If I hadn’t been a coward I’d have gone to law school in 1959. It took fifteen years and the women’s movement to get me there.
As a ninth grader in Miami I had to take a series of vocational aptitude tests. Mine consistently showed I would be a good journalist, minister, or lawyer. Big problem: I was a girl. This was the 1950’s, and The feminine Mystique was just beginning to germinate in Betty Freidan’s heart and mind. Nobody had ever heard of women’s liberation.
I’d never seen a female minister (I was told I could be a missionary or a pastor’s wife). I didn’t know any women lawyers. And the only female reporter I could think of was Lois Lane (in love with Superman) or Brenda Starr, Girl Reporter, another comic book character.
Help Wanted columns were divided by Male and Female, and there were no ads for journalists, ministers, or lawyers in the Female pages of the paper. All the “girl” jobs were in offices, hospitals, schools, or restaurants. Never courts. Even the professional jobs, like teachers or medical assistants, had separate pay scales for men and women.
This discrimination was open and perfectly legal. The rationale: men had to support a family. Women could always quit and get married.
In college I majored in English because I loved to read and thought maybe I’d teach high school. Or get a job as an executive secretary to a powerful man who would mentor me to rise in the company.
By my senior year in college a handful of law schools and medical schools had begun to accept women. But no more than two per class. This was true of Vanderbilt, Duke, Yale – and my alma mater, Stetson University in Florida. I did think seriously about applying to Stetson Law. After all, I was graduating magna cum laude and had worked as a student secretary for the President of the University. I was sure then and am sure now I could have been one of Stetson’s two in 1959.
But as graduation neared, stories about women in law school began to emerge. It was not a pretty picture. In a Texas school women were shunned; no male would speak to them, in or out of class. Finally, the last day before Christmas break, the man who had sat nearest my friend said to her, “Merry Christmas.” She nearly fell out of her chair.
In the same school a criminal law professor told the two women in the class to stay away for two weeks while he taught the elements of rape. “I couldn’t possibly discuss this in front of women,” he said. “But I won’t hold you accountable for any questions about rape on the exam.”
“But it might be on the Bar exam,” my friend protested.
“Well, you can read the cases on your own,” he shrugged. And the Dean backed him up!
Another friend entered Duke Law in 1961. She happened to be in the same class with the first African American, who had been admitted under court order. Her property professor began the class this way: “Well, well. I see we have a woman and a Nigra. I’ve never passed a woman or a Nigra before, but then I never taught a Nigra.” (They both passed; papers were graded anonymously.)
I was told that at the University of Virginia women had to stand to recite but men could remain seated.
And at Yale, Senator-to-be Elizabeth Dole, who would have been in my class, was scolded for taking a man’s place. “Why are you here? You’ll just get married and never practice law” a professor said.
The truth is I didn’t go to law school in 1959 because I didn’t have the guts. But by the time I entered Georgetown in 1974, 20% of my classmates were women. When I graduated in 1977, 40% of the entering class was female. I rode the wave of Women’s Lib.
Those were heady days. I found law school exhilarating after years at home with three children (time I had chosen and enjoyed). It revived a dormant part of my brain. I had to re-learn to think analytically (“like a man” was a high compliment) and to memorize the elements and names of leading cases in contract and tort law.
The women’s movement on campus was active – and yes, there were some excesses. I appreciated supportive and courteous men – I was married to one – but some female colleagues bristled if a man offered them a seat or held open a door. Some stopped shaving their legs because they thought it was infantilizing. Posters were sometimes humorous, sometimes mind-opening. Like a cartoon of the Sistine Chapel with the ancient white male figure of God replaced by a young black woman. I had a tee-shirt that read, “Adam was a rough draft.” Fortunately, my husband thought it was funny. (I substituted camisoles for bras but I continued to shave my legs.)
However, not all was equal. We women tolerated behaviors that would get a teacher fired today. One of my professors described a vagina as a metaphor of how one could stretch the law to fit the facts. He also bragged about successfully defending a friend charged with rape. “I’m sure he was guilty,” he laughed. We tolerated this stuff because we were so glad to be there – and we didn’t want to fuel the accusation that “Women Libbers have no sense of humor.” But none of us smiled at his jokes.
Fortunately, that teacher was an exception. My other professors – including a woman — were polite and fair to the women students.
Georgetown sponsored job fairs and required firms to sign a nondiscrimination pledge if they wanted to interview on campus. I was in the top 10 percent of my class. By my senior year I had published a student note in a journal, arguing that child care should be treated as a deductible business expense or a tax credit, neither of which was available in 1976. I taught legal writing and research and moot court to first years. I wanted to try cases in court. But a 40-year-old mother of three did not fit the criteria for litigators in any private firms. However, IRS did offer me a job as a trial lawyer, and I happily accepted. The government paid less than most private firms, but I knew I was blessed to be able to work a 40-hour week instead of the 80-plus demanded by firms. I could be a lawyer and retain a family life.
Now whenever I hear younger women disparage feminists, I cringe. The privileges they take for granted – credit cards in our own names, the right to serve on juries in every state, fair admissions practices to college programs of our choice and ability, protection from discrimination based on marital status or gender, fair and courteous treatment for victims of rape or domestic abuse – to name just a few – we owe to the brave sisters who persevered, heads held high through ridicule and vitriol and sometimes outright hatred, so their daughters and granddaughters wouldn’t have to put up with that.
Those early feminists gave me the courage to enter and excel in law school and to serve the public as a federal tax judge, and for that I am eternally grateful.