As usual, class privilege has framed the debate. The recent news of Judge James Petrucelli’s reaction to Dr. Christa Pehl Evans’ request for dismissal from jury service because of her role as a stay-at-home mom raises important issues about women, the law, and gender equity.
Unfortunately, the judge, the potential juror, and reporter Mackenzie Mays, who wrote about the courtroom incident, fail to address them. Instead, their responses reproduce a tired, class-blind narrative that discusses a woman of privilege and her “needs” with regard to choices in parenting style at the center of a debate on what should be civic duty. This is the epitome of privilege. The conversation needs to be about the gendered economic barriers to civic participation in which jury duty serves as one example.
Women have had to fight for the constitutional right to be judged by a jury of their peers. In 1975, the ACLU Women’s Rights Project led the Supreme Court to overturn a Louisiana law that allowed only women who formally volunteered for jury duty to be placed in the state’s jury selection system. Florida, too, had a similar law; Massachusetts allowed women to opt out of jury service if they found the subject matter of the trial upsetting to their feminine sensibilities; and New York let women opt out without requiring them to provide a justification at all. In Edwards v. Healy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the ACLU’s lead attorney, successfully argued that the Louisiana law was discriminatory. The law placed an unfair burden on men to serve on juries. Moreover, the law deprived women to be judged by of a jury of their peers. The Louisiana law, and others like it, then, denied women equal protection.
The law itself no longer prevents women from serving on juries, thereby improving the chances that women will be judged by a jury of their peers. Today women’s economic disempowerment is the biggest impediment to fulfilling that constitutional right.
There are several economic factors to make it extremely difficult and often impossible for low-income women to perform jury service. In two-parent low-income households, mothers often are forced to stay at home because the cost of child care is more than the wages they could earn, and the gender wage gap makes it a better economic strategy for fathers to be in the labor force. Single mothers face even greater challenges to perform their civic duty. They are more likely to patch together part-time jobs to make ends meet. While all employers are required to give employees time off for jury service, state law does not require employers to compensate employees during their tenure as jurors. Low-income women are more likely than professional women to rely on relatives to care for children, but the least likely to be able to afford to serve on juries. This creates an entire cohort of women who are too poor to perform this civic duty, thus too poor to be judged by a jury of their peers. Given the system we have, if low-income women serve on juries, their children may not eat and may be inadequately supervised.
Dr. Evans is right when she says that our society does not value motherhood as much as it should. This is clear with the lack of affordable child care, lack of affordable health care, lack of a guaranteed living wage, lack of universal pre-school, lack of paid family leave, etc. What is also clear is that we value some mothers more than others. Women who struggle to feed their families by holding down two or three low-paying jobs are faulted for not being there for their kids. Mothers who stay home and are on welfare are demonized. Being a poor mother guarantees societal disapproval.
But the rules are different for mothers of means who home-school their kids. They are celebrated. They get to myopically define civic duty as, in Dr. Evans words, “raising loving human beings.” According to Dr. Evans, “paid work is not the only work that matters.” For a low-income mothers, paid work is the only work that does matter.
Women in Fresno got 99 problems. Dr. Evans’ anger at Judge Petrucelli ain’t one of them.
Kathryn Forbes is a Women’s Studies professor at Fresno State and a mother. Susanne Taylor is a retired stay-at-home-mom in Fresno.