Saturday, November 11, 2006

My Feminist Soapbox

I spent the afternoon mulling over how I want to recount this morning's incident and now that I am home with the blank screen in front of me I am at a bit of a loss as to how to start, how much background to give, how far I delve into the issue. Instead of figuring out the most eloquent and logical format, I am going to just dive in and see what happens - wish me luck.

This morning I reluctantly dragged myself out of bed and rushed out the door just past 10 so I could take two buses to attend a brunch for the BYU alumni women's law forum. I have not previously chosen to be involved with this particular group for a variety of reasons I have never been able to fully articulate. As time stretches out between me and my BYU experience I am softening, I question my biases and wonder if I have exaggerated the negative. I forget what bothered me. In an age when law schools enroll around 50% females across the country, my class was only 30% women. At times I have read that they are doing their best to recruit more but I never really saw it. When I applied I was accepted and didn't heard a word from them until I showed up at orientation. No one made any effort to convince me to attend. That tells me that at least at that time they were not actively seeking to recruit qualified women. During the course of my three years there while I was convinced that feminist was a bad word, I listened to men in my class tell me and the other women that we were taking spots that should have gone to men who have families to support. I know my qualifications were questioned, maybe the bar was lowered because as a former employer told me "BYU needs women, you should be able to get in there." I witnessed a classmate of mine tell a female professor she should be home with her children, not teaching. I listened to my female classmates explain that all they really want to do is get married and have children. Five years after graduation most of them are at home with their kids, many of them never even practiced after graduation. That is a choice each of them made and I do not question it. However, as I interviewed for jobs I had several potential employers question me on my "5 year goal", in an effort to gauge whether or not I was comitted to practicing. What I do wonder is whether those women who are not practicing, whether all of the overly educated mothers out there are at home by choice or because they didn't have an option - they could either work full time or stay home full time. Or maybe they are at home because they can't handle the judgment of their neighbors should they choose to work.

The alum currently acting as the NY president (or representative or whatever the title) has been practicing law for 3 years in NYC, she was two years behind me in law school and when she was a summer associate at my former firm, I was her mentor. I have never had negative feelings for her but I've always felt we were different enough that a friendship never fully developed as one might have expected from our common background. She, like me, is unmarried and does not have children, I'll refer to her as "S".

When I arrived at her home only two other women were present - one a student, the other a fourth year associate at a large firm who recently had a baby and just returned to work full time. I'll refer to her as "M". No one else came.

Initially the conversation was light and pleasant but somewhere it took a turn and voices began to rise, the pace of conversation quickened and an urgency to get one's point across caused each of us to interupt one another and request others to allow a point to be made. The topic of conversation had fallen on women in law firms - their progression towards partner, the value they add, whether women with children should be there. . . . My bias in this discussion was that S was talking about the state of things at her current, and my former, firm. I admit, I have some bitterness towards my prior firm. My prior firm gave me enough of a negative experience that I learned to speak out for myself and women and to insist on a more welcoming environment because it was not willing to give this. I watched one woman (also mormon) get all of her cases taken away as soon as she announced her pregnancy. She was squeezed out - I watched it up close and personal. I am sure there are some things she could have done differently but there was no reason for her to be treated the way she was - certainly not because she was pregnant. S claims she deserved not to be there because she wasn't a good associate. S was not there, she has listened to the firm's side and bought it completely.

I watched senior female associates be passed up for partner year after year. I looked at the partners in my department and they were all white males - all 30+ of them. At one point our department decided to give the women some training to show they cared about retaining us. A female partner came from LA to tell us it is possible to be a female partner at firm X. The part that sticks with me 3 to 4 years later is how that woman said after she made partner she realized she had "forgotten" to have kids, but it was too late. That was supposed to be encouraging? Another incident that stands out was when we had training that told us to not talk about our kids (not one woman in the department had a child and very few were even married) and to refrain from activities or conversations that reinforced female stereotypes. The example was "don't bring in baked goods." Apparently this made men realize we are women and should be home baking!! None of that seemed to be a good way to recruit and retain female lawyers to me. I worked with one senior female associate who was made partner a couple of years ago. S claimed she was only made partner because she is female and they use her to push "women issues." I was horrified.

She went on to explain that "women's issues" don't effect her because she is going to be a stay at home mom because her family will come first. Up until this point it was mostly S and me debating back and forth about issues primarily centered around her current firm. But when S continued to explain how a family could not be a top priority if a woman is working, M jumped in full speed. I was impressed by her poise and restraint. Her husband is the primary caretaker for their child. They made a decision together and she is making it work for her family and her family is her first priority. S continued to cast doubt on this.

I do not know what choice I will make when and if I have children: work full time, part time or stay at home or create some other option in between them all. I don't know that now and I can't know that now because I cannot predict my situation. The reason I get involved at my firm and in my community in diversity matters and women's issues specfically, is to expose myself to as many options as possible. It is a cause I believe in - women add value to law firms and the work enviornment needs to adjust to allow them to rise. Women with careers have to be more creative about their path if they have children. There is a time and a season for everything, unfortunately the biological child bearing years directly coincide with prime career building years. When (and if) I am confronted with the choice, I want to know what other women have done - what works, what doesn't, what has potential to work for me. I have watched too many friends walk away from firms because they had no other choice but quit, whether they wanted to or not.

I think it is easy to over-romantacize the idea of quitting a high paying New York law firm life to stay at home with babies. It is easy to daydream about that when you are tired of the drab routine of working 10, 12 or 15+ hours a day. But when I am dreaming of that do I envision children screaming and puking and pooping and throwing things and temper tantrums and yelling "I hate you mommy"? Of course not. Do I envision the endless laundry, the dishes, the meals to prepare, the annoying kids shows playing in the background or the craving of adult conversation? No. I think, wouldn't it be easier if I didn't have to get up and go to work every day and worry about billable hours and meeting unrealistic client deadlines. Staying at home is tough and in some ways scarier to me than going to work. There are pros and cons on each side. No one wants to be a neglectful mother. No mother sets out with the idea that her family is going to come second or third or just plain last. Why do women make these judgments of each other so often? My mother talks about feeling judged when she was a stay at home mom and then judged again when she was forced to go back to work - as an underpaid, underappreciated secretary. My mother didn't have options. She didn't have the luxury of choosing whether she should or shouldn't work and what to do with her career. My mother had to take a low-paying, thankless job because she wasn't prepared. She taught me to be prepared for the unexpected in life.

I believe the purpose of groups like this one is to share and support, to learn from one another and build each other up - not second guess decisions other women have made with their husbands and God as to what will work best for their own family.

This is an excellent article (starting on pages 9) I considered blogging about earlier. I know the author and I love the story she opens with. The question is as a woman, "how can you be a devout Mormon and work?" I find it sad that there is a perception out there among some that Mormon women are not "allowed" to work. I find it even more sad that within our church there are people who do not see the value of women not only getting an education but also pursuing careers.

I am 31 years old and unmarried. There is very real possibility that I will never get married or if I get married that I will not be able to have children. Am I just supposed to wait around for these things to happen performing a job that doesn't amount to a career or a maybe a softer career that is more suitable for a woman like a school teacher? Are school teachers questioned about their dedication to their families for working? What about when my children are old enough to be in school or after they move out of the house and I am left with time on my hands. Am I just supposed to clean the house, plan their social calendars and make crafts? Is that how I put my family first? What if I found myself in the unfortunate position of being a single mother (by divorce or being widowed) or what if my husband couldn't support the family for one reason or another? Shouldn't I keep every option open to myself to ensure my future and my hypothetical family's future? Isn't the time to prepare for such things now?

A few years ago while I was living in Salt Lake I was advised by a bishop to not tell boys that I am a lawyer because that is too intimidating for them. I was upset by this. I was upset by many of the reactions I received about being a career driven woman. One Sunday Elder Oaks stopped by our singles ward. He came to relief society and was given time near the end to address us. He spoke pointedly and encouraged the girls to get an education and pursue careers. He talked about his mother who raised him and his siblings alone. He talked about his first wife who slowly worked at her education over an extended time period while she supported his career and raised their family. He also spoke about his current wife who has advanced degrees (maybe a doctorate?) and didn't marry him until she was 50 (I think), she is well educated and had a career of her own. She didn't just wait around. After class I felt compelled to speak with him. When I told him I was a laywer he grew excited (he is a lawyer as well, a brilliantly accomplished one at that). I was surprised when he told me that law was an excellent career because of the flexibility. He understands that there needs to be a backup plan. He understands that women need to be prepared and education and career can be those tools.

I used to say that my career was Plan B while I waited for Plan A to kick in - Plan A being the traditional marriage and children route. I no longer find these two plans to be mutually exclusive. I want options. I don't believe I should have to sacrifice family to be a successful attorney in a large law firm and I don't believe I should have to sacrifice a career to be a successful wife and mother. They may not happen all at once and they may not happen in the timeline I envisioned but I believe I can be both and I feel sorry for those who don't see that. Not because I think S should want what I want, but because I believe all of us, as women and sisters, should be supportive of each other in pursuing our own unique paths.


tiff said...

Ohhhhh myyyyyy. Every time I'm confronted with examples like this--real live smart people perpetuating stereotypes, I get sick to my stomach.

Having been a working mom for the past 8+ years, I've heard EVERYTHING. From people at work, from people at church, about where my place is.

I've been treated as a lesser-mother because I've worked full-time, leaving the responsibility of rearing my children to somebody else. Wow. Nice kick in the gut.

Is it hard to be a full-time working mother and take care of all the details at home? Sure. But is there an easy path in life?

One thing that HAS to change is the expectations of working men. They need time off to take care of sick kids. They need flexible schedules to get Timmy to soccer practice. They need to be more involved, not only for the mother's sake, but for his children as well.

I am grateful that I have had a true partnership when it comes to working and raising my kids. We share all of the responsibilities, and I have to say--it really wasn't that hard. Nobody has ever said to Ryan over the years, "But you're the man. You shouldn't be caring for your children when they're sick."

We work it out, day by day, incident by incident, and somehow it all works together.

Employers should be very careful. My former supervisor had two pregnancies while I worked with her. She was dedicated to her children and to her job. So she was gone for a few month, so what? If she had not had support from our employer, they would have lost a very valuable employee. Over a few weeks time off? Come on.

Well, I'm rambling now, but I'm proud of you for voicing your opinions and for being a strong individual. Kids need strong individuals for their moms. Kids need moms who have made important choices for themselves (whatever those choices might be). And men need to take a more active role in the whole picture. I think it's happening a lot more, but I'm still shocked at some of the very traditional households around these parts where the man couldn't even tell you the name of his kid's teacher. Yikes. Parenting belongs to both parents, and that partnership allows each person to be able to seek out their own path more easily.

Okay, I'm done.

Autumn said...

Well said. One thing that is important to remember is that no one ever knows the inner working of a person's family life. Whether or not the wife choses to work is up to her. I have friends whith kids who work because they want to, they enjoy their job and they love their kids. I have friends who have to work because their husbands can't or won't find decent jobs. I chose to stay at home because it was the best for my life right now, but that doesn't mean I have stopped challenging myself. I have a back up plan and I know a back up plan is important. A woman should be prepared to support herself, and to support herself well. I can't believe that story. I think its awful how mormon women and men are so quick to judge without knowing personal issues. Once again, well said.
I'm back. I'm really sorry about your BYU law experience. How dare men say your spot should've gone to a man with a family. Is your education not important? Is your future life not important? Shouldn't you be entitled to all that a good education has to offer? What a load of crap. I would have hard feelings as well after all that.

lizzie said...

thanks alyssa. i agree with you that women need to stick together and support one another--not judge each other. my mom had to work too while i was growing up. i do not in anyway feel i was neglected or that i was second choice.
i was taught, as well as you, that i needed an education. if fact, my dad, after we had annouced we were getting married, the first thing he said was "shawn, liz will finish her degree." then he congratulated us.
and i did finish and i worked a couple of years before i had anna. and i know that if need be---whether the need is financial or something happens to shawn or the need is just because i want to--i can go back to work. it is a nice feeling.

Nadia said...


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