By Jill Weber Smith
Women of a certain age. We know what the term implies, but it doesn’t really begin to convey what it has meant about how we have traveled through life, both personally and professionally.
I am a woman of a certain age. I went to a co-ed public high school and a women’s college where we socialized with our counterparts from male single-gender schools. I worked on Wall Street in the late 70’s and through the 80s. My husband and I raised two daughters. I went to law school in my mid 40’s and began to practice Federal criminal defense at 50.
What’s the significance of my CV? The recent reawakening of the women’s movement has caused me to reflect on what I have benefitted from, normalized and yes, endured. All of the #MeToo revelations have prompted me to recall what I have clearly remembered over the years, and also what I’ve repressed.
I do not exaggerate when I say I was sexually assaulted in high school and college. But in the 1970’s there was no support system to report and bring perpetrators to justice. There was only victimhood for girls and women. When I worked on Wall Street, I endured daily sexual taunts, innuendos, harassment and constant verbal abuse. A few clients I thought I could trust actually tried to physically force themselves on me. In today’s climate, it is fair to ask if I reported any of these incidents. The answer: rarely. The one time I went to my boss to tell him that a client had physically attacked me, I was removed from that lucrative account and my income suffered as a consequence. Yet, despite all of this, I loved working on Wall Street: the daily adrenaline rush, the action, building relationships with decent and smart clients. There were so many brilliant and exciting people to learn from. I knew that if I reported any more of these comments, events or assaults, I would be viewed as trouble. Or fired. There were very few women on the trading floor of major Wall Street firms, and being able to play with “the boys” was the test for survival.
During my years on Wall Street, there were times when I was exhilarated at the end of the day, and there were evenings I would come home and cry. I rationalized that if I wanted to work in the heretofore male arena of a trading floor, I had to put up with all of the harassment. After almost ten years, for a variety of personal reasons, I left Wall Street. Enduring the daily indignities of the trading room did finally burn me out.
When I started to practice law, I was more mature and generally tougher. Or so I thought. My very first day in Court, in front of a Federal Judge, I nervously asked him my first question. Before he got to the substance of the question, the Judge said to me, dressed for Court in blue pants and a pea green blazer, “And, Ms. Smith, what do you think you’re dressed for, a Park Avenue bridge club?” In front of the jury.
Now, as I reflect on the moment that we are experiencing, I’m grateful for the changes we have seen and filled with optimism for the changes yet to come. My mother’s generation (with notable exceptions, such as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) did not generally dream about equality. My generation was the beneficiary of the activists of the women’s movement: Women’s Liberation, bra burning, political access and equal employment. We dreamed and we made progress, but not enough. We still suffered from harassment, received lower pay than our male counterparts, suffered discrimination when we opted to have children and rarely made it to the C-suite. I’d like to think that in the moment of #MeToo, my daughters’ generation will fully benefit from needed changes so that women will at last be respected as equals, paid fairly, not treated as sexual objects and not suffer discrimination.
The Jewish community is no different than the rest of the world. Sadly, as has been recounted with alarming detail lately, we have abusers among us and we have far too few women in positions of leadership and power. This year, The Genesis Prize Foundation is proud to be an agent of change by focusing our philanthropy on women’s issues in Israel and in the North American Jewish community. Our Genesis Prize Women’s Empowerment Challenge – managed by Jewish Funders Network – is offering matching grants to organizations committed to making systemic change in four targeted areas in Jewish workspaces and communal spaces in North America. We invite organizations and donors to join us in making a difference. Please visit our website for details.
It’s time to work together, take action and make changes so that no woman in the Jewish community will have to endure what our mothers – or those of us of a certain age – did. My daughters and my granddaughter deserve better.
Jill Weber Smith is Senior Advisor to the Chairman of The Genesis Prize Foundation.