There has been much media attention given recently to a statement made by Secretary Madeleine Albright at a Hillary Clinton event that, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women.” This caused an angry backlash, mainly from younger women. Although it’s safe to assume that Albright didn’t mean to imply that women should face eternal damnation on the basis of their selection of a presidential candidate, it was clear she was making a point about the responsibility of women to support women. But was she wrong in the larger context about the need for women to support other women?
Secretary Albright’s comment merits analysis in the criminal defense community as well, an area where women have been historically and are currently underrepresented. It is undisputed that female criminal defense attorneys face a range of unique hurdles in our profession: from questions about whether we are tough enough to represent criminals; to being forced to confront humiliating clothing practices directed at women to gain access to our incarcerated clients; to struggles generating business when most referral sources are male. Working harder or being smarter is often not enough to enable us to overcome these gender hurdles alone.
Should successful female criminal defense attorneys just focus on their own careers and clients or do we owe it to other women in our profession to support them as well? Although no female criminal defense attorney should be made to feel guilty for not doing enough to help others, male or female, don’t we owe it to other women criminal defense attorneys to support them when we can? Wouldn’t we benefit from having more people who look like us, face similar challenges as us, and have common experiences as us in the courtroom defending clients with us? Can younger women really succeed in this area without the support of other women?
I would argue that Secretary Albright was not wrong, neither in the words used or in the sentiment behind them. We as advocates understand that one must often be provocative to cause meaningful action to occur; indeed, to bring about action is the meaning of the term provocative. And meaningful action is needed. We must act to support one another, whether as a friend, mentor, referral source, or in countless other ways. If we don’t support each other, we will find ourselves by ourselves in a profession where community is crucial. If we don’t support each other, we risk not only a lack of advancement in the profession for ourselves and our younger female colleagues, but our own marginalization.
Secretary Albright wasn’t wrong. In fact, she couldn’t be more right. Her now famous quote is not about eternal damnation- it is a call to action. She intends to provoke change for women, she intends to empower women, and she intends to harshly criticize women who refuse to support the advancement of other women. We should use Secretary Albright’s words as a reminder to those of us in this field to remain cognizant of the hurdles facing female criminal defense attorneys and to support each other however and whenever we can. And I too believe, there is a special place in hell for those of us that don’t.