On the topic of women in law (follow up on Harvard Law School’s Celebration 60)

“Agaaaa–,” the first bit of baby noise is hushed. I only hear it because I’m back-benching so the young mother with the baby girl strapped to her chest is a few feet behind me, bouncing from side to side.

Across the room from the cooing baby girl, at the front of Austin North lecture hall, the “Front Lines of Law Reform” panel consists of six alumnae luminaries discussing their work on disability rights, sex discrimination, poverty/race connection, Mexican American legal defense, and indigent defense. They range in years of experience from the class of 1988 to the class of 2005. The 80 or so women in the audience (and perhaps 3 men) stretch across six decades of HLS attendance, from the first classes to current students.

Throughout the two days of panels and featured speakers at Celebration 60, we’ve been learning about distinguished careers and inspiring legal work, and have woven into the same discussions the topics of women in law and work-family balance. We have heard the statistics that reveal a significant pay gap between men and women, continuing workplace discrimination against women in a variety of forms, and the pattern of women leaving the practice of law after having children.

minow and warren

(click on this photo or here to click through to the HLS flickr page with Celebration 60 photos).

“Women have babies, I know that’s shocking to you,” says featured speaker Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, as she describes getting married at age 19 and attending law school with young child. She comes right out and says what many have whispered in small groups: the single biggest problem is that institutions haven’t changed to work for working mothers. And fathers too, of course, but we’ve heard the career study summarized and seen the slides that show the massive exodus of women from practice after having children.

Inside the giant white tent where the meals are served, the tables are marked by decade: 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and so on.  Each meal I settle in far from the front in the hinterlands of “the young” with other 1990s alums. At the first dinner, each woman at my table works part-time, from home, or is in “career transition.” I am the only one at the table working full time at an office that sets my hours. This is no small topic, the working mother juggling act. It pervades everything.

Back at the Law Reform panel, the baby enthusiastically screams “agagagrrraayayaaaa!” Her mother pulls her from the carrier and touches her feet to the ground to distract her with practice steps.

The whole room turns to look, with a loud shuruunnnk of swivel chairs turning. All eyes fix on the baby and there is a tense moment during which I wonder if there will be glares or shushes, whether the young mother will rush from the room. Instead, one by one, everyone breaks into broad smiles. The woman who has just recounted having a third of her class drafted in 1969 and being asked “how dare you take a man’s place?” smiles. Panelist Lenora Lapidus, who has just described some of her battles as Director of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, smiles. Dean Martha Minow, who spoke the day before of the tradition of breaking with tradition, smiles.

There is a unifying moment of everyone’s broad smiles recognizing the fleeting joy of a baby’s first year, and all the challenges of having a legal career as a working mother, and the great unknowns of the professional world that will greet that baby girl in two decades. What might it mean to be a fourth generation feminist?

The first generation feminists, those women admitted to Harvard Law in the 1950s, had to find the one women’s bathroom on campus. They were mocked, ridiculed, treated with hostility by other students and by faculty.  They graduated into a job market that didn’t hire women lawyers. The first generation feminists included Justices Ginsburg and O’Connor, who managed to juggle work and family brilliantly against incredible odds. Remember O’Connor graciously retiring to care for her husband? It was lovely, her picture of balance of work and family.

We in the second generation are struggling to find our footing. Many are leaving law practice entirely and describing it as hostile to working mothers. We have broken into the institutions but we have not yet changed and improved them to accommodate families.  Justices Kagan and Sotomayor have risen through the ranks (brilliantly!) without families; is that significant? Our accomplished peer, national security expert Juliette Kayyem (HLS ’95), was asked recently on NPR (NPR!)  why she’d even want to run for governor of Massachusetts with three children at home (here at 7:15). Our second generation peers are inspiring in their accomplishments, poise and expertise–and in the juggling act many of them are doing behind the scenes.

What might it mean to be in the next generation of women law students? In 2013, 60 years into “the tradition of breaking with tradition” and admitting women into Harvard Law,  students can witness a powerhouse conference presented for and by women. At that conference, they can see hundreds of women talking openly about these challenges and brainstorming about how to make the balancing act of being a woman in law easier, especially at the highest levels as a leader and expert and trailblazer.

And in Austin North on September 28, 2013, students and alums can observe that a young mother who brings her baby is welcomed with broad smiles, noise and all.  There is much yet to accomplish, but that is progress at Harvard Law School.

(Conference coverage is here, photos are here and video links are here.)

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