In a short interview in the New York Times, Sandra Day O’Connor refuses to call herself a feminist, even though she does describe herself this way:
“I care very much about women and their progress. I didn’t go march in the streets, but when I was in the Arizona Legislature, one of the things that I did was to examine every single statute in the state of Arizona to pick out the ones that discriminated against women and get them changed.”
She also thinks it’s important for there to be more than one woman on the Supreme Court, but that’s mainly because “when I was there alone, there was too much media focus on the one woman, and the minute we got another woman, that changed.”
I cannot for the life of me figure out how the first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court would not call herself a feminist. Is she saying that she doesn’t think that all women should have the same opportunities that she had? If I were to guess, I’d say that her reasoning runs along these lines: I made my own opportunities and every woman can do the same. Of course, that’s ignoring the fact that a lot of women aren’t offered certain opportunities or are even barred from them because of discrimination against women. O’Connor herself experienced that same discrimination at many points along her path. But she also had many advantages. She was an only child until she was eight. She lived with a grandmother who instilled in her the belief that she could do anything she wanted to. She attended a private girls’ academy until college. She was accepted into Stanford University at the age of sixteen and graduated magna cum laude. And she married a man who was supportive of her career choices. [Source here.]
True, she brought intelligence and determination to her life journey. But many other equally intelligent and determined women fall by the wayside. Women can’t assume that they will be welcomed into the halls of male privilege. If anything, they should be prepared for resistance. But they should also be able to call a spade a spade and when they face discrimination they should be able to recognize and label it as such.
Women like O’Connor often think that crying “discrimination” means that the women who do so see themselves as victims. I see it differently. It takes a lot of guts to be a whistle blower. There’s nothing pitiful about taking that stance. It’s often easier to work your butt off and keep quiet about the wrongful attitudes and actions of the men in power who attempt to block your path. Naming the culprit is not the same as blaming others for your own shortcomings. If you do all you can to better yourself and still don’t get anywhere, you need to identify the reasons why and take appropriate action.
Many successful women see that it is men who are keeping them down, but instead of calling them on it, they choose to play the game the men’s way. That’s a copout. They’re doing nothing to change the system; they’re only perpetuating it and making it that much harder for those who come after them to get a fair shake. Not all women can or want to act like men in order to get ahead. And they shouldn’t have to.
I’m not saying that O’Connor acted like a man. But by refusing to call herself a feminist, she is cutting herself off from other women. In effect, she is saying that her life was a fluke and shouldn’t be emulated. That it was only she who could have done what she did. If she would reach out to women and acknowledge their common struggles, she might find that many more women will learn from her example and achieve the things that she did.