In our on-going struggle towards gender equality, there are few who have embodied the courage and resolve necessary to challenge the powers that be like Betty Dukes. Last spring, as a student organizer, I had the honor of gathering an all-female panel of groundbreaking leaders eager to engage a room full of students about the need for an Equal Rights Amendment. Betty Dukes was an obvious choice for this conversation.
Dukes first made headlines in 2000 when she filed a lawsuit against retail giant Wal-Mart after noticing a pattern of unequal opportunities for promotion between female and male staffers. Dukes took on the weight of millions of women who, like her, dedicated years of their lives to a company that endlessly exemplified biased treatment towards their female employees without recourse or consequence. Political onlookers likened the challenge to a modern-day retelling of David and Goliath, and unfortunately in this telling, the giants that be remained untouched and victorious in the end.
Graciously accepting an invitation from a team of students eager to learn from her struggle, Dukes, seated alongside lifelong feminist activists like Gloria Steinem and Patricia Arquette, Dukes alone, with a voice that carried like a preacher espousing the gospel, brought an entire room to a halt and inspired us all.
It is too often the case that legal setbacks are allowed to upend the course for what should otherwise be an arduous and ongoing struggle. Moreover, in our rush to find the next battleground, we too often leave behind those who were audacious enough to take on the challenge many others were afraid to fight and lose. In comparison, Dukes embodied a spirit of resilience and she used her platform that day to instruct an audience of young women and men to carry the torch she so bravely lit.
Betty Dukes passed away in her sleep on July 10, 2017 at the age of only sixty-seven. While a legacy of activism may have never been her intention, Dukes lived a courageous life of action worthy of recognition and praise. She challenged a system designed to ensure her failure, but nonetheless made a crack in the unbearable ceiling that our generation of women and men are determined to see shattered. In the wake of her passing, there are hundreds of students and activists across this country who know what it means to fight and fall, but stand to fight another day.
In honor of her legacy, I encourage everyone to activate and reaffirm our commitment to the cause Betty Dukes spent decades advancing. While, in this instance, the judicial system may have fallen short of safeguarding her justice, this does not need to be the case for future generations. Support an Equal Rights Amendment campaign, check if your state has passed its own ERA bill, and if not, challenge your local leaders who continue to withhold their support. Taking a note from the example of this phenomenal woman, use your voice in defense of others, and take a step towards creating a system to ensure every individual, whether woman or man, will never have to endure gender discrimination without any means of legal recourse.
Note from Lori Sokol, Executive Director: I had the good fortune to meet Betty Dukes at the Campus Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) Day in April, 2017, referred to by the author. I was captivated by the unrelenting strength and hopeful energy she exuded through her words, her demeanor, and her magnetic smile. Both I, and my millennial-age daughter who was also in attendance, left the event inspired by Betty’s words of encouragement that stayed with us long beyond this special evening. She is a woman whose bravery and fortitude will live on.