Rewriting the Narrative
Five Missouri and Kansas women attorneys recount their life in the law
Published in 2019 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers Magazine on November 13, 2019
Choosing law school in the ’70s was not a popular option for women. But for these five, lawyering felt like the only choice.
While future Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston had her heart set on law school before she was old enough to drive, the idea didn’t occur to St. Louis’ Ferne Wolf until college. Kansas City’s Jennifer Bacon was heading toward a Ph.D. in psychology before she changed course. St. Louis’ Sally Barker turned to the law thanks to a passion for debate, and Chesterfield’s Annette Heller was casually dating her future husband when his accounting degree started turning her gears.
While their paths were different, they had one thing in common: the experience of being the only woman in the room.
Here are their stories, in their own words.
Jennifer Gille Bacon, Polsinelli, business litigation, University of Kansas, 1976: I was not from a legal family. I was getting my master's in psychology major at Ohio State University, but I was running rats through mazes and thought this is not the kind of change-the-world stuff that I was thinking about. When I said I was at KU and said i was going to get a Ph.D. in psychology, I had people look at me and say, “Oh gosh, we always thought you’d be a lawyer.”
Sally Barker, Schuchat, Cook & Werner, schools and education, St. Louis University, 1976: I grew up in St. Louis. I appreciated my parents, but I had a very old-fashioned father. My mother did not work outside the home. In high school, I wasn’t part of the debate team, but in classroom discussions, I enjoyed a healthy exchange. I was good at it. My father did not encourage me to go to law school. He just didn’t feel that was a place for a woman. But once I did it, and I actually started out in a firm, he was very pleased. When I put my mind to something, I do it.
Nola Foulston, Hutton & Hutton, personal injury, Washburn University, 1976: I decided I wanted to go to law school when I was an early teen. Imagine that. I grew up in Lake Mahopac, New York. My father’s friend was an attorney, and my dad really admired him, so I did too. My parents were very encouraging. My dad was so excited about it, but unfortunately he passed away the day I started law school.
Bacon: It was never a disadvantage in my home to be a girl. I did not understand how many women were told they could not or should not think about something other than very traditional roles. My parents didn’t push me in a direction, but unlike many women of my age, they weren’t putting up stop signs. But I remember my mother, my wonderful mother. She looked at me and said, “Oh Jennifer, all I ever really wanted you to be was a lady.”
Annette Heller, Law Office of Annette Heller, intellectual property, St. Louis University, 1976: I started dating this guy who was going back to school to get his accounting degree, and I said, “Someday I may go to law school.” He said, “Oh, I think that’s a great idea.” Here’s a guy that I was just starting to date, and he wasn’t intimidated by the idea. So I looked into it, applied, and was accepted. And then I married the guy.
Ferne Wolf, Silverstein Wolf, employment litigation, George Washington University, 1978: When I was in college, my counselor asked, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I don’t know. Be a history teacher?” He said, “No, you’re going to law school.” I remember this like it was yesterday. He took a list of law schools, and he put red circles around 20 and said, “Sign up for the LSAT. You’re taking it, and you’re going to one of these schools.”
THE LAW SCHOOL
Foulston: I didn’t know any women lawyers until I went to law school. I started law school at Washburn University in ’74, and there weren’t very many women in my class—maybe 10 out of 120. I thought the fact that there were not a lot of women was a bonus for us.
Wolf: I think there was only one female professor, and she was an extraordinary person.
Barker: We were clearly in the minority. I was editor of the law review. It was a hard job, but it was a highlight particularly because I think I was the first woman editor. At the time, it was tradition to give a full tuition scholarship to the editor in their third year. The dean at the time said, “Well, you’re married.” And I said, “Well, I think I should get it anyway.” And I did.
Bacon: I lived in Kansas City and worked as a waitress to put myself through law school. Law school is probably when I realized how many of my other female classmates had to fight tremendous battles just to go to college. They really had to slug their way through to get into law school. We were the people that were going to change all that. It was actually kind of exciting. People started thinking, wait a minute, I’m not assigned to this place in society. I can be whatever place I want to be.
Heller: There were no women professors when I was in law school. They were all male. I just did what I wanted to do. I was never told I was taking somebody else’s place. I was fortunate in that. I did not experience any discrimination or intimidation by the fact that I was in law school.
Bacon: I really liked school, and I was good at school. But law school was the first thing I ever did that I wasn’t crazy about. But I thought, this is the first thing I’ve ever done that looks like it is going to be way more fun to do than it is to study.
THE FIRST JOB
Foulston: My first job was as an assistant district attorney in Sedgwick County, here in Wichita, and I was one of two women in the district attorney’s office. So I stood out. I can remember one attorney that said, “My wife is a lawyer, but she’s smart enough to stay home.”
Barker: I was offered a clerkship at Husch Eppenberger after graduation. I was given an assignment by Shulamith “Shu” Simon early into my clerkship, and I was terrified. One day, she was coming into my office, and she wasn’t smiling. She just marched in and said, “That was excellent.” That was a huge boost to me. It may have been the only firm at the time that had a woman partner. Shu became my mentor. As far as feeling I could succeed at the firm, having Shu there was invaluable.
Wolf: My first job was with Louis Gilden who argued McDonnell Douglas Corporation v. Green at the United States Supreme Court. It was long before I got there, but he was sort of the employment law guy. That’s how I fell into employment law. I love doing what I do. I really do feel like I’m helping people.
Barker: When I interviewed for clerkships, I got some unusual questions. Not at Husch Eppenberger, but a couple other large firms asked me what my family plans were and whether my husband was going to move. I didn’t protest; I gave some succinct answer and then went onto the next subject.
THE HORROR STORIES
Bacon: Virtually every woman my age has one or more horror stories about the people they dealt with. In one case, we represented a major oil company. This was back in the ’70s, and it was a big case for the firm. The in-house lawyer for that client would periodically come to Kansas City, and we would meet about the case and would typically go out to dinner at a very nice restaurant. He seemed like a very nice guy. One time he came to town and for whatever reason, other members of our team weren’t available to take him to dinner. I said, “Oh, I’ll take you to dinner.” After dinner, we were in an empty elevator and the doors closed. I found myself slammed up against the wall by this guy. I’m just like, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God." I walk off the elevator, and I am literally shaking. Back then, you were inclined to think it has to be your fault. I must have done something. How stupid is that?
Heller: I can remember going into court and being the only woman there. All the judges knew my name. I couldn’t remember one judge from the other; they all looked alike to me. So you stood out quite a bit.
Barker: I was very lucky with judges since I was with a large, prominent firm. Other than one time, when I was a second-year associate, and I was involved in a really major case, which there were like 15 lawyers every time there was a hearing. That judge would open court by saying, “Good morning, gentlemen and Ms. Sally.” That would not happen today.
THE BIG MOMENTS
Foulston: The BTK serial killer case always stands out to people, but it was only one of hundreds of cases that I’ve worked. I had three cases at the United States Supreme Court. One of them was the Leroy Hendricks case in 1997. Hendricks had probably over 200 cases of sexual assault. Kansas had just enacted a law that required predatory individuals to be held after their sentences were over. This became a question as to whether or not we could administer that kind of punishment. The Kansas Supreme Court found it unlawful, so we took it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. In all three cases that went up to the Supreme Court, we won.
Bacon: We represented the state of Missouri; the case involved the natural gas business. We spent a week in a hotel going back and forth on settlement discussions. Opposing counsel was with these huge national law firms, and we’re a bunch of folks from Kansas City. I’m sure we looked like hicks to them, and they were playing hardball. Finally, in the middle of the night, Bill Webster—who was the attorney general for the state of Missouri—arrives. He said, “You may not think that we have what it takes to try this case, but I’m telling you, I do and my law firm does. We are not going away.” Within two or three days, we had the case. The largest settlement ever in Missouri: $400 million.
THE WORK TO BE DONE
Bacon: It’s like a lot of things that are different: Maybe those attitudes are not completely gone, but they have largely stopped. Women lawyers are treated with respect. Now, has that been reflected in women breaking through the glass ceiling like crazy? Probably not. Women are still much less likely to go to someone and say, “Listen, I deserve that.” Men are much more likely to go in and say, “I want that.”
Barker: I think it’s become much easier, but there are still some attorneys and occasionally judges that seem to treat women differently.
Heller: In the beginning I was the only one there. Now, I’m one of many.
Wolf: I just marvel at how many female law professors there are today and how fantastic that is. And women judges, and judges of color. But I will notice, even now, that sometimes I’m still the only woman attorney in the courtroom. That means that law firms are not sending women to argue motions. It really takes a whole societal change and a change in attitude of people in power.
Savina Keaney, Lowenhaupt & Chasnoff, estate planning, Washington University, 2014: My alma mater is about 50/50 men and women now, so things are looking much better than they used to. The women that came before me showed people that women are a valuable force and it has given my generation a lot more freedom in many ways. I am very grateful to those who did the hard work of breaking through the glass ceiling.