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February Book of the Month: Stories from Trailblazing Women Lawyers

Stories from Trailblazing Women LawyersStories 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:


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The Serial Set, Part 3: Supreme Court Nominations

Serial Set SCtOur first two Serial Set Posts discussed HeinOnline’s new database content of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, and the differences in the online offerings of Hein and Lexis. Now, for the last installment of our series, we dive into the documents themselves, since none of this would be worth the bother at all if the Serial Set didn’t offer the most vivid view of the history of the nation.

With the sting of Supreme Court nominations so recently in mind, the Year-End Report, 1st session of 97th Congress (1981) [Report of Senate Comm on the Judiciary, Nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor. Executive Report No. 97-22.], regarding the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor, reminds us that consensus was once easier to achieve. Speaking about the recommendation to the full Senate (17 aye, one present), Senator Thurmond, then Chair of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, summarized those hearings [at p. 147]:

…The Committee recommended the approval of the first woman to be nominated to the United States Supreme Court. In providing the background and recommendation on which the Senate could fulfill its Constitutional duties, the Committee held three days of hearings and considered the views of a wide range of witnesses. On the recommendation of the Committee, the Senate unanimously confirmed the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Twelve years later, in 1993, the nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg was sent to the Senate Floor with a unanimous recommendation to confirm, with a final Senate vote of  93-3. [Nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Supreme Court, Report from Senate Comm on the Judiciary, Aug 5, 1993]

Serial set 3

And in-between, in 1991, was the highly charged hearing on the nomination of Clarence Thomas as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, with testimony given by Anita Hill of a pattern of sexual harassment by the nominee. With contemporary articles pointing out the all-but-too-close parallels to the conduct of the Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh hearings, the Serial Set refreshes history, and our memory, with the report of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which ultimately made no recommendation on the nominee, and with the Committee vote tied at 7 to 7. [Nomination of Clarence Thomas, Report of Comm of Judiciary, no recommendation 7-7. Sept 19, 1991]

Serial set 3a

Among the many speeches by Senators who rose to explain their vote, Senator Robert Byrd took to the floor with a singular and powerful eloquence, explaining why, in the end, he could not vote to confirm Clarence Thomas — ultimately rejecting the nomination in favor of the grace of the Court itself. [Senator Robert C. Byrd on the nomination of Clarence Thomas]

Even after the final vote, 52-48, the narrative continued, with a potent shift to the another part of the story.  A Temporary Independent Counsel was immediately appointed to investigate the leak of the confidential Anita Hill information, the disclosure of which triggered the public airing of the sexual harassment she detailed, and the hyper-charged televised hearings that followed.

Serial set 3b

The subsequent Report of the Temporary Independent Counsel summarized all the key players, and yet in the end concluded that it was unable to identify the source of the disclosures. [Independent Counsel after Clarence Thomas hearings, part 1]

This report of the Temporary Independent Counsel was accompanied by a 172-page collection of exhibits. Among other materials, it included the Anita Hill statement, photographs of Anita Hill arriving at the Senate hearings, deposition testimony from the NPR legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg, editorial cartoons, and press reports and newspaper articles on colleagues of Anita Hill supporting her veracity. [Exhibits to Report by Temporary Independent Counsel.May 1992]

The Serial Set has all this and more.

As the 116th Congress, convened on January 3, 2019, begins its work, all the records of whatever comes across Congressional sightlines will be also eventually be added and indexed and become a part of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set.


Databases at the San Francisco Law Library, including HeinOnline and the Lexis are open to the public for free access at the San Francisco Law Library.

For more questions about research in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set or about the scope of other San Francisco Law Library resources, please contact the Reference Team at sfll.reference@sfgov.org   or 415:554-1772.


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March Book of the Month: Table for 9

Table for 9Table for 9: Supreme Court Food Traditions & Recipes
by Clare Cushman
Foreward by Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Reviewed by Ruth Geos, Reference Librarian

Although today the Supreme Court is thought of as a highly divisive collection of Justices, the truth, as deliciously revealed in Table for 9, is that it has actually been the food shared by the members of the Court over the years that holds it together as a community of legal thinkers.

Starting with the Supreme Court’s inaugural session in 1790, then in New York, with 13 toasts at the Fraunces Tavern, the members of the Court (who originally lived and supped together in a local boardinghouse) have always lunched together, and savored shared moments of food and drink. Indeed, Chief Justice John Marshall bottled his own favorite brand of Madeira, with a Supreme Court label.

Table for 9 is in fact a biography of the Court through food: a palatable history of these American times, and reveals so much more about the Court and its working process than the erudite opinions, splits in philosophical bent, and the major social issues the Court faces as part of its work. It is intriguing to see that currently, lunch recess on days of oral argument is one hour, in the Justices’ Dining Room, where legal discussions are strictly off-limits—and the Justices pay for their own meals. Over all the years, the tradition of sharing meals, dinners, seders, welcome and farewell celebrations, has become an integral part of the Court, building a special kind of collegiality that food does best.

The late husband of Ruth Bader Ginsburg was renowned for his culinary skills and devotion to feeding the Court, but so was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, with her Southwestern legerdemain. Chief Justice Warren Burger invented Oysters Le Burger, and Justice William O. Douglas was renowned for his martini skills. Justice Thurgood Marshall was trained to cook by his grandmother in case the law didn’t work out, and Justice Harlan Fiske Stone was considered the one great gourmand of the Court, with a deep appreciation and knowledge of cheese and wine. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who contributed the foreword, makes evident that unlike her esteemed colleagues, she herself is better out of the kitchen:

I was phased out of the kitchen at an early age by my food-loving children, who appreciated that Daddy’s cooking was ever so much better than Mommy’s. So I will not try out the recipes in this book myself. But I will enjoy turning the pages, pausing at certain photographs, and inviting a child, or now grandchild, to make something delicious for me. Bon appetit!

Laced through with recipes, history, photos, and sidelines on the individual Justices’ favorites (Justice Brandeis loved ice cream, we learn), Table for 9 achieves the best of biography, history, cookbook, and the delights of putting all those ingredients together in the freshest possible way. Also included is a useful Appendix of Justices, 1789 to present, including the dates of appointment and service, and the name of the President appointing him or her to the Supreme Court, along with an index which allows you to jump to Pickled Pigs Feet (p. 59) or Cherry Bounce (p. 38).


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January Book of the Month: My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg

My Own WordsMy Own Words
By Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Reviewed by Ruth Geos, Reference Librarian

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now 84, has been on the US Supreme Court—as of 2017—for 24 years. Deferring her own biography until after her court years are complete, her new book My Own Words (with Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams) sketches out her life in vital strokes, first as a student already aware of inequities in the world, then as an advocate, professor, mother and wife, federal appellate court judge, and since 1993, Supreme Court justice. Far from dry and dusty, this collection of her writings, speeches, and other talks are laced with humor and personal perspective. They create a fascinating sidelong view of the life and mind of a sitting Supreme Court justice and the Court itself—with an added sideline into opera.

In a compelling preface, Justice Ginsburg writes that the Supreme Court’s main trust is to repair fractures in federal law and to step in when other courts have disagreed on what the relevant federal law requires. As the book closes, she makes clear her own intentions, and says that she will continue on the Court as long as she can do the job full steam.

Some of the charms of this collection include glimpses into the personal development of who we think we know as Justice RBG. At Cornell as an undergraduate, she had Vladimir Nabokov as her professor of European literature, and learned about the creative power of words well-chosen. Voted unanimously out of the kitchen by her family in favor of her husband’s culinary skills, her work ethic of long and extended hours continues. She also details how the Supreme Court actually works, day to day and session to session, giving an outline of the “workways” of how the justices share the workload, the collegiality among the members of the Court even in the face of doctrinal differences, and the distinct value of dissents.

My Own Words is highly recommended reading that happens to be both enjoyable and informative. It is a view into one of our most scintillating members of the Supreme Court—a woman of substance and style, with an enduring dedication to equal dignity under the law.

As a bonus, take a look at the interview with Justice Ginsburg earlier this year at the Aspen Institute, where she answers questions about her life, the court, and her special views of how the court makes a difference to all of our lives. http://www.scotusblog.com/media/justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg-discusses-book-words/

The Law Library thanks Shannon K. Mauer of Duane Mauer LLP for generously donating this title. To learn how you can donate, please see our Donation Guide.