Valerie Jarrett, Illinois Attorney General lead the way as women in power


Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan was the keynote speaker at the conference

At the end of 2009, in celebration of women becoming a majority of the workforce, the cover of the Economist featured J. Howard Miller’s iconic Rosie the Riveter image, announcing “We Did It!”. But according to the Economist, women still occupy less than five percent of management at top companies, face a serious pay disparity, and bear a disproportionate burden when raising children while pursuing a career. With these challenges in mind, Harvard Law School’s Women’s Law Association convened its annual conference on Friday, February 19th, “Women for Women: Advocating for Change!”, bringing together women who are leaders in both the public and private sectors to discuss the dual role of women as participants in a changing society and facilitators of future change. 

In addition to keynote addresses by top Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett, whose daughter Laura Jarrett ’10 was in the audience, and Lisa Madigan, the Attorney General of Illinois, three panels were convened on the subjects of change in the courtroom, the workplace, and the community. Cognizant of the pressures that the young women in the audience will face after graduation, many of the speakers offered common sense advice regarding the selection of a future career path, the challenges of leadership, and the struggle for work-life balance while raising a family.  At the “Change in the Community” panel, discussing the role of women in public service, former Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan LL.M. ’79 cautioned that in her experience, “The glass ceiling is not any weaker in the non-profit sector.” Silda Wall Spitzer ’84 said that students should take every opportunity to lead, but to remember that with limited time in each day it is important to sequence and prioritize one’s efforts.  Spitzer warned that money is necessary to make anything happen, and that “sometimes you have to fake it” when trying to take on a new role, while trying to “keep a sense of being human and enjoy the process.” 

In her keynote address, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said that her career had drawn inspiration from her time as a teacher in South Africa during apartheid and from her early contact with Senator Paul Simon, who taught her that, “You not only have the ability to change the world, but you have the obligation to try.” As Attorney General, Madigan has sought to curb domestic violence, ensure public safety from criminals and dangerous products, put pressure on predatory lenders, and has successfully argued before the Supreme Court.  She characterized the wide range of her duties as akin to being “managing partner of the state’s largest public interest law firm.”

Madigan’s success as Attorney General has garnered her re-election to a second term in office by a large majority as well as national attention as one of a small number of female head prosecutors and an open feminist.  But in addition to being a legal and political hot shot, Madigan has set an example by having two children during her tenure as Attorney General, even arguing before the Supreme Court once while eight months pregnant.

Madigan says that parenthood has opened her eyes to a broader perspective on life. “You shift from thinking about everything in terms of me, and it becomes in terms of them, the kids and the next generation.” She said she has also discovered that the double-standard of greater social pressure on women to concentrate on parenting is alive and well in the twenty-first century. “Men never get the question of how you are going to raise your children and have your office.” Madigan admitted that because of her husband’s flexible schedule as a cartoonist she has been lucky to be able to rely on him for help while busy or traveling out of state, but she said that making time for family requires prioritization, concentration, energy, and a careful balance of responsibilities.

As Attorney General, Madigan has pushed to expand the state’s efforts to protect women from violence, and she spoke about the progress being made with respect to stalking laws, orders for protection, and the analysis of rape kit evidence. Prior to her entering office, stalking laws in Illinois required that the victim be directly threatened by the stalker before law enforcement could intervene, but this was a high bar that Madigan saw as insufficient protection in light of the approximately 76% of female victims who are stalked prior to being murdered.  Madigan initiated a dialogue aimed at examining the definition of stalking, with the result that the new Illinois law allows the threat posed by the stalker to be seen through the victim’s eyes rather than by a bright-line rule.

But even when a threat had been identified and protective action taken, Madigan found that over 22% of protective orders were not being served. “If we have laws on the books that are supposed to protect women, that are supposed to protect survivors, but they aren’t enforced, then they are useless.” When she investigated the reasons for this high rate, she found that ironically many of the men subject to the protective orders were already in the custody of state or local law enforcement. New procedures for service upon entry to or exit from state prison lowered non-served rates to 14%.

Madigan also said that there had been significant progress on expediting the analysis of evidence gathered from rape victims in the so called “rape kit” after being the victim of a crime.  When human rights activists revealed that there were over 4,000 untested kits, she began investigating the means of cutting down the backlog.  “Not only is it another trauma for the victim [for there to be no test done], but it hurts the rest of society.”   Now she has introduced a Bill in Illinois to require a test within ten days after the collection of evidence or else provide a reasonwhy there was no test, the first law of its kind in the nation.

The Illinois Attorney General said that one of her latest priorities is the creation of a way of protecting children from cyberbullying.  Whether it is from peers or anonymous sources on the internet, Madigan sees this as an emerging area of concern which demonstrates the hazards of increasing use of the internet by children.  She also expressed serious concern over “sexting” and child pornography, especially given the naïve attitudes of many children to the use of computers. “We have to let them know that everything is public, everything is permanent.” She believes that an effective response to these problems will require programs that facilitate communication between children and responsible adults who can help them deal with bullies and predators.

Madigan encouraged the conference attendees to look beyond the career track that they believe they are expected to follow and seek out a course that will be personally fulfilling. “Take the time to figure out what it is you were meant to do, and go and do it.  I promise you that you will have a satisfying life, and I can only hope that part of what you find satisfying is helping other people.”

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