July 6, 2005

"There were very few women in law school."

So said Nina Totenberg on "Meet the Press" last Sunday. She was talking about 1981, the year Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court. A lot of people have gone soft in the head over the O'Connor retirement. Can we please get a grip?

I graduated from law school in 1981. Law School was full of women then. The editor-in-chief of the Law Review was a woman both years I was on. The top three students in the class were women. It wasn't like: Wow, there's a woman on the Supreme Court -- now, I see that women can go into the field of law!

I remember in 1981 saying to one of my many women lawprofs that I was interested in going into law teaching. One of the things she told me was that it used to help to be a woman, because law schools needed to increase the number of women on their faculties, but unfortunately I'd already missed that boat. That was too cynical, of course, but my point is that it was something you could say with a straight face in 1981, so let's not pretend O'Connor was a lone pioneer.

Here's the whole Totenberg quote for reference:
[A]s the first woman--you know, young women today may not remember, but I was there and it was an incredibly moving moment when she was named to the court. And I covered the court back then and I was amazed at myself, at how emotionally caught up I was in it. At that point in the profession, there were almost no women judges. There were very few. There were almost no women lawyers. There were very few women in law school. Today, there are women all over the federal and state bench, lots of chief judges and state chief justices. The majority of law students in major American laws schools are women. So she essentially became the symbol, the opening of the doors, as she said to me in an interview last year. It sort of threw open the doors and the profession that was once an almost exclusively male club is now a totally integrated club.
This is, in fact, ridiculous.


EddieP said...

OT, but today is International Kissing Day, thought you'd like to know.


John said...

That statement about women in law school in 81 hit me over the head when I heard it. True, there were no women on the US Supreme Court. I remember comments made before 1981 (might have been made during the Carter administration) that the gender makeup of SCOTUS did not reflect the gender makeup of the law profession, and perhaps presidents should catch up with the times when they make their nominations.

In 1961 Susie Sharp was became a Justice of the NC Supreme Court, and was elected Chief Justice in 1974. When I was an undergrad in engineering in 1968 I took a business law class taught by a retired woman lawyer. She could (and did) tell some tales about being one of the first women in the profession, and commented on how times were changing.

Maybe O'Conner did inspire some young girls (whose only knowledge about judges and lawyers was what they saw on TV) to consider law when they grew up. However, if we are to credit the first women in the profession, we should credit people like NC Chief Justice Sharpe and my instructor, Ms. Hunt.


Ron said...

Maybe it's me, but doesn't this seem like the default mode of writing about practically anything that's now considered "ancient?" "In the past, when televised images were all fuzzy and not HD, they were few good people, unlike now, and people were lazy and worked a mere 40 hours per week which contributed to the decline of the nation."

Perhaps the entire media has attention deficiet disorder. Except under Clinton, of course, when there was no deficient, just disorder to which we had to pay attention.

JohnF said...

When I went to the University of Chicago Law School in the late 60's, about a quarter to a third of the class was female. I began practicing in a New York firm in the 70's. By the 70's, the profession, at the schools and in the law firms, was desparate to find more women and make more of them full professors and law firm partners. The doors were wide open and everyone was saying, "come on in."

O'Connor's appointment did not start anything. Instead, it was well overdue. Looking back, it was like Yogi Berra thanking everyone on the day he was being honored "for making this day necessary."

The decade or two leading up to her appointment made that day necessary too.

Goesh said...

Nina always was a bit of a wind-bag. If I could be allowed a Jerry Spence personna here for a second -You know, I was raised on a farm up north. Things were a little simpler up there and I wonder if people couldn't take a more simple approach to this business of women being lawyers? Now it so happened that the best two farm equipment operators up there were women. Ruby and Violet could handle a tractor or swather better than any man and nobody questioned that or analyzed it and made a big deal about it. If the wind seriously bent a field of grain over and it needed swathing, you called Ruby or Violet. It was as simple as that. Women were pioneering in all kinds of endeavors long before pundits decided they could boost their ratings by blabbing about women in the law professions. Of course women would, could and did enter the profession and eventually work their way up to the Supreme Court of the United States. Why wouldn't they? Whataya' think, Ms. Ann? Should I order a buckskin coat???? I do look a tad bit like him you know.

vnjagvet said...

john is right. Nina is about 15 years off in her history lesson. I attribute that to faulty memory and runaway nostalgia. Here's why I know that:

In 1965, my graduating class of about 180 law students at the University of Pennsylvania had no more than 8 females.

By the time I got out of the Army in 1970, nearly 40 percent of Penn's graduating lawschool class was female.

By 1974, when I started a law firm in Atlanta, nearly 50 percent of the Emory Lawschool graduating class was female.

During the Carter Administration, a number of my female contemporaries became Federal District Court Judges throughout the country.

By 1981, nearly fifty percent of my lawfirm was female, and the majority of the recruits and summer clerks were female.

Justice O'Connor's apppointment to the Supreme Court caused none of the long overdue progress recited above, but it cappped 12 years of a revolution in the legal profession that has immeasurably improved it.

neo-neocon said...

Totenberg was definitely way off- base here.

However, perhaps Nina was just having one of those brain glitches and thinking not of 1981, but of the 50s, when O'Connor went to law school and first started out in the profession.

(Or, then again, perhaps not).

At any rate, even as recently as the very late 60s, Harvard Law School only had about 7% women in its classes, and there were no women professors at Harvard Law in tenure track positions until 1972. Since then, there have only been fifteen (see this). Harvard Law is hardly the entire world of legal education, but it is certainly a hugely influential part of it.

As for Justice O'Connor herself, this was her experience after graduating in 1953 from Stanford Law School, ranking third in her class:

O'Connor faced a difficult job market after leaving Stanford. No law firm in California wanted to hire her and only one offered her a position as a legal secretary. Ironically, a senior partner of that firm, William French Smith, helped O'Connor's nomination to the Supreme Court years later as the Attorney General. Failing to find suitable work in private practice, O'Connor turned to public service.

So although Totenberg is definitely off in her chronology, the situation had only really substantially changed during the 70s. Before that, even someone as brilliant as O'Connor faced formidable obstacles--not that she didn't surmount them handily, of course.

neo-neocon said...

Jim--I guess you and I were posting more or less the same thing at the same time :-).

Timothy K. Morris said...

Could have fooled me. I started law school in 1984 and the three day sections (about 200 students) were slightly more than 1/2 female. Quite a change in 3 years.

vnjagvet said...


Do you think we could cook up a trio with Nina to sing, "I Remember It Wellllll"?

But she would have to play the Chevalier part, wouldn't she??:)

Ann Althouse said...

Neo-neocon: From what I've seen, Harvard has always had its own special woman problem.

DirtCrashr said...

A female friend who graduated from Stanford in '81 (Engineering), went on to Lawschool at Santa Clara - it was hardly novel or revolutionary. I used to go to her parties that she threw, because of all the girls who were law-students.
I think the whole, "This is so !NOW! and *Unusual* and we are ~so-special~" school of writing is a kind of chronocentric vanity and ego-stroking, the small men of today determined not to be outshadowed by the Past and writing as though they/we were the "real" monument builders and pioneers. It's naive play-ground rhetoric.

Kim said...

Not to rain on anyone's nostalgia parade, but here are relevant data from the Census Bureau. Sorry if the formatting is wacky (# M, # W, %women):

laws & judges: 114,146 ; 558 ; 0.5%
laws & judges: 120,781 ; 1,738 ; 1.4%
laws & judges: 157,220 ; 3,385 ; 2.1%
laws & judges: 177,620 ; 4,575 ; 2.5%
laws & judges: 177,079 ; 6,472 ; 3.5%
laws & judges: 205,515 ; 7,543 ; 3.5%
lawyers: 248,686 ; 12,529 ; 4.8%
judges : 11,423 ; 898 ; 7.3%
lawyers: 432,559 ; 69,275 ; 13.8%
judges : 23,083 ; 4,762 ; 17.1%
lawyers:1,063,460; 352,451 ; 24.9%
judges : 42,613; 12,856 ; 23.2%
law prof: 5,972 ; 2,665 ; 30.9%

(1990 is the first year law profs appear as a separate category in the Census; in prior years, they appeared in "College Teachers Not Elsewhere Classified." Sorry!)

vnjagvet said...

Kim's figures, of course set out the totals for lawyers and judges. Males had a great head start; the majority have not been amortized.

Moreover while women have made up a majority of law school grads for over twenty years, many more women leave the profession than do men. Also, fewer women begin practicing law than do men.

I do not believe anyone has addressed these points. The issue about which we were questioning Ms. Totenberg was that "there were very few women in law schools" in 1981. That remains a "misunderestimation".

John said...

O'Conner was, however, one of the early women lawyers. According to a report in a recent Christian Science Monitor, when she received her law degree in 1952 she could not get a job in a major law firm except firm that would hire her as a secretary. In 1981 the partner of that firm, Willaim French Smith, was Attorney General and supported her nomination to SCOTUS.

One reason that it took so long for a woman to reach the Supreme Court was the fact that it is usually about 25 or more years between receiving a law degree and a nomination to the Supreme Court. But another reason was prejudice. According to John Dean's book about Nixon's selection of Rehnquist both Nixon and CJ Burger did not beleive that the court was a place for a woman.

O'Conner was a "mold breaker" and did break into a male field, in 1952. However, her 1981 SCOTUS nomination was not what led other women into the field of law. Her 1952 graduation near the top of her class might have inspired other young women and girls to consider the law as a profession, but that was hardly the kind of news that would have been known by anyone not already considering law school and living in her home town.


Beldar said...

Here's a pseduo-trackback: Women, judges, and women judges on my own blog.

OhioMike said...


Your blog was brought to my attention by a fellow classmate from NYU Law '81 - a very competitive place as you may recall.

So, I have two minor issues with your posting on NYU law school circa 1981:
1. I didn't know the top three persons in the class as I don't believe that rank was ever disclosed.

2. As I received the Benjamin Butler Prize at our commencement, I was advised that this was the "second" highest academic prize and I am not female.

Otherwise - interesting blog. BTW - my daughter is a soph at Wisconsin. Great town.

Michael (Class of '81)

Ann Althouse said...

Michael: There was an awards ceremony -- at Carnegie Hall -- at which awards were given for the top three ranking graduates. All three awards went to women. I remember this event very clearly and don't remember the prize you mention. You're right that rank in class was not otherwise revealed.

knoxgirl said...

This reminds me of when Hillary was elected to the Senate-- I happened to be listening to NPR at the time. Linda Wertheimer sounded like she was about to wet her pants over it. It was supposed to be a history-making momentous occasion because Hillary had been First Lady. yawn.

It's lame when women make a big deal out of stuff like that. It seems desperate and usually it's unnecessary--women have pretty much proved themselves...

Ann Althouse said...

Knoxgirl: Good point. Women using their husband's political success to launch their own political career is an old phenomenon and not something feminists should get excited about. Women who've worked to make it on there own should feel some antagonism toward women who leap to the front of the line with the help of their husbands.

Ann Althouse said...

should be: "on their own"...

Lynxx Pherrett said...

Well, Kim, Census Bureau employment data is all well and good, but doesn't address the issue of women in law school, so it could hardly rain on anyone's parade given the assertion in question.

Let's use the US Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics', "Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS), 1980: Fall Enrollment," instead. (I picked 1980 because that's the year before O'Conner was appointed, so there would be no "Me too" effect in women's enrollment.) It turns out that women made up just over one third of law students in 1980.

Here's the summarized enrollment data:

Men (%)
Agriculture and Natural Resources
394071 (68.17%)
184022 (31.83%)
Architecture and Environmental Design
207736 (69.59%)
90764 (30.41%)
Biological Sciences
582831 (52.24%)
532757 (47.76%)
Business and Management
3724886 (55.22%)
3020259 (44.78%)
2162634 (87.46%)
310004 (12.54%)
56978 (82.75%)
11878 (17.25%)
169304 (74.27%)
58641 (25.73%)
Veternary Medicine
15012 (61.06%)
9575 (38.94%)
237140 (65.99%)
122225 (34.01%)

Physical Sciences
504507 (72.30%)
193274 (27.70%)
All Other
15138611 (42.90%)
20149604 (57.10%)
23193710 (48.44%)
24683003 (51.56%)

With women making up one third of law students in 1980, there is no way Nina Totenberg's assertion, "There were very few women in law school," reflects the actual situation.

Lynxx Pherrett said...

The raw numbers above are three to five times too large, but the percentages should be correct. (I think the dataset contains various subtotal rows that I added in rather than excluding.)

The Census Bureau estimated 1980 college enrollment of 10,174,000 based on the 1970 census (see PDF Table 32 on this page), which is about a fifth the 47,876,713 total I presented. That same census estimate, however, indicates the male/female percentages as 49.4/50.6 -- in line with mine.

Then there is this reference, "During the 15 year period from 1982 to 1997, the law school enrollment of women increased from 33 percent of total graduates to 44 percent. ... In 1982 the American Bar Association reported that 33 percent of the total 34,846 law graduates from 172 ABA accredited law schools were women." Again, the percentage matches my law school figures, but the total number of graduates indicates my enrollment numbers are about three times too large.

Lynxx Pherrett said...

I found the error in my query and have eliminated the duplicates. But before I repost that data, a bit on anecdotal evidence from individual law school recollections: there was a fair amount of variance in women's enrollment among law schools. Looking at the schools that had more than 100 enrolled law students in 1980, Cal Western and Brigham Young were far outliers at the bottom, with only 6% and 13% female law students, respectively. At the top, only three schools (New College of California, Yeshiva, and Northeastern) broke the 50% mark. Aside from those five, the remaining 170 schools progressed smoothly from 20% to 48% female enrollment - with a mean of 34%.

A few schools mentioned by participants in the thread:

NYU 44.75%. We can see where Ann's impression came from. NYU was one of the top 10 law schools for female enrollment.

University of Chicago 28.12%
University of Pennsylvania 37.59%
Emory University 38.51%
Harvard University 27.81%

Anyway, here's the corrected 1980 Higher Ed Enrollment numbers (includes part-time):

Major Field
  Men (%)
  Women (%)
Agriculture and Natural Resources
  81701 (68.97%)
  36750 (31.03%)
Architecture and Environmental Design
  42737 (70.78%)
  17639 (29.22%)
Biological Sciences
  120608 (53.34%)
  105512 (46.66%)
Business and Management
  624355 (57.07%)
  469663 (42.93%)
  414798 (87.45%)
  59505 (12.55%)
  18877 (82.75%)
  3936 (17.25%)
  55191 (74.27%)
  19122 (25.73%)
Veternary Medicine
  4944 (60.98%)
  3164 (39.02%)
  67083 (65.92%)
  34676 (34.08%)

Physical Sciences
  102542 (73.51%)
  36951 (26.49%)
All Other
  2200353 (45.04%)
  2684734 (54.96%)
  3733189 (51.82%)
  3471652 (48.18%)

OhioMike said...


You are correct regarding the Carnegie Hall proceedings. There were, in fact, a number of prizes (with checks!) awarded that day.

The Benjamin F. Butler Memorial Prize for Unusual Distinction in Scholarship was one of them.

My recollection is clear on this - it was (and will likely be) the only day that I will cross the proscenium of Carnegie Hall.

Admittedly, the best of the students that I knew, and now recall, at NYU were women.