This recent election tested American women and how far they have progressed in the gender war. Yes, I call it a war. Most women don’t earn the same amount as men, even if they are working in similar professions. And we still aren’t treated equally at all societal levels. This underdog status was evident in Hilary Clinton’s inability to win the presidency. Some aspects of the problems she faced reminded me of an experience I had some time ago after my rental home was destroyed in a fire. I lost all of my possessions as well as my beloved cat. Luckily for me, I was visiting relatives in Canada at the time. Otherwise, I also could be underground with my pet.
In those years, I envisioned Justice as being more feminine, a positive and supportive nurturing mother figure that could make things right in the end. The image of Justice blindfolded, holding a scale in one hand and a sword in the other, suggested she would be neutral and open to multiple perspectives, but she also could be swift in making her decisions. At that time, I had worked as a legal secretary for law firms and had run into some attorneys who were advocating for the less fortunate—serving justice. They helped reinforce the ideal image I had in mind. I thought Justice not only would give the less fortunate an opportunity to succeed, but I also believed she would serve me as well.
This was the perspective I took into the lawsuit I filed against my negligent landlord, PG&E, and a furnace repair firm. I initiated this suit because the fire department had determined the fire had started in the cottage’s ancient floor furnace. Their conclusion didn’t surprise me. I had experienced furnace problems before the fire. PG&E and the furnace repair company had checked out the heater at different times, but clearly they hadn’t made it any safer. Now I hoped that justice would prevail, and I’d receive financial recovery after losing my home, cat, as well as all of my belongings.
In preparation for the lawsuit, I had to spend months completing an extensive inventory of everything I had lost, detailing each item and how much it was worth to me. My home had been crammed with many things, including art objects I had made or collected from friends and family. I also owned two huge professional paintings done by a talented California artist. Not only did I have to estimate everything’s market value, but I also had to articulate each item’s emotional meaning for me. The account ranged from all of the books I had read and whose pages I had underlined, commented on, and had a dialogue with over the years, to the daily journals I had kept since my early twenties. How does one put a price on such items?
During the first mediation, the female judge, Jacqueline Smith (not her real name) patronized me. She said, “You don’t look fifty-three. A jury won’t award you much because you look so young and could easily start your life again.”
Her message was clear: I didn’t have any right to request reimbursement for my losses. In the judge, insurance adjustors, and defending attorneys’ eyes, I didn’t exist as a woman who had suffered a major loss and, literally, had to start over two-thirds of the way through her life. I also felt that the judge was aligned with the opposing side, most of them men and trained in this type of mediation. They shared similar values that excluded me. Disillusioned, discouraged, and powerless, I left feeling as if I didn’t have any control over the process and that justice was the last thing to expect there.
For the second mediation two weeks later, I invited my companion Benjamin, an English professor and psychoanalyst, to join me. My attorney and I had felt outnumbered from the beginning. We hoped having another professional person with us would add weight to our presentation. However, I also believed that Benjamin, a man who looked prosperous and accomplished, would enhance me as well; his higher status would give me more value. Since someone who was worth something in society had chosen me as a companion, I must have a few qualities comparable to his. On my own, I wasn’t worth as much as a man, especially a man of substance. While I teach rhetoric to incoming college freshmen, I’m an adjunct and not a full-time professor as Benjamin is. I’m just a writer.
During this second mediation, when Judge Smith met with us, instead of addressing me, as she had in the previous session, she talked mainly to the men on either side of me—Benjamin and my attorney. I was practically invisible. Not only did she want the men’s approval (at least this is how I interpreted her constant eye contact with one or the other), but she also enjoyed engaging with them. There was a subtle flirtation going on between Judge Smith and Benjamin that had begun when he opened the mediation chambers’ door for her (he didn’t know then that she was the mediator and a judge). This time, defendants’ attorneys’ responses to me and to my attorney were also different. Their respect had visibly increased thanks to Benjamin. It wasn’t just me seeking reimbursement for my losses. I was now part of a couple and therefore more acceptable in their eyes.
This experience reminded me of my mother’s life-long need to be known as a “Mrs.” It didn’t really matter to her who the man was—and, in fact, mother’s last marriage was a disaster. Her husband wanted what little money she had and not her love. But she felt having the title of Mrs. Gilbertson made her more valuable. More esteemed. “Mrs” made her someone to respect. I finally could understand why she felt that way. As a single woman going through this legal challenge, I had become more vulnerable and easier to victimize.
While the agreement I signed prevents me from revealing the lawsuit’s results, I did receive some compensation. But the money couldn’t replace physically or emotionally what I had lost. Nor did it address the new problem I had to deal with: a loss of innocence, the destruction of my belief in Justice to make me “whole” again—to be seen as an equal to men. Not even a loving mother, as I had imagined Justice to be, could banish the trauma of the damages I had sustained. Such ordeals reside beyond what Justice can heal.
As for Hilary, yes, women have come a long way, but this recent election reinforced what I had learned from my mediation experience. Women still are viewed by many as the weaker sex not only by men but also by other women. American women didn’t turn out for Hilary in the numbers many of us had hoped for and expected. One can argue that she has baggage and isn’t a fresh face, but she was the most prepared and capable candidate we’ve ever had for president, and she would have put her heart and soul into the job. Yet sexism still is alive, not just in men but also in women, and, yes, we do still have a long way to go.