Vermont Women: Hanna On Shaping Lives

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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.

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.

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

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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