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‘Still Dancing Backwards in High Heels’

An oral history of Minnesota women who started practicing law in the 1960s and ’70s

Published in 2016 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine

By Steve Knopper on July 5, 2016


In 1969, when Judith Oakes graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School, there were only three other women in her class. A male classmate asked why she had the audacity to take his buddy’s spot: “Nobody’s ever going to hire you as a lawyer anyway,” he told her. Recalls Oakes: “I thought that was pretty odd, because I knew my LSATs were higher than his.” By 1977, when Rebecca Egge Moos graduated, 30 percent of her classmates were women. The number of bathroom stalls was still a problem, but, she says, “In terms of my professors, I had good support and encouragement.”

These attorneys tell vivid stories of blatant discrimination and harassment. The sexist insults they once endured every day have become rare, but some sentiment remains. “Although an enormous amount of progress has been made,” says Judith Bevis Langevin, a partner at Zelle in Minneapolis, “I don’t know whether it ever will be a level playing field.”

Here are some of their stories.

Women in the ’50s and ’60s had to look far and wide for legal role models.

Judith Oakes, Rogness & Field, University of Minnesota Law School 1969: Have you seen Adam’s Rib, in which Katharine Hepburn played a defense attorney? My 13-year-old self thought, ‘Hmm, she gets to wear pretty cool clothes. Looks like a nice life.’ My unconscious self said, ‘Hmm, that looks like a way you can make a difference.’

Linda Olup, Olup Law Offices, William Mitchell College of Law 1977: My uncle was a representative to the United Nations in Geneva. Another uncle sat on the presidency that governed Yugoslavia. That gave me a sense of politics I really hadn’t heard about when I was growing up. I was taking the train from Slovenia to Germany to visit family, and I remember looking out the train window at the beautiful mountains and it just occurred to me: I’m going to law school.

The stories Minnesota women tell about law-school misogyny through the ’70s are disturbingly common. 

Oakes: I had a torts professor who—well, he was an SOB. Whenever I got called on to recite, there was a penis involved in the case. There was one other woman in the class. This was at a time when technical words for body parts were not much heard.

Olup: One professor took great, almost sadistic, pleasure in questioning the women on the cases that were being reviewed, in a manner that was very grueling. Much more difficult than for the men. He would do it to a point where it would reduce many of the women to tears. Then it came my turn. I said words to the effect of ‘You needn’t bother to try and break me, because I’m not going to cry.’ He didn’t quite know what to do with that. I don’t think he ever called on me again. I thought to myself: ‘Sink or swim.’

Judith Bevis Langevin, Zelle LLP, University of Minnesota Law School 1973: Law school was the most difficult three years of my life. It was a hostile environment. My first day, a third-year law student walked up to me—I’d never met him before—and said, ‘The only reason a single woman would come to law school was to get a husband, and the only reason a married woman would come to law school was to fool around. Now, which are you and when do we start?’

Oakes: One day I wore a pantsuit, which was just beginning to be fashionable, and I got so many negative comments I never wore pants again through three years of law school. You didn’t fit in. If I got invited to a law school gathering, it was uncomfortable to be in the kitchen with the women talking about babies, and it was uncomfortable to be in the other room with my classmates, and most of the guys were probably married. I’d get comments like ‘Oh yeah, I’d like to work with you on this project, but my wife wouldn’t let me.’ I had to scramble whenever it was a group project.

Langevin: Any class, when there was a discussion of a case that had overtones or information about sex, whether it was a rape case or a case involving marital infidelity, women were called on. The five of us [women in the class] went to talk to the professor about it. He said, ‘Well, I have a daughter who’s in law school, and I know that women come to law school with a disability. They can’t talk, so I feel it’s my responsibility to call on one of you every day to increase your chances of succeeding.’ And we said [something to the effect of], ‘Thank you very much for your support, but knock it off, or we’re all going to transfer out.’ And he did. But he never understood why we did not appreciate his efforts to assist us with our ‘disability.’

Their first job interviews weren’t much better.

Susan M. Lach, Tuft, Lach, Jerabek & O’Connell, University of Georgia School of Law 1975: I was a really early liberal feminist. Then I had to live in Georgia for four years, which was very conservative, as you can imagine. I moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, thinking, ‘Well, this will be better,’ and it probably was worse. I started going to the [law] offices, saying, ‘I want to speak to one of the partners.’ Some didn’t meet me, and the ones that did were very nice, very polite, and ‘Welcome to Fort Collins, and I’m glad you’re here.’ All of them said they were not hiring new lawyers. All of them mentioned there was one woman attorney in town—she practiced with her husband and did trusts and estates and wills. Then a big Bar meeting came up where they were introducing all the new lawyers who’d been hired by firms. Lo and behold, they had hired people! That was my first inkling that it was going to be more difficult than I thought.

Rebecca Egge Moos, Bassford Remele, University of Minnesota Law School 1977: I remember one interview where one of the questions was, ‘If one of the men in our firm makes a pass at you in the law library, are you going to get all huffy and walk out and make a scene?’ Of course I said, ‘Oh, you can imagine men are making passes at me all the time and I can handle that very gracefully. Don’t worry!’ I did not take their offer.

M. Sue Wilson, M. Sue Wilson Law Offices, Stanford Law School 1974: There was kind of an aversion, when all the big firms came to interview, to being ‘the only woman’ or ‘the token woman.’ There wasn’t a huge affinity for women joining the big firms.

Oakes: When I graduated, I could count the number of women practicing in the Twin Cities on both hands. Some of them worked in their husbands’ offices. One was a prosecutor. I think one was working in the Minnesota Revisor’s office. There were three in larger firms. I knew who got hired, and there was only one distinguishing factor: I was a girl and they were boys. I went to one of my professors and said, ‘I think I’m going to have to sue.’ The professor said, ‘No, you’ll never get a job, let me talk to another professor.’ [That professor] said, ‘It took me five calls to the attorney general to get you a second interview.’ I still remember the opening [interview] line: ‘You know, we hired a woman once, and she got pregnant.’

Many attorneys used the glass ceiling as motivation.

Wilson: For the first 10 or 15 years, there were a lot of names called behind my back that were kind of demeaning. ‘Lawyerette’ was one that I’ll never forget. These were people from some podunk law school and there I am graduating from Stanford and they’re calling me lawyerette.

Marilyn J. Michales, Marilyn J. Michales Family Law, William Mitchell College of Law 1976: When I was hired in 1972 to clerk in Hennepin County, [men] would say to us, ‘No, we can’t put you into a courtroom, clerking for a judge—if there’s a criminal case, you will hear things you shouldn’t hear.’

Moos: I do remember, once, arguing a motion down in Hennepin County—it was back in the day when motions were [at] what was called a cattle call, maybe 40 lawyers would argue various matters. It was fun and interesting and stressful. I made an argument on my case. Leaving the courtroom, the senior lawyer I’d known from other matters followed me out and said, ‘Hey, Becky, I just wanted you to know, you have a run in your nylons.’ I said, ‘I thought you’d be listening to my argument, not looking at my legs.’

Olup: [The firm] wanted a woman in their group because they figured it would look good for their clients. I was told to develop the family law department, which is what my specialty became. None of the male attorneys got flowers on Secretaries’ Day, but I did.

Oakes: At some point, it became politically advantageous for the attorney general to show that he was a Democrat and he was politically liberal, so he promoted me and hired another woman. So then there were two of us on the staff.

Wilson: My 41st anniversary of being sworn in was last Friday. We all raised our hands and said ‘I do,’ and he said, ‘Congratulations, gentlemen.’ That was my first moment as a lawyer: ‘Congratulations, gentlemen.’ If I ever write a book about my life, that’ll be the name of it: Congratulations, Gentlemen. We were that kind of invisible.

Their early cases were unforgettable for all sorts of reasons.

Lach: I’ll never forget the woman I represented—a waitress, fired because she was pregnant. Their defense was ‘She was pregnant.’ That was their defense! It was like, ‘That’s not a defense. It’s the exact opposite—an admission!’ It gives you a flavor of what life was like back then.

Wilson: I’ve had about 6,700 cases. Early on, I represented a woman [in a divorce case] who was married to the ne’er-do-well son of a big manufacturing company [family] in this town. The husband was vice president in charge of marketing. The case he was trying to make was that nothing he did increased the value of this company—there was never any marital value to it. I brought it up in a deposition: ‘The tax returns filed by the company say he’s vice president of marketing and he’s receiving $300,000 a year. Obviously, if he isn’t working for the company, he can’t be getting $300,000 a year.’ I get this letter from the lawyers for the company that said I was claiming that their client had filed false tax returns. They were just trying to beat up on me. I wrote back saying, ‘No, actually, I’m saying the tax returns are correct—you’re saying they’re false.’

Olup: In the early ’80s, men were not allowed in the delivery rooms. People forget that. To me, feminism is men and women having equal opportunities. So I was very active in giving fathers rights as parents.

Langevin: As employment law took off in Minnesota, I was there. In my own firm and in the Twin Cities legal community, I was immediately perceived to be a spokesperson for gender equality [in the ’80s]. So [men] would say something sexually explicit, and then turn to me and go, ‘Oh, whoops, you’re here!’ Boy, that was charming.

Michales: When I was hired in the Dakota County Attorney’s Office, I was the first and only female attorney. There was an emphasis on prosecuting sexual abuse, sexual assault—anything to do with sex. Funds were available for special programs. They had money for a victim-witness program that was new. For the first year, I got any sex case that came through the door. [During] one of my first incest cases, I talked to the jurors afterwards, and they actually said: ‘We just don’t believe that dads would do that to their kids.’ It was a pervasive attitude. I had a judge in a civil jury trial say to us—there were two other male attorneys—’Now, I don’t want any of you lawyers striking that juror in the front row; she’s cute and I want something good to look at.’ No one was being mean. That was the way it was.

They fought to win in the courtroom and fought for respect outside of it. 

Wilson: I started practicing family law like it was real law—it wasn’t attorneys getting together at lunch and writing a settlement on the back of a napkin. There had been a lot of old-boy deals lawyers had made with each other that weren’t necessarily in the client’s best interests, like you wanted to stay in a club and not offend anyone. That never occurred to me—that I would sell my client out. I had this reputation as a tough lawyer. I just beat them. I would take my legal skill, and they could call me names, and I would win the case.

Olup: There was no such thing as HR back then. There were no laws in place about discrimination. You had to be very strong. You had to have an inner core that was solid steel.

Oakes: I got asked to be president of Minnesota Women Lawyers in ’74. Their main activity had been a tea, with sherry and cheese. The first one I went to, the members wore gloves. It was definitely a social group for them, but they knew times were changing. We put together a mailing list, strictly by identifying names that sounded female, and we got calls from several wives who were very perturbed [and insisted] their husbands—named Laverne, or some such name that was ambiguous—should be taken off the list immediately. I never had a call from a guy—only wives, saying their husbands [must] be taken off. We got 50 women to show up for lunch, which quite overwhelmed the restaurant. We started programming activities, and we became activists and started working on changing things.

Wilson: It was gradual. By the ’90s there were more women judges, there were more women lawyers, and that changed everything. The old boys’ club wasn’t going to work anymore. It’s not completely gone. It’s way underground. A judge who doesn’t understand the dynamics of being a battered woman, for example, and says she’s not credible because she doesn’t tell the story from the very beginning—their memory is very spotty and the more it comes out, the more they remember. There’s still bias. It’s helpful to be aware that it’s there so you can really over-correct and try to make your point.

Langevin: One of the reasons for optimism is that the men and women in the generations following mine simply have a different set of expectations for their professional lives and of each other. Not to say there aren’t jerks, but for the most part, I find the lawyers 50-and-under expect to bear part of—or maybe half—the load of raising a family, or running a home, or caring for elderly parents.

Moos: We’ve always tried to focus on bringing women into the firm and we’ve had wonderful women here, some of whom are now on the bench. … I was the first woman in the firm, the first woman to have kids while she was a lawyer here. I had to go on bed rest for three-and-a-half months of my first pregnancy. The firm arranged for one of the young associates, who didn’t live too far from me, to bring my mail every day. I’d have a little Dictaphone and leave little tapes in the mailbox for him to pick up and have transcribed.

Wilson: The younger male attorneys aren’t nearly as piggish as some of the older ones. They just aren’t. So that also helps.

Moos: I remember in a pretrial [in the late ’80s], the judge was a woman, the lawyers on both sides were women, the clients were men. That was noteworthy to me.

Langevin: What’s the great line? ‘Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, just backwards and in high heels.’ And we’re still dancing backwards in high heels. Maybe a little bit lower heels than they used to be.

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