September 25, 2020 Voices

Standing Up

By Myra Selby

Each time a woman stands up for herself, . . . she stands up for all women.

—Maya Angelou

A little over one week into my term as an associate justice on the Indiana Supreme Court in 1995, a secretary for one of the other justices came into my chambers. She leaned her head into my interoffice and said, “May I speak with you?” I had only met this woman once, during my round of introductions the prior week, but I knew who she was and who she worked for. I invited her in and showed her a seat. She very gingerly stepped into my office and said, “Justice Selby, I have something to ask you.” She seemed extremely nervous and reticent to get on with her question. Finally, she got around to the question that brought her into my office. “Judge, do you think it would be all right if we could wear pants?”

I had to pause for just a minute because I did not fully understand her question. And then it became clear. I had been coming into my office dressed as I would in any professional setting that I had been accustomed to. I wore pantsuits, skirt suits, dresses, whatever I chose from my professional wardrobe. Wearing slacks was widely accepted in professional settings at that time. However, I was aware of the fact that it was something that certain judges did not accept. Without any hesitation, I answered that, of course, it would be all right if she and any other women on the court staff wore slacks. We went on to have a warm conversation about how much she liked her job, loved working at the court, and really felt like having a woman judge was a step forward.

This very simple exchange with the secretary caused me to think in a new way about what I knew would be a first. As the first African American and woman Supreme Court justice in Indiana, I was deeply concerned about my decisions, opinions, and working with my colleagues on the court. But this exchange made me realize that it was both wider and deeper than that. My presence was going to have an impact on the day-to-day aspects of the court as well. In fact, the question of wearing pants was one that mattered deeply to the women who worked in the court and supported the same judges who were my peers.

It was on this day that I began to think deeply about the power of standing up. I knew that each time I went into conference with my four male judicial colleagues, I would be the only female voice in the room. I was the only African American voice in the room. Of course, my view did not have any more importance or carry any greater weight than my co-equal colleagues, but it was different and had not been heard previously in that room.

A mentee of mine reminded me that standing up doesn’t require a black robe on the highest court in the state. She added that “I think being an equity partner at a big law firm also provided you with the power to stand up and push the firm forward on diversity and inclusion.” I am now the Partner-in-Charge of Diversity and Inclusion. Roya, a brilliant young lawyer at my firm and mother of two young girls, noted that our Black girls will be what they can see. I will do everything that I can to be sure that the glass ceiling is shattered and they can see to the sky.

Standing up for women also means standing with women as they move forward in their pathways in life. I have been fortunate to have the support of many women mentors and supporters. I have always tried to give that back to young women by being a mentor to young lawyers. Today, I am able to stand up for women, and for Black women in particular, because I stand on the shoulders of so many courageous and dedicated women.

As we celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, I remember the work of Black suffragettes like Harriet Forten Purvis and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, the latter of whom said, “As much as white women need the ballot, colored women need it more.”

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By Myra Selby

Myra Selby, former associate justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, has a broad-based practice with a focus in the areas of corporate internal investigations, appellate practice, compliance counseling, complex litigation, risk management, and strategic and other legal advice, based upon an understanding of the related business objectives, across various industry sectors.