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Feminists in the Community: Striking a Successful Balance with Linda Newman

Written for WGST Affiliate Dr. Sarah Robbins’ Feminist Inquiry Course (Fall 2018), English Ph.D. Student Sean McCullough interviewed Linda Newman, TCU alumni and self-professed feminist from the local TCU and Fort Worth Community. The following conversation took place between August 31 – September 4, 2018.

Linda Newman, a pioneer for women in the world of corporate law, discusses the relationships she sees among feminism(s), equal rights in the workplace, and individual ambition.

Where Should We Begin?

Linda Newman earned her law degree from Southern Methodist University in 1980, a time she characterizes as embodying a “sort of pent-up demand by women to enter the legal profession.” According to Newman, she “was probably the 3rd woman” in Hughes and Luce law firm. As we enjoyed iced tea drinks and conversation at the Wild Detectives, a bookshop and coffeehouse just 2 miles from the hospital where she was born (Methodist Dallas Medical Center), Newman shared her thoughts on how she perceived her cultural upbringing as a “metroplexian”; the middle-class values her parents instilled in her, especially concerning the importance of education; and her own experiences with gender and being gendered as having led her to break into this once male-dominated sphere and open doors for women.

From the beginning of the conversation, Newman and I attempted to build knowledge together. We met once in person, another time via email, and a final time on Apple’s FaceTime platform. Over email, Newman edited the transcript of our face-to-face conversation and expounded upon some of the points she had made earlier. During our FaceTime, Newman and I summarized the knowledge we constructed together. Although I brought my own questions to guide our discussion, I chose an in situ, grounded approach to the interview, so we began by discovering how Newman felt she would most like to proceed, and we turned to my questions whenever appropriate:

SM: Before we begin with any of the questions, I just wanted to let you know I have my own questions, but, at the same time, I want to be open to whatever comes from the conversation and then whatever you would like to discuss as well. The questions are purely here just in case. And so with that in mind, I guess the first question I do have is what would you like people to know about you should this interview be distributed?

LN: Looking back on the experiences of my life, I have strived to be a leader in areas that weren’t typical for women at the time I was beginning my career, and it was partly I think in a motive to be recognized, a pure egotistical wanting to be recognized. I’m the oldest of three children, so that’s pretty typical of the oldest child. There were areas that I felt I’d also like to contribute, and so I was interested in a career that would contribute to society. So I was willing to push forward in that, and my interest in gender—perhaps compared to other women involved in feminist work—I’ve always been very interested in coed settings. I like to work with men and women—not just women-only settings. In my public school years, I often found some of the young women cliquish, yes “mean girls” even then, and I was not personally competitive in the hair, makeup, clothes department, nor in athletics. I had a small group of women friends, but I wasn’t a player in the broader social scene. I preferred academic achievement. I’m not aiming for female supremacy, but for an equal, cooperative work environment and having fun and building a better world.

Just from this first response, Newman and I identified two key “themes” (bolded above):

  1. The roles a drive for personal success can play for individual and larger feminist agendas and
  2. The search for a feminism emerging from women’s and men’s collaboration and mutual support in public and private settings.

In our conversations after our interview, Newman and I noted moments from our dialogue that respond to these two themes, and we present them below.

The Mutual Inclusivity of Individual Ambition and Political Activism

From an early age, Newman reflects on having felt equally strong desires to achieve personal success and to engage in selfless acts of protest for causes she believes in. A child of parents who “felt like they had not gotten the education they wanted,” Newman recounts, “From age 2, I heard ‘You will go to college.’” Having family roots in Texas, coming from a middle-class background, and being the eldest child all contributed to Newman’s early drive for personal achievement:

LN: I was fortunate to win the elite Chancellor’s Scholarship at TCU, which provided full tuition, and made it financially possible for me to leave home for college. The faculty and students shaped my future through the Honors Program, building my confidence in my intellectual skills, and also building a philosophy stressing the importance of improving society.

Texas Christian University in the 1970s

While a college education for Newman and her family primarily represented an opportunity for a lucrative career and upward mobility, Newman began her studies at TCU within a “socio-political environment” that she describes as “roiling with Vietnam War and Civil Rights protests and riots.

LN: I had participated in two Vietnam moratorium protests and picketed George Wallace’s Presidential campaign, and so I did my tiny bits of being a protestor.

Concurrently, in TCU’s classrooms, Newman also remembers ways that TCU professors first introduced her to serious discussions of gender roles:

LN: I had an honors colloquium in 1970 that was called “The Nature of Man,” but we actually focused on some other gender issues in addition to looking at human psychology generally. We read Philip Wylie and Betty Friedan and some of the popular materials on gender roles, so that was probably the first time that I actually talked about it in class per se.

After graduating Summa Cum Laude from TCU, Newman earned her M.A. in English in 1973 (also from TCU). Newman’s thesis, “Women’s Place in the Poetry of Alexander Pope,” explores how Pope’s use of satire deconstructs conventional roles for women and men and creates opportunities for new ones. Unable to find teaching positions at Jr. and Community Colleges in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Newman, like many recent graduates of her generation, struggled to reconcile what can seem to many “twenty-somethings” competing desires to contribute to society and to gain financial and social stability and success.

LN: So that’s one string of my life, but I also have this success gene. I wanted a stable career, marriage, love, and family, so I think those have been the competing drives pulling me. Should I become primarily a resistor, or part of the establishment? And that was kind of going on in my mind in my twenties. These conflicts came to a “crisis” in 1977 after I had entered law school. During that first semester, I was a Texas delegate to the National Women’s Conference in Houston. President Ford had authorized the conference as U.S. recognition of the 1975 United Nations National Year of the Woman. I was excited and thrilled to be surrounded by famous women activists, including Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Representative Barbara Jordan, and future Governor Ann Richards. But I was worried about coming back to conservative Ft. Worth, where I lived then, and whether I could get a job with a Ft. Worth law firm if I were seen as an activist. I ultimately decided it would be more effective for me to become part of the corporate world and use my skills to be a change from within, versus a change from without. I saw this political activism and protesting activity, and I really felt like at the end of the Conference, I wasn’t sure we were really going to accomplish anything from that at the time. And so that motivated my decision to do as well as I could in Law school, seek out a career in a law firm, and work from the inside. Sometimes I worry, did I sell out? That’s…I mean…that’s a big question at this stage of my life, but…you know…looking back, I think I did open some doors. For instance, I and another colleague of mine, we were the first 2 women to be practicing in the law firm, and we pushed for paid maternity leave, equal practice opportunities, and, of course, equal pay and bonuses.

Feminist leaders and women athletes lead the parade opening the 1977 National Women’s Conference.

Having established early on a desire to take a grounded approach toward our conversation, Newman’s nuanced reflections on how to best create structural change within her context and cultural milieu left us both with a feeling that we had finally discovered what it was we were trying to “get at” in our conversation. The fact is, Newman’s anxiety she expressed over potentially “selling out” in her drive for personal success reveals a point of tension—between self-fulfillment and self-sacrifice for a cause—for activists in many political, social, and cultural movements. Especially for young people, the two activities seem mutually exclusive. When picturing a young Wall Street investment banker —or perhaps a corporate lawyer—not many people would associate them with activism. But Newman became a corporate lawyer and an activist. And it is particularly in speaking about the effects of her decision to “take a seat at the table” at a time when it was primarily populated by men, that Newman demonstrates how personal success and activism do not have to seem so contradictory to one another.

While today women account for just over 50% of law students, Newman entered the field at a time when she explains “law had just suddenly opened up as a career for women.”

LN: Our class was about 1/3 women in 1980, but a lot of us had pursued other careers first. So I had worked in the government, and there were a lot of teachers who had decided to come back to law school. The top 3 people in our class were women. So in that law firm environment of being initially the minority, we were treated well because it was a growing law firm, and we were regarded as valuable assets.

Newman’s acceptance and eventual prowess within the law community certainly did not come without discrimination:

LN: When I was being recruited some of the downtown lunch clubs were men only, except they would have a “ladies room.” And so to go to them, we would have to go to this small dining room where you could have men and women together, and it was just so awful. And so more uppity women than me really found it…I was raised in Texas, so I’m…you know…polite and all that, and I was willing to go along with it; however, my uppity colleagues said, “This is stupid!” and called the partners on it. “We shouldn’t do this. We shouldn’t even go to clubs that do this.” I’m trying to think whether there were instances where I experienced discrimination. I struggled sometimes because I felt that, in the assignment of work, I was given more assignments of research and writing, and that the men were given more transactional work. I really struggled to break out of that. They would say, “Oh but you write so well,” which was a back-handed compliment. And I said, “Yeah, but if I’m going to have clients, I need to do this other work.”

Upon reflection, though, Newman admits that she did not always take as much offense to such micro-agressions as many other women around her did. Whereas some women in the firm responded to discrimination by “meeting for lunch or drinks without the men,” Newman has always found problems with this approach, and such feelings are particularly revealing of her definition and understanding of feminism.

LN: We had a group to get together just for us as women. And that’s where a policy issue arises for me. I really questioned women-only gatherings, as such, because we were trying to change traditions that were men-only, like men-only lunch clubs and golf outings. And so I said, “Well, if we’re going to protest this, then why do we have women get together?” So the idea of there just being a women’s law section—I really kind of stay away from that. I do think there are sometimes women’s issues that make sense to address as a separate group, such as women’s groups that share strategies on how to remove gender barriers, and non-profit groups that advocate and raise money to benefit women and children, such as Dallas-based Attorneys Serving the Community, and CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates, which advocate for children in foster care).

More than a few times, Newman distinguished her brand of feminism—which emerges from her regional roots in Texas, her middle-class drive for success, and her prioritizing of gendered pursuits such as academics and her career—from other women’s. She recognizes, for example, how her disapprobation of “women-only organizations” and her indifference to fashion could be seen as “anti-feminist” and “disloyal” to many feminists.

LN: At this age, looking back, there might have been times when I had feminist anger, but I don’t think that was really my motivation about feminism. It was more achievement oriented. And when it comes to my most important relationship with my husband, and my view of marriage, it’s this idea of partnership, so sometimes one person needs to do things, and the other person steps in a supporting role—and of talking and communicating about it clearly. I still do most of the cooking and grocery shopping, but my husband does the yard work, which sounds pretty traditional. We’re both retired now, so it’s not a big issue because it’s like: “Okay, who’s going cut into their reading time a little bit to have to do this chore?” It was a little more complicated when we were working and with the kids and you know I have to go to this meeting, and can you be with the kids while I’m at this meeting? And that partnership made parenting and working full-time actually possible, without ruining the kids!

To this day, Newman’s feminism emphasizes co-ed environments and equal partnerships between men and women. Upon reflection, she admits that this particular vector to her feminism may stem from differences she has always noticed between herself and other women and from the ways her personal goals placed her in social contexts that women did not typically inhabit. “Many of my best friends have been guys,” she observes. Newman’s greater sense of belonging in groups of men and her inspiring partnership with her husband inform how she defines feminism and sees it operating in her life.

Linda Newman and her husband protesting current gun laws.

One thing that strikes me about Linda Newman is that she is incredibly thoughtful. She speaks and acts with intention. She embodies one feminism out of many possible feminisms, and I believe that it is her particular feminism, informed by her particular intersectional subjectivities, that has allowed her to demonstrate women’s value in professional spaces where they have not always been valued and to open doors for women. I enjoyed getting to know Linda Newman, and I hope to do as much with my life as she has done (and continues to do) with hers.