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.
|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