A Female Perspective

I was asked to make a (Zoom)presentation to a group of O’Neill women students, focused on “women and politics.” This is what I said.

I think I have always been a “political” person, in the sense that the question that has always fascinated me is a question that most women wrestle with in one way or another: how should people live together? What sort of social and political arrangements are most likely to nourish our humanity and promote—in Aristotle’s term—human flourishing? If the old African proverb is right, if it “takes a village to raise a child,” what should that village look like, and how should its inhabitants behave? How do we build that kind of village? Politics is the process of turning our answers to those questions into policy—and since women’s answers have been shaped by our life experiences, it is important that women’s voices be part of the policy process.

You have asked me to share my experiences as a professional and political woman, so let me get the biography out of the way. I was born in 1941, and I am very much a product of the 1950s, way before any of you were born. It was a time when women went to college to find a husband, a time when we were expected to be decorative and submissive—or at the very least, quiet. (You can see why I had a problem.)

I grew up in Anderson, Indiana, where being Jewish was at best exotic and at worst, Satanic, and where I was usually the only Jew my classmates had ever encountered. Those experiences undoubtedly deepened my interest in social divisions and the effects of marginalization. They also kindled an ongoing fascination with the ways in which religions shape our worldviews.

I left Anderson for college when I was 16. I wanted to major in liberal arts, but my father insisted that I get a teaching degree, because if my eventual husband died, I would need something to fall back on. At the time, educated women were secretaries, teachers or nurses; I couldn’t type and the sight of blood made me queasy. That left teaching. Because I was so young, my parents sent me to Stephens College for Women, a two-year school that took very seriously its obligation to act in loco parentis. After Stephens, I briefly attended the University of North Carolina, where the most indelible lesson I learned was that when you pay Full Professors 3000/year, you get what you pay for. (Even in the 1950s, 3000 wasn’t much.) I transferred to IU Bloomington to finish my undergraduate degree, got married and divorced, and later did a semester at Butler, pursuing an MA in literature that I never finished.

I married a second time and took my first job (well, first if you don’t count the summer I worked for my father’s friend at his—no kidding—Cadillac-Rambler agency, where I was billed as Anderson’s first female used car salesman.) I began my adult work life as a high school English teacher. When I became pregnant with my first child, however, I could no longer teach—Even though I was married, those days, once women teachers “showed,” we could no longer be in the classroom. The theory evidently was that the kids would know what we’d been up to…

I went to law school when I was 30 and had three small children (four if you count the husband I had at the time). There were very few women in law school then, and my most important epiphany revolved around the need for potty parity… the few women’s restrooms were for the secretarial staff and inconvenient for students. After graduating law school, I was the first female lawyer hired at what was then Baker and Daniels.

To give you a flavor of the time—serial interviews with prospective associates were conducted by several of the partners, and I was in conversation with two who were being very careful not to ask improper questions—this was barely ten years after creation of the EEOC. Since I had three children, I thought it reasonable to volunteer my childcare arrangements. One of the partners was so obviously relieved that I wasn’t acting like some sort of radical bra-burning feminist, he blurted out: “It isn’t that there’s anything wrong with being a woman. We hired a man with a glass eye once!”

I practiced corporate law for three years, until Bill Hudnut asked me to take charge of the City’s legal department. I was the first woman to serve as Corporation Counsel in Indianapolis–or, to the best of my knowledge, in any major metropolitan area. At the time, Indianapolis had two newspapers. The afternoon paper, the Indianapolis News, had a front-page “gossip” blurb, and I still recall its juicy little item after my appointment was announced: “What high-ranking city official appointed his most recent honey to a prominent position…” I guess it was inconceivable that I’d been appointed because I was a decent lawyer, or even because I represented a constituency Bill was reaching out to. Gotta sell papers…

I left City Hall to be the Republican candidate for Congress in 1980, running against Andy Jacobs, Jr., in what was then Indiana’s 11th Congressional district. That was back when Republicans were still rational, and political campaigns less toxic. I was pro-choice and pro-gay rights, and I won a Republican primary. The worst name I called Andy was Democrat. My youngest son later served as his Congressional page, and after Andy retired, he and I would occasionally have lunch. As I say, things were different then….
I also remarried during that campaign and I’m happy to report that the third time was the charm—it’s been 41 years and counting.

After losing the election, I practiced law, started a Real Estate Development Company that went broke during the recession of the late 1980s, and served six years as the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU. I joined IUPUI’s faculty in 1998.

I’ve lived through the women’s movement, the Civil Rights movement, the 60s, the sexual revolution (I missed it by 6 years!), the gay rights movement, the decades of religious zealotry that a friend calls “America’s most recent Great Awakening,” and a dizzying explosion of new technologies. As George Burns once said, I’m so old I remember when the air was clean and sex was dirty.

I became politically active at nineteen, as a Republican. I was persuaded—and remain persuaded—by what has been called the “libertarian principle,” the belief that the best society is one in which individuals are free to set and pursue our own life goals, determine our own telos, so long as we don’t harm the person or property of a non-consenting other, and so long as we are willing to grant an equal right to others. Back then, with some notable exceptions, the GOP understood the importance of “so long as” in those last two caveats. Times, obviously, have changed. The political party to which I belonged no longer exists, except in name.

For those who begin with the libertarian principle as I just shared it, good faith political arguments tend to revolve around the nature and severity of the “harms” that government can legitimately prohibit or regulate, and the extent of government’s obligation to provide a physical and social infrastructure to be paid for through citizens’ “dues,” called taxes. Needless to say, we are not having those good faith arguments today—instead, we are in a culture war– what may well be an existential struggle between science and reason on the one hand, and a variety of fundamentalisms on the other.

Women do not do well in culture wars.

Of the nine books I’ve written, the two that taught me the most—the ones that required the “deepest dives” into our philosophy of government and suggested some answers to Aristotle’s question—were God and Country: America in Red and Blue and my small textbook Talking Politics? What You Need to Know Before You Open Your Mouth.

The research I did for God and Country provided me with a lens through which I’ve come to understand so much of our current political environment. Policymaking has become a power struggle between Puritans who believe government should make the rest of us live “godly” lives, based upon their particular version of what’s godly, and those of us who demand that government act on what John Rawls called “public reasons,” based upon logical persuasion and scientific and empirical understandings. Contemporary Puritans remain deeply antagonistic to the Enlightenment and to secular ways of knowing—especially science—and they utterly reject the notion that each of us gets to define our own morality. Scroll down a Facebook page, or read the comments section of an online newspaper, and you’ll come across posts from fundamentalists of various stripes who wrap themselves in victimhood whenever government fails to impose their preferred worldviews on everyone else. And as most women understand, those preferred worldviews almost always include a “biblically-mandated” submission of women.

Another example is the effort—in Indiana and elsewhere—to exempt so-called “bible-believing Christians” from compliance with otherwise applicable civil rights laws. In our system, religious citizens have absolute liberty to believe whatever they want—that’s the individual rights pole of the continuum. But religious or political beliefs, no matter how sincere, don’t entitle people to sacrifice newborns or bomb abortion clinics, and they don’t entitle them to engage in behavior that is contrary to America’s cultural and legal commitment to civic equality. That’s the public good end of the continuum. There’s no religious privilege to behave in ways that we collectively deem destructive to America’s social health.

Let me just share a final observation: Social justice is a term we don’t hear very often these days. Social justice is aspirational, and its elements are subject to debate, but at its heart, the concept is concerned with mutual obligation and the common good. In its broadest outlines, a just society is one that meets the basic human needs of its members, without regard to their identities, genders or social status—a society that doesn’t draw invidious distinctions between male and female, black and white, gay and straight, religious and atheist, Republican and Democrat, or any of the other categories into which we like to sort our fellow humans. It is a society that recognizes and respects the inherent dignity and value of each person.

We should want to make our society more just for many reasons, practical as well as moral: for one thing, a more equitable society is in the long-term best interests of even those people who don’t feel any obligation to feed hungry children or find jobs for ex-offenders or make health care accessible to poor people. That’s because in order to remain competitive in the global economy, America needs to make use of all its talent. Social systems that prevent people from contributing their talents cost all of us in lost opportunities and unrealized promise.

I’m painfully aware that cultural institutions, folkways and intellectual paradigms influence people far more than logic and reason, and I also know that culture is incredibly difficult to change. Systemic barriers and ingrained privilege don’t disappear without significant upheavals or outright revolutions.

Even more daunting, when I look at today’s politics, I’m reminded of a 1999 movie called “The Sixth Sense.” The young boy in that movie saw dead people. I see crazy people.

If I had to guess why so many of our fellow-citizens appear to have gone off the deep end—why they are trying to stockpile guns, roll back women’s rights, put gays back in the closet, stigmatize African-Americans and stereotype Muslims—I think the answer is fear. Change is creating a very different world from the one most of us grew up in, and the pace of that change continues to accelerate. As a result, we have a lot of bewildered and disoriented people who find themselves in an increasingly ambiguous world; they are frantic for bright lines, clear rules, simple answers to complicated issues, and especially, for someone to blame. People who are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives evidently need to attribute their problems and disappointments to some nefarious “other.” Black and brown people and “uppity women” are obvious targets.

I have hopes that your generation will be able to reverse this retreat into anti-intellectualism, bigotry and various kinds of fundamentalism. We humans flourish through constant learning, by opening ourselves to new perspectives, by reaching out and learning from those who are different.

And women only flourish in a society that understands that.


  1. Sheila; I have a few years on you but we came through the same “movements”, including local politics when I was an Independent voter. I worked for the City of Indianapolis from 1972 under Mayor Richard Lugar, through 16 progressive years of Mayor Bill Hudnut until 1994, lasting only 2 years, 3 months and 11 days under Goldsmith. Yes; I counted those days as many in this country counted the days after Trump’s election till the next election when we could hopefully, and thankfully, be rid of him in the White House.

    The Trump “movement” was and is unparalleled; coupled with the Covid-19 Pandemic during his final approximately 420 days in office, have shown that women have come through, “bloody but unbowed”. Your mention of the movie “Sixth Sense” is quite apt; except rather than crazy people, I see all of the dead people. I wanted to scream that at Ted Cruz on my TV screen as he stupidly commented that after every mass shooting, Democrats renew their fight for gun control. We see the dead people, our fight has never ended; is it because as women we feel more deeply than men who must remain macho with assault level weaponry displaying the size of their masculinity and strength?

    “We humans flourish through constant learning, by opening ourselves to new perspectives, by reaching out and learning from those who are different.”

    Are women, as primary care-givers to our children, open ourselves by necessity to new perspectives and changes to provide their needs as they become different through growth stages on their way to becoming adult men and women? We MUST learn the needs of both if they are to succeed in life; it is part of “A Female Perspective”.

  2. Terrific posting today, Sheila. I’m a little younger than you – by a few months – but I share your points of view as a rebel against those norms about women in the 50s and 60s. The worst part for me was that most women didn’t believe me. I didn’t marry until 1980. My first wife was/is a fine person, but not for me, as it turned out. She pushed us up to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, but couldn’t stop controlling the things about me that I felt didn’t need controlling.

    Sadly, the socio-political environment we have today shows no signs of improving toward a calmer, more caring or rational place. White Christian male grievance has now become a pervasive political tool of Republicans for one reason and one reason only: Their donors have told them to do whatever it takes to get elected and keep the tax cuts coming. Otherwise, the Republican party has no agenda to govern for the greater good. The greater good to a Republican is to get re-elected by stirring up the primitive fears of their “base”. That’s it. They have nothing else to offer.

    We need more “uppity” women in government at all levels now more than ever. Sadly too, Republican women like Liz Cheney are far and few between. Idiots like MTG and the cretin Lauren Boebert offset any good that Cheney can provide. On the other hand, the women Democrats are, for the most part, displaying the courage, reason and intelligence in governing that the Republicans have never allowed in their women.

    The best example I can think of as to why Republican women have not looked at their calendars in the last 101 years is WOMEN FOR TRUMP.

  3. Vernon,

    I have to agree that this is a wonderful wonderful article and a sample of life’s history especially as in reference but not limited to Sheila!

    It definitely give some insight into her choices for blog threads designed by her.

    And, I would have to agree with you on this point but not just, “Women For Trump” is completely antithetical to being female in this day and age. Of course that’s coming from a very mixed race guy who has fairly deep theocratic leanings.

    Elizabeth Cady Stanton one of the 19th century leaders in women’s rights, had a lot of issues with religion and the Bible itself. And, by what’s happening today with the evangelical right, I can’t say as I blame her or anyone else for having really hostile feelings towards what’s been used as a platform to subjugate and eradicate those “Others” and their rights including women!

    When you have individuals like Ted Cruz who hide behind their children as they run for the southern border during a calamity, always offering his “Thoughts And Prayers” from resulting mass murders, while taking money from gun manufacturers and when the NRA was functional, them! The odd thing, there’s a mind-bogglingly large minority who sees no problem with this!

    Ted Cruz is a case study in sniveling cowardice! And, Marjorie Taylor Green is a case study in intimidating ignorance! But what to do with this knowledge? Our current president made a blanket statement on “Going Big” and, he showed great inclusion in his cabinet. But, there has to be more action taken to get rid of an infestation of political and social malfeasance. If, they are not up to the fight, if they’re not ready to engage in battle, even to lose some battles, the war will never end or be won.

    The walls of this Jericho that faces society will not fall by blowing trumpets! Physical and unrelenting action will have to be exerted until the miscreant other side becomes exhausted. Then, you walk in through the gates and dismantle the walls.

    What did John Lewis say? “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”

  4. As I reflect on what you’ve published today, I can’t help but think about those so called “Puritans.” It seems that, too often, we encounter them as charlatans, whose only real belief is in their ability to use God to make money. That’s why fear is their most important product (apologies to GE). It keeps their flocks motivated to dig deeper and send more.

  5. I was just thinking of this idea! This comes from really marinating Sheila’s blog this morning.

    There should be a woman’s a union! Not the AFL-CIO, not the Teamsters, not the IBEW, not the theater Guild, or the American Federation of Government employees, and such others, but a national Association of women!

    Maybe even bigger than that, a global association of women which would could get its momentum from the United States and Western Europe.

    But this association would have some teeth, not some United Nations group that would pass condemnatory papers concerning the mistreatment of women and others, but with the power to act unilaterally and independently of men and governments. In other words, to strike! To bring everything to the fore, to lay it all bear and “Stop” the world from spinning for a time. The power of over half of the population would be a tremendous force for change. But, this women’s union would have to move unilaterally otherwise it would just be another toothless folly.

    Governments and organizations including the health industry which women make up the lion’s share, could not import workers from elsewhere unless they find another civilized planet to subjugate. The power of stopping it all and shunning it all down, can really make a difference, and would bring about “Immediate” change!

  6. Thank you very much. I think the best thing we can do NOW is to work for the HR1 Voting rights protection. (For the People Act) The alternative is frightening.

  7. A woman’s union, John? Separate but equal? That has less chance of working in employment or politics than it did in our segregated education system.

  8. Wow. Thanks for this incredible essay and I wish for more hours in a day to study it. I’d getting that book.

  9. It takes a lifetime to learn what you can.

    I was born just after Sheila was and also went through those times and those teachings and felt that all had something essential to know but none were sufficient. What I was caught up in most though was the technological revolution and while I couldn’t get enough of the future there I found myself surrounded by people who had already had suffered too much of it. That too was an important lesson for me. When people don’t understand things, and can’t envision better, they actively and strongly resist them. That mystified me which is to say that I was ignorant of that aspect of the human condition.

    I can no longer claim that ignorance though I found several others to work on.

  10. JoAnn,

    Of course you’re not going to have every single woman in the world be part of a movement, but, I would imagine MANY would be grateful for the changes! And, I would venture to say, there will be plenty of men jumping on that bandwagon if it gets rolling and seems to be a burgeoning success.

    Remember, black lives matter was almost completely black until very recently. In wisconsin, as an example, Kyle Rittenhouse shot and maimed black lives matter protesters, protesters who happened to be white.

    When a movement seeks Justice when a movement seeks equality when a movement seeks an equitable society for all, it can, given the right tack, rapidly morph into something bigger than itself. But, the movement has to start somewhere!

    Integrated or segregated education is just a microcosm, and, if, change starts to be of benefit tangibly, then, every person who has been treated in an unequitable fashion will bring, lend, or encourage more support not less.

    In your 80 plus years, have you been mistreated? And, after your mistreatment, did you just give up? maybe you lost a battle, but did you resign yourself to lose your war?

    The gains in civil rights were a battle that was won, but obviously the war continues. Is the work done? Absolutely not! So, what to do? Continue the battle! Make inequality and subjugation untenable, fight until the other side is exhausted.

    Or is that a pipe dream? If it is, then what’s the point of complaining?

  11. A great presentation!
    Sadly, the Puritans of history, and those among us, do not think that “…a society that recognizes and respects the inherent dignity and value of each person,” is of value. The fellow who shot up Atlanta, was part of an Evangelical culture that strives to make people “Pure.” That is one place wherein “crazy” lives. It may be that their efforts drove the shooter to find some, though bizarre, way to purify himself.
    “I think the answer is fear.” I think you are right about that, Sheila, as it has been amply demonstrated that conservatives function on anxiety, do not do well with change, which can not be controlled.
    I was born in 1942, and grew up in NYC, where change was always happening, was brought up by a family that looked forward to change, of the sort where “…a society that recognizes and respects the inherent dignity and value of each person,” was wished for, where the concept of the “Social Contract” within which people cared for and were considerate of one another was sought.
    The only problem I can recall in that regard was that women were put on pedestals, which is not equality producing, in reverse.

  12. Thanks for the memories Sheila. Brief addendum from the rural working class and 4 yrs younger than you-baby of the family. 12 yr older brother in Battle of Bulge(replacement) older squad members did not socialize with him as they felt he would become a casualty. Two older sisters both became secretaries as no other avenue open to young females who could not afford college and left home for Chicago. Parents were immigrants who believed in hard work and obedience from children(I failed at resistance). Bro used GI Bill to get both BS & MBA, I got modest parental help and with lots of good paying summer manual labor jobs and part-time jobs on campus plus Army draftee(2 yrs) managed BS Eng’r. in 5 yrs.
    Rural living was spartan with small farms providing much of our income and societal living. When a family was in need (accident, illness, death, etc.) the neighbors came to help-no questions asked, so it did “take a village” existed in the 40s/50s/60s?. While most were Protestant we non-Protestant Christians were not subjected to obvious discrimination, the public school cafeteria had meatless Fridays for example-only the kids complained.
    Yes, women were professional 2nd class citizens, girls in college were there to be teachers, pharmacists(Purdue) or getting their MRS degree. Was a super pain to be a female engineer, while the top engineering male deans/Hovde/Veeps tried to level the field, the female Veeps/department heads of Home Ec. resisted. Example of co-ed hours and writing up lab work that was typically a 4 student team. This was primarily number crunching done late in the evening, girls had 10:30 hrs. Dean of Engineering volunteered all sorts of compromises including having TAs as proctors to prevent females from being seduced during the completion of lab reports which were recommended to be done in classrooms/girls dorms but virginity was far more important than academics. Guys hated female engineers. Insights in the late 50s of STEM education.
    To the rural present, those in Indiana&Ohio vote about 70% Republican, believe w/o question all the stolen election/conspiracy/evil Democrat comments while rejecting facts as more lies. The young people are mostly gone as are the small farms which no longer exist as a social/financial entity(Mt Ayr has ceased to exist) and many rural towns of 1000/2000 residents in the 50s now have less than 1000 w/o restaurants, movie theaters/ doctors/dentists/ only 7/11 type grocery stores/no car dealers/empty churches. Check the towns 50m or more from the few moderately sized cities and not the county seat. Sad from my perspective but no solution.

  13. I think Sheila’s explanation of the goals of social justice outstanding. Aristotle would be proud. I was also reminded in re “being Jewish in Anderson” of one of my two sisters-in-law, Aviva, who was born and raised in Tel Aviv as the daughter of a Christian missionary and who was fluent in Russian, Hebrew and English. Her father, incidentally, and in case you didn’t know, failed in his attempt to Christianize the Israelis.

    I also think that Sheila is right in tagging fear of change (which is inexorable in all events) as the basic if unstated reason why many are reluctant to abandon their folkways and mores which scheming politicians use for political gain. There is also the problem of relative fear since it is applied unevenly. Thus a right wing evangelical can wax hysterical when discussing abortion but is not disturbed by Silicon Valley’s influence on our socioeconomic future, a future for which we are too engaged in shouting matches to prepare for, a future that will engender massive substitution of AI for human labor with all of the problems of allocating the wealth and income from such a market to those displaced as the Information Age proceeds in ever more sophisticated fashion.

    We need more Merkels and fewer Trumps.

  14. Well Sheila, three cheers for “them uppity women.” We’re glad and fortunate that you “had a problem.” 🙂 Let’s hope that you continue to have one and so continue to write these insightful blogs. Reading them is one of the best ways I can think of to start a day (or end one).

  15. Dan Lazaraton,

    You paint a picture that has been destroying so-called great societies throughout history. A solution would be to welcome immigration, which wouldn’t seem to be a problem considering everyone here is the product of immigrants and immigration.

    Hey, there always has to be a bogeyman somewhere! But when it’s all said and done, the hypocrites basically hate their own lineage, that’s pathetically sad. Italy is a fine example of this, they were really teetering on the precipice of complete collapse. They decided it was time to welcome the immigrants instead of walling them out. It revitalized the smaller towns, at least ones that were still livable. It brought new perspectives and innovation.

    And still, the new, learned the old from the willing, that preserved the Italian culture. Here, it doesn’t look like the intellect is there to learn from history!

  16. I grew up in Indiana in the 50s also. But in Gary. What a difference a few hundred miles can make. More working class hero than libertarian.

  17. I was born in `1951 and like you Shiela, I witnessed what the feminine mystique did to women. It seemed to me that women were getting a raw deal because they worked both outside and inside the home. My father refused to do “women’s work” in the home and claimed Mom had 3 daughters to help her.

    I saw that women were secretaries, teachers and nurses. I did not know about social workers.

    By age 12, I had decided I would not get married but instead would live independently and make a living as a nurse. In high school, I knew I was different from my female peers but did not know why. As is evident in the movie “Carol”, I had no language for my identity as a developing lesbian woman. It’s a good thing I chose not to marry since I discovered in my young adulthood that I am lesbian woman. Upon graduating with my BSN, my father told me the only reason he and my mother would disown me is if I was gay or married a black man. Wrong. Mom would not have disowned me and did not when I came out to her.

    We have made positive strides for the rights of women but still have a long way to go. Girls are being castrated who live here in the US and we have child brides. We are still striving for equal pay.

    I have always been a democrat because I felt that Republicans wanted women to remain trapped in the feminine mystique and that they were not as kind towards persons of color or people in the gay community. They have claimed to be pro life but don’t support social safety networks for children living in poverty.

    I commend all my sisters who marched to the beat of a different drum and refused to be trapped by the feminine mystique. Onward my sisters and male allies!!!

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