Title IX was passed in 1972, the year that I was born. A year later, Roe v. Wade lifted the ban on abortions in the U.S. 3 years later, Nadia Comaneci scored the first perfect 10 at the Olympics in the history of gymnastics and captured the hearts of fans around the world. Then, in 1981 Sandra Day O’Connor was sworn in as the first female Supreme Court Justice. It is no wonder then, that I, along with all my female peers, grew up believing we can do anything we want to do, and be anything we want to be.
After I graduated college, I took a year off before law school and worked as a paralegal at White & Case in New York. Then, I returned to DC to pursue my dream of becoming a lawyer, where I found my class was about 50% men, 50% women. This fit with my belief that we are all equals– but what I did not realize at the time, and only learned much, much later is that by the time it comes to becoming a partner at a firm, less than 16% will be women, and less than 5% will be minorities.
Right before I graduated law school in 1998, I was clerking at a firm in downtown DC. The senior partner called me into his office because he had heard that I was getting married. What he said has stuck with me to this day (almost 19 years later). He wanted to congratulate me on my upcoming nuptials, and then he said, “now you can focus on your family, and forget about this whole career in law.”
Not only did I ignore his advice, but I did the complete opposite for 6 years and delayed having a family until my career was more established.
In 2002, while I was working as an associate at another law firm in DC, the managing partner called me in for a memorable meeting– it was supposed to be my annual review. As I expected, we talked about my work and compensation, but then as I was leaving he decided to make one last comment that has continued to haunt me the last 15 years– he said, “you know, one of your greatest assets is your ass.” I highly doubt that was ever said to a man in his review.
Many years later, as a partner at a firm, I started building my connections with journalists and was increasingly enjoying media coverage for my work in the field of family law when one of my cynical male colleagues told me, “let me know when you get on Good Morning America.” Well, two years later I did just that, and he never said a word.
I am now in my 40s, and enjoy running my own firm, but even now I see gross inequities in the way men and women are treated in my field. For example, if two male lawyers get into an argument, they are just aggressively representing their clients, but if I get into an argument with another female colleague, it’s somehow considered a cat fight. And even after all these years, somehow a women’s looks are often thrown into conversations, whereas no one ever says a word about how “handsome” a man looks or how stylish he dresses in court.
Admittedly, these might seem minor gripes in comparison to others, but I have filtered extensively, and I recognize that compared to other fields the legal world has been particularly sensitive to minimizing inequalities between men and women, especially since the 70’s (even though the subject of letting us wear pant suits was still a hot topic in the 90’s.)
Rather naively perhaps, I thought we were making great progress, and that with my generation of women we’d continue to shatter glass ceilings in record numbers. However, that optimistic view diminished substantially on January 20, 2017. Then a wonderful thing happened less than 24 hours later– tons of friends poured into DC from out of town, and on January 21st women around the world made history by demonstrating peacefully in record numbers, showing that we can stand strong together in favor of equal rights, equal pay, access to health care and education, tolerance and also respect.
This weekend, I got to catch up with women that I have known for over 30 years. We were all once students, who are all now professionals. Among our many roles, we are daughters, sisters, mothers, wives, and friends to many of all races and religious affiliations. Hopefully, by maximizing on all these profound connections, and the momentum created this weekend, we will continue to build on the decades of progress that I have had the honor and privilege to witness since my birth.
It is worth noting that both my parents left their respective home countries to come here because they believed this country had promise. English was not my first language, and if it was not for the generosity of others, I would never have been afforded the stellar education I received here– a place that taught me to dream without limits. I’d like to believe all was not for naught.
Stay together, and stand strong.
By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.