The Honorable Debra B. Walker invited me to the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois Annual Dinner and installation of its incoming President, Karie Valentino. As a rising 2L at the University of Illinois College of Law and the Vice President of our school’s Women’s Law Society, I was delighted to witness this celebration of women lawyers. Active, brilliant, eloquent, and successful female lawyers inspire me. Tina Tchen, the keynote speaker, embodies those qualities and presented them through a lens of global awareness, public service, and the Time’s Up movement.
Tina Tchen, a widely respected graduate of Harvard University and the Northwestern University School of Law, served as Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama and an Assistant to President Barack Obama. She also served as the Executive Director for the White House Council on Women and Girls that was created by President Obama in March 2009. Tchen currently works at Buckley Sandler’s Chicago office and heads the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. The breadth of her career is enviable. The impact she has had on women and girls in this country is heartening. Her speech was equally moving.
Tchen discussed her championship of women’s rights through her work with the White House Council on Women and Girls. She advocated for the importance of educating girls, especially when many countries do not prioritize adolescent girls’ education. She talked about the the reasons the Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai, and the Boko Haram kidnaps girls from school. “Those terrorist groups know that preventing girls from receiving an education is the surest way to disrupt their communities.” However, Tchen sees hope in the many women she has met overseas, determined to pursue education despite the massive walls their communities have built to prevent their progress.
Tchen discussed the strides women have made in the U.S. by discussing her time in Springfield, Illinois, working to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Many activists, including Tchen, worked tirelessly to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982, but the amendment was only ratified in Illinois in May 2018, 36 years later. More strikingly, however, was the insight given by Tchen on the challenges women in America still have yet to overcome. She noted the pervasiveness of sexual assault of women on college campuses in the United States is evidence that certain types of education discrimination exist even within our borders. She commented on the staggering prevalence of sexual harassment still occurring in workplaces in the United States. With Time’s Up, Tchen works to fulfill the organization’s mission to ensure “safe, fair and dignified work for women of all kinds.”
Women in the legal profession hold a unique position in this regard. On the one hand, lawyers are in a position to address the problem directly—by pursuing lawsuits or indictments against offenders. On the other hand, sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in the legal community, just as it is a pervasive problem in every other field. Many women lawyers I’ve listened to have shared their experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace. This includes judges, partners, associates, and externs.
Unsurprisingly, the room full of lawyers and members of the legal community listened intently as Tchen spoke of Times Up’s mission. Many lawyers crowded near the stage afterwards to ask Tchen to learn how they can contribute, financially or otherwise. Combating the issue starts with strong leaders like Tina Tchen. As a law student, I left the event feeling very confident I am entering the right profession.