Acceptance Remarks at the Penn Law Women’s Summit Awards Luncheon
Chair Mary Jo White
March 23, 2016
Thank you so much for this award. It is an honor to be recognized at this, the inaugural, Penn Law Women’s Summit. I would also like to congratulate my fellow awardees—an extraordinary group of women whose careers are literally shaping the world around us—from the courts, to academia, to politics, to diplomacy, and the board room—all enormously important areas for women to take leadership roles.
The Women’s Summit is a testament to how important it is to have women at the table—including at the head of the table. Diversity is crucial in the legal and financial worlds—indeed, in every world. During my career, I have been fortunate to have served as the first woman in a number of positions. In the 1990s, I was appointed by President Clinton to be the first woman U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. I was the first female litigation partner and later first woman to chair the litigation department at the New York law firm of Debevoise and Plimpton, LLP, where I spent my years in the private sector beginning as a summer associate in 1973.
Today, I am very pleased to say that I am not the first at something. I am, in fact, the third woman to serve as the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, all three of us appointed by President Barack Obama. To be the third instead of the first to head a critical financial regulator like the Securities and Exchange Commission is a mark of progress. And last year, the President nominated two more women to our five-member Commission. If the Senate confirms them, which I fully expect it will, the SEC would have four women Commissioners for the first time in its history. That too, would be progress—and fun.
And speaking of history, interestingly the SEC was actually located right here in Philadelphia many years ago. During World War II, it was decided that the SEC was unnecessary to the war effort in Washington, and SEC Headquarters was relocated to the north. So from 1942 through 1948, the Commission was based in the former Pennsylvania Athletic Club at 18th and Locust. We have some great old photos of our employees working on top of a covered swimming pool and on a pool deck. Our office space here in Philadelphia—now just one block from City Hall on JFK—has improved since then, but unfortunately our headquarters’ distance from terrific cheesesteaks and soft pretzels has only increased. Despite that deprivation, our regional office here in Philadelphia does truly great, cutting-edge work to protect investors and our markets.
All of us here today know how important it is that we and our male colleagues support other women as they pursue their professional careers. And I would like to take this opportunity to pay very brief tribute to someone in my professional life who provided support at a key time in my career. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I worked as a federal prosecutor in the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office. Bob Fiske was the U.S. Attorney who hired me and a number of other women to work in the Criminal Division, which had been nearly all men since the Southern District’s founding in 1789. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been quoted as saying: in her days, “in the Southern District, most judges wouldn’t hire women [as law clerks]. In the U.S. Attorney’s office, women were strictly forbidden in the Criminal Division.” Ginsburg was told that women were not hired in that division because they would have to deal with all of the “tough types, and women aren’t up for that.”  I can think of more than a few criminals and terrorists that I and my old office put away that would beg to differ.
To his undying credit, Bob Fiske decided that women were very much up to the work of the Criminal Division, and he sought out and hired a lot of great and very qualified women. (By the way, Bob will next month celebrate the 40th anniversary of his own swearing in as the United States Attorney.) His decision to hire and mentor women fundamentally altered my career and the careers of many other New York women lawyers, who became in numbers federal prosecutors in the SDNY U.S. Attorney’s Office, one of the most prestigious U.S. Attorney’s Offices in the country. Today, there is the now infamous “old girl’s network” formed over the years—it is a network of women alums of the SDNY U.S. Attorney’s Office who have supported each other throughout their careers, both while in government and afterwards in the private sector. It has made a huge difference to the professional success of countless women.
As Bob Fiske recognized, we need numbers as well as support. There is strength in numbers, and numbers matter. Having other women in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1978—fellow female litigators with similar outlooks—made a significant difference in all of our comfort levels and job enjoyment—it created an environment conducive to success. But it took me about 15 more years to fully recognize how important it is to have women in numbers at the table.
The year was 1993. I had just been appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and had also been elected to chair a committee of other U.S. Attorneys from around the country who advised Attorney General Janet Reno. In that capacity, I attended Attorney General Reno’s weekly senior staff meetings, and, for the first time in my career, I was in a high-powered setting where there were more women than men. The impact was unmistakable—the women forcefully advocated their ideas and spoke freely, while the men were much more reticent. Earth to Mary Jo. What a difference being in the majority makes.
We need to strive for those greater numbers of women in every professional setting, and as we do so, we need to always remember that we stand on the shoulders of the women who came before us. Little by little, they chipped away at all kinds of glass ceilings so that we could be where we are today. It is now our turn to carry on that work for future generations. So thank you for all of the work you have done, the support you give, your commitment to do more, and for this special honor today.
 “When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?” NewsHour with Gwen Ifill, PBS, 2/5/15. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/will-enough-women-supreme-court-justice-ginsburg-answers-question/