In the early 1990s, law student Lisa Stratton realized Minnesota did not have a multi-issue gender-equality-as-human-rights organization focusing on legal and policy solutions. She thought about forming such an organization.
In 2010, she – and Jill Gaulding – did just that.
The intervening years were well-utilized: After initial research and exploration of how to form a nonprofit, Stratton decided to get some courtroom experience. She began at a class-action firm, focusing on gender equality. Her law firm represented Minnesota miner Lois Jenson in a sex-discrimination lawsuit against the Eveleth Taconite Co. – the case that inspired the movie “North Country.”
After gaining private practice experience, Stratton headed to the University of Minnesota Law School to direct the Workers’ Rights Clinic. That’s where Gaulding found her – via an online search.
“Google brought us together,” Gaulding says. Gaulding, a feminist attorney and a cognitive scientist, had previously been on the University of Iowa College of Law faculty. At Iowa, she took on the university’s infamous “Pink Locker Room” after the university rebuilt its football stadium in 2005 and added even more pink features.
The pink locker room was – and still is, after 30-plus years – used for visiting teams. The message, Gaulding says, is clear.
“It’s a gender slur,” she says. “They’re calling the other team ‘a bunch of girls.'” Gaulding spoke out and led protests. Hate mail soon followed.
“I replied to the hate mail and actually was able to get into some good dialogues about cognitive bias,” Gaulding says. Some of the senders ended up apologizing.
“What was more disturbing [than the hate mail] was the institutional response,” Gaulding continues. “Basically, they doubled down on the gender slur.”
Finally, in 2006, Gaulding left the university.
In 2007, new to Minnesota and in transition, Gaulding typed a combination of keywords that prompted the search engine to respond: “Lisa Stratton.” Only three years later, Gender Justice was up and running.
“We were kind of amazed at how quickly people found out about us, even though we had no website or publicity,” Gaulding says. “They found their way to us.”
Among their initial goals, Stratton says, was giving Minnesota and the Midwest a voice in a national conversation on issues involving gender and justice. “That has also happened quickly,” she says.
Case in point: the Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA). Gender Justice was a founding member of the broad coalition behind this year’s groundbreaking state legislation, a wide-ranging bill with provisions on reducing the pay gap, supporting women-owned businesses, expanding unpaid parental leave and many more. Gaulding and Stratton helped draft some of the components and testified in hearings.
The coalition formed in October 2013; the legislation was signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton in May. “That happened phenomenally fast,” Stratton says.
Changing ingrained societal biases and stereotypes, though, will be a longer haul. Despite some rapid legislative progress, Gaulding is struck by “how many people still don’t recognize it as a problem that the word ‘girl’ is used as a slur. That will take time to change.”
Stratton recalls an incident in which her son’s coach – who was himself college-aged – chastised the team for “playing like girls.”
“That really brought it home for me,” she says.
Heading in reverse?
“I actually feel that as a society we’re going in reverse in certain ways,” Gaulding says. She notes that studies have shown that in some respects, there is more gender-norming in American fashion, culture and commerce than there was decades ago.
For example, University of Maryland Prof. Jo Paoletti has extensively researched gender differences in American children’s clothing. She has concluded that “pink for girls, blue for boys” didn’t emerge until after World War II, and didn’t truly take hold until the 1980s.
“In some ways, people seem even more invested in the notion that everything be gendered,” Gaulding says. “And there has been some cultural backlash [to political gains that have been made] … but we’ll get through it.”
The idea of male or female jobs, Stratton adds, is “still really prevalent.” As part of the WESA push, state job training programs were examined. The pay gap between women and men entering these programs was bad, Stratton says – and when they finished the programs, it was worse.
“They channeled men into construction,” she says, “and women into being nail technicians and other low-paying service jobs.”
In response, WESA included a grant program to increase the number of women in high-wage, high-demand nontraditional occupations.
Along with legislative and public education efforts, Gender Justice focuses on “impact litigation” – cases that serve the plaintiff while also illuminating a broader problem and bringing systemic change. Clients include a transgender young man who was denied access to medically necessary care.
“The tide is turning pretty rapidly on transgender rights in areas such as health care access,” Gaulding says, “and we’d like to see Minnesota get out in front.”
It’s happened before: In 1993, Minnesota became the first state to prohibit discrimination on gender identity as well as sexual orientation in its Human Rights Act.
If Stratton and Gaulding have anything to say about it – and they will – Minnesota will continue to lead on issues of gender and justice.