Last night, a group of current HLS women met with one of the original founders of the WLA, Cheryl Conner, of the HLS class of 1982. It was a night of great conversations, funny stories, and inspiring words.
The evening started with Cheryl talking a little bit about how and why the WLA started at HLS. It started modestly – women’s potlucks at Cheryl’s double-decker house on Broadway. “It was that simple,” she said, “cool women who wanted to get to know each other. I don’t think we had any officers or a board like you do today . . . I don’t even know if we had an agenda!” Cheryl noted that at that time, the school was only about sixteen percent women and therefore the women who were there, were a distinct minority and felt the need tor bonding, friendship, and specifically, a community. Another reason Cheryl mentioned for the beginning of the WLA was the women’s desire to unite over a shared experience and aligned interest. All the women in her class had grown up with a civil rights mentality and the increasing possibility of real equality but all the women had also grown up with numerous encounters with sexual harassment and sexual discrimination. This second reason for the founding of the WLA leads into the third – the fact, says Cheryl, that “all the pictures on the walls of HLS were white men, which drove us creepy!” At that time, she told us, Professors Elizabeth Bartholet and Martha Field were the only female professors at HLS and so the women wanted to organize to bring more women faculty to HLS. And, in what can be called one of the first official acts (and victories!) of the WLA, the women received permission to have conversations with faculty candidates before hiring. The first person Cheryl and the women met with? Dean Martha Minow. So, it was the need for community, the shared experience, aligned interests, and push for women’s equality that brought Cheryl and the co-founders together in 1982 – similar reasons, it should be noted, that the WLA continues to exist today.
Cheryl then began to tell us a little bit about her career, and specifically, how being a woman “great affected and shaped my career.” Before HLS, she received a B.A. in Economics from Mount Holyoke College and an M.A. in Applied Economics from U. of Michigan. After graduating, as a result of a need to collaborate and compromise with her spouse, she stayed in Boston and went to work at Goodwin Procter. After Goodwin, Sheryl went to the AG’s office to do utilities work, where she was “often the only girl in the room” and needed her husband to “coach her on what happened in the baseball and football games” so that she would be able to chat with the men. Her need for a more flexible schedule after having her first child, then led her to a counsel job at the Massachusetts Senate and a position on a gubernatorial campaign. After taking a break to have her second child, Cheryl then moved to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston, where she worked in a female-dominated civil division, with “powerful women in a powerful office,” that she said, “was so much fun.” Cheryl’s career then moved to a “teaching and reflecting” period. She taught law at Boston, Northeastern and Suffolk law schools, and was on the economic research faculty at the Kennedy School of Government. An important part of that time was also spent in meditation and reflection, where Cheryl became very interested in music and the American Revolution, and is currently working on a historical musical. She currently teaches New Business Forms and Governance at the MBA in Sustainability Program at Marlboro College in Vermont. She is also a social entrepreneur and founded two organizations: New Prospects Collaborative and Holistic Health Opportunities. Cheryl thus used her varied jobs and diverse career path as an example to us, encouraging us to be open to the same. In the end she said, “we compose lives . . . we’re more like a quilt” and we should embrace and use that.
Cheryl put out an invitation to us “to explore both the role of the lawyer and ourselves within our institutions . . . to fulfill our role as a lawyer and be a steward for the whole.” She believes that this is now the time of democracy in our of all organizations, and specifically, the time of female leadership in our institutions. Inspired by Cheryl’s career path and the call for female leadership, we all engaged in a discussion of women in power. What would that look like? What do females bring to the table? What about the problem of labeling? Of socialization? What does female leadership look like at HLS? What can we do here in our classes? Outside of our classes? We grabbled with these questions with Cheryl and each other last night. And as the WLA has done for close to thirty years, the WLA will continue to organize and unite to answer these and other questions critical to women at HLS.