Category Archives: gender-equity

Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman

POST #10

This is the tenth and final post in a series recalling what it was like to serve as Judge Julius Hoffman’s law clerk.  It will encompass the following:

  1. Concluding remarks on the “Chicago 7” trial
  2. My final contacts with Judge Hoffman, 1970-1983
  3. My life, post-clerkship (in brief)

Concluding remarks on the “Chicago 7” trial

What happened in the appellate court?

            After reading several rulings by the appellate court, I’ve come away with this:  There was plenty of blame to go around.

            At the end of the trial in February 1970, the jury found five of the defendants guilty of the statutory crime with which they were charged:  the intent to incite a riot.  These criminal convictions were reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which sent the case back to the district court for trial.  A new trial never took place because the Justice Department apparently chose not to bring new charges against these defendants.

            In addition to the criminal convictions, Judge Hoffman convicted all seven defendants and two of their lawyers of contempt of court for their behavior during the trial.  Most but not all of the contempt convictions were also overturned by the appellate court.

            The appellate court issued a lengthy and detailed opinion reviewing the defendants’ criminal convictions. In that opinion, the court concluded that the Anti-Riot Act was not unconstitutional.  It also discussed the evidence presented during the trial, as well as the conduct of the prosecutors, the defendants, and the judge.  If you’d like to read the appellate court’s opinion, you can find it online:  United States v. Dellinger, 472 F.2d 340 (7th Cir. 1972).

            In a later ruling, in 1974, the appellate court focused on the contempt convictions issued by Judge Hoffman. (These were, as I noted above, separate from the criminal convictions.)  In this ruling, the appellate court acknowledged that three of the defendants (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and David Dellinger) were guilty of serious misbehavior and “overwhelming misconduct,” including the wearing of judicial robes in court.  It also upheld the contempt conviction of attorney William Kunstler, noting that his bitterness and anger on at least one occasion “constituted a vicious personal attack on the judge,” delaying and disrupting the trial.

            When the appellate court reversed the defendants’ criminal convictions, it commented on the defense’s arguments attacking Judge Hoffman’s conduct during the trial.  The court noted Hoffman’s “deprecatory and often antagonistic attitude toward the defense” and his comments that were “often touched with sarcasm.”  The appellate court stated:  “Taken individually any one was not very significant and might be disregarded as a harmless attempt at humor.  But cumulatively, they must have telegraphed to the jury the judge’s contempt for the defense.” 

            The appellate court’s comments might well have applied to other criminal prosecutions that took place in Hoffman’s courtroom.  The judge often made similarly “harmless attempts at humor” that were attacked by defendants on appeal.  But in most of the other criminal prosecutions over which he presided, the trials were far shorter and the defendants and the charges against them were far less newsworthy.  In addition, Hoffman’s comments were never broadcast by the media to the same extent.  For these reasons, Hoffman had formerly escaped the kind of criticism that was aimed at him during this much more newsworthy trial.

            We should also note the appellate court’s focus on the conduct of the trial by the government prosecutors.  The court criticized them harshly. These lawyers, representing the Nixon administration, took advantage of Hoffman’s general bias in favor of the government, encouraging him to rule in favor of the prosecution–as was his wont–regardless of the merits of its position. In its 1972 ruling (cited above), the court stated that the prosecutors’ remarks “fell below the standards applicable to a representative of the United States.”  Doesn’t that say a lot?  I think it does.  The court pointed out some examples, such as prosecutors’ calling the defendants “evil,” “obscene liars,” “violent anarchists,” and “predators.”

            At the same time, it’s only fair to add that it was clear from the beginning that these particular defendants chose not to play the game the way defendants are supposed to.  They were determined to upset the courtroom at every opportunity.  A lot of the blame for the fiasco that followed must therefore fall on their shoulders as well. 

            My conclusion, when all is said and done?  The government never should have brought the indictment in the first place.  It was ill-conceived, and although the statute under which it was brought was later held by the Seventh Circuit to be constitutional, it was a highly dubious piece of legislation, spawned by the turmoil and the upheavals of its time.  If the Nixon administration had not pursued the indictment, this whole sorry chapter in U.S. legal history would never have been written.

            In the end, Hoffman’s reputation was besmirched as almost no other federal judge’s reputation has been, before or since.  The Sorkin film has revived interest in the trial, and in that film, Hoffman is portrayed as the arch-villain of the piece.   But in retrospect, I believe that this portrayal is not entirely justified.  With all of his faults, Hoffman was not an evil or cruel man.  I think he saw his role as that of a presiding judge compelled to impose order during a frenetic and chaotic trial, a trial unlike any he had ever encountered.

A side note on judicial findings of contempt

            During my high school years, I was a devoted fan of the TV series “Perry Mason.”  Every episode concluded with a courtroom scene, and I watched with fascination to see how admirable defense lawyer Perry and his opposing counsel, along with Perry’s clients and any witnesses, conducted themselves in the courtroom.  The judge’s rulings also interested me.  D.A. Hamilton Burger’s repeated objections that certain testimony was “incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial” lodged in my mind, and when I took a course in Evidence during law school, I recalled many of the judges’ rulings.  Classmates who were questioned by Professor Chadbourn sometimes couldn’t come up with an answer, and I often thought to myself, “Didn’t you ever watch ‘Perry Mason’?  If you had, you’d probably know the answer.”  (I did.)

            “Perry Mason” reruns now appear on late-night TV in San Francisco, and I occasionally watch one.  In a recent episode dating from the 1950s (“The Case of the Purple Woman”), someone in the courtroom (not a lawyer) shouted out an objection in the middle of witness testimony.  The judge first issued a $25 fine for contempt.  But when this individual repeated his misbehavior, loudly protesting the $25 fine, the judge (who looked remarkably like Judge Hoffman) sentenced him to 24 hours in county jail for contempt.  It was great fun to come across an episode of “Perry Mason” featuring a conviction for contempt issued by an irascible judge like Hoffman.

My final contacts with Judge Hoffman, 1970-1983

            After observing the trial twice, and each time feeling uncomfortable, I cut off my relationship with Judge Hoffman almost completely. I was working as a lawyer in Chicago, and I was embarrassed that the judge I had clerked for had become the subject of so much criticism.

            But when I decided to leave Chicago and move to California in August 1970, six months after the end of the trial, it seemed only right to phone the judge to tell him I was moving and to say goodbye.  And so I did.

            During our phone call, I didn’t mention the trial, but after an awkward silence, he did.  “I still don’t understand what happened,” he told me.  He sounded almost mystified.  Uncertain about what had happened.  Baffled by all of the criticism hurled at him, without understanding why–or perhaps, without wanting to understand why.

            Despite his many flaws, this admission by the judge led me to feel sorry for him. Looking back, I think that when he agreed to preside over this trial, he never contemplated what might actually happen.  He somewhat ingenuously found himself dealing with a group of hostile defendants who were intent, from the outset, on disrupting his previously well-ordered courtroom. 

            Thinking about his admission to me during that phone call has–50 years later–left me wondering:  What actually happened to him, outside the courtroom, during the trial?  Did he witness protests in the streets surrounding the courthouse?  Did his wife try to bolster him at the end of every day in court?  And what happened inside the courthouse?  Did any of his fellow judges come to his aid?  Did any of them offer him support or advice?  Did he welcome their advice, if it was offered? 

            I don’t know the answers to these questions.  I’ve never tried to find out, and I don’t plan to try now.  But I suspect that the judge was left out there by himself, trapped in his appalling situation, twisting in the wind.  His colleagues and his law clerks, probably grateful to have themselves been spared what happened to him, may have failed to give him the kind of support he needed to help him get through the whole awful mess.

            When I think about the two years I spent as Hoffman’s law clerk, I recall some uncomfortable and unhappy times, some of which I’ve set forth earlier in this series.  But I can also recall some truly pleasant times.  He treated his clerks and office staff to holiday lunches, as well as farewell lunches for a secretary or law clerk leaving his chambers, at the Empire Room in the Palmer House hotel and the posh Standard Club.  He would also give us year-end bonuses paid out of his own pocket.  And, as I noted earlier, while I worked for him, he always treated me and my co-clerks with respect.

            My life changed dramatically at the end of the summer of 1970.  I moved to California, met the man I fell in love with and married, and did not return to Chicago with my husband and delightful one-year-old until 1975.  Instead of returning to working full time, I sought out part-time work in a variety of law-related jobs, and I only seldom ventured to downtown Chicago.

            But in 1980, my co-clerk Susan Getzendanner became the first woman judge on the Northern District of Illinois bench.  I was thrilled for her, and I was happy to congratulate her and wish her well.  My friendship with Susan led to two final contacts with Judge Hoffman.

            After Susan’s appointment, the judge cheerfully called me at home one day.  He told me he was about to speak about Susan at a celebratory gathering and asked whether I could tell him a funny story about her, gleaned from the year we worked together.  I came up with a silly story for him.  But before he hung up, he asked me when I would be returning to work as a lawyer.  I was busy with two young daughters, ages 6 and 3, and trying to stay viable in the legal profession by working at part-time law-related jobs.  When I told him I wasn’t sure when I would go back to working as a full-time lawyer, he emphatically responded something like this:  “Well, you should come back sometime soon.  We need good lawyers like you!”

            I replicated this dialogue in my mystery novel, Jealous Mistress, which I began writing in 1985 and finally published in 2011.  Alison Ross, the protagonist (who loosely resembles me), gets a call from the judge she clerked for.  A reporter had called to ask him about his former clerk Alison, who had garnered local attention by solving a recent murder. The judge asks Alison, “When are you going to go back to the law?  You were a real crackerjack when you worked for me.”  Alison tells him that she’s been busy at home with her kids, but the judge insists, “We need more good lawyers like you.”  Thanks, Judge Hoffman, for inspiring the dialogue I later used in my novel.

            Susan Getzendanner also wangled an invitation for me to attend a high-profile luncheon held in honor of the judge, sponsored (at least in part) by his alma mater, Northwestern University Law School.  It took place at a snazzy private club on Michigan Avenue, the Tavern Club, where I ran into a bunch of lawyers and law professors I knew, as well as a few of Hoffman’s former law clerks.  There had been a huge student protest at the law school during the trial, and a plaque (noting his donation to fund a room at the school) had been torn off the wall outside the room.  Some faculty members had also expressed scathing criticism

            The judge was not surprisingly offended by what happened, and the rumor was that Hoffman had dropped NU from his will.  By sponsoring this lavish luncheon held in his honor, NU made a huge effort to get back in his good graces, but I later heard that the effort did not bear fruit and Hoffman died without leaving anything to NU law.  (I don’t know whether that’s in fact true.  When I later taught at NU Law, I never asked any other member of the faculty whether it was.)

            During the luncheon, the judge smilingly walked over to me.  He seemed terribly pleased to see me and greeted me by kissing me on the lips. This was somewhat startling, but I forgave his brashness.  Probably because he was about 85 at the time.

            After the NU luncheon, I lost touch with the judge once again.  I sadly learned of his death in an unexpected way.  My family was traveling to the East Coast that summer.  My husband, whom I’ll call Marv, was a celebrated mathematician, and he was invited to speak at a math conference held at Yale.  The four of us memorably stayed in a stifling dormitory on the Old Campus. (We’d been assured that it was air-conditioned. They lied.) 

            After leaving New Haven, we drove to Cambridge, and Marv thought it would be fun to have lunch at his old Harvard College haunt, Elsie’s sandwich shop.

            As I perched on a stool at one of Elsie’s tables, I spied a copy of The New York Times left behind by another customer.  I picked it up and began leafing through it.  My heart stopped when I came across an article buried on an inside page:  a lengthy obituary for Judge Hoffman, who had died on July 1, 1983, while I was traveling.

            Was there a funeral?  If so, who attended?  I never looked into it, and I choose not to do so now.  But I hope there was some sort of memorial service that praised the many good things Hoffman did, instead of focusing on the notoriety he had earned as a result of the trial.

            As for me, I’ll be forever grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to begin my legal career as his law clerk.  The two years I spent as his clerk provided me with a solid foundation for my career.  I learned how the courts worked.  How lawyers did or did not craft persuasive arguments that could sway a court.  How judges did or did not conduct their courtrooms in a fair and unbiased fashion. And how litigants themselves could influence the outcome in a given case.

            In that benighted era, when most judges selected their clerks from among male law graduates and only male graduates, eschewing the opportunity to choose highly capable women, Judge Hoffman had the sense and good judgment to choose women like me.     

My life post-Hoffman (in brief) 

            When I finished my clerkship in the summer of 1969, I chose not to enter the private practice of law.  Instead, I applied for and won a fellowship in a program that helped lawyers learn how to represent poor people and placed them in programs where they could use those skills (the Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellowship Program}. 

            I became a “Reggie” with the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau, where I was soon immersed in a lawsuit, Doe v. Scott.  My co-counsel and I filed this lawsuit, which challenged the constitutionality of Illinois’s restrictive abortion law, on February 20, 1970.  In August 1970, at the end of my first year as a Reggie, I transferred my fellowship to a program at UCLA Law School that focused on legal issues related to health problems of the poor.  During my year there, I continued to work on Doe v. Scott.  (I plan to write much more about my involvement in this lawsuit.  I hope to finish in the next year or two.) 

            Six weeks after moving to Westwood to work at UCLA, I met Marv, and my life changed again.  I’ll say more about that in my next blog post, “Another Love Story.”

Postscript

            Would Judge Hoffman be viewed differently today?  Should he be?  I titled this series “Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman,” implying that he could be described as a “hanging judge.”  But in retrospect, I now think he was a much more complex human being than I used to think, and this implication is probably unfair.

            During the five decades since Judge Hoffman presided over the trial of the “Chicago 7,” we’ve witnessed the rise of sharp-tongued “Judge Judy,” who has starred on one of the hottest shows on daytime television, winning high ratings in 25 seasons from 1996 to 2021.  The title of her 1996 book gives us a clue to her judicial demeanor:  “Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining.”  Her great success might lead one to assume that the American public now admires an acerbic judge (who has also been called abrasive, discourteous, and insulting) and prefers her to one who displays what’s usually called “judicial temperament.” 

            What can we say about the public’s fascination with an acerbic judge like Judge Judy?  Does that fascination lead us to view a judge like Hoffman differently today? 

            I don’t think the public views these two judges in the same way.  One was (at least until the trial of the “Chicago 7”) a generally respected federal judge who presided over a great many important cases in his courtroom.  The other is a judge who is closer to a comedian than a respected jurist. 

            As a member of the legal profession, I think that “Judge Julius”—often lacking in fairness and judicial temperament–was not the kind of judge we need.  He wasn’t the villain the Sorkin film makes him out to be.  But he could have, consistently, throughout his tenure as a judge, been less abrasive and less biased in favor of the government.

            Although “Judge Judy” may be an amusing figure in the world of entertainment, she’s also not the kind of judge we need. 

           In short, lawyers and litigants in the real world, confronting serious legal issues, deserve serious judges who invariably display judicial temperament and avoid, as much as they possibly can, acting in an abrasive and biased way.

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.

I Shouda Ran

I just came across some great news for joggers.  Researchers have found that strenuous exercise like jogging does NOT boost the risk of arthritis in one’s knees.  A recent study enlisted nearly 1,200 middle-aged and older people at high risk for knee arthritis.  Result?  After 10 years, those who did strenuous activities like jogging and cycling were no more likely to be diagnosed with arthritis than those who did none. (See the July/August 2020 issue of Nutrition Action, noting a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.)

And according to a writer in The Washington Post, most data show that running actually helps keep knee joints lubricated.  (See the report by John Briley on August 6, 2020.)

Hmmm…

So…maybe I shoulda ran?

What?

I’ll explain.

When my daughters were small, my husband and I often relied on PBS kids’ programming to keep us from going bananas whenever we were home with them for more than a few hours.

I’m still indebted to “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” for offering wonderfully positive content that expanded our daughters’ minds.

I can still remember many of Fred Rogers’s episodes and his delightful music.  The recent films (e.g., “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) that highlight his music and the many layers of his unfailing kindness are moving tributes to everything he did.  (I obliquely noted Rogers’s important role in our family when I briefly mentioned him in my 2011 novel, Jealous Mistress.)

Similarly, I can’t forget countless “Sesame Street” sketches and songs we watched over and over again. In addition to stalwarts like Kermit the Frog and Big Bird, I loved less-prominent Muppet characters like Don Music, who’d take out his creative frustrations by crashing his head on his piano keyboard.

One “Sesame Street” sketch I vividly recall focused on words than rhymed with “an.”

The setting is a rundown alley in a big city.  Tall buildings loom in the distance.  As the sketch begins, two Muppets garbed as gangsters breathlessly arrive at this spot.  The savvier gangster tells his partner Lefty that “We got the ‘Golden AN’.”

The word “AN” is clearly written in bold upper-case letters on a metal object he’s holding.  Explaining their “plan,” he points to a “tan van” and says, “This is the plan. You see that van? You take the Golden An to the tan van.  You give it to Dan, who will give it to Fran.”  He adds:  “Everything I’m telling you about the plan rhymes with AN.”  He takes off, leaving Lefty alone.

Lefty, who’s pretty much of a dolt, repeats the plan out loud a couple of times while a Muppet cop is watching and listening.  The cop approaches, identifies himself as “Stan…the man,” and tells Lefty he’s going to get “10 days in the can for stealing the Golden An.”

Lefty then chides himself:  “I shoulda ran.”

This carefully crafted sketch was clearly intended to teach little kids about words that rhyme with “an,” although much of it seemed aimed at parents and other adults watching along with the kids.  How many little ones knew the meaning of “the can”?  The bad grammar in the sketch (“I shoulda ran”) was forgivable because kids watching “Sesame Street” didn’t really notice it, and the whole thing was so darned funny.

But what has stayed with me over the decades is the final line:  I shoulda ran.

When I was growing up, I always liked running fast, and I rode my fat-tire Schwinn bike all over my neighborhood.  So I wasn’t indolent.  But as I grew older and entered public high school in Chicago, I encountered the blatantly sexist approach to sports.  Aside from synchronized swimming, my school offered no team sports for girls.  So although I would have loved to be on a track team, that simply wasn’t possible.  Girls couldn’t participate in gymnastics, track, basketball, baseball, tennis, or any of the other teams open to boys our age.

We were also actively discouraged from undertaking any sort of strenuous physical activity.  It was somewhat ironic that I applied to be, and became, the sports editor of my high school yearbook because I was completely shut out of the team sports that I covered in that yearbook .  And I foolishly gave up my coveted spot in the drama group to do it—what a mistake!

I had a somewhat different experience during my single semester in school in Los Angeles, where I spent the first half of 8th grade.  Although sexism was equally pervasive there, girls at least had a greater opportunity to benefit from physical activity.  Because of the beautiful weather, we played volleyball outdoors every day, and I actually learned not to be afraid of the ball!  I was prepared, when we returned to Chicago (reluctantly on my part), to enjoy a similar level of activity during my four years of high school.  But that would not happen.   The girls’ P.E. classes were a joke, a pathetic attempt at encouraging us to move our bodies.  And things didn’t begin to change until 1972, when Title IX was enacted into law.

Over the years, I continued to ride a bike wherever I lived and whenever weather permitted. I took up brisk walking and yoga as well.  And I sometimes thought about running.

Jogging– less intensive running–took off in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Why didn’t I begin to jog?

There was a bunch of reasons.  First, I was afraid of damaging my knees.  I’ve always loved aerobic dancing, the kind popularized by Jacki Sorensen.  I’d jump along with the music in my favorite Jacki tape, and I began to notice that jumping was possibly beginning to wear away the cartilage in my knee joints because occasional pain resulted. So I kept dancing, but I stopped jumping.  I figured that running would place even further stress on my knees.

And then there was Jim Fixx.

I didn’t know a lot about Jim Fixx.  He became a media celebrity when he published his best-selling book, The Complete Book of Running, in 1977, and his claims about the health benefits of jogging suddenly showed up on the news.  But in 1977, I had a brand-new baby and a toddler, along with a challenging part-time job, and I couldn’t focus on starting something new like jogging.  By the time I was getting ready to launch into it, I heard the news that Fixx had died of a heart attack while jogging.  He was 52.

Fixx’s death shook me up.  I didn’t know at the time that he may have had a genetic predisposition to heart trouble and he had lived a stressful and unhealthy life as an overweight heavy smoker before he began running at age 36.   All that I knew was that this exemplar of health through running had died, while jogging, at age 52.

Chicago weather also stood in my way.  Happily ensconced in an area that allowed our family to ride our bikes along Lake Michigan and quiet residential streets, and where I could take long and pleasant walks with my husband, I was reasonably active outdoors during the six months of the year when good weather prevailed.  But during the harsh winters, confined indoors, I had less success.  I played my Jacki tapes, I tried using a stationary bike (it never fit me comfortably), and I sampled a local gym.  But I didn’t pursue strenuous exercise.

Now, learning about the recent evidence I’ve noted–that, if I’d jogged, my knees might have been OK after all–I regret that choice.  My current climate allows me to be outside almost every day, and I take advantage of it by briskly walking about 30 minutes daily, much of it uphill.  So that’s my workout now, and it’s a pretty good one.

But I probably would have loved running all those years.

It’s a bit late to start now, but I can’t help thinking:  I shoulda ran.

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?

 

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?