Child support wasn’t an issue, because it was never coming. Her soon-to-be former husband had never been good about making the rent, putting food on the table or keeping the lights on. He’d been her high school sweetheart and, when she became pregnant after their graduation in 1979, he had been eager to get married. She was his first and best love.
It was over now. As the young woman stepped toward the lectern and faced the judge, she straightened the loose dress fabric to hide her fullness. She had come to court that day, at her lawyer’s direction, cloaked by a winter coat and politely answered the judge’s questions. “No sir, yes sir,” she said, until he was satisfied. Her husband, the father of her daughter, sat quietly as the final order was signed. It was over within minutes. She would get her maiden name, the contents of her tiny apartment and little else.
For the next several years, she worked in a dental office, rang customers part-time at her father’s gas station and went back to college. She had always been the kind to go to work, double and triple shifts if need be, to provide for her family. By the time her son arrived in July 1986, she was fully on her own, living in a small two-bedroom apartment with bits of used furniture—including a sofa purchased at a salvage sale—and a will to do more.
She had hidden her pregnancy because, under Missouri law, her divorce could not be granted until after the baby was born. Even then, the statutes allowed for additional hurdles—all deemed necessary to the protection of families. She had endured the unmentionable, addictions and abuse among them, and filed personal bankruptcy to put it all behind her.
I know because Lori Ann is my older sister and eldest living sibling. I would sleep on that couch for weeks until I was shipped off to Marine Corps boot camp. I was there the morning she got dressed and left for the courthouse. Over three decades later, I remember her sense of resolve. She took on each day with a sense of optimism and zeal I will never quite understand. She was 25 then and, dare I say, the bravest woman I had ever known.
Until Monday night, I had not weighed the significance of it all— the need to hide a pregnancy from a judge or the fact that I had never encountered a visibly pregnant school teacher in all of my years before graduating high school in 1986. Or even that my own mother, widowed in 1973, did not have a credit card in her own name until 1980 despite having paid every bill she ever had on time. It was simply the world we were used to. A family of women, that son born to my sister in the summer of ‘86 is now the oldest living man in our family.
The notion that a pregnant New Jersey school teacher would be unceremoniously fired upon administrators learning of her pregnancy comes as no surprise. Not to me. Not in 1971.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who touts her years in the classroom and her fight to care for young children as she navigated a career, has never been shy about those challenges. She came of age in an era when women were encouraged— by societal norms or by the lack of legal protection— to be stay-at-home mothers. For many, including my mother and aunts, this meant little or no access to a college education or a meaningful job at a meaningful wage outside the home. While some took to the streets, burning their bras and demanding equal protection under the law, others—like my mother and sister—simply weathered on.
I am, admittedly, old enough to remember the Equal Rights Amendment. Nearly a decade after the start of the Vietnam War, I was in elementary school when the legislation soared through both congressional houses only to meet its demise when it failed to garner enough state-level support for ratification. Originally authored in 1923, it would take more than five decades to meet House and Senate approval but fell short of the necessary 38 states. It was designed to guarantee equal protection for all Americans—regardless of sex—and sought to end legal distinctions based on gender with respect to divorce, property rights, and employment. Had it been passed, Sen. Warren might still be a public school teacher today. There would have been no need for the Lilly Ledbetter Act or for laws allowing women to take out mortgages and secure credit in their own names. Had it passed, my sister may not have had to wear a winter coat to court in the early spring to hide her pregnancy.
I am personally grateful for Lilly Ledbetter, a woman whose fight made it possible for me to sue a now former employer for gender discrimination. Working for a “progressive” news site, I learned that a male senior editor—someone with far less experience, equal responsibilities and little in the way of talent—was being paid nearly $30,000 more. I fought and won some back pay, at least. And, still I know it is not enough.
But, the very notion that a woman could be denied a teaching assignment— married or not—because of her pregnancy still takes my breath away. In my day, we never even uttered the word, saying instead: She is with child. My now grown daughter, a 30-year- old Brown University alum, has wanted to be a teacher every single day of her life. She was made for the classroom. It is her calling. However, now the mother of two young sons, I know the questions she grapples with in 2019.
My grandmother Catherine was 15 “with child” in late 1942. She was removed from school and sent to live with an aunt in Galesburg, Illinois. My father was born in July 1943, but not before my great grandfather could convince a young Army private to marry her and legitimize her child. Much has changed since then. But, if we are being honest, we must know that there are miles yet to travel on the road to gender equality.
As the news about Sen. Warren broke across social media, without knowing its source or the reporters, I was immediately skeptical. After all, the presidential candidate has enjoyed measurable momentum in recent weeks, with supporters waiting in line up to four hours just to snap a selfie. Her showing in early state and national polls, as well as her grassroots fundraising prowess, placed a target on her back. No one cares about you if you aren’t winning.
The reporters from a conservative news site had used previous public statements and the minutes of a school board meeting in an attempt to debunk Sen. Warren’s story that she had been offered an extension of her teaching assignment only to be told that it would be rescinded once it became known that she was pregnant. Such dismissals were expected and routine in 1971. They were as routine as a single woman being denied the ability to rent an apartment on her own or hold certain professional licenses. No one needed to write it down or consider the issue for a vote in a public meeting. It was the reality of the day. The news would have been more stunning, highly rare, if she had been allowed back into the classroom. It just didn’t happen.
It is important to know this as we head into the 2020 presidential election. It is important to know that Sen. Kamala Harris was bused out of her neighborhood in the name of integration and that somebody, somewhere did not think her worthy of a world class education. It is important, in the face of Donald Trump’s rank mendacity, that the Democratic opponents come willing and ready to be transparent about their lives—for better or for worse.
Since this story took flight, my social media mentions have been flooded with similar stories—women who were denied access to healthcare, housing, credit and jobs based on gender alone. Despite the laws on the books, gender discrimination—especially pay equality—remains one of the most pressing issues of our time. While Trump is bragging about his celebrity and his ability to sexually assault women without consequence, women are still fighting for basic human rights.
I wish the voices in the discourse—our elected leaders, policymakers and journalists—understood that the fight did not end with the right to vote or access to credit or even the passing of anti-housing and job discrimination laws. As my daughter will tell you, it did not end the day Sen. Warren walked out of a public school classroom or, as I can attest, the day former President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act.
Today, my sister has re-married. She and her husband, a retired Army Command Sergeant Major, are proud grandparents and she has enjoyed a decades-long career in nursing. At 51, having raised a brood of my own, I still lean on her courage. I still lean on her grace and her unflappable sense of optimism. More than anything, I lean on her fight.
I wish she didn’t have to.