RBG and my mom, two pioneering women

Watching the documentary RBG was not the experience I anticipated. Yes, the movie showed me things that I did not know. But my biggest takeway was personal: it changed how I see my mother’s life.

Ellen Janette Dollar Gill was born in 1921, the second daughter in a family of eight siblings. Momma grew up on a southwest Georgia farm, on the outskirts of Bainbridge, that they managed to not lose in the Depression. Her mother was a school teacher, a college graduate.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, was younger, born in 1935. The movie RBG does more than chronicle her life: sprinkled with facts, anecdotes and court cases, it reveals how determined women in the mid- and late 20th century advocated for equal treatment under the law.

Rural south Georgia and a youth spent harvesting tobacco is more distant from Brooklyn and law school than a mere 1,000 miles. But my mother was also pioneer, although I doubt she saw herself in that fashion.

During WWII, she lived in a boarding house in Albany, Georgia, where she worked for Bob’s Candy Company. She had graduated from business school with fingers that could set a manual adding machine on fire. Her employer valued her so much that they secured rationing coupons so that she could buy a bicycle to get to and from work.

Ellen and Earl Gill, Bainbridge, GA, undated photo

Eventually she would work for, and retire from, Lilliston Corporation, a peanut farm machinery company. It became a family-owned international manufacturer before the Reagan-Bush ag bust, after which it was folded into a global conglomerate.

Ellen worked for the head of finance, a man (of course). She was in charge of accounts payable or receivable (I can never remember which). I remember her telling me that if she were a man, she would have been head of the department.

I didn’t really understand what she meant until I watched RBG.

To say that in 1970 the state of the law regarding the role of women in the economy was onerous doesn’t do that word justice. This insight, driven home in the movie, should not have shocked me. After all, four years ago I wrote: “It wasn’t until 1982 — 1982! — that the Alabama Supreme Court unanimously agreed that women could retain their surnames post-wedding.”

And yet it did shock me.

As the movie starkly detailed facts about legal discrimination directed at women, I thought: my mother was 49 years old in 1970! She faced discrimination from every direction, and yet she was our primary breadwinner.

Despite being thwarted in her own career, her mantra to me was one of optimism: you can do anything if you put your mind to it.

I grew up an only child more interested in boy-things than girl-things. Both parents supported my independence. I climbed trees, helped my dad with automotive stuff (he was a mechanic), rode horses, ran track, had dogs, went pole fishing. Eschewed dolls. Begged for a 4-10 shotgun to go hunting with my daddy, uncles and boy cousins … but that was nixed by my mom’s older sister because it would have meant her youngest daughter would get a shotgun, too.

Straight A student. Lots of extracurricular activities, like 4-H and debate club. Small circle of (smart) girl friends; we were not part of the in crowd.

And I can remember wishing, at least a little bit, for a stay-at-home mom like all my friends. Because in your teens, anything that makes you “different” can be a burden.

But that not-stay-at-home mom, active in BPW as well as the Lioness Club, who drove her own car and had a healthy dislike of house cleaning, served as a silent model of perseverance and independence. Like RBG, she didn’t toot her own horn.

I left for college with no parental constraints or expectations (other than good grades). I veered away from vet medicine to journalism and then tacked on economics. I spent a summer working in DC for Sen. Herman Talmadge (D-GA) and a summer attending school in Norway, both possible because I didn’t have to work between terms for spending money. (College tuition was a helluva lot less expensive then.)

And I toyed with the idea of law school. Law school! In the mid-1970s! What a stretch for a south-Georgia girl, raised in an agricultural, quasi-rural area.

Deciding that I did not want to go to school for three more years, I opted for graduate school at Virginia Tech. My best friend from high school took the law school route, right up the road from me at the University of Virginia.

“How,” I asked Mike as we left the movie, “did law school even occur to me as an option to reject?”

“Because of your parents,” he replied.

I have no memory of anyone telling me that I could not do something because I was female. At the same time, I have no memory of mentors in high school encouraging me to go outside of Georgia for college. A male cousin did advise me to avoid Georgia Tech, which was courting me my senior year in high school, because “the girls here are weird.”

My master of science degree is in agricultural economics. That late 1970s program had three women: two MS students and one PhD candidate. I think there was only one woman on faculty, Sandra Batie. I distinctly remember attending a conference where I was the only woman in a room of about 100 men.

Whether it was having spent my life doing “boy things” or messages I absorbed from my mother, I was only vaguely aware of the gender imbalance. The world was what it was.

It’s only in the last 20 years or so that I have learned the limits of my mother’s mantra. That success is a journey for which talent and perserverance may be necessary but are most definitely insufficient conditions.

RBG, both the movie and the woman, makes this concept concrete.

The longer I live, the more I appreciate the road that my mother — and role models like Ruth Bader Ginsburg — travelled, as well as the support and encouragement my mother and father provided their tomboy child.

We’re on the eve of the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in the United States. We still have miles to go before women and men are treated equally in the workplace, despite the letter of the law.

Go see the movie. Let it inspire you, as it has me, to turn my mother’s mantra — you can do anything if you put your mind to it — into reality.

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Thanks to Jon Pincus, Linda Lowen, Mark Davidson, Shasta Willson and Susan Bernick for early reads and suggestions. Writing solo is hard!

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Digital media educator, writer, speaker; sometimes public policy journalist; transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles. #rabblerouser #pushy