Who wants to be superwoman?

I knew from very early on that I wanted to attend law school. My grandmother told me to get the highest degree I could, make sure that men worked for me, and to always keep a separate bank account from my husband. To some this may seem like extreme advice for a grandmother to give, but I assure you my grandmother was not a woman one would consider "radical" at first glance and even after a second and third inspection. She was a church going woman, who loved her family. And in fact she did keep a separate bank account from my grandfather who enjoyed the horse track as bit too much, and she took great pride in the money she saved for her job at the phone company; a phone company job being a very good job for a woman in those times.

My grandmother's advice was invaluable to me. At the time I had no idea what being a woman would mean in my life, what affect it would have on my career, and on the choices I would make in regard to my own family.

After two years of law school, I now realize to some extent what it can mean to be a woman in a professional environment. After my first year of law school I was invited onto the law review. I accepted the invitation and on the first day of class looking around the room it was filled with a significantly greater number of women than men. I thought, this is so satisfying to see. On the backdrop of this thought, I wondered why, if there are so many women in the top ten percent of my class, are the women in this room less likely than the men to earn as high of a wage or to make partners in a firm?

The disparity in the way women and men are treated in the legal profession is frustrating to me as a student and future lawyer. When you work a hundred plus hours on a paper, study the same 14 hour days, and know you can do everything a man can do but that your rewards may not be the same for virtue of being a woman that can either make you want to give up or try harder and work for change.

For me law school was about gaining the tools to help people who are not given an equal shot in our criminal justice system because of race, income level, gender, age, or any other reason I or someone on the other side of the v. can think of. For this reason getting to the top of a firm is not a goal of mine, but I wonder what if it was; would I have to give up starting a family or being their for my family if I did start one?

We have this idea in our culture that a woman can be "super woman"--have a family, be on the top of her career, be a great friend, and even be in shape. I have felt as a woman in law school that this is what is expected and I wonder what if we do not all want to be "super woman"? What is we want a job, a family, and the same pay as men, but we also want to slow down and instead of taking a Friday off of work to play golf we take a Friday off of work to go on our child's class field trip and what if those two outings were treated the same?



Nicole Buonocore Porter (Assistant Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law) addressed this same phenomenon of women in the legal profession striving to be Superwoman in her 2006 article "Re-defining Superwoman: An essay on overcoming the 'maternal wall' in the legal workplace."  She, like the author above, stresses that you don't have to be Superwoman, and suggests that the current definition of Superwoman no longer meets the needs of today's working mother-attorneys. 
In the "Proposed Solutions" section of her essay, Porter first discusses the usual proposals:  alternatives to billable hours, workable balanced-hours programs, etc.  But in the end she concludes that the firm is not the enemy; rather, the enemy is women's own guilt, which stems from trying to live up to this impossible standard of Superwoman.  Porter urges mother-attorneys to remember that the only endeavor in which they should strive for perfection is finding balance.
For those interested in reading the full text, Porter's article can be found at 13 Duke J. Gender L. & Pol'y 55.

Anna Lorien Nelson

I just got back from breakfast with Sian Elias, Chief Justice of New Zealand's high court. She told us that she took about six years off in the middle of her legal career to mother her children (in the 1970s, I think). She mused that it was probably much easier for her to do that then than it would be now, because then there was no expectation that women would "juggle" (her word) and do everything all at once. She took time off for her family, and when she came back, she thought nobody particularly held it against her. I think you're right, Beth, the guilt is a real obstacle. It's a pressure of high expectations. But then, we hear so much about failure from low expectations—it is one of many evils of racism and segregation, right? And more recently Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has argued that this is the biggest problem minorities face in public education. So what falls in between low expectations that constrict people and high expectations that strangle them?


I was listening to last night's national news with half an ear.  In one story, a survey had been done about men and women's changing hours.  Included as change: 
1.  Men are working fewer hours.
2.  Men are using the extra time in doing self-pleasing activities.
3.  Men are happier than women.
So much of the "news" must be taken with a grain of salt.  Still, this information was cause for discussion at our house.  What do you think?
P.S.  Love the Superwoman/Not Image for this article.

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