lemme tell ya

Lemme tell ya about being a woman lawyer...

from Womankind (1971) The challenge of being a woman lawyer in the days when they were still considered an oddity. (Editors Note: This article fromWomankind explores what it was like to be a woman lawyer back in the days when they were still a pretty rare sight.)

I went to law school originally, it seems now, because it was pretty evident to me that third grade teachers (which I was) were not very much listened to.

Well, five years later, I don't regret that decision, but things certainly ain't what they appeared to be from my vantage point as a third grade teacher. Men still don't listen -- to teachers or lawyers, it turns out. And no woman should have to have a law degree to get ignored. (Women, though, do listen to other women, and you don't have to be a lawyer for that.)

Being a woman professional solves only the most superficial problems around chauvinism. Once, while in law school, I was present while a friend and his brother were discussing their financial affairs. Mostly I was ignored and not a part of their conversation, until I asked a question showing some understanding of the thing they were rapping about. Oh, said the brother, I forgot you were a lawyer -- and only then did they include me in the conversation. So, it does sometimes work; doing what men consider a man's thing entitles you to participate in their world. But it is still not right, because they recognize your degree and not you. The brother didn't say, oh, I see you understand this thing we (non-lawyers, for sure) are talking about. But what he really said was, oh, I see you have a degree that entitles you to talk about what we're talking about.

No surprise, then, that the same kind of nonsense holds true among lawyers. Women lawyers hold the same degree, but very rarely are they counted as respected colleagues. They let you talk, but they don't listen. For advice they go to each other, and, like everywhere else, you have to be an expert, an exception, before you're anybody.

The examples of outright chauvinism in my daily life continue to astound even me. The last trial I did was with another woman as co-counsel. Each morning the judge would say good morning "counsel" to the assistant state's attorney, and good morning "ladies" to the two of us. Maybe he thought that was more polite.

And there's one judge who always flirts with me, rather than bothering to listen to my case. Once, over lunch, that same judge really said to me, I see today is not one of your "no bra" days. He proudly informed me that he had seen me a while back in my neighborhood on one of my "no bra" days.

That kind of thing goes on a lot - from judges, state's attorneys, clients, and, for sure, from one's so-called colleagues. One time, I owed another defense lawyer money. He told me to bring it to his office - and, by the way, to come naked. Later he said, he didn't understand why a woman with a nice body wouldn't just take that as a compliment.

I spend a lot of time reminding myself that I'm a lawyer and not a cupie doll. To men, even women professionals are just things to play with.

What do I do with all that? Well, I've been through a lot of changes. At first I would just get real angry, but not show it, right? We've all been through that. Smile, flirt, look the other way, or try, unsuccessfully, to change the subject. And then I would end up taking the frustration and hurt out on everyone (male) around me. It hurts a lot to put up with that bullshit all day long, and you have to take it out on someone. It seems to me now, though, that that's not always very constructive. Better to take it out on those who most deserve it.

Then, for a while, I took refuge in the support and love my sisters were giving. That was great; we laughed at them, cried some, and it was easier, it was a whole lot better than before. But now, I think, armed with that love and support, and knowing always more coming, I can take on that judge, rather than letting him get away with that sexist garbage. Why not say, right there in the courtroom - with the state's attorneys, the police, the court reporters, the clerks, all of them listening - Judge, I consider your remarks insulting and sexist, and not a part of this proceeding (or some such). It does put them very uptight, and it does make me feel better.

Answering back doesn't solve the whole problem but it does let you get on with whatever business you're about. Because there are other real enemies in that courtroom, in addition to the sexists. No matter what else is going on at the same time, I don't want to see the state put another black person in jail. And no matter what else is coming down in that courtroom, almost all of the defendants are black or brown, and almost all of the judges, lawyers, and state's attorneys are white. Sexism is always an enemy to be fought. But, them, so is imperialism, especially the domestic variety, which makes sure that 95% of the defendants stay black.

When it comes down to it, my job is no different from any other woman's. Sexism is there, it's always there. We must grow strong, become leaders and smash it. At the same time, it seems to me, we've got to fight the other battles too. I take a lot of cases for women - because I feel better and the women clients feel better. But the enemy doesn't change: it's the state, and all its agents - the police, the prison wardens, the landlords, and the welfare system. Being a woman lawyer is, for me, fighting on behalf of and with my sisters against all of these enemies.