March 26, 2021

On Women’s History Month

Marielle Sider Pepperdine School of Law, Class of 2022; ACS Pepperdine Student Chapter President

Part of a special series recognizing Women’s History Month

As a feminist and proud ACS leader on a white, Christian, conservative campus, it is an honor to be asked to write this blog post. But it also made me extremely self-conscious to reflect on the theme that seems to run through those identifiers: resistance. Who would I be if I had nothing to fight against?

Laura Mulvey coined the term the male gaze in the 1970s to define the traditional, male cinematic point of view. The spectator, particularly in classic Hollywood cinema, is put in a masculine subject position, and the women on screen are always the objects. Even female spectators subconsciously internalize that perspective. The worlds we see and the stories we enjoy are from the perspective of men.

So too were all of the major systems in which we exist today. They were established by and for white men, including the legal system. There would not be a Women’s History Month in a nonpatriarchal society and Justice Amy Coney Barret would not have “replaced” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Similarly, there would not be a Black History Month in a non-white supremacist society and Justice Clarence Thomas would not have “replaced” Justice Thurgood Marshall.

We cannot realistically (for now at least) change the fact that the U.S. Constitution, system of government, and legal framework were created and dominated by white men. What we can do, like Laura Mulvey did for the film industry, is, at the very least, identify and label that reality so that we can reevaluate and change the status quo, hopefully a little freer from its influences. Mulvey called for a feminist avant-garde filmmaking that would destroy the pleasure of classic Hollywood filmmaking. In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Mulvey wrote, “Analyzing pleasure or beauty annihilates. That is the intention.” We cannot be afraid of a little discomfort for the sake of a more expansive perspective, and, naturally following that, more freedom and justice.

In regards to Women’s History Month, expansion involves acknowledging and celebrating the entirety of women and the gamut of the female experience. We can resist objectification by embracing and respecting intersectionality. We can annihilate a little more of the status quo by acknowledging complicity and ignorance. We can move towards freedom through progressivism. Only a living constitution can protect and serve the rights of our explosively diverse citizens and their interests. Women’s History Month for me means looking at how much of my ambition and drive comes from resisting male institutions and exploring the implications of that.

You might be surprised to learn that Women’s History Month was established by President Ronald Reagan via proclamation in 1987 at the direction of Congress. The irony of this origin might be as physically repugnant to you as it is to me. As a direct result of Reagan’s War on Drugs, women, especially Black and Latina women, have been the fastest growing prison population for the past 30 years. The United States accounts for one third of the world’s female prison population. But at least we have March!

The women that are traditionally offered to us as role models have, for the most part, been able to skillfully navigate and succeed in this male-created framework. For example, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has been a personal hero of mine for years, was famously able to attend Harvard Law School for both herself and her ill husband, come out at the top of her class, and raise a family. Among the words that she left us are: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” “Disagree without being disagreeable.” Admittedly, I have not been entirely successful in following these directives. In fact, I naturally resist against these somewhat patriarchal ideas that, to make an impact, women must be agreeable and palatable. Disagreeable to whom? Lead others to what? How can I fight effectively without compromising my values to assuage the powers that be? Isn’t that very compromise part of what we’re fighting against?

Some feminist heroes have succeeded using Justice Ginsburg’s model, but countless others have changed the course of history through more aggressive challenges and resistance. We must also learn about these other womxn, because they, too, have paved the way for us. Like Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, who is sometimes remembered during this month but too often forgotten the rest of the year. Murray, decades before Justice Ginsburg, fought against the systems built to exclude Black, queer, transgender women. They worked to dismantle segregation both personally and systemically by organizing sit-ins and  creating arguments for its demise that would eventually be successfully deployed by their professor. They resisted misogyny at historically black institutions by coining the term Jane Crow and co-founding the National Organization for Women. Murray personally challenged their rejection from Harvard Law School, asking the admissions department to reconsider changing their minds because changing their sex would not be as easy.

Pauli Murray also suffered emotional consequences from their resistance against gender norms. They had mental breakdowns yearly and was frequently hospitalized. The language, awareness, and respect for their complaints simply did not exist at that time. And so, Murray suffered.

Murray insisted on a full recognition of their integrated identity, which today would translate to intersectionality. While Murray and Ginsburg had extremely different paths, Ginsburg’s work would not have been possible without Murray’s unflinching drive. In “Reed v. Reed,” the first time the Equal Protection Clause was applied to sex discrimination, Ginsburg credited Murray as inspiration for her brief and put them down as honorary co-author. Some of us are Ginsburgs and some of us are Murrays, but most of us are somewhere in between. It takes all of us to create lasting change.

This Women’s History Month, my intention is to celebrate all of my experiences and dimensions as one full identity. I have been motivated by resistance to the status quo, ever since my mother taught me to ask “why?” I came to law school after #MeToo as a means of resisting and challenging the misogynistic Hollywood system of secret sexual abuse. I work at a public defender’s office to defy our state’s criminalization of poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, and mental illness. And I use my voice to ask my professors why originalism is the most “valuable” mode of constitutional interpretation.

Part of my identity includes resistance, but it also includes connection, warmth, hope and excitement. Part of me hates the very idea of Women’s History Month because of its implicit tokenization of half the population, but another part loves the opportunity to focus on the gamut of accomplishments that women have achieved and the obstacles that still exist. I first acknowledge that I’m the object, and by so realizing I become the subject. Women may have been given this month, but we’ll take it all.

Equality and Liberty, Women's rights