Sabrina Ross

From Rural Nicaragua to Corporate America, Women Change Landscapes

My experience as a woman entering the legal profession is perhaps as much about history as it is about the future.

In part, my entrance is shaped by my pre-existing commitment to using the law to advance equality where the nexus of race, gender, disability, and other qualities currently locates inequality, both de facto and de jure. I will start with an example of this commitment, and the view it affords: working in Nicaragua, I would often assess the results of our organization's small grants to feminist projects. One day on such an assignment, equipped with a two-minute brief on the project's circumstances and stated goals, I boarded the bus and set out for the community's presentation on its new patios (household gardens). Before even sitting down for the presentation, it was evident that "successful" was a weak word for what $2,000 had wrought in this 100-person town: the women's voices rang with pride; children ran in and out of the new school building funded partially by profits from the gardens; the landscape's abundant produce bespoke the excellent planning and care with which the project had been executed. I had assumed the responsibility for relaying their story in objective terms and for analyzing their capacity to effectively make use of additional resources. I saw both success and the capacity to do more. Based on my recommendation, the Nicaragua Network made an additional grant for $1,800 to expand the well's capacity, which had been maxed out due to increased water usage demanded by the gardens. In short, I entered law school with a sense that women can and do change landscapes; they have and will continue to change policy and the law as surely as they changed the Nicaraguan hillsides.

My experience as a woman entering the legal profession is also indubitably shaped by politics. Prior to my work in Nicaragua, I had always been blessed with a strong feminist community, and I was far more used to combating inequality than to experiencing its blunt end (if you'll permit the simplistic binary). When I went to work in local land use politics, however, I got a new view, one that cemented my already firm resolve to go to law school. The view was this: I was the only woman working in the area. Everyone else in the North Bay political scene seemed to be male--the city council members, the developers, the organizers. Although I was for the most part welcomed, I was also alone. And I was not unaware that both my age and gender meant that people presumed my manipulability. Not only national politics but also local politics deeply need more women, and I believe that my law degree will aid me in contributing on this front. If women in the 110th U.S. Congress hold 16% of the seats, the situation is perhaps even more dire at the local level, and this was a startling discovery for me two years ago when I entered the field as an adult for the first time.

Increasing women in law and policy has the potential not only to increase equality within these professions, but of course more globally as well. Working in the rural Midwest and in urban Central America, with a prestigious Los Angeles law firm and in a one room dirt-floored hut, I've had numerous opportunities to discover that working to deepen public and professional dialogue about rights and to thereby expand these rights is a more complex and contradictory endeavor than any single textbook can reveal. While few would disagree with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin's November 4, 2003, call for a "global conscience," transforming that intangible impetus into practical processes of policy research, development, implementation, and revision rarely shape up into a linear, elucidated path. Prejudice is nimble and its responses to innovation can be flexible. Why have I long worked to elaborate the impetus into process? Perhaps it's because of the first thing my grandmother said when I was born: "The first woman president!" More likely it's because I have learned that it is not only my dreams and well-being riding on such elaboration, but also the health of our democracies, families, and planet.

Finally, my experience as a woman entering the legal profession is also about two women who went before me, my mentor throughout college and my mother--among the only women in their respective law schools--and who now bear happy witness to my experience in a supportive community at Boalt, where there are leadership forums, journals, and associations specifically for and/or of women. I owe it to them, and to my peers, and to the men and women of Nicaragua, among many others, to use this summer and this degree to continue to advance women in the legal profession.

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