Female Lawyers in the 20th Century

Female Lawyers in the 20th Century

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Female Lawyers in the 20th Century

As early as the American Civil War, women fought to enter the legal profession. Since then, they have repeatedly proven themselves competent, and yet many have felt the pressure of opposition from their male counterparts. Even today, discrimination still exists, not from outside the profession, but from within. The reader will confront the history of female attorneys, what obstacles stand in their way, what advances are being made with regards to equality, and where the profession stands today. In addition, the reader will confront interviews with actual women lawyers from New York City, and case studies from across the United States. These women each have unique backgrounds. They work in large law firms, in solo practices, and for the City of New York. For contrast, also included is an interview with a female attorney from Oneonta, New York. Oneonta is a small city in Upstate New York with a population of approximately 14,000. Through the use of these interviews and case studies, the reader will get a first-hand accounting of what it means to be a female attorney today.

History of Women in the Legal Profession

The late 19th century saw the rise of the first female lawyers. The Civil War, as all subsequent wars, had an important affect on women. Women were brought out of the home in order to take over the roles of the men who were away at war. Some women did not wish to return to the domestic life they had left behind and sought their way into the professional world. The first female attorneys were married women, and most came from the Midwest. As there were no law schools at the time, women seeking to enter the legal profession were taught by their lawyer husbands. In 1869 Arabelle A. Manfield became the first woman to be granted a law license. However, not all women would be so fortunate. In 1870, Myra Bradwell passed the Illinois state legal examination. Unfortunately, the state of Illinois “refused to issue her a license on the grounds that law was a wholly unsuitable profession for any wife and mother.”[1] Unhappy with the decision, Bradwell appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

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The Supreme Court chose to uphold Illinois’ decision asserting:

The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. The constitution of the family organization, which is founded on divine ordinance as well as the nature of things indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and function of womanhood.

Illinois v. Bradwell, 1873.

The Court’s opinion reflected the perception of the male legal profession: that the woman’s place was and always should be in the home. This attitude explains why women remained such a small part of the legal profession until the 1970s.

During World War II and the Korean War, law schools lowered their admissions requirements. With so many men away at war, there was no one else to do the legal work of the country. However, when the wars ended, the number of female law students and lawyers dramatically decreased. This was not the case after the Vietnam War. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in employment and education, women realized that the legal system could be used to promote change.[2] According to attorney Betsy C. Smith, “Women law students of the 1970s were a new breed. Having absorbed the message of the women’s movement, they were increasingly concerned with how to achieve lifetime careers.”[3] Female students created women’s rights committees at law schools such as Columbia University, New York University and Harvard. These committees worked to recruit female students. Moreover, in 1972, Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act made it “illegal to discriminate in all public undergraduate institutions, as well as most private and public graduate schools receiving federal monies.”[4] With the passage of Title IX, it became easier for women to gain entrance into law school. However, the next barrier for women lawyers was obtaining jobs.

The public sector was quick to respond to the sensitive discrimination issue. Many women were hired by government agencies, particularly, public defenders’ and prosecutors’ offices. In contrast, the private sector was much more difficult for women attorneys to break in to. As a result, some of the women who had been discarded by a dozen Wall Street law firms filed a lawsuit charging discriminatory hiring practices. After a victory in this suit, many firms began actively pursuing female attorneys.[5] In 1970, there were thirteen thousand women lawyers, a mere 4.7% of the legal profession. However, by 1980, sixty-two thousand women were lawyers, accounting for 12% of the profession. As Betsy C. Smith relates, “Considering the slow progress women made to gain entrance into the legal profession for one hundred years, what happened during the single decade of the 1970s was amazing.”[6]

By the late 1970s, male law professors and students had grown accustomed to seeing women in the classroom, and a more subtle type replaced the old forms of discrimination. After law schools had a legal obligation to admit women, new forms of discrimination surfaced.[7] As Barbara Moses, an attorney in San Francisco, California, remembers her time in law school:

By the time I got to law school, women were no longer oddities in the classroom. We weren’t stared at in the hall or in the bookstore; we weren’t asked whose wife or girlfriend we were at parties. Professors no longer set aside a special “ladies day” each term for calling on their few female students to recite. There was no official quota system to keep down the number of women students. And no one called us girls.[8]

Today’s discrimination is based upon two centuries of male tradition at the law school. It is deep-rooted, stubborn and much more elusive. This system was “geared for a world where men are the breadwinners and women are the bread-bakers…and [with] a faculty and a student body that has learned not to say women aren’t meant to be lawyers, but hasn’t learned not to think it.”[9]

Number of Female Attorneys
Percentage of Legal Profession Consisting of Women






Major Problems for Female Law Students

For female students, four major problems emerge in this system. First, there are “blind systematic barriers” preventing women from attending and succeeding at law school. Second, female students are faced with “trivial harassment,” which is insignificant in and of itself, but oppressive in the aggregate. Third, many women are faced with “personal pressures” which come from outside of the legal profession. Fourth, “psychological aftereffects” have kept women from banding together for support and strength to stop future discrimination.[10] Each of these difficulties makes it exceedingly difficult for women to succeed in law school.

Blind Systematic Barriers

Most law schools are officially sex-blind. Unfortunately, more often than not, a system that is officially sex-blind in intent is discriminatory in effect. Childcare and financial aid are two examples of blind discrimination. For instance, a woman law student is much more likely than a male student to need childcare. Even today, married men are less likely to stay at home to take care of children than their female counterparts. Because law schools often do not have childcare programs, female students often suffer. In the case of financial aid, women are more likely to be in need, but are no more likely to qualify. Barbara Moses believes, “Parents are still more reluctant to pay for a daughter’s legal education than for a son’s.” [11] Even if a woman worked before entering law school, her earning power was more likely less than a man’s; therefore she had fewer resources. These policies are not necessarily discriminatory, but these institutions do have a responsibility to make sure one group is not systematically disadvantaged.

“Trivial” Harassment

Women are harassed and pressured every day by countless tiny incidents of sex prejudice. None of these occurrences are particularly bothersome, although they illustrate the level of discrimination that still exists today. The very fact that these incidents are trivial makes it very difficult to convince any man that it ought to be corrected. Many examples exist of this type of harassment, including: sexist jokes made by professors; instructors ignoring “feminist” questions or comments; and professors having less patience with their female student’s.[12] Making the problem worse is the fact that many women remain silent when faced with these problems. According to Barbara Moses, many women “Don’t want to give anyone an opening to remark that women just can’t take it, that [they] are too thin-skinned, that [they] can’t fight [their] own battles.”[13]

Personal Pressures

Law school is a very demanding and strenuous process, which often causes conflicts in other aspects of a female student’s life. Often her parents will ask her when she will settle down and have a family. If she is married, her husband may ask her the same thing. In addition, many men, regardless of whether or not they will admit it, to themselves or others, want their wives to look up to them. If the wife in a marriage is a law student, she may be intellectually, professionally and financially his equal. This has often led to divorce in many relationships. On top of all this, law school makes its students more self-confident and independent. This may lead to a “self-reckoning” where a woman will ask herself what direction she wants her life to take. At times, the husband’s and the wife’s goals will not coincide. Also, if the woman had gotten married out of a sense of helplessness, she may realize she no longer needs that type of relationship. These types of experiences will unmistakably sour the woman’s impression of the law.[14]

Psychological Aftereffects

Many women keep from working together for support and strength for fear that they will be characterized as “non-executive.” They do not wish to be marked as merely one of the girls, thus they do not join women’s groups or projects. They feel it is better to act and think like a man so that they will be taken more seriously. The sentence, “you think like a man,” is intended as praise, and accepted as such by much of the female legal community.

Barriers to Advancement

Women mistakenly assumed that they need only prove their worth, and they would be accepted by the legal world. As Karen B. Morello, a New York City attorney puts it, “At nearly every stage of their development women attorneys incorrectly believed that once they themselves had proven their competence, acceptance for women in the next generation would be assured.”[15] The high expectations of these generations were never met. “What they had failed to realize. . . was that they long ago had proven their competence and that there really were unspoken, undefined, invisible barriers that were keeping them from attaining positions of power and importance in the legal profession. As long as they continued to believe that proving their excellence was necessary, they would never be mobilizing the strength of their numbers to effect change.”[16] There is a need to recognize that just because more women are entering the legal field, that this does not mean they will move to the higher levels of the profession. The forces that once kept women entirely out of the legal profession have shifted to keeping them out of powerful positions. Women are still kept out of finance, banking, and other “non-womanly” aspects of the law. Furthermore, it is still nearly impossible for women to make partner in the largest firms. Many women find themselves limited to the areas of the law that are related to marriage, children, family, and work on behalf of the poor.[17]

Interviews: Law School - Choices

Students choose which law schools they wish to attend for many reasons. Laura Zeisel, a female attorney, attended the State University of New York Law School at Buffalo for its “excellent clinical program.”[18] Others chose their schools because of financial constraints or location. One attorney, Nancy Connery of New York City, stated candidly that she went to Rutgers Law School because “it was close to my family and because it was the only one of two law schools I applied to, to accept me.”[19] Still others chose their institution for environmental factors. Mary Elizabeth Taylor, an attorney from New York City chose her law school, Boston College Law School, “because it had an excellent reputation, it provided a good balance between a city school and a campus environment, and because the atmosphere was friendly and laid back.”[20]

Interviews: Reasons for Entering the Field of Law

There are as many motives for entering the field of law, as there are lawyers. Mary Elizabeth Taylor, attorney, made her decision to become an attorney because “it is a very diversified field. It blends philosophy, history, politics, sociology, economics and even literature into one field of study. I knew I would enjoy practicing law because its challenges suit my skill and temperament.”[21] Laura Zeisel chose the legal profession for ethical and moral reasons. She wished to “use the law for social change.”[22] Some chose the profession because of someone they knew and admired who was an attorney. This was the case for Nancy Connery whose father was a lawyer. Marsha Edelman, an attorney from New York City, wanted “to litigate and create new laws.”[23] The most common answer I encountered was the need to help people, and to face the challenges that the law poses.

Interviews: How is Outside Life Affected By a Legal Career?

Many women find it is difficult to balance family life with a legal career. Yet others have no trouble managing both. As Angela Siegel, an attorney in Garden City, New York puts it, “I make sure I have time for children, husband and family life. I schedule appointments early in the day, rather than evening appointments.”[24] Catherine Berthel, an attorney in Oneonta, New York feels that, “my career has been a good influence on my life outside the office.”[25] Marsha Edelman agrees saying, “being a lawyer in the field of immigration law has expanded my circle of friends. I socialize with my clients, many of them are my friends.”[26] Often social lives are restricted while legal careers are being addressed, and then later resurface once the career is established. This was the case for Elaine Elisseou, an attorney who works for the City of New York, “At first, my first three years, I had very little personal life. It was all work. In 1989 I came to work for New York City and have much better hours.” [27] Perhaps the best example of balancing life with a legal career comes from Mary Elizabeth Taylor, “My career places more demands on my personal life than I sometimes like, but one thing I like is that law is versatile enough for me to change the type of practice to be less demanding but still be active as a lawyer.”[28] It appears a legal career can be very flexible to one’s needs.

Interviews: How Has Being a Woman Affected Decisions to Become a Lawyer

Choosing to become an attorney is a huge decision. One must take in all the necessary factors such as commitment to work, family and personal life, and children. Mary Elizabeth Taylor has successfully weighed her options: “I thought [law] would be a very flexible career, something I could do full or part time, in a big or small way. I also thought I could leave to raise a family and still come back to it. While I haven’t done any of that yet, I still can.”[29] Most of the women I interviewed agreed. Elaine Elisseou was a fortunate woman who was raised with the mentality “never to let being a woman get in the way of what [she] wanted. So it didn’t make a difference.”[30] Catherine Berthel states that being a woman “had no affect. I believed that I had the intelligence and ability and the fact that I am female played no part in my choosing law as a career.”[31] On the other hand, being a woman does sometimes affect her decision to go into the law. In the case of Nancy Connery, she “delayed entry into law school because of the prejudice against women lawyers existing when [she] graduated from college.”[32] Sometimes the decision to enter the legal field is because of the existence of sexual prejudice, rather than in spite of it. It acts as a catalyst rather than a deterrent. This is shown in Laura Zeisel’s response, “I went to law school, 1972 to1975, at a time when women were entering the profession in greater numbers. In some ways, being a feminist was part of the reason I decided to become a lawyer.”[33] It would appear that as time goes on, sex will play less of a factor in determining what career path women will choose to take.

Interviews: As a Woman, Have You Encountered Special Difficulties?

I received a variety of responses to this question. Elaine Elisseou responded in this way,

I truly believe that if I were a man, I would have been promoted more, and, therefore, would be earning more. Occasionally, I encounter an old-timer who calls me “sweetheart” or asks me to get them coffee. I generally put them in their place.[34]

Laura Zeisel was “only one of four female lawyers in [my] county when I started practicing law.”[35] As time grew on, she encountered less and less difficulties, and encounters almost none today. On the other side of the spectrum, Nancy Connery states,

To some extent I have benefited from being a woman, at least where professional committees and clients were looking to beef up their female representation. It probably negatively affects client promotion in that there are some prospective clients who prefer working with men. To the extent women, including myself, have a retiring temperament and a tendency to downplay their accomplishments, those qualities negatively affect client promotion and, in an aggressive negotiation, legal performance. Most women develop, over time, a combination of a thick skin and an arsenal of tactical maneuvers to equalize the playing field in terms of legal performance.[36]

Both Marsha Edelman and Catherine Berthel agree that they do not experience any discrimination in the workplace. It seems that discrimination is slowly working its way out of the legal environment.

Case Studies

Louise Brown went to Boston University Law School and a did a great job, including making Law Review, a scholarly legal journal published four times yearly by the law school. Ms. Brown was married to a man who was well on his way to a demanding career himself, a doctor. The two needed to make a decision. They decided upon moving to a small town in Connecticut rather than committing to years of backbreaking work in a large city. Ms. Brown is practicing in a small firm and has time for her children, husband and herself. She has already proven to herself and the world that she could do it and does not need to prove anything to anyone.[37]

Jeanne Thelwell has had an amazing career and has participated in many facets of the law. Graduating from Yale Law School in 1976, she has clerked for Federal Judges, worked in large anti-trust firms, worked as an assistant district attorney, worked as an anti-drug facility overseer, and worked for the Women’s Bar Association of New York. Ms. Thelwell is living a fast-paced life and regrets nothing. “If I decide tomorrow that I don’t want to be a lawyer, I can always go and do something else. People accept lawyers as being qualified to do all kinds of other things that have very little to do with law.”[38]

These two cases illustrate the flexibility of a career in law. One can decide to practice in a small firm and have more control of their schedule, or one can decide to devote their entire life to the law. These are the lifestyle decisions one must make when deciding on a career in the law.


There are many reasons why women have not raised to prominence in the legal field, including: law school admissions policies; finding a job as a lawyer, rather than a legal secretary; difficulties distinguishing oneself from “women’s work” – research, writing briefs, or anything not involved with clients or a court room; and exclusion from bar associations. For the most part, women have overcome these obstacles, but there is still room for improvement. As Donna Fossum, a lawyer and sociologist states, “ My research. . . already convinced me that our status within the profession is far from secure. Unfortunately, even today, women’s position within the legal profession, as well as society as a whole, is all too frequently that of visitor rather than member in full standing.”[39]


Berthel, Catherine. Interview by mail. March 21, 2001.

Connery, Nancy. Interview by mail. April 3, 2001.

Couric, Emily. Women Lawyers: Perspectives on Success. New York: Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, 1984.

Edelman, Marsha. Interview by mail. March 27, 2001.

Elisseou, Elaine. Interview by mail. March 21, 2001.

Morello, Karen Berger. The Woman Lawyer in America: 1638 to Present. The Invisible
Bar. Boston: Beacon Press Books, 1986.

Siegel, Angela. Interview by mail. March 27, 2001.

Smith, Betsy Covington. Breakthrough: Women in Law. New York: Walker & Co.,

Taylor, Mary Elizabeth. Interview by mail. April 3, 2001.

Zeisel, Laura. Interview by mail. April 19, 2001.

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