The Women of Division Street
and Michigan Law
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I’m a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, but I started in 1981, two years after my fictional Ms. Bradwells do. My Constitutional Law case book (one of two law books I still have) does include an excerpt from Bradwell v. Illinois, but that particular case has not a mark on it; it wasn’t a case we read—this at one of the most female-friendly law schools in the country, too.
Like Mia and Betts, I lived in Room N-32 of the Law Quad my first year, with Jenn DuChene—then Jenn Belt—who remains my best friend despite the thousands of miles that have separated us for all the intervening twenty-some years. Jenn is not Betts, but she shares Betts’s quality of being able to make people laugh, and it is from her that I learned how to laugh at myself. I can’t imagine how different my life would be without her.
Jenn and I joined forces with two other classmates, Darby Bayliss and Sherry Young, and lived on Division Street in the same house with a ratty old couch on the front porch in which I house the Ms. Bradwells. My friendship with them, and with other classmates, definitely provides the heart of The Four Ms. Bradwells.
Fortunately or not, none of us was related to William W. Cook (whose fortune built our law school), or even had a summer home on the Chesapeake Bay. I never took a boat through the guts of a Chesapeake Bay island before I’d finished the first draft; when I did, it was much spookier and more thrilling than I had imagined. Nor did any of us have a father’s birthday party over spring break, so our spring break trip was the Cancun adventure the Ms. Bradwells had to forgo. We drank tequila rather than scotch, and the group of guys we hung with—fellow law students—left us with only happy memories, on boats and otherwise. And if any of us skinny-dipped, with those fellas or otherwise, we aren’t telling even still.
I will, though, admit to tossing gum wrapper notes in the Reading Room, some of which I still have, and to having attended a hot tub party, the details of which I’m not at liberty to share. Like the Ms. Bradwells, I was a different person when I left law school than I had been when I arrived; I have my law school friends and the school itself to thank for helping me discover strengths I didn’t know I had. This book is in many ways an ode to them.
But the Ms. Bradwells are not my real-life friends. If anything, they are me. Like Mia, I went to law school because I didn’t know what else to do. Like Ginger, I was passed over for partner, although unlike her I already meant to leave my firm to begin writing—fiction rather than poetry (but Ginger’s writing did give me a great excuse to read poetry in the afternoon and call it “work”). Unlike Ginger, I remained largely oblivious to gender discrimination until I moved into the practice of law. Then, like Betts, I rode in pink elevators to have lunches in a private clubs that would not have me as a member. Like Laney, I received unwanted attentions from male colleagues, which I dealt with in silence; for much of my law career, it was the women’s responsibility to avoid difficult situations with powerful men. And like all the Ms. Bradwells, I watched in fascination and admiration twenty years ago this October as Anita Hill testified before the Senate, feeling the same rage she did when an all-male committee of Senators chose to believe Clarence Thomas and confirm him to the Court. Rage, but not surprise. We have come a long way toward changing the way women are viewed in our society—both before and since that confirmation—but we still have some distance to go.
On that point: when I first proposed the idea of The Four Ms. Bradwells, there was some concern at Ballantine that an immigrant female Supreme Court nominee might perhaps be too improbable, and so the proposal on which the book was bought posits Betts as a nominee to the D.C. Court of Appeals. Then Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to the court. She’s the child of an immigrant rather than an immigrant herself, but I didn’t have to say much more than “Sonia Sotomayor” to my editor before we agreed that my Betts might become a Supreme Court nominee after all.
Unlike the Ms. Bradwells, I have no daughters, at Princeton or at Yale Law School or otherwise. But I do have two wonderful sons, and the love the Ms Bradwells feel for the Baby Bradwells draws very heavily from the love I feel for Chris and Nick. It has amazed me again and again to see how different the world looks through the eyes of a mother; it has given me great appreciation for my parents’ efforts to protect me while at the same time preparing me for the difficulties they saw in my path even as I did not.
The gender-discrimination-free world the Ms. Bradwells want for Gemmy and Annie and Iz is the same one I want for my sons, Chris and Nick. My son Nick—after listening to a presentation I silently endured thinking the presenter was being “funny” at the expense of young women—said, “She was awfully hard on guys, wasn’t she? We have emotions, too.” Gender discrimination limits men as surely as it limits women—just as all kinds of discrimination do.
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