I am a Baby Boomer, born in 1957. When I was growing up in the early 1960s there were no female Supreme Court Justices, CEOs of corporations or actresses who ran successful production companies. Girls played with Barbies and boys were playing baseball and learning to be “team players.” Towards the end of the 1960s women like Gloria Steinem started giving us a voice. We began to understand that we were in charge of our bodies and destinies, could decide whether or not we wanted to have children, get married, go to college and have a successful career. At least on the surface, my generation was taught that as a woman you could have it all - both a career and a family. That we were equal to men. However, even though the role of women began to slowly evolve, society’s attitudes and behavior belied the promising words.
I started law school in 1979 after graduating UCLA. There were only 25% women in my law school class and I quickly learned that women were treated differently than men both in school and in the workplace. Male professors would take advantage of the female students as would the male attorneys at the law firms where I clerked. We were paid less and treated with less respect than our male counterparts. When I graduated law school and passed the bar I worked for an attorney who assigned me to a desk in the back of his office.
Because of the economic times, my now ex-husband and I soon opened our own practice and I started practicing family law. The most prominent and successful family law attorneys were men (with of course some exceptions) and from my vantage point as a young attorney they were definitely the “old boys club.” They would often make sexist and sexual remarks towards me and other female attorneys, and on one occasion, I was cornered in a male attorney’s office who tried to kiss me. I would hear stories of how these attorneys had sex with their female clients and I once observed a client walk out of her attorney’s bedroom when I was helping him at his home on a legal project.
I have now been practicing almost 35 years. Many of the women I went to law school with no longer practice law. Most of them stopped practicing when they had children. The good news is we no longer have to wear to court navy blue suits (skirts of course and never pants) and blouses with perky bows in order to be taken seriously. We can be ourselves and wear our Louboutin shoes with pride. There are many more women who are graduating from law school, becoming managing partners and leaders of national law firms and being appointed Supreme Court Justices. In the field of family law, there are more experienced, competent and well-respected female trial attorneys, that are as tough and assertive as the male attorneys in our field. However, we are still not equal.
I was recently involved in a very high-conflict custody case in Ventura County. I was representing a mother who had not seen her son for two years. The father was alleging that the mother was abusive but no Judge had ever found her to be abusive to her son or to her daughter from a previous relationship. Despite that fact, because she couldn’t afford to financially fight her exes who teamed up together, she was deprived of a relationship with both her children for two years. A Judge in the related case involving the daughter sanctioned my client and me personally $50,000 to be paid directly to the County of Ventura, ruling that I intentionally disclosed some of the contents of a child custody evaluation report in a deposition of the father of the daughter, even though he inserted himself into the other case by submitting a sworn declaration in support of the father of the son.
On the day of oral argument, I sensed that the Judge had already made up his mind as he perfunctorily went through the motions of listening to oral argument with little interest and with no vigorous debate. I had appeared before this Judge just once before, however I could not help but feel that he was prejudiced towards both me and my client in part because we were both strong and outspoken women and were fighting against all odds for her to regain custody of her children.
I am in the process of appealing the award as I firmly believe that this would not have happened either to me or my client if we were men. In the case with the father of the son, the Court ordered the parties and son to participate in reunification therapy (although all experts testified at trial that that therapy was never effective in severe parental alienation cases). During a joint counseling session, the son demanded that the mother face the wall and not look at him. The mental health professional opined to the Judge that the prognosis for additional reunification therapy was grim. During a recent court hearing I pointed out to the Judge how disrespectfully the son treated his mother during the session. In addition to commanding her to not look at him, he yelled obscenities at her and accused her of the very same acts that the father had accused her of during trial, which were never proven. The Judge did not seem to understand that this was learned behavior from the father as opposed to somehow being the fault of the mother who had not seen her son in two years and was found by the Judge not to have abused her son.
As of the writing of this blog, we are waiting for the Court’s decision and I am guardedly optimistic that the Judge will see the light and no longer be blind to the father’s intentional acts in alienating the son against his mother.
Justice should be blind, but not blinded. Women should be treated with respect whether they are in the work force or stay-at-home Moms. We have come a long way from when I was starting my career, but not far enough. There is still sexism in the legal profession and it must change. My son, with whom I practice, and his wife are expecting a son very soon. We will all be celebrating Mother’s Day in a couple of weeks and honoring our Mothers. I hope that not only my son’s and future grandson’s generations will treat women differently, but my hope is also that my generation can still change its long held beliefs and prejudices. It is never too late to open your eyes.