An oral history of those who fought “We don’t hire women” law firms and handsy judges to make legal history
Published in 2017 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine
on September 20, 2017
Updated on March 11, 2021
“You’re taking the place of a guy who has to support his family.”
Just about every woman who attended law school before 1980 had to contend with a variation on that line. It was often one of the nicer things they heard. A male classmate of Mary F. Voce, a Greenberg Traurig shareholder who graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1969, told her that he wouldn’t be able to concentrate if she continued to sit next to him. She suggested he move.
“I realized right from the beginning I was just going to have to keep my sense of humor about things,” Voce recalls. “Because a lot of stuff was really overt.”
At the time Voce began law school, women made up just 4.9 percent of first-year law students across the country, according to the American Bar Association—and it wasn’t uncommon for women at top schools such as Harvard and Yale to have just a handful of women in their law school classes. But the percentage of first-year female students jumped almost threefold during the 1960s (from 3.9 to 10.3), and then three-fold again during the 1970s (to 36.1). By the end of the century, there was parity. (See sidebar below)
If these early pioneers had an advantage it was often familial: Two-thirds—six of the nine—had fathers who were lawyers, while three had mothers who were lawyers, too. That gave them both an ally and a goal, but it didn’t stop the sexist comments and blatant discrimination.
These are their stories.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE A LAWYER
“It never occurred to me I would be anything else”
Gloria Neuwirth, Davidson, Dawson & Clark, Yale ’58: I loved physics in high school but I was told, “Well, you’re not good in math so you can’t take physics in college,” and I never was able to pursue that. Yeah, “Girls don’t do math.” … [But] I was fascinated by legal issues and I had a strong feeling of social justice.
Susan Robfogel, Nixon Peabody, Cornell ’67: I wanted to be an attorney since I was 4 years old. It never occurred to me I would be anything else, and nobody told me I couldn’t do it. Now there was reason for that. My mother was a lawyer, as was my father. It came naturally to me.
Eleanor Alter, Alter, Wolff & Foley, Columbia ’64: Both of my parents were lawyers. My mother stopped practicing law when I was born and my father ultimately became chief judge of the state of New York. They talked law all the time; we voted on cases over dinner. My mother didn’t think a woman could do it, but she and my father believed being a lawyer was the greatest profession one could have; that it was a calling. … She was an attorney during the Depression and didn’t have much success. She got out of law school in ’28, ’29. I think she thought it was too hard for women to do because they wouldn’t be accepted. That was her experience.
Sheila Riesel, Blank Rome, Fordham ’69: We were still basking in the glow of the Kennedy years—“Ask not what your country can do for you”—and I thought politics was the way to go. My father was a lawyer and it occurred to me that law school would give me some tools in a political career. I also grew up in a household where my father said he wanted me to do more than stay at home—as he put it—“wrestling pots.”
Mary F. Voce, Greenberg Traurig, Virginia ’69: I got into three or four of the very good [law schools], but some others I did not get into. One in particular, several of my [male] friends had gotten in, and my grades were higher and my LSAT was higher. So I called admissions and said, “Please just explain to me why.” She was very forthright: “You have to understand, we have a quota for women.”
LAW SCHOOL SANS RESTROOMS
“This was pre-women’s anything”
Neuwirth (’58): Yale was terrific—although we didn’t have facilities like the men did. We didn’t have proper restrooms or a lounge or anything like that. And there was no housing. We had to live in a graduate dormitory off campus. I always felt that I missed a lot by not being able to live in the dorm.
Siegrun Kane, Kane Advisors, Harvard ’63: I had some luminaries in my class—one of them was Janet Reno. Also Dorothy Schrader, who became U.S. Copyright general counsel. There were just about a dozen [female students] and the dean invited us to tea at his house. We sat around the floor and he was in his chair. He welcomed us and said he was responsible for women being at the school, but for the life of him he couldn’t figure out what we could do when we graduated.
Robfogel (’67): There were three women in a class of 113. That’s the same number that had been in my mother’s law school class.
Barbara Hoffman, The Hoffman Law Firm, Columbia ’71: There were 30 women in a class of 300. Vietnam was one reason they had increased the number of women—so they would be left with students if the men got drafted.
Riesel (‘69): I remember one classmate asking me if I felt guilty sitting in my seat while some guy was in a rice paddy in Vietnam.
Pamela Rogers Chepiga, Allen & Overy, Fordham ’73: I had just gotten married during my first year at law school. I had never changed my name or used my husband’s name, and the managing editor of the law review sent me a note saying he wanted to talk to me … He said, “You know, we’re about to go to press, the name you have in this publication is the name you’ll be known as professionally. If I were your husband, I’d be devastated if you didn’t use my name. Are you sure you’ve thought this through?”
Alter (‘64): This was pre-anything in the modern women’s movement. We were trying to prove we were going to be like the guys and do it just as well.
“They would save the most salacious cases”
Kane (‘63): There was one professor who refused to call on women, except once a year he had what he called “Ladies’ Day.” There were three women in this section and a couple hundred men. He’d put us on the stage and we taught the class; he sat in the front row. I think it’d be accurate to say he kind of smirked.
Alter (‘64): At Harvard, [the professor] picked a sodomy case from one or two of the reports. He picked one or two of the women from the class and we did it and it was very amusing to the men. We had Ladies’ Day at Columbia as well. It had to do with evidence and a condom in the toilet. It was always something raunchy.
Voce (‘69): One of the professors had Ladies’ Day, where he would call on women; he wouldn’t the other days. I never sensed it as being anything hostile. A lot of women were reticent to speak up in class—when you’re the only one or two or three of like 100—and it was just a way to spare you the rest of the days.
Riesel (‘69): When I was at Fordham, they would save the most salacious cases for those days. In criminal law, you got up to present on the rape cases.
Anne C. Vladeck, Vladeck, Raskin & Clark, Columbia ’78: [Ladies’ Day] I was luckily spared. Although I was called on my first day of civil procedure by future Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I almost ran for the hills.
For the women who made it past the snide remarks and the Ladies’ Days, there were some advantages—particularly as the ’60s gave way to the’70s. Firms often tried to pigeonhole women into family law departments but some found crucial mentors and rare opportunities. “Three women [were] in my law-school class,” Robfogel says. “So when people were looking to finally hire a woman to do something or put a woman on a board or a panel or get a quote from a woman for the newspaper, my name was there.”
“We don’t hire women”
Voce (‘69): There was a sea change in the profession from 1965 to 1973. It was before Title IX, it was before discrimination was illegal, and people didn’t mind telling you outright they just didn’t hire women or “don’t bother applying” or things like that.
Alter (‘64): One of the big law firms, which shall remain unmentionable, told me they didn’t hire women because the associates share offices and the wives wouldn’t like it. I said, “Well, why don’t you hire two women?” They didn’t invite me back.
Neuwirth (’58): Several interviewers said flatly, “We don’t hire women.” One said, “You’re a pretty girl, so if you want to come and talk, we’ll be happy to talk to you.”
Voce (‘69): A lot of the firms that did interviews would ask questions like, “Well, do you intend to have a family? Are you going to take maternity leave?” I was always very honest. I said, “Yeah, I hope to have a family.” … I didn’t get a lot of offers.
Chepiga (‘73): When you went into an interview, you were probably going to be interviewed by all men, and back then all men drank at lunch, and if you didn’t order a drink, you were inhibiting people from ordering alcohol. You needed to find some drink that you could tolerate, like a Coke and rum or something, so you could order it and sip it and leave much of it. But the point of ordering it was to free up the people who were asking you to order. Now if anyone orders a drink at lunch, it’s like, “Oh, my goodness.”
Vladeck (’78): They had interview week where firms came to the campus, and literally one firm said to women who had signed up that women would not be appropriate. … This would’ve been 1977 or so.
DOWN TO CASES
“Honey, you sure do such pretty tabs”
Kane (‘63): Women were paid about $3,000 less than male graduates. Men were paid $14,000 and we were paid $11,000. Luckily for me, I ended up with a small firm and they had me drafting a brief the first week I was there. They ended up asking me if I could type—and I could—but they didn’t have me typing.
Robfogel (‘67): In Rochester, I got a job at the city corporation counsel. It turned out that was a serendipitous opportunity for me. I wanted to be a corporation-side labor lawyer. The corporate counsel actually turned to me and let me be part of the negotiations. A private firm would never have let me have that opportunity six months out of law school.
Chepiga (‘73): I got out in ’73 and I was offered a full-time teaching position in ’76. Between ’73 and ’76, there was a realization that they needed women professors. Go figure.
Hoffman (’71): I was the first woman professor at my law school in Seattle. For many women students, I couldn’t do any wrong.
Voce (‘69): Some of the clients indicated they didn’t want a woman on their team—they felt we couldn’t negotiate enough, we were going to go off and have babies anytime. Then I rotated into tax and … the clients didn’t care. They expected tax lawyers to be weird anyway.
Kane (‘63): I went down to the Eastern District of New York, and my senior partner introduced me to the chief judge, who said, “Honey, you sure do such pretty tabs [on your briefs].” I was pretty stunned, I have to admit. They were nice tabs. But the idea was, “What else would I be good for?”
Alter (‘64): I remember going to court and the judge thought I was somebody’s secretary. I remember a judge once pinched me on the rear end and said, “I think you’re cute.”
BIG CASES, BIG MOVES
“I am a boss”
Riesel (‘69): Having by default moved into the public sector, because the private sector was really not open to women, I found myself with a job that enabled me to argue regularly before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and three times before the United States Supreme Court. The last case I argued there, I was seven months pregnant. The Supreme Court bench is really almost at eye level; and while you couldn’t see I was pregnant while I was sitting, when I stood up it was very apparent. I heard Justice White lean over to Justice Burger [and] say to him, “Do you believe this?”
Hoffman (‘71): One case involved a suit against The Pierre hotel, across from Central Park, which refused to serve two women at the bar. One of them worked for the ACLU women’s rights project; the other was an assistant district attorney in New York. The theory was that women shouldn’t be served at bars because they were seen as hookers. The Pierre was defended by a very prominent professor of law from Cornell University who taught in the law school as well as the hotel-management program and had written these treatises on hotel law. They lost. The testimony was really quite amusing, because they had no idea—until, actually, discovery—that these women were professional women and not hookers.
Riesel (‘69): The second time I was on maternity leave, I had a scheduled trial that would have resulted in cutting my maternity leave short. I asked the judge for a month’s extension so I could have my full maternity leave and so I could have time to prepare for a three-month criminal trial. He denied my request. He said to me, “You can bounce the baby on one knee and the documents on another.” So I did.
Voce (‘69): I have always been on the planning part of things. “OK, Company A wants to acquire Company B: What is the most tax-efficient way to do it?” I did a lot of stuff between Japan and the U.S. And you think the guys here had trouble dealing with women? There were a couple of instances where, after meetings, they were going to go out to dinner, and they would ask George [my law partner] if they had to invite me. George would say, “No, you don’t have to invite Mary; but if you don’t invite Mary, then I won’t go either. We’ll go out to dinner by ourselves and that’ll be fine.” They got the message. They just made sure, instead of going to a sexy nightclub, they’d go to a nice dinner.
Alter (‘64): I went over to the water cooler and one of [the male lawyers] said, “Can you get your boss to get me some aspirin or something?” I’d just become a partner and I said, “I am a boss.”
The environment in law firms and courtrooms has clearly improved, but gender-equality issues persist. In 2016, according to the ABA, while women in private practice made up nearly 49 percent of summer associates, they made up only 45 percent of associates, less than 25 percent of partners, and only 18 percent of equity partners. Women were 31 percent of law school deans, 27 percent of state and federal judgeships, and 24.8 percent of Fortune 500 general counsels. The pay gap may be decreasing, but female lawyers still make only around 90 percent of what male lawyers make. And while maternity and paternity leave policies have become more humane, many women say flex time needs to be far more flexible. “I now have a daughter who’s a lawyer and a daughter-in-law who’s a lawyer, and I would have thought that the profession would have found a way for women in their 30s to have children and continue to move ahead without being mommy-tracked,” Chepiga says. “It’s still a struggle to find a path.”
“It’s changing, but very slowly”
Vladeck (’78): If you look at the lawyers who litigate, very often, it’s men. If you look at the deal and who’s on the deal, very often the top names are men—white men.
Riesel (‘69): It’s changing, but very slowly. Women now have to function on a professional level, still in rooms that are dominated by men.
Voce (‘69): It was into the ‘90s when things started to get under control … Every firm has a committee or contact people you can go to when you started feeling uncomfortable about something and they deal with it swiftly. There are a lot of shitheads out there who haven’t been silenced yet. But the firms take it very seriously.
Robfogel (‘67): I think it’s definitely more subtle today. No law firm would write a letter saying, “We don’t hire women,” but I think many employers still suffer from unconscious bias: the things that people worry about that they don’t necessarily talk about. “Is she going to leave after she has a baby? Is she going to be able to work as many hours? Is she going to be able to socialize with the clients on the golf course?” Historically, those questions were definitely in the back of peoples’ minds. It’s to a lesser extent now, but it’s still there.
Percentage of women in law schools and practicing law
Year % female first-year students % female J.D.s
1950-51 3.5 3.0
1960-61 3.9 3.4
1970-71 10.3 8.6
1980-81 36.1 34.2
1990-91 42.2 42.5
2000-01 49.4 48.4
2010-11 46.1 46.8