Recently I’ve been critical of people who look away from truths they find disagreeable, squinting one eye shut. Ah, the danger of pointing fingers! My husband and I rented a DVD from Netflix of the documentary RBG, a biography of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. As I watched, I gradually experienced an irritable discomfort.
Justice Ginsberg is older than I am, but not by much. The sexual discrimination she endured when she was blocked from positions for which she was well qualified exceeded the affronts I remembered happening to me. I wanted to believe they occurred in an earlier, less enlightened era, but they didn’t. The discrimination she faced wasn’t different from mine in kind, only in degree. She was attempting to join a profession that had been reserved for men. And I was a teacher—a profession approved for nice young women, at least during my lifetime. I was unconsciously following what was then deemed a suitable career path: secretarial work or teaching or nursing, marriage and children—in that order.
When a male colleague told my students good women belonged not in the classroom but in the home, I attributed his attitude to his personal hatred of females. When I was paid less than men doing the same or lesser work, I blamed the institution employing me. I honestly didn’t realize the extent of sexual discrimination happening around me.
I do recall when, after living alone for more than five years as my sole support, I applied for a credit card and was required to have my husband sign for me. What? Why? I had my own credit history and it was good. That’s just the law, I was told. I had forgotten that incident. Other instances of sexual discrimination targeted me in later years, but I simply moved on. I didn’t fully comprehend the glass box in which I was functioning. Did I ever seriously consider a profession outside of education or nursing? Not really. But I blamed myself. Perhaps I wasn’t enough. “You can be anything you want,” my mother told me. But the societal message she didn’t mean to include (yet did) was “within the guidelines for nice girls.” Many people in our society live in glass boxes.
However, I’m not writing about sexual discrimination per se. I’m writing about how easy it is to not notice wrongs when your life feels full, how easy it is not to perceive the tiny range of your sight. If I, a woman who experienced discrimination firsthand, could fail to fully comprehend sexism and how I contribute to it, no wonder so many others could claim white privilege or antisemitism or homophobia or other blind prejudices are myths. No, they aren’t myths. But you have to hold both your eyes wide open to see evidence. And once you see blatant wrongs as they are, you can decide if you want to live with them as some people live with tape worms. Or do something about them. Ruth Bader Ginsberg climbed out of her glass box at an early age. She dedicated her life to making the world more just, and she hasn’t stopped yet. For myself, I resolve to make an effort to see unblinking with both eyes. It’s a good first step.