Recently I was featured in an article called “Pushing At The Edges,” which appeared in SuperLawyers Magazine, which also published the 2017 (Annual) List of Top Attorneys in Pennsylvania and Delaware (see here). The article constituted an oral history of eight selected women who began practicing law in the early 1970’s. It is interesting to consider how much things have changed in 45 or so years for women lawyers in some respects, and how little things have changed for women lawyers in other respects.
Despite the below examples of boorish behavior and discrimination in the 1970’s, ours was the first generation of women who began to make their mark by being accepted in law schools. In 1970 women made up only 4% of the student body in U.S. law schools, and the prevailing opinion was that a woman attending law school was displacing a man who had to support his family. When I attended the University of Denver College of Law, I recall being only one of five women in my class, and I was the only married woman until our last semester when two of the law students married each other. Prior to that time, many women were not accepted into law schools, and women law graduates generally were not hired as attorneys, and sometimes couldn’t get interviewed for any positions dealing with the law.
Sexist, Condescending and Disrespectful Remarks, Threats, Taunts and Jibes
Some of the experiences recounted by me and other women lawyers featured in the article are that women lawyers were sometimes addressed in rude, disrespectful, condescending, and often sexist terms. One lawyer noted that her opposing male counsel told her to “shut up sweetie”, and the arbitrator before whom she was appearing, did not comment. My law school was very progressive at the time I attended, and had one of the few trial tactics internships. I appeared in juvenile court one day in Denver, and my assignment was to argue to the judge that he was not granting due process to juveniles. He told me to shut up, sit down, and if I spoke up again he would have me arrested.
When I began practicing law I practiced with an all-male firm in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and I believe I was the only woman lawyer practicing in Wilkes-Barre at the time. I attended a Bar Association golf outing, and, since I was the only woman lawyer there, they gave me a radio as a prize. No one felt there was anything offensive about this; rather, they thought that it was a compliment to my gender.
Other women in the article recall hearing from clients that they felt women were pushy or they didn’t like them. Women were often subject to tasteless remarks, or had to listen to sexist jokes and not be expected to comment. Women who were forceful and aggressive were considered to be arrogant and obnoxious.
You Are What You Wear
Women did not wear pants to court or even to the office in the 1970’s. Many female lawyers tell stories that if they wore clothing that a male judge did not consider appropriate, they were told they could not appear in court. I recall an elderly male judge in Municipal Court in Philadelphia County, who always asked me, whenever I entered or left the courtroom to use the restroom, why I was carrying a briefcase. He did this in the middle of hearing another matter, in a room full of people waiting for their cases to be heard. He did not consider that women could be lawyers and carry briefcases.
Women were cautioned about wearing clothes that were too sexy, but if a woman didn’t dress well she was considered unattractive and dowdy. It was a difficult line to walk.
Sexual Harassment and Hostile Work Environment
At one of the large law firms I practiced with, when there were only a few women there, no women lawyers discussed their private lives or mentioned that they had children. There were no specified family leave policies. One woman I worked with waited until she was made a partner, and then rather late in life, had children. I am certain that she wanted to secure her position before having children as she was concerned that she would be terminated while out on pregnancy leave.
Sexual harassment was very prevalent, and women who resisted such harassment did so at their own risk of being terminated. Female lawyers are loath to discuss their experiences in this regard, but we all shared them in the 1970’s.
Over the years progress has been made, and the numbers of women lawyers and judges have greatly increased. Yet women lawyers still register many types of complaints regarding unequal pay, lack of flex-time, lack of respect, dissatisfaction with the hard-nosed legal profession, and gender hostility when women act as vigorous advocates for their clients’ causes. Unfortunately, there has been a resurgence of what types of behavior are permissible in public, and social media is fueling negative behavior in all professions, including the law. It is common knowledge that women do not always respect each other, or vote for other women. We will see what the future has to bring.