When I graduated from W&L Law in 1975, I had to convince the then head of Alumni Affairs, a classmate of my father’s in the undergraduate school, that I was not an alumnus. That’s what you get when you’re dealing with a graduate from a women’s college who had taken seven years of Latin. And I never did find any use for the yard’s worth of blue and white W&L silk tie fabric he sent me for being the first female class agent, but I suppose I should have expected that from some quarters of the University forty years ago.
Fortunately, the Law School administration and faculty led by the late Roy Steinheimer was fully committed to integrating the first six women students who arrived on campus in the fall of 1972 into the life of the school and the larger university. The faculty gave up their second floor restroom to us and one professor even quit chewing tobacco when teaching, and the dean made sure that on-campus housing was available and that we got a locker room at the gym, among other accommodations by a formerly all-male university. But I remember vividly being shaken by a comment made to me by a student the first day of my law school career.
It was just before the start of our Contracts class. I took a seat at a table midway back on the left (I am always amazed by how everything is still so clear about the incident). A male classmate already seated at the table in front of me turned and asked, “How do you feel about taking the place of a man who will need to support a family?” I was dumbstruck by the question and, uncharacteristically, had no answer or, better, retort. Class started, and life as a law student was underway.
But the question did stay with me through those three years. Initially, it opened my eyes to a world beyond the ivy walls of a women’s college where women took their leadership roles for granted and career plans as a given. Then it challenged me to ask myself what I expected to do with my degree. Knowing that I very much wanted to have children, I explored different areas of practice that would give me the work/family flexibility that my mother had achieved through a career in teaching. I also discovered through the example of our faculty and local W&L law alumni that lawyers have the responsibility to be engaged in their communities because of their unique problem-solving training. Finally, I realized that a well-paying profession would give me the personal freedom to make my own way, with or without a partner.
Work/life balance is a critical issue for female attorneys. I was interviewed third year by a leading Atlanta firm. One of the interviewers had graduated from W&L just the year before. He reported back to me that, on the return flight to Atlanta, the senior partner had dropped my resume in the rejection pile, commenting that he couldn’t believe I had asked about the firm’s maternity policy, which, as I expected, did not exist.
About ten years later I was working with outside counsel on a matter and, having just had my second child, was pretty sure that one of the female associates of that firm assigned to our case was pregnant, When I mentioned it to her, she turned pale and asked me not say anything to her senior partner as she was up for partner in the next few months.
Law firms were prepared to hire women as long as they could be managed just like male associates. However, for childbearing women equal treatment is not equal opportunity. I am immensely proud that my husband, as chief legal officer of a Fortune 500 corporation, instituted a part time policy for female attorneys during their children’s early years so they could keep their legal skills sharp. Most of them eventually returned to full time status.
To paraphrase another alumna – it takes more than high heels and a law degree to make it in this profession. It has been a succession of women finding their way, with or without the help of their law classmates, professors and bosses, some lucky enough to have female mentors, but mostly not, becoming excellent at their craft because they worked harder than their male colleagues, figuring out how to make marriages work, or not, and making sacrifices in salary and promotion for their young children and their aging parents, all the while enduring the frustration of knowing they could do more, achieve more, if they just had the time.
We remember the slights, intended and unintended, that made us determined not to flinch and to demand what we deserve – equal opportunity.
Welcome to Juris Sophia. I look forward to the conversation!
Angelica Didier Light received her law degree from the Washington and Lee University School of Law (W&L Law) in 1975. Given her position in the alphabet (she was then Angelica Didier), she was the first woman to graduate from W&L Law. She went on to serve as the first female class agent and practice law for twenty years. Light served as President and CEO of the Hampton Roads Community Foundation and its predecessor for 12 years, retiring in 2012. She is now the vice-chair of Elevate Early Education, a statewide legislative advocacy effort. A graduate of Smith College, Light is married to Henry D. Light. Together they have five children and seven grandchildren.