For the Record x Emma Staffaroni

The Women Who Endure: Long-Distance Racers Find Personal and Community Empowerment

"Get out of MY race!" First-female Boston Marathon runner gets chased by marathon-organizer, Jock Semple, 1967. {Photo Courtesy of Corbis}

A September, 1975 New York Times headline reads: “Women Marathon Runners Are Racing to Equality with Men.” Featuring the story of Kim Merritt, the women’s winner of the 6th annual New York Marathon that year, the journalist, Steve Cady, places Merritt’s story in the context of the turbulent women’s liberation movement happening off the race course. “In long distance running,” wrote Cady, “women’s suffrage means the right to suffer the same mental and physical torment as men and to enjoy the same sweet sense of accomplishment.” Cheeky, indeed–he later refers to Merritt as the “Susan B. Anthony of long-distance running”–but his point may nonetheless have held particular significance, and even giddy novelty, for the generation of women who only three years prior had seen Title IX passed into law.

Today, endurance racing among women manifests as everything from a one-time personal challenge to a full-time profession. Women compete in citywide runs for causes, professional marathons, college cross country, Olympic races, and affiliated local or national events. And as Elaine Harris of Manhattan put it, “Everyone is surrounding you, people of all ages, races, genders… it really is equalizing.” A sentiment not far from Cady’s, though it takes on new meaning in the 21st century.

Harris decided to tackle the challenge of a triathlon during her first year out of college. Signing on with “Team in Training,” a NYC-based organization affiliated with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS), Harris made a two-fold commitment: in order to compete, she had to raise a minimum of $2,000 for LLS; and, of course, she had to complete the rigorous Olympic-style Triathlon–a 1-mile swim, followed by a 25-mile bike ride, and concluding with a 6-mile run.

“It’s like a trick,” she says. “You tell people you’re going to do it. You say to yourself, ‘I’ve told people I’m going to cross that finish line, so I’m not giving up.”

And she told lots of people. Through a widespread letter-writing campaign and aggressive fundraising, Harris raised five times the minimum—$10,000—for LLS. “Unfortunately, it’s a cause many people relate to,” she says. Her campaign not only raised awareness among her friends, family, and community, it also raised her own consciousness.  Through the scorching hot summer, she spent two or three weekdays and a Saturday each week training in both group and personal settings. One day, she recalls, she got through a “mental block” and ran farther than ever before, telling herself she would not stop until the entire 6-mile course was completed. At 8-miles, she was still going. “I’ll admit I started to surprise myself.”

The day of the race, it was pouring rain in Manhattan. Starting with a swim in the Hudson River, Harris and her fellow triathletes descended from 98th to 78th Street, then biked back up through the Bronx, finishing with run straight back to lower Manhattan. Harris’ entire family came out bright and early to show support; even among the masses of swim-capped heads in the stormy Hudson, Harris says, “my sister could spot my stroke.”

During the run, Harris noticed athletes running together, holding a string. “Blind athletes,” she explains, “Incredible.” She also saw a veteran competing with one leg. Surrounded by such inspiring acts of courage and strength, Harris found her own strength anew during her last 2 miles: “I can’t complain,” she remembers thinking. “I have both legs; I’m a healthy young woman. I can do this and I will.” When she crossed the finish line, she cried. “They were literally handing out bagels,” she remembers with starry eyes.

Davida Ginsberg of Connecticut felt a similar sense of community and personal empowerment when she completed a 115-mile bike ride last year with the Jewish Environmental Organization “Hazon” ( which means “vision” in Hebrew. The cyclists rode over a two-day period, beginning in the Hudson Valley and ending on the Upper West Side of Manhattan near the Jewish Community Center.

Like Harris, Ginsberg decided to take part in this endurance race both as a personal challenge and as a way to connect with others. She, too, raised funds for the organization and got her family and friends involved in her race. Hazon’s work and mission was central to her motivation. “I knew I would feel supported and connected to people with whom I shared values of environmental sustainability and social justice,” Ginsberg says.

Elaine Harris of NY, center, surrounded by family members in fan T-shirts on the day of the NYC Triathlon.

Endurance racing thus took on manifold meanings in her life: personal challenge, physical activity, and hobby—but also participation in her Jewish community. It also represents a manifestation of her environmentalist principles and activist work. Ginsberg echoes many of Harris’ feelings after the completing the challenge. “I definitely see myself as more capable,” she reflects. “I feel amazed by the capabilities of the human body.”

Michelle Saindon, of Connecticut, had yet another reason for getting involved in endurance racing: she wanted to be an example of good health for her three children. Although Saindon was not a self-identified “runner,” she decided to do the half-marathon after she watched the Hartford race: “I saw many women that looked just like me crossing the finish line,” she recalls. This inspired her, so she and two friends signed up.

Saindon drew upon the communal experience of the race for support and strength, much as Harris did. “[My friends] and I knew going into the race that were going to stick together, finish together, and most of all have fun,” Saindon recounts. This allowed her to work through that “suffrage” Cady wrote about–the mental and physical pain that endurance racing entails. “Even when my knees were killing me at mile 9,” she says, “we focused on the parts of our bodies that didn’t hurt, like our pinkie fingers… If I had raced by myself it would have been much, much harder.” Harris also had strategies for keeping her mind focused through the pain; as she ran through Manhattan, she looked for familiar places from her memories and worked toward them. “I knew we were going to pass my family’s old apartment, and later on the Met, and other spots I love…I had a mental map.”

All three of the women emphasize the feelings of empowerment they gained from their endurance races. “You can get into the grind,” Harris explains, “[but] there’s more than just living on your blackberry. You can do something for yourself and bring it all back into perspective.”

But more than a feeling of personal betterment, the race made them feel like part of a positive community with a common goal. Saindon was so inspired by her accomplishment in the half-marathon that she rallied her neighborhood together for a 2-mile “Turkey Trot” this past Thanksgiving; where the community event raised $750 for the local food bank. “The races I’ve done have given me the confidence to motivate others,” she says. “The young and the old participated, everyone felt great, and we’ll be doing our second one next year.”

Harris will also compete in her second triathlon this summer, only this time she is serving as a “peer coach” for newcomers to the sport. While the decisions to complete these endurance tasks may not hold the same political significance in 2012 as they did for Kim Merritt in ’75, their accomplishments are perhaps just as significant in the scopes of their lives, communities, and society. “The race is ageless, genderless,” Harris says. “It’s just groups of runners, and we all do the same course.”

SHOW ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE: A Foreign City Teaches Me Political Dissent

{Emma Staffaroni is a first-year Master’s candidate in SLC’s Women’s History program. A ruthless feminist, she slays haters with her pen and then eats them for dinner, covered in cheese. She also enjoys basset hounds, trains, and red wine.}

Before we left for Manhattan the morning of October 15th, my roommate tossed me a letter from the day’s mail, postmarked from Céline, a good friend I met when I was an English teacher in Besançon, France, last year. In our most recent Facebook exchanges Céline had asked me if I was occupying Wall Street: “Not yet!” I replied, “But I plan to.” It seemed timely that I got her letter just as my roommates and I were preparing to occupy Times Square, my first physical show of support for the Occupy Wall Street movement that has been mobilizing in New York City for over a month and since spread across the nation and globe. Céline’s letter informed me that people on her side of the pond hear about OWS in the news every day: “It reminds us of our beloved May 1968.”

In French collective memory, the revolutionary strikes and occupations during May and June of 1968 are engrained in a way tantamount to our Civil Rights Era marches and sit-ins (or even our women’s liberation movement). Rising up against capitalism and imperialism, Parisian university students and leftists held riotous and destructive protests, iconically tearing up cobblestones from the Boulevard St. Michel and building barricades against the police.

Parisian protesters on the Boulevard St. Michel, May 1968

The difference between May 1968 in Paris and the American Civil Rights Movement lies in their effects on our respective cultures some 40 years later: the French Left has not lost its fire-in-the-belly zeal for a strike or a march. Quite the contrary, our American populace has been more than reticent to repeat the bold and public displays of political dissent that filled the 1960s and 70s.

I’d learned of the May 1968 Paris maniféstations while I was studying in Paris in 2009. I shouldn’t even say that I was studying; most of the time, the entrance to my university was blocked by three or more heavily armed police. Indeed, in the Spring of 2009, the city of Paris was occupied in much of the same fashion as it had been in 1968. Nobody was tearing up cobblestones, but university professors and their students were regularly occupying the Latin Quarter throughout the Winter and Spring in objection to Sarkozy’s privatization of the public university system (and other social service sectors).

Professors in France traditionally held a significant amount of freedom in their decision to teach or to research as enseignant-chercheurs (teacher-researchers). Under the newly privatized system, the university’s administration determines the resources allocated to their faculty. Theoretically, this allows the individual institutions to favor professors and disciplines that will earn the most for the school and improve its reputation.

From our American capitalist perspective, this structure is commonplace and rational but for the French’s tacitly different socialist view, it is an aberration. And so students, in support of their teachers’ freedoms and their beloved traditions, jeopardized their hard-earned diplomas by taking to the streets instead of going to class.

Talk about a cultural experience: I learned more from the young people en grève than I ever would have in a Sorbonne lecture. These politically engaged folks taught me French values, French political history, and French point-of-view on capitalism. To say it was eye-opening would be an understatement.

Of course, I’m not French. Recounting this experience to friends and family back in the States, the punchline of my story would always be: “I mean, would you ever see American students doing something like that for their professors?” Everyone laughed. As much as I respected the French commitment to “l’esprit de mai 68,” it was still preposterous from an American cultural perspective.

Fast forward to my year abroad teaching English. This time, it wasn’t university students protesting, but high school students. The French minister of education had put into effect a reform of the high school structure mass budget slashes to the education system meant teachers were losing their jobs. If the details of the reform are too complicated for this short article, their effect is not: high school students across France organized to blockade the entrances of their schools and protest the changes to their education. One year before I would occupy Times Square, I looked out the window of my apartment to see students pushing huge trash bins and other large materials in front of the entrance to their high school. Unions staged sit-ins and occupations of the major squares in town, shutting down the bus system and parading through the streets.

Needless to say, the spirit of protest has been following me around for a couple of years now. When I first read about Slutwalk this past summer, I was overjoyed—a feminist protest movement—finally! And now: Wall Street. A woman we met on the 15th in Times Square told my friends and I: “I was arrested forty years ago in an anti-war protest. It’s about time for people to wake up! We should’ve been out here in 2004 when Bush stole the presidency.” She was reacting to the sign my friend Jenn (a fellow Women’s History student and my roommate) was holding that exclaimed in big bold letters :“GIVE A SHIT.”

Now that I’m back in an American city, occupying public space feels expected, if not overdue. Up until now my generation has seen a generally apathetic and anti-intellectual culture, which instructs us that political and civil rights have been won by our forebears. Marching and boycotting–that’s for hippies, for folks without rights, for nations without democracy. But my experience in Times Square on Saturday October 15th seemed to transcend history, and at the same time honor it. We shouted “THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!” or “ALL DAY, ALL WEEK, OCCUPY WALL STREET! NEW YORK, TIMES SQUARE, OCCUPY EVERYWHERE!” and “THE PEOPLE UNITED WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED!” These were moments of collective consciousness and political dissent. Flanked by the Hard Rock Café, Sephora, and Times Square’s ostentatious light show flashing all around us—our voices became a part of a new American culture as well as a forgotten one—a culture that actually, and finally, gives a shit.

Reproductive Justice: A Timeline by Emma Staffaroni

Emma Staffaroni is a first-year Master’s candidate in SLC’s Women’s History program. A ruthless feminist, she slays haters with her pen and then eats them for dinner, covered in cheese. She also enjoys basset hounds, trains, and red wine.

Full disclosure: I am 23. That means that up until the last couple of years, most of the fighting for women’s reproductive rights in the United States took place before my time. When I first learned about Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case affirming a woman’s right to choose, I was exactly the same age that my mom was in 1973: fifteen. Fifteen is a big age; it is a tempestuous time. It is, in my opinion, a bit too late for a young woman to be learning about the right to choose. Unfortunately, 2003 was right smack in the heart of the “Bush years”, so even though my Connecticut public high school dodged most of the abstinence-only education craziness, our health class still shimmered with overtones of SEX IS DIRTY AND WRONG. My mom and I are thirty years apart, but as fifteen-year-old women we got similar messages from our public education system.

For me in 2003, learning about some court case that legalized abortion thirty years ago might as well have been ancient history. “Cool,” my simple, teenage brain thought. Glad they took care of that! Of course it wouldn’t be until my Women’s Studies classes in college that I’d understand why abortion had been illegal in the first place. Up until around 1930, abortion practices were often crude and dangerous, leading to thousands of deaths. (For that reason, many prominent feminists and suffragists were against the practice – not for any kind of religious reason, but because it was a dirty, scary thing that killed women.) When practices started to improve in the 30s and 40s, mortality rates dropped significantly.  Sure enough, the Supreme Court justices who ruled on Roe in 1973 reasoned that with modern medicine’s advances, legal barriers were no longer appropriate or relevant.

My mom was in college when the Hyde Amendment barred all federal funding for abortions. I was in college when, in the midst of health care reform debates, Representative Bart Stupak (D-MI) and Representative Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) tacked onto the healthcare bill an amendment in their names that would have blocked any federal funds from covering a health plan that includes abortions. The Stupak-Pitts Amendment passed in the House but was shot down in the Senate. Little did I know that it was just the beginning of an onslaught against women’s choice starting with the mid-term elections in 2010. The parallels of history are uncanny – I can almost hear “The Circle of Life” playing.

For lots of women’s rights activists, the politics of the reproductive justice movement feel like a nauseating merry-go-round – in part because it rests on a paradoxical notion of freedom. Roe v. Wade granted the right to choose based on the Constitutional right to privacy. “Privacy,” of course, gets redefined and circumscribed anew with the changing demands of society, technology, and the state. The 1992 ruling of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey is a lesson in this; by evoking language of public health, the court created space for state intervention in women’s experience of reproductive freedom and autonomy. The Casey ruling, while affirming the right to an abortion, also created cracks in the foundation through which state regulation and limitation could seep.

But this tension between individual freedom and state intervention is problematic for many feminists because it vilifies the state’s role in protecting women. Indeed, the entire Bill of Rights is about keeping the government’s nose out of the individual’s business. And yet in so many ways, this view of freedom – the hands-off kind – is precisely that which has eroded the welfare state and placed barriers to President Obama’s full vision of universal health care.

Nevertheless, bodily autonomy is the most fundamental and basic of all rights for a woman. It recognizes her personhood and separates her childbearing capacity from any child-rearing imperative. By isolating the act of abortion from its context, i.e. the woman involved, the anti-choice movement “keep[s] women slaves to their biology,” in the words of Ellen Willis. “They do not concede women the right to an active human existence that transcends their reproductive function,” she writes.

Gloria Steinem takes it even further. In an interview in 2004 before Bush was re-elected, Steinem presaged the destructive effects of another four years of right-wing government. When asked about Bush’s evocation of Christian law, Steinem responded that “pro-life” is not really about religion.

I think the deep reasoning here… is to control women’s bodies as the most fundamental means of production. Because unless you control that process, you can’t make the decisions about how many workers a country needs, how many soldiers, what races should reproduce more than others. The ability to control reproduction is one of the two pillars of nationalism. The other is the ability to control territory. I think this goes very deep and really does not have that much to do with religion. …The cloaking of political imperatives in religious language is the problem.

What the right to bodily autonomy ultimately represents, then, is women’s full participation in democracy. If we don’t own our bodies, then we don’t own our lives. It’s as simple as that.

No matter how far we’ve come (or haven’t) it is crucial for women of my generation to know what women of my mother’s generation witnessed firsthand. It is vital that we see the links between the kinds of attacks on women’s autonomy that followed Roe in the late 70s and early 80s, and the rehashed attacks on Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers we face today. If we want to prevent the current anti-choice movement from pulling the historical rug out from under us, we need to remember our history and keep fighting for it. We must understand why we have the rights we have, and also why they are still in jeopardy.

So, with a little help from the Historical and Multicultural Encyclopedia of Women’s Reproductive Rights in the United States, I’ve put together a timeline of some of the cornerstones of the reproductive justice movement since the 1960s. Starting with Griswold v. Connecticut and leading up to the aforementioned Casey ruling, this will hopefully provide a longer-view of the circuitous route of justice for women in this country. If we want current fifteen-year-old young women to, thirty years from now, still hold the same status as women do today, we best know our history.

Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) – This case came about when Estelle Griswold, the executive director of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, opened a birth control clinic. Three days later she was arrested for dispensing contraceptives to a married couple. The Supreme Court invalidated this law by a majority of seven to two, ruling that a constitutional right to privacy protected the right of married couples to use contraceptives. Many amendments in the Constitution created “zones of privacy” that protect one’s home, one’s person, and one’s possessions. These zones would be key for the eventual Roe ruling.

Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) – This was the step between Griswold and Roe that further articulated privacy. It affirmed the reproductive autonomy of every individual, married or not. This meant that the individual was to be “free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.”

Roe vs. Wade (1973) – In this ruling, the Supreme Court stated that the rights recognized in Griswold and Eisenstadt are “broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” This decriminalized abortion in all U.S. states. With developments in modern medicine the laws against the procedure, which had been in place to protect women, were no longer necessary. This decision also established the trimester principle.

Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth (1976) – This was the first Supreme Court ruling on a state law that attempted to restrict and discourage abortions in the years after Roe. The restrictions in this law will sound familiar, as many states have rehashed similar and more draconian laws today. Danforth succeeded in defining viability of the fetus as “when the life of the unborn child may be continued indefinitely outside the womb by natural or artificial life-support systems”; the case also succeeded in requiring abortion providers to keep records for public health officials. Aside from that, the Supreme Court struck down Danforth’s demands that married women must receive the consent of their husbands, which is a term that has held since.

Hyde Amendment (1976)– This amendment prohibits the use of federal funding for abortions. This affects Medicaid recipients, federal employees (1983), disabled women on Medicare (1988), military personnel & Peace Corp volunteers (1979), Native American women (1988), residents in D.C. (1977), and women in federal prisons (1987). There were a few exceptions: when the woman’s life was in danger, when two physicians certified that the woman would suffer long-term damage, and when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. In 1981 this changed to only include exceptions for preserving the woman’s life. In 1993 it expanded to include pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. Some states fund abortions beyond the restrictions of the Hyde Amendment.

Planned Parenthood of Kansas City v. Ashcroft (1983) – This case reaffirmed the fundamental right for a woman to obtain an abortion but also clarified the boundaries of that right. The Supreme Court ruled against the Missouri statute that all second-trimester abortions had to be performed in a hospital; six out of nine justices found this unconstitutional. However, the Court ruled in favor of Missouri’s other restrictions, including the most highly contested “two-physician rule.” Missouri did not even require two physicians to be present for childbirth, yet this rule was seen as an “accepted medical practice,” so the Court upheld it. A similar setback was the parental consent ruling, which the Court upheld. Minors would be forced to get parental consent unless they could prove maturity and receive a “judicial bypass.” Ashcroft is seen as both a victory and a setback for reproductive rights. It granted a lot of latitude for states to impose restrictions on the abortion process.

Global Gag Rule (1984)- Ronald Reagan instated the Global Gag Rule or “GGR” which denies family planning funds to any foreign NGO that – with its own non-U.S. money – provides legal abortion services and counseling, gives information or referrals about safe abortion, or even takes part in a public debate that improves access to services.  This has been overturned and reinstated, back and forth, between conservative and liberal presidencies. Most recently, Obama overturned the GGR in 2009.

Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992) – Many believed that this would be the case that would overturn Roe, but it did not. Instead the conservative majority in the Supreme Court weakened the ruling but kept it in place. Southeastern Pennsylvania had instated the 24-hour waiting period, as well as the mandated counseling services. For the first time, the Court accepted the notion that the state had an interest in protecting “the health of the woman and the life of the fetus that may become a child.” This limited the scope of the Roe rights by introducing the “undue burden” standard. Put simply, as long as the state’s intervention does not burden the woman’s right, it is legitimate. (Of course this can be interpreted in myriad ways!) This opened the door for a number of state regulations, most recently the “TRAP” laws or Targeted Regulations for Abortion Providers – laws which actively target abortion-providing clinics with regulations that block their funding and force them to jump through hoops.

 {Battles on the horizon} – Since the 2010 mid-term elections, abortion providers in states like South Dakota and Indiana have faced unprecedented opposition. Women in those states may know that their right to an abortion exists at the national level, but it doesn’t seem that way in their own backyards. For an up-to-date and thorough look at the full extent of regulations across the United States today, check out this comprehensive graph. It is organized by type of regulation: from parental consent requirements, to waiting periods, to mandatory counseling and ultrasounds, to blocked insurance funding. These attacks not only degrade women’s basic healthcare access but they also undermine the legal system. As citizens we want to have faith in the courts, but more often than not individuals with power (e.g. conservative governors) get the last word. What’s next for the reproductive justice movement? What will this graph look like thirty years from now?

Law, Order, and Sexism: Testimonials from the Law Firm

Emma Staffaroni is a first-year Master’s candidate in SLC’s Women’s History program. A ruthless feminist, she slays haters with her pen and then eats them for dinner, covered in cheese. She also enjoys basset hounds, trains, and red wine.

 

 

Behold, a great irony: sexism in the profession of justice. Re/Visionist asked a few women to share their stories of experiencing sexism within the legal profession. The anonymous women below have given their testimonies in order to raise consciousness about the complex (but straightforward) ways sexism can pervade the legal workplace.

I.

I worked in a law firm in Manhattan dedicated to women’s rights in employment. However, it was run by two men – that’s right – two men. All interns, administrative assistants, office managers, and attorneys at the firm were women. Although there were many women working at the law firm, the two head lawyers never allowed any of the hard-working female attorneys to be a partner in the firm.  They also treated their employees poorly – sometimes yelling and speaking condescendingly to the females. One of the attorneys started a blog and wanted those who contributed to use pictures of themselves at the beginning of each post. One intern felt compelled to participate but albeit uncomfortable about providing a photo because she felt her writing should stand alone. When she gave a photo of herself, he sent it back and requested a close up of her face because the photo was taken of her from “too far away.”

After about a year, I left my position as an administrative assistant after an argument between the head attorney and me about my disappointment in him not fulfilling in what he alleged to be.  He purported to be a feminist attorney trying to help women, but he treated his employees and his clients terribly and underneath his feminist mask he was just a patriarchal male attorney in lower Manhattan.

II.

When I worked at the firm there was (and still is) a dress code that was especially enforced for us underlings. The girls always got lectured if a skirt or pants were too tight, whereas the boys could pretty much do whatever they wanted. They would look all wrinkled and messy, and they never got chastised. Also tasks were delegated to us [based on gender]: girls were generally asked to do most of the filing (unless there was a huge amount and then the boys would help). Guys did more of the physical or technological stuff. Also some of our fellow couriers/service techs who were male would just expect us to do certain tasks, like copy jobs.

III.

We were at trial in New Jersey.  All of the attorneys and litigation support staff stay in the same hotel.  We had a holiday weekend and a few of the attorneys and staff went to the hotel bar for some drinks and appetizers.  Everyone had a little bit too much to drink, and on our way up the elevator back to our rooms, the lead attorney on our case grabbed my ass walking out of the elevator.

IV.

After graduating from college I decided to paralegal at a Manhattan law firm hoping to reach a decision on whether or not I wanted to attend law school. I found it interesting that a vast majority of the paralegals at my firm were women in their early-twenties who had recently graduated from top colleges. All of the attorneys, except one, were men. I once asked the head unit attorney why he only hired women and he answered that women were smarter and “more able” to get the job done correctly and efficiently. There is no doubt in my mind that women are smarter (kidding), but I took this to mean that women are non-threatening, especially when it came to prepping for court motions or depositions, and it made him feel superior.

During my first year at the firm I started to notice that younger women who dressed in tighter, shorter, more provocative clothing received bigger cases and more important tasks within the office. This translated into these paralegals traveling with attorneys to depositions and motion proceedings. Women were clearly not valued for their mind or their talents alone, but rather for their bodies and how they looked.

After rebelling against this stereotype for about a year and not receiving anything of great importance in terms of work, I realized that in order to get the leading cases or recommendations that I needed for school, or even just to have attorneys know who I was, I needed to step it up with my outfit choices and start taking pride in my appearance. I basically realized that I would need to work within this patriarchical system – something that I was taught NOT to do in my past Feminist Political Theory classes – to get what I needed out of my stint at the law firm.

As I started to confidently strut the hallways wearing more shoulder-baring tops, shorter and tighter skirts, and heels (ALWAYS heels- never flats), I was noticed by more attorneys in the office. Not long after I was placed on trial team and given more important and serious work to do. I was given more opportunities to travel with different attorneys and work on different cases. Despite the fact that I knew using my sexuality or gender to get ahead was ultimately wrong and against my beliefs, I figured I was only staying at this male-centric law firm for a couple years I would try to get what I needed out of this position. My lesson from this job is that no matter how many women are graduating from law school these days, the legal field is still very male dominated and misogynistic. Women are not valued for their minds alone, but most importantly, their looks. My intellectual capabilities were secondary to my attractiveness and appearance.

V.

Sometimes less really is more. On my first day of observations as a legal intern I had the opportunity to view a custody case in Family Court. Before the proceedings, the Judge asked me to introduce myself and describe my legal interests. At recess, opposing counsel approached and congratulated me, seemingly intrigued by my interests. After uncomfortably staring in silence when every facet of Small Talk was exhausted, he finally commented, “I hope to see more of you… and even less of your skirt.” That single sentence possessed more power than he could have envisioned. In several words, it undermined my past, present and future abilities. More importantly, it solidified my decision to pursue law.

 

We invite you to share your stories below in our comments. Let women know that they are not dealing with this alone.