Misogyny’s Roots Run Deep, Men; it’s Time to Dig— Pt. 4

The Power of Law and Turning an Idea on its Head

[To myself and to men who look like me: much work lies ahead to help repair systemic damage to all those long-excluded from full equity in every area of public and private society, particularly women]

No matter one’s position in the 2016 election, it is fair to say that gender played a larger role than many predicted and that the resulting fault lines exposed how far apart many Americans are in their expectations and attitudes on relations between the sexes. For some the pendulum has swung too far since last century…for others, not nearly enough.

For those looking for a sign of progress in a season where rhetorical and physical assault on women seem to have regained a foothold many thought eroded, hope persists in looking forward and backward. Subtly changing attitudes both on city streets and in peoples’ homes have long led to action and real change on a wide-reaching structural level. Below is a relevant example from the tumultuous 1970’s, when the fortunes of so many minorities see-sawed up and down. Court battles are less sexy than street battles — and they often come at the end of a long campaign, not the beginning — but in a nation of laws, an intellectual win that translates into written law is often vital for social transformation to stick. Like much in the fight for gender equality, though, the decision below is understated. It’s no Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka or Obergefell v. Hodges in that America wasn’t fundamentally different the next day…much of the long slog toward equality among the sexes is less dynamic than the tug-of-war between those of different races, religions, sexual orientations, classes or even localities. The court case detailed below is emblematic of this, but it does tick a lot of useful boxes as we look at how men and the powers they collectively wield can view and address an old issue in a new, more just way.

  • It’s historic, but not so old as to be inaccessible. (No powdered wigs here — the main players are still with us.)
  • It both gender-bends presumed roles and undemonstratively calls us to look at the root of a real problem without starting us out in our normal fixed suppositions.
  • It is an example of LEGISLATIVE transformation that worked concurrently with social and community efforts to improve lives both in practice and in moral purpose.
  • Since it involves political intervention as a result of street-level activism (and is not the result of or in response to an enormous singular event or tragedy or serendipitous aligning of the proverbial stars) it is repeatable in nature.
  • It shows us that basic empathy, mentally putting yourself in someone else’s position, can still win the day, even when the challenge to righting a wrong involves going up against “The System.”

This case was argued by a young Ruth Bader Ginsberg in front of the Supreme Court she would decades later join (it was all-male at this point, though, as it had been from the beginning). She continued the long activism work of many revolving around sex-based economic and social discrepancies (in micro) and broader employment, economic and civil rights for all (in macro) by illustrating how an issue many believed only really affected women actually meant a great deal to (and said a lot about) all of American society.

How legal reform was achieved in this case, though, was through looking at discrimination through a different lens. Many cases by the 1970’s had been brought to trial on behalf of female plaintiffs seeking redress regarding overt and covert discrimination in hiring policies, equal pay, sexual harassment, access and authority over family assets and powers of attorney, and a number of other concerns. Laws and social and financial norms largely relegated women to second-class citizen status vis-à-vis the men in their families, workplaces, and other institutions as decisions were often being made — by men and the institutions they controlled — “on their behalf.” These instances, the ones regarding finances and powers of attorney and estate executorships, were sometimes charitably labeled “chivalrous,” but by and large they were plain paternalistic, not considerate…and easily accepted as that’s how they had always been done.

An aside on that point…Imagine having to settle for being treated as a fragile “Lil’ Lady” on issues that you should “just let the Men take care of”…settling for that because you know it’s better than the alternative: receiving active scorn for retribution for being bossy, for not knowing your place, for being mouthy, a shrew, a harpy, a bitch. I truly have NO IDEA what that feels like. Men, none of us do. Today, the scales are tilting further towards equality than they were 40 years ago, but they are no where near balanced. Fair pay, anti-retaliation protections, health care and choice access…these are still being fought day by day, life by life, case by case — and those are just to deal with sexism in the workplace. It’s the tip of the iceberg. And I can’t even imagine what it must feel like to be faced with the totality of said iceberg….I have never had to deal with any of those things (or their imaginary male-aimed equivalents), let alone the casual or blatant sexism that exists in mundane daily examples for women the world over.

The case Ginsberg argued here put the animating spirit behind these sexist strictures on trial but forced the government to consider how it was effecting not just another in a long line of women, but a man who was an Air Force veteran.

I first learned of this story in the fantastic book Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik (the long-running blog of the same name is found here). The synopsis below is from a speech on supremecourt.gov.

It began in 1972, when Paula Wiesenfeld, a New Jersey public school teacher, died in childbirth. Her husband, Stephen Wiesenfeld, sought to care for the baby personally, but was denied child-in-care Social Security benefits then available only to widowed mothers, not to widowed fathers. Stephen Wiesenfeld won a unanimous judgment in the Supreme Court.
In defense of the sex-based differential, the Government had argued that the distinction was entirely rational, because widows, as a class, are more in need of financial assistance than are widowers. True in general, the Court acknowledged, but laws reflecting the situation of the average woman or the average man were no longer good enough even for Government work. Many widows in the United States had not been dependent on their husbands’ earnings, the Court pointed out, and a still small, but growing number of fathers like Stephen Wiesenfeld were ready, willing, and able to care personally for their children. Using sex as a convenient shorthand to substitute for financial need or willingness to bring up a baby did not comply with the equal protection principle, as the Court had grown to understand that principle. (As a result of the decision, childcare benefits were paid to Stephen Wiesenfeld, who has been an extraordinarily devoted parent.

Exactly 20 years later, Hillary Clinton spoke on the floor of the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing and famously declared the boiled-down, indisputable truth behind the Court’s unlikely decision in 1975 that, today, seems obvious, yet still can be hard to put into practice in our daily lives and in our institutions: “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights,” she said. Below are three portions from that speech in China:

What we are learning around the world is that, if women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish. If women are free from violence, their families will flourish. If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish. And when families flourish, communities and nations will flourish. That is why every woman, every man, every child, every family, and every nation on our planet has a stake in the discussion that takes place here.
If we take bold steps to better the lives of women, we will be taking bold steps to better the lives of children and families too. Families rely on mothers and wives for emotional support and care; families rely on women for labor in the home; and increasingly, families rely on women for income needed to raise healthy children and care for other relatives.
As long as discrimination and inequities remain so commonplace around the world -- as long as girls and women are valued less, fed less, fed last, overworked, underpaid, not schooled and subjected to violence in and out of their homes -the potential of the human family to create a peaceful, prosperous world will not be realized.   Let this conference be our -- and the world's -- call to action.   And let us heed the call so that we can create a world in which every woman is treated with respect and dignity, every boy and girl is loved and cared for equally, and every family has the hope of a strong and stable future.   
Thank you very much.

Another point on how it takes all kinds of people and methods to meaningfully affect far-reaching transformation: sometimes Change (with a capital “C”) is brought about by almost preposterously dull methods. Change is often unsexy. Revolution doesn’t always translate to video. I was at a community meeting about gentrification and systemic inequality and the experienced moderator, a local African-American man who has been working for decades both in front of and behind the scenes, told us that — if we really wanted to see change — we needed to not just protest, but pay attention to what the power brokers were doing, hold them accountable, bring along our cohorts to voice displeasure and organize, look at the bigger picture, and vote accordingly. Ginsberg and Clinton have been both public faces and studious, background workers in an ongoing effort to see true equality seep through every crack and crevice in the foundations of society. The largest walls topple from taking advantage of factors both outsized (galvanizing once-in-a-generation leaders and events of magnitude) and understated (the determined and deliberate work of people using knowledge of the system to their advantages). To wit: In the end, it wasn’t glamorous and tough Elliot Ness who finally put away the gangster menace Al Capone...it was IRS lawyers in a courtroom who busted him for tax evasion and got him off the streets for good.

Up Next: Pt. 5 — Everyday Examples and Actions in the Home and in the Community