Lawyers Journal

'The paramount moral challenge' for this century

When the first woman lawyer came from England to the colonies in 1638, people did not know how to address a woman of her stature in a sufficiently respectful manner, so they called her 'Gentleman Margaret Brent,' both in person and in court records. It wasn't until more than 230 years later, in 1869, that another woman in this country worked as a practicing lawyer.

In Massachusetts, it was 13 years after that milestone that Lelia J. Robinson became our first woman attorney, in 1882. The Massachusetts Bar Association, which filed its articles of organization in 1911, first admitted women in 1913.

In completing my term as the eighth woman president of the MBA, I have the unique privilege of passing the gavel to another woman. This is the first time a woman will succeed another woman as president in the association's 100-year history.

Entering our year of centennial celebrations at the MBA, it is appropriate to look back and consider how far we have come and how far we have to go, and also to understand this history in the context of the status of women's rights throughout the world.

Approximately 50 to 60 percent of most law school classes now consist of women. In addition, Gov. Deval Patrick has been widely praised for his diverse and inclusive judicial appointments, with more than 47 percent being women. More generally, we passed a milestone earlier this year because, for the first time ever in American history, women now hold the majority of the jobs in this country.

While we have made great progress on strengthening women's presence in the profession and on the bench, women's ascension rate to making partner and other top leadership positions falls short. One study after another has shown that a woman attorney's chance of making partner in a law firm has remained stagnant (or worse) over the last two decades. The National Association of Women Lawyer's (NAWL) 2009 National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms found that women do not even make the list of top 10 rainmakers at almost half of the largest firms in the country.

Equally discouraging is the rate at which women leave the profession. The Women's Bar Association (WBA) of Massachusetts analyzed the database of the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers (BBO) and found that women are leaving the legal profession in greater numbers than men, by virtue of the data that women now make up nearly 60 percent of those lawyers listed by the commonwealth's BBO as 'inactive.'

While we continually strive for professional equality for women in the United States, the accounts of oppression against women in other countries are almost unthinkable. In May, it was our privilege to meet and learn from Sua'ad Abbas Salman Al-Lami, a truly impressive and courageous woman lawyer from Iraq (hosted here by the Hon. George Phelan). This wonderful attorney has previously received the International Woman of Courage Award from the U.S. State Department and was personally welcomed to Massachusetts by Gov. Patrick. During her visit to the Bay State, Al-Lami shared her experiences of living and practicing law in Baghdad over the course of many years.

See related article, "Iraqi attorney Al-Lami recognized by MBA as women's rights trailblazer."

We heard her explain that it is difficult to advocate for more of the subtle aspects of equality when woman are still being killed for wearing makeup or not wearing a headscarf in certain ultra-conservative areas.

We learned that women in Iraq have extremely limited options for birth control. By custom and by regulation, a woman is only able to have a surgical sterilization if both: 1) she already has five children, and 2) her husband agrees. As a practical matter, it is often the mother-in-law (who is already typically living with them) who decides whether a woman and her husband will have a surgical sterilization or not. In addition, it is typical in Iraq now for a divorcing woman to receive no more than three months of alimony.

Particularly with the high-profile legal work that she does on behalf of women, Al-Lami's life is at risk on a daily basis when she is in her home country. Yet, she is determined to return to Baghdad to work specifically on behalf of women's rights because she is convinced that this is the most direct way that she can contribute to rebuilding the society as a whole. In his best-selling memoir Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson also reaches the conclusion that the most direct way to improve the lives of people in developing countries is to focus on the education of girls.

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, co-authors of the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunities for Women, note that it is only when women as a group are fully empowered to enter the workforce that the economy of a country is able to truly reach its potential. They believe that 'in this century, the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.' These authors go on to observe that '[b]efore long, we will consider sex slavery, honor killings, and acid attacks as unfathomable as foot-binding. The question is how long that transformation will take and how many girls will be kidnapped into brothels before it is complete - and whether each of us will be part of that historical movement, or a bystander.'

While the struggles of Massachusetts attorneys pale in comparison to those endured by women in some other countries, it is wise to remember that all levels of discrimination, from the most subtle to the most egregiously blatant, stem from the same evil of somehow valuing one person less than another. Perhaps by reaching out globally to help those in more dire circumstances, we can at the same time learn more about ourselves and which of our own cultural assumptions will need to drop away before we can truly achieve equality at all levels.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association