President Ruth Kahn, in her WLALA Newsletter message of September 2012, cited Helen Reddy’s “Feminist Anthem” of 1971. As a 1976 law grad at the age of 30, I, too, was a fighter in the Women’s Movement of the ‘70’s, energized by the lyrics:
I am woman hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
When I entered law school, there had never been a woman Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. In Illinois, where I lived, it wasn’t illegal to ask a woman applying for her first law job whether her husband would let her work when it was time to fix dinner. And how long she expected to work before having a baby and quitting. These weren’t so much genuine questions as macho challenges from the curious and threatened men. Some candidly pronounced, “Honey, you have a great resume, and you seem like a bright gal, and if it were up to me, I’d give you a chance, but my wife would kill me if I hired a lady lawyer.”
Indeed, when I was in law school, married women had the legal status of body slaves to their husbands. The rape statutes in all 50 United States precluded the prosecution of husbands, including those in estranged or legally separated couples, for rape. Marriage was irrebutably presumptive consent to a man’s intercourse with his wife, including by force. In 1975, South Dakota removed this exemption, the first state to do so. In 1993, North Carolina became the last state to remove the spousal rape exemption.
How does all this make me feel about the women graduating from law school today, who have so many opportunities before them, who walk along the trail blazed by the sisters in the Movement who went before? Proud. Very proud. As we say in Yiddish, I’m kvelling.
Of course, as in the Helen Reddy song, “I’m still an embryo, with a long, long way to go, before I make my brother understand,” there isn’t yet perfect gender equality throughout the bar and bench. Our institutions reflect society, and society lacks perfect gender equality. But from my perspective, American society, and the legal institutions within, now want to do a better job. The norm is at least to give lip service to gender equality, whereas when I was a new graduate, the norm was to deride the very concept and to openly repel it.
How did I get my first job as a lawyer? I was lucky enough to join a 3-lawyer firm headed by Esther O. Kegan, born in 1913, who became the first woman patent lawyer in Illinois. She was certainly the first woman in Chicago to have her own law firm. I desperately wanted to practice trademark and copyright law. She took me in as the fourth lawyer and gave me that chance. I spent the next 37 years doing just that. Because no client came to her IP boutique firm who didn’t accept women counsel, I had the unique experience of suffering no sex discrimination in that firm. Unlike my sister classmates, who – having found employment -- were nonetheless often told they couldn’t meet certain clients, who didn’t like the idea of being represented by “a girl” or “a lady lawyer.” I remember being amazed that someone of her age, 63, had her vibrancy, her stamina. And I’m sure I remarked upon it to her, and I am sure, in retrospect, she did not take these comments as the flattery I’d genuinely intended (I’m three years older now than she was when I met her). Junior associates make similar remarks to me, along with “my mom says that, too.” (Flattering when mom is the CEO of a public company or a member of the judiciary, but…) And now, “gee, you’re the same age as my grandma and she doesn’t use Twitter” seems to be understood by a certain generation as a workplace compliment. Do associates blurt out these amazed age-based comparisons to male partners at their firms?
Widowed in 2003 by my screenwriter husband of 25 years, I started dating a few years ago and am now in a committed relationship (fancy wedding ring and all). The reactions of the younger generation have included “awwww, that’s so sweet,” which I hear as “sweet that someone your age is ‘still interested’ ” in activities typically reserved, they assume, for the young. Is that worse than “hey, you GO, Girl!”? (I hear the cougar word as a smirk.)
When I turned 65, I became aware that the LA County Bar Association’s Senior Member’s Section offers an on-line newsletter, the Dinosaur Digest, with the logo of a dinosaur. With a start, I realized I’d felt this before – the sense of being a non-minority, yet marginalized, and even self-marginalized, by society. Where had I experienced this sensation? Oh, yes. The Women’s Movement, but now, not as a woman, but as a senior. Helen Reddy’s words couldn’t be more apt:
And I know too much to go back and pretend
Cuz I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again
And to LACBA I say:
I am senior, hear me roar,
I’m no f***ing dinosaur.
This gratuitous “humorous” stereotype buy-in is as offensive to me as a logo of a miniskirted cheerleader with enormous boobs symbolizing the women lawyers’ section.
My message to young women lawyers is to think about and plan for your future as an older lawyer, or perhaps, as a retired lawyer. Consider whether your identity is bonded to your career, or even to your firm. Who are you besides all that? As an “Irellative,” who’s spent years relishing my still-beloved firm as a nurturing family, I am seeped in this question and all its facets. Women don’t have many role models for ageing within the profession, or for what happens after retirement. We’ve blazed our trail to this point, and we’re still finding our way as dynamic and self-actualized older women, looking ahead with a bit of trepidation and a lot of excitement. And as we find our next steps, we can certainly find a better role model than the dinosaur. To LACBA, and to all of my sisters of a certain age, I offer the following:
Jane Shay Wald is Partner Emeritus with Irell & Manella LLP, and Chair of its Trademark Practice Group. She is Immediate Past President of the Century City Bar Association. See more about Jane at http://www.irell.com/video-waldwomanofachievement.html.