Category Archives: gender equality

RBG in ’72

Countless words have been, and will continue to be, written about the incomparable U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who served on the high court for 27 years.

I will leave discussions of her tenure on the Court to others.

What I will do here is recount the one and only time I encountered her in person, at a law school conference, at a pivotal point in her career.  If you’re interested in learning about that encounter, please read on.

In September of 1972, I was a full-time faculty member at the University of Michigan (UM) Law School.  Notably, I was the only full-time faculty member who was a woman.

The law school had a desirable setting on the UM campus, whose multitude of elm trees were unfortunately denuded of leaves, thanks to Dutch elm disease. The law school buildings made up the stunning Law Quadrangle, featuring beautiful old buildings constructed in the English Gothic style.

My role on the faculty was to help first-year law students learn the basics of legal education:  how to analyze court rulings (the kind they would read in the books assigned to them in courses like Torts and Contracts); how to do their own research into case law; and how to write a readable legal document, like an appellate brief aimed at persuading an appellate court to decide in their favor.

I was one of four young lawyers hired to fill this role.  The three men and I each taught one-fourth of the first-year class.  As I recall, we got to choose our offices in the law school library, and I immediately chose a plum.  It was an enormous wood-paneled room with charming hand-blown stained glass windows.  One entered it via a stairway leading upstairs from the library’s impressive reading room.  I treasured my office and happily welcomed meeting with students there.  And I wonder, in light of renovations at the law school, whether that glorious office still exists.

At some point early that fall, I learned that a conference on “women and the law” would be held at the New York University School of Law in October.  This was a bold new area of law that most law schools didn’t consider worth their attention.  NYU was clearly an exception. 

The idea of the conference immediately grabbed my attention because I had a longstanding interest in its stated focus.  One reason why I had myself attended law school a few years before was that, beginning very early in my life, I was and remain concerned with achieving equity and justice, including equal rights for women.

This focus had led me to attend law school during the mid-’60s.  My first job was that of law clerk to a U.S. district judge in Chicago.  After finishing my clerkship, I became a practicing lawyer as a Reggie assigned to my first choice, the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau.  [I discussed the Reggie program in a blog post, “The Summer of ’69,” published on August 7, 2015.]

And so, three years earlier, in October of 1969, I had begun working on a lawsuit that had a significant bearing on women’s rights because it would challenge the constitutionality of Illinois’s restrictive abortion law. This law had an enormous impact on the lives of women, especially poor and non-white women.

I worked with Sybille Fritzsche, a lawyer with the ACLU in Chicago, who became my close friend.  Sybille and I spent months preparing our case.  We filed our lawsuit in February 1970, argued it before a three-judge federal court in September, and won a 2-to-1 ruling in our favor in January 1971.  (The ruling in that case, Doe v. Scott, and the events leading up to it, are the focus of a book I’m currently writing.  In the meantime, you can read about our case in historian Leslie Reagan’s prize-winning book, When Abortion Was a Crime.)

Now, in the fall of 1972, I learned about the conference at NYU.  Because I was extremely interested in attending it, I decided to ask the UM law school’s dean, Theodore St. Antoine, whether the school might send me to New York to attend it.  I thought I had a pretty persuasive argument:  I was the only full-time woman on the law school faculty.  Didn’t the dean think it would be a good idea to send me to represent UM at the conference? 

How could he say “no”?  Ted thought about for a moment, then gave his approval.  So off I went, my expenses paid by the kind patrons of UM. 

My hotel, the Fifth Avenue Hotel, located near NYU’s law school, had sounded appealing on paper, but it turned out to be something of a dump.  It suited me just fine, however, because I barely spent any time there.  I was too busy attending the conference sessions and, when I could, taking a short break to reconnect with a couple of law-school classmates and briefly sample life in New York City, a city light-years removed from less-than-exhilarating Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The conference, held on October 20-21, turned out to be a symposium sponsored by AALS (the American Association of Law Schools), “The AALS Symposium on the Law School Curriculum and the Legal Rights of Women.”  It featured a number of prominent speakers, mostly law professors and practicing lawyers who had turned their attention to “the legal rights of women” in areas like tax law, property law, and criminal law.  I attended most of these sessions, and each of them was excellent.

But the only session I was really excited about was a talk by someone named Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  I was quite certain that I would relish hearing her talk, “Toward Elimination of Sex-Based Discrimination: Constitutional Aspects,” because the topic was right down my alley.

Looking back, I don’t think I knew anything about RBG at the time.  But when she was introduced (by NYU dean Robert McKay) and began to speak, I was riveted by every word she uttered.  She spelled out everything she had already done and planned to do to achieve gender-equity.

So although I was not already familiar with her, I knew immediately that she clearly was and would continue to be a brilliant leader in the field of women’s rights.  I filed her name away in my memory so I could follow whatever she would do in the coming years.  And I did just that, enthusiastically following the many astounding accomplishments she achieved after 1972.

Your image of RBG may be that of the frail, petite woman who took center stage in our culture in her 80s.  But the RBG I saw in 1972 was very different.  She was an amazingly attractive young woman of 39.  You can see photos of her at that time in The New York Times of September 18 (in Linda Greenhouse’s long review of her life and career) and in a recent issue of TIME magazine (Oct. 5-12, 2020). Although much has been made of her short stature (one I share), she was so very energetic and focused that one quickly forgot how small she was.

It turned out that she had attended Harvard Law School about a decade before I did.  Like her, I’ve been called a “trailblazer” and a “pioneer,” and I also confronted gender-bias at every turn throughout my life.  My path was only a bit less rocky than hers:  My class at HLS included the whopping number of 25 women in a class of 520, while hers had only 9.

I’ve since learned that October 1972 marked a pivotal time in RBG’s career.  She had just switched her teaching position from Rutgers Law School to Columbia Law School (a considerable upgrade).  And she had just assumed another new position:  Director of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, a project she had helped to found a short time before. 

So I’m left wondering…did she know about the case Sybille (an ACLU attorney in Chicago) and I brought in February 1970, a case that put a woman’s right to reproductive choice front and center?

RBG was an ardent supporter of reproductive rights during her tenure on the Supreme Court.  She discussed her views on abortion and gender equality in a 2009 New York Times interview, where she said “[t]he basic thing is that the government has no business making that choice for a woman.”

But I know that she had also stated that she wasn’t entirely happy with the way in which Roe v. Wade gave every woman in the U.S. that choice by bringing cases like Doe v. Scott in the federal courts.  She stated that she would have preferred that the argument had been made, over time, in each state’s legislature, with the right to choose being gradually adopted in that way rather than in one overriding court ruling that included every state.

Notably, on the 40th anniversary of the court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, she criticized the decision because it terminated “a nascent democratic movement to liberalize abortion laws” that might have built “a more durable consensus” in support of abortion rights.

She had a point.  A democratic movement to liberalize abortion laws would have been the ideal route, and might have been a less contentious route, to achieving abortion rights throughout the country. 

But I think her position was influenced by her own life story. 

It stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that in April 1970, she was living and working in New York, where the state legislature had passed a new law allowing abortion, and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller had signed it on April 11, 1970.  New York became only the second state in the U.S. (after Hawaii) to permit abortion, and only a few other states had carved out any sort of exception to what was otherwise a nationwide ban on abortion.

RBG may have optimistically believed that other states would follow New York’s lead.  But history has proved otherwise.

If women had waited for each of the 50 states to accomplish the goal of women’s reproductive choice, I think we’d still have many states refusing to enact laws allowing choice.  In support of my view, I ask readers to consider the situation today, when some states are trying to restrict abortion so frenetically, with or without achieving a complete ban, that they’re now simply waiting for a far-right conservative Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Whether or not RBG was aware of what was happening in the courtrooms of Chicago in 1970, I think I could have persuaded her that Sybille and I were doing the right thing.  

By advocating that the federal district court hold that the restrictive Illinois abortion law was unconstitutional, and persuading the court to decide in our favor, we achieved our goal of saving the lives and health of countless women who would have otherwise suffered from their inability to obtain a legal and medically safe abortion.

What greater achievement on behalf of women’s rights could there have been? 

I like to think that, after hearing my argument, RBG would have approved.

Pockets!

Women’s clothes should all have pockets. 

(A bit later in this post, I’ll explain why.)

I admit it.  I’m a pocket-freak.

When I shop for new pants, I don’t bother buying new pants, no matter how appealing, if they don’t have pockets.  Why?

Because when I formerly bought pants that didn’t have pockets, I discovered over time that I never wore them. They languished forever in a shameful pile of unworn clothes.

It became clear that I liked the benefits of wearing pants with pockets.  Why then would I buy new pants without pockets when those I already had were languishing unworn?

Result:  I simply don’t buy no-pocket pants anymore

Most jeans have pockets, often multiple pockets, and I like wearing them for that reason, among others.  (Please see “They’re My Blue Jeans, and I’ll Wear Them If I Want To,” published in this blog in May 2017.)

Most jackets, but not all, have pockets.  Why not?  They all need pockets.  How useful is a jacket if it doesn’t have even one pocket to stash your stuff?

Dresses and skirts should also have pockets.  Maybe an occasional event, like a fancy gala, seems to require a form-fitting dress that doesn’t have pockets.  But how many women actually go to galas like that?  Looking back over my lifetime of clothes-wearing, I can think of very few occasions when I had to wear a no-pocket dress.  As for skirts, I lump them in the same category as pants.  Unless you feel compelled for some bizarre reason to wear a skin-tight pencil skirt, what good is a skirt without pockets?

Cardigan sweaters, like jackets, should also have pockets.  So should robes.  Pajamas. Even nightgowns.  I wear nightgowns, and I relish being able to stick something like a facial tissue into the pocket of my nightgown!   You never know when you’re going to sneeze, right?

Did you ever watch a TV program called “Project Runway?”  It features largely unknown fashion designers competing for approval from judges, primarily high-profile insiders in the fashion industry.  Here’s what I’ve noticed when I’ve watched an occasional episode:  Whenever a competing designer puts pockets in her or his designs, the judges enthusiastically applaud that design.  They clearly recognize the value of pockets and the desire by women to wear clothes that include them.

(By the way, fake pockets are an abomination.  Why do designers think it’s a good idea to put a fake pocket on their designs?  Sewing what looks like a pocket but isn’t a real pocket adds insult to injury.  Either put a real pocket there, or forget the whole thing.  Fake pockets?  Boo!)

Despite the longing for pockets by women like me, it can be challenging to find women’s clothes with pockets.  Why?

Several women writers have speculated about this challenge, generally railing against sexist attitudes that have led to no-pocket clothing for women.

Those who’ve traced the evolution of pockets throughout history discovered that neither men nor women wore clothing with pockets until the 17th century.  Pockets in menswear began appearing in the late 1600s.  But women?  To carry anything, they were forced to wrap a sack with a string worn around their waists and tuck the sack under their petticoats.

These sacks eventually evolved into small purses called reticules that women would carry in their hands.  But reticules were so small that they limited what women could carry.  As the twentieth century loomed, women rebelled.  According to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, dress patterns started to include instructions for sewing pockets into skirts.  And when women began wearing pants, they would finally have pockets.

But things soon switched back to no-pocket pants.  The fashion industry wasn’t a big fan of pockets, insisting on featuring “slimming” designs for women, while men’s clothes still had scads of pockets.  The result has been the rise of bigger and bigger handbags (interestingly, handbags are often called “pocketbooks” on the East Coast).

Enormous handbags create a tremendous burden for women.  Their size and weight can literally weigh a woman down, impeding her ability to move through her busy life the way men can.  (I’ve eschewed bulky handbags, often wearing a backpack instead.  Unfortunately, backpacks are not always appropriate in a particular setting.)

Today, many women are demanding pockets.  Some have advocated pockets with the specific goal of enabling women to carry their iPhones or other cell phones that way.  I’m a pocket-freak, but according to recent scientific research, cell phones emit dangerous radiation, and this kind of radiation exposure is a major risk to your health.  Some experts in the field have therefore advised against keeping a cell phone adjacent to your body.  In December 2017, the California Department of Public Health specifically warned against keeping a cell phone in your pocket.  So, in my view, advocating pockets for that reason is not a good idea.

We need pockets in our clothes for a much more important and fundamental reasonFreedom.

Pockets give women the kind of freedom men have:  The freedom to carry possessions close to their bodies, allowing them to reach for essentials like keys without fumbling through a clumsy handbag.

I propose a boycott on no-pocket clothes.  If enough women boycott no-pocket pants, for example, designers and manufacturers will have to pay attention.  Their new clothing lines will undoubtedly include more pockets.

I hereby pledge not to purchase any clothes without pockets.

Will you join me?

 

 

The Battle of the Sexes: One more take on it

When Billie Jean King met Bobby Riggs on a tennis court at the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973, I was miles away in San Diego.  I’d just finished teaching a class of law school students about Poverty Law, and I was blissfully pregnant with my first child.

I was watching the clock, assessing the time it would take me to drive from the law school on the beautiful campus of the University of San Diego to our recently-rented apartment in seaside La Jolla.  Waiting at home for me was my handsome and super-smart husband Herb, finished for the day with teaching math students at UCSD, the University of California at San Diego.

We were both Professors Alexander that year, and I took delight in answering our phone and hearing a student ask to speak to “Professor Alexander.”  My somewhat amused response:  “Which one?”

Herb had snacks and drinks ready for the two of us to munch on and imbibe during the televised tennis match.  The drinks included nothing alcoholic for me.  Not because the medical profession had pronounced that alcohol was detrimental for growing fetuses.  As I recall, that came later.  I avoided alcoholic drinks simply because I had no desire to drink them during my pregnancy.

Was it instinct or just dumb luck?  When we later that year saw the film “Cinderella Liberty,” in which an often-drunk woman’s pregnancy ends in tragedy, my choice to avoid alcohol was clearly vindicated.

I drove home from USD with as much speed as I could safely muster, arriving in time to watch the much-hyped tennis match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.”  In the 2017 film that tells the story of the match, Emma Stone captures the Billie Jean King role perfectly.  She portrays with aplomb not only King’s triumph over Riggs in that tennis match but also her initial uncertainty over her decision to compete against him and her continuing struggle to ensure that women’s tennis be given equal status with men’s.

As one of the estimated 50 million viewers who watched King on ABC television that night, I can’t imagine any other Hollywood star assuming the role with greater success.  Emma Stone embodies Billie Jean King to perfection, and I hope her performance garners the attention of countless moviegoers, including many too young to remember  the match that took place in 1973.

Steve Carell carries off his role as Bobby Riggs in the film equally well, depicting the outrageous antics of the 55-year-old Riggs, who initiated the concept of the “Battle of the Sexes.”  But the focus here has to be on Billie Jean, the Wonder-Woman-like heroine of her day.  By accepting Riggs’s challenge, and then defeating him, she became the mid-twentieth-century symbol of women’s strength and perseverance, advancing the cause of women in sports (and in American culture at large) as much as she advanced her own.  Watching the battle on TV with my adored husband, my hoped-for child growing inside me, I was ecstatic when Billie Jean defeated Riggs before 90 million viewers worldwide.

As my pregnancy advanced, I was frequently asked by complete strangers, “Do you want a boy or a girl?”  I took pleasure in answering “a girl” just to see the reaction on the faces of the nosey parkers who clearly expected another response.

I was in fact hoping I would give birth to a healthy child of either sex, but I knew that I would treasure having a daughter.  When my beautiful daughter was born about seven months after the Battle of the Sexes, and when her equally beautiful sister arrived three years later, Herb and I were both on top of the world.

Maybe watching Billie Jean King in September of 1973 sealed our fate.  We really wanted her to win that battle.

Did the endorphins circulating inside me as we watched Billie Jean triumph produce a feeling of euphoria?  Euphoria that later led us to produce two Wonder-Woman-like heroines of our own?

Maybe.

Tennis, anyone?

 

Looking Back…The Election of 1984

If you’ve followed politics for as long as I have, you probably remember the election of 1984.  In the race for U.S. president, Ronald Reagan was the Republican incumbent, first elected in 1980, and seeking to be re-elected in 1984.  Most observers predicted that he would succeed.

Opposing him was the Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale.

I found the campaign for president so absorbing that shortly after Mondale lost, I wrote a piece of commentary on the election.  Somewhat astoundingly, I recently came across that long-lost piece of writing.

Regrettably, I never submitted it for publication.  Why?  In 1984 I was active in local politics (the New Trier Democratic Organization, to be specific), and I was apprehensive about the reaction my comments might inspire in my fellow Democrats.

Reviewing it now, I wish I’d submitted it for publication.

On June 11th of this year, after Hillary Clinton appeared to be the Democratic nominee for president, The New York Times published a front-page story by Alison Mitchell, “To Understand Clinton’s Moment, Consider That It Came 32 Years After Ferraro’s.”  Mitchell’s article is a brilliant review of what happened in 1984 and during the 32 years since.  My commentary is different because it was actually written in 1984, and it presents the thinking of a longstanding political observer and a lifelong Democrat at that point in time.

Here’s the commentary I wrote just after the election in November 1984.  It was typed on an Apple IIe computer (thanks, Steve Wozniak) and printed on a flimsy dot-matrix printer.  It’s almost exactly what I wrote back then, minimally edited, mostly to use contractions and omit completely unnecessary words.  I’ve divided it into two parts because of its length.

 

PART I

Although Walter Mondale conducted a vigorous and courageous campaign, perhaps nothing he did or did not do would have altered the ultimate result.  But his fate was probably sealed last July when he made two costly political mistakes.  He chose to tell the American people that he’d increase taxes, and he chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.

Savvy political observers have always known that talk of increased taxes is the kiss of death for any candidate.  One wonders what made Walter Mondale forget this truism and instead decide to impress the electorate with his honesty by telling them what they had to know (or, rather, what he thought they had to know) about the deficit.  By making the deficit—a highly intangible concept to the average American voter—a cornerstone of his campaign, Mondale committed the political gaffe of the decade.  One can imagine the glee in the White House the night Mondale gave his acceptance speech and tipped his hand.  The most popular theme of the Reagan campaign became identifying Mondale with the idea of “tax, tax, tax; spend, spend, spend,” a theme that had spelled doom for Jimmy Carter and came to do the same for his Vice President.

Mondale’s choice of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate was surely not a gaffe of the magnitude of his promise to increase taxes, but as a political judgment it was almost equally unwise.  Mondale faced a popular incumbent president.  All the signposts, even back in July, indicated that the American people were largely satisfied with Reagan and willing to give him another term.  To unseat a popular sitting president, Mondale—who’d been through a bloody primary campaign and emerged considerably damaged—had to strengthen his ticket by choosing a running mate with virtually no liabilities.  He simply couldn’t afford them.

Some of the best advice Mondale got all year was George McGovern’s suggestion that he choose Gary Hart for his vice president.  In one stroke, Mondale could have won the support of those backing his most formidable opponent, many of whom had threatened to go over to Reagan if their candidate wasn’t nominated.  Like Reagan in 1980, Mondale could have solidified much of the divided loyalty of his party behind him by choosing the opponent who’d come closest in arousing voters’ enthusiasm.  Instead he chose to pass over Hart and several other likely candidates and to select a largely unknown three-term congresswoman from New York City.

It pains me, as a feminist and an ardent supporter of women’s rights, to say this, but it must be said:  Mondale’s choice of Ferraro, however admirable, was a political mistake.  When the pressure from NOW and others to choose a woman candidate arose and gradually began to build, I felt uneasy.  When Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder (for whom I have otherwise unlimited respect) announced that if Mondale didn’t choose Hart, he had to choose a woman, my uneasiness increased.  And when Mondale at last announced his choice of Ferraro, my heart sank.  I was personally thrilled that a woman was at last on a national ticket, but I knew immediately that the election was lost, and that everything a Mondale administration might have accomplished in terms of real gains for women had been wiped out by his choice of a woman running-mate.

There was no flaw in Ferraro herself that ensured the defeat of the Mondale-Ferraro ticket.  She’s an extremely bright, attractive, competent congresswoman and proved herself to be a gifted and inspiring V.P. candidate.  She has, by accepting the nomination, carved out a secure place for herself in the history books and maybe a significant role in national politics for decades to come.  She deserves all this and perhaps more.  But one must wonder whether even Ferraro in her own secret thoughts pondered the political wisdom of her choice as Mondale’s running mate.  If she is as good a politician as I think she is, I can’t help thinking that she herself must have wondered, “Why me, when he could have anyone else?  Will I really help the ticket? Well, what the hell, I’ll give it a shot!  It just might work.”

And it just might—someday.  But in 1984, up against a “Teflon President,” Mondale needed much more.  Reagan was playing it safe, and Mondale wasn’t.  Some observers applauded his choice of Ferraro as the kind of bold, courageous act he needed to bring excitement to a dull, plodding campaign.  But American voters weren’t looking for bold and courageous acts.  They wanted a President who didn’t rock the boat–a boat with which they were largely satisfied.  They might have been willing to throw out the current occupant of the White House if Mondale had been able to seize upon some popular themes and use them to his advantage.  Instead, the Reagan administration seized upon the tax-and-spend issue and the relatively good status of the economy to ride to victory while Mondale was still groping for a theme that might do the same for him.  And all the while he had a running mate with a liability:  a woman who had no national political stature and who turned out to have considerable problems of her own (notably, a messy financial situation).

Mondale’s choice of Ferraro was compared by Reagan to his appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court.  In the sense that both men selected highly capable but little-known women and in one stroke catapulted them to the top of their professions, Reagan was right.  But Reagan’s choice was very different and politically much smarter.  A V.P. candidate must be judged by the entire American electorate; a Supreme Court nominee is judged only by the U.S. Senate.  A vice president must stand alone, the metaphorical heartbeat away from the presidency; a Supreme Court justice is only one of nine judges on a court where most issues are not decided 5 to 4.  [We all recognize that this description of the Court in 1984 no longer fits in 2016.  But a single justice on the Court is still only one of nine.]

Let’s face it:  the notion of a woman V.P. (and the concomitant possibility of a woman president) is one that some Americans are clearly not yet comfortable with.  Although 16 percent of the voters polled by one organization said that they were more inclined to vote for Mondale because of Ferraro, 26 percent said they were less likely to.  It doesn’t take a mathematical whiz to grasp that 26 is more than 16.  These statistics also assume that the 55 percent who said that Ferraro’s sex was not a factor either way were being absolutely candid, which is doubtful.  Many men and women who are subconsciously uncomfortable with the idea of a woman president are understandably reluctant to admit it, to themselves perhaps as much as to others.

 

 

 

Let’s Lobby Congress to Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act

When U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski recently announced her decision not to run for a sixth term, she noted that one of the issues she cares about “most deeply” is the issue of fair pay.

Mikulski, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986 as the only Democratic woman and one of only two women in the Senate (the other was Kansas’s Nancy Kassebaum), has a long record of promoting issues that loom large in the lives of American women and families.

Mikulski noted that every year, on average, women who work full-time lose more than $10,800 in income because of the wage gap between what women and men earn. She plans to spend every day of the two years remaining in her term fighting for critical legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act.

I’m joining Senator Mikulski in her campaign to enact the Paycheck Fairness Act (the PFA). I first wrote about this issue in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 23, 2010, “Unequal pay harms U.S. women.” (It appeared on this blog in October 2012.)

In the five years since my SF Chronicle op-ed appeared, nothing has happened. When the House of Representatives still had a Democratic majority, the House passed the PFA. But because it never passed in the Senate, it never became law.

Now, post-2014, when the Republicans hold a majority in both the Senate and the House, passage of the PFA seems impossible. But let’s not throw in the towel just yet. Because it’s such a vital issue, affecting millions of American workers and their families, I, like Senator Mikulski, am once again climbing on my soapbox and doing what I can to promote its passage.

I’ll begin by asking this question: How many working women think they’re paid fairly for the work they do? Right now, with the economy improving but still struggling to provide good-paying jobs for all of those who want them, some women may be happy just to be employed.

But women are still paid only 78 cents for every dollar men receive, making unequal pay a continuing problem for American women and the families who depend on their wages.

Did you know that women are now the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of American households? This fact makes closing the wage gap a crucial issue for all of these families, not merely for working women alone.

Why is the PFA so important? Because it would level the playing field for working women.

It would amend the Equal Pay Act (the EPA), which was enacted over 50 years ago in 1963 but hasn’t gone far enough to do what it was supposed to.

The EPA made it illegal for employers to pay unequal wages to those who perform substantially equal work. That sounds great, doesn’t it? So why hasn’t it made a real difference? Because of a startling failure in enforcement.

Enforcement by the EEOC during the past five decades has narrowed the wage gap to some degree. But the gap still exists because the EPA’s enforcement tools are outdated, making the gender-disparity in pay almost impossible to eradicate.

While other federal civil rights statutes have been amended numerous times, the EPA has never been amended. That’s why passing the PFA can make a real difference.

Let’s understand something right off the bat: The PFA doesn’t give employers a lot to complain about. It wouldn’t create an onerous burden because it wouldn’t give their employees any new rights. Employers are already required to comply with the EPA. The only difference is that under the PFA, women would be better able to ENFORCE those rights.

Many of the bill’s provisions make no demands on employers whatsoever. One provision would merely create a grant program that would help women and girls develop better skills at salary negotiation. Another would improve the way the government collects information from federal contractors.

Other provisions focus on the role of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. For example, it would give EEOC staff additional training to do a better job identifying and handling wage disputes.

Of course, some provisions do directly affect employers. Most significantly, the PFA would give women the same remedies as those available to employees discriminated against on the basis of race or national origin. Currently women can get only limited awards like back pay. The PFA would allow women to get compensatory and punitive damages for pay discrimination. These are the kinds of damages those suffering from racial and national-origin bias already get.

The PFA would also prohibit employers from retaliating against women who share salary information with their coworkers. This kind of information-sharing helps employees get vital information about wage disparities and discrimination at their workplace. But right now employers can retaliate against women who share such information. Women can be fired or suffer other repercussions for sharing the kind of salary info they need if they’re going to discover how much less they’re earning. This has to change.

Under the PFA, an EPA lawsuit could also proceed as a class action under the rules that apply to other federal lawsuits, instead of the restrictive 1963 rules that have never been amended.

Finally, a significant loophole now keeps women from winning cases brought under the EPA. Employers who are paying women less than men for equal work can claim that the difference in pay is based on a “factor other than sex.” This language is far too broad. It allows employers to make claims that have little or no merit. For example, this language has been used to argue that male workers have stronger negotiation skills and for that reason can negotiate higher salaries. Does that sound right to you? Should arguments like that allow men to earn more than a woman doing the same work? I don’t think so.

That result is NOT what Congress intended when it passed the EPA. The PFA would alter this language and allow different pay for men and women only when an employer can show that the difference relates to job performance and business necessity.

It’s time to shake things up and put women on a level playing field with their male co-workers. Women and men need to speak out and demand passage of the PFA. If we don’t speak out, we have to ask ourselves: When will Congress make pay equity a reality for America’s working women? And what did I do to try to make it happen?

Down and Hot in Paris and London (with apologies to George Orwell)

This post is something of a departure from my earlier ones. It’s the record of a family trip to Paris, London, and elsewhere in France and the U.K. during the summer of 1995. My family that summer included my husband Herb; our two college-aged daughters, Meredith and Leslie; and me. Our home was in a suburb of Chicago.

I originally drafted this piece in 1995, shortly after we returned from our trip. I focused on how we survived the intense heat we’d encountered. Now, nearly 20 years later, the cities we visited may respond to hot weather differently than they did back then. But my post may nevertheless serve as a cautionary tale for anyone traveling anywhere during hot weather, even today.

Please don’t conclude that this trip was a disaster. It wasn’t! Even though we continually confronted the challenges of hot-weather travel, we nevertheless had a marvelous time. We laughed through all of our travails and mishaps, and they quickly became family legends that we’ve treasured ever since.

Because of its overall length, I’ve divided it into four separate posts, beginning with Part I.

PART I

In a sweltering summer when temperatures in Chicago soared to record-breaking highs, we took off for Paris and London. When Herb and I made our travel plans, it seemed like a great idea. For one thing, Northern Europe almost never had the high summer temperatures we usually had in Chicago. Besides, our older daughter, Meredith, was spending the summer doing research in Paris. What better excuse for the rest of us to fly there, meet up with her, then travel together in France and the U.K.?

In May, we booked our airline tickets, planning to depart for Paris in mid-July. By June, I began to get glimmers that all was not well. Meredith was reporting unusually hot weather in Paris, and media dispatches from Wimbledon noted London temperatures in the 90s.

It can’t last, I thought. This is freakish weather for Paris and London, and by the time we get there, things will have cooled off.

But by the time we got there, it was just as hot.

Younger daughter Leslie, Herb, and I arrived in Paris early Friday morning and headed for the taxi stand at Orly Airport. The air was shimmering with heat–at 8 a.m.–and we were grateful to grab a taxi with air-conditioning. We arrived at our modest hotel near the Luxembourg Gardens and found our chambre, a good-sized room with one double bed and two twins. Heavy curtains on the French windows were fending off the sun, but when we opened them to see our view, the sun hit the room, and the already-high temperature shot up even more. We rushed to close the curtains. Then, exhausted from our trip, we collapsed on our sagging mattresses.

Meredith met up with us later that morning, and we all set out for the Luxembourg Gardens, where we found chairs in a shady spot and pondered how to spend the rest of the day. A museum would surely be cool; protecting all that priceless artwork required air-conditioning. We couldn’t face the cavernous Louvre, so we headed for the Musée d’Orsay.

Hot and sleep-deprived, we dragged ourselves up the Boulevard St-Michel to the Metro, and took a sizzling subway car to the museum. Surprise! Once inside, having paid a hefty entrance fee, we were shocked to find the air-conditioning barely functioning. Weren’t Parisians worried about all those precious Monets, Manets, and Van Goghs?

We forced ourselves to look at a few galleries but eventually collapsed in some comfy wicker chairs, where we dozed off for the next half-hour. Other museum-goers stared, but we were too hot and sleepy to care. We finally made our way to the museum café, where we ate a light lunch and consumed a large quantity of liquid refreshment.

After searching for an air-conditioned restaurant near our hotel–and finding none–we dined outside on the Rue Soufflot and headed for bed, only to discover another problem: mosquitoes! Our beautiful French windows had no screens, and if we opened the windows with the lights on, mosquitoes attacked us from every direction. We decided to leave the windows closed till it was time to turn out the lights.

Once we turned off the lights and opened the windows, a delicious breeze entered the room, cooling us off for the night. But the mosquitoes still targeted us, even in the dark, and traffic noise kept us from having a good night’s sleep.

The next morning, we awoke to a rainy Paris sky. In my lifetime of traveling, I’d never before been so happy to see rain! The gray sky meant lower temperatures, and we happily set out for another museum (the Musée d’Art Moderne, then featuring an impressive exhibit of Chagall paintings) without the threat of soaring temperatures and a merciless sun.

But as the day progressed, things got a lot steamier, and we decided to leave Paris a day earlier than planned. We would pick up our rental car and head for Rouen one day sooner. After dinner on the Rue du Pot de Fer, a pedestrian street a few steps from the busy Rue Mouffetard, we walked back to our hotel, prepared to be unwilling mosquito-targets one more night.

By now, we were all covered with bites, and the torment of itching had begun. Applying hydrocortisone cream helped, but not nearly enough. Meredith bought a more powerful French ointment formulated to ease insect bites, so we tried that, too. But those Parisian bugs were potent, and we proceeded to scratch their bites for days. (The bites on our feet created a special torment. Encased in heavy-duty athletic shoes–the better to walk in, my dear–our feet were not only piping-hot but also covered with bites that never stopped itching!)

The next morning dawned sunny but cooler. Miraculous! Did we really want to leave Paris a day early? Taking advantage of the cooler air, we set out on foot for the Marais, by way of the bouquinistes along the Seine, the Ile de la Cité, and the Ile St-Louis. By the time we arrived at the Rue des Rosiers, where we consumed kosher panini, the sun had become more intense, and the air was growing hot.

At the Musée Carnavalet, the displays of Parisian history and culture were fascinating, but the increasing heat and the enormous collection finally wore us down. Drained of energy, we spent the next hour sitting in the shade, zombie-like, in a small park just outside the museum.

Later, we walked to the Place des Vosges, where we sat for a while once again in the shade. The search for shade had become a rallying cry that resounded throughout the trip. “Shade!” I would shout, and the rest of our little group would hurry after me to reach the nearest patch of shade.

After another excellent dinner on the Rue du Pot de Fer, enjoying the sensory delights of a delicious breeze, I wondered whether we were right to leave Paris one day early. But the next morning, the sun was blazing with a vengeance, and all of us were grateful to pile into our rented Peugeot and head north to Normandy, where cooler temperatures awaited–or so we hoped!

“One” Small Step for Humankind

Eliminating gender-bias in the English language has been a preoccupation of mine for many years.  During the 1980s, I came up with an idea that I believed would be a useful remedy for one kind of gender-bias rampant in English nouns.

My hopes that this idea would gain wide acceptance escalated when the Chicago Tribune in 1986 published a piece I wrote that advocated this change.

But despite my hopes that this idea would catch on (and although a number of people told me how much they liked it), it went nowhere.  During the intervening 27 years, everyone (including me) has moved on and dealt with this issue in some other way.  But I still think my idea is a good one.  Here’s why.

Back in 1986, I observed that few people were concerned with gender-bias in our language. Those who preferred gender-free language were using “person” instead of “man,” and “he or she” instead of “he” alone, and pretty much leaving it at that.  Others had refused to make even those substitutions and continued to use traditional parlance, much of which had an undeniable male bias.

Maybe the underlying problem was sexism, pure and simple.  But I preferred to have a more generous view and came up with another conclusion.

The fundamental question, then and now:  Why do so many people continue to use words like “man” to mean men and women?  I think I know the answer.  The persistent use of the word “man” and all of the words that use “man” as a suffix—policeman, fireman, repairman, deliveryman, Congressman, and all the rest—can be blamed on a simple fact:  It’s easier to say “man” than to say “person” or any other word or suffix of more than one syllable.

Why haven’t words like “Congressperson” caught on?   Because it’s easier to say “Congressman.”  (I’d be satisfied with “Member of Congress,” like “Member of Parliament” in the U.K., but that hasn’t caught on either.)

Let’s face it.  Even the most dedicated feminists among us would prefer to say mailman instead of mail carrier or repairman instead of repairperson–IF the shorter versions were gender-neutral–because they’re easier to say.  But any word that includes the suffix “man” cannot be gender-neutral.

People can tell me that “man” includes both men and women until their faces turn blue, but I don’t believe it for one second.  Why?  Because the word “man” conjures up the image of a man.  Just think back to your childhood.  Do you remember when you were being taught the meanings of the most basic words?  Who did your parents point to when they said the word “man”?  A woman?  C’mon!  All of us were taught that “man” means a man, not a woman.  No wonder we’re confused a few years later when we encounter writing or speech using “man” that purports to mean both men and women.

It’s almost impossible to say “businessman” and envision a woman.  The same goes for every other word using the suffix “man.”  But if we balk at such infelicitous terms as “businessperson,” what substitutes can we use?

I propose using the suffix “one.”  This suffix is commonly used as part of our everyday speech.  Think of the words “anyone,” “everyone,” “someone,” and “no one.”  No one quibbles about those.  On the contrary, the use of “anyman” or “everyman” would be comical (they sound downright medieval to me).  Why not, then, extend use of the suffix “one” to other words where we have traditionally used “man”?

In recent years, some gender-neutral terms, like “firefighter,” have caught on, and for that I’m grateful.  But many people still cling to the old descriptions, like policeman and Congressman.  If we adopted my proposal, the word “policeman” could become “police-one.”  “Congressman” could become “Congress-one.”  (I’ve added a hyphen for clarity until people become accustomed to the new usage, but that hyphen could disappear as the usage became second-nature.)  Adding “one” instead of “man” or “person” is both gender-neutral and easy to say.

These new words sound strange at first (and in print they look even stranger, especially if we omit the hyphen).  But after you use “one” a few times, it begins to trip off your tongue as easily as “man” because, like “man,” it’s only one syllable.  It also doesn’t sound very different from “man” (“person” does), and you don’t have to stop to think about which suffix to use every time you want to describe someone.  Instead of trying to remember “mail carrier” and “police officer,” you could just use “one” for all of them.

Why don’t you try it?  Try saying mail-one, police-one, sports-one, Congress-one.  Even…snow-one!  It might take a bit of getting used to, but I think it could work.

In my view, it’s never too late to do the right thing.  So even though we’ve come up with ways to get around sexist language, using awkward words like “spokesperson,” it’s not too late to make things even better.

Do you agree with me that we should stop using language that excludes half of humanity?  If you do, we could try this new approach.  If each of us tries it, maybe we can start a trend that changes the English language in this small but important way.

Why don’t we do it?  Let’s be bold.  Let’s target one day to try this experiment in gender-free language and see what happens.  I propose trying it on the first day of the first month of 2014.

Please join me.  On January 1, 2014, let’s try using this short and easy way to include absolutely everyone.

It’s Time to Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act

How many working women think they’re paid fairly for the work they do?  Right now, with the economy still struggling to provide jobs for all those who want them, many women are probably happy just to be employed.

But women are still paid only 77 cents for every dollar men receive, making unequal pay a continuing problem for American women and the families who depend on their wages. (According to a recent report, women are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of American households.)

In 2010, April 20, designated as Equal Pay Day, marked how far into 2010 women had to work over and above what they made in 2009 to earn what men earned during 2009 alone.

Currently languishing in the U.S. Congress is the Paycheck Fairness Act (the PFA), proposed legislation that would level the playing field for working women.  The PFA would amend the 1963 Equal Pay Act (the EPA), which made it illegal for employers to pay unequal wages to those who perform substantially equal work.  Although enforcement of the EPA has narrowed the wage gap, a sizeable disparity still exists.

The PFA would help change the status quo.  While other civil rights statutes have been amended numerous times, the EPA never has.  The result: its enforcement tools are outdated, making the gender-disparity in pay hard to eradicate.

The PFA wouldn’t create an onerous burden on employers because it wouldn’t give employees any new rights.  Currently employers must comply with the EPA.  The only difference is that women would be better able to enforce those rights.

Many of the bill’s provisions make no demands on employers whatsoever.  One provision would merely create a grant program to help women and girls develop salary-negotiation skills.  Another would improve the way the government collects information from federal contractors.  Other provisions focus on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, e.g, giving EEOC staff additional training to better identify and handle wage disputes.

Of course, some provisions directly affect employers.  Most significantly, the PFA would give women the same remedies as employees discriminated against on the basis of race or national origin.  Currently women can get only limited awards like back pay.  The PFA would allow women to get compensatory and punitive damages for pay discrimination.

The PFA would also prohibit employers from retaliating against women who share salary information with their coworkers.  This kind of information-sharing helps employees learn about wage disparities and discrimination, but currently employers can retaliate against women who share such information.

Further, the PFA would allow an EPA lawsuit to proceed as a class action under the rules that apply to other federal lawsuits instead of the harsh 1963 rules that have never been amended.

Finally, a significant loophole now keeps women from winning cases brought under the EPA.  Employers who are paying women less than men for equal work can claim that the difference in pay is based on a “factor other than sex.”  This language is too broad.  It’s been used to introduce factors like a male worker’s stronger negotiation skills.

This is not what Congress intended when it passed the EPA.  The PFA would alter this language and allow different pay for men and women only when an employer can show that the difference relates to job performance and business necessity.

Congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi have issued a ringing endorsement of the PFA.  U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, one of the PFA’s 36 co-sponsors in the Senate, agrees.  Senator Dianne Feinstein has also joined Senator Boxer and endorsed passage of the bill in the Senate.  Significantly, President Barack Obama noted his support of this legislation in his speech before the Democratic Convention in 2012.

It’s time for Congress to act.  Let’s make pay equity a reality for America’s working women.

[A version of this commentary previously appeared as an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.]

Men and Typing: Hitting the Shift Key

By Susan Alexander

Inch by inch, we move towards gender equality in a host of ways.  When we compare today’s workplace, for example, with the one portrayed on the current TV drama “Mad Men,” depicting a New York advertising agency in the early 1960s, the contrast is striking.  Men dominate the agency.  They are the decision-makers and the bright creative types (only one woman has broken in so far).  All of the other women at the agency (called “girls,” regardless of their age)?  THEY TYPE.

What progress have we made since then?  “Mad Men” illustrates one of my favorite examples:  the enthusiastic adoption by males of what used to be an almost totally female occupation.  TYPING.

Typing clearly exemplifies the contrast between then and now. When I was a Harvard law student in the late 1960s (one of the four percent in my class comprised of women), many of my male classmates eschewed typing.  Sitting behind a typewriter was beneath them, a chore to be performed by women.  Or perhaps they simply never learned to type.  So instead of typing their own papers, they employed women who advertised their services as typists on law-school bulletin boards, or they inveigled their girlfriends or wives into doing it for them.

One bright young fellow who broke the mold was my classmate Lance Liebman.  A transplant to Kentucky (after spending his early years in Queens, where his progressive school district encouraged boys to learn typing), Lance became a high-school journalist and a crack typist.  When he entered the Kentucky state typing contest, he triumphantly won first prize.  Gender-stereotyping reared its silly head, however:  the Lexington Leader referred to him as “Miss Lance Liebman.”

Lance went on to excel in law school, becoming the head of the Harvard Law Review (a prestigious position later held by Barack Obama), and is now a distinguished professor (and former dean) at Columbia Law School.  He believes that his typing ability may have given him an edge.  A small minority of our classmates, including Lance, typed their exams, making their exams more legible and probably leading to better grades.

Granted, typing back then was a miserable chore, even for those of us who had mastered the technique in high school or college.  I painfully recall typing my first-year moot court briefs on my tinny Royal portable.  Moot court rules required five copies of each brief.  That meant inserting five sheets of paper into the typewriter, along with four sheets of carbon paper inserted between them.  Every time I typed the wrong letter, I had to use a special eraser to correct my error, leading to a hideous result:  four smudged-filled copies.  Corrections took forever, too.  To avoid errors, I wrote everything out in longhand first, then transcribed it into typewritten form.

When I took my first job, as a judge’s law clerk, I was placed behind an electric typewriter.  Time pressure didn’t allow writing in longhand first, and pretty soon I was able to type my ideas directly onto the paper.  (I remember typing lots of X’s over the mistakes that cropped up, however.)  In the early 1980s I learned to use computers for “word processing”—they were scary at first but far superior to typewriters–and never looked back.

Today, every boy learns to type at an early age.  In the era of computer technology, it’s unthinkable for them to dictate their words, or write them out in longhand, and expect an underling to input them into the computer.  Men in every profession now want and need to use the technology that’s still mainly accessible through typing, and they spend hours sitting in front of keyboards in the workplace and in their homes.  Everywhere there’s a computer hookup, there are men busily typing away.

(Only those males fearful of the new technology still cling to the old ways.  These men continue to rely on secretaries or “assistants” and, yes, their wives to do the typing.  Example:  Bill Marriot, CEO of the hotel chain, blogs–but has his secretary type it for him.)

I often wonder how many of us have observed this sea-change in our lives.  Forty or fifty years ago, typing was largely done by women. Today both men and women head for the keyboard without even thinking about it.

What a shift!

[A version of this commentary previously appeared as an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.]