Looking back on this Women’s History Month, there still isn’t much opportunity to celebrate. Just recently, three women were sued in Texas for helping a woman obtain an abortion, and a judge tried to secretly schedule a hearing that could result in a nationwide ban on a key abortion drug in an effort to keep the public away.
Women around the country face an onslaught of laws and court decisions that reduce or eliminate rights that prior generations fought hard to achieve. If anything, this month should have served as a call to action.
Even women judges are still struggling despite advances in the profession. Consider the extraordinary stories shared by pioneering women judges this year in “Her Honor: Stories of Challenge and Triumph from Women Judges.” Regrettably, women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community today are still fighting similar obstacles they faced decades ago.
Bernice Donald Overcame Hostility
When Bernice Donald became one of the first Black students to integrate a high school in Mississippi, she was ridiculed by her peers, dismissed by her teachers, and not informed by her guidance counselor that she had received scholarship offers based on her academic achievement.
She wrote, “Here I was, a student in a place of opportunity; yet, my own teachers and administrators built an infrastructure in favor of my ruin.”
Donald persevered through adversity and hostility to become a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Today, however, if she told her story in a book for children, it could be banned in Florida and many other states for its depiction of institutional racism.
Angela Bradstreet Left Home Behind
Angela Bradstreet worked at a prestigious law firm in London, where she grew up. Her life became untenable when her parents learned she was a lesbian, and her efforts to live a double life became an unbearable source of stress.
She moved to the US where she had no family or friends, only the opportunity to create a life where she could live authentically. Ultimately, she became a judge on the Superior Court for the County of San Francisco.
Today, legislatures across the country are seeking to pass laws that curb the rights of LGTBQ+ youth. The Florida governor’s office claimed that anyone who opposed that state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law was “probably a groomer.”
This draconian law and others like it have created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in schools at a time when data demonstrates that LGBTQ+ youth are suffering a mental health crisis.
Anna Blackburne-Rigsby Learned to Fight for Rights
Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby shared the story of her mother’s childhood in the Jim Crow south of legalized segregation, which severely restricted all aspects of her daily life. She described her mother’s vivid memory of “standing in front of a shiny, porcelain fountain that said ‘whites only,’” knowing she could only drink from the “other rusty, corroded fountain.”
Blackburne-Rigsby’s parents, despite the senseless humiliation they endured, instilled in her the importance of education and the need to fight for equality.
Today in Mississippi, legislation has passed the House of Representatives that would essentially strip the right to vote from the majority Black population of the capital, Jackson. If successful, the White lawmakers would effectively move the affairs of Jackson under the state control of White leaders, including the police force and the judiciary. Jackson’s mayor has likened the legislation to apartheid.
Challenges Stubbornly Persist
The judges’ stories of gender inequality, sexual harassment, discrimination in hiring or in work assignments, and dismissive or bullying comments are sadly not from a bygone day. Women continue to have similar experiences, and gender inequality continues to take a toll on women simply trying to succeed in their jobs.
The judges ultimately triumphed over the inequality they experienced and reached the heights of the legal profession when they slipped on their hard-earned judicial robes. They dedicated themselves on the bench to ensuring a fair and accessible justice system.
But their stories—and those of countless others who fought for democracy, freedom, and the right to control one’s own destiny—are being muted by the forces of fear and bigotry. After centuries of hard-won gains, state legislators are exerting a pernicious form of oppression over bodily autonomy, intellectual growth, and even efforts to develop empathy and kindness in our children.
We as lawyers honor these stories best if we see them as a strategic roadmap for moving forward, before we are fully engulfed by the oppressive measures intended to endanger our future.
Our mission is clear and compelling. We must ensure that when our children and grandchildren reflect on their allocated “month” to celebrate what they’ve overcome, the forces of discrimination and oppression are only bad memories, and not foreshadowing their destiny.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen is executive director and board member of Lawyers Defending American Democracy, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, and editor of “Her Honor: Stories of Challenge and Triumph from Women Judges.”