Honoring Influential Women
Praying Grandmothers, Brilliant Trailblazers and Generous Mentors
Written by Crystal McElrath
Women’s History Month, and International Women’s Day in particular, have recently become occasion for me to reflect with gratitude on the resilient and incredible women who make it possible for me to be where I am.
Both of my grandfathers worked in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and my grandmothers were women of faith who baked some of the best cakes in East Pittsburgh. Their prayers were for their children (and grandchildren) simply to be able to find financial stability without risking their lives in dangerous mill jobs. I do not know that any of them ever imagined their granddaughter might obtain 3 degrees, then become the only lawyer in the family and a partner at a law firm. So, my path to partnership has always felt like a journey that was so much bigger than me. It was a path that was deeply rooted in the sacrifices, dreams and prayers of my grandparents and my parents. Likewise, my path to partnership has been supported by women like Diane Owens, Lynn Roberson, Lisa Wade, Cristine Huffine, Debra Chambers, Martine Cumbermack, Anandhi Rajan, Pamela Lee and Ann Joiner (to name just a few) — women who have walked a few steps ahead of me at times and right beside me at times here at Swift Currie. These women sat as the lone woman in various partner meetings, then sat across from me at lunch to share their experiences and make sure they would not be the last woman in those positions. They taught me to show up, hold my head high, work harder than anyone else in the room, trust my own ability and keep my faith. They continue to teach me by example how to navigate having a family, and how to look out for other women.
Women’s History Month is about honoring all the struggles, dreams and encouragement that put me where I am. On International Women’s Day, I think about the praying grandmothers who might not have fathomed this, the brilliant trailblazers who were determined to ensure this and the generous mentors in the adjacent offices who continue to encourage me in this. And I resolve to make my career one that makes room for another young woman.
Beverly Elizabeth Lind and Mary Ethel O'Hern
Written by Ann Joiner, Partner
I draw inspiration from two women I have never met. They do not appear in any history books. Beverly Elizabeth Lind was born to Swedish immigrant parents in St. Paul. She had strawberry blonde hair, freckles, an easy smile and loved to entertain (a furniture giant of the same origin could take a note from her meatball recipe). During World War II, she wrote her husband, who was serving on the eastern front, a letter every single day with a razor blade and a stick of gum in it. Many came back marked return to sender, but that did not stop her. When he returned, Beverly had a son and daughter, both of whom she insisted attend college, because it had not been an option for her. They both earned scholarships, as the family’s income from the nearby brewery would not suffice. Beverly valued education, hard work and kindness.
Mary Ethel O’Hern was born on a farm in rural southwestern Minnesota. She had dark hair, big blue eyes and she loved to dance. After living through the Great Depression, she saved tin foil, string and old newspapers her entire life, famous for repeating the phrase, “Waste not, want not.” Like Beverly, college was not an option for Mary Ethel. She never even had a driver’s license. An Irish Catholic, she eloped in order to marry her fiancé, a German Protestant, as their wedding was not “allowed” at the time. That experience made her outspoken against all inequality, especially that of religious origin. Raising four daughters, she made three meals a day, all from scratch, at times only using potatoes and vegetables from her victory garden. Also like Beverly, she valued education and insisted all her daughters attend college. She had them work at the nearby pickle factory in order to pay tuition. She believed in equality, industriousness and tolerance.
Beverly and Mary Ethel were my grandmothers. Both lost their battles with cancer the year before I was born. They and their memories have inspired me to work hard, persevere, love completely and make the most of the opportunities I have that they did not. I hope to pass these values on to my own daughters, and I hope I am making my grandmothers proud.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Written by Melissa Segel
I am honored and, frankly, lucky to work at a law firm in the deep South that both celebrates and embraces diversity. It is unfortunate that misogyny remains prevalent in our profession. Outside of the firm, many of us have been called inappropriate terms of endearment or have otherwise been treated in an unprofessional manner. I often think of my hero, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when asked about what advice to give women considering law. She’s full of useful nuggets, and over the years discussed the value of persistence and focus, while at the same time advising young lawyers how important it is to disregard those who doubt you or seek to undermine you. Some of my favorite quotes are: "Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one's ability to persuade." "When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out." And, of course, "You can't have it all, all at once."
Supportive Partners and Working Moms
Written by Jessica Phillips
My mother was a professional working mother all through my childhood so it was always understood in our family that you can be professionally successful and a great mother! She was a working mom at a time where they didn’t have Amazon, Instacart, DoorDash or all of the conveniences that we have today to help balance our busy lives! I have no idea how she did it! Growing up with a working mom certainly gave me the confidence to follow my own professional career. Also, because my mom had her professional business experience, she has always been able to give me great career advice and direction, which I know has directly impacted my successes to this day!
I am also inspired by the other women partners on my team, Melissa Segel and Rebecca Strickland. Melissa was the first female partner on my team when I joined Swift Currie in 2010 and certainly laid the groundwork for future women partners on our team. Rebecca and I became partners in the same year. We were going through the same experiences together and she was an incredible support and sounding board. In a circumstance that had the opportunity to foster competition, Rebecca and I worked together as a team to support each other. I am really proud of us for that. Without her support, advice and camaraderie, I would not be as good a lawyer as I am today and certainly not be as happy as I am today. All of the female partners on our team support each other. I took maternity leave after the birth of my daughter when I was a first-year partner. Rebecca and Melissa both stepped in and helped me manage my cases while I was out so that I could take the time to spend with my newborn. I will always be so thankful for them, and all of my team partners, for their support.
I would advise young women attorneys to really think about what they want their legal career to look like. As litigators, our jobs are time consuming. We sacrifice free time and other conveniences to balance servicing our clients and servicing our families. Some attorneys may not want to make such a sacrifice. Be honest about what you want and then don’t be afraid to pursue that. Don’t succumb to what you think other people want you to be. It is also critical to prioritize what is important in any given day. As working women, some of us mothers, we become experts at juggling balls: work, life, friends, home, family. I read somewhere that the best way to think about prioritizing is to recognize that some balls are glass and some are plastic. If you drop a glass ball, the consequences are much more significant than if you drop a plastic ball. In any given scenario, the glass balls and plastic balls change. So, for example, your balls may be: work deadline, lunch with friends, laundry, child’s event at school, non-billable marketing article. Given those balls, you have to evaluate for your self which are glass and which are plastic. Once you decide which is which, you have to prioritize the glass balls over the plastic balls. This evaluation shifts in every circumstance.
Women’s History Month is an opportunity for women to lift each other up. It’s a time to celebrate our accomplishments, but also recognize the goals for the future.
The Next Generation
Written by Rebecca Strickland
I draw the most professional inspiration from those around me. I try to observe the best qualities in the attorneys around me and incorporate those into my practice. Much of that inspiration comes from my partners. While I am so proud to practice with amazing women partners like Jessica Phillips and Melissa Segel, I think during Women’s History Month, it is equally important to recognize the male attorneys who mentored and championed this generation of female partners.
If I were to give myself younger self advice, it would be to remember that no decision has to be final. If you make a career choice and it is not right for you, you can change it. Also, be authentic, confident and ethical. You cannot practice law using someone else’s style. When faced with a hard problem, you will make the best long-term decision by considering the ethical answer.
During Women’s History Month, I am reminded that the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was only signed 101 years ago. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act, giving women the right to hold credit in their own names, was relatively new when I was a child. The first woman who attended day classes at my college started 40 years before me. At the start of my career, an interviewer told me that he was required to interview me, but he would never hire a woman. Yet, today, I am proud to practice with top notch attorneys, who do not exhibit the biases that were common at the start of my career. During Women’s History Month, it is my daughters who inspire me every day. They are beneficiaries of courageous women (and the men who supported their cause). My daughters are less bound by stereotypes and see the world with optimism and promise. The promise of the next generation is also a professional inspiration to maintain the gains that have been made.