La Jolla Heroines: Lynn Schenk empowers herself and other women through ‘personal involvement’

La Jollan Lynn Schenk has worked for decades to advance opportunities for women.
La Jollan Lynn Schenk has worked for decades to advance opportunities for women.
(George Disario)

Much of La Jolla’s early advancement was fueled by prolific philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps. But many more women have followed in being important benefactors to La Jolla. This new series by the Light highlights local women who have worked for decades to further the evolution of La Jolla and areas beyond.

Attorney Lynn Schenk, a resident of La Jolla Shores since 1972, has worked for decades to advance opportunities for women.

A graduate of the University of San Diego Law School who grew up in the Bronx and Los Angeles, Schenk was the first woman and first Jewish person to be elected to Congress south of Los Angeles, a distinction she said was helped by her “grassroots” work in furthering feminism during her earlier career.

Below, Schenk answers La Jolla Light’s questions about success, empowerment and legacy.

Q. When did you feel you were a success as a woman?

A. “I never thought about that, frankly. My parents were immigrants, my father was a Holocaust survivor, and the ethic of hard work, education and looking to the future were the paramount overriding considerations of my working-class parents.

“My father was a tailor; my mother was a manicurist. And they struggled mightily. And my brother, who lives in Carmel Valley, and I knew that our job was to get ahead to be better in many, many ways, but to be good Americans.

“You just do what you need to do, if you’re of that motivation to not let wrongs go ‘un-righted.’ You do things as they come along.”

Q. The year you were elected to the 103rd Congress (1992) was deemed “The Year of the Woman,” with 28 women elected — nearly doubling the number of women in Congress — and both California senators being female for the first time, among other distinctions. What contributed to your success and that of other women that year?

A. “There was the Anita Hill case [in which Hill accused then-Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment at his confirmation hearing], which motivated some people, enraged some people and made others aware. So all of that coming together stimulated across the country a recognition that there were hardly any women in the Congress. … There were 24 women in the House [of Representatives] out of 435. That was just not a reflection of the country as we know it. So a lot of women decided to run.

“[My] election really was both a culmination, as well as a beginning, of a lot of work at the grassroots level here in San Diego,” including founding, with other local women, the first women’s bank in California and the Lawyer’s Club, a women’s law organization.

“And all of these things … that I was involved in showed me that personal involvement means empowerment, not just for yourself but for those who come after you, for your next generation. Those changes had to be made by us, and no one else was going to do it.”

Q. How do you work today to further empower women and their success?

A. “I stay involved very much in Lawyer’s Club, which is a feminist bar association, and its mission is to improve the status of women in the law and in society.

Q. What excites you about your current work on the boards of Scripps Research Institute, the California High-Speed Rail Authority and the board of trustees of UC San Diego?

A. “I’m considered the mother of high-speed rail in California” she said, because “I brought the idea to Governor Jerry Brown in 1981,” when she was his California Secretary of Business Transportation and Housing (and the first woman to hold this post) … “I’m determined to ride it; I’m still very excited about that potential.

“I’m a lawyer, I’m not a scientist, but I am deeply fascinated by the potential for a cure of so many dreaded diseases. … What excites me is even though I am not the person who will find that cure or make that discovery, I want to do everything I can to create the atmosphere in which these brilliant people can operate.”

Q. What do you worry about: locally, statewide and nationally?

A. “I am deeply worried about the fabric of our democracy, that we don’t teach our children civics, and how this country came into being, all its flaws, but also all its aspirations.

“The flag and the Declaration of Independence and the national anthem, these don’t represent any particular political party or president or anything, it’s aspirational about who we are.

“I’ve always felt that democracy is hard work. It takes an involved electorate, and it takes a knowledgeable electorate. That doesn’t mean you have to know every word of every proposition that’s written. … But you do have to know the fundamentals of what makes this a special place, a special form of government.”

Q. What do you want your legacy to be?

A. “I don’t think about that. I really don’t. Others will write my legacy and determine what it is. For me, I just want to make sure that I lived a life of meaning, that I contributed, that I made things somewhat better for those who come after me, that the path is a little bit easier for them to move ahead.” ◆