Monday, September 3, 2012

Epiphany Moment?

In an effort to document my progress towards understanding the word “feminist” and where on the spectrum of feminism I fall, I think it wise to begin at where I stand now. I can’t confess to a feminist epiphany moment. Maybe it’s yet to come.

All I know is that I have gone through life thus far largely uninterested in this social phenomenon. Don’t get me wrong. I support women in power. I support gender and racial equality in pay and in all levels of treatment in society, but I have never been moved to educate myself about the “female situation” in society or feminist issues. I have not been moved to speak out. What, then, brought me to this moment?

My story is inextricably intertwined with race. My first summer as an extern in the Santa Clara courts introduced me to the gilded cage of law. I had entered a circus, a stage, a game, where the stakes changed the course of people’s lives. The arbitrator stood tall in the center of the room, obviously the seat of authority. The protagonist attorneys buzzed around, penguins milling around in a sea of unrelenting, somber black. The villains were escorted in by armed guard, dressed identically in their orange jumpsuits, chains jangling from their ankles with every shift of their legs. With roles so scripted, where does justice fit in? The social oppression is tangible. As the summer progressed, I felt more and more claustrophobic. I observed my supervisor, a juvenile judge in Superior Court, molded by her physical appearance as a young-looking, Vietnamese woman. She maintained a stern demeanor, was super sensitive about issues of respect, forbade innocuous jokes and required those who worked under her to maintain the same. Without these trappings, she feared her colleagues and those in her court would not take her seriously. These characteristics defined her role in Superior Court in a way that had nothing to do with justice, and everything to do with perception. For that summer, forced to subjugate myself in her image, I was imprisoned for the first time in my life. Imprisoned by my dress, by my race, and by my gender.

The deeper I journey into this profession, the more hopeless it all seems. To be able to choose to educate myself in the law, to be an attorney, is empowering. Yet, this empowerment is tempered by structures that lead to dead ends. The pot at the end of the rainbow is un-tasteful compromise. I want to start a family, I want to raise my own kids, I want to work, I want to share in my responsibilities at home, I want to make the world a better place, I want to write books, make art, help the disadvantaged and travel. I want to be respected for my work, not for the way I dress and not for having the right pieces of paper or the right items on my resume. To rely on these things is dehumanizing, alienating, and something I want no part of. However, I cannot avoid them, and they stand a necessary evil in the way of my objectives.

A Big Law job, the Holy Grail sitting at the end of law school, is something so many would greedily grab with both hands. But what are we grasping for? Long hours, shitty work, lack of respect, and as a bonus, the side effect of entry into the belly of the legal profession – access into the dominant lens of white, male capitalism. It is an inherently violent system premised on an outdated and ineffective tradition, one that bears overturning.

What is my goal then, in the face of all these musings? All too often, these injustices incite a reactionary response, whether it’s brushing it off, or being upset by it. However, there is another option, the one least chosen and most difficult. It requires analysis of the situation on a number of levels and seeing it from differing perspectives. When situations are distilled into black and white, they never reflect reality. I hope this class will begin to help me break these interactions down, to help me make the choice to be constructive, instead of destructive, and ultimately – to transform the reactionary into the visionary.


KB said...

Two of your concerns associated with “un-tasteful” compromises were the desire to start a family and the desire to work. I believe an issue implicit in your concerns is when to start a family while pursuing a legal career. Should it be during law school, in the first few years of practice, or after many years of practicing? A former boss of mine had one of her children during her third year of law school. She said it was wonderful because as opposed to her schedule as an attorney, she had flexible hours and more time to spend with her child.

Are we precluded from staring a family during our first few years in the legal profession because it may have negative effects on our careers? Maybe the answer to that question depends on what kind of legal environment one works in. However, the demands of the legal profession, despite many improvements with flexible schedules, still make it seem as though you must either have a child before you start your first legal job or after working many years to “establish” yourself. Regardless of where I begin my career, I tend to believe I will start a family when I am in my 30s and have been practicing law for at least 8 years. I usually frame this as my choice, but is it really? If there is an ideal time to have children as a lawyer I do not know when it is or if I like the idea that there is an ideal time.

Heather said...

Your post goes to the complicated question of whether feminists should work within or outside of the system to change it. In short, should you join the male-dominated screwed up big law in hopes of a chance at reform, or walk away, hoping that will diminish its powers?

I think walking away makes you loose some of your bargaining power. It's unrealistic to assume a big law job will give you the power to change the system, but I think you have a better shot than not being in it at all.

Attisaurus said...

Thank you for an eloquent and heartfelt self-reflection!

I think this is something that most young attorneys deal with, Biglaw or not, and female or not. And I share your concerns for work-life balance (sanity, as I call it), but at this point I really do not think quitting is an option. A Biglaw job is the holy grail for some, because of the six-figure paycheck straight out of law school. But your very presence in Biglaw, if that is your situation, changes the reality of those around you. By simply being visible and being as authentic as possible while climbing the corporate firm ladder, you have the unique ability to show those senior white male partners that you are more intelligent, capable, and effective than your favored male counterparts.

By simply being at the table, we change things - no matter how hopeless or glacial these changes seem to be. And those senior female partners didn't get to where they are today by feeling like they were too good for the grunt work and inevitable abuse. At least that's me with my optimist glasses on.