Female Pioneers in the Legal Profession

by Anna Katherine Sherman

The American Bar Association reports that until the late-1960s, less than 5% of students admitted into law schools were female and there was no legislation in place that required employers to hire women. In the mid-1970’s, the number of female law school students increased dramatically, but women were still not being hired after graduation. Today, the law school student body is about equal between men and women, but the gender disparity is still apparent in the low number of women in top leadership positions at law firms.

When analyzing the transformation that the legal field has had with regards to the role of women, it is important to remember the people who made these great strides toward equality. The Honorable Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg serve as inspiring examples of female pioneers in the field of law. Their careers span the time in which the most growth for women has occurred, and their hard work has a lot to do with that. Their journeys began as emerging lawyers struggling to be taken seriously because of their sex, and end with being appointed to sit on the bench of the highest Court in the land. Their example provides aspiring female professionals today with the assurance that they can be in the same position as a man with enough tenacity and hard work.

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was in attendance at Harvard Law School in 1956, there were only 8 other women in her class of 500, and such a gender breakdown was not uncommon. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, female students were the exception in law school. In the mid- to late-1970s, there was a dramatic spike in the number of women in law school classes. That was partially due to the Vietnam War, when many men were sent overseas, leaving room for women to grow their role in the legal field. However, many women in this time period were still unable to find a law firm that would hire them after graduating from law school. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the first law that prohibited discrimination “on the basis of sex” in the workplace, and served as a major turning point for females in the legal profession. Before this act was passed, women in the legal field struggled to obtain employment in legal firms, particularly if they had children. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has discussed publicly her efforts to start practicing law even after graduating top in her class from Columbia, saying “employers were upfront about not wanting to hire women,” because they were not obligated to. Often the reasoning behind these firms’ positions against hiring women is their potential to have kids and take maternity leave, which was seen as a threat to their devotion and time commitment to the firm. Ginsburg notes that it was hard for her as a female in the 1950-60s to find a job as a lawyer, but almost impossible to find one as a mother of a young child. Justice O’Connor also recalls her difficulties with employment after graduating third in her class from Stanford in 1952. She was offered positions as an administrative assistant, but turned down by several law firms. She eventually volunteered to work for free, just so that she could prove herself worthy of the job, further demonstrating the difficult circumstances facing female lawyers at the time. In fact, the presence of women in the courtroom was so rare that when O’Connor was appointed as the first woman on the Supreme Court, she realized there weren’t even women’s restrooms there, because they had never needed them. These experiences, along with many others are just some of the examples in this time period of the females who were denied professional positions based on their sex.

Once O’Connor and Ginsburg had obtained their first jobs as practicing lawyers, their fight became a little easier. The two hard-working women proved themselves to be just as capable as their male colleagues, and took advantage of every opportunity to demonstrate their abilities. A pivotal moment in Ginsburg’s career, for example, is her argument in the sex discrimination case Frontiero v. Richardson in 1973. Her win on this case, as well as her establishment of the Women’s Rights Project, reformed the legal rights for women in the workplace. A few years later, the 1980s saw another significant growth of women in law schools, and the number of women actually practicing law has since been increasing. Today, some even argue that law firms and clients consider gender diversity a top priority in their hires, which is a testament to the great transformation of the legal field over the past 50 years.

With the legacy of change that these women have left, it would be easy to say that our society has evolved past the discrimination against women in the workplace because of the laws enacted to prevent this, but it is not quite that simple. There are still not as many females in leadership positions as males, and in general women are less likely to become an established partner. As our generation embarks upon the first steps of our legal careers, it is our responsibility to challenge the norms that allow for primarily male leadership. In our future workplaces, it is important to know that we will be treated with an equal amount of respect and hold our employers accountable. Though the pioneers like Ginsburg and O’Connor have left an impressive legacy concerning the promotion of women’s equality in the legal profession, we must take advantage of the opportunities we now have and strive further towards true equality.