An Interview with My Feminist Mom

As cliche as it may be to interview my own mom as the feminist who made a difference in my life, I did it anyway. As I got ready to call her from my dorm, I was super excited to learn more about my mom, as if I didn't already know enough. Although I know about all the work she does for women, I was excited to understand why she has made some of the choices in her life regarding her career and her children, and what those choices mean to her.

My mom is the definition of a strong woman who was raised by strong women, as she went on to raise three strong daughters. After growing up with only female role models of her mother and grandmother, supporting herself through her studies at Douglass College of Rutgers, attending New York Law School, and practicing law at various firms, she now holds the position of executive director of not one, but two women’s based nonprofit organizations. She has held the position of executive director of New Jersey Women Lawyers Association (NJWLA) for about eight years, and after being recognized for her outstanding work at the organization, she now holds the same position (of three years, as of now) for Executive Women of New Jersey (EWNJ). The goal of these organizations is to advocate for women and give them equal opportunities in legal firms and corporate leadership positions. These organizations have always been of interest to me because my mom dedicates much of her time to them, and it was important for me to understand what they mean to her through this interview.

I began the interview all the way at the beginning of my mom’s life and asked her questions about growing up as a girl. As I questioned my mom about her adversity with gender through the years, it became clear to me that almost nothing phases her. Growing up, my mom doesn’t recall ever feeling as if she was restrained by her gender as she stated, “I'm kind of stubborn, so I always set my mind to what I want to do.” She recalls feeling as if her restrictions weren’t necessarily based on gender, but based on the role she was asked to play as a female. Although she does not recall anyone ever specifically telling her what to do, she said, “It’s naive to think that relatives and people don’t assume specific roles for girls and boys.”  I was surprised at her lack of restraint, but she reminded me she never had any male figures in her life at home that would have subjected her to any certain gender role in the home.

My mom was never exposed to the types of gender roles that are in a typical household, because she was born from a single teen parent, and raised mostly by her grandmother, who was also a single mother. All she had to turn to were these two strong women who worked to pay the bills and care for their children, so she never doubted her own capabilities as a woman. My mom has reminded me every day that I come from a line of strong females, and there is no need to doubt my capabilities just because I am female. My mom also attended an all-girls college where all of the leadership roles were filled by women. My mom feels this benefitted her as she states, “Being in an all women's college taught me that women can be in all positions of power and authority.” Although my mom enjoyed her experiences being surrounded by strong women at school, like at home, she does remember having to remind herself throughout college that the real world was not going to reflect her support system at home and experiences at school. The real world was going to be full of men fulfilling leadership roles and she would have to prove herself once out of college and law school. As she made her way into the legal world, she realized there was much more sexism than she had ever experienced anywhere else; she made it clear that coming out of law school, her class was divided 50 percent male 50 percent female. Now, after 25 years, only 15 percent of the women practicing law are partners in a big firm. This number does not discourage my mother in any way, it instead motivates her to continue the noble work she does today.

Although she couldn't recall facing gender constraints growing up, she admits to feeling restraint supporting and identifying as a feminist. “As a feminist, you face the daily struggle of people thinking feminism as being negative,” my mom admitted. She wants to see equality in the workforce, education system, hiring system, yet she knows that there is a way to go, as many view feminism from a distorted perspective.

My mom’s perseverance through law school and the many male-dominated law firms through which she worked landed her a job with the New Jersey Women Lawyers Association. NJWLA works to promote qualified women into different parts of the legal business. “The work that I do has me very in tune with what goes on with women's advancement,” my mom states, as she sounds disgusted through the phone with the current state of advancement in the country. She then added, “I won’t get political,” but “We see examples of it every day, right now people in the public eye can act in sexist ways and still have followers and supporters. This is strong proof that there are so many people out there who don't have a problem with sexism.” The work my mom does is there to combat this sexism, and empower women to take those jobs in the male-dominated world. It is upsetting to know that women need help from other women to be considered “qualified,” but if that’s what it comes down to, it’s important women have those resources. Executive Women of New Jersey also acts in a similar way and works to empower women in corporate leadership positions. Both jobs give my mom the ability to stay up to date with the sexism in the big-time corporations. She surprised me when she told me, “Some of the increase is a result of companies being forced to diversify and to put women in those spots. The company gets nervous when there are no women and no minorities on board that are going to lose customers.” It’s pretty sad to see that big-time corporations are still reluctant to give positions to women and minorities, and would rather keep the hierarchy of the white male alive. If adding a woman to the board will make them some more money, then they’ll do it. These statistics evidently upset my mom, and I know this is a big reason for her to continue to be a part of these organizations. 

I wanted to know why she does the work she does because, at home, she always gushes about the wonderful women she meets at different events. Whenever she gets home from an event, she always says to me “Look this woman up, it’d be so cool to work for her one day.” My mom loves the exposure her position gives her to meet powerful women and give other women the support they need to attain leadership positions. She states, “The work I do today gives me the data and raw facts that are out there, where personal experience being removed, I can see just in data how many women are top executives in companies, how many hold board positions, how many partners or equity partners in their firms. The numbers are pathetic, and they increase but only very slightly every year.” My mom doesn’t experience sexism in the workplace personally, because she sees it through basic statistics that are still evident and relevant. My mom continues with her position in both jobs to increase her own knowledge of what is really going on with women in big corporations and firms, and promote qualified women to the highest levels of their profession. 

Not only does my mom empower women as her job, but at home, she empowers three daughters to be whatever they want in the world, and she has a husband who supports all of the women in his life to do the same. When I asked about my dad and his views on her career and feminism, she remarked, “Well, I went on to grad school, and he supported me while in law school, out of law school, with student loans, with all of it, was never intimidated by my career or my choice of career.”

I appreciated the fact that my mom used the word “intimidated,” because I feel many men often feel intimidated by strong women. This coincides with something I thought about frequently when I was younger if my dad was offended my mom kept her maiden name. After learning about the way she views my dad and he views her through this interview, I understood this was never an issue. She also voluntarily identified my dad as a feminist, saying, “with three daughters, being a feminist is the only choice, what other choice would he want for his girls than to have an equal playing field?” It’s been so beneficial to my sisters and me to grow up in a household where both of our parents encourage us to be strong women. 

After trying to have me for four years, there was no choice for my mom other than to stay home with me, and then my twin sisters, whom she had a little over a year later. She did not view her decision as negative, or giving in to her role, she simply said, “If you can make those choices you’re exercising your option to do things however you want to do them.” My mom makes it evident through the phone that it was not a decision she made because she was a woman, but a decision she made because she deserved to make it, and it was “liberating” for her to take some time off and focus on being a mom. By her standards, she already had accomplished so much between schooling and her profession, that it was time to take a break and focus on her three daughters, and giving them the options to do the same. She states, “I don’t think being maternal or domestic makes me any less of a feminist.” I think this statement is really important to remember, as many view maternity leave as negative because it seems as if women are giving in to their role as the female. 

In raising her daughters, she made it clear that she wanted us to believe we could be anything we wanted to be. My mom stated regarding how she raised us to be feminists, “I didn’t specifically say ‘we’re feminists in this house’, but everyone has grown to understand the importance of women being able to do whatever they want. I certainly never advocated for anyone to do anything particularly gender-related.” As I thought about her statement, I completely agreed. I always remind myself how lucky I am to grow up in a household that was accepting of me in whatever form and encouraged me to go out there and be myself in a world that really wants to change you and push you down. 

My mom’s continued work in the world of advancing women has led her to be one of the feminists who has made the biggest impact upon my life. My mom is not someone who calls herself a feminist, yet does nothing about it. She is a feminist who works and advocates every single day for change in the workplace, as she, among many others, want to see more women in charge. Whether they be equity partners in big firms, or on the board of big corporations, there needs to be more female representation. As I wrapped up our on the phone interview, I wanted to know if she thinks we are making progress as females. Her response would be similar to many I’m sure, as she feels progress is way too slow, “Women need to be moved into positions of authority, leadership, and decision making. If they are not offered positions, the numbers won't change. It will still be all white men in charge, similar to the government. It's what many corporate boards and law firm circles look like: older white males". I can tell you that she can go on about this for hours, but she keeps it short and sweet. I mean, this is what she does for a living. I hope one day I can be even half of the woman my mom is, and I hope to work to effect change in similar ways as she.