Californians are deeply grateful for your decades of public service. What stands out is not only your wisdom but your courage — in your opposition to the gun lobby; your struggle to release the torture report; your support for Israel and, at the same time, for Palestinian rights; the way you helped mend the rift in 2008 between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, paving the way for Obama’s victory.
Your courage is sorely needed now as you face one of the deepest challenges of your life: the decision whether to resign from the Senate.
Like you, I am a feminist of a certain age. So I, too, am sensitive to the possibility that demands for your resignation represent sexism. I am here to tell you that they don’t, and to explore why it is so difficult to step back when your country and your party need you to do so.
It’s indisputably true that white men in the past have stayed in the Senate long past their ability to perform all their duties. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) is the prime example, though by no means the only one.
Why, then, shouldn’t you stay the course? The situation in Washington now is different and dangerous, such that refusing to retire threatens your entire legacy.
The Senate is so partisan and so closely divided that your every vote is crucial. There is no cushion, no wiggle room for a “lighter schedule” with so much at stake for democracy and with your party working with such a slim majority in the upper house. Your health, we trust is improving, but shingles and its complications can be serious and seriously debilitating.
Let me be blunt: We have been here before. We accepted Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s desire to remain on the Supreme Court, her refusal to leave when President Obama asked her to so he could appoint another justice before he left office.
And what happened?
Your Senate colleague, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pushed through three Supreme Court justices nominated by President Trump, and their appointments led to the overruling of Roe vs. Wade. As a result, women have lost control of their lives. Thousands of children will be born to families ill-equipped to undertake the joyful but often arduous challenge of raising a child because Ginsburg wanted to stay on.
And why did RBG refuse to resign?
I suspect it was in large part for reasons similar to those that may be making you reluctant to leave the Senate — reasons I can relate to. Even though I’m 20 years younger than you, we both faced an incessant barrage of messages telling us early on to abandon our careers. “If you and your boyfriend are so smart, why don’t you go home and breed?” an interviewer asked when I was a Harvard Law School student in 1979. (I got him banned from campus interviews.)
Those of us who persevered had to tune out that kind of hazing. We persisted, ignoring the chorus around us insisting that we behave in a suitably ladylike fashion.
So when you hear people telling you to give up your career in a situation in which men haven’t been told the same thing, no wonder you assume this is the same old sexism you’ve been tuning out for years.
I’m not defending Thurmond’s selfishness. He should have resigned too. He exercised precisely the kind of white male privilege that condones a cowardly inability to face one’s own limitations as a defense of one’s dignity. The solution is not to extend that privilege to white women. It’s to eliminate it for everyone.
Thurmond needed what you have: the courage to act in the public interest despite a threat to one’s identity. I have no doubt that your sense of yourself is deeply intertwined with the dignity of your office and the work you have done supremely well, so much so that contemplating quitting may make you feel like you will have nothing left.
That’s untrue. Were you to resign you would gain two things that are very precious.
The first is to ensure that Senate business — confirming judges who respect our rights, bolstering Democrats’ slim majority in all votes, fully representing California’s needs and interests — will be conducted without delay or diminishment during the fast-shrinking window before the November 2024 elections.
The second thing you would protect is your legacy of courage. By resigning, you can safeguard your record as a woman who served the public interest in even the most challenging of times and in the most difficult of personal circumstances. Over your five decades in politics, we’ve come to respect your strength and your pragmatism. We know you won’t disappoint us now.
Joan C. Williams is a professor at UC Law, San Francisco; the author of “What Works for Women” and “White Working Class” ; and the founder of Bridging the Diploma Divide.