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Jamie Tobias Neely: Gender bias alive and well

Last weekend Spokane audiences left the silliest portrayal of ’70s-era gender bias, the Broadway touring version of “9 to 5,” with Dolly Parton ditties stuck in their heads.

During the week, fans of AMC’s “Mad Men” learned that the smartest depiction of ’60s-era cultural bias won’t be returning this season.

Both shows provide a backdrop to the news that the U.S. Supreme Court appeared to divide sharply along gender lines Tuesday during arguments in a discrimination case against Wal-Mart. The justices will be deciding whether a group of more than 1 million women can be joined in a class-action suit against the country’s largest retailer.

These shows also help explain why the women on the bench appear to see this case so differently than the men.

It’s difficult to comprehend discrimination that doesn’t target you. It may be so subtle you miss it entirely. It may be so deeply ingrained in the culture that it appears normal.

The plaintiffs say that women made up 80 percent of Wal-Mart’s hourly workers, but only 30 percent of its managers, and this male-dominated management handed out unequal pay and promotion policies.

The prospect of gender bias, both blatant and subtle, appeared not to be lost on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who experienced gender discrimination herself during that era. According to the New York Times, the dean of the Harvard Law School recommended Ginsburg for a clerkship with Justice Felix Frankfurter. The justice would not interview her. In fact, after she graduated from law school, law firms refused to hire her. She has said that even on the Supreme Court, her voice is not as readily heard as those of male justices.

In Tuesday’s hearing Ginsburg described how gender discrimination “creeps” into settings like Wal-Mart. “Most people prefer themselves,” she said. “And so a decision-maker, all other things being equal, would prefer someone who looked like him.”

If Ginsburg heard in this case the echoes of the discrimination that surrounded her during the 1960s and ’70s, it shouldn’t surprise us.

The National Women’s Law Center cites several quotes that women presented in the Wal-Mart case. These women described hearing male managers say: “Men are here to make a career and women aren’t. Retail is for housewives who just need to earn extra money.”

“You should raise a family and stay in the kitchen.”

“Women should be home barefoot and pregnant.”

Those lines from the case sound straight from my childhood in the 1960s, long before a woman joined the U.S. Supreme Court, shot into space or set an NCAA basketball scoring and assists milestone.

They remind me of the words I heard then: “You don’t need to take much math or science,” and “It doesn’t matter what you major in. You’ll just get married and have children anyway.”

In the ’70s there was the patronizing physician who told me not to worry if the birth control method he recommended would be effective. “You’re married,” he said. “You’re going to get pregnant sooner or later.”

And earlier, there was the aging stranger, with a cowboy’s accent, who sidled up behind my 16-year-old behind in a department store and said, “Mighty nice ass you’ve got there.”

On Sunday evenings, when it’s in season, “Mad Men” vividly brings those days back. I grew up in a household far from Manhattan, much closer to Erma Bombeck’s world than Matthew Weiner’s fictional reality.

But I quickly agreed when I read the assessment of historian Stephanie Coontz of The Evergreen State College: “It is, quite simply, one of the most historically accurate television series ever produced.” From the look of the phones on the kitchen wall to the zombie-eyed glaze of housewives on tranquilizers, the show has that era down.

As for “9 to 5,” the musical ends in a giddy feminist celebration of workplaces transformed with not only equal pay and women at the highest levels of management, but company-sponsored day care, flex plans and job sharing. For many American companies, those actresses might as well have been describing whirling teacups or Matterhorn bobsleds.

Even today, even after all the social change of the last 50 years, American working women might as well be wishing for Disneyland, and Ginsburg, for one, remembers why.

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former associate editor at The Spokesman-Review, is an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her e-mail address is


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