Stories from Trailblazing Women Lawyers: Lives in the Law
Written by Jill Norgren
Reviewed by Ruth Geos, Reference Librarian
Bracketed by the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment and the burst of voices and action from the #MeToo movement, Stories from Trailblazing Women Lawyers: Lives in the Law sketches in the period in between, when the blunt view of the profession was that law was exclusively a “guy’s game.” The 100 women interviewed though this oral history project of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession are lawyers, judges, Presidential cabinet members, law school deans, and civil rights pioneers who graduated from law school in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s—women who have become leaders in the profession, and models of achievement through persistence, daring, humor, and brilliance in a time that did not welcome their excellence or even their presence.
Stories from Trailblazing Women Lawyers draws from these detailed interviews to interweave their voices and stories, looking at the bigger story these women shared, starting with tales of childhood, their ambitions forward, barriers, job interviews, first legal position, and ultimately the personal and professional choices they made. Many of these women speak of their determined, mostly solitary way forward. They struggled with decisions about which sexist comment to challenge and which to let go, where to push and where to pull, when to marry, divorce, have children, what to wear and what to say, and how to best make use of their love of the law. Transcripts of the extensive interviews themselves (along with video interviews) are available online; the interviewers are also eminent women in the law.
It may be unbelievable to those of us in 2020 to hear that Harvard Law School did not admit women until 1950, and then deliberately failed to support them, with overt acts of humiliation, contempt, isolation, and complete disbelief that women could be real lawyers. It was not just Harvard, of course. Former New York Solicitor General Shirley Adelson Siegel was the only woman to graduate from Yale Law School in 1941. Shirley Hufstedler, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge and later Secretary of Education under Jimmy Carter, was one of two women at Stanford Law School in 1949. Even by the 1960s, only 10% of the class at UC Berkeley were women.
When it came to finding a job, the doors were closed, even for graduates of the most prestigious law schools. In 1949, Judge Hufstedler graduated fifth in her Stanford class. The Dean offered her a recommendation for a position as legal secretary. In 1952, Sandra Day O’Connor, also one of the best in her Stanford class, was also offered work as a legal secretary. In contrast, her classmate, William Rehnquist, was offered a position as a law clerk with a Justice on the Supreme Court.
Neither woman accepted the secretarial offer.
As Judge Hufstedler said: “What may startle people today is that nobody would hire a female lawyer. Nobody….”
Perhaps the most well-known trailblazer of this period, documented in film and books, is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
[W]hen I was a new justice on the court, for the 12 years that I sat together with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, invariably one lawyer or another would call me Justice O’Connor. They had been accustomed to a woman on the Court, and Justice O’Connor was THE woman, so if they heard a woman’s voice, well, that must be the lady justice, even though we don’t look alike, we don’t sound alike. But last year no one called Justice Sotomayor “Justice Ginsburg” or me “Justice Sotomayor” and I am certain that lawyers will perceive the differences among the three of us, and we will each have our individual identities.
Many other women speak here, including Pauline Schneider, the first female African-American president of the District of Columbia bar and the first female partner at Orrick; Dorothy Nelson, the first female dean of an accredited law school (the University of Southern California); Barbara Babcock, first woman appointed to the regular faculty at Stanford and a scholar of women in the law; Elizabeth Cabraser, who had early ambitions to be a professional drummer and became a renowned plaintiffs’ class action lawyer; Janet Reno, Attorney General in the Clinton administration; Judge Joan Dempsey Klein; Judge Dorothy Wright Nelson; and many other women who pushed the landmark line ever further ahead.
We are now up to the language of “electability,” but it bears looking back at the shadow of exclusion that was cast and is still with us, and the bold trailblazing of all these women, and more.
Related materials in the SF Law Library collection:
- Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz, by Barbara Babcock
- Pioneering Women Lawyers: From Kate Stoneman to the Present, Edited by Patricia Salkin
- Road to Independence: 101 Women’s Journeys to Starting Their Own Law Firms, Edited by Karen M. Lockwood
- Women and the Law database, available in the Library on HeinOnline