Chief Justice C. J. Ryan of the Wisconsin Supreme Court considered women temperamentally unsuited to the selfish, extortionate, coarse, brutal, repulsive and obscene legal profession. “It would be revolting to all female sense of innocence and the sanctity of their sex,” he wrote in 1895 when denying Lavinia Goodell’s admission to the bar.
Although U.S. society resisted change to traditional gender roles in the 1890s, women formed the National Association of Women Lawyers in 1899, determined to advance in the legal profession and to advocate for the equality of women under the law. Men exercised formal control over admissions to law school and bar membership and over informal referral and social mechanisms. Opening opportunities required lawsuits against the legal establishment.
Women gained organizational skills, political access, and social betterment through the Suffrage and Progressive Movements of the early twentieth century. They gained recognition for exceptional service in two world wars. The lawsuits and breakthroughs of the 1970s and 1980s would not have happened, however, if not for the revival of feminist consciousness and the activism of the women’s movement in the 1960s. Activist women lawyers sued to bring more women into the profession, to be treated as equals in the workplace, and to change the definition of equality for all women.
Documenting increases in the number of women law students, bar members, judges, scholars is much easier than assessing the significance of gender in the legal profession. Is the field “feminized” by numbers alone or does a more feminist legal world require analysis from the point of view of lawyers who work toward changes in the law that improve the material and cultural conditions of women? Job opportunities are important in guaranteeing equal access. Whether women lawyers collectively contribute to the practice of law and legal reforms is more revealing.
Sarah Ragle Weddington’s story illustrates the impact women lawyers have had on the legal profession and U.S. society in the last half-century. Sarah entered the University of Texas Law School in 1964. During her third year of legal studies, in 1967, Sarah travelled to Mexico to terminate a pregnancy—abortion was illegal in the United States. She received her J.D. but encountered difficulty gaining employment with a law firm. Sarah then joined a group of graduate students at University of Texas-Austin who were researching ways to challenge anti-abortion statutes. In March 1970, Weddington and her associate Linda Coffee filed suit against Henry Wade, the Dallas district attorney, on behalf of Norma McCovey, aka “Jane Roe,” a woman who had sought an abortion. At the age of 27, in 1973, Sarah Weddington became the youngest person to argue a successful Supreme Court case, “Roe v. Wade.”
In the half century since the precedent-breaking Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, women have increased their numbers in the legal profession, expanded the scope of their legal practices, pushed into the higher ranks of the judiciary, gained partnerships in prestigious legal firms, won ground-breaking cases for women’s rights. The parameters of the current #MeToo movement nevertheless exemplify the critical battles still to be fought. Lawyers like Los Angeles-based Gloria Allred have long campaigned against sexual misconduct and pressed high-profile harassment lawsuits. Allred and others use the media as well as the courtroom to advocate for women whose access and advancement have been impeded by individuals and/or institutions. Though high-profile legal battles have led to many precedent-setting court decisions and hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for personal harassment, many victims hesitate to come forward.
Legal battlegrounds often have been coarse, brutal, repulsive, and obscene—as Justice C. J. Ryan described them in 1895—but women lawyers are fighting on.
Explore the history of women lawyers in the United States by visiting the Women’s Museum of California’s Women In Law exhibit from September 7th – October 28th, 2018