An oral history of the first group of female attorneys in Georgia in the 1970s
Published in 2014 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on February 18, 2014
Updated on February 10, 2017
They weren’t the first; they know that. Before she went to law school, Virginia Taylor, an intellectual property lawyer with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, recalls working for a woman who passed the Georgia Bar in 1925. “There were a lot of old lady lawyers in Atlanta,” Taylor says. “But we were part of this wave.”
Most say what they faced wasn’t outright discrimination. When asked, they’ll acknowledge they were one of few women at law school, the first female partner at their firms, almost always the first female lawyer in their family. Even today, when the ratio of female to male associates at large firms tends to be 50-50, they still sometimes find themselves in the same situation they found themselves in the 1970s: the only woman in the room.
The culture changed rapidly in the 1970s. What was surprising at the beginning of the decade—a woman in a traditionally male profession—became de rigueur by the end. Litigation helped. In 1971, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Reed v. Reed), in effect made it illegal for states to bar women from practicing law. A complaint-turned-class-action lawsuit was initiated against major New York firms, and within the decade, reached settlements. According to a Cornell Law Faculty Publications article, women went from only 4 percent of lawyers in 1970 to 12.4 percent in 1980.
PATRICIA BARMEYER, Harvard Law School, 1971, partner at King & Spalding in Atlanta: Honestly, there was an assumption that your daddy would support you until you got married and then your husband would support you. You could do what you wanted to do, and if that earned you some money that was all the better. We didn’t, my contemporaries and I, think we needed careers to support ourselves.
ANN SALO, The George Washington University Law School, 1972, founder at Salo & Walker in Atlanta: One of my sorority sisters graduated and went to law school. I figured if she could do it, I could do it.
SUSAN CAHOON, Harvard Law School, 1971, the first female partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton in Atlanta: I was very intrigued with history and politics and roles of lawyers over the years. And I enjoyed the lawyer shows on TV—Perry Mason, The Defenders. I didn’t think I wanted an academic career. I had very poor high school exposure to the sciences and decided I wasn’t going to college well-equipped to pursue [being a doctor].
CAROLINE SPANGENBERG, Harvard Law School, 1976, partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton in Atlanta: It was on the cusp of opportunities opening up for women, and I thought a law degree would stand me in good stead and open a lot of doors. I was not someone who wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was 10 years old. I almost went to graduate school in intellectual history, but I would have had to learn medieval German, Russian, medieval French and Latin.
VIRGINIA TAYLOR, Emory University School of Law, 1977, senior counsel at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton in Atlanta: It was sort of the Ms. magazine era, which made people think, “There’s no reason I can’t do that.”
KATHY MCARTHUR, University of North Carolina School of Law, 1979, founder at The Law Firm of Kathy McArthur in Macon: I had an undergraduate business degree from UNC. It was shocking to me what my illustrious academic career was leading to: I could be the night manager at a plant in Greenville or I could go be a buyer in downtown Atlanta. The guy I was dating at the time was going to law school. I decided I would take the LSAT and made a great score, and a little light bulb went off above my head.
Families were supportive, for the most part.
SALO: I didn’t even tell my parents I was applying to law school. I think they would’ve had me committed. I had job offers in teaching for $7,000. My father’s reaction was, “You need to think long and hard about it; it’s going to take a long time to make up that $7,000 a year.” I said, “You’re right, it’s all the money in the world, but I just can’t go into a classroom.” They were very supportive of me.
BARMEYER: When I got the letter saying I had just been admitted to Harvard Law School, I tried to reach [my father]. I finally got him on the phone and said, “Daddy, Daddy, I got admitted to Harvard Law School!” There was this long pause and he said, “I think that’s fine. I think that’s just fine.” Which was his way of saying it was great.
NANCY LAWLER, Emory University School of Law, 1975, founding partner at Lawler Green Prinz & Gleklen in Atlanta: There were a lot of lawyers in my family, male and female. My sister is a lawyer and two of my first cousins were lawyers. Both my sister and my cousins are older than me. So I knew [what I was getting into] and looked forward to it.
KATHY PORTNOY, Emory University School of Law, 1978, partner at Warner, Bates, McGough, McGinnis & Portnoy in Atlanta: My dad … raised us with the idea there was no distinction between what my brother and my sister and I should be doing, could be doing. It never occurred to me that there would be limitations. I did end up experiencing some when I started looking for jobs. But not on my way.
Once they got on campus, experiences varied. Even memories of those experiences vary.
BARMEYER: [Harvard] was not a very welcoming place for any student, and certainly not for women. [The professors] just ignored us. The year before I was there, there was a professor who had an announced “Ladies Day.” It was the only time he would call on women and it was pre-announced. Somebody told him he couldn’t really do that anymore. So the year I was there he just avoided calling on women. I remember in A.J. Casner’s property class, he was having a hard time finding anybody who could answer his questions. Susan Cahoon sat there with her hand up. So he finally called on her. She brilliantly went through all the discussion for the rest of the class.
CAHOON: I wasn’t somebody who normally [raised my hand] in class. But I thought I really did know the answer to something he posed. So I raised my hand. I don’t recall waiting very long before he pointed to me. I answered the first question and then he had these follow-up hypotheticals, and I kept going for a long time. After the class ended, people were literally coming over shaking my hand saying, “Wow, that was super!”
SALO: Reaction to us varied widely. Because I was going to law school in D.C., a large percentage of the class was returning Vietnam vets. Tons and tons of Navy guys. In a lot of cases, they were not used to being around women students. But they became my closest friends. Those Navy guys were just fabulous once they got used to having a woman in class with them.
LAWLER: There was no problem. I’ve never felt any kind of discrimination at all, ever. A lot of my long-term friends from law school were and still are men.
SPANGENBERG: [Women in ’76] were still fewer than 20 percent of the class. So we knew each other. I was one of the younger members of the class because I went directly to law school from college. Most of the class had done something for a number of years and then were returning to get their law degree.
After graduation, the hard work of finding a job began.
PORTNOY: I had a much harder time finding a job than my [male] classmates. I got those questions no one can ask any more. Are you going to get married? Are you going to have a baby? I ended up clerking at the Court of Appeals for a couple of years, while my colleagues were taking other positions.
MCARTHUR: I started with Mullis, Reynolds, Marshall, Horne, & Phillips as a law clerk. They paid me $4.20 an hour, and I had to argue for the extra 20 cents an hour. When I finished the Georgia Bar, I had made my bones there and was allowed to stay as an attorney. I had already accepted a job with [another firm as] a legal secretary. As demeaning and awful as that might sound, to me it was getting my foot in the door. I was glad that I didn’t have to do [the secretary job] in the end.
JANE THORPE, University of Georgia School of Law, 1979, partner at Alston & Bird: I remember one firm said basically they didn’t hire women litigators. I just kind of accepted it and rolled on.
SALO: When I was interviewing with the big firms, they maybe had one associate who was a female. I think it was something the big firms realized they had to have to be competitive with other markets. This is when Atlanta was really beginning to do deals with New York and other foreign places. They had to have women on the letterhead.
CAHOON: It never occurred to me, when I got ready to interview for a summer job after my second year, that there were a good many firms, not just in Atlanta but in many cities, who had never hired a woman on a regular partner track. Or, in at least one or two instances, they had hired one woman as their first regular partner-track associate and that was enough of an experiment for the time being. I got only a couple of firms that had any interest in having me as a summer clerk, although I interviewed with about a dozen Atlanta firms. It really [improved] dramatically within five years after I was interviewing.
TAYLOR: I had offers from several Atlanta firms. I had a very close friend who had been a summer clerk at Kilpatrick. She said, “This is a wonderful firm and this is the place for you.” I was interviewed by Susan [Cahoon] and was terrifically impressed by her.
There were growing pains for some men in the profession.
PORTNOY: I remember old judges in DeKalb County, they would call me up to the bench and ask me if I could sew a button on their robe. Comments would be made about how I looked or what I was wearing. And sometimes they would be private, but sometimes they would be in the courtroom. I sort of accepted it as part of being a kind of oddity. At the beginning.
BARMEYER: There was one judge down on the coast and he would routinely say, “Well, I like women better than I do men, so I’m gonna rule for Mrs. Barmeyer on that one.” But then he would also say, “I like women better than I do men, but I’m still gonna rule against Mrs. Barmeyer on that one.”
LAWLER: I never felt I was treated any better or worse or different than anybody else. Not one time. Back then there was a certain judge who used to call the male lawyers “governor.” When I first went into his courtroom—he was a Fulton County judge—he said, “What am I going to call you?” I said, “You can call me governor, too.”
MCARTHUR: I had some things in the early years where other attorneys would give you a come-on or say something improper. I felt like that had as much to do with the fact that I was single as it did with the fact that I was female. I pretty quickly learned to divert that kind of thing.
CAHOON: I really didn’t find that many challenges within the firm. … Occasionally there would be an opposing lawyer who was a little patronizing. Judges were getting used to women in the courtroom. Juries hadn’t seen that many female lawyers.
But questions remained. Are they going to get married? Are they going to have a baby?
SALO: I was seven months pregnant when I made partner. … They didn’t have a maternity policy for any lawyer, let alone a partner in the firm, so they had to cobble together one for me: how much time I could take off and how I was going to be paid and all of that.
THORPE: I had a judge schedule a trial after the birth of my first son over my request for additional time. So I came back earlier than I would have liked. But, again, I just did it.
TAYLOR: Some [female lawyers] left practice to rear children and have never returned. Some of them were extremely capable and would have done wonderfully in the practice of law. But they did not find—particularly if they were also married to a busy lawyer—that they could balance everything. So I did see a number of people give up the practice of law. I very much regretted seeing them do it.
And how are things now? By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, women were awarded 47.3 percent of all J.D.s. Fifty-one percent of all judicial clerks were women, as well as 33.3 percent of the U.S. Supreme Court. That same number, 33.3 percent, is also the number of women in the legal profession, according to the ABA’s best estimate.
LAWLER: [When I started there were] some women lawyers in large law firms, some women judges. But few women had their own law firms. That’s a big difference now.
CAHOON: I think women still feel disadvantaged in some aspects of our profession—the business development side of things. The C level at companies is still predominantly male although that’s changing, too. Maybe not enough women play golf and do the social things to get to know people outside of handling matters for them; to develop relationships and get opportunities to convert personal relationships into business. On the other hand, there are lots of new kinds of opportunities to develop business. Some of the old golfing buddy relationships translate less into opportunities than it did years ago.
MCARTHUR: It really is a different world in many ways for females in trial work than it is for men. I had a case where I was asking several male trial attorneys how they dealt with a certain defense attorney. They said, “Oh, we go out to dinner. After we’ve knocked down a few drinks, then we get to talking about the case and then we get it settled.” I thought, “Well, that’s not really comfortable for me as a woman to say, ‘Hey, let’s go get dinner at Ruth’s Chris and talk about the case.’”
THORPE: Even now, I will often be the only woman in the room. I don’t think about it much anymore. The world has improved, let’s put it that way.