What Hillary Clinton got right about the sexism still present in law school today
Like most twenty-something Facebook users, my newsfeed (do they still even call it that?) was recently dominated by one powerful image. You probably know the one — a candid picture of Secretary Hillary Clinton, with a caption that resonates with anyone who has ever been “othered.” In it, the presidential candidate attempts to explain her seemingly “cold or unemotional” demeanor with an intimate anecdote from her college days. She reveals that, while sitting for the LSAT, she endured hateful, derisive comments from men who believed she was attempting to usurp a seat that rightfully belonged to them.
Within this short, unassuming post by the Humans of New York lives more than a hundred years of the female experience.
While lawyers have existed for thousands of years, women have only been permitted to practice law for a little over a century. For that matter, women have only had legal rights for less than two hundred years. So it is unsurprising that Secretary Clinton experienced this backlash when daring to enter a field that historically has not belonged to people like her.
Fortunately, a lot has changed since Secretary Clinton attended law school.
For instance, when women sit for the LSAT today, they comprise about half of the test-taking population. When they enter law school, they make up a little less than half of their class — and it has been estimated that, by 2017, women will be the majority of law school students. When they enter the workforce, they join an established community of role models who paved the way for them.
But although the legal industry’s gender composition has dramatically evolved in the 43 years since Secretary Clinton graduated from Yale Law, its culture has remained remarkably unchanged.
Within the historically male-dominated legal field — and by legal field, I mean the distinct culture that pervades law schools, firms, and the judiciary — the traditionally masculine is the still the norm. Instead of making meaningful space for women, the legal field has merely given women the opportunity to assimilate to standards that were not created with them in mind.
Indeed, women throughout the legal field, novice and veteran alike, will attest to being given (or giving) advice to take that opportunity and run with it. As Jean McKenzie Lieper observed in her book Bar Codes: Women in the Legal Profession, we become “surrogate men,” denying our “own basic values” in favor of an “outward commitment to prevailing organizational norms.” In this way, by attempting to erase our gender, we begin to take on the very gendered characteristics of a traditionally masculine culture.
And this tactic has proven to be useful.
In the Humans of New York post, Secretary Clinton herself explains that, through the cacophony of male voices declaring “You don’t have to be here” and “There’s plenty else you can do,” she persevered by shielding herself, looking down, and controlling her emotions as best she could.
In other words, she learned to blend in.
As a recovering law student myself, Secretary Clinton’s words ring alarmingly true.
Although women in law school today rarely hear such demeaning, discriminatory comments aloud, we experience their sentiment daily. “You don’t need to be here” is silently screamed in our faces every time our male professors exclusively use sports metaphors to help our male peers understand complex civil procedure rules. “There’s plenty else you can do” is plastered on the foreheads of every interviewer who asks us if we want children.
Even as we sit for our licensing exams we are reminded in (seemingly) innocuous ways that this space does not belong to us; it was created for one group, with one type of life experience guiding its formation. For example, while waiting in line to take my Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE), I was told by a male examiner that I had to leave my wallet outside the examination room because it was “too large.”
He explained to me that, to be allowed in the examination room, all wallets must be small enough to fit into a pants pocket.
Of course, he had no idea that he was forcing me to conform to a male standard. And, of course, I was in no position to explain to him that:
(1) women’s clothing, on average, does not include pockets (let alone pockets large enough to fit a man’s wallet)
(2) women’s wallets are typically designed to fit into purses, and thus have a longer, more rectangular shape, than a man’s square wallet
(3) holding me to a male standard would quite literally put me at a disadvantage during the exam compared to my male peers whose personal belongings would be safe and sound beneath their desks during the exam.
Instead, I shielded myself, looked down, controlled my emotions, and placed my wallet outside the room, feeling just about as vulnerable as all of my personal information.
It’s that same vulnerability that rattled my confidence about four months later, as I sat for the Bar Exam. As a cisgender female of reproductive age whose uterus has a dark sense of humor, I was on my period.
It’s that same vulnerability that rattled my confidence about four months later, as I sat for the Bar Exam.
In any other situation, this secret would be mine to keep. But in the Bar Exam, my personal health information was suddenly public information. Instead of providing pads or tampons for female examinees in the test center bathrooms, the powers that be had determined that I should have to bring my own feminine products into the exam room — in the same clear plastic bag as my ID and lip balm.
As a millennial feminist, I strongly believe we should normalize menstruation. But as a recently graduated law student who was on the brink of a nervous breakdown from studying 24/7 for the last two months for a test that will determine her entire future in a career she’s been working towards since she was four years old, walking past each of my male colleagues with hard evidence that I’m currently bleeding out of my vagina was dehumanizing and embarrassing. But like Secretary Clinton, “I didn’t want to mess up the test,” so I knew I “couldn’t afford to get distracted.” Still, I couldn’t help but think about how not one of the men around me suffered the same invasion of privacy.
In the grand scheme of things, these experiences are negligible; events I’ve over dramatized in my head during moments of anxiety. However, when you add them to the growing list of microaggressions the average female lawyer experiences on a daily basis, the mere act of existing in the legal industry becomes exhausting.
In Secretary Clinton’s words, these inconspicuous, independent moments eventually turn into “a real pile on.” And so, we learn to adapt. We dress in unassuming button-downs that feel alien and restrictive over our curves. We adjust our voices lower and speak up more during male-dominated class discussions — all while making sure not to overstep or (heaven forbid!) come off as “aggressive.”
We learned at a young age to walk this fine line between acceptable and bitchy.
But we also perpetuate this standard through generations, perhaps through some form of self-preservation.
Year after year, older and wiser female attorneys tell the new class of lawyers to wear less makeup; wear the right height heels; speak slower and lower; don’t push too hard, but don’t be a pushover; don’t be aggressive, but don’t be submissive.
The list goes on and on and gains more and more maxims each year, until “blending in” becomes standing still. Until you find yourself unable to move — lest you offend a male standard of decency and get discovered for what you really are — a perfectly normal, human woman.
Of course, individuals across all demographics and professions feel this same pressure to conform to a culture that was never intended for them. But the legal profession is a particularly unique (and dangerous) example of discrimination because it has the capacity to affect the whole of society on a daily basis.
As lawyers, it is often our duty to determine the meaning of the rules that govern the Nation. If we do not make room for diverse experiences in the classroom, how can we expect those perspectives to be represented in our country’s legal system?
Ultimately, I am so thankful to be a part of this community. I owe so much to the women who came before me, who made it so that half of my graduating class shared my gender and my perspective. A lot may have changed in the legal industry since Hillary Clinton sat for her LSAT, but it’s still not enough. For the legal industry to truly represent society, we must strive for perpetual, meaningful evaluation of the impact that our curriculum and class conduct has on future lawyers and our legal system.
The legal industry must embrace, not erase, diversity.
I look forward to a merit-based legal field that recognizes and reacts to explicit and implicit biases against sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, ethnicity, and every other factor that makes us unique, yet vulnerable in a traditionally Anglo-Saxon, masculine culture.
When we erase these factors or silence those who express their experiences with discrimination, we allow the very behavior we denounce to continue to exist without repercussion. In fact, we might as well be endorsing it.
Kaiya Lyons is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School and a less recent graduate of the George Washington University. She currently resides in Washington, D.C., where she fights for civil rights and good seats on the Metro. You can follow her on Instagram or LinkedIn, if that’s your thing.