Like most women, Loretta Lynch is no stranger to discrimination in the workplace.
As a young female associate on Wall Street, the former U.S. Attorney General was often mistaken as a court reporter, no doubt due to her gender and race. But that never stopped Lynch from propelling forward — from Harvard to U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York to making history as the first Black woman to hold the office of Attorney General, Lynch was determined to break barriers and stereotypes.
She has her parents to thank for that, she said in TIME Firsts, a multimedia project on 46 trailblazing women who are changing the world.
“My mother felt that if she was going to show her children that you can do anything, then she could not accept discrimination that has no basis in reality—no basis in anything,” she wrote. “It had to start with her. She’s always led by example.”
Those examples included refusing to use segregated facilities during a time when it was deadly to defy the Jim Crow laws of the era. It also included providing whatever justice was attainable in 1930s North Carolina, a period saturated with racial tension and lynchings across the South.
“She told me early on how, when she was a young wife and mother, she just decided she was done with the restrooms that were marked ‘Colored,'” Lynch said. “They’d had to stop the car one night, and she went right into the restroom that was denoted for white women. The attendant, some young guy, was stunned, and said to her, ‘No, you’re supposed to go over here.’ She said, ‘I don’t feel like fighting flies,’ and just sailed on into the other restroom. She never used segregated facilities again.”
“My dad told me that one of his earliest, most vivid memories was of my grandfather working with people who had gotten in trouble with the law,” she wrote. “You’re talking 1930s North Carolina—there were no Miranda rights in that day. You were at the mercy of whatever law enforcement stopped you on that dark road in the middle of the night. When people got in trouble, there was no due process, there was no assumed right to a fair trial or even a trial at all. It was a very, very different time. So people came to my grandfather for help. He’d hide them underneath the floorboards of the house where my father grew up.”
For Lynch, these tales were eventually what led her to make history — she interpreted them to mean that she must provide justice for all in a world that didn’t often grant it.
“Obviously, we have to have accountability when something happens, but we have to have a system where you can have faith that you’re going to be treated the same as anyone else. In my father’s community, people did not have that feeling, particularly people of color,” she said.
“That should not be the case. Not in America.”
Lynch went on to serve as Attorney General frome 2015-2017 for Barack Obama. Her interview is part of TIME Firsts, a multimedia project featuring 46 groundbreaking women. Watch the rest of the videos at Time.com/Firsts. Buy the book at the TIME Shop.