Back in 1975 when I graduated from law school, I moved out to San Francisco with a best friend who had just completed her Ph.D. in psychology. Together we began our careers in the Emerald City by the bay. Unlike New York or Boston, San Francisco was filled with transplants yearning to change the world, and especially the culture, so that everyone had a chance to achieve her best. With another recent woman law graduate, I joined a small law firm run by two male partners under the age of 40. We set upon our professional launches.
We were not immune to sexism, but it didn’t come from the men we worked for. Old white guys who had made their reputations years before in litigation in Minneapolis, Chicago, Seattle, Philadelphia, and New York were our nemeses. I was offered up as a bribe to a federal court judge without my knowing. I was attacked in an elevator by a drunken state attorney general. I was hauled cross country to have a very public lunch at a private club with the man who took the fall for Hubert Humphrey in a campaign contribution scandal, when he came out of prison. We put up with it all, displaying a mixture of annoyance and bemusement. Without whining, we always kept the partners apprised of these incidents, which they notched up as ammunition against their predatory colleagues.
Maya, the accountant for our law office, taught me how to dress. Jim, my secretary, taught me how to wear makeup. Joe taught me how to write. And Fran taught me how to pay attention to what was going on in a negotiation. But it wasn’t until later in my career, much later, after I had moved back to New York, married at 39, and had a child at 40, that I found my true mentor. She is my daughter and her name is Lena.
Lena has been the greatest influence on my life, because I have modeled my behaviors ever since she was born so that she would understand what it means to be a confident, intelligent, ambitious, and compassionate woman. I let her know me so that she learned about intimacy and that no one is without complicated flaws. I let her argue with me, except for health and safety issues, so that she learned how to negotiate. I let her fail so that she learned resilience. I let her stay up late and listen in to conversations with my close women friends so that she understood the pleasures of friendship. She ate at the dinner table when we entertained. She drank wine to learn how to appreciate it and not abuse it. She watched me stand up for other people’s rights so that she knew that her privilege meant that she had responsibilities beyond herself to make the world a better place. She has been my most constant mentor in that she has brought out the best in me so that she saw in her mother and my women friends role models for her own life.
And at the age of 31, she has never taken a job without negotiating her salary above the original offer. At work she has stood up to incompetence and pettiness. She organized her friends into activism after the 2016 election. She lives on her own and annually plans a mother-daughter trip that always provides us with adventure and great memories. She does not tolerate men who aren’t generous and emotionally available. She is a loyal and caring friend.
And now in my active retirement, and in my acceptance of the role of caregiver for an ailing husband, she is seeing how compassion, gratitude, kindness, and humor allow me to avoid martyrdom and permit me a joyful and productive next chapter. I might not have the courage I exhibit, if not for Lena.