This article first appeared in Malta Today
It was the 1950s and a young female lawyer who graduated at the top of her class from Colombia Law School, could not find a single law firm to hire her, because they preferred to hire men. She was already a wife and mother and was lucky to have a very supportive and hands-on husband, also a lawyer, who shared family responsibilities equally with her and encouraged her ambitions. But the equality she enjoyed at home was absent in the workforce and the legal profession she so wanted to be a part of.
In frustration, she turned to academia when she was offered the post of law Professor and was still one of the few women in her field. By the 1970s at the cusp of the women’s movement, she found herself teaching classes of young women all eager to make social changes. The country was ready for change, but the mindset of those in charge, as well the laws were still lagging far behind. The lawyer’s name was Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
She finally got the chance to argue in court in a landmark case where it was a man who was being discriminated against for being a carer for his elderly mother – the Inland Revenue Department accused him of trying to cheat on his taxes by trying to deduct expenses as a carer, which at the time was only reserved for women who cared for their parents. By successfully (and cleverly) arguing the case of the unfairness of discriminating against a man simply because of his gender, Ruth Ginsberg broke down the first barrier, and a slew of other victories based on gender discrimination against women followed accordingly, forcing many archaic laws to be changed. She became the leading litigator on behalf of women’s rights, challenging any law which treated women differently simply because of their gender, or which assumed that a woman was dependent on a man. More significantly, she argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court between 1973 and 1976, winning five of them.
Ginsberg’s life story is a classic example of one woman’s determination to not only shatter the glass ceiling and bring about much-needed change, but to smash it to tiny bits forever. It also shows how men and women can do great things when they work together, and nothing drives this point home more than how her husband supported her both emotionally and pragmatically in the care of their two children, every step of the way. Today she is affectionately known as ‘the notorious RGB’, and at 86, is still serving on the Supreme Court bench and has been a role model and inspiration for generations of women in the legal profession.
A parallel life story is that of broadcast journalist Barbara Walters (now 89 years old), the first female co-anchor on the evening news (before that she had been relegated to human interest and ‘women’s stories’ because it was believed no one would take a woman seriously reporting hard news). When she was given the post in 1976, her male colleague made it openly clear that he was not happy to share the limelight with anyone, but especially with a woman. Audiences were also not that keen on the new format and the news program did badly in the ratings. For all intents and purposes, Walters felt she had failed.
It was only when she started doing one-on-one interviews that she found her niche, going on to interview the most famous people in the world, Presidents, international politicians and world leaders such Anwar Sadat, Fidel Castro and the Shah of Iran. Her sharp interviewing style, and ability to bring out the personality behind the famous names made her a household name. She went to become the face of 20/20 and in depth news programme and most recently she created The View, featuring an all-female panel which discussed current events and politics – another first for daytime television.
When Walters retired from The View a few years ago, her colleagues invited a slew of women in news and broadcasting on the show. It was an impressive sight to see a queue of professional women (all now established as broadcasters in their own right) lining up to pay homage to the person who had inspired them. Even the inimitable Oprah Winfrey was there to give credit to Barbara, describing how she had emulated her style when she was first starting out.
The reason I have cited these two stories at length is because I feel that before a decision is taken on how to increase the number of women in Parliament, it is crucially important to really understand what it is we are actually trying to achieve. If we look at the two professions mentioned above – law and journalism, it is amply clear that women in Malta have made great strides in these two fields. For several years now, our University has consistently seen more women than men graduate from the law course. They have done this through their own hard work and determination. Likewise, our newsrooms and media outlets can boast a healthy representation of women, including at management level. This rise in numbers is not a fluke or a coincidence – it is because role models are a huge influence no matter which sector on looks at. When you see someone who is “like you”, with whom you can identify either because of gender, race or background in any given field, your automatic reaction is that, “if they can do it, so can I”.
The more women there are in any posts or sectors, the more likely that girls and young women will take it for granted that this is something that they can do as well, rather than seeing it as some unsurmountable, unachievable goal. When it comes to politics, the same thing applies, except for the fact that once you have finished campaigning it is out of your hands, and you must rely on voters to elect you. When the so-called ‘pink wave’ happened in the US in last year’s mid-terms which saw a surge in the number of female candidates being elected to Congress, it was also not just a coincidence but a combination of several factors. It was a strong reaction to the fact that Hillary Clinton had failed to become the first female President (the initial bitter disappointment was followed by anger and a decision to fight back) and it was also a backlash against everything Trump stood for, including his misogyny. The sheer number of women who stood for election had a lot to do with it – it stands to reason that the more women candidates you have to choose from, the more probability there will be that more women will be elected.
The reforms announced this week which are intended to achieve more gender balance in Parliament, are proposing that once the 69 MPs have been elected, and if 40% of those seats have not gone to women, a maximum of 12 additional seats will be added on for women as a ‘Gender Corrective Mechanism’, split equally between the Government and the Opposition. The document deliberately avoids using the word quotas (the reason for this is not clear), but ultimately this is what they are. What I cannot understand is why the Government felt that this was the way to go about it, especially since it follows the programme called LEAD which the Labour party embarked on last year in order to ‘groom’ more female candidates to be on the party ticket. So does this mean the PL does not have faith that these women can be elected on their own steam? Of course, if more people vote for women, there might not be a need for 12 seats at all, but unfortunately, the reaction towards this particular proposal has been negative, which is not a good start. People are not enthused about having to pay for 12 more MPs in an already over-inflated Parliament. It has also been pointed out that we might end up with MPs who barely scrapped together a handful of votes but will be elected anyway. Above all, it is being perceived as an insult to women, implying that they cannot make it unless they are basically handed a seat without having actually earned it.