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When Women Have Power

They’re more likely to use the tools of government in new ways. Just look at Kym Worthy in Detroit or Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2009, Kym Worthy, the first woman ever elected as the top prosecutor for Wayne County, Mich., discovered that more than 11,000 rape kits containing victims’ DNA evidence were sitting untested in an old Detroit police storage facility. Some had been there for 35 years. More than 10,000 of the kits have since been tested, yielding hundreds of suspected serial offenders and more than two dozen convictions.

I think there’s a good chance that if the citizens of Wayne County hadn’t finally elected a woman as their top prosecutor, those rape kits would still be gathering dust. The prosecutor’s office is an instrument of power, and the fact that Worthy is a woman shaped how that power was used.

We’ve certainly come a long way since 1431, when Joan of Arc was tried, convicted and executed by an exclusively male legal system for the crimes of being a better general than the men and for wearing pants. But it wasn’t so long ago that not a single law firm in Phoenix would hire a woman lawyer. So, in 1953, Sandra Day O’Connor worked for free for the San Mateo County attorney until he hired her. And in 1959, a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a star Harvard law student, was rejected for a clerkship by Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. “I’m not hiring a woman,” he said.

O’Connor’s and Ginsburg’s experiences were the basis of the bond explored in Linda Hirshman’s Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World. Outwardly they could not have been more different -- a conservative Republican from Arizona and a liberal intellectual from Brooklyn -- but Hirshman describes how they became powerful allies, working to set precedent in cases from employment discrimination to abortion to sexual harassment.

Women today may not face the kind of overt, open discrimination that O’Connor and Ginsburg were forced to cope with, but plenty of challenges remain. When the Equal Pay Act was signed in 1963, for instance, women made 58 cents on the dollar compared to men. Today that figure is 79 cents overall, but the gap widens with women’s education and experience. Two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women. And the United States still does not have mandated paid family leave, making having a baby an even greater financial burden.

While the challenges now may be somewhat different, the tools for overcoming them are the same as those used by previous generations of women: litigation and legislation. Hirshman writes that back in the early 1970s O’Connor told students at Arizona State University that “if women wanted the world to change … they would have to use their electoral power more wisely and run for public office.” Kym Worthy did just that. The result, a world in which more serial rapists are caught and punished, is a better world for both women and men. 

Mark Funkhouser, a former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City, is president of Funkhouse & Associates, an independent consulting firm. He can be reached at
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