Is A Woman Director A Big Deal?
The news that Sylvia G. Ash has been named the first woman chair of the Board of Directors in Municipal’s 99 year history has a symbolic importance that we should all take a moment to consider this morning. We spend so much time thinking about how to make our businesses, communities and government better that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that change does come and it tends to be for the better.
Municipal was formed 99 years ago, making it the oldest credit union in the state. This means that when it was formed, women didn’t have a Constitutional right to vote, could be discriminated against on the basis of their gender, and had few legal rights independent of their husbands. An 1889 article published in the Banking Law Journal entitled “Can a Woman Legally Hold the Office of Director in a National Bank?” gives you a sense of just how radical this idea would have been. The author boldly proclaimed “I am clearly of the opinion that women are qualified to and may legally act as directors of national banks. . . This would, of course, also lead to the conclusion that, in the absence of any state statute to the contrary, they could also lawfully act in the directorate of state banks.” This is the type of legal analysis that used to pass for bold and progressive back in the day.
Ms. Ash is also African-American. Federal law didn’t ban racial or gender discrimination in employment until the mid-1960s. Finally, Ms. Ash is also an accomplished attorney and Judge who, incidentally, graduated from Howard University, where Thurgood Marshall also got his law degree. At one point, Howard University was responsible for graduating half of the nation’s African-American lawyers.
In a small way, the selection of Ms. Ash helps demonstrate that times really do change, ideas matter and advocacy makes a difference, at least in the long run. Some of you might be reading this and saying to yourself that this would have been big news in the 1960s, but not in 2015. My point is that if we don’t appreciate how far we’ve come, we won’t have a particularly good sense of how best to continue the journey.