By RACHEL MONACO-WILCOX, J.D. and department of justice chair at Mount Mary College
“In Defense of Women: memoirs of an unrepentant advocate,” Nancy Gertner, © 2011 Beacon Press
I sat down in January expecting a rather heavy read of “In Defense of Women: Memoirs of an Unrepentant Advocate,” which chronicles the career life, and passions of Nancy Gertner, now a federal judge in Massachusetts. Why heavy? Well, because as the students in Mount Mary’s justice program can tell you, women in the justice system face some tough realities, whether as a victim, defendant, prosecutor or because they love someone else who is in a legal crisis. The issues are personal and highly charged.
But I think you’ll want to read this book. The heavy issues are there, to be sure, but it’s more like listening to a good friend talk about them over coffee at Starbucks, with a good dose of no-nonsense humor added. Gertner talks in detail about her major cases, which include everything from defending a lesbian on trial for the murder of a policemen in a robbery gone bad, to suing brokerage firm Merrill Lynch, and later, Harvard Law School, for gender discrimination in hiring practices.
Reproductive rights cases appear too; shortly after the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade was issued, Gertner successfully defended against one of the most publicized legal challenges in Massachusetts to the rights granted by the federal case. In addition, Gertner discusses her defense of a young man who was falsely accused of rape by a college acquaintance, proving that feminism is granted neither favors nor justice when we forget the legal rights of either gender. Top all these cases off with a contested senate nomination for the position of federal judge as Bill Clinton’s appointee, and you have some engaging reading about the not-too-far distant era of 20th century civil and gender rights law.
Interwoven with career is personal life, with decisions about having kids (or not), getting married (or not!) and watching parents get older. Gertner shares with readers the realities of having a very busy law practice as a wife and a mother, with an ambition to match. She’s honest about what she encountered, and speaks to the need to adapt; to face stereotypes with dignity and determination; and above all to have a high moral code and stick to it.
For teachers, the book’s chapters are useful in an a la carte style, depending on whether your focus is career choices and family, or early 1980-90s rape cases in court. Other readers will enjoy reading front to back for a life story. So many things have changed, and Gertner is right to point out that she writes the book partly so we remember “the gains of women in the past two decades [are] so recent, and so fragile.”
And by way of more incentive to read this book (now in Mount Mary’s Library), Gertner herself will be in Milwaukee on the evening of March 21, from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Hilton City Center, as the Keynote speaker for the Association of Women Lawyer’s signature event “Women Judges Night.” Find more information at www.associationforwomenlawyers.org.
AWL is offering Mount Mary students a discounted ticket price of $15 (typically $60). Limited seating is available at this rate. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and cc: email@example.com to confirm your seat.
Rachel Monaco-Wilcox, J.D. is department of justice chair and an assistant professor at Mount Mary College