Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ode to the Perfect Secretary

In my early days as a single working woman and a feminist, I would lament -- not without irony -- that I needed a wife – someone to take care of me, as millions of women had taken care of the details of the lives of their working husbands.

Little did I realize that after 24 years of my legal career, I would look back and see that – in the very best sense of the word – I found such a partner in my secretary, Carol Satterwhite.

For approximately 22 years, Carol has been my help-mate during the 52 work weeks per year. I was 48 when we began working together; she was 28. I was divorced with adult children; she was married without children. I had become a lawyer in middle age and was still – professionally speaking – a novice. She had worked for other lawyers in private practice before coming to our law center and knew the ropes of working for lawyers.

We grew up together in this practice. Carol became the secretary I shared with Deborah and later with other attorneys. At the beginning of the word processing era (late 80s), I was a good typist and learned how to cut and paste and edit. Back then, we had no email so land phones (not cells) and letters were our modes of communication to the outside world. Even the fax was new.

Carol was a super typist, so often I dictated notes or memos into a small machine, which she then transcribed. I edited her copy by hand and she prepared the final version. In the early days I was doing a lot of billboard work – most notably defending the Waynesville, NC sign ordinance outlawing billboards that was before the district court in North Carolina, a case that at the time seemed to last forever although it truly was litigated within a couple of years.

It seems every time I went on vacation in the summer, a brief or pleading would be filed, and Carol – my ever trusty secretary – would have to track me down on Ocracoke Island, N.C. In those days – before cell phones – she had to call the Community Store, which had to call my landlord who had to drive over to tell me to call the office. Once faxes came in, she was able to fax a brief to me via the Community Store.

After a couple of years, Carol and her husband Pete became expectant parents, and Carol took maternity leave to have her baby girl, Brittany. Brittany was only a year or two younger than my grandsons.

When Carol came back to work, Baby Brittany grew up fast and before I knew it, Carol, searching for a better school, found one here in Charlottesville. Many days Brittany would come to the office after school, and I watched her grow. Later, in high school, I ran into her in Richmond while I was lobbying and she was on a class trip. She is now a college student at Liberty University.

Through all the early years, Carol stayed up nights with Deborah and me when we were filing motions, and briefs, appendices to briefs, the records, etc. First there were the billboard briefs for Waynesville and Durham and Raleigh. Then, there were many briefs and other legal documents relating to changing Virginia’s law on “who has standing to sue on environmental matters” Finally, there were 15 years of comments and briefing on the King William Reservoir. Deborah and I would draft, read, re-edit and revise the documents, and Carol would dutifully re-type the next version. She was fast, she was accurate and she could usually read my scrawled rewrites with the various editorial marks noting deletions, insertions and the moving of words, phrases, paragraphs or pages. She was remarkably accurate even though our legalese sometimes made no sense to her.

And here’s the rub -- No matter how late in the evening we labored on deadline night, she was always organized, had the appendices in order, the table of contents done and the table of authorities (an index to all legal documents in the brief) ready to go with all the documents together. We’d be bleary eyed, and she would be clear headed . . . even though she was just as tired as we were – and had to drive further to get home than either of us.

She was also always cheerful and calm under pressure.

In addition to handling litigation, comments to state and federal agencies on a host of issues and correspondence, Carol kept my schedule, ordered my rental cars, hotels, made air reservations, reminded me of meetings, collected my trip receipts and filed my travel vouchers; she kept up with my Lexis account information as well as my frequent flyer mileage numbers on a host of airlines. She registered me with the Commonwealth as a lobbyist and she helped file my year end report. She reminded me of my continuing legal education requirements each year and kept me up to date on numbers of hours I still needed to complete.

Carol “refreshed my recollection” of staff meetings (even after we got email and notices) and attorney lunches. She told me about interns’ schedules and reminded me about my intern presentation. She reminded me when I needed to turn in my work hours or put a code on a file. As to filing – although not her favorite subject, she reminded me of this necessary task and would “babysit” me while I tried to do the impossible – file the oodles and oodles of papers that had sat for weeks (if not months) in piles on my desk. Most recently she has helped me clear out the 24 years of files I have accumulated, discarding much material, and saving only those still important documents needed for current or historical purposes.

Carol showed me how to insert pictures into my documents and how to do other functions with the computer. And when I got frustrated with the computer (how do I get to the “fat” side of the network) – which was often – she always kept her cool and either told me how or found someone who could help.

In short, Carol has taken care of me and my office needs for 22 years. That’s longer than I was married. And in our partnership, Carol has made my life so much easier than it would have been otherwise. And, like any successful marriage, our partnership has succeeded not just by being my help-mate but also by the broader and deeper relationship we have formed over this long time.

Carol is my friend. There have been many times when one or the other of us needed someone to listen or to counsel and comfort. I remember especially only a few years ago when my daughter Margaret was diagnosed with breast cancer, Carol was there for me (as she was for Deborah who later received a similar diagnosis). When Carol went through a rough patch in her marriage – like everyone does – I was there assuring her that she could find help to make better times occur. And she did.

At holidays and birthdays, Deborah and Carol and I have long celebrated together. We have our special lunches, exchanging gifts and spending time together. And now, as I prepare to retire, we will begin a monthly breakfast so that we can stay in touch and share our lives still.

Did I mention that Carol is almost always cheerful and optimistic? When I have been storming around or grumpy or overworked or stressed for a variety of personal or professional reasons, Carol was always there – not Pollyanna-ish – but compassionate and helping me to find a solution, always assuring me that I could get through the crisis du jour – small or large. For 22 years, as I struggled through stressful storms and anguished moments, Carol was there for me, as a helpmate and a friend.

A couple of weeks ago, Carol went on vacation for a week. In past years, I always coped with her temporary absences and celebrated her return when things got “back to normal.” For the first time, I truly realized how my life was going to change without Carol in it on a daily basis. I can only hope that after 22 years I have internalized her sunny presence and can-do attitude so that in my moments of need, I’ll find my way.

And I will anticipate with pleasure those monthly breakfasts. Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, September 2, 2010



Last Thursday, August 26 was the 90th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the one that granted women the right to vote. I've been thinking about this one for a while.
In fact, when I began my career as a reporter at the Harrisburg Patriot News in 1961, one of my first assignments was covering the 41st anniversary of this Amendment. I was one of six women on the newspaper, all of us assigned to the Women's Section, which, ironically, was edited by a man.
For my story, I reviewed the history of the women's movement back to the first Women's Rights Convention convened by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott in 1848. It took until 1920– 72 years of struggle–- to get the right to vote.
A Pennsylvania suffragist still alive in 1961 told me that she and her colleagues often used existing political gatherings to argue their cause, and not all women were convinced that voting was the right way to go. She recounted that one suffragist, so stunned by the polished rhetoric of an anti-suffragist, tried a little reverse psychology as a debating point: "My opponent with all her intelligence and eloquence certainly belongs in the halls of Congress," said the suffragist, "while I should remain a housewife."
In the early 20th century, the movement focused on the workplace. While many women toiled in factories and in the "female" occupations, women had fewer economic and educational opportunities– and no representation in the federal halls of power. There were 22 states and territories that allowed women to vote in their elections, but most states denied the right.
As I talked to the Pennsylvania suffragists nearly 40 years ago, I liked to think that I would have been one of them. A few years later, I was a wife and mother when I read Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which sealed my fate as a modern-day suffragist, that is, a feminist. Increasingly, I questioned why women couldn't do the same jobs as men.
Why couldn't our daughters grow up to be doctors or lawyers? And by the way, I thought, why can't I be a lawyer? I'll admit that after initially perusing a George Washington University law school catalog, I found the academic schedule too daunting for a mother of two toddlers, even with their dedicated feminist father at my side.
By 1971, the movement then known as Women's Liberation had been launched, Ms. magazine founded, and Bella Abzug convinced Congress to proclaim August 26 as Women's Equality Day. My friends and I celebrated as we continued to advance in our jobs and take care of kids.
Fast forward to 1986, and I am graduating from the University of Virginia Law School, a place where I could not have pursued undergraduate studies back in 1957 when I was graduating from high school. During my graduation year, female enrollment in the law school class was 35 percent, and I was told this was the highest female enrollment to date. (By contrast, the class of 2012 is 47 percent female.)
While I had few professional female role models, my grandmother, widowed in her 40s, became independent by necessity and found a position as a college housemother at Mary Washington. My mother worked outside the home as a secretary when that was not the norm. These two women, along with numerous teachers, scout leaders, and friends both male and female, demonstrated that exercising competence and freedom in the larger world could be very satisfying.
My mother's and grandmother's modest goals helped me set mine a little higher– to eventually become a lawyer who would work in the public interest. My 24 years at the Southern Environmental Law Center have given me that wonderful context in which to advocate for the beautiful earth I inhabit and want to preserve.
Last week, as I celebrated Women's Equality Day, it was also my last day before retiring as an attorney from the SELC.
I've come full circle in my work life– from being a reporter, editor, wife, and stay-at-home-mom to working mom editor, adult educator, and counselor, administrator, lawyer, small town politician, and teacher. 
We women have come a long way since 1920. Hillary Clinton was close to becoming president; and now, she, Condeleeza Rice, and Madeline Albright have made serving as a female secretary of state seem routine. An August 22 Washington Post article points out that women dominate the American nuclear diplomatic debates at the highest echelons.
Locally, we've had women represented on the City Council ever since Jill Rinehart was elected in 1972 and Nancy O'Brien became Mayor in 1976. Similarly, the County has had able representation from women beginning in 1976 with the late Opal David.
Yet there is a lack of women at the state level. No woman has held an elected statewide office since the 1988 re-election of Mary Sue Terry as Attorney General. Of the 40 state senators, just eight are women; of the Virginia House of Delegates, just 18 out of 100 are women.
One can view the glass as half empty or half full. My own personal glass is overflowing.
On August 26 (interestingly also my first born's birthday), I retired from my beloved vocation as a professional advocate and attorney. I celebrated not only the end of my professional career but also those feisty women who preceded me– the celebrated and the forgotten– who worked for access to the ballot box, to universities and professional schools, to board rooms, courthouses, city halls and to legislatures. If not for them, my glass today would not be so full.
So let the celebrations continue. Here's to those pioneering women and also our daughters and granddaughters, our colleagues and friends, and the women of generations to come.
The author served as mayor during the final two of her eight years, 1990-98, on City Council. 
Sphere: Related Content