having it all, women in law, working women

What (Childless, Unmarried) Sonia Sotomayor Thinks About “Having It All”

I’ve almost finished reading “My Beloved World“, an autobiography by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  I recommend it as a quick (b/c its well-written) read to anyone in the legal profession, or who’s just looking to be inspired.  If anyone’s life story embodies the “American dream”, its hers.  Raised by a single mother in a South Bronx housing projects, and the first of her Puerto Rican immigrant family to speak English well, much less attend university, she worked her way up through scholarships at Princeton and Yale Law School to serve as a prosecutor in New York City before moving onto private law practice and ultimately the federal judiciary.  The reason I am writing about her, however, is because of a few pages she penned towards the end of the book about being a working woman.  

Whether you agree with her, what she says about her choice to be childless, the “having it all” debate, the challenges women in the NY District Attorney’s office faced, and her way of coping, are all extremely thoughtful and authentic.  This is a long excerpt but worth your time: 

It is interesting to me how, even after all the strides of the women’s movement, the question of whether we can “have it all” remains such a controversy in the media, as if the ideal can be achieved.  Most women of my generation who entered professional life did not forgo motherhood, and many did succeed at both.  But they paid a price, one still paid by most women who work outside the home (and men too, I believe, if they parent wholeheartedly): a life of perpetual internal compromise that leaves you always feeling torn, neglectful by turns of one or the other.  Mindful of this struggle and of how often [her brother] and I needed to interrupt [her mother’s] workday…I have always made a point of running my chambers in such a way as to help mothers feel comfortable working there.  And if in some corner of my heart I am still sulking about her absence during our childhood, I nevertheless credit the powerful example my mother set me as a working woman.  But as for the possibility of “having it all”, career and family, with no sacrifice to either, that is a myth we would do well to abandon, together with the pernicious notion that a woman who chooses one or the other is somehow deficient.  To say that a stay-at-home mom has betrayed her potential is no less absurd than to suggest that a woman who puts career first is somehow less a woman.

During my time at the District Attorney’s Office, women were only beginning to enter the legal profession in significant numbers.  Fewer still were those practicing criminal law, either as prosecutors or as a defense counsel.  As [her colleague] would grimly observe, the only client happy to have a female defender was one accused of rape.  Men and women got equal pay at the DA’s Office, but promotions came far less easily for women…I saw many women who were no less qualified wait much longer than men for the same advance.  And they would have to work twice as hard as men to earn it, because so much of what they did was viewed in the light of casual sexism…

[Her female colleague] was doing arraignments one time, and the judge kept addressing her as “honey”.  She actually approached the bench and said, “Judge, I don’t think its appropriate; I’d prefer you didn’t call me that.”  But he didn’t even acknowledge her plea and went right on doing it.  I’ve even heard a court security officer call a woman judge “sweetie” in her own courtroom.

And how many times would a defendant’s lawyer enter the courtroom before a session and ask each of the male clerks and paralegals around me, “Are you the assistant in charge?” while I sat there invisible to him at the head of the table?  My response was to say nothing, and my colleagues would follow suit.  If it rattled him a bit when he eventually discovered his error, that didn’t hurt our side, and perhaps he’d be less likely to repeat it.

[Her female colleagues] had no use for such patient strategies.  They faulted my reluctance to rage vocally…I credited their passion, and admired their brave readiness to jump into the fray of protest, but I continued to believe that such wasn’t necessarily the best or the only way of changing an institution.  As difficult an environment as the DA’s Office could be, I saw no overarching conspiracy against women.  The unequal treatment was usually more a matter of old habits dying hard.  A male bureau chief who’d headed a predominantly male bureau for many years would naturally have a man as his image of an exemplary prosecutor.  

But this is not to deny that the culture was decidedly and often inhospitably male.  I was lucky to be …under the unusually enlightened leadership of John Fried and then Warren Murray.  Some of the other chiefs were disdainful of having women lawyers around, and in their bureaus a locker-room atmosphere prevailed.  Sexual innuendo was used to explain everything, from the judge who was in a foul mood (obviously he wasn’t “getting any”) to the sensation of winning a guilty verdict…

…Could I have managed to negotiate this culture as well as the crushing caseload with a child tugging at my awareness in the background of every moment?  I thought not.  The idea of another life utterly dependent on me, the way a child needs his mother, didn’t seem compatible with the professional necessity of living at this punishing pace.  As it was, I thought there was already too little time to accomplish the things I envisioned.

Having made a different choice from that of many women, I occasionally do feel a tug of regret.  When her mother died, [her colleague and friend’s] eulogy was an expression of such feeling and care that I was shaken…I spent the following days pondering the bond between parent and child and wondering whether anyone would miss me that much when I died.  Ultimately, I accept that there is no perfect substitute for the claim that a parent and child have on each other’s heart.  But families can be made in other ways, and I marvel at the support and inspiration I’ve derived from the ones I’ve built of interlocking circles of friends.  In their constant embrace I have never felt alone.


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