A few years ago Judge Vanzetta Penn McPherson decided it was time for her to retire. She was 59 and she wanted to dedicate the rest of her life to doing all those things she had to leave behind while serving as a United States Magistrate. One of this was writing.
The other one was fully enjoying her senior years with her husband Thomas.
“Since we are on a college campus," she started off, “I speak to the students, especially the women among them.”
Actually, not too many students were sitting at the round tables that had been set up for the occasion. I, myself, felt that an email to my Communication and Gender students was not going to bring them over during lunch time on a gorgeous Spring day: I should have known better. I regretted not having resorted to the trick of the extra credit.
Admittedly, Judge McPherson struck me right away as the type of woman I would have liked my students to hear talk.
And talk she did. For over an hour she diligently went over the three parts of the title assigned to her presentation by the AUM Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, as a good student who does not shy away from a challenging essay topic.
Judge McPherson talked about her reflections, her regrets and her roadblocks.
This is what you do, or, rather, you are asked to do, when you are in your sixties and have accomplished a lot in your life. But Judge McPherson made sure from the beginning that her was not going to be a speech on how to achieve notoriety or personal happiness.
Values, she talked about. Because, as she said, “your value system is what people will remember you for.” (…) “My knowledge and values often discuss but I compel them to reach the same conclusions,” her piercing eyes and austere demeanor softened by an azure-blue set of jewelry.
Judge McPherson is the kind of person that doesn’t pretend to be what she is not. She immediately spoke of the necessity of a two-parent household, made up of a mother and a father because she had been there, raising her son by herself, and it wasn’t easy. She never claimed to have been poor, she added later on, because her family was not.
Judge McPherson reflected upon her upbringing, how she came up, as people say here in Alabama.
Her grandparents have taught her a lot of what she still holds as true today. What it means to have a husband and what a husband is supposed to do.
And that knowledge is power. She grew up, she said, in an atmosphere of academic excellence. She was raised in the church during the 1950s and 1960s when the church was “literally the social annex of the home.” Learned to appreciate the arts so you know what to do when you’re bored, she joked. Learned to appreciate the value of a story. A good reason why I don’t like reality television, she claimed. “Because stories force you to synthesize, to listen and remember.”
“Stories are good for academic and psychological development whereas with reality TV you can tune in any time and know what is going on.”
She then talked about the importance of having a creed (for her it has always been I also “What I Live For”) and of getting out of yourself (which she did thanks to the presence in her life of two genetically retarded ants, who were the reason why, she admitted, she initially decided to pursue a career in speech pathology).
Regrets. “I abhor regrets and I don’t have many. “Reason is,” she said scanning the audience with her unyielding eyes, “I tend to say what’s on my mind when it’s there.”
“Rent and watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ if you wanna know about regrets,” she added.
She wisely praised the importance of participating in organized sports. She traced back her deficiency in managing failure to not having participated in any team sports when she was in school, “in those pre-Title IX years.” “If I had, I am sure I would be able today to measure success in increments instead of by its final product.”
“I regret being a deficient student of the Bible, which actually contradicts my academic approach to knowledge.”
“I regret not having had a second child.”
“And I regret not having big calves!” she jokingly repeated more than once.
She encouraged the audience to embrace resilience but also change sometimes because “in relationships as well as in careers, when the track record doesn’t change, it’s time to move on, she said implicitly referring both to her decision to retire from the bench after not having obtained the Art 3 status (read, lifetime assignment) as a judge, and to her other decision to divorce from her first husband.
Roadblocks. “I look at racism as an earthquake and at sexism as a hurricane. Earthquakes destroy the foundation, while hurricanes destroy the order.” When you are black and a woman, you learn to cope with abuse, Judge McPherson suggested. However, she warns the audience never to use either racism or sexism as a crutch.
“In celebration” of Women’s History Month, she then focused on sexism
Men are afraid of women, especially the ones they love, she said. “So you engage in this continuous dance of assuring them that we mean no harm.” Contrary to the dominant idea, men are highly dependable on women because we constantly outwork them.
“I had a coworker who was very tall. He would always stand up every time I would walk into his office. He would, albeit unconsciously, use his height to show me he was in power. I said ‘unconsciously’ because men are socialized to be in charge.”
At the end of her speech, Judge McPherson took a seat between her husband and her longtime girlfriend. She shed a tear leaving to the audience the interpretation of that gesture—she had just talked about women and half-jokingly encouraged their strategic deployment of tears.
“Race and gender are not caterpillars”, she said in response to a comment coming from the audience, “but you also have to give other people the chance to accept difference. Without partnership and collaboration, change just doesn’t occur.”
At the end of the Q&A session, she gave the last commonsensical yet disarming piece of advice. “In the end, try to be good people. That’s how you will honor your parents’ wishes and set the examples for your children,” she concluded.
Judge Vanzetta Penn McPherson visited Auburn University Montgomery to share her life experiences with the AUM Community as part of the Journeys in Common: Women's Empowerment Series.
Judge McPherson is a former U.S. Magistrate Judge, former Assistant Attorney General (AL), former President of the Montgomery’s Federal Bar Association and former President & Vice President of the Alabama Lawyers Association. Judge McPherson is currently a guest columnist for the Montgomery Advertiser; her socio-political, even controversial articles often ignite robust discussion throughout Montgomery.