Female Leadership Matters

On behalf of the Women’s Law Association, welcome to HLS! I am one of the Vice Presidents of the WLA, which is one of the largest student organizations on campus. Our 22 committees encompass everything from promoting professional development by connecting members with alumnae, to conducting research on the status of gender equity at HLS, to building community through social events. Our mission statement defines the WLA as “a diverse, non-partisan, feminist organization committed to building a vibrant and supportive community for women during their time at Harvard Law School and beyond.” Accordingly, we “advocate for gender equity and bolster women in pursuit of their professional and personal goals. We empower our members with academic resources, mentorship, and professional development opportunities while providing members and alumnae with a lasting community.”

To enter law school in 2017 seems entirely different than it was a year ago, especially for those of us particularly disheartened by watching one of the most qualified people ever to run for president, who also happened to be a woman, be defeated by a man who has openly bragged about sexual assault. Last year, my classmates and I began HLS in what we believed would be the historic year in which this country elected its first female president, and it felt like a distinctly electric, proud, and important moment to be in law school.

Today, the importance of that legal education could not be more stark. Regardless of one’s partisan politics, it is clear our country faces a crisis of government. Our president is unprecedentedly unqualified and has shown alarming disregard for the very laws he swore to uphold, while divisions within and between parties are wider and more vitriolic than ever. In Charlottesville, and around the country, what many of us feared most on election night has become a disturbing reality; the fault lines of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and the many other forms of bigotry that permeate American history have cracked wide open, leaving craters of division, hatred, and doubt.

Hatred and discrimination are unfortunately inextricable from the history of this country. Yet equally inextricable is a history of fighting back, of obtaining and protecting civil rights, and of attempting to ensure the law serves all people. As Harvard Law students, we are uniquely well positioned to participate in that fight. One phrase I remember hearing frequently during orientation was, “You’ve already won, the hard part’s over.” And it’s true – the HLS degree does confer a level of security and choice that is almost unparalleled, and it is an enormous privilege. But that narrative of having “already won,” while likely promoted in an effort to calm fears of intense law school competition and self-doubt, can have a pernicious effect. If we believe we have already won just by being at HLS, we may be less likely to fight for others, and we may be less likely to deviate from the most well trodden career paths of HLS students in an effort to maintain that victory.

And so, the advice I wish I had gotten as an incoming 1L is not that of having already won something, or that I did not have to worry about grades or jobs, but that I should worry, and decide carefully, about how to use this degree. There are, of course, a myriad of ways to do this, but engaging meaningfully with student organizations, particularly those like the WLA and other affinity groups that focus on the advancement of a historically disadvantaged group, can be a powerful way to start. Understanding the forces that foster discrimination and stymie equality has never felt more important, and the network that the WLA provides not only helps women’s careers in real time, but also allows us to call attention to disparities, goals, and challenges.

We are especially focused on reaching out to other groups and demographics this year, in the interests of both promoting the often-shared goals of affinity groups and bridging some of the divides that can arise on campus. Accordingly, this will be the first year when we welcome men onto a WLA committee, through which we hope to increase male involvement in gender equity initiatives, understand why some issues that affect everyone get pushed aside for being “women’s issues,” and promote the fact that everyone has a stake in equality regardless of whether they feel directly affected by injustice.

Additionally, the WLA works to help members rethink assumptions about careers and causes and learn more about what they truly want out of law school. While classes can certainly provide some of this perspective, I’ve found WLA programs like trainings on running for office and small group chats with judges, professors, and partners to provide even more. WLA initiatives have exposed me to beliefs and experiences of speakers I would not have otherwise considered, allowed me to meet a diverse group of women outside of my section, and given me direct experience leading meetings, introducing speakers, and organizing events that I would not have gotten through the HLS degree program alone.

In conclusion, I urge incoming students to consider joining the WLA for the exposure to different perspectives, leadership experience, and community we provide, as well as to forge connections across demographics within the HLS community. In doing so, I also urge students to continually question assumptions and resist the “you’ve already won” sentiment, insofar as it fails to capture the level of attention we should be paying to how we can use our own victories to benefit others – particularly in this political moment. The WLA network and opportunity for female leadership provide a powerful avenue through which to get out of the bubble of classes and continually remember that even within the fast-paced, often quite status conscious environment of HLS, we all have an incredibly active role and responsibility in shaping our legal careers.

Isabel Finley is a 2L. She is a vice president of the Women's Law Association.

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