Let's All 'Lean In,' But Also Respect Individual Choice

When Cathy attended law school and started practicing law, women were barely beginning to enter the profession in numbers. But had she chosen to do so, Cathy could have worked full-time, joined the partnership track and become a partner. She chose not to go that route.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

My late wife Catherine Picard Rosen was born in January of 1940. Cathy died in 2010. We had been together since we were teenagers, and married for nearly 52 years.

Cathy was a remarkable person whose story resonates in today's conversation about working women (and men) and their life and career choices. It also resonates in efforts to eliminate barriers still faced today, not only by women, but also by members of other groups who are defined by inexorable characteristics such as race. The conversation recently re-initiated by several high-performing "power" women, such as Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo and Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University, is as timely as it is important. The more women who rise to positions of power and importance in the world and the more men step up at home, the better for us all.

My goal in this essay is to put some history on the table to remind us that, at the end of the day, the goal of any liberation movement is to assure each individual the right and power to make her or his own choices for their own reasons. I hope that my telling something of Cathy's and my story can contribute to the conversation.

Like everyone, Cathy was a product of her time and epoch. Perhaps that limited her capacity to make choices, but I do not think it mattered to her. She always knew her own mind, decided her own priorities and made her own choices and bargains with life. Like most of the power women who rise to the top today, she also had economic backing and a generally supportive spouse, allowing her to make her choices.

When Cathy and I were married, things were very different, and certainly not better. I often quip that Cathy was older than me. Under New York law, at 18, Cathy was an adult when we married; I was 20 but still legally a minor. My parents had to go with us to get the marriage license and to give consent; Cathy's parents did not. Long before she was a judge, Ruth Bader Ginsberg got the Supreme Court to start knocking out that kind of mindless gender discrimination in a lawsuit brought by a widower.

Cathy completed her freshman year at Vassar in 1958, and we married that summer. (Vassar was unisex back then.) She transferred as a sophomore to Cornell University, where I was a senior. When I started Yale Law School in the late summer of 1959, Cathy transferred to Connecticut College for Women as a junior, and commuted daily from New Haven to New London for the next two years (Yale admitted no female undergraduates back then. Vassar, Connecticut College, Yale and many others went coed about a decade later.)

Cathy graduated from Connecticut College in the Spring/Summer of 1961, shortly after the birth of our first child. In late summer, she matriculated at Yale Law School, where I was in my third year. One of my most "progressive" male classmates asked me "Why are you letting her go to law school?" I wondered if he meant to say that I should counsel her not to go through the stress and pain of law school. A few years ago, his daughters assured me that he was asking: "Why was I giving her permission?" It never occurred to me that I had or should have the right or power to give Cathy permission to finish college or go to law school.

Cathy interrupted her legal education in the middle of her second semester at Yale. Although we shared nearly equally the responsibilities of caring for an infant and home, Cathy said she could not focus up to her standards on her school work, and she favored the work and pleasure of caring for our infant. I understood, but was disappointed that she had dropped out of law school; I encouraged her to go back when she was ready to do so.

In 1965, Cathy started going back to law school part-time. By that August, we had three children. Since I was working full-time as a law professor, like many of today's power couples, we were fortunate that we were able to hire au pairs to help with the children while I over-worked and she attended law school. Cathy often said that she loved going to law school while having and raising her children.

In 1969, Cathy graduated third in her class from the University of Maryland Law School, finishing shortly after the birth of our fourth and final child. She would have been first or second in the class had she not been preoccupied with her impending delivery and taken her final exam three weeks before the baby was born.

That summer, we moved to Atlanta to pursue a career opportunity that was offered to me and then moved three more times, finally settling in San Francisco in 1973. Cathy was my partner in all things, including decisions as to when and where we would move, but family burdens certainly fell heavier on her than on me.

Cathy did not start practicing law until 1975 or 1976, choosing to start only after our youngest child was in school full-time. Our three older children and I urged her to get a job. Unlike Ruth Bader Ginsburg's experience 15 years earlier, Cathy did not want for job offers. In her interviews, she made it clear that she was seeking part-time work. She had at least four offers, two from major law firms and two from well-regarded boutique law firms. She joined one of San Francisco's major law firms on a part-time basis as a litigator initially working on anti-trust and similar cases. She remained at the firm until she retired nearly 35 years later.

When Cathy started practicing, a job transition caused me to work out of our home for about a year. I took on some additional household obligations, including supervising our youngest children when they returned from school, often preparing dinner and taking over grocery shopping, which Cathy "hated" and I enjoyed. When I started working out of a downtown office again, our older children were tasked with overseeing our youngest after school, who became a "latch key" child. I retained many of my newer household jobs.

At first, my mother in law was concerned that Cathy could not "do it all." One visit with us dispelled her reservations. None of us suffered from having both Cathy and me work and making the three older children responsible for their youngest sibling. All of our children are high-functioning working adults; each went straight through college in four years; each is married and raising two children in stable, loving households. Each of our children stands on Cathy's and my shoulders. Each has made her or his own appropriate life and work choices and bargains with their spouses. Each would say that Cathy was "the world's best mom."

Throughout her career, Cathy was a highly respected litigator at a major law firm. As important, she invented part-time legal practice at the major law firms in San Francisco. She worked more-or-less part-time in high-stakes cases throughout her career, increasing her professional work and commitment as our children grew and, one-by-one, left for college.

Had she chosen to do so, Cathy could have worked full-time, joined the partnership track and become a partner. She was an excellent lawyer -- smart, skilled, committed, respected and tough when she needed to be tough. Clients liked her, and she attracted some and kept others for her firm. She could have built an impressive book of business. She chose not to go that route. She treasured her family and family life far above work, and let everyone know that these "family values" defined her and came first, unless her work commitment had to come first. When her professional obligations required, she certainly "leaned in" for the duration, relying on me and the children to do what we had to do.

After Cathy died, a high-powered woman lawyer, who worked full-time throughout her career, told me that there was much talk among "women of a certain age" in our legal community about Cathy and the amazing role model and mentor she became. The friend also said that most, if not all, of these women observed that Cathy did it right. Many of them regretted not following her part-time work model at least at times in their careers, and putting their family life first.

Cathy's story has many components that remind us how hard it was for women "back in the day" to advance into the professions and business. They also inform us as to why and how things still need to change, to open up opportunities, including those at the top in business and the professions.

When Cathy attended law school and started practicing law, women were barely beginning to enter the profession in numbers. The Yale Law School in the early 1960s was the brain trust of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, while we were there, most of the classes of approximately 180 LLB (now JD) candidates had only five women (Yes, the movie Mona Lisa Smile got that right.) Very few women lawyers had been hired by major law firms.

Cathy was a beautiful woman. Occasionally, she spoke with disdain and annoyance about being "hit on" in her professional life. As she aged, though still beautiful and attractive to men, she spoke of feeling liberated by not having to deal regularly with that kind of behavior. Perhaps part of her revenge was that, for many years, she was a valuable member of her firm's sexual harassment committee.

One of our oft-told family stories about Cathy involved events that unfolded as she was graduating from Connecticut College for Women. In her senior year, Cathy was pregnant with our first child, who was born in March, 1961. In her last semester, her male professor teaching history of religion or comparative religion became so anxious that she might go into labor in his class that he asked/ordered her to stop attending. I doubt that the professor's request, with which she complied, affected her grade; but that professor's sexism is a reminder of how things were back then and how they have changed for the better in many but not all ways. Any professor who did that now would be met with refusal, a complaint and possibly discipline or a boycott.

Shortly before graduating from Connecticut College, Cathy was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. She asked her major advisor and department chair why she was not also receiving college honors. Her professor, who was a woman, answered: "Well Catherine, you cannot expect to be married, have a child, get Phi Beta Kappa and also get college honors." Ironically, only the professor and I were excluded from the closed part of the Cathy's induction ceremony, because neither of us was a member.

Occasionally, I challenged Cathy to remonstrate about not getting college honors, but that was not her way. After she died, I wrote to the President of Connecticut College. He responded by getting the Board of Trustees to bend an eligibility rule or two so that Cathy's diploma was reissued identifying her as having graduated Magna Cum Laude. It turns out that things do change.

About 40 years ago, I observed to a law faculty colleague that as gender barriers were falling, I expected things to be much better for my daughters. He had three sons and no daughters. He responded, "and worse for my sons." I doubt I would have a similar conversation with a comparable person now. At least I hope not. It is not a zero sum game. Advances for women are advances for all of us. Eliminating barriers liberate us all.

Unquestionably, it will be good for all of us if more women "lean in" in the world of work in business and the professions, and if their men "lean in" more in their homes, and helping to raise their children. It will be good for us all for the glass barriers and ceilings to shatter, and for professions and business to allow more accommodations for women (and men) to have fulfilled and rounded lives and families.

In the hustle to move us all forward toward increased equality, I have just one concern. Let's not lose track of another guiding principle in any open society. At the end of the day, we open doors and get rid of barriers not just for groups, but also to make possible each individual's freedom of choice. Some will tilt their choices toward family; others will tilt toward work out of the home; some will change their choices as they age, or as circumstances permit or require. Sometimes circumstances confine choices. Not everyone finishes university debt-free or can hire nannies and au pairs.

Many years ago, a strong, accomplished and now nationally prominent woman, and a law school friend, complained to her husband that I had trammeled Cathy's career by "filling her with so many babies." Her husband knew Cathy better than did his wife. "Do you think," he responded "that she had nothing to do with those decisions?"

Some years later, Cathy shared a ski lift with a man and, as they chatted, he learned that she had four children and berated her. She was the calmest of people, hard to bring to anger, but he both angered and rattled her. Just a little. Years after that, Cathy and I hosted an event commemorating the 30th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Sarah Weddington, who argued the case in the U.S. Supreme Court, was the featured guest. Cathy told Sarah the story of her ski lift encounter. When Sarah was interviewed on one of the TV networks from our living room, she repeated Cathy's story and ended saying: "Cathy's encounter was outrageous. It is all about personal choice."

Support HuffPost

Popular in the Community