Thursday, April 5, 2012

Wherever I go, Whatever I do, I Have a Uterus

Every now and then I encounter a situation or circumstance that reminds me, in case I had somehow forgotten, that I am female.  It’s not that I lose track of this fact or get confused by the idea of gender.  It’s just that most of the time I don’t walk around and do what I do every day and simultaneously think about the configuration of my chromosomes.  I don’t brush my teeth or pour my coffee or drive to work “as a woman.”  While I am generally familiar with my own anatomy, and for years now I have correctly navigated department store offerings, public bathrooms and the locker rooms at the gym, there are still certain circumstances that never fail to stir up the sediment of my mind and send this thought bubbling to the surface:  I am a woman.   And sometimes this one: I am not like the other people here.


The first of these circumstances occurs in the course of what I sometimes do for my job.  I am an in-house lawyer for a large corporation.  I am in charge of managing the company’s litigation no matter the type, size or geographic location -- from real estate disputes in West Virginia to patent litigation in San Francisco to tax fights in Topeka.  To do so, I sometimes participate in mediations, settlement conferences, trials or other legal proceedings on behalf of the company.  And although I am not directly litigating the case (I hire outside counsel to do that), my role in these settings is more than just to provide a dusting of glitter.  I am the company and the company is me.  I am there to personify and articulate our view of the case or controversy and our willingness, or lack thereof, to resolve it through compromise.  Happily, because my advice and recommendations are usually behind the company’s positions, this is easy for me to do.

Often times, it seems, this reality is not quite so easy for others. 

Years ago I began taking an inventory along gender lines at these events.  It occurred to me only because it was startling in its obviousness.  It’s like noticing the one person in a crowd who is wearing neon orange – on St. Patrick’s Day.  You walk into a room of people and realize they are all boy people and you are the only girl person.  It’s just impossible not to think about.   The instigating event for my tallying was a deposition I defended years ago when I was still in private practice.   If memory serves, the count was 18-2, meaning that all of the lawyers in the room were men, my client was a man while me and the court reporter were the only women.  Ever since then, I survey the room before we begin and count to determine the ratio.  (Note: I do this silently in my head, of course, though I do like the idea of designating someone as the starter and sounding-off as we go around, just  to bring everyone into the game.)  Usually it’s on the order of 6-1 (I am the one) or 4-2.  Nothing all that remarkable.  Still, I have yet to ever break even or flip the advantage.

Sometimes, though, it is remarkable.  Just last week, I attended a mediation in a very large and complex lawsuit in New York in which 50 people from numerous law firms and corporations participated.  We convened in conference room as long as a city bock in which tables were arranged in a huge rectangle, with placards displaying our names U.N. style, and in which multiple screens were set-up around the room to ensure that everyone would have a sight line for any PowerPoint presentations that might be forthcoming.  I had to crane my neck a little to get a visual all the way around the room as we took our seats, but I conducted my now routine silent inventory: 44-6.

In these situations I become acutely aware of the reflexive question that arises and is practically written on the faces of the others when they encounter one of us comprising the six:  I wonder if she knows what she is doing/is any good at what she does?  

This question isn’t inherently sexist or discriminatory.  It could be asked of anyone, and so long as the asker is open to accommodating whatever conclusion the evidence supports, there is nothing wrong with this question.  Except that, in my experience, it only arises when it is a woman or non-white male that is being encountered.  In other words, you never see the same expression on the face of male lawyers when they are meeting other male lawyers for the first time.  Male is what they expected.  Male is the norm.  Male is assumed to be competent until demonstrated otherwise.  Female, however, isn’t.  I am not presumed to be an experienced and formidable attorney.  I am wondered about.  Competence is not automatically given to me – something for me to lose – it is something I have to demonstrate and earn.

To those of you who are predisposed not to believe this and who are rolling your eyes at me already, I can hear your questions.  How can I know this?  Aren’t I just making biased assumptions that stem from my worldview?  Haven’t times changed enough that this is no longer a reality?  I think these are good and valid questions.  I cannot be certain that I am right.  But my personal experience informs me that often times, I am right.  During my 15-year career as a lawyer, I have been asked the following questions:

(1) Are you the court reporter?
(2) Are you the paralegal? 
(3) When is the lawyer going to join us?
(4) Who else from your company is attending the mediation?
(5) Do you have authority to represent/bind your company?
(6) Do we need to talk to someone else to get additional settlement authority?

The first few questions almost always arise as I enter a room, before I have had an opportunity for introductions  -- when all that is known about who I am is what I look like.  I have no data to support this, but I have a hunch that most male lawyers haven’t been asked these questions.

It’s not that there is necessarily deliberate or conscious discrimination occurring (though trust me, that is still out there, too).  Most of these questions are not mean spirited and the askers are almost always immediately embarrassed and apologize once I have answered them.  But they nevertheless still reveal prevalent baseline assumptions, including this one: people in positions of authority tend to be male; as well as the similar, but slightly different proposition: women tend not to be in positions of authority.

Importantly, these assumptions are not wrong.  Most court reporters are women.  Most judges and business executives are men.  And while there are many women lawyers, there are far fewer of them in litigation.  See Women As Lawyers Stat Sheet.   Nevertheless, to presume that a specific individual is the court reporter based solely on the fact that she is the first woman to walk into the room is a dicey and damaging paradigm.

To be fair, I have considered the possibility that my personality may also play a role in this.  All other things being equal, I tend to be a happy and optimistic person.  I can sometimes be chatty (though here I note that if I were a man the adjective would be “talker” as in “he’s a real talker,” while a woman is chatty or bubbly; you can draw your own conclusions about the implications of the language).  On top of this, although I am most certainly capable of it, I don’t naturally gravitate to the “super-bitch” demeanor nor do I find it to be an effective strategy in the long run.  (Again, there are language differences here: asshole or hard-ass versus bitch.)  So, I tend to smile and be nice and not say “fuck you” to anyone right off the bat.  I prefer to wait until we have reached the appropriate point in the proceedings, which is usually much later, before breaking out the salty language playbook.  (Even then, while I find swearing to be cathartic and even enjoyable, I still tend to swear about someone or something and not at them.)  Niceness, it seems, is believed to be a known associate of weakness, inexperience or lack of intelligence.

I wonder why that is.

And since we have found our way to the topic of swearing, let me add this: if you are the kind of person who likes to swear and will do so in front of others on occasion (and I consider myself to be in this category), you need to own it.  Either be comfortable with it or re-assess whether you are comfortable with it.  But don’t go on a rampage of f-ing this and f-ing that in a room full of people and then turn only to me, the woman in the room, and apologize.   I realize that you think you are being polite, but you are not.  You are being sexist.  If you feel your swearing was rude and impolite, then you owe everyone an apology.   If you don’t feel you owe everyone an apology, then the only reason why you think you owe me an apology is because you think I am especially sensitive or delicate or easily offended simply because I wear a bra and you don’t. 

Well knock it off.  I don’t want your fucking apology.

While one might rationally conclude that these extreme ratios, sexist assumptions and biased behavior would make me angry, most of the time they don’t.   Perhaps it is the mellowing that comes with age, but anger is rarely the emotion I feel when experiencing any of the above.  Instead, it is more along the lines of sudden self-consciousness or a mental note of the observed dynamic.  It is emotionally disarming, actually, to enter a room and suddenly realize that everyone is thinking the same thing that you are -- you are a woman – even though not a word will be said about it.  So, I usually just conduct my inventory, observe what I can about the attitudes of the other parties I must engage with, and add that to the storehouse of information that informs what strategy I will employ and tactically how I will carry it out to achieve my desired objectives.  To be totally honest, and to give away a bit of what may have contributed to any success I have had, I think the habit of surveying and assessing my environment gives me an advantage.  I have come to embrace the upside of being underestimated.


The other time I find myself confronted with a flashing red light that says “FEMALE -FEMALE – FEMALE” is only every time I pick-up the newspaper or attempt to inform myself of current events via or or Mother Jones’ Twitter feed (@MotherJones) in 2012.  This is because several different presidential candidates and state legislative bodies are deeply concerned about my uterus.  Well, it is not just my uterus that they are concerned about, but really any American uterus anywhere, and it turns out only us women have them.

From my vantage point, the concern about the State of the Uterus is a corollary, if not always a companion, to the attitudes and assumptions detailed above.  The source of all of the anxious hand-wringing on the right seems to be this:  the uterus is among the standard features in the female product line, which also includes a "female" brain.  To their great chagrin, these features are a package deal and are not separable.  It’s sort of like the cold weather package on your car.  Either you’re in for the seat heaters, leather seats and the turbo-charged rear defrost or you are not, but there is no a la carte option.

This means that basic competence and intelligence are not to be assumed.  It must be demonstrated and earned.  As the good legislators in the State of Virginia have made clear, it therefore follows that just because a woman has had a uterus inside her body her entire life, doesn’t mean she is "fully informed" and really understands what it’s all about.  The best way to be sure her standard, female-model brain really gets it, is to force her into an unnecessary medical procedure so that she can see pictures of the fetus inside her uterus that she is seeking to abort.  (To my mind, the fact that she is seeking to terminate the pregnancy seems to conclusively demonstrate that she is aware that she is pregnant and has a firm grasp on the schematics of pregnancy, but I’m probably just missing some subtlety in the analysis.) 

No doubt the great state of Virginia is leveraging the latest findings from the front lines of educational research.  Certainly they are only proposing such legislation because it is backed up by stacks of disciplined, scientific, data-driven, peer reviewed studies showing that the best way to really educate on the topic of “you have a fetus in your uterus” is to require the woman to watch a screen while her genitalia is exposed and probed by a someone who disagrees with her decision to remove said fetus. 

With this revolutionary breakthrough in understanding, it only makes sense, then, that a wholesale reinvention of American sex-ed is just around the corner.  If we are serious about ensuring that our children really understand sexuality and reproduction, then we cannot turn our backs on them. We must employ the same techniques as soon as possible.  We would still break out the fifth graders by gender, of course (no need to make it awkward), but then I foresee classrooms where each child undergoes a pelvic examination while watching a screen.  Certainly the Catholics would be willing to assist with the young boys (as they have a demonstrated track record of deep concern in this area), while Christian and Muslim fundamentalists alike share a patronizing and paternalistic disdain for women generally, buoyed by a deep seated fear of female sexuality in particular (though, to be fair, the Catholics and Hasidim could get in on this one too) – so they would be eager to manage the young girls.  With all of these volunteers, we could roll-out a nationwide program that would really have an impact.  Because watching a screen while someone probes you is sure to make all the difference in your level of knowledge and understanding, which is what this is really all about.  Just ensuring that everyone is fully aware and informed.  And how can anyone be against that? 


The third situation in which gender awareness rises to the level of everyday consciousness is the Bahamas.  Well, to be more precise, not just the Bahamas, but really anywhere people strut around in bathing suits all day. 

(Here I must stop and say how fortunate I am.   Despite having been issued only a female model brain, I have managed to make something of myself and can contribute substantially to my family’s financial well-being.  Even further against the odds, given the brain I had to work with, I have managed to use my uterus responsibly (even without all of the latest advances of education-by-screen-and-probe), so I have two healthy children instead of 20.  As a result of this sheer good luck on my part, vacationing in the Bahamas with my family is within the realm of possibility.  And actually, I am doing it right now.)

The main downside to the Bahamas, coastal Mexico or Hawaii, however (and some of you may be surprised to hear that there is one), is that they encourage a lot of swimming and surfing and snorkeling and other activities that entail being in or very near the water.  Water itself I have no issues with.  It is lovely to look at and listen to and float on top of.  Getting in it, however, is where I often draw the line.  It is cold.  Always.  I don’t care what the latitude is or the name of the sea or ocean.  I promise you it is cold.  But although I am right about this, it is actually beside the point.  The point is that water begets water activities which begets bathing suits which begs the question – where is the line between “women’s bodies are beautiful and natural and are nothing to be afraid or ashamed of”  and “I really shouldn’t be able to tell the diameter and color of your areola, or that you most certainly have a Brazilian wax, if we’ve never been properly introduced and I am neither your lover nor your gynecologist."

This is a tricky subject, which means I shall immediately plunge forward.  I am not against bikinis.  Moreover, I am all in favor of women's bodies.  They are beautiful and natural and strong and capable of doing the same variety of activities that men's bodies can.  I do not believe they are dirty, or shameful, or full of sin.  I disagree that shaking hands with a woman or seeing her ankles (let alone any other body parts) can have catastrophic consequences on men, as some extreme religions profess.  Most importantly, I do not believe that virginity is a woman's greatest asset and that if she loses it outside of marriage -- even if it is forcibly taken by rape -- she should be put to death because she is now damaged goods and has brought shame to her family.  Indeed, these ideas are so horrifying and repugnant to me I have a hard time even referencing them to make my point.

But I find the other extreme almost as troubling.  Almost.  While the former views and practices arise out of a fear of women's sexuality and a paranoid, insecure need to repress and control it, the opposite practice of exaggerating, promoting and seemingly rewarding sexual display and expression by women is not much better.  They are two sides of the same coin, really.  Both reduce women to a single dimension: sexual functionality.  I say seemingly rewarding because I find the "female power" argument that is sometimes asserted here to be completely wrong-headed and false.  Embracing your own victimization doesn't make you less of a victim.  More to the point, no one believes that Girls Gone Wild is a stepping stone to becoming CEO.  Reducing yourself to boobs and a vagina just confirms the sexist suspicion that you don't have much of a brain.

So here I am in the Bahamas, enjoying the sun and turquoise waters.  And watching an endless parade of bodies and swimwear meander down the beach, into the ocean and in and out of the numerous pools.  Most of my fellow vacationers are not engaged in sexual advertising (though the delegation of overly-tanned New Jersey moms is pushing it more than I wish they would.) But there is always some contingent of "Oh!  How on earth did my breast pop out of my top like that when I made such an effort to secure it with four square inches of fabric held fast with double-knotted dental floss?"  To say nothing of the highly functional "thong" bikini bottoms.  Because nothing says "I am a highly intelligent person who should be taken seriously," like your ass hanging out for everyone to see.


But you know, maybe I've been coming at this all wrong.  Maybe I have just been extremely lucky that I've gotten this far in life with just a girl brain, without a "fully informed" understanding of my own body or the assistance of governors and legislators in making decisions about birth control, or a better appreciation of the true power of my special lady parts when exposed for all to see.  But I just can't get past my need for rigorous analysis and data  -- must be a weak, female brain thing.  So maybe if I just test these ideas I can see where the data comes out and that will inform what I should do.  Here's the plan:  I will go to my next mediation in stilletos and a thong bikini, grab my breasts with one hand and my crotch with the other and declare loudly, "I'm the lawyer and I'm here to represent.  Anyone got a fucking problem with that?!"

That should do the trick.