Art, Literature, and the Law: The Reunion

Art and the Law - The Reunion

By: Carolyn V. Wolski

The room was full of women.  But that was not surprising. 

The speaker for the event was Anita Hill, the lawyer who in 1991 came forward after Clarence Thomas was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court and testified to an all-male panel of senators that years earlier, while she and Thomas worked at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of all places, he had sexually harassed her.  Now, some 15 years later, Thomas was a brooding, mostly silent member of the Supreme Court and Hill was a law school professor on the speaking circuit.

The large room was set up in a sort of semi-circle configuration around the speaker’s podium. I took a seat on one side and then watched the room quickly fill up.  As we do, whether in a classroom or at a funeral, you watch people file in, taking note of who you know, clothes, laughter and pleasantries.  Virtually every female judge from the metro area was there, as well as a number of law school professors. I spotted an attorney who used to work at my firm, a friend who was in my book club, a woman I frequently saw in the elevator I rode every day though I didn’t know who she was.

And then, across the room, I saw Jane, a law school classmate I hadn’t seen since the last day of classes nearly 20 years earlier. I had a vague recollection of someone telling me she had taken a job in Chicago after graduation. Jane and I weren’t close friends in law school, but we had friends in common and there were many days when four or five of us gathered over coffee or lunch to talk about the topics of the moment.

Jane took a seat on the other side of the podium, so I had a straight-ahead view of her.  She looked remarkably unchanged from law school – still trim with short wavy hair that showed no signs of gray.  Even her big glasses were not much different from those she wore 20 years earlier. I was happy to see her again.

I had vivid memories of her fresh face and the unwavering poise she maintained, even while answering idiotic questions from committee members. 

After a few more minutes of chatter and people taking their seats, someone introduced the speaker. Professor Hill came to the podium wearing a dark red jacket.  She looked different from the young lawyer who testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991. I had vivid memories of her fresh face and the unwavering poise she maintained, even while answering idiotic questions from committee members. Now she had the look of a mature woman. She projected sophistication and wisdom and a stronger sense of fight than she had back when we were all glued to our television screens.

I couldn’t wait to talk to Jane.  But for the fact that I hadn’t seen her in a couple of decades, I wasn’t surprised to see her at this event.  Even as a kid out of college, Jane was evolved and knowledgeable about women’s issues.  She wasn’t a gunner or a standout student, but she had an innate sense about gender equity and double-standards. Like the time she maintained in a criminal law class that women who repeatedly defend themselves or their children against physically abusive husbands and partners should never be charged with a crime when they kill or wound their attackers.  I attributed her intuitiveness to the fact that she was from the east coast and went to an all-women’s college, but maybe it was just life experience.

When more women are leading and involved, she said, we broaden the information that goes into decision-making and we have a better shot at resolving complex issues. 

Professor Hill did not disappoint.  Her remarks focused on gender and racial inequalities, as well as the obstacles they present to an inclusive democracy.  She was especially passionate about the importance of women’s perspectives to virtually every facet of modern society – health care, housing, wages, the workplace, the justice system, how we organize our communities. When more women are leading and involved, she said, we broaden the information that goes into decision-making and we have a better shot at resolving complex issues.  That, in turn, can lead to better decisions and more buy-in from the public at large.

Part-way through the talk, I made eye contact with Jane across the room.  I smiled at her, hoping to signal that I was thrilled to see her after so many years.  I was excited to catch up and get her take on the remarks we were hearing.

Professor Hill also reflected on the 1991 hearings. Years before the MeToo Movement, she was prescient about the public’s tendency to treat victims of sexual harassment as liars or, at best, people who should be doubted unless they can somehow show conclusively that the actions about which they complain actually happened.  She recalled some of the questions asked of her during the 1991 hearing by the panel of senators (a panel that definitely did not include any women’s perspectives):

“I’ve got to determine what your motivation might be.  Are you a scorned woman?”

“What was the most embarrassing of all of the incidents that you have alleged?”

“He never did ask you to have sex, correct?”

How perfect was this?  Hearing Anita Hill speak about the same issues that I heard Jane talk about while we were law school.  I would have much to discuss with my old friend.

When the talk ended, attendees stood, mingled, gradually moved to the exits.  I picked up my pace to get over to Jane’s side of the room.  This required some sideways squeezing through the throng and a few “Excuse me” requests so I could make my way.  And finally I got to her.

“Jane!” I said.  “It’s so great to see you.”

She looked at me with a blank expression.  “Are you talking to me?”

My mind was instantly clouded with confusion. What? How can this be? This is definitely not the reaction I expected.  “Uh, yes.  I guess it’s been a while.  We went to law school together.”  I reminded her of my name.

“Sorry,” Jane said.  “I don’t think I remember you.”

Carolyn Wolski
By Carolyn V. Wolski
has practiced law for over 30 years, principally in the areas of business, land-use and environmental law.  She graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1988.  Wolski enjoys writing, teaching and legal advising, as well as travel and bicycling.

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