I did my senior thesis on the Hegelian dialectic, using Simone deBeavoir’s The Second Sex as a jumping off point. Here’s the quick rundown on the dialectic. There is man, (yes, it must be a man in the sense that he has male parts) he is alone in the world. He sees a rock in his path and needs to get around it. So, he moves the rock. Or he walks around it. He is the master of the rock, the rock doesn’t fight back or say “no, don’t move me” he gets to do what he wants when he wants. A couple of days later, man is walking around and there is this other man (it is still a man with man parts) in his way. He says to the other man, “move” and the other guy says “no, you move” and so they get in a fight over who moves. Whoever wins becomes the master and whoever loses is the slave.
Now, this is a tense relationship but, according to Hegel, a necessary one since without the master there is no slave and vice versa. They need each other in order to survive since they define each other. Simone de Beauvoir, who lived with John Paul Sartre (you’ve heard of him, right?), says that in the male/female relationship, man is the master and woman is the slave. Or, more correctly, man is the One and woman is the Other, the aberration of nature. de Beauvoir began her book as an autobiography, but as she was writing realized that in order to write about herself, she had to write about what it meant to be a woman. Why? She wondered the same thing and said:
A man would never get the notion of writing a book on the peculiar situation of the human male. But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say, ”I am a woman”; on this truth must be based all further discussion.
de Beauvoir’s take on woman being ‘the other’ a/k/a slave, was really radical during its time. In a quite remarkable statement in chapter two, de Beauvoir makes the distinction between gender and biology: One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. She says its nurture, not nature. We are born with parts that are defined as female, but femininity as we know it is a falsehood, it doesn’t exist in the natural world. It’s something that has been thrust upon us to continue us to be the Other. [The book is fantastic, and I recommend that most humans read it since it gives you a decent look at gender roles in philosophy and history. How did we get to where we are now, which is so far yet still too damned close to where we came from?]
It is this continuing notion of ‘otherness’ that has us still stymied as women lawyers. Recently, Nicole Black at Sui Generis pointed us to an article on a panel of judges who were purportedly giving out tips to women litigators. You should stop here and think “hmmm, I wonder what tips women would need in order to be successful that men don’t need?” If you think the article is about what not to wear, you’d mostly be right. To be fair, I loved and hated what the women judges had to say. Loved it because much of what they said was true and needed to be said, as far as speaking up for yourself and making sure you were well prepared (although this was almost an afterthought). I hated it because in talking to ‘us’ as women separate from the ‘us’ as litigators, they, and we- continue to perpetuate the notion that we, indeed are the ‘other’.
It is disheartening that it was a group of women judges who put on this presentation. A group of women that I would otherwise look up to. I’ve met Judge Kaye at the Court of Appeals dinners and she really is a beautiful woman. But, I never thought about it until someone on the panel pointed it out. I thought “she writes some damned good opinions.”
My question is this – why do we keep talking about woman as if ‘feminine’ was an innate thing, as if we aren’t made women but are born with a lack of confidence or a desire to wear sparkly tops? Why do we continue to foster the idea that we are so very different from men and need separate guidance to reach our goals?
My thesis concluded that women are the pepetuators of the ‘otherness’ of our own gender. Man started it, but women bought it hook, line and sinker, and we are the ones who keep it up. To be honest, I don’t think about being a girl much most days. I put on a dress and heels, get my eybrows done and try to maintain my femininity to the best of my ability (although my husband might disagree when I get home and put on my bleach stained walmart sweats). But when I read an article like the one above, I stop thinking about the brief that needs to get out the door or the DOL request I need to respond to. I think, is my bracelet too big and flashy (got a compliment on it at the co-op today), are my heels unprofessional (the answer to that today is yes) and are people minimizing what I say because I don’t say it in a deep enough voice.
The fact is none of those things matter if what I am saying is meaningless. My femininity does not impact the way in which I formulate a closing argument or cross-examination. If it does, I’d like to know how it hurts it or helps it, I’d like to know – if it really is a factor – how to control it so that my legal analysis is more on point.
Why do we, women lawyers, continue to maintain the notion that we are ‘the other’? Why do we even discuss things like keeping our legs closed at counsel table? I would like to, just once, be at a seminar where they remind men to double check their flies to make sure they are zipped. It will never happen. Since, as we are continually reminded, they are not the aberration. We are.
I wear lipstick and mascara each day. These are the things that make me a woman. I write briefs and motions and I’ve tried some really tough cases. These are the things that make me a lawyer. If you want to make me a better lawyer, talk to me about client and practice management. I can take care of my woman parts without a panel of legal experts.