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The Rhode Island legal community has work to do

It was difficult not to notice the gender breakdown in the room. Rhode Island's Senate Judiciary Committee had convened to hear testimony and vote on a proposed bill to grant judges the authority to order firearm relinquishment when issuing permanent restraining orders. Among the eleven legislators present, one was a woman--she was also the co-sponsor of the bill. While forty states and the federal government have all enacted essentially the same law, the bill, titled "Homicide Prevention Act," had never successfully left the Judiciary Committee in the past three years' attempts at passage. Aside from the lone legislator, all of the other women in the room were supporters of the bill, domestic violence survivors and advocates there to testify about the importance of providing safety to victims beyond the piece of paper known as the restraining order. All of those who appeared to testify against the bill were men.

I was present in the committee room to testify in support of the bill. After graduating from college, I had spent the past five years working as a domestic violence advocate, in a shelter, in high schools and in Family Court. But as I navigated families through complex legal systems, only to continually encounter the same barriers preventing victims and children from obtaining necessary relief and protection, I soon realized that any change I could effectuate was at an individual level. I would spend days, weeks, months, assisting one victim to obtain civil and criminal relief, only to wake up and start all over again. It was the legal systems themselves that needed to change to better meet the needs of women. And looking at the judges and legislators I encountered, women were glaringly missing from the lawmaking processes that design and shape these systems.

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I was raised in a state where we have never had a female governor, one of the five state Supreme Court justices is a woman, and less than 20% of the state legislature is composed of women. Rhode Island has never had a female U.S. Senator, and only one woman has ever served in the U.S. House of Representatives, during the 1980's. I ultimately chose to pursue a law degree so that I can return to Rhode Island and help represent those missing from the political process, especially women and children. While women may not be a numerical minority, our voices continue to be ignored, and women shy away from elected offices, as government is seen as (and hence remains) a "boy's club." I realize that in order to change the rules, I must first understand the rules, which is how law school fits into the picture.

1L year of law school has continued to open my eyes to the absence of women in the legal profession. One of my nine professors/instructors last year was a woman. While approximately half of my classmates were female, it was men who dominated the classroom discussions. The school's Feminist Working Group has essentially dissolved, for lack of interested members. While this is discouraging, I have found strength and support from female mentors in the faculty and community who continue to inspire me through their examples and encouragement. I look forward to using my knowledge of the law, along with my experiences as a social worker, to continue to create nonviolent communities where all voices are acknowledged and encouraged.

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