In 1972, right before my sophomore year in college, and before law school was even a gleam in my eye, my mother took her 20+ year teaching resume to the Blue Springs school system to apply for a job. The superintendent kindly informed her that Blue Springs was not hiring anyone over the age of 40. My mother was about 44. “That’s discrimination!” I hollered. “Oh, well,” she said, “there’s nothing I can do about it.”
That was the first time I understood that discrimination was real and that it was not limited to race.
About three years later, though, that superintendent, bless his heart (that’s Southern for “not very bright”), wrote a note to my mother, then teaching at Oak Grove, congratulating her on her selection as Central Missouri Teacher of the Year. Too bad, Blue Springs.
In 1978, I entered law school, one of 55 women in a class of 165. That was the largest first year class of women ever at UMKC School of Law, both by percentage – one-third – and in number. It took UMKC another 20 years or so to enroll a class with men and women in equal numbers. I graduated in 1981, passed the bar, and entered what was, at that time, a man’s world.
My first job was with Yellow Freight as a real estate negotiator, securing leases for our trucks in all states, and leasing terminal space to other nationwide and regional carriers. At that time, I was the only woman in the country doing that job in the trucking industry. An in-house lawyer approved the documents I prepared, signing off on all the contract details. A couple of years later, that lawyer left and moved to St. Louis. Max and I had by that time decided to get married and live in Sedalia. I thought, however, that it would be worth checking into the legal job with Yellow. I was in the top 5 percent of women wage earners in the country – at $28,900 – and I knew that the job on the 10th floor would pay much better.
Before I could even talk with Max about the possibility, though, I got a phone call. Diane, the Personnel director, asked me to come see her. When I sat down, she smiled and said: “We think that Yellow Freight should have a woman lawyer. Someday. Just not now.”
I was stunned. I had just been through my third excellent annual review, had received high marks, and had received the highest raise possible. I was, however, a woman. Hmmmmmm. I decided that the conversation with Max wasn’t going to be necessary. When I left Yellow, I was replaced by two men, each of whom was paid more money than I.
That was when I, myself, suffered discrimination because of my gender.
I know that millennials probably don’t know this, but women in this country have had the right to vote for only 40 percent of the time of the United States’ existence. The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, and women have changed their lots in life inch by inch since then. When I graduated from college, women’s jobs were pretty much relegated to nursing, teaching, and typing. It wasn’t until the 1980s that women were considered almost mainstream in law, medicine, banking, and other professions. And now, 96 years after accepting women voters, a major political party has nominated a woman for President of the United States.
I do not endorse any candidate here. I do, however, rejoice that finally, a woman is being recognized as being qualified, powerful, and able to do the top job in the country.
My mother and father both believed in me. They told me that in this country, I could do anything I wanted to do. And today, finally, at this point in my life, I think I believe what they said those many years ago.
Ladies, we have been deemed valuable in our political process for only 96 years. Regardless of your chosen candidate, vote. It’s your right. It’s your responsibility. You owe it to those early women’s rights pioneers, who thought that we were important enough to be equal. Their work should not go in vain.
Deborah Mitchell is a a local attorney and a Municipal Court Judge.