ST. BONAVENTURE, NY – “If you read my resume on paper, and after 20 years of experience in criminal justice, I’d walk into any room if I were a man and they wouldn’t even question my credentials,” said the keynote speaker during Thursday’s presentation of the Dr. Mary A. Hamilton Woman of Promise Award at St. Bonaventure University.
Caroline Wojtaszek, the first woman to be elected to the position of district attorney in Niagara County, New York, discussed her long and winding journey to her current office in front of a crowd of approximately 60 in the Dresser Auditorium.
Continuing the theme of women’s empowerment, Wojtaszek acknowledged Woman of Promise Award recipient Hannah Gordon, who will be participating as a graduate student in SBU’s Francis E. Kelley Oxford Program this summer, and told a story of how an intimidating encounter she had with a “tutor or don as professors at Oxford are called” helped her realize her potential. That don had assigned Wojtaszek, then an undergraduate at SUNY Brockport, and a woman student from Cornell University the near impossible task of reading multiple books on the English political system in one week and reporting back to him at his home.
After the Cornell student seemed to do a stellar job, Wojtaszek took her turn. The tutor criticized her work, telling her that regurgitated information could be done by anyone, that he knew and had worked alongside those writers whose books he had assigned, and that he wanted her unique perception of what she had read. She worked through that criticism, learned to have “healthy conversations” the rest of the semester, and built the confidence it took to attack challenges.
“It was that task that basically gets you through life,” Wojtaszek said. “You go through one intimidating experience after the other.”
As a law school student at the University of Buffalo, she faced another experience that could have intimidated her. Instead, she flourished as she participated in a trial competition with another woman as her partner. They were referred to as “The Skirts,” because they were the only all-female team in the group.
“I didn’t mind that they were singling us out for being two women, but it did fuel me to beat them,” Wojtaszek with a laugh during a post-program interview.
Her team won that competition and from exposure at the event, the then-Niagara County DA suggested she spend her summer working in the county’s Domestic Violence Unit. After graduation, she spent 12 years as an assistant Niagara County DA, often facing people not taking her seriously as a prosecutor, regardless of her history of winning criminal cases. One instance she discussed in the post-program interview involved a person approaching her and insinuating she was not cut out for the work, saying, “Honey, don’t you know what a big job that is?”
Wojtaszek, whose career also included several years as confidential law clerk to a Niagara County Court judge, told the audience she took a year's leave from the DA's office when each of her three children were born.
During her keynote, Wojtaszek made the point that staying true to herself has been her best option.
“I feel as if the most important thing for me, as a female, is to be myself in that environment,” she said. “You really have to get up the guts to do that sort of thing on a daily basis.”
Congratulating Gordon, she left some advice for all of the women in the crowd.
“Make your five-year plans. Don’t get distracted by anybody or anything and chart your own course,” she said. “If you know ultimately what your goal is, then all of those winding ways to get there are okay because you think to yourself ‘it’s all right. I know what I want in the end, and I’ll get there.’ ”