I celebrated a birthday last Friday. It was a big one. With a zero. And a six. The world has changed so much since the day I was born. There are the obvious changes, like mobile phones and social media. But there are also the changes we seem to take for granted.
And that is why, I think, the news of Justice Ginsburg’s death coming on my 60th birthday has had such a profound impact on me. It has caused me to spend even more time than I would have thinking about what the next 60 years will look like for the young women and men in my life.
So much has been written about Justice Ginsburg that only those who live in complete ignorance and denial will have missed the stories. Her place as one of nine women (and 552 men) in her law school class at Harvard. The fact no firm would hire her after graduation - because she was a woman, and a mother. The cases she argued and won and lost. The opinions she authored and the ones where she dissented with precision and often stinging prose. The stories about her work ethic and her devotion to her husband when he was battling cancer. The countless stories of girls and women she has inspired.
In remembering her accomplishments it is easy to lose sight of the impact her work had on each of us in very real and personal ways. I own my business. I borrowed money, in my own name without my husband’s signature or involvement. I have my own credit cards. I’ve had access to birth control, without involving my husband. These are things we take for granted today, yet these activities only became possible in my lifetime.
We got here because Justice Ginsburg paved the way. She often represented men, arguing that treating men and women differently can be just as harmful to men as it is to women. She lifted everyone up, and in the process, she helped level the playing field.
But just as I know from personal experience how I have benefited from her work, I also know from personal experience that we have a long way to go. In 1992 I interviewed to clerk for a federal district court judge. At the end of the interview he asked how my husband felt about me interviewing for this job, and what my husband would do if I was offered the job. I replied he fully supported the interview and we would move so I could accept the job. A few days later I received a letter where the judge told me he enjoyed our interview and felt I would be a good fit for his chambers.
BUT he felt offering the job and me accepting would “not be conducive to a happy home life” for me, so he was offering the job to someone else. When the dean of the law school contacted him about the letter, the judge said he just wanted to let me down gently.
I would like to think we have moved beyond that point in the nearly 30 years since that interview, but I know we have not. I have participated in talent review meetings where male colleagues stated, quite vehemently, that promoting and developing young women was a waste of time because they just had children and then quit and all that time was wasted.
The person that said this was the father of two daughters who were in the very type of jobs we were discussing. I have heard the human resources director joke with the finance director about whether a man wearing a pink shirt should automatically be presumed gay. These things happened less than 10 years ago.
I have seen male managers sneak their arm around young female colleagues during business dinners and watched the female freeze – unsure of how to handle the situation. I have seen negative, almost abusive behavior from male managers excused, and women told they are “too tough” because they were blunt with their comments and the men in the room didn’t like it.
And we see the “me too” movement and know that as much as we want to think we have moved beyond the clumsy, oafish acts of harassment and abuse that make the news, we have to acknowledge that we haven’t. And even today, women hesitate to report bullying, and harassment, and assault, and unequal treatment because we don’t want to get labeled as troublemakers or be excluded.
These are just my stories, all from the last 60 years, some of them from the last 10. And we may tell these stories to each other over a glass of wine or whisper them in the bathroom during a meeting break, but somehow, we are still too hesitant, or ashamed, to confront the problem.
How do we create change?
First, we tell the stories. Out loud and in public. We tell our own, and we ask the women in our lives to tell theirs. Ask your mother or mother-in-law, or grandmother or aunt, to share the stories. I promise, you will be amazed at the things you learn. And you will realize that so much of what we take for granted today actually results from fairly recent changes. Let’s face it, it’s only been 100 years that women have been allowed to vote, and the Voting Rights Act is less than 60 years old.
Second, complete the census and make sure those around you have done so, too. The importance of the census has almost gotten lost because there is so much going on. But the census determines how federal funds are allocated in our communities and determines how many seats each state has in the House of Representatives. And that determines how many electors each state has in the electoral college, which leads to the third and perhaps most important way we create change.
During the last four years, there have been three vacancies on the United States Supreme Court, including the vacancy created with Justice Ginsburg’s death and literally hundreds of vacancies in lower federal courts and state courts. In the federal courts, the appointees to fill these positions have, by and large, been young and will shape the course of our country for years.
And the issues go far beyond abortion. There’s health care, and the environment, and social justice, and voting rights, and speech, and religious freedom, and immigrants’ rights.
It’s about whether one person, the President of the United States, is free to act however he or she chooses while in office because the President is above the law. It’s about whether innocent people will be executed by the government because the justice system failed them.
It’s about how law enforcement goes about obtaining no-knock warrants, when law enforcement can search our cars and homes, and it’s about when law enforcement has the right to listen to our conversations and read our email without our knowledge.
It’s about whether we can keep our sex lives private, and whether we can marry the person we love, without regard to gender.
But it goes far beyond the court.
At the state level, it’s questions about Medicaid expansion, and foster care, and pay equity. At the federal level, it’s about how we recover from the pandemic, and how we provide healthcare and support to millions of people, and how we raise the money to support the government and educate our children and whether we clean up the streams and rivers and do something about emissions or just decide to let the world get dirtier.
These are the issues that will shape the next 60 years.
Each vote matters.
Your vote matters.
One becomes one hundred, and one hundred becomes one hundred thousand. Register to vote. Use a day of vacation to be a poll worker. Put up a sign, make a phone call, send a text.
Because the question is simple:
What do you want the world to look like 60 years from now?
Photo credit: Daniele Levis Pelusi, Unsplash