In the early ‘60s, on the threshold of the sexual revolution, young Lynne Abraham and a female classmate, Polly Cohen, were routinely harassed in their classes at Temple Law.
Not just by the 133 male students in their 1965 graduating class, but by the profs, most of whom seemed to feel, as Lynne tells it, that they were there fishing for husbands rather than a career. (Cohen actually did marry while in Temple, but continued her studies even through pregnancy.)
They were not the first female students in Temple Law, but there were not many predecessors. They were getting the treatment Ruth Bader Ginsburg had received a decade or so earlier at Harvard Law.
Just like RBG, they didn’t allow the testosterone wall get between where they stood and where they wanted to go. Because Lynne felt the lash of gender-based disrespect, she’s glad today’s women have a #MeToo movement, but she sees an unanticipated problem. We’ll get to that in a moment.
Most of the men at Temple Law resented her and Polly for taking seats they felt “belonged” to men, says Lynne, Philadelphia’s first female D.A.
“It was tough on us, the two women, because the professors would invariably call on one of us. They would always know our names.
“‘Ms. Abraham, what is the holding of Smith vs Jones,’” she says, mimicking a prof. “If you didn’t know the answer or if you stumbled,” she says, the professor would ridicule her. The result? She and Polly studied like demons so they could answer fully and coherently any time they were called. Both made the Law Review, an honor for top students.
Polly tells me Lynne got worse treatment than did she because “they considered her more of a threat to them… future competition for jobs.”
She and Polly were graduated, while many of the male students flunked out, Lynne says with a slight smile playing across her lips.
Lynne eventually landed a job in the D.A.’s office, which surprised Polly. “She was such a liberal I thought she would be a public defender.” Lynne later became a judge.
In the D.A.’s office, she felt the chill of being one of only four women, out of 57 assistant D.A.’s.
“I was always discriminated against in pay and promotions and I was always referred to as ‘the girl’ and more often people treated me like a secretary instead of like a lawyer,” she says.
Most of that treatment came from men. “I resented it bitterly because I was being held back and mocked and discriminated against. There was also the sexual stuff, too, but I was pretty tough about that,” she says.
There was no one to complain to because the hierarchy was all male.
So she applauded the arrival of the #MeToo movement, but worries it may carry unintended consequences.
While powerful men such as Roger Ailes, Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, Placido Domingo have been brought down by their sexual appetites, there are many men still in positions of power who will steer away from even professional relationships with women for fear of being accused of misconduct, she says.
That’s why many companies, including her own (she is a shareholder in Center City’s Archer law firm) have designed offices with glass walls and “virtually no privacy.”
At its best, #MeToo has brought rapists to be held accountable. At its worst, it treats every accusation as a conviction.
Because of that fear, “I believe fewer men will be willing to be alone with a woman” and that reduces the opportunity to learn from the man, Lynne says.
I emailed #MeToo founder Tarana Burke for her reaction to Lynne’s feelings, but received no response.
Lynne had a male mentor, famous and feared attorney Richard Sprague, who used his influence with D.A. Arlen Specter to get Lynne a job in that office. “Dick was my closest advisor and always gave me toughest challenges,” she says, but he never so much as shook her hand “until I was 51, and the District Attorney.”
If women are cut off from being able to professionally fraternize with men in power, it will impede their chances for advancement, she says.
“As a woman, I’m thinking how this going to negatively impact women and I want it to positively change the thinking of men,” she says.
Thinking does change over time. Her law firm is headed by a woman.
“It only took 90 years,” Lynne says with a smile.