Saturday, September 17, 2011

Growing pains: The tension between my parents' principles and feminism.

'Tis the season for fellowships. Many third year law students are preparing applications for fellowships across the United States. I recently submitted an application that asked: "Describe a personal or professional challenge that you have faced in the past and how you overcame that challenge. (3500 characters or less)."

Below is my response the fellowship question:

"Certain principles were instilled in me at a young age as a female raised in a traditional Latino family. Women are patient. Women are empathetic. Women are care-takers. Women are unselfish. We work with what we are given. We do not challenge men. We do not question authority. Granted, some of these principles are great assets. They help to define my dedication and compassion for indigent people. Others create hurdles to achieving my mission to be an agent of social change. Since continuing my education, I have struggled greatly with learning how to assert myself. This challenge only increased upon entering the legal profession, where the majority of my colleagues and superiors are men. This personal struggle is further compounded by the fact that I work in the public interest sector, where resources are limited. My personal struggles in learning to become assertive have become my greatest professional challenge, which I have learned to overcome with patience, grace and, most importantly, self-confidence and determination.

Although I was a good student and employee when not asserting myself, the burden of silencing my concerns impacted my work. Although I often had to work long hours, I have always produced high quality work-product, yet I remained submissive. However, when I began asserting myself and my needs, I was shocked to see that not only did my quality of life improve, but my work-product did as well. I quickly learned that being assertive was not synonymous with being confrontational. For example, I worked on a project where a teammate unexpectedly left. Our deadline was rapidly approaching. Although I took on the work, it was impossible for one person to complete the work on time. I feared informing my supervising attorney that I needed a new teammate or that the deadline needed to be changed for fear of upsetting--or worse--disappointing him. No matter how many ten hour shifts I put in, the project could not possibly have been completed in time. After building up the courage to tell him what I needed, we decided to change the project’s deadline to accommodate the circumstances, and the conversation effectively moved our work forward.

My attitude in response to the arguably sexist principles I was raised with changed over time for a number of reasons. One of the major driving forces behind my conscious and often painful effort to assert myself was the realization that if I remained timid I would be an ineffective agent of social change. I am ultimately hurting my clients if I cannot be the finest advocate there is, even if this means confronting some of the deep-seated principles I was raised with. Initially, I was overwhelmed and felt hopeless at times in my quest to assert myself. However, knowing that this was for the benefit of the people whom I aim to serve pushed me through. Oddly enough, my greatest form of support came from the other set of the principles instilled in me: patience, empathy and flexibility. These qualities are instrumental in providing balance to what had become my greatest personal conflict, the yin and yang of my character--an issue I no longer fear to confront. The courage to assert my voice on behalf of others serves my clients best because I am invested in the service for my well being and theirs."

Upon reflection, I find my response interesting for two reasons. First, I unconsciously chose to write about a personal challenge that has become a professional challenge over time. Strange enough, my greatest struggle in life is negotiating the principles my parents and family instilled in me with the need to be a strong and independent person - not only for myself, but for those I aim to serve as an attorney. The curious aspect of this dynamic is that until I was forced to articulate this struggle (via answering the above fellowship question), I failed to recognize its key players: traditional notions of Latina/o gender roles and feminism.

What is remarkable to me is that for the past decade I have been engaging in a serious and personally deep negotiation of the conflicting features of Latina/o gender roles and feminism without clearly identifying them. There is no doubt I have had my suspicions from time to time of who my "masked" players are, but sadly I never took the time to properly investigate. Instead, whenever I experienced an inner conflict between the two, I bit my lip, put my head down, and simply carried on. I chose never to question the sources of my conflict.

I attribute this lack of curiosity in part to the power of the traditional Latina/o roles I was raised with. As noted in my response to the question, I understood questioning things as being synonymous with being confrontational. Although I would not have been questioning a male or an authority figure in this instance, to question the conflict within me would still be risking confrontation with something. A woman is patient, and flexible. She works with what she is given. I have this conflict. I am supposed to simply work through it.

This passive line of logic has dramatically changed over time. Furthermore, now that I have identified the masked players in the greatest challenge in my life, I feel more empowered than ever. I am more comfortable and prepared to intelligently confront these challenges.
While discussing my response with a colleague, I was comforted to hear her echo many of the same challenges. Although I am sure there are other women out there who work through the same issues, I hope there are some women who do not. I would like to hear their responses and how they negotiate the tension between traditional gender notions of women in a male dominated legal profession.


KayZee said...

S, I think that your post really opens up conversation about the many influences all of us have as professional women. I appreciate your discussion of traditional Latina/o gender roles and how they have influenced your experience in the legal profession thus far. I have very often thought about the many female role models I had growing up and how they have affected my part in law school and eventually, in my legal employment.

I think when we're younger that we tend to look at the adults in our lives and see what they do, and their professions become "possibilities" for us later in life. As a child, I was actually fortunate enough to know quite a few female attorneys. Many of our family friends had at least one parent who was practicing law, and many times it was the mother. This instilled in me the idea that women "can" be lawyers. Now, being in the position of entering into the working world, I have a much greater appreciation and view of what it meant for those women to be lawyers in their generation. I look back at how they were raising their children. Did my friends mind that their moms were at work when they got home from school? Did those moms feel more pressure to be at home in the 1990s than we will when we have children?

Beyond questions of family and children, I wonder now what the characteristics and personalities were of these women that made them successful in law. What were the social influences they had growing up? S, I appreciate your candor in talking about how your influences have molded you into the lawyer you are about to become. It certainly gives me yet another thing to ponder about my own influences.

tzey said...

I can totally relate. Growing up in a very traditional Mexican household there were very specific gender expectations that were taught and expected to be followed. Women were kind and caregiving. Caregiving and kindness though was passive. The women in my family are very caregiving they are also fierce and tough. Women in my family are loud and opinionated and dont often practice the gender expectation that they teach.