Defining success (8/12/2014)

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s remarks at a law school conference on the U.S. Supreme Court’s relative indifference to the rights of women in recent years reflects the checkered historical record of American institutions and businesses on the matter of gender equality. Justice Ginsburg’s stirring dissents from recent opinions that have inflicted harsh blows to women’s rights in cases involving equal pay, medical leave and contraception, remind us of the long, winding and unfinished road that women have traveled in their march toward equality with men. The court, Ginsburg said, has never quite embraced “the ability of women to decide for themselves what their destiny will be.”

At this juncture in history, it seems hard to believe that women have not yet achieved professional, civil and political equality. In 1848, at the Seneca Convention, 68 women and 32 men signed the “Declaration of Sentiments” which, in a close paraphrase of the Declaration of Independence, denounced “the false supposition of the supremacy of a man.” It expressed outrage at the “repeated injuries and usurpation on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”

At Seneca Falls, the convention declared its opposition to financial inequality. “He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration.” More than 150 years later, the echoes of their voices resound across our nation; women in our time earn but 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.

It would be foolish to deny progress for women in matters of civil, social and political rights. Women are no longer governed by the laws of coverture, which denied to them a legal status, unless they were married. Obviously, women exercise the right to vote, and they hold office, though in numbers that fall far short of those held by men. They occupy key posts in the worlds of academia, industry and finance but, again, not at the level enjoyed by men.

Nobody can deny gains achieved by women but what, exactly, constitutes success for women in this post-Seneca Falls world? Indeed, how do women define success for women? That provocative question — “What is Success?”— will be the subject of a robust, spirited conversation among some of America’s most highly-acclaimed women at the Andrus Center’s second annual Conference on Women and Leadership, held on the campus of Boise State University, Sept. 10-12.

The conference, chaired by Barbara Morgan, astronaut and Distinguished Educator in Residence at Boise State University, and anchored by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, features a lineup drawn from the worlds of law, business, government, science, industry, the arts and entertainment, journalism, academe and sports. Speakers include Justice O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and four-star Admiral Michelle Howard, Vice-Chief of Naval Operations — the first woman ever to hold the second most powerful position in the U.S. Navy.

Other keynote headliners include Carla Harris, Vice-Chair of Morgan Stanley and Chair of the National Business Women’s Council, Dr. Ellen Ochoa, Director of the Johnson Space Center, Ambassador Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, current Chair of the American Red Cross, Academy Award winning producer, Frieda Mock, Commissioner Victoria Lipnic of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, prize-winning writers Judith Freeman and Karen Crouse of the New York Times, award-winning movie producer, Christine Walker and the distinguished academic and television commentator, Caroline Heldman, and U.S. Olympians. The list goes on.

This conference — a continuation of the conversation initiated at Seneca Falls — invites both men and women. Those interested in participating in this “conversation” can register for the conference at www.andruscenter.org.

Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus Professor of Public Affairs at Boise State University where he serves as Director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.