Clearly, Judge Kaye lasted a lot longer than I did.
A brilliant student, she began university at 15, getting a liberal arts degree in the hopes of becoming a journalist. But, entering the work force in 1958, the only work she could find as a woman writer was for a small New Jersey publication, writing for the society pages which she said she found “dismal.”
Law school was a means to an end—a way to advance her journalism career. But she performed so well that suddenly a new path opened up. She devoted the rest of her life to law, working in some of the city’s top law firms and climbing the judicial ladder.
Judge Kaye was revolutionary. She was a voice for change in the administration of the courts. She created boutique courts to deal more humanely and efficiently with issues like drug abuse, and focused the judiciary on problem-solving—not just penalizing—when issues of mental health and the like were involved. In law, she is known for her forward-thinking dissent in a 2006 case that denied the right to same-sex marriage. Five years later, the New York legislature legalized marriage equality, and proved her right.
Beyond all this, Judge Kaye is an inspiration. Because of women like her, when I entered the work force I wasn’t stopped by the same glass ceiling that kept many women in her day from reaching the top of their fields.
What I did face, however, was the parenthood ceiling.
I entered into motherhood much in the same way that Judge Kaye entered law school—expecting it to enrich my life, for sure, but not to change its direction completely. I was a sixth year associate at a Manhattan firm, and pretty happy with the direction my career was going. The working mothers I knew—hugely successful and inspirational—had nannies or spouses at home with their kids, but when my daughter was born I found that that path was not for me.
I left the firm. I left my much-worked-for parnasa, and entered the unknown territory of the stay-at-home mom.
For a long time, I felt like a traitor. As an SAHM, I felt like I had betrayed women like Judge Kaye who broke through, worked so hard to make a very male-dominated profession a little more female-friendly.
Long after making my choice, I still felt conflicted. Then, a funny thing happened. I became happy. Like, really happy. I liked being home, being involved in the day-to-day minutia of raising my daughter. And, as my first born became a little less reliant on me, another window opened up. I began to write again. Not in the adversarial, academic way of my legal days, but creatively, the way I had when I was younger. I wrote a little for myself, I wrote for other people. I built up the freelance career that I never thought I could have.
Sometime life catches you off guard, and it works out for the best. It certainly worked out for Judge Kaye, and in a much different way, it’s been working for me so far. I may not have made a very modern choice, but because of women like Judge Kaye, it was mine to make.
Hanna R. Neier is a New York City-based writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online publications including the Jerusalem Post and the Forward. After practicing law for six years as a litigation attorney, she is now a freelance writer focusing mainly on family and women’s issues.