Essay: Anniversary of the 19th Amendment

Aug 1, 2014

Feminist Suffrage Parade in New York City, 1912
Credit Wikimedia commons

[originally aired in August 2011]

Picture this. You are a woman lawyer clerking for a federal judge, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the United States of America. It is September of 1970, with revolution in the air, a time of long hair on men and short skirts on women.  You join a group of fifteen or so of your male law school classmates (women had constituted less than 3% of the class) for lunch in the restaurant at the top of the Marine Bank (now the Chase Tower).  

The restaurant manager approaches and advises you that your group is sitting in the “men’s section” of the restaurant, and you have inadvertently broken a rule by integrating that part of the lunch room.  The manager thinks that perhaps you should leave. You-- and the guys sitting near you-- politely suggest to him that he doesn’t really want to try to oust one of a group of lawyers.  He is upset, but allows you to be served, “just this once.” 

This happened, not in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, but in the United States-- and not in the deep south, but in the supposedly enlightened midwest.  It happened to me.

It was nothing new to me. On my first day of law school, in the fall of 1966, I was told I was “taking a man’s place.”  And before I was hired for the clerkship, I was interviewed for a job in a small law firm. The hiring partner had advertised for a woman, and when I asked him why, he told me, “Because I won’t have to pay her as much.”  I got up and left; one of the other three women in my class took the job.

I’ve spent my life ignoring boundaries, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t there. In the early seventies, I had a woman client who was in the Navy. She couldn’t get promoted without sea duty, and she wasn’t allowed to serve aboard a ship. She had to fulfill that requirement on a Coast Guard vessel in Lake Michigan, but only after a lot of red tape. 

“You’ve come a long way, baby,” claimed the ads for Virginia Slim cigarettes back in 1968. But we really hadn’t.  True, women had had the vote since the 19th Amendment was ratified and became part of the Constitution as of August 26th, 1920. 

But until the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, voting was about the only right women had.  They often could not get a mortgage to buy a home, or get credit at a store. Women’s sports were virtually ignored while vast funds were spent on men’s teams in schools and colleges. 

Women running for office-- I did that too-- spent most of their time explaining why a woman could, or should, run. 

But it was at restaurants that the discrimination was most surprising to those of us who came of age in the revolutionary Sixties. 

Heinemann’s Restaurant, on Wisconsin Avenue, had a men’s grill, a room into which women were not allowed-- although men as well as women were welcome in the rest of the restaurant. Women demonstrated in front of the restaurant in 1969, but it took a federal lawsuit, decided several years later, to affirm that such discrimination would no longer be condoned.

The clincher came in 1983, when Marge Biel, director of Governor Tony Earl’s Milwaukee office, was refused admission to the University Club’s dining room to attend a meeting with him.  I could have warned her about that-- a decade earlier, I’d been invited to speak at a gathering in one of the private rooms there, and had been stopped at the entrance and told that women had to use the back door.  I told them that, since I was the guest speaker, and was already inside, I would just go up to the room where my meeting was being held, thank you.  They were too polite to physically throw me out.

Governor Earl said he wouldn’t attend any gatherings at the University Club until the policy was reversed. And it was, shortly thereafter. 

Still, 1983. 

“You’ve come a long way, baby.”  Well, maybe we have, now. Women serve in all branches of government, in the military, on the Supreme Court, in all professions.  Several women have even been taken seriously as candidates for the presidency. 

We’ve had the vote for 91 years now, and I never miss an election, because I think of the women who were arrested and sent to prison-- as late as July of 1917-- so that I would have that right. I owe it to them.

And to Marge Biel. And to those women who picketed and then sued Heinemann’s.  And all the other unsung heroines.  I’ve been told that I’m one of them, a pioneer myself. I’ve never thought about it that way. I’ve only thought, I’m an American.  That should mean the same thing for every one of us who is. 

[originally aired in August 2011]