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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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Votes for Women: A (Relatively) New Prize

Votes for Women: A Relatively New Prize…and Harder Won Than We Remember
By Ruth Geos

Votes for Women

From the Smithsonian and National Museum of American History

To continue our Road to the Election series, we now look at votes for women:

In 1911, California became the 6th state to recognize women’s right to vote—and it was no walk in the park. In that election, San Francisco voters, all men, mostly voted against it.

A similar California referendum had failed in 1886 and a constitutional court challenge failed in 1872. The California Supreme Court, in Van Valkenburg v. Brown, 43 Cal. 43 (1872), had supported the refusal of the County Clerk of Santa Cruz County to allow Ellen Van Valkenburg to register to vote, finding that neither the 14th or  15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution established the right to vote by women.

The push for voting rights for women in the U.S. was initially state to state. Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Washington all came before California in winning women’s right to vote. Each state effort built on the next, and not all campaigns were successful.

It was not until 9 years after California suffrage, that the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would be fully ratified, on August 26, 1920.  This next year, 2020, will be not only the next Presidential Election but the centennial anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, which is quoted here:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Even with that landmark Constitutional accomplishment, and its plain and forthright language, still not all women could vote. African American women, who had equally fought for suffrage, had another 45 years ahead until that right was legally protected, with the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To see a glimmer of what it took to make U.S. women’s suffrage a reality, take a look at the National Portrait Gallery’s, Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence, along with the exhibition from The National Museum of African American History and Culture, Five African American suffragists you should know, and the evocative array of archived objects in the Smithsonian collections, including campaign buttons worn throughout all.


Next Election: November 5, 2019: SF Consolidated Municipal Election

Still need to Register to vote? Check with the SF Board of Elections.
You can also Register to Vote at the San Francisco Law Library.
Confused about the new SF voting system? Come to our free program on Friday 9/27.
See our Election Guide for more details.


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Book Review: The Case of Rose Bird

Rose BirdThe Case of Rose Bird: Gender, Politics, and the California Courts
By Kathleen A. Cairns
Reviewed by Richard Schulke, Reference Librarian

The Case of Rose Bird: Gender, Politics, and the California Courts is a timely look at political activism aimed at members of the Judiciary. It recounts the circumstances that led to the removal of Rose Bird as Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court.

This book begins by looking at Rose Bird’s early triumphs during high school and law school, followed by her milestone achievements as the first female law clerk for the Nevada Supreme Court, the first female deputy public defender in Santa Clara County, and the first woman to hold a cabinet position in California.

The book follows Bird’s appointment to the position of Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court in 1977 by a then forty-year-old Governor Jerry Brown—she was both the Court’s first female justice and its first female Chief Justice—and then a series of three attempts to recall her. The attempts ultimately succeeded, and in November of 1986 she was the first Chief Justice of California to be recalled by the voters.

The author examines the then-current politics that made Bird a lightning rod—her liberalism, gender, and the perception that she was soft on crime. The author also takes an in-depth look at Bird’s political opponents and the take-no-prisoner attitude that ultimately resulted in her downfall through political machinations. It is as chilling now as it was then.

The description of Bird’s final years as a broken person battling unsuccessfully against medical issues and early death is a sad ending to her story.

Current events make clear that the issue of “Judicial Politics” is still a hot potato. We recently witnessed both the removal of Judge Aaron Persky following his controversial decision to impose a sentence of only six months for a Stanford student convicted of rape, and the political maneuvering during the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court. This fascinating exploration of Rose Bird and the turbulent beginning of judicial politics in California is still just as relevant today.

The Case of Rose Bird was generously donated to the Library by John Kelly.


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ABA’s Women in the Law Collection

Women in the LawThe Law Library recently acquired the ABA’s Women in the Law Collection—a generous donation from Shannon K. Mauer of Duane Morris LLP. Although women have advanced in the legal profession over the last few decades, the statistics and research show that there are still significant barriers to reaching its upper echelons in equal numbers as men. Together, these four books summarize the state of women in the legal profession today and chart a course toward achieving full equality. Anyone with an interest in women’s rights and equality, or learning what it takes to get ahead in professional life, will benefit from reading this collection.

Grit

Grit, The Secret to Advancement: Stories of Successful Women Lawyers
Edited by Milana L. Hogan

There’s been a lot of buzz about the word grit in the self-help and business spheres lately, and with good reason. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology defines this concept as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” It is essential for professional success, and it is essential for women to achieve equality in the legal profession. To this end, the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession developed the Grit Project in 2013. Grit, The Secret to Advancement reports the Commission’s qualitative and quantitative research on grit across all types of female lawyers, spanning everything from solo practitioners, law firms of various sizes, to nonprofits. The result is a thorough exploration of the concrete steps women can take to increase grit and related qualities, and how to apply those traits to build a successful career.

 

Learning to Lead

Learning to Lead: What Really Works for Women in Law
By Gindi Eckel Vincent

This book does a huge service to female lawyers looking to reach leadership roles in their profession. Author Gindi Eckel Vincent intentionally kept Learning to Lead short and sweet, and she begins by summarizing the major leadership publications in the business realm to spare readers from this gargantuan task. She distills this body of literature down to its key themes and then applies them to the practice of law. Subsequent chapters consist of interviews with prominent female legal leaders and judges, and a set of scenarios that present the leadership goals of real-life female lawyers and a concise to-do list to achieve them. Learning to Lead goes well beyond hackneyed theoretical advice and instead provides clear, practical guidance for any type of leadership role in the law.

 

Road to Independence

The Road to Independence: 101 Women’s Journeys to Starting Their Own Law Firms
Edited by Karen M. Lockwood

The Road to Independence collects 101 first-hand accounts from women who started their own law practices. They provide invaluable wisdom, guidance, and inspiration to anyone who is considering embarking on this complicated and challenging path. Readers will benefit from the stark honesty contained in these letters, which spans confronting personal weaknesses, the inevitable financial worries, being undermined and doubted, and many more obstacles—but the takeaway is that it is absolutely possible to rise above the chatter, follow your own path, and build a thriving practice.

 

zero-tolerance.png

Zero Tolerance: Best Practices for Combating Sex-Based Harassment in the Legal Profession
Executive Editor Wendi S. Lazar

Zero Tolerance is the third manual produced by the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession, which was founded in 1992 with the objective of eliminating sex-based harassment in the legal profession. This slim book packs a powerful punch by setting forth the legal framework to combat sex-based harassment and bullying at work. After examining the EEOC’s guidelines on the topic, seminal cases, and state statutes and rules of professional conduct, it delves into the emerging issues of bullying and implicit bias. These latter issues are particularly thorny because they do not always involve behavior that is technically illegal, but that behavior is nonetheless damaging to the victims and also to their workplaces. Full of strategies, training and prevention best practices, and instruction on how to both develop and enforce effective anti-harassment policies, this book is essential reading for the legal profession.