Outlawing sexism

`I have always referred to married women by their married name,'' explained Senior United States District Judge Hubert Teitelbaum. ``This is the way my generation was taught.'' The Pittsburgh jurist was actually doing more than explaining. He was apologizing.

Earlier Judge Teitelbaum had ordered a woman lawyer to use her husband's surname - not her maiden name - in court. And he threatened her with jail when she refused. After a spate of negative publicity the judge backed off.

Many women lawyers confess they are not surprised by this incident. They insist that they have been victims of sex bias and discrimination from their law school days. And this continues, they say, in their law firms and in the courts.

State studies of gender bias in the courts in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts all corroborate numerous incidents of embarrassment, harassment, and barriers to jobs and promotion that affront women.

Now the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession goes even further - charging that sexism is indigenous to the US system of jurisprudence and asking lawyers and judges to reexamine their policies and approaches.

Gender discrimination, like racism, has deep roots in the culture. In recent years, however, lawmakers and the courts have chipped away at this bias. The US Supreme Court, for example, has ruled that sexual harassment in the workplace is a federal civil rights violation. The high court has also afforded special job protections to women of child-bearing age.

Lower courts, at the same time, have struck down salary discrimination against women and strengthened the legal positions of those who have been battered or sexually attacked.

These are all progressive steps. But as the ABA study commission points out, what is needed is a basic change of attitudes.

Legislatures and courts can mandate equality and punish those who violate statutes, but they can't dissolve personal biases.

As in most matters, the awakening comes through communication and understanding - rather than confrontation.

That is not to say that the threat of lawsuits is not the proper action in some instances when rampant gender discrimination is apparent.

Extremist feminist groups too often wrongly suggest, however, that virtually every woman turned down for a job or a promotion is a victim of sexist policies. That cannot be automatically assumed. Where there is evidence of such bias, channels for investigation must be available, and open.

The war between the sexes is exaggerated. Yet movies, magazines, and television emphasize the old clich'es.

An increasing number of men accept women as their social and professional equals. They have no fear of losing their manhood. And many women are asserting their rights in society without putting men down.

Admittedly, there is a long distance to go.

To attain true equality, there is first a need for respect and dignity. This is true in family, professional, and other relationships.

Positive male and female qualities of strength, love, compassion, and sensitivity should not be undermined - but blended.

A philosophically neutered society won't achieve equality.

The unique roles of men and women need not be blurred. Marriage and child-bearing are worthy of respect and the support of society. And those who don't choose these roles should not be penalized for their choices.

One can hope the bar association's on-going probe of sexism in the law will spread to other areas - and bring subtle and not-so-subtle biases to the surface.

Specific solutions are necessary. Some will demand the strength of the law to back them up.

Equality, however, emanates from a state of mind. And it can be more easily achieved through a broad view of manhood and womanhood which transcends the limitations of materiality.

A Thursday column

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