Cathy Douglass on Walking Forward Together
There are lots of ways to build a happy life. Ten Girls to Watch is full of stories of women’s lives and careers, some straightforward climbs up the ladder but plenty of curvier paths as well.
In real life, Catherine Douglass is the Executive Director of inMotion — a pretty amazing job. InMotion provides free legal services in matrimonial, family, and immigration law to low-income women in New York City. Most of inMotion’s clients are survivors of domestic abuse, and every day, Cathy helps change women’s lives. Pretty amazing, right? But that’s not exactly where she started out. Lucky for all of us, she was gracious enough to spend some time telling me all about her career and the women who helped her along the way.
What did you think you wanted to be when you were in college and what kind of job did you actually end up getting out of school?
I graduated in 1965, and back in those days the goals for women tended to be you’re going to work for a little while until you get married and have kids. You could be a nurse or a teacher or a couple of other standard things. No law school, no business school. I became a teacher.
I always loved the kids, and when I walked into the classroom I felt anything could happen. It’s so funny, I’ve always said that teaching was the toughest job I ever had. I remember one of my teaching jobs. I was about 24-years-old, and I had a class of 40 kids squeezed into a small classroom. To figure out how to survive in that environment… that was a challenge.
How did you end up in law school?
I left teaching in part because I felt teachers weren’t respected. It breaks my heart that it still hasn’t changed. I wanted to be able to make a bigger impact on the things that matter in the world. Both for myself and for the kids.
But I also went to law school because I lived in books, I loved languages, and I really felt as if I wanted to learn about how the world worked. Why things were the way they were. I thought I was going to do public interest law when I got out of law school. I studied women in the law and poverty law and land use planning, only to graduate in the mid 70s to find there were no public interest jobs for people coming out of law school. I went to my corporate job instead and found that I thrived there.
You became a partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher — no small feat! — and then left to found inMotion. That’s a pretty bold move. How did you make that decision?
It was the biggest, most difficult career decision that I’ve made. I had learned a lot in my practice of law. I had made it from an associate to a partner at the firm, but there was nothing I was doing that was touching my heart. It was all in my head. And then one of my dear friends said, how would you like to join the board of a battered women’s organization? They needed lawyers on their board, and that was my first nonprofit experience.
I joined this organization’s board, and within six months I was heading up a project in the Bronx, and a year after that I was co-heading the board. I said to their legal director, why can’t you go to firms like mine and get people like me to volunteer? There were only two lawyers on staff, and she looked at me and said “In what minute of the week would you imagine that I could build a pro bono program?” I thought, I know what a pro bono program looks like. I care about this, and I could do it. And that was it. I talked to her, and she said go for it, and I decided it was time.
Were there women who inspired you along the way?
There still weren’t that many women working in corporate law when I started, certainly not in senior positions. I mainly took each step with a cohort of other women who were at the same stage. I was one of the first people who said the women in this place have to get together! We were the “Women of Willkie.” That’s the way I expanded my thinking about what my options were and how to take the next steps that I was tempted to take. I’d go to my circle of folks, and we’d figure it out. So rather than learning from people ahead of me, it’s been much more a sense of camaraderie. Of support from people who are walking forward together.
One of my joys now is that we have that sort collaborative cohort of people working together at inMotion. Whether it’s policy leaders, the staff, the board, we’re coming together to creatively make a difference.
Thanks so much to Cathy for sharing her story! And if you’re interested in contributing to inMotion‘s work, they’re a great organization doing great work. Check them out!