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Access: The Permission to Take up Space Where Decisions are Made

I have often reflected, reading history or watching an adaptation of historical fiction, on what a terrible job I would have done at being a woman two hundred years ago or more. This week I viewed one such adaptation that takes place at the brink of the industrial age. A female character laments that her handcrafted bobbin lace is no longer in fashion. Machine-made lace has taken over, and she can no longer sell her work. The process of creating bobbin lace is fascinating and intricate, involving a pattern mounted on a special pillow, and the crossing and twisting of threads wound on bobbins. Watching this character lovingly create lace that no one would buy, I shuddered at the thought of making my own living with sewing or fine motor work. I have tried and failed to learn how to thread a needle, and I lack even the skill to sew on a button. I am capable of cooking, but I find it a bore and a mess. And I do not want children. Although I’m sure, if forced by circumstances to gain the skills required to be a successful woman of two hundred years ago, I would have managed somehow, I can only imagine how stifled, bored, and frustrated I would have been, and how stupid and incapable I would have felt each day. How lucky I am to live in a time in which women are able to engage in intellectual labor, and how lucky I am to have access to education.

I reflected further that, in modern times, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to pursue a graduate level education if not for the support of my employer and the willingness of leadership within my organization to invest in my education. I am fortunate to be surrounded by diverse professionals at the leadership level. Those at the executive and director level within my organization are comprised of two Black males; four white females; and one Black female. The ugly truth is that two hundred years ago, three members of this intelligent, accomplished, innovative group of decision-makers would have likely been enslaved. The other four would likely have been wives and mothers, if we were fortunate enough to achieve the social and financial safety marriage afforded; if not, we probably would have faced financial instability and social scrutiny.

Our talents and gifts would not have mattered, because gender and race blocked us from the spaces where decisions were made. Discrimination was overt, obvious, and built into the very fabric of American culture.

Tulane University Law School admitted women when Louisiana State Law was amended in 1894 to allow women to study law, medicine, and pharmacy. Bettie Runnels enrolled as the first female law student at Tulane University in 1897. She subsequently became the first woman registered to practice law in Louisiana. "Bettie Runnels law school 1897". Newspapers.com. Retrieved 2019-08-24.

Tulane University wouldn’t formalize a desegregation policy until 1961, admitting its first Black students in 1963 (Jasmin, Alicia Duplessis, “The Desegregation of a University,” Tulane Magazine, September 2013). Five years later, Tulane Law School’s first Black student, Michael Starks, graduated.

In April of 2023, current events have shown new ways in which access is restricted and the voices of traditionally underrepresented groups continue to be silenced. In Tennessee, Representatives Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones, and Justin Pearson led protestors in the galleries of the state Capitol in a chant calling for gun reform. (Brown and Jones, “Tennessee GOP Begins Expulsion Process for 3 Democrats, House Session Devolves Into Chaos,” The Tennessean, April 3, 2023.) Jones and Pearson, both Black men, represent majority Black districts in Nashville and Memphis. The Republican Supermajority classified the protest as an insurrection and voted to expel both Jones and Pearson. Nashville Metro Council subsequently voted to reinstate Jones, and the Shelby County Commission reinstated Pearson not long afterward. Had they not been reinstated, over 139,000 constituents would have been left without their democratically-elected representation in the State House. (Lukpat and Timmons, “How the ‘Tennessee Three’ Turned GOP’s Rebuke into a Rallying Cry,” The Wall Street Journal, April 11, 2023.)

In Montana this week, a similar story plays out as Representative Zooey Zephyr has been exiled from the House chamber. Zephyr, a transgender woman, has been isolated after she spoke out against a proposed ban on gender-affirming medical care for children. The Montana House’s Republican leadership first refused to recognize Zephyr’s comments in floor discussions, accusing her of “encouraging an insurrection” when her supporters chanted “Let her speak,” from the gallery. Citing violations of decorum, Republicans voted to bar her from the rest of session, which ends this week. (Robbins, Baker, and Fortin, “A Transgender Lawmaker is Exiled as Montana G.O.P. Flexes New Power,” The New York Times, April 27, 2023.)

I recall, in a past class discussion, how surprised I was that a few classmates expressed that they felt that anti-discrimination statutes such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is “up to the task” when it comes to preventing employment discrimination in the United States. The evidence of history shows that silencing the voices of underrepresented groups and those who have historically had less access to power has been built into the very foundations of our culture. It’s only by an accident of time and history that I was born in a time in which I have access to opportunities, and where my voice matters as a leader in the workplace. As Tulane University’s own admissions policies show us, not all groups have had the same access to power and decision making and education for the same amount of time. And yet in spite of anti-discrimination legislation, even as we strive and grow and benefit from the voices of those who have been historically stifled, we still see majority groups fighting to silence the voices of women, of people of color, of LGBTQ Americans, and more.

In the words of Tobias Barrington Wolff, Jefferson B. Fordham Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, when business owners “cloak discriminatory business conduct in the mantle of free speech” (Brief of Professor Tobias B. Wolff as Amicus Curiae in Support of Respondents in U.S. Supreme Court Case 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis), when legislators attempt to cloak discriminatory actions in the guise of upholding procedure and decorum, and when it works, the cycle of discrimination upholds itself and becomes part of the very rules by which we live. And is that a legal landscape in which any of us can truly benefit?

Something Interesting © 2023 by Valerie Y. Nance is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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