I have saved more than my share of ephemera from past decades. There it was, long forgotten under a pile of scarves, my tie for the office.
Picture the lawyerette uniform circa 1975. We were serious feminists who agonized over what we should wear. The skirt was straight, just a little below the knees. Heels were low. Panty hose had come to our rescue a few years before, leaving garter belts to our grandmothers. On top of the blue or black blazer and white shirt, we wore the Brooks Brothers bow tie; it was the final signal as we walked down the halls of the courts or law firms that we weren’t secretaries. A well-dressed secretary would not have been caught dead in this manly manner of dress.
Generally speaking, the fewer the women in the class, the more likely they graduated at the top of the class. The year I entered Case Western Reserve — 1976 — our numbers shot up by about one third. We now had women who didn’t have to prove they could do everything as well as a male counterpart, like Ginger Rogers, backward and in high heels. Democracy was kicking in, but gender bias was as real as your leather briefcase.
Five or 10 years earlier, women who had passed the bar could have met at one table in a downtown restaurant. By the time I graduated, these same generous women came to meetings in fairly large venues downtown where we listened to the voices of experience to help us along in a male-dominated profession. Joyce Barrett, for one, spoke about moving from behind the typewriter to a divorce practice, a field suited to her gender but not a match to her unlimited potential in the profession. The law firms who would not hire Joyce because of her gender had no idea of the intellectual talent she would have brought to other practice areas.
There were mixed signals about achieving our professional ambitions without becoming imitation men, like our uniforms suggested. One of the women who got her degree in the ’50s was allowed to work as a librarian in one of the big firms. The partners thought so highly of her, they helped her get a job as a lawyer in environmental law at another firm. It was such an obscure area of law; it seemed a spinster librarian might find back office work in the field. The woman became the leading authority in environmental law at the dawning of this field.
The women from the big firms who were gathered up to hear her inspiring story had to endure her advice to never have children if you cared to excel in law.
We know how that advice fell on deaf ears. The maternity leave policies in the big firms were slow to evolve, often mere case-by-case arrangements until giving birth was normalized decades later. Often the changes came when a newly pregnant attorney just happened to have a father who headed up a big law practice.
It does not sound like I have fond nostalgia for these days, but I do. There was instant sisterhood among women lawyers. As our colleagues rose in ranks in the firms and professional organizations, their successes rallied the newer recruits to aim high and stay the course. The stories of these women touch on the gender bias (or reverse bias) they experienced. Mostly their stories touch on how smart and hard working women showed themselves to be. Gradually, and with positive achievements, the law profession became the channel for both genders to apply aptitude and talent to serving the public. When I graduated high school in 1964, no one told high achieving female students that a career in law was a possibility. That’s no longer the case.
Somehow the tendency to think of jobs as belonging rightly to one sex and not the other has not disappeared. Women lawyers who have brought their young sons to work or court have reported a startling change in perceptions. One child, so a friend tells me, came home from a day in court and asked, “Mommy, can a boy be a lawyer too?”
She was proud to be able to tell him it was a vocation he was able to join.
Published with permission from Attorney at Law magazine – Cleveland.