I sometimes find it hard to explain to women under 40 why I am proud to call myself a feminist. Many think of us as angry, strident, and unnecessary. It makes me afraid that the history we forget, we may be in danger of repeating.
As a ninth grader in Miami, I had to take a series of vocational aptitude tests. Mine consistently showed I would be a good journalist, minister, or lawyer. Big problem: I was a girl. This was the 1950’s, and The Feminine Mystique was just beginning to germinate in Betty Friedan’s heart and mind. Nobody had ever heard of women’s liberation.
Help Wanted columns were divided by Male and Female, and there were no ads for journalists, ministers, or lawyers in the Female pages of the paper. All the “girl” jobs were in offices, hospitals, schools, or restaurants. Never courts. Even the professional jobs, like teachers or medical assistants, had separate pay scales for men and women.
This discrimination was open and perfectly legal. The rationale: men had to support a family. Women could always quit and get married.
In college I majored in English because I loved to read and thought maybe I’d teach high school. Or get a job as an executive secretary to a powerful man who would mentor me to rise in the company.
By my senior year in college, a handful of law schools and medical schools had begun to accept women, but no more than two per class. This was true of Vanderbilt, Duke, Yale – and my alma mater, Stetson University in Florida. I did think seriously about applying to Stetson Law. But as graduation neared, stories about women in law school began to emerge. It was not a pretty picture. In a Texas school, women were shunned; no male would speak to them, in or out of class.
In the same school, a criminal law professor told the two women in the class to stay away for two weeks while he taught the elements of rape. In 1961 a brave friend appeared in the same class with the first African American admitted under court order. Her property professor began the class this way: “Well, well. I see we have a woman and a Nigra. I’ve never passed a woman or a Nigra before, but then I never taught a Nigra.” (They both passed; papers were graded anonymously.)
I was told that at the University of Virginia women had to stand to recite but men could remain seated. And at Yale, Senator-to-be Elizabeth Dole, who would have been in my class, was scolded for taking a man’s place. “Why are you here? You’ll just get married and never practice law,” a professor said.
The truth is I didn’t go to law school in 1959 because I didn’t have the guts. By the time I entered Georgetown in 1974, 20% of my classmates were women. When I graduated in 1977, 40% of the entering class was female. I rode the wave of Women’s Lib.
However, not all was equal. We women tolerated behaviors that would get a teacher fired today. One of my professors described a vagina as a metaphor of how one could stretch the law to fit the facts. He bragged about successfully defending a friend charged with rape. “I’m sure he was guilty,” he laughed.
The women’s movement on campus was active – and yes, there were some excesses. I appreciated supportive and courteous men – I was married to one – but some female colleagues bristled if a man offered them a seat or held open a door.
Today, whenever I hear younger women disparage feminists, I cringe. Those early feminists gave me the courage to enter and excel in law school and to serve the public as a federal tax judge, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Beyond Dispute Associates
|Carolyn Miller Parr has a passion for peacemaking with families, churches, nonprofits, and businesses. A former judge, she now helps clients resolve problems without going to court. She co-authored husband Jerry’s memoir, “In The Secret Service” (Tyndale). She’s a founding member of Joseph’s House (a hospice for homeless men), Mediators Beyond Borders, and The Servant Leadership School in DC. Writes for Ready Magazine, Faith Happenings, Age in Place, and Redbud Post. http://www.ToughConversations.net|
Julie Baker says
Ms. Parr, great comments. We need to remember this part of our history.
Unfortunately, many in the “women’s movement” have used the advances we fought for and achieved, for other purposes, including that of denigrating men.
Today’s feminists are not fighting for the things we were fighting for.
Thank you for saying what I was forming in my mind but was grasping for the words. Just as Civil Rights has been utilized for purposes beyond its original need, the continued movement is making pathroads in divisive and negative ways and much to the detriment of the family in general.
Carolyn Parr says
Julie, it’s true that some of us have unfortunately seen men as the enemy. I can say that my greatest mentors have been men who were forward thinkers. I’m grateful for every one.
Alan E. Gross says
Carolyn… even though I was born into and retained the male gender, your comments directed mostly at young women are much appreciated esp since I have two great accomplished daughters!. The unfortunate examples from your own past are more than persuasive for us all to be vigilant for any deviations from gender equality (and all the other kinds of equality especially race, sexual orientation, and disability). Hope all is well with you, Alan
Carolyn Parr says
Thanks,Alan. I know you to be supportive of women. And much appreciated! Thanks for writing.
Naomi Holtring says
I cannot agree enough!!!! Thank you. I too am in the field of Dispute Resolution and work with families and workplaces. We have far greater in Australia laws now. Used to be that separating parents would divide their assets, however superannuation was not counted, so a woman who had stayed home to take care of children very often, lost out badly.
When I started in the workplace, I was not allowed superannuation, because I was a female.
Thank goodness for feminists!
Stewart h says
Is today’s issue not about whether feminists achieved sufficient respect for women’s values, including , not least, nurture, rather than focusing on male values of competing, dominance and so forth. When feminism adopts male values and mimics them has it not missed some of its key points. Women are not just important and respected for being clever, powerful and so forth but also because they are well placed to demonstrate the value which can be delivered by fairer more equitable working methods e.g. Mediation. This is not a contrary point just a next stage. Ok the younger newer thinkers (boy, girl, or anything else
) may show some disrespect for history but is that not just healthy challenge and debate?