I adore pit bulls. With small exception, they are energetic, resourceful, agile, and loyal. They are an opposable thumb and bark translator away from making great attorneys. So why do I cringe when I am compared to one? The answer is not complicated. I cringe because I am a woman and because pit bulls are, well, dogs.
Strangely, comparing women to dogs has not yet been universally deemed uncool. In the context of civil litigation, it’s not even uncommon. In the past few months, I have had yet another client praise me for being a pit bull attorney and opposing counsel warn me that he was “keeping me on a short leash.” (The later was during a deposition and let me just say that what constitutes short is relative.) In each case, I internally recoiled. Dehumanized and reduced to an animal. Even worse, each man alluded to the ability to control me. My subsequent grumblings elicited comparable anecdotes from female colleagues, not one being a case of woman-on-woman dog reference. Uncool, yet not uncommon.
I have no doubt that my clients have intended the moniker as a compliment. Pit bulls are aggressive, intimidating, and loyal—all litigator qualities. But pit bulls are not bound by Rules of Professional Pit Bull Conduct. Nor are they responsible to provide counsel to clients before simply being released to attack. The pit bull comparison conjures images of a hired gun attorney who harasses and badgers in blind service of a client, which in turn invokes another disparaging moniker. (Hint: its modern-day usage is grounded in the Old English word “bicce” and has been used as a scathing insult against women for centuries. Of course, I must give credit to those out there making the effort to reclaim the term, although that hill is not one I’m interested in climbing.)
Despite my recoil at the canine comparison, I do appreciate the sentiment. Although delivered wrapped in cringe, it validates assertiveness, drive, and confidence—qualities not consistently rewarded when it comes to female attorneys. Nonetheless, dog comparisons for women, especially women of color, are problematic, at best. The comparison alludes to ownership (in Washington, dogs are still considered chattel), suggests we are subject to domination by men, distances us from principles of equality, and may even be a dig at physical appearance. Yet the practice continues.
I optimistically believe that the dog comparison is rarely levied with conscious sexism. But unconscious sexism isn’t much better. I encourage anyone who relies on dog metaphors to consider retiring this habit. When praising a woman for her tenacity, just say you appreciate her tenacity. When advising a fellow attorney that you intend to object to any breach of court rules, say you intend to object to any breach of court rules. If you are a kindred spirit, and prefer more colorful language, add a gender-neutral adjective. I like “bomb-ass.” And if you insist on maintaining this linguistic feature, please remember: dogs can bite.