March is Women's History Month, and that means you can't swing your handbag without hitting a tribute to one inspiring woman or another. But there is one fearless femme who has been totally snubbed when it comes to all of this lady-lauding. I'm referring, of course, to Elle Woods, the leading character played by Reese Witherspoon in the movie Legally Blonde.
I realize Elle is not real, but that doesn't make her contribution to contemporary society any less significant. In order to properly explain my debt of gratitude to this fictional character, a little background is in order.
Although I have given up practicing law in favor of writing, I am what some people refer to as a "lady lawyer." (While I used to despise that moniker, like President Obama and the term Obamacare, I've decided to disempower it by embracing it -- at least for the purposes of this story.) While "lady lawyers" now make up a full third of the U.S. Supreme Court and half of the student body in law schools across the country, this has not always been the case.
In our grandmothers' day, there was only one occupation available to women, and its job requirements were to stay on top of the housework, take care of the kids and not to worry our pretty little heads about anything else. After all, brainwork was for the menfolk. To the extent we were ever permitted to work outside the home, we were limited to nurturing occupations like nursing and teaching -- jobs that were squarely in keeping with our proper place in society.
The 1960s and 1970s brought about incredible change. Women began going to college in record numbers, eventually closing the education gap with men. And before long, women were taking their place in law school classrooms all across the country.
At long last, women could be smart and pretty -- as long as we weren't both at the same time. Thus the following dichotomy developed: If we were pretty that meant we weren't smart. And if we were smart we couldn't be pretty. So, instead of getting rid of a trap that had always limited our options, the trap was simply redesigned.
Men, on the other hand, have never been saddled with a similar handicap. While specific groups of men may have struggled with the stereotype of not being bright (like pro football players and drummers, for example -- my apologies to David Grohl), there has never been a general assumption that if a man is handsome, he must also be stupid. In fact, being handsome is something that tends to help a man's career, not hinder it.
Not so for lady lawyers. If you were going to make it as a woman attorney in the 1970s and even into the 1980s, the trick was to neither look too much like a woman nor act too much like a man. That's a pretty hard needle to thread. Luckily, we got some help from the wardrobe department. Women attorneys were expected to wear the lady lawyer suit -- oh, and we had to keep our heads down, too, but the humiliation of wearing the lady lawyer suit made that much easier.
Yes, the lady lawyer suit was every bit as unattractive as it sounds. It only came in drab colors and it featured a shapeless jacket and a skirt that hovered at the exact point below the knee that transformed even the shapeliest calf into the beefiest cankle. Underneath the jacket we were required to wear a nondescript white blouse and for a while there, even the dreaded floppy bowtie. The lady lawyer suit didn't so much clothe us a shackle us. It was difficult to be yourself while dressed like someone you didn't even recognize.
Things got a little better attire-wise in the 1990s, thanks to the offerings of retailers like Ann Taylor, the lady lawyers' go-to source for office wear. But real change was ushered in by Elle Woods in 2001.
Elle was an adorable sorority girl with no greater ambition than to marry her college boyfriend who was headed off to Harvard Law School. On the very night she expected a proposal, however, she got dumped instead. The reason? Elle was so adorable her boyfriend believed everyone would assume she was also dumb; and having a dumb wife would threaten his dream of becoming an esteemed senator.
After wallowing in break-up hell for a while (fun to watch for anyone who has been there -- and really, who hasn't?) Elle realized that in order to get her boyfriend back, she needed to prove to the world that she was both pretty and smart at the same time. So, Elle decided she would go to Harvard Law School, too!
While I loathe any story, real or fictional, that involves a girl chasing a boy, if your version of chasing a boy involves gaining admission and then going to Harvard Law School, I might just have to forgive you.
From the moment Elle set foot on campus she was as out of step as white shoes after Labor Day. She was so cute that no one took her seriously and she quickly became the butt of every joke. There were plenty of things Elle could have done to fit in better. She could have stopped wearing her adorable outfits. Or changed the way she walked or talked in order to appear less feminine. Or dyed her hair a darker color. Or toned down her natural sparkle. Or engaged in petty games. Or concocted schemes to pay people back.
But she didn't, which brings us to the part where Elle Woods broke new ground for lady lawyers everywhere: What made Elle stick out like a sore thumb was her exaggerated femininity -- and that quality was fundamental to the essence of who she was. Rather than change to fit other people's idea of what she should look like, she elected to stay true to herself and put her efforts into her school work instead.
In case you are wondering why the movie didn't play it the other way, making the lead character an overgrown tomboy who has trouble making it in a man's world because she is just too masculine, keep these two things in mind: 1. Sandra Bullock had already done that the year before in Miss Congeniality; and 2. Women attorneys didn't encounter resistance in the workplace because we were too masculine. We encountered resistance because we were women. For comedic purposes, the best way to depict that struggle was the extreme caricature that was Elle Woods.
I realize Elle Woods was not a leader in the traditional sense. She didn't try to persuade people to follow her lead like Sally Fields' character in the movie Norma Rae. You would never catch Elle Woods making a sign out of boring old cardboard. (Elle's sign would have been way more colorful and probably would involve some glitter -- in tasteful amounts, of course.) And Elle would never stand on top of a table at work like Norma Rae did.
Elle's way of leading was different. She set an example by refusing to change who she was in order to conform to other people's expectations of who they thought she should be. In this way, Elle stood for the larger principle that women should neither have to use nor change their looks to get ahead in the workplace. (For the record, Miss Congeniality was guilty of both offenses.)
So, if you are a woman attorney and you don't have to wear a lady lawyer suit to work, then you, too, owe Elle Woods a debt of gratitude. And if you refuse to acknowledge that, you're out of order.