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Vermont Women: Hanna On Shaping Lives

03/21/12 7:55AM By Cheryl Hanna
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(Host)  In our continuing series on Vermont Women and the Law for Women's History Month, commentator and Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna reflects on how changes in the law have shaped women's lives.

(Hanna)  When I was six years old, my mother took me back-to-school shopping at the local Montgomery Ward. I picked out all of these cool mod-squad outfits - I was so excited to start first grade.

My mother handed the sales clerk her credit card to pay. The clerk called in the authorization, and when she hung up, she told my mother that the card had been cancelled. She then proceeded to cut the card in half, as she looked at my mother with deep contempt.

My mother said more than a few unrepeatable words to the clerk, and then walked out Montgomery Ward with her head held high.

What I didn't know at the time was that my parents were in the process of divorcing, and if you were a married woman, you couldn't get credit in your own name, so a husband had total financial control. This was before the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, which now prohibits this kind of discrimination, and allows women, married or single, to establish credit. The real villain that day wasn't the sales clerk, or my father. It was the law - or, more precisely, the lack of laws granting women equal rights.

Now fast-forward 40 years later:

A friend shared with me her story that she had always suspected that she was being paid less than her male co-workers but couldn't prove it, until one day, when some higher paid guy left the salary scale in the photocopier. It clearly showed the women made less than the men with the same jobs. Proof of wage discrimination!

This was exciting stuff. "Did you sue?" I asked, because under both federal law and Vermont's Equal Pay Act, this was clearly illegal.

"No.  Why bother?" she said. "I left and started my own company." Which, by the way, is incredibly successful.

Of course, the lawyer in me wishes she had taken her employer to court. But the real value of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Equal Pay Act, and the hundreds of other state and federal laws that ensure women's equality is that they change how we live our lives.

They help us internalize our equality. People are much more likely to speak up, to take risks, and to demand equal treatment in more subtle ways if they know that the law is on their side.  My friend needed the Fair Pay Act, even if she never invoked it. And my mother could have used the Equal Credit Opportunity Act because she would have sued.

I just wish that Montgomery Ward stores still existed so that I could get their credit card in my own name, buy some mod-squad clothes, and throw a party to celebrate all those women in Vermont and across the country who fought so hard to change the laws, and to change our lives.


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