The Need for Proactivity:Remarks at the 2015 National Association of Women Lawyers Annual Meeting and Awards Luncheon

Chair Mary Jo White

Thank you, Marsha, for your very kind words.  It is a pleasure to be here today to receive this honor from NAWL in the name of Arabella “Belle” Babb Mansfield, the very first woman admitted to any state bar in the United States.  It is extraordinarily special and humbling, as is joining the illustrious company of your prior recipients of this award and your other honorees today.

It is hard for any of us to imagine how difficult it must have been, in June 1869, when Belle Mansfield became a licensed lawyer at the age of 23.[1]  This was obviously long before women had the right to vote, to equal opportunity in employment, or to equal access to academic resources.  A lot of good things have happened for professional women since 1869.  But, if Belle Mansfield could see where women lawyers are today, would she applaud how far we have come or lament how far we still have to go?  Probably both, as many of us do.

Those of us here today understand the importance of diversity in the legal world and have felt its positive impact firsthand.  Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to serve as the first woman in a number of positions.  In the 1990s, I was appointed by President Clinton to be the first woman to serve as 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 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 that I am 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 is progress.  That Mary Beth Hogan is today the co-chair of Debevoise’s litigation department is continued progress. Another of my former litigation partners is here today, U.S. District Judge, Lorna Schofield of the Southern District of New York bench, as is the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Carol Amon, a fellow alum from William & Mary.  Both are tremendous role models.  There is indeed an enormous amount of professional success and progress in this room that we have all been a part of.

While U.S. Attorney, I also served as the Chair of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee (the “AGAC”) under Attorney General Janet Reno, the first, but now not the only woman to serve as the Attorney General of the United States.  (Loretta Lynch, with whom I served in the Eastern District U.S. Attorney’s Office is, of course, now our Attorney General.)  The AGAC is a group of about 15 U.S. Attorneys from around the country who advise the Attorney General on policy matters.  In my role as its Chair, I was in weekly meetings with the top Justice Department officials.

The year was 1993.  And, for the first time in my career, I was in a high-powered setting where the women outnumbered the men.   Eventually, I came to see a significant difference in the dynamic of these meetings.  The women were the ones who spoke freely and forcefully advocated their ideas, while the men seemed more reticent about expressing their views.  Because women are still usually outnumbered in many professional settings, we sometimes forget that numbers do matter a lot – to both our professional success and job satisfaction.

And the numbers are stark – in both directions.  Today, about 47 percent of law school graduates are women[2] and, according to NAWL’s research, 45 percent of associates at law firms are women.  Yet, despite those very positive numbers, women have been a mere 17 percent of equity partners at the nation’s largest law firms for far too long.[3]  I applaud NAWL for setting that specific target at 30 percent, back in 2006, and for the work you do to one day get us there.  When it comes to pay, there is also work to do.  An ABA survey found that the weekly salary of female lawyers is only about 79 percent of male lawyers’ salaries.[4]  There is no rational, defensible explanation for that – and it must change.

But there is good news too.  To quote the most quotable man ever to play for my beloved New York Yankees, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”[5]  You are right, Yogi.  Today, we have seen a dramatic increase in women in the judiciary.  An unprecedented one-third of the Supreme Court justices are women, all of whom are prior recipients of this award.  One in five Fortune 500 companies has a woman as its general counsel.[6]  And the percentage of women who are law school deans has tripled between 1999 and today.[7]  These are all wonderful achievements, but there is much more to be done, and we must be proactive to get to the next level.

Throughout my career, I have tried to be proactive in increasing the participation of qualified women in organizations and have had great role models for that.  One very transformative example demonstrated just how much some proactivity could accomplish.  It occurred when I was a young prosecutor in the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office in the late 1970s.  Robert B. Fiske, the U.S. Attorney who hired me, made a conscious decision to fill half the openings of the Southern District’s Criminal Division with high quality women, which was not, Bob said, at all hard to do.  It seldom is a lack of highly qualified women that creates the barrier to greater equality.  Bob’s hiring policy literally changed the face of federal prosecutors in New York and also made a huge difference in the professional success and future stature of women in the legal profession.

Many of the women Bob hired eventually formed “an old girls’ network” that mentors the young women who followed us and, in the private sector, serves as a source of business.  From our ranks, and from later generations, came judges, general counsels of major companies, U.S. Attorneys, and other senior leaders in both the private and public sectors.  I seriously doubt that would have happened without the decision of Bob Fiske to be proactive and push change in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

My best personal and professional friends to this day were made while serving in the U.S. Attorney’s Office over three and a half decades ago.  I am honored that two of those best friends are here today, former federal district judge Barbara Jones, now a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder, and Sara Moss, the General Counsel of Estée Lauder – two of the biggest legal success stories of our generation.

Thinking about women as role models and the necessity for proactivity, I think about last Friday when New York honored the women’s World Cup team with the first ticker tape parade for an all-female sports team.  Thousands of fans, including many young girls harboring their own World Cup dreams, lined up to welcome the champions home.  What struck me most about the scene, however, was how much it took to get us to this moment and how we would not be witnessing it without Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.  This law forever changed the face of women’s equality in sports because, much like Bob Fiske in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, there was a vision of what proactivity could accomplish.

You still hear about women cracking or shattering the proverbial glass ceiling.  That is always good, but not enough.  Eventually, we need to reach the point where that ceiling is just a distant metaphor and not our daughters’ reality.  We need to figure out long-term, sustainable ways of propelling a pipeline of women through that ceiling.

So how do we get there?  We keep at the work that has gotten us this far.  We rely on each other and impress upon the next generation the importance of the mission.  And this is the responsibility of both men and women.  But, as Madeleine Albright likes to say, “There is a special place…for women who do not help other women.”[8]  The impact we each can have is really profound.

Here, at the National Association of Women Lawyers and in our daily lives, we stand on the shoulders of the women who came before us – the trailblazing pioneers who were not afraid to push the boundaries to improve the future for the next generations.  Through the work that you do, we all do, we honor their legacy as we create and cultivate opportunities for the women of tomorrow.  I look forward to the day when women lawyers have achieved the complete parity in our profession that we deserve.  Perhaps then we will have our own parade through the Canyon of Heroes and raise our banners to honor Belle Mansfield and those who followed her.

Thank you for this extraordinary honor and for your continuing work on behalf of all of us.

[1] See 13 Pioneering Women in American Law, ABA Journal available at

[2] See A Current Glance at Women in the Law, American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession, p.4 (July 2014) available at

[3] See National Association of Women Lawyers, Report of the Eight Annual NAWL National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms (February 2014), available at

[4] See footnote 2, above, p.6.

 [5] See Yogisms, Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center available at

[6] See footnote 2, above, p.3 and A Current Glance of Women in the Law, American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession, p. 2 (October 2001), available at

[7] See footnote 6, above, p.2 and Karen Sloan, Female Deans Taking Charge, National Law Journal (June 22, 2015), available at

[8] See Madeline Albright, Remarks at the Central Intelligence Agency Women’s History Month Celebration (March 22, 2013), available at

Last Reviewed or Updated: July 16, 2015