As we enter a new year and a new focus for the Harnisch Foundation, I can’t stop thinking about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s laughter.
She was recalling tales of outrageous sexism during a visit with members of the Women’s Forum of New York, of which she was a founding member. The United States Supreme Court Justice noted that the very venue where she was speaking, the Yale Club, used to shunt women away from the main entrance. The Harvard Club had a separate door for women. “And the Century Club didn’t allow women at all,” she said, laughing.
I, on the other hand, have to strap on the blood pressure cuff and breathe deeply to remain calm while I recount that the Century Club (technically, the Century Association) opened its membership to women in 1989 — and only because it was forced by court order. Seriously, 1989. Not enough time has passed for me to be able to laugh about that.
Inequity has never been a laughing matter for me, even as a little kid. I saw how the deck was stacked and I sounded off about it. In the 3rd grade, I rebelled daily during the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance; my version ended “with no liberty and justice at all.”
I was a child of the civil rights era whose schools were integrated by busing, so I was shocked to encounter public accommodations labeled “Colored” and “White” on a family trip through Southern states. I entered the job market in the Mad Men era. Everything in my life was dictated (and limited) by my gender. At the same time, I could see that men paid a high price for owning and running and being the boss of everything. Men were expected to measure up, literally in the case of height, size, economic status, athletic ability, intellectual superiority, physical courage, willingness to fight to the death for principle. Gender expectations and limitations forced everyone into boxes that did not fit all.
I was one of those who marched, protested, and lobbied for equal rights. I benefitted from the “affirmative action” laws that required employers to help women and other minorities qualify for jobs they’d been barred from holding in the past. Thanks to the blood and work and sacrifice of others, I’m in a position of extraordinary privilege. And I know that I am one of the lucky ones.
It’s not a fair world. There’s still not a level playing field, even where things are legally mandated to be fair. So how can Ruth Bader Ginsburg laugh when she talks about the bad old days? “Easy,” explained a colleague. “She won that one.” Indeed. On that day, uniformed police surrounded the Yale Club entrance to escort Justice Ginsburg IN to the once-forbidden space.
We at the Harnisch Foundation want to see more doors open to more people. In our 17th year of grantmaking, we are focusing on fairness. We’re investing most of our time and resources in the advancement of women and girls, promoting gender and racial diversity, and helping people become their best selves without the constraint of traditional roles or old prejudices.
I hope you’ll find something in our work to inspire you, to support you, and perhaps to encourage you to take action yourself. Let’s rack up some wins, RBG-style. We could all use a little more of that kind of laughter.