Attorney Tina M. Patterson, Esq., is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, a national anti-poverty think tank headquartered in Detroit with a distinguished National Advisory Panel made up of some of the most important civil rights leaders and anti-poverty campaigners of the last 50 years. Prior to leading the institute in 2018, Patterson, was previously a federal government attorney with the Social Security Administration.
During her stint at the Social Security Administration, she wrote legally binding decisions for administrative law judges throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. A racial justice advocate and the author of a forthcoming book on race and the law, Patterson, is at the forefront of the anti-poverty debate in Detroit, the nation’s largest African American city.
In this interview with Bankole Thompson, the dean and editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute, Patterson reflects on the larger significance of Women’s History Month, the role and contributions of Black women such as the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and the late Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Mathai, and calls for more women to hold significant leadership roles in Detroit and beyond.
PuLSE Institute: What comes to mind for you about Women’s History Month?
TINA PATTERSON: I think about the extraordinary achievements women all over the world have been able to contribute to humanity, in spite of traditional gender norms that have held them back from advancing in society. I also think about the inherit oppression and quite honestly, irrationality, of the predominant view that half of the world’s population (women) are viewed as lesser individuals simply due to their sex.
So, when I reflect on Women’s History Month, I am inspired to accomplish more, to exemplify the reality that sex and gender to not limit or dictate my achievements, and to especially advocate this message of equality for younger generations to truly embrace.
PuLSE: Women’s History Month is viewed as a period to celebrate the achievements as well as highlight the issues affecting all women. But as an African American woman, do you see this month as inclusive of the larger contributions of Black women to society?
PATTERSON: Black women must be included in Women’s History Month because we are no less women than White or any other women, even though we face the double barrier of discrimination based on race and sex. However, I do believe inclusivity is lacking in this conversation, as it always has when it comes to the general principle of feminism and womanhood.
Still, I do not believe this means Black women should dismiss our remarkable achievements because we don’t fit into a neat and acceptable definition or aesthetic. Instead, we should be even prouder to embrace our history, tell our truths, and exalt our accomplishments as a beacon of the full depth of our humanity and potential.
PuLSE: What do you see as part of the significant changes that have taken place in the advancement of women in this nation in the last half a century?
PATTERSON: I believe the reality that a woman can work and be independent outside of raising children and managing household duties has been the most significant advancement in our era. For so long, a so-called “woman’s place” was universally accepted as in the kitchen or raising children. Even when women did work outside the home, as many Black women have historically done, it was largely limited to domestic trades.
Now, however, women are regularly working outside the home in many diverse fields, and have achieved even larger numbers in business ownership and attainment of higher education. To me, it is verification that human potential is only limited by perception, and that societal constraints placed upon certain demographics can and should be broken.
PuLSE: Obviously, no definition of women empowerment will be incomplete without taking into consideration the impact and contribution of the late New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Do you think history and modernity have appreciated the profound role she occupies in the struggle for women, especially Black women?
PATTERSON: Quite honestly, as historically significant as Shirley Chisholm was, I do not believe even to this day that we truly understand the full weight and scope of her achievements. Too often, we remember her as a “first,” for being the first Black woman to run for president on a major party ticket or the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress. But, she, as a person, was so much more than that. She was an educator, she was extremely intelligent and multilingual, and she courageously dared to be her full self at a time when both Black people and women were being defined externally as to who and what they could be.
Shirley Chisholm boldly bucked against these outdated, racist and sexist norms, and did so while advocating for her people in the halls of the most powerful legislature in the world, when no one else looked like her or had her experience. She did not conform and she did not submit to the despicable treatment she faced just for being different and naturally herself.
Even in our modern era, unique individuality and identity are something we continue to struggle with, especially Black people, because of the centuries of being told who we were and the constant messages of inferiority. It was not true in Shirley Chisholm’s day, just as it is not true today, and she really helped break the mold for others to follow in this daring expression to be one’s own authentic self.
PuLSE: Globally, we’ve seen the role that other women such as the late Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize Winner and environmentalist Wangari Mathai have played on the global stage. How do you think Maathai has shaped the contemporary definition of the furtherance of gender equality?
PATTERSON: I think much like Shirley Chisholm, Wangari Maathai dared to believe she was bigger than what she was told a Black woman could be. She embraced her true self, and more importantly, the mission to empower others like her to show them that they are also bigger than the limitations placed upon them.
Maathai targeted her work toward women and out of it came a global movement in environmental science, a crucial field of study now and in the future, not to mention the prolific Nobel Peace Prize, of which she was the first African woman recipient. Again, I believe it just goes to show the power of authenticity, identity, and the initiative to carve one’s own place in the world, while lifting up others to do the same, instead of conforming to gender and other societal limitations.
PuLSE: There is still an ongoing debate about the value of women in leadership roles when you consider the fact that there are still few women as heads of major companies. What in your view is misunderstood about the value that women bring to business and the workplace?
PATTERSON: The perception of the inferiority of women, I believe, is still a dominant viewpoint. Therefore, women are rarely in top positions at major companies or in top government and public leadership roles. Then, when a woman does reach this apex, it is instantly viewed as an anomaly because this is not the standard perception of where a woman should be and what a woman can or should do.
For instance, in the valuable and lucrative STEM field, while studies have shown that boys and girls react equally to mathematical processing, women are still significantly underrepresented in that field, and a stigma that women are not as proficient in that area persists, even though the statistical data disproves this theory. So ultimately, as long as this false theory of inferiority persists, we must continue fighting against it until the pendulum swifts toward displacing such archaic viewpoints.
PuLSE: As a trained lawyer and a Black woman from Detroit, what do you see as the barriers for accelerating the growth of women in this city?
PATTERSON: I don’t believe there are enough women occupying significant leadership roles in this city, and we can start with the fact that Detroit has never had a woman as mayor. Additionally, CEOs of major Detroit corporations are predominantly men, with very few women, and no Black women. Additionally, there has never been a woman as president of the city’s largest institute of higher learning, Wayne State University. So the dearth of leadership is glaring, and I think a barrier of acceleration of the growth of women leadership is the failure of forward thinking to develop a pipeline and bench of future women leaders in these significant occupations.
PuLSE: What specifically in your view should Detroit do to ensure that it becomes a model for women leadership?
PATTERSON: First, acknowledge this glaring and quite honestly, shameful, lack of women in leadership. Next, the city must commit to truly developing the skills and talents of its women by investing in capital, education, and other significant resources that women are often denied from obtaining at higher rates than men. Most importantly, however, an appointment, selection, or election of the “first” woman in some of the aforementioned areas is not enough, because it would simply serve as a diversity token. Instead, the intentional development referenced must occur so there are a plethora of women ready to serve at the helm and unlock the barriers for entry to others.
PuLSE: Are there any women that have influenced or shaped your view about life as a Black woman?
PATTERSON: Growing up, I saw and was taught a lot about the traditional gender roles of what a woman should be and do. However, I never accepted these viewpoints, and I had many teachers, mostly women, who saw and believed in my potential and genuinely helped me to develop my leadership skills and academic ability, which was counter to those traditional gender norms.
And in a rare experience, I was fortunate to have Black women teachers as young as kindergarten and first grade, who taught with such pride, grace, and academic rigor that I still reflect on their instruction many decades later. I fondly hold dear to these memories because truly, when confidence in ability is planted at such an early age, it can grow to undetermined heights, and I believe this should be the right afforded to every child.
PuLSE: Given where you are today, is there anything relating to leadership development you wish you had known earlier in your formative years?
PATTERSON: As women, we are often expected to be nice, meaning that even saying “no,” can be viewed as a hostile action. However, any good leader must know and understand that decisive action must be taken, whether popular or not, and that risk is inherent in any decision, even if it means someone may not like it or think you are being “mean,” because you disagree with them. I’ve made many unpopular decisions in my life. My dream of becoming a lawyer, for instance, was one. Leaving a good government job to start my own business, especially, was another.
However, I took these actions because I believed they served a higher mission toward my true life purpose, and I continue in these actions because I believe they still do. Still, I wish I would have had even more confidence to embrace these decisions without the thought of worrying about how they would be perceived. We are all humans, and our thoughts and interactions naturally intertwine. But only the individual can live his or her own life, and must be able to do so independently and free from the fears of other people’s reactions. The earlier we learn these life lessons, the sooner we can learn and become the best and highest version of ourselves.