One of the main reasons I became a lawyer 35 years ago, was due to a chance encounter with a woman on a double date over dinner in a Greek restaurant in Chicago. She was my age and, like me, she was a couple of years out of college and working in a clerical job. Unlike me, she was attending night law school.
I don’t remember much about her and I never met her again. I do remember that she was down to earth, fun to chat with and didn’t seem to be a brainiac. After meeting her, I decided that if she could go to law school, so could I.
Next thing I know, I’m studying for and taking the LSAT, and applying to law schools. A couple months later, I’m sitting in my first law class – one of 10 women in a class of over a hundred students listening to the professor say, “look to your right, then look to your left – only one of you will finish law school and go on to become a lawyer.” The law school had a “burn rate” of two out of three students. Four years of part-time night school later, all 10 of us gals graduated – guess the two out of three rule only applied to the guys . . . could it be that the gals worked harder?
Anyway, the reason I bring this up is to illustrate the power of role models. Meeting someone my age and gender who also was working full time in a dead-end job who told me about the availability of the night school option gave me knowledge and confidence to take the law school plunge!
As a pioneer in a profession formerly dominated by men, there were very few role models along the way. There was one female equity partner before me in the large Chicago law firm where I worked. She gave me tips and clues for how to interact with the “boys”. I made sure to return the favor to other women lawyers in the firm who followed me to the “boy’s table”.
The impact of role models is why I think women’s history is so important. Schoolgirls and college women should have the opportunity to learn about women in history who have made a difference. They should learn about the adversity they overcame and how their accomplishments improved the world.
My first exposure to women’s history (just a few years ago) was an adult education course called “Wonder Women” at SDSU. The course featured the lives of Nellie Bly (investigative journalist), Sarah Breedlove (millionaire entrepreneur), Jeanette Rankin (first woman in Congress), Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon (activist reformers), Amelia Earhart (pilot), and Sally Ride (astronaut). Before taking this class, I had only heard of Amelia and Sally.
My next class – also at SDSU – was called “Body Politics”. This class explored the dramatic changes in sexual behaviors and attitudes expected of women of various races and social classes throughout American history – focusing on how religious, medical, legal, and psychological experts defined these roles. This class was incredibly enlightening – opening my eyes to how women’s lives have historically been controlled and limited by organized religion and the medical profession.
Having begun a journey to learn about our foremothers, I can’t help but be amazed that my education during the 50’s and 60’s was so lacking in this regard. I hope that today’s schools are providing a more balanced approach to history. After all, women represent about half of the world ‘s population and our contributions (in addition to giving birth to history makers) are significant in so many fields of endeavor.
Studying women’s history has taught me that real history should be so much more than the study of wars and dates. It should recount not only the accomplishments but also the adversity of the people (of all races and genders) who have dared to make a difference. The study of history should be an exploration of the human condition so that we can learn from the past.
In conclusion, I thank the young woman/role model who inspired me to be a lawyer. I also encourage those of you who haven’t yet done so, to begin your own exploration of women’s history and spread the word so that our young girls and women can benefit from the breadth of experience of the incredible women role models who came before us.