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The Seattle Times

A Menacing Tide Against Women Who Speak Their Minds

Andrea Otanez

The glorious Internet offers us more ways than ever to triangulate the truth and then opine about it on our favorite blog. But, oh my, the inglorious invective that pockmarks those virtual town squares.

In the past week, I've read that retired anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan is an "opportunistic idiot." Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a "feminist twit." And that Lilly Ledbetter deserved the lower pay she got from Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. because she wasn't smart enough to prove earlier in her career that she was earning less than her male counterparts.

Bombasters hiding behind screen names especially targeted Ginsburg and her dissenting opinion after the Supreme Court threw out Ledbetter's pay-discrimination claim last Tuesday.

The attack on women who speak their minds about so-called women's issues feels, at the moment, like a menacing tide. But Ginsburg - and a young street poet at Folklife - give me hope that women among us will continue to stand, speak and act despite the vitriol and shifting sands.

Ledbetter was a longtime supervisor at a Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Ala., who, after leaving her job, confirmed through an anonymous tip that she had been making substantially less than males at the same level.

She filed a pay-discrimination suit in 1998, won back pay and damages from a jury that said "more likely than not" she had been discriminated against because of her sex, and then lost when the company appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

That court said Ledbetter could not prove she had suffered discrimination in the 180 days before she filed her claim, a time limit written into Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964. Though she received paychecks, the decision on how much she received in those paychecks was made before the 180 days. In a 5-to-4 vote last week, the Supreme Court agreed.

The bottom line: It is now harder to sue employers for pay discrimination. With this ruling, only new discrimination counts under Title VII.

According to the Supreme Court justices who dissented, the majority is blind to the realities of wage disparity between men and women. Because of secrecy, wage disparities can take years - not six months - to emerge.

In a rare breach of Supreme Court conventions, Ginsburg read the dissenting opinion from the bench.

"In our view, the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination," she said in the Ledbetter dissent. "Title VII was meant to govern real-world employment practices, and that world is what the court today ignores."


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Ginsburg also read the dissent in April when the court upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act in another 5-to-4 vote.

"This way of thinking reflects ancient notions about women's place in the family and under the Constitution - ideas that have long since been discredited," she said in response to that majority opinion.

Her oral dissents, as some have noted, are a clarion: Women's rights are being weakened.

The vote was 5 to 4 in the Ledbetter ruling, but you might have thought Ginsburg was the lone dissenter, given some bloggers' demeaning reactions. While Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Stephen Breyer concurred with her, they weren't singled out as "feminazi," as Ginsburg was in the blogosphere last week.

As I thought about Ginsburg delivering the dissent aloud, I flashed on another woman I heard speaking her mind recently.

Making our way through Folklife two Saturdays ago, my 10-year-old daughter, her friend and I came upon a Youth Speaks poet delivering impassioned verse on stereotypes of Asian women.

Part rapper, part beatnik, and all volume and precision, the young woman and her rejection of passivity transfixed me and the otherwise-impatient fourth-graders at my side. She was mad, she was eloquent, she was smart and she had a point.

Youth Speaks is a nonprofit group that "encourages young people to think critically, to write and speak honestly and, especially, to reclaim their own educational process so that the next generation of leaders may emerge," according to their MySpace site.

In her words, the group's mission and my companions' rapt attention, I find hope.

Empowering, vocal displays by a Supreme Court justice and a street poet give me hope that the tide doesn't have to have disastrous effects, especially if more of us listen, stand, speak and then act.

Andrea Otanez is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. She is the journalism instructor at Everett Community College. E-mail her at

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