Not that kind of sex. And in deference to the moot-court training I received in law school, I’ll give my answer at the beginning: not much. And now, my explanation.
Don’t get me wrong: I completely get why feminism is important. It allowed women to leave their waitress and secretary jobs and become chefs and lawyers. Sexist oppression could no longer hold us back. We could be nurses if we wanted to, but dammit, some of wanted to be doctors. We began working next to men in the boardroom (whatever that is) instead of for them, and we demanded to be taken seriously. So what was the solution? For one thing, some of us started to dress like men.
Going-out clothes in the late 80’s were seriously fabulous, which explains why they’re back in style now. But the work clothes were tragic: boxy and dull, with those awful shoulders. Still, my mom, a trial lawyer back then, always wore a slightly shorter skirt, a marginally sexy top; and always, fabulous jewelry and bags. No disappearing into the man-mold for her. She remained a woman, even while battling like a man.
I’m sure I take after her, because I can’t help it: I’ve always been an unabashed flirt. Yes, I have a fiancé, but flirting is not cheating. It’s a light and cheerful way to connect with another person. It’s a smile, and a teasing joke. It’s not a foreshadowing of a hookup or an invitation for groping. (Unless both people are into that sort of thing, which we can discuss another time.)
In addition to being a major flirt, I like to look good. I worked like a fiend in law school and earned the bona fides to show for it. But I also work like a fiend on myself. I exercise, my hair and nails are always done, and I love a fabulous shoe. So yes, I insist that the woman who does my alterations hem my skirts an inch higher than she believes a decent woman should wear. But I am a devout, unrepentant girlie-girl. I love when doors are opened for me, and I’ve been known to giggle. Yeah, I can open my own door. But why should I, and risk chipping my nails? No thank you.
Still, when I became a lawyer, I had to decide for myself whether bringing my sex into my job meant I was also bringing in…sex. I didn’t want to risk being thought of as an airhead or even worse. And I worried that the quality of my work may be overshadowed by the rest of the package. People love to gossip and I didn’t want to give them an opportunity to gossip about me. So at my new firm, I worked hard to tone down the girlishness. I smiled less; I stopped wearing skirts; I did not flirt with anyone, not a single time. I carried the male partners’ heavy litigation bags, and I opened doors for them. All of this made me incredibly cranky, but I stuck with it.
Then last week happened. Rocky, my supervising partner and a man whom I have grown to admire and adore for his skill, his humor, and the gentleness of his manner, asked me to come to court with him and hand him docs he needed during argument. As we sat at counsel table together waiting for the judge, I assumed my recently adopted courtroom pose: legs uncrossed and together, hands folded flat on the table in front of me, unsmiling face looking forward. And just as I began mentally reviewing the law supporting our motion, Rocky looked over at me and smiled. A warm, natural smile. Guileless, and utterly devoid of sex. Not male; just human. Just a smile.
I paused. And I smiled back. And just then I realized what my characteristic hot-or-cold mindset hadn’t let me see this whole time I had spent masking my true personality. Femininity and feminism at work doesn’t have to be black or white. I could be feminine with a shade of grey. My choices were not limited to man or whore. Between one end of the yardstick and the other, there were an infinite number of marks, and I could position myself on any one that I chose. I could be feminine but still be a strong feminist. I could demand equal pay and still have a weekly blowout and monthly Brazilian. (I should probably, however, draw the line short of discussing my Brazilians at work.)
After the hearing, and after having arrived at my post-feminist epiphany, I found myself in a group of six. I was riding the elevator down to the courthouse lobby with my supervising partner and four lawyers on the other side of the v from us. One of them was the top plaintiffs’ lawyer in the city. Clearly I was the low guy on the totem pole. But I was also the only woman. I practically quivered with anticipated victory and determination, thrilled at the new me that I would be. I told myself that this was the moment I would allow my femininity to come through. When the elevator doors opened, I would not defer to the senior lawyers. I am woman! I would take my rightful place in the universal gender hierarchy! I would walk out of the elevator: first!
With my breath caught in my throat and my pulse hammering in my temples, I waited for the doors to open. When finally they did, I summoned every ounce of resolve I possessed, and marched confidently through them… And into the third floor jury-holding room.
In slow motion I looked around the floor that wasn’t the lobby I intended for it to be. At the same time I saw Rocky’s face, composed into a polite neutrality. I saw the heads of thirty potential jurors turn in my direction. I heard a snarky, throat-clearing cough from one of the opposite-v lawyers. And I performed a walk of shame back to the elevator.
I learned a profound lesson that day. Yes, I could test the limits of my sexuality at work. But more importantly, I learned that I should spend less time thinking about how to be a woman, and more time thinking about how not to be a fool.