New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood (LAW ’69) challenged graduates to empower new and diverse perspectives in moving along their career paths at the Georgetown University Law Center commencement May 19.
Underwood, who graduated first in her class from the Georgetown Law Center, became the first acting female U.S. solicitor general, a position that directly reports to the attorney general within the Department of Justice, in 2001. In 2007, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) appointed Underwood the first female New York solicitor general. Underwood served in this capacity until becoming New York’s first female attorney general for eight months in 2018 before returning to her previous role as New York solicitor general in 2019.
Women taking on historically male positions of leadership are critical to diversifying decision-making because women share a history of marginalization, Underwood said.
“I would like to say something about why all that pioneering, all those firsts, are important,” Underwood said. “It is not that there is a single woman’s view that will change outcomes. Instead, it is that women, like other outsiders, have some important life experiences in common and those experiences can matter in decision-making.”
While reflecting on her achievements and those of other women, Underwood recalled an old New Yorker cartoon that demonstrates that there still exist areas where women can trailblaze their own paths, according to Underwood.
“One little girl says to another, ‘I’m afraid by the time we grow up it will be too late to be the first woman anything.’ Those little girls are grown up now and some of their daughters are, too, and remarkably it is still not too late to be the first woman anything,” Underwood said.
Although women have not yet reached top positions in a variety of industries, the empowerment of their viewpoints is essential to having a representative conversation that brings together different groups, according to Underwood.
“That is one of the most important challenges of our times, to bring to courts and to the law firms, to the boardrooms and executive suites, in business and in government, the academy and all the institutions of society, many different perspectives so that we can have the tools to build the bridges that are needed to unite rather than divide,” Underwood said.
Despite the obstacles women continue to face in law, they have made strides since Arabella Mansfield passed the Iowa bar exam and became the first female attorney in 1869, according to Underwood.
“Now there are so many women lawyers and so many women in this class that it may be hard to believe how widespread the notion once was that women are unsuited to the practice of law,” Underwood said.
Underwood and Washington, D.C. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, who did not give an address, received honorary degrees from the Law Center. Sullivan was the first person in Washington, D.C., to be appointed by three U.S. presidents to three judicial positions. After years in private practice, he served as associate judge of the Superior Court of D.C. and associate judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals. In 1994, President Bill Clinton (SFS ’68) appointed Sullivan to serve as U.S. district judge for D.C.
The class of 2019 law graduates should contribute their individual points of view in their future endeavors, Underwood said as she concluded her commencement speech.
“When you go out into the world and into the legal profession, try to make it a better place. Try to make your distinctive voice heard and listen to as many different voices as you can,” Underwood said. “Don’t be afraid to be a pioneer — it turns out to be a pretty rewarding thing to do.”