“We the people.” The famous preamble to the U.S. Constitution begins. More recently, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, our great Supreme Court justice, said that in the minds of the founding fathers, “We the people,” certainly didn’t apply to her or to entire classes of other people.
Women and most minorities were definitely not the people.
Most people weren’t the people.
The people, I learned when I first reached Washington, D.C., were male and white. They wore identical penguin costumes. They crammed the District’s sidewalks, all of them using the same hurried gait as though they feared reaching the ocean behind their buddies.
Where were they going in their masses of dark suits, white shirts and dark ties with their stern expressions? Wherever it was, I knew I was neither invited nor welcome. Even if I dressed as they did and walked as they did, I could not be one of the people.
But that wasn’t enough. We the people established a legal system guaranteeing that the rest of us could never merge with their body politic, economic or social by withholding almost all our inalienable rights like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In the years that I attended college and went job hunting, I could not get a credit card. I could not own property. Anything legal or involving money took a male co-signer.
According to the law, we women needed a man’s firm guidance. So much for liberty. And, with women as essentially chattel, our ability to pursue happiness relied on powers outside our control.
According to the law, the value of our lives could be determined pretty much any way the courts or the men in our lives determined. If we accidentally died when our husbands beat us, well ... all-male juries (our so-called peers) understood how these things happened. Remember, few women ever served on juries – until RBG.
That was how it was when RBG graduated at the top of her class from Columbia Law ... a brilliant mind, and no New York City law firm would hire her.
I was not half so smart, and my academic achievements weren’t even in the same ballpark. But, I was lucky. Sort of. I had the support of a U.S. senator, and I received a job offer, albeit offered grudgingly with a starting pay pegged way below my male colleagues’ and with caveats that severely curtailed possibilities of advancement.
That was then. Now?
Thanks in so many ways to RBG, women today don’t have to be brilliant or have influential help to find work. Thanks in large measure to RBG, the definition of the people ... is expanding to encompass all people. Thanks in no small part to her, many of the major legal obstacles to equality are gone, even if we still have a long way to go – something every Wyoming woman knows.
God bless and rest in peace, Ruth Bader Ginsberg.