturity and the security of the office.
I’ll never forget one day during that course. I went to a motions hearing with an assistant D.A., who was a woman. Milwaukee’s only female judge was sitting on the bench. She looked out at the courtroom, noting that the court reporter and the defense attorney were also women, and she beckoned the bailiff, the only male officer of the court in the room, to approach the bench. She asked him if there was a female bailiff on duty in the courthouse that day, and when he said yes, she asked him to take her place and send the female bailiff to serve in our courtroom. A bit bemused, he did as she requested. When the female bailiff arrived, the judge asked her to close the courtroom door. Then she leaned forward, took in all of us with a satisfied, sweeping look, and said, “Now, ladies: it’s just us girls. This is a first. Take a good look. And now, let’s show them how it’s done.”
That was 1972.
I ran into some gender bias over the years. I knew I’d never make partner in the first law firm where I worked because the guy who owned it, a true Southern gentleman whom I will always remember fondly, would never have considered eventually handing his practice over to a woman. I gradually broke him of the habit of calling me “sweetheart” or “dear” by the simple expedient of answering him as “sugar” or “honey” any time he did it, grinning pointedly when he looked up. He learned. He also always supported me against the cultural prejudices of our Japanese clients, who unfailingly asked to speak to him first when they wanted answers; he would defer to me in the areas of practice I controlled, telling them I was the expert. I became adept at dodging others of our clients who made the occasional pass at me, including the one persistent, slightly drunk dude at a conference in New Orleans whom I finally shut down by saying flatly, “I’m your lawyer, not your squeeze.”
But I never experienced a lot of the negatives other women have encountered. I’ve never been assaulted or threatened. I’ve worked with a lot of great people, male and female, who respected my brains and my training and who listened to my input; I’ve never been shut down. I’ve traveled and worked on my own. I wear whatever clothes I find comfortable. I own my home and my car. I’m reasonably secure in my personal financial future, having always been in charge of where my income went. I’ve always gone after the things I wanted to do and made the most of the opportunities that came my way.
But I’m well aware that I owe my good fortune to those who went before me, and that historically and culturally women have been and continue to be repressed. I bought my house in 1981. My deed actually specifies that I am “a single female who holds this property in and of her own right, not subject to claims of dower and courtesy.” I laughed incredulously when I saw that: I’d never expected to see such antiquated language in a contemporary legal document in the U.S.. But it wasn’t all that long ago even here that a woman couldn’t own property in her own name, and if by some chance she did, it became her husband’s the moment they married. Women didn’t have the nationwide right to vote until the Nineteenth Amendment passed in 1920. That’s a mere blink of the historical eye.
And the culture of male privilege continues, even here in the U.S.. Just look at all the antiquated religious traditions that put men above women and underlie the positions of today’s political conservatives. Look at people blaming female victims of rape for being in the wrong place, or wearing the wrong clothes, or just being visible and thus provocative. Look at restrictions barring women from taking certain jobs not because they can’t meet the physical requirements for doing them, but because it wouldn’t be “appropriate” or “proper” or because men are worried they would be distracted or their male camaraderie would suffer. Look at women being harassed and threatened anonymously online. Look at the statistics that prove women are still paid less than men for the same jobs, despite legislation to the contrary.
Things have been changing. They need to keep changing. Women are half the human population of the world; they must have rights and privileges equal to men. Women must be as visible, vocal, and empowered as men. Anything less is unacceptable.
Women everywhere should have the chance to be as lucky as I.