I am so very fortunate to have this opportunity to attend law school. I was fortunate to attend college at all, so this is beyond any expectations I have ever had and is truly a gift. Because I understand how unlikely it is that a working-class person such as myself would find herself in a professional doctoral program, I must pay it forward. In a circular way, my desire to attend law school stems from the desire to help other women, even as the opportunity itself reinforces that I must share this gift with those less fortunate. I suppose such circumstances are what some would classify as “meant to be” or “divinely inspired”. However you choose to frame it, my attending law school is a privilege.
I have been soaking up every single moment of the experience, including the confusion and exhaustion that most first-year law students experience. It’s all part of the process. Unfortunately, one of those experiences was jarring and unexpected. It took me a few days to decide what to do about it, if anything. It had already distracted me from the work at hand and things move very quickly in law school. When I realized that the incident was plaguing me even after several days, I decided that action was necessary.
The details are not important. The facts are simple: someone tried to intimidate me, to shake my confidence, to exert their dominance over me because I am female. Taken out of the context in which it occurred, the incident could well have been insignificant. As it stands, it had the desired effect. It shook me. I didn’t want it to, I wanted to brush it off. I didn’t want anything to tarnish this wonderful time, this special opportunity I’ve been given. Yet it has happened and there is no denying it. What is important is not the incident but the lesson and the opportunities created by it. I am sure that I will continue to discover more as I move through the aftermath.
One important lesson is that other people will try to take things from you and you can stop them. You can’t always prevent the insult or injury, but you can damned sure push back. This is, of course, not a new lesson to this 50-something female veteran and businesswoman. What is new is that, unlike a decade or two or three ago, pushing back can lead to a positive outcome. In decades past, there was only perfunctory support available to women who stood their ground in the workplace and none at all for those who did so at academic institutions. Then, there really was no stopping gender-based assaults, be they verbal or physical. I am proud to report that my current institution of higher learning has truly supported me and has, as a result, helped to restore my sense of personal power. We’ve come a long way, at least in my current corner of the universe.
This has also reinforced for me that it’s not about the extent of the injury (and by injury, I mean to say the full spectrum of mental, emotional, and physical injuries than can be inflicted upon a person because of their gender); rather, it’s about the idea that no one should suffer injuries at all because of another person’s view of their gender. Our system of laws claims to support equality for all. Realizing that equality in practice is another matter entirely. Laws and regulations are not always effective deterrents to such injuries, which is why it is important to insist that those who violate these rules be held accountable. Only though the example of others suffering consequences do we inch closer to true gender equality. Still, a survivor may choose not to pursue the matter, or only to pursue it so far. That is their right. Pushing back to whatever extent one chooses is more important now than ever, lest we lose the ground we’ve gained.
I have been provided the control to speak up and also to limit my disclosure. I have the power to decide what I will do and what the administration will do on my behalf. In human services, medicine, and international law, we call this ethical concept the right to self-determination. It could be said that, when working with people in crisis, one must recognize the need to afford the client their autonomy, even if this means allowing them to choose unwisely. This client autonomy is essential for an attorney to understand. It will be my job as an attorney to inform my client of all her options and possible outcomes, to the extent that they are knowable, and to permit her to choose her course of action. It will not be my job to tell her what to do, nor would I want to do so. I couldn’t bear the guilt of convincing my client to choose a course of action and having it fail. It must be her choice. This incident has refreshed my memory and reinforced why the right to self-determination is so very essential: the client’s dignity is at stake.
As uncomfortable and unwanted as this experience has been, it also seems apropos. I choose to frame it as the universe’s wink and nod to me that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, and to remind me why I came here. While unpleasant, this experience has reinforced why I am attending law school, and how important it is that every person be treated with fairness if we are to call ourselves civilized. In the words of Gloria Steinem, “Self-esteem is not everything, it’s just a small thing without which nothing can happen.”
Push back, my lovelies. You are worth it. Be brave. The time is always upon us.