SFWA Writng Contest: Thoughts on Women in History
First Prize Memoir for "A Man's Spot" by Mary Greenwood
I have been a member of the South Florida Writing Association for over ten years and find them a welcoming and encouraging group for all writers at all stages of their writing. They are also a lot of fun! Thanks for selecting "A Man's Spot" for First Place in Memoir for the topic of "Thoughts on Women in History." I am currently working on the rest of my memoir, whose working title is coincidentally called "A Man's Spot."
A Man’s Spot
“Do you realize you took a man’s spot?”
I swung around after I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. I saw a male student that I had never met. I didn’t think I was hearing right. “What did you say?”
“Don’t you realize you took a man’s spot?”
I was 24 and this was my first class at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles in September 1968. I was so stunned and frozen that I said nothing. I could have said. “I certainly hope so” or “Do you feel threatened by me?” but the words didn’t come. Those words are still seared in my brain after almost 50 years, but I have no recollection of the man’s name or face.
I was truly flabbergasted by the comment because no one had ever said anything like that to me. I started at a woman’s college where we were taught that we were “uncommon women.” I spent my Junior year at University College Dublin where the first question was whether you were Protestant or Catholic, but no one ever questioned my right to be there. Then I finished my degree at the New School for Social Research in New York City at the beginning of the civil rights movement and women’s liberation, but I never felt direct discrimination. I had just completed a Masters Degree in English in LA, but perhaps literature was considered the proper realm for a woman and law was not.
I always wondered if that student asked all the women students or just me. There were other women students in my class. One was Rose Ochi, a Japanese-American, who had been sent as a child with her family to an internment camp in Rohwer, Arkansas during World War II. She told me her family had only one day to dispose of all their belongings in Los Angeles before leaving on the train. Rose later worked for the White House during President Clinton’s administration as an Assistant Attorney General under Janet Reno. Another woman student, Dr. Bailey, was already an established medical doctor. She was first in our class at the end of the first year. That student who said I took a “man’s spot” was not the only one who felt that women shouldn’t be lawyers. The men students would not allow women in their study groups; we mostly studied by ourselves because we lived in different parts of the County and had other commitments.
In retrospect, I wish I had asked that student exactly what he meant by his comment. Did he think women should not be lawyers in general or that women should not be law students in the night program? I taught English at Pasadena City College during the day and attended law school at night. Since we were attending a Catholic University, did he feel that being a woman lawyer went against God’s will? Did he feel men were smarter than women or that men could argue better than women? Or did he feel that I was taking away the livelihood of a man? Or did he feel that my place was in the home taking care of children even though at the time I did not have any?
I wish I had stood my ground and said something instead of wordlessly walking away. Over the last 49 years, I have thought of many rejoinders, responses and retorts. In my dreams, I turn into my Wonder Woman costume, complete with the silver cuffs, and yell something very clever and witty. In my fantasy, I am so persuasive that the student says “I am sorry. I know you will do well in law school and be a great attorney.” Then I snap back to reality.
Later I realized that I was not the only one. I was in good company. Belva Lockwood, the first woman attorney to argue before the Supreme Court, was not allowed to receive her law degree from George Washington University because “young men would not want to walk across the stage with her.” Belva did not give up and wrote to President Ulysses S. Grant, who was also the ex-officio Chancellor of George Washington University and she received her diploma within a week. The Dean at Harvard Law School chastised the women law students in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s class for taking the spots of qualified males. After graduation, law firms would not hire Ginsburg, who was first in her class at Columbia where she transferred, or first Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was third at Stanford Law. In her recent book, What Happened, Hillary Clinton cites similar anecdotes about her experience at Yale Law School and she graduated in 1973, two years after I did.
Now when I meet a woman attorney, I ask her how many women were in her law school class and I tell her about the “man’s spot” comment. Unless she has graduated recently, she usually has similar stories to share. I say recently because since 2016, 51% of the students in law schools are women so male students are now in the minority.
After almost fifty years thinking about this “man spot” comment, I started realizing that my male classmate did me a big favor. He said what others were probably thinking. That first night at law school prepared me for the rest of my legal career. I heard many other sexist comments during my legal career, but I was no longer surprised, and, therefore, was able to find my voice and speak out. Whenever I was discouraged or thought of giving up, I remembered what that student said so long ago. As a result, I did my best and I persevered.
Mary Greenwood, Mediator, Attorney, Arbitrator, Negotiator, and Author of How To Negotiate Like A Pro: How to Resolve Anything, Anytime, Anywhere, Winner of 9 book awards; How to Mediate Like a Pro, Winner of 12 book awards; and How to Interview Like a Pro, Winner of 12 book awards. A Man's Spot, a Legal Memoir will be published in Fall 2018. Visit WWW.MaryGreenwood.org or email: Mgreen464@aol.com.