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Women in the Legal Profession from the 1920s to the 1970s: What Can We Learn from Their Experience about Law and Social Change?
Maine Law Review
  • Cynthia Grant Bowman
Abstract
I work in a law school building that is named for Jane M.G. Foster, who donated the money for its construction. It’s a lovely building, and my office overlooks a gorge so that I can hear the water fall as I write. So I’m grateful to Jane Foster. And curious. Who was she? Jane Foster graduated from Cornell Law School in 1918, having served as an editor of the law review and being elected to the Order of the Coif. But no law firm wanted her services. She obtained employment not as a lawyer but as a legal assistant in a New York City firm, and that only with the aid of a faculty member. She worked at the firm from 1918 to 1929, in the postwar era of optimism, the New Woman, and economic expansion. One after another man made partner while she was there, but advancement was closed to her. After ten years of experience in corporate finance and banking and with strong recommendations from her Cornell sponsors and former employer, she again sought employment as an attorney, only to be rebuffed repeatedly. “Here in this office we have steadfastly refused to take women on our legal staff and I know that we will continue to adhere to that policy,” the Wall Street firm of White & Case wrote to the law school’s dean, who had contacted them on her behalf. Discouraged, Jane Foster dropped out of law and put her business and financial skills to work for her own benefit, amassing the fortune that made her benevolence to Cornell Law School possible. In the 1950s she returned to the town in Ohio where she had been born, to care for her aged mother, and remained there until her death, never having practiced law. My focus in this paper is the women who became lawyers in this period—after women had gained suffrage and been admitted to the bar in every state, yet before the passage of the civil rights laws forced law firms to admit women into practice on allegedly equal terms with men. A good deal has been written about the “first women” in the late nineteenth century, who forced the profession to admit them. A number of these extraordinary women and their successors distinguished themselves, despite continuing exclusion from law firms, by going into politics or the judiciary or practicing law on their own. But what of the many other women law graduates who sought law firm employment over the period from 1920 until the enforcement of Title VII against the law firms? Law firms often say they didn’t hire women earlier because there were few women lawyers to hire. Statistics belie this assertion. Law schools were admitting women over this period, even if not in great numbers, so women lawyers were there to be hired. Moreover, there was a great deal of legal work to be done as a result of both economic and regulatory changes, especially during the New Deal. Once the United States entered World War II, law firms faced a serious shortage of lawyers. In short, this was a time of both opportunity and continued exclusion for women. How women who pounded on the gates of power during this period were treated—and how they reacted to this treatment—present important lessons for women lawyers today.
Citation Information
Cynthia Grant Bowman. "Women in the Legal Profession from the 1920s to the 1970s: What Can We Learn from Their Experience about Law and Social Change?" p. 1
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/cynthia_grant_bowman/36/