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President's Message - March 2019

by Kim Berg, Esq.

In honor of the month of March being Women’s History Month, I thought it would be fitting for all of us to take some time to reflect upon the women who have positively influenced us,  personally and professionally, inspired us to succeed, and encouraged us to continue moving forward even when obstacles existed in our paths. 

      It is no surprise that for us lawyers, when we think of notable women who have positively influenced we readily recognize them as trailblazers whose efforts and impact continues to positively influence our professional, and the advancement of women in our profession, even today. We have heard the horrifying statistics at several of our programs this past year and it remains true today that women lawyers are often under recognized for their talent and abilities. Some of the more notable women trailblazers in the law must of course include Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor (appointed in 1981), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (appointed in 1993), Sonia Sotomayer (appointed in 2009) and Elena Kagan (appointed in 2010). 

      Fortunately, I have positive role models as well in other important areas of my life, including in my martial arts training.  As you probably know by now, about eight years ago, I embarked upon a personal wellness journey that I now know will be for my lifetime. Practicing martial arts has brought me better physical fitness, improved mental health, enhanced ability to cope with stressful situations, a fun outlet that I can enjoy with my family and training partners, and a large group of friends that I often refer to as my martial arts family.  There are so many different disciplines under the umbrella of martial arts and I was particularly struck by the story of one woman who certainly was a trailblazer for women in Judo.

      Keiko Fukuda was born in Japan on April 12, 1913.  As a young woman in Japan she was taught the typical “pursuits” for a woman:  tea ceremonies, calligraphy, flower arrangements and the like.  However, Keiko Fukuda also had a strong interest in pursuing martial arts training.  She was influenced by her grandfather, Hachinosuke Fukuda, a jiu jitsu master who is credited with having taught the renowned Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo and head of the Kodokan. 

      Keiko Fukuda was certainly a woman of strength and one who broke through glass ceiling after glass ceiling throughout her entire martial arts career.  Initially when she sought to embark upon a course of study of martial arts in Japan, women were not welcomed to practice. Nonetheless, Jigoro Kano invited her and other female students to practice under his tutelage.  It is said he did so out of a strong sense of loyalty that he had to be her grandfather.  Keiko Fukuda practiced until the time of her death at age 99 in 2013 and was the last surviving student of Jigoro Kano.

      Despite the fact that Keiko Fukuda’s study of martial arts was strongly frowned upon by Japanese culture, and even by members of her own family, she did have the support and encouragement of her mother to pursue her strong desire to become a female martial arts practitioner.  Even at a young age she knew that she was “Born for the Mat,” the title of her 1973 autobiography.  Like many of the trailblazers we know in the legal and judiciary fields, Sensei Fukuda did not let gender bias and discrimination stop her from pursuing her destiny. 

      Also like many women trailblazers we know, personal sacrifices were made along the way. Keiko Fukuda not only refused an arranged marriage, to later never marry or have children, but she also left her home and family to come the United States where she hoped to be “accepted” as a female practitioner.  She left Japan in 1966 with the rank of 5th dan in Judo and eventually formed her own school in California where, at the height of 4’11”, she began to spread the teachings of her Judo Master Jigoro Kano.  At that time she was one of only four women in the world to have achieved the rank of 5th dan in Judo.

      While in the U.S., Keiko Fukuda continued to teach Judo for more than 70 years literally up until her death in 2013.  She was not silent about the sacrifices she made in her personal life for the pursuit of her dream and she amiably referred to Judo as her “lifetime partner” and her “family.”  As one who pursues various studies, including jiu jitsu, I identified with her characterization of the practice as a lifetime partner and one where I too have formed strong bonds with others that I refer to as my martial arts family.

      Keiko’s inner strength and integrity are not only admirable but those traits continued to propel her forward in the eyes of the world.  Keiko Fukuda did not simply accept the artificial barriers that existed to her advancement in Judo.  It was well known that even in the U.S. she continued to suffer discriminatory treatment where being a woman was the sole reason she, and other worthy female practitioners, were not awarded rank on par with their male counterparts.  In fact, until 1972 there was a rule that prohibited women from being promoted to a rank higher than 5th dan regardless of the woman’s natural ability, years of practice, or any other objective factor that was based on merit.

      Through various campaigns, including where she referred to the Kodokan as “old fashioned and sexist” in their ranking system, Keiko was ultimately promoted to 6th dan – and at that time only one of three women in the world to be so promoted.  Importantly, this was not a selfishly motivated pursuit.  She dedicated much of her teachings to develop programs and camps that were specifically geared towards the advancement of women in the practice of Judo.  She also established a Judo scholarship with the goal of encouraging other women to pursue training.

      Persevering in her efforts to obtain recognition equal to that bestowed upon male practitioners, Keiko Fukuda was certainly a woman of firsts:  in 1994 she was the first woman to achieve a red belt (8th dan) in Judo; she was the first woman to be awarded the rank of 9th dan in 2006; and ultimately she was the first to be awarded the 10th dan by both the USA Judo and USJF’s promotion boards in 2011 (at the age of 98).

      Finally recognized, as she rightfully should be, as the true pioneer of women’s Judo, Keiko Fukuda is a woman that serves as a role model and inspiration to me.  One of her famous quotes serves as a daily reminder to us in every aspect of our lives, personal and professional, and particularly when representing our clients: “Be gentle, kind and beautiful, yet firm and strong, both mentally and physically.”

      Like Keiko Fukuda, our founding “mothers” were pioneers in not only seeing the need for but in forming and cultivating the WWBA in 1973 – which has now grown to an organization of 500+ men and women attorneys and law students. We are certainly proud of how far the WWBA has come over the past 45 years and 2018-2019 makes evident the WWBA’s continuing momentum.  Our committee co-chairs are focusing on actively planning a wide variety of programs and events for March, April and May.  I have said many times before, there is something for everyone at the WWBA, so please take a look at our online calendar and register for those that interest you.

      We have already had a number of very well attended events in 2019. On January 24, 2019, one of our Networking Committee co-chairs, Allison Sloto, planned a fun outing to Muse Paint Bar in White Plains.  Our WWBA members and their guests definitely explored our creative sides painting our own version of a lighthouse on the water.  We certainly had a lot of fun and hearty laughs in the process.

      As part of the mentor program, on February 4, 2019 the WWBA presented a program for Pace Law Students at which I spoke along with the Honorable Lisa M. Smith, Honorable Judith C. McCarthy, and Angela Morcone Giannini on the critically important topic of courtroom etiquette, civility and professionalism.  The response from the students was overwhelmingly positive and the value the WWBA was able to provide them at this stage in the pursuit of a legal career was tremendous.

      Also on February 11, 2019, in recognition of heart healthy month, the Wellness Committee offered a free one hour yoga seminar, followed by a brief social, hosted by our own Jennifer Netrosio. 

      Of course, the year would not be off to the right start without our annual Ethics Update by Deborah Scalise.  Although postponed from January 9th to February 6th, as always with this annual event the room was packed and it was a lively presentation of a serious subject.  Deb Scalise’s guidance in the area of ethics and professionalism is invaluable and the WWBA is so lucky to have her. 

      I must recognize that Deb Scalise’s volunteer work extends far beyond this annual WWBA program, so much so that her steady and continued efforts toward improving the legal profession were recognized by the NYSBA on January 18, 2019.  We are all so proud of Deb, who received the prestigious Ruth G. Schapiro Memorial Award at the NYSBA House of Delegates meeting and in the presence of her family and her WWBA family.  Thank you to all of the WWBA members who attended to support Deb.  As I have always said, the support we show for our members is immense and truly what makes the WWBA unique.

            Finally, it is the time of year for our election of the officers and directors for next term.  ALL MEMBERS ARE WELCOME TO ATTEND OUR April 4, 2019 Annual Meeting and General Membership Meeting.  After we vote on the slate of officers and directors, an impressive panel titled “A Town Hall with Women Leaders in Politics” featuring New York State Senator/Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, New York State Assemblywoman Catalina Crus, and New York State Senator Shelley Mayer will be presented. Don’t miss out!

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