We begin to understand fully the power of gender roles in shaping our lives as we head out into the world during our elementary years. My own elementary years correlated with the time in American history when our society had its most telling conversation (really a yelling match) about the role that gender should have in our lives and in our laws.
The cultural high point of this movement came in September 1973 when Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes tennis match before a sell-out Astrodome crowd and 40 million TV viewers. Raised in a home where “women’s lib” was both promoted nonstop (by my grandmother) and practiced (by my mother), I remember the months of build-up to that extravaganza and King’s three-set domination of Riggs well. Not coincidentally, the Equal Rights Amendment was roaring towards apparent ratification at that same moment. But, within months of King’s victory, a cultural backlash to feminism developed and the ERA was stopped in Southern state legislatures, with the inane but effective arguments of Phyllis Schlafly used by male legislators to justify their “no” votes.
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This past week, however, we were reminded that while that battle for constitutional reform was lost, the war for social transformation fought by women like Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug at the national level, and Brownie Ledbetter and Diane Blair here in Arkansas, has been won. Throughout federal District Judge Vaughn Walker’s 138-page decision striking down Proposition 8, the constitutional amendment that barred same-sex marriage in California, he chronicles the shift from a time when “[w]omen were seen as suited to raise children and men were seen as suited to provide for the family” and contends that such an “archaic” view of gender roles would be necessary to justify the state’s discriminatory amendment.
Social historians’ testimony guided Walker to conclude that through the flurry of changes to gender-based laws and the accompanying alterations in public attitude since the 1970s, “[m]arriage was thus transformed from a male-dominated institution into an institution recognizing men and women as equals.” As Walker sums up, “The evidence shows that the movement of marriage away from a gendered institution and toward an institution free from state-mandated gender roles reflects an evolution in the understanding of gender rather than a change in marriage.” It is that “evolution” that led him to his sweeping decision that Proposition 8 has no rational basis in law.
We see the impact of the women’s rights activists of the past every day. Without their work to shatter gender roles, I would lack the opportunity to work with valued colleagues and students who would have been absent from academic settings before the 1970s. And we all would be denied the talents of public servants shut out simply because of their sex.
But, in Judge Walker’s opinion, the breadth of the women’s-rights movement’s impact is brought into sharp focus.
Sixty years ago, another reclusive federal district judge, J. Waites Waring of South Carolina, wrote a dissent in a case evaluating his state’s segregation of classrooms. Four years later, Waring’s logic and rhetoric permeated Chief Justice Warren’s opinion in the Brown decision. While the legal path will be complicated, there is now a significant likelihood that Judge Walker’s opinion in the Perry case will play a similar role in the fight for marriage equality. While written by Walker, it is crucial to recognize that this vital step in the creation of a more just America was really drafted by the “sheroes” of my youth.
Jay Barth is the M.E. and Ima Graves Peace Distinguished Professor of Politics at Hendrix College.