90. Keep the change

Saturday September 19 2020

“I hate to hear she’s pregnant,” the manager was saying about one of my colleagues. “You know she won’t care so much about her work now.” The person he was talking about was a valuable employee in a managerial position herself. We were all excited to celebrate this happy news of her first child. Well, most of us were.

This was the 1980’s. Even though the manager’s opinion had negatively changed about an employee, she couldn’t legally be fired for her new medical condition. And when she came back from paid leave, she was guaranteed a job.

After all, it wasn’t the 1970’s anymore.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 said that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy is discrimination on the basis of sex. This came after the Supreme Court initially ruled that it was not sex discrimination to force a woman out of her job, because “the world is divided into nonpregnant people—and they include most women—and pregnant people. All of them are women.”

Today women still fight for equal pay, but it really wasn’t that long ago that we were accused of taking the higher paying jobs away from men and we had limited opportunities for career advancement.

I entered the workforce in the late 1970’s as a teenager working retail jobs and slinging popcorn at a movie theatre, finally scoring my first office job in 1980. I’ve seen the transition to where gender discrimination and sexual harassment, while both still exist, have been tamped down so the newest generations don’t have to fight against them.

At a recent women’s forum at P&G, a panel of executives told their success stories and encouraged us to make our own futures. The subject of sexual harassment vs. attire came up and a young woman seated behind me said “I don’t worry about what I wear, because men don’t think like that anymore.”

I winced.

As much as I wanted to turn around and fix her sentence – “because men can’t act on it anymore without losing their jobs” – I appreciated her naivety just a bit. The legion of my generation’s women fought for her, so she could have a good job at a good company and to be able to advance her career based on her job performance and nothing else.  

Which brings me to this.

The Notorius RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, died yesterday at the age of 87. The second woman appointed to the Supreme Court, she was the champion of women’s rights that we needed. The perfect storm of her force coming at a time when our culture was already in motion to promote positive change. She was one of nine women out of a class of 500 entering Harvard, later transferring to Columbia where she tied as first in her class at graduation.

Then she couldn’t get a job, until hired in 1963 as a law professor at Rutgers Law School. When the Equal Pay Act had passed, she complained about the male professors being paid more. “They have families to support,” was the response. Ruth, also married with a child, joined with the other female professors to file an Equal Pay Act complaint. And won.

In 1972 she became the first tenured female law professor at Columbia. It was at Columbia, when in 1974, she co-authored the first law school casebook on sex discrimination.  Also, it was here, she fought for equal retirement benefits for women and, of course, won.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a pioneer for gender equality, but she also wanted a more “embracive” constitution that would ensure the rights of people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community. She was tireless, passionate, and incredibly focused and we still need her. She said she wanted to serve on the Supreme Court until she was 90.

The Atlantic shares an interview Jeffrey Rosen had with Justice Ginsburg in preparation for his book, “Conversations with RGB.” It’s well worth the read here at theatlantic.com.

The political chatter today is not only who will be nominated to replace her, but when. Before the November election or after? Will we see someone seated with a conservative mind or more liberal?

By her own words, courts are not the leaders in social change. But she was there to work a change for the good into a legal right. “I dissent,” The Notorious RBG would say on behalf of social justice.

So we wait and see. But we need to be prepared to never see another fighter like Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

…courts are not leaders in social change. They follow after movement in the larger society. That was true with respect to racial justice. It’s true, now, with the women’s movement. It’s true with the LGBTQ movement. How long that discrimination lingered when people were hiding in closets. Change occurred only when they came out and said, “This is who we are, and we’re proud of it.” Once they did that, changes occurred rapidly.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
excerpt from an interview with Jeffrey Rosen,
December 2019

Because it’s on us to get the change started.


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