“How well do you type?” Former U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, speaking at her induction into the county’s Women’s Hall of Fame, shared the challenges of finding a law firm willing to hire a female lawyer in the 1950s. O’Connor was among the top of her class, on the Law Review and, as we now know, poised for a place in history. But back then the only place the interviewer wanted to see O’Connor was in the secretarial pool.
Thankfully for O’Connor, and eventually the nation, she found a spot in the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office albeit without a paycheck or dedicated desk. If O’Connor ever had to type for that gig, chances are it was for her own work and not that of her tie-wearing colleagues.
O’Connor’s story about the job interview question calls to mind a tongue-in-cheek poster I once saw with a photo of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Under her face, a similar question was printed: “But can she type?”
Seems even the Iron Lady wasn’t immune to the old-fashioned notion ladies were better off wearing velvet gloves than flexing a steely fist inside. These recollections bring eye rolls and groans, head shakes and laughter. How silly, we think. “Can you even imagine?” silently asks our generation that, while acknowledging we still make pennies on the man’s dollar, still know we have it better than our preceding generations.
How far we’ve come and we’re not talking Virginia Slims. Then again, how far we still have to go.
The truth is that O’Connor’s ridiculous job interview wasn’t that long ago — less than one average person’s lifetime. It’s often easy to feel that battles are won and stick an issue up on a shelf of complacency. But that would be a mistake. While gender equality is far better than it was, no thanks to helpful folks like Phyllis Schlafly, there remains the issues du jour when it comes to that divide. Some are financial — the assumption women will be “taken care of” by their husbands’ paycheck. Some are social — are women asking for assault by enlisting in the military? Others are cultural — the honeys and sweeties and “math is hard”-claiming Barbies. None are reason to believe women are any less capable or worthy than their male peers.
On Friday, at the same Hall of Fame induction ceremony where O’Connor was honored, the county Commission on the Status of Women also added three other names of people following in O’Connor’s footsteps not only remarkable women but impressive people: Fatima Soares, Dr. Faye McNair-Knox and Nina Luo. Their resumes individually make me wonder what the heck I’ve been doing all my life. Luo, a high school junior, in particular makes me feel like an underachiever. At her age, I was busy cutting trigonometry and reading “Seventeen.” She, however, is busy saving the world or something pretty darn close to it. Actually, McNair-Knox and Soares are doing the same with every life they touch and every accolade they accumulate. These are women to reckon with and nobody better ask about their typing skills as an assessment of their worth. The same can be said of the dozens of women who they join in the Hall of Fame.
All of this should go without saying but an event like Friday night’s ceremony is a chance not only to honor those who pave the way but remind the rest of us of what can be accomplished. Certainly, equality would ideally mean that commissions and halls of fame needn’t be segregated by gender because we’d all be on identical footing. But until that’s in the cards, if ever, here’s a thank you to all the women who don’t give up and refuse to be typecast.
Michelle Durand’s column “Off the Beat” runs every Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone (650) 344-5200 ext. 102. What do you think of this column? Send a letter to the editor: email@example.com.