Vision 2020 National Advisor Laurel Bellows is Past President of the American Bar Association
NO MORE EXCUSES
By Laurel Bellows
We are the most effective generation of womankind ever—that is, if “effectiveness” is measured in terms of confronting legal issues involving women. But if women’s accomplishments are weighed against actually achieving equality of opportunity, freedom from violence, and fairness in matters concerning gender, our effectiveness is a blip on the achievement chart for the one hundred thousand generations of women that have walked upright. I fear that what we have accomplished will create a false sense that inequity will disappear, when what we have done is picked low-hanging fruit. So, if the past is prologue, the issues that face women today will still be present, and critical, a generation hence.
Women’s advocacy is grounded on moral principles that we ask others to embrace. We speak of women’s rights as human rights that are unalienable. Our advocacy is an attempt to enlist others to do the right thing for the sake of the right thing, like granting suffrage. But, try as we may, these principles are neither universally recognized nor given priority.
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…
We don’t talk about a national restatement of Thomas Jefferson’s words that all “men” are created equal. We can’t know whether Jefferson meant “men” reflecting the mores of his day, or whether Jefferson would state that all “people” are created equal if he were writing today.
We do know that today, we are quibbling about equality. To avoid an absolute affirmation of gender equality, we hear the rationale that men and women are not equal; we are different.
Since the Declaration of Independence and before, we knew that all men are not the same.
Some are tall, some short, some football players, some rock stars, lawyers, actors, office workers, some are actors or office workers, and some are machinists; men come in many colors, religious persuasions and are gay or not. Poor and rich, city and rural, well- traveled or never traveled, high school and college grads or not…..we have accepted for more than 230 years that, except for twins, men are not identical to each other. Yet, we have accepted Jefferson’s statement that “all men are equal” for over 230 years.
Similarly, women are different from each other and from most men in looks, body strength, agility, emotional response, household responsibility, sole support of single parent households, community activism. Why is it that when the question is women’s equality, we quibble about the definition of equal? If all men are not identical to each other but nevertheless equal, why is it such an equality conundrum that men and women can be equal even if not identical as Thomas Jefferson proposed and Congress adopted in 1776?
We don’t hesitate to discuss racial equality, religious equality and now LGBT equality. We are, however, uncomfortable and unwilling to loudly tout the certainty of gender equality. We fear the Feminist label and the subtle retaliation or stigma that attaches to women’s equality advocates.
We are told that that terms like “comparable” or “equitable” should substitute for “equal”. We hear that the variation in compensation between men and women (between 50% and 19% depending on whether we are comparing White, African American, or Latina women to men) is not function of gender inequity, but rather caused by women who choose part time work, family friendly jobs and opt out of high paying opportunities. Yet, the statistics that measure comparable jobs for incomparable pay belie this rationalization.
Gender equality is the law. But apparently gender equality is still debatable.
Yes, we have celebrated many firsts and changed the face of the American workforce. We learned that framing issues not as women’s issues but as society’s issues attracts an audience and believers. Our successes most often arise when we have others tune in to their favorite radio station, WIIFM (What’s In It For Me). When that happens, women are able to lower barriers or favorably resolve legal issues, even where female factors predominate. For example, after decades of failing to fund research for breast cancer, money was allocated only after the epidemic was cast as a public health issue that affects all Americans, not just women.
We crafted similar messages that resonated in favor of change. Diversity is rightfully touted as good for business; same for including a woman’s perspective in the boardroom and C suites of corporate America. Making credit available for women entrepreneurs provides jobs, stimulates the economy, and on a micro level feeds families and educates children. Law firms retain senior women lawyers to meet expectations of women general counsel. Quality of life for professional women redounds favorably for a better quality of life for male peers. When interested parties are convinced that change advantages society, rather than only women, we make progress toward equality. Philosophically, this is troubling.
Here’s the dilemma: Until women obtain broad recognition for their ideals, they must continue to be manipulators of the public interest argument to obtain fairness. But only so much progress can be made spinning women’s issues as public interest issues. And there are issues that solely belong to women and fights that primarily benefit women although our society gains greatly from diversity. Sometimes the game is zero sum, and gains for women come at the expense of individual men: The more women who find berths at the top, the fewer positions that will be available for men.
The mission of Vision 2020 is to achieve gender equality in time to celebrate the Centennial of the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote. The suffragists who fought for our vote were beaten, jailed, ostracized, and chained themselves to the White House fence to underscore their total commitment to equality. They debated whether they should campaign for a Constitutional equality amendment. Recognizing the unlikelihood of achieving affirmation of full gender equality, the suffragists opted to obtain the vote first. They counted on us, future generations, to use the vote to assure gender equality. It never dawned on the Suffragists that women would not only NOT engage in a concerted battle for equality, but that many women would choose not to exercise their vote, or worse yet choose not to register to vote…and that our voices would go largely silent. Apparently, our long term strategy for achieving equality is to blend into our male society. Silent blending flies in the face of the suffragists’ sacrifices.
No more excuses.
The United States spoke for individual freedom by ratifying our Constitution more 233 years ago. Our Constitution provides for equal protection of our laws, but it does not specifically mandate gender equality, Since that time, country after country have adopted Constitutions that confer gender equality on women. Most recently, Zimbabwe and Tunisia adopted Constitutional provisions to affirming gender equality.
In the United States, we hear that a Constitutional amendment is unnecessary, that we have achieved equality and barriers are melting away year upon year. We hear that a gender equality amendment would be largely symbolic and not worth the effort. Or, that formal equality cannot incorporate the concept that women and men are different, with different needs and strengths and weaknesses. Instead of a Constitutional amendment, we relegate gender equality to legislation and court interpretation.
No more excuses. It is time to visibly affirm that equality of opportunity, pay, respect and a standard of fairness applied equally to men and women is the fundamental principle of our country, not subject to the whims of our Congress and the political composition of our Supreme Court.
What can we do to discredit rationalizations for inequality? How can we enlist others to join the cause of gender equality when equality is fearsome to so many? We need to address the fact that both men and women fear equality, but for different reasons. Women fear economic independence; fear losing the ability to depend on men for support; fear that they will lose custody of children. Men fear they will lose their jobs to women; fear that their place as senior executives, and as heads of household, is in jeopardy. Women and men fear sending their daughters to war.
The real question, the critical issue for the next 6 years, is straightforward: Can men and women ever move past the fear of being equal?
No more excuses. We must publicly, noisily, brilliantly radiate the courage we expect of others, and demand equality.
We hear that the variation in compensation between men and women (between 50% and 19% depending on whether we are measuring White, African American, or Latina women against men) is not function of gender inequity, but rather caused by women who choose part time work, family friendly jobs and opt out of high paying opportunities. Yet, the statistics that measure comparable jobs for incomparable pay belie this rationalization. We are told that that terms like “comparable” or “equitable” should substitute for “equal”.
Laurel Bellows is Past President of the American Bar Association and Founding Managing Principal of Bellows Law Group, P.C., in Chicago. She is a business lawyer and litigator. She represents executives involved in negotiating employment contracts, separation agreements, and related employment disputes, and she writes and lectures nationally on topics related to leadership, negotiation skills and business development.. Bellows was chair of the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates, a past president of the National Conference of Bar Presidents, and a former chair of the Commission on Women in the Profession. She was the second woman president of the 22,000 member Chicago Bar Association in 1991 and Past Chair of The Chicago Network.