Forty and Other F-words: Mid-Life Musings on the Relevance of Feminism

posted June 1st, 2016 by Janet Graham - Leave a Comment

The approach of some personal mile-markers has prompted me to think about feminism, equality, law and social change. And, I am more convinced than ever, as I approach my 40th birthday, that feminism remains relevant, both for me and for the younger woman lawyers coming up behind me.


I’m approaching some milestones this year.  My 40th birthday is approaching at the end of the summer, and my fifteen year law school reunion is coming then too, both of which signal that I’m no longer a “young lawyer”, by any stretch of the imagination. I’m now leaving behind unequivocally the status of being part of the “new generation” of lawyers, with gratitude, and without hesitation. And, at the same time, my children are on the cusp of entering their teens.


I graduated from university at 20, and I started law school, grad school, and practice young. I spent over a decade as the youngest person in rooms filled mostly with baby boomers. It’s been a good vantage point to see how one cultural form shifts into another, culturally, socially, and legally. This position was an optimal place, for example, for me to do work as a legal researcher: it positioned me to do work for practitioners not familiar with how to do research using online databases.  And it’s a vantage point from which I have had the privilege of teaching millennial law students since 2006.   Being a “young” woman and “young” lawyer is a position of some disadvantage professionally in a work sector that privileges seniority, but youth confers certain social advantages in a patriarchal society that obsesses about youth in women, and in which older women, with each passing birthday, are increasingly invisible.


My fortieth is a mile-marker for me but it’s also a personal instance of a larger social trend. I’m on the “shoulder”, right between Gen-X and the millennials. I’m one drop in a cultural wave. This year, the year I turn 40, is the moment at which the first wave of millennials is turning 40. The “generational” literature about different demographics in the workplace is about to become dated.  The “younger” group is coming of age, or more precisely, coming into middle age and it won’t accept being told it’s too young, or too inexperienced, or “just not ready” anymore.
Millennials are a generation seemingly perpetually infantilized, who have faced disproportionate unemployment and underemployment, and have been slow to launch. The generation has been touted in some senses as the children of the future, the members of a more enlightened, egalitarian age.


As I approach 40, I am more convinced than ever that feminism is relevant, and, if it’s relevant to me, it’s relevant to those coming up behind me.  This observation is particularly timely at a political moment when Hillary Clinton is running for US President, and this momentous campaign is being met dismissively by many younger women who don’t see the value in avowedly feminist advocacy or activism, anymore.
Those of us on the “shoulders” of a new generation are like canaries in a coal mine – we are signifiers of trends to come. With the exception of a broader (and welcome) acceptance of LGBT rights, the changes I have seen across my adult life and legal career tend much more towards the technological than the cultural. I have seen technological advance in my practice, from a time when I observed a group of lawyers at a PD session taking handwritten notes about how to log on to “the world wide web” to our present tense of internet connectivity being indispensable for competent legal practice. However, I have not seen an overall successful conclusion to the good work being done by many over decades to ensure family-friendly workplace policies, equitable maternity and parental leave benefits, and workplaces free of assault and harassment widely available across the legal profession.  Yes, advocacy and work are being undertaken, but these problems have not been solved.


Feminism is a multi-stranded thing, and there are lots of feminisms.  However, whatever particular perspective you might have on feminism, a shared view of all feminist thought is that gender is relevant, and that what follows from this is an imperative for action to ensure inequalities produced around gender are eroded and eradicated. Feminist writing has given me a language to understand how my own particular experiences are part of larger patterns.  It’s given me the opportunity to laugh about “mansplaining.” and to see discrimination and sexual harassment for what they are. It gives me a community of allies, whether in a bookstore or simply a set of hashtags, and a vocabulary and set of imperatives for social and legal change.  Feminism makes me feel angry, and it makes me feel good. It helps me not to feel alone.


So, ultimately, as I approach my own personal mid-life milestones, I see relatively little social and cultural change in the workplace from the space I entered in my early 20s. I see myself as a social participant increasingly discriminated against.   Turning 40 means I’ve been negotiating with patriarchal boundaries and gender norms for a long time now, and it means I’ve seen my friends go through these negotiations too.  I’ve been around long enough to see the disproportionate attrition of women play out in the legal profession amongst my peers and colleagues.  It means I’ve been around the block long enough to have been discriminated against, sexually harassed, and variously shamed for my “shrill” voice and clothing.  I’ve been told to “smile” a thousand times, and counseled to keep the cleavage hidden and the heels high, and I’ve been advised to wear my hair up to look smarter. It means I’ve been working long enough to have received sidelong disapproving glances and street harassment and unwanted advances from clients.  I’ve been at the table long enough to have received lots of advice about the advantages of sending children to boarding school and how it can really alleviate the need for unattainable work-life balance. I don’t identify as a victim or survivor of these things.  I identify as a lawyer. I identify as an activist. I identify as a mother. And, I identify as feminist.


Rebecca Bromwich

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