Women Aspire to Raise the Bar

Women's history reveals the basis for women's on-going inequality in many fields. For example, one might expect that the highest court would reflect the democratic principles embedded in our nation, yet only four women in our history have risen to become Supreme Court Justices. Compare that with the 112 male justices who have served and it is little wonder that the legal profession is considered "a man's world."

Not that women haven't tried to infiltrate the bastion. In the late 1800s, Belva Lockwood overcame many obstacles to become one of the first female lawyers in the country. One law school denied her entry lest she be a distraction to the male students, and the law school she attended denied her a diploma because she was female. Undaunted by the inequity, she successfully petitioned President Ulysses S. Grant to assist in getting her diploma awarded.

Then she took up battle to be admitted to the District of Columbia and Maryland bars and went on to lobby Congress for a law admitting women to practice before the Supreme Court. Lockwood was sworn in as the first woman member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar on March 3, 1879. Late in 1880, she became the first woman lawyer to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Times have changed and today, women make up approximately half of all law school students. Linda Willett, Sr. Vice President and General Counsel to Horizon Blue Cross New Jersey, noted a conversation with the Dean of a very significant law school who explained that if he took only those students with top undergraduate grades, from top schools, and high LSAT scores, his incoming class would be predominantly female. This is not surprising with women entering colleges and universities in higher numbers and routinely excelling.

Yet, by mid-career, the numbers of women in law begin to dwindle. Studies show that only one third of female lawyers ever make partner after an average wait of over ten years. Willett described the challenges: "Partnership track can be delayed, or prolonged, if a woman wants to start a family. We see many young women drop out of law firms and either go "in house" or stop practicing law when children start to arrive."

Another female lawyer declared, "All of the clichés are true," when it comes to describing the obstacles women face. Her examples included suggestions being ignored until a male lawyer said the same thing and being harassed by male clients. In addition, the value of a law firm associate is often based on the number of hours worked which is particularly hard for women who still bear the greatest responsibilities at home, whether it is for children, parents, or others. The ingrained billable hour system does not reward working smarter or faster. Of course, these impediments also impact men who want to be full participants in their families, as well as their careers, but women disproportionately are impacted. And all of this creates a vicious circle where the fewer number of female partners contributes even further to the work environment being more male friendly. The work/life balance becomes a real issue.

Women are also scarce as judges -- an over-whelming two-thirds of federal judges are men. This is the direct fall-out from fewer women persevering in law firms.; success as a lawyer paves the way for a judgeship.

Why does it matter that there are more women in the field of law? The primary reason would be to bring the female perspective into law firms, courtrooms and our legislatures. By learning about how the law has been used to restrict women, the fight for the vote, and for equal rights would motivate men and women to continue to make changes and improve our society. Women would also gain an equal opportunity to achieve financial success that is available to men.

What can help bring about change? It can begin with young girls and women learning about the amazing women who came before them. The National Women's History Museum provides role models to inspire girls and boys to reach for their highest potential. Women's history is filled with women like Belva Lockwood who would be not only inspirational, but an antidote to the negativity and double-standards that women face regularly. Willett summed it up:

There are so few really significant, and visible, females in the field for young women to look to as role models. In fact, more 8th graders probably know the name Atticus Finch, a fictional male lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird, than the names of our three female Supreme Court justices.