Women’s Center brings Tennessee Supreme Court justices to campus

by Katie Lafferrandre

On Feb. 8, the Women’s Center proudly hosted three intelligent and inspiring Tennessee Supreme Court justices: Janice M. Holder, Cornelia A. Clark, and Sharon G. Lee headlined a panel discussion facilitated by Professor Melody Crowder-Meyer, answering a series of questions about the place that role models, gender, and balance have had in their careers. The three justices have certainly articulated, in both word and deed, that women can, as justice Lee put it, “run things too.” Thanks to Holder, Clark and Lee, women, for the first time in Tennessee, currently hold a majority in the make-up of the Supreme Court. Serving alongside William C. Koch and Gary R. Wade, the women comment on their shift from being a minority to a majority, agreeing that though they may very well have come to the same conclusion with an all male group, the process is noticeably different, and that diversity of any kind is important for decision making.

Crowder-Meyer opened with a question about role models, asking the women if they had any one that they particularly looked up to (other than fictional characters such as Nancy Drew and Hermione Granger) that encouraged them to pursue their ambitious careers as state Supreme Court justices. Shockingly, all women agreed that they had none, because law had been and still is a male-dominated field at the time. These women had to grow blindly towards their goal, wondering what a powerful woman Supreme Court justice would look like but yet having no example that might hand them a roadmap. They were forerunners of a sort, now graciously providing Sewanee women and men with an example of hard work and courage.

Megan Quick (C’15) who attended the Pinnacle Luncheon commented, “I think we’re all grateful to know what that example looks like, now we have actually come into contact with—well actually conversed with resilient, powerful women that have achieved success against all odds. It makes me think I could do it too.” Becca Hannigan (C’16) agrees, commenting, “their confidence is inspiring and infectious. We all know that women like this exist, but it was reassuring to hear from them directly.”

In response to the question about role models, Lee tells a story about a former juror in her court who quite obviously did not want to serve. Lee told her that her job was simply to watch the proceedings of the court, and that afterwards she would likely never have to return again. To Lee’s surprise, she did return again; in fact, she returned the next day with her daughter in tow. Unable to resist, Lee approached the woman during a break and asked her why, after all her frustration with the court, she had come back to spend more time there. The woman replied that she wanted her daughter to see that Lee was “doing a good job of telling those male lawyers what to do.” All the justices agreed that, these days, though they certainly still have struggles, women are in quite a different place professionally: they have an increased number of role models to look up to. A young girl approached one justice with her mother, who translated to the justice in the wake of her daughter’s shyness: “she wants to be a Supreme Court justice when she grows up.” Another justice visited a school and was asked by a young male student, “Are there any boy judges?” The three women took these incidences as evidence that children are noticing women in these positions—their accomplishments are having an effect.

Professor Crowder-Meyer later presented the justices with a hot button question: “can women have it all?” To which justice Clark replied that one must demand as much as one can, because a fuller life is usually a more meaningful one. The other justices agreed, essentially asserting that concentrating on one thing and one thing only isn’t necessary. In fact, they’re happier when they have other things going on as well. Not all of the justices had made their own families in the strict, nuclear sense, but justice Clark, who had not married, assured the audience that there would always be enough social obligations, with or without families, to distract and demand attention. Justice Lee, however, juggled raising two daughters (now in their twenties) with her demanding career, commenting that she had “some very long days, but very short years,” but that the balancing act was certainly worth it. Holder commented that regardless of whether or not one is trying to have it all—motherhood, marriage, and a demanding job—balance and rotation of activities is important.

Next, the women were asked to comment on some negative experiences that they have had in the law. Clark remembered a situation in which a client asked her law firm to take her off the job because they didn’t want a female working on the project. The law firm kept her on, and the client left. On the contrary, Lee had had cases where clients wanted to hire her because she was a woman. They all agreed that in this profession one must have thick skin and continue doing good work no matter what.

The pinnacle luncheon ended with the women telling their election stories—stories of running against all odds, of going into debt in order to run, suffering being told that their goal was impossible, trying multiple times before succeeding—their stories were anything but pretty. However, in the telling of these stories, all of the women had something in common: they all asserted that they knew they were deserving of the job—the losses and negative commentary didn’t intimidate them to the point of defeat.

Annya Shalun (C’16) says, “I think the reason that these women were successful was because they were smart and they knew they were smart; they didn’t stop trying.”

As 1 p.m. rolled around, quiet smiles rebounded the Mary Sue Cushman room as attendees scrambled to clean up their food and approach the justices with further questions. Tennessee Supreme Court justices Clark, Holder, and Lee truly provided Sewanee with an inspiring afternoon.

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