“Hillee, I need you to get Phil. I need help.” There is an odd tone to my mother’s voice as it comes over the phone. I only later realize, as I am dialing my stepfather, that it is actual fear. I hadn’t asked her many questions because she said she had to go. The judge was calling them back in. She had to go back into the courtroom—with the man she’d told me she’d been certain was going to hit her.
My mom, who is a 20-year veteran attorney in New York state, has spent most of her career working in family law as not only an impressive litigator but a talented collaborative attorney. She’s shepherded people through some of their darkest, ugliest times. She’s helped willing clients come to amicable agreements. She’s witnessed firsthand the kind of backwards logic of our country’s judicial system. She has taken on many clients over the years who other attorneys had turned away: clients who couldn’t pay, clients who joined us at holidays—having nowhere else to go, clients who she’s escorted to doctor’s visits—acting as de facto mother while they battled for custody of their child and cancer at the same time.
My mother is not a pragmatist. She believes in big ideas like Justice and Fairness. She is not a person who takes no for an answer, or who gives into the way things are done just because, or who is willing to take her seat silently in the back of the room. She is smart, compassionate, theatrical, and fierce. These characteristics have often served her clients well, but have paved a difficult road for her professionally in a career that is hierarchical and still male-dominated—pegging her as the kind of “nasty woman” who will not be pushed around.
I understand my mother’s career at a level most children do not—because I watched her earn it. I looked on as my mother worked through law school as a mature student while raising me and running my grandfather’s business. I said goodnight, knowing she’d be studying late into the night, earning her spot on the Dean’s list and graduating Cum Laude when I was thirteen.
Then I observed as she earned her stripes working long hours while my stepfather, a long-time attorney, and I kept dinner waiting for late in the evening when mom would walk through the door exhausted and excited all at once. I listened to her cry after one of her early cases, not understanding what the injustice was until years later when she told me that her client had been raped at gunpoint by her husband and the judge suggested it was warranted.
I have understood the inherent sexism in her career where she is called a “bitch” for rigorously defending her clients in a way that would be lauded were she a man. I grew into a woman watching this struggle. And so, I too recognized it, when my final year architecture studio professor berated and embarrassed me in public and disregarded my female colleagues all while pointedly praising each of my male colleagues. I understood it when I dared to question my daughter’s first neurologist who dismissed my fears of seizures as new-mother neuroses, and then became incensed when it turned out he was wrong. I recognize it as so many women do, in the postures men, not all men, but enough that it matters, take when women are right or capable or powerful. I watch it in the men who benefit from not seeing or standing up to the misogynist and bullying postures of their friends and colleagues.
And, of course, I recognize it because it is written all over this election cycle not only in the double standard to which Hillary Clinton is held, her expertise used as a weapon against her. But even more so as our society has stood by and watched, and, in many cases, cheered, as a bully of a man wielded whatever kinds of pathetic power he could muster over not only his female opponent, but apparently over all of the women who cross his path. And those who dare to speak? They are called liars and whores and crazy and ugly.
I have listened to my mother try to make her way through her career, unwilling to accept the injustices she sees. I have listened to her cry with frustration when she could not stand knowing that justice would not be served. But fear? The fear I heard in her voice over the phone, this was something new altogether. She’s worked for clients with powerful and violent exes. She’s reported judges for misconduct. I’ve heard her concerned before, but never afraid. I mean, this is a woman who last year actually confronted a man involved in breaking the window of her car and stealing her purse and cell phone. She is not easily intimidated.
That fear I heard in my mother’s voice over the phone, I would come to understand, was of the law clerk who worked for the judge on a particular case—a difficult case that was drawn out over years. A law clerk named Ted Wilson who is running for a judgeship in upstate New York. A law clerk who had just viciously berated my mother in a closed room in front of her client and associate after she asked a simple set of questions on behalf of her client. A law clerk who had moved quickly enough across the room toward my almost sixty-year-old mother and her fifty-year-old client to cause them to flinch, thinking he was going to strike them.
A law clerk who minutes later was defended by the judge, as my mother shakily tried to put the event on the court record. A law clerk and judicial candidate who has maintained his standing as “highly qualified” from the Independent Judicial Election Qualification Commissions, despite my mother filing a detailed report of his behavior. A law clerk whose Administrative Judge, Vincent Caruso, decided the claim didn’t even warrant speaking to my mother or, more importantly, her client, who may have been harmed by this behavior. A candidate who has a good chance of being elected to be a family court judge in Warren County.
The fact that this happened? It matters. What also matters is the system that enables him. The judges. The committees. The other attorneys. The people who look the other way over and over again while men like this claim power. The people who “investigate” accusations only to say they are unfounded. The people who decide that the word of a sixty-year-old seasoned attorney and two female witnesses is less important than a man from their inner circle. The people who pay lip service to equal rights, talking about their wives and daughters, all the while ignoring systemic inequity that refuses to protect women from the kind of man who becomes so incensed by a woman like my mother that he verbal abuses her and physically intimidates her.
We’ve been told that there has been progress. And there has been.
But it is not enough. Not nearly enough.
Because we all watched as a man used his physical presence to attempt to dominate a woman and listened as he called her a “nasty woman” during two separate presidential debates. We all listened as he called for jailing his opponent, as he suggests violence in answer to her now very likely election as president. And we all listened as this same man discussed women and their bodies with equal parts disgust and conquest.
And I watched as another strong and capable woman who has paid her dues in a difficult career, but also a mother, a grandmother, deals with the fallout of being physically intimidated in a courthouse by an employee of the court.
And I listen as people stumble to find yet another absurd excuse for why this kind of behavior is acceptable in 2016—not only in our presidential election but in our courtrooms and offices and on our streets. And not only directed toward women in this country, but also for people of color, for immigrants, for people with disabilities, for Muslims. The list goes on.
I was raised to believe in justice. I was raised to speak up even when it is unpopular or difficult. My mother taught me that by her example—as she showed me to how it is possible to be strong as well as caring. She’s demonstrated over and over that no matter how many times that path in life is met with the kinds of obstacles built by bullies threatened by powerful compassion, you push through them with the truth. That, in the end, the truth will out, but it may need a nudge by those of us who are built for these kinds of battles.
And I, for one, am going to listen to my mother.
I am also linking up from Kiss My List’s Who I Am Linkup: