9 Stories

What was it like being part of the first wave of women attorneys? Nine Oregon lawyers tell all

Published in 2019 Oregon Super Lawyers — July 18, 2019

By the 1970s, many female law students were no longer completely alone in their classes, as Sandra Day O’Connor had been. Many male colleagues were supportive, too. “Being a woman provided me access and visibility that perhaps I wouldn’t have had if I’d been a man,” recalls Janet Hoffman.

But problems remained. Some Portland social clubs, where attorneys held crucial meetings, remained male-only for another 20 years. The odd male law student could still turn to a female classmate in study hall and shout, “You don’t belong here!” as Judy Snyder recalls. Law firms might turn down your application because “We already have a woman in that department,” while a judge, out of nowhere, might say you looked like a Kewpie doll.

Here are the stories of nine attorneys who fought through all that to help get us where we are today.

THE LAW SCHOOL: “There were three of us”

Judy Snyder, Law Offices of Judy Snyder; University of Notre Dame Law School, 1973: In the class ahead of mine, there were three women. In my class, we had about 15. You can only imagine what it was like for the three before us. There wasn’t even a women’s restroom in the building. We had to go across the quad.

Carolyn W. Miller, Carolyn W. Miller PC; Willamette University College of Law, 1978: The discrimination we received was the women’s bathroom was very small.

Lois Rosenbaum, Stoel Rives; Stanford Law School, 1974: They started out with 15 women out of 150 law students, and quite a few dropped out.

Jody Stahancyk, Stahancyk, Kent & Hook; University of Oregon School of Law, 1973: I went to my first day of law school at the U of O and there were, in the third-year class, one woman; in the second-year class, two women; and in our class, there were like 13. I’m 6 feet, 1 inch, I had long hair, I wore short skirts. They had an open staircase and there were men under the staircase looking up my dress. I was horrified. I went home and put on a pair of jeans.

Chris Helmer, Miller Nash Graham & Dunn; Lewis & Clark Law School, 1974: When I got to Lewis & Clark, I think there were three of us. Out of how many? Oh gosh. Three hundred? This isn’t going to be a very popular answer, but I really didn’t notice it. I did not feel disadvantaged. I didn’t. If I did really well, people would notice more than they would if a guy did really well.

Janet Hoffman, Janet Hoffman & Associates; Boston College Law School, 1977: We were somewhere between 20 and 30 percent women. We varied in our interest between those of us who wanted to either work for legal aid or a public defender organization and those who wanted to go to Wall Street. You couldn’t typecast us.

Nancy Cowgill, Stoel Rives; University of Washington School of Law, 1976: Probably a third of the class. It really shifted from very few women in the early ’70s to, in the mid- to late ’70s, many more women.

Mary Ann Frantz, Miller Nash Graham & Dunn; Stanford Law School, 1978: By 1975, when I started in law school, the fact that women were going to join the profession in increasing numbers was pretty well accepted.

Stahancyk: In the beginning of law school, we were standing in a group, debating what the meaning of a case is. The fellow I’m talking to looks at my chest and says, in the middle of the argument: “My, you have a fine bustline.” I looked down at his crotch and said, “Hmm, you’re not very well hung.” I told my mother this. I got a telephone call from her, at her bridge club, where all of these grown women were, and they said, “Tell us the story about what you did, Jody.” And I told them the story. I sort of felt guilty. Maybe that wasn’t a very nice comment. Maybe I’m going to get in trouble. And they were all cheering. It was the first sense I had that I was doing something kind of unusual, and other people were relying on me to be a part of a movement of changing the way people thought about women.

 

THE JOB INTERVIEW:“We already have a woman”

Rosenbaum: In 1973, when I was applying for jobs, people would ask, “What are you going to do when you have children?” and “Do you really want to practice law as a woman?” I told one big law firm I wasn’t there to waste their time or mine—of course I wanted to practice law. And I asked if they asked the men that question. One very large firm in D.C. interviewed me for three full days, and at the end of the third day, the head of the department said, “Problem is, we already have a woman in that department.”

Hoffman: I interviewed in Atlanta for a legal aid position. It covered all of Georgia and I went out to one of the towns. They didn’t have any women in that office. One of the questions that the men asked me in my interview process was: “Well, last year, at our bar meeting, a naked lady jumped out of a cake; would you be offended?” And I was like, “What?!”

Cowgill: I was single at the time. I’d get the question, “What happens if you get married and your husband gets a job in San Francisco—how do we know you’ll stay?” I just looked at them and said, “I don’t know anybody who’s planning to move to San Francisco.” Most of us just laughed at it.

 

THE JOB: “Wrong shape and size”

Hoffman: I took a job at Rhode Island Legal Services. I was a legal aid lawyer. I passed the Massachusetts Bar and I passed the Rhode Island Bar. And I went to be sworn in and they wouldn’t swear me in because I was a commuter from Boston to Rhode Island. So I agreed I’d move to Rhode Island. It turned out I could not be sworn in unless my husband moved to Rhode Island. So my first lawsuit as a legal aid lawyer was Janet Hoffman v. the State of Rhode Island.

Susan Marmaduke, Harrang Long Gary Rudnik; Berkeley Law, 1977: I was actually really lucky. When I was clerking at the Children’s Defense Fund, there were some very strong and effective women lawyers.

Snyder: I’m over at a firm I will not name, talking to one of the partners who was sitting in an office—gray hair; black round-framed glasses; and on the wall behind him, he had an old lithograph of a steam engine. He proceeded to tell me how he had no problem with women as litigators, but I had to understand that the juries in Oregon would not accept women as advocates in the courtroom. I felt so much better knowing it wasn’t him. It was the jury!

Cowgill: There was a culture in the firm to really accept women. I was the third woman—the one before me was a litigator; another one had gone to law school in her 50s.

Marmaduke: One private law firm where I worked, I was told by one of the male partners that I was the wrong shape and size, and I couldn’t be introduced to any of the clients. I didn’t get angry with him; I just thought I was going to have to find some other way of proving myself. I did it by taking on cases that were challenging and working hard on them and getting good results. He changed his mind about whether women could be good litigators and he gave me credit for that.

Frantz: We had a summer clerk and we were riding up in the elevator and he clearly thought I was a secretary—and I was partner at the time. I didn’t say anything, but we didn’t end up hiring him.

 

THE COURTROOM:“You remind me of a Kewpie doll”

Hoffman: I was arguing a constitutional motion in a [Portland] courtroom in 1978, and the judge was smiling at me. It was a very serious issue and I asked him, “Your Honor, I see that you’re smiling. Would you share with me so that maybe I could address something that you may be concerned about that I’m not talking about?” And he broke into a big grin and said, “Janet, you remind me of a Kewpie doll.” And my client’s standing there, there’s the whole courtroom sitting there. I thanked him for telling me that, and for sharing, and I said, “I’ll address the merits of my argument.” I was thinking, “What am I supposed to do with that data?”

Stahancyk: We were empaneling a jury on a burglary case and [the judge] said, “Mrs. Crawford, would you get up and give your opening remarks?” And I just sat there. And he said it two more times and then he said: “Jody Lee Stahancyk, get up and give your opening remarks!” And I said, “Oh, Your Honor, I didn’t know you were speaking to me.” I got up and said to the jurors, “Excuse me, the judge is getting older and he doesn’t always remember who is appearing in front of him.” The judge said, “You know, she has a perfectly nice husband named Mr. Crawford and so she’s really Mrs. Crawford.” After I did my opening, the defense attorney, playing along, got up and said, “Thank you, Mrs. Crawford, for your comments.” Everyone in the courtroom laughed, but my concern was that we were prosecuting someone for a crime, and I was afraid it wasn’t going to look good if he went up on the Court of Appeals. When it was all over, I went in and said, “OK, boys, we’re going to march ourselves into the Court of Appeals, laughing all the way.” I think we were figuring out how to handle situations for some male lawyers who weren’t comfortable being around women and were not sure exactly how to deal with it.

Hoffman: I went to try a murder case in Eastern Oregon. And one of the first things the judge said when I appeared is, “No girl lawyer’s ever tried a case in this courtroom before.” It was very pejorative. It wasn’t even a smile like he was teasing; it was like, “Oh, this is new.” He wasn’t trying to provoke me. It was just a statement.

Helmer: Going into court, there would almost never be any other women. One time, I guess I had been practicing eight to 10 years, and I walked into the courtroom, and it was bankruptcy court, and the judge was a woman and all of the other lawyers were women except one. And we all looked at each other and started laughing. And the judge looked at the one and said, “Well, Mr. So and So, how does it feel?”

 

THE MALE-ONLY CLUBS:“There are other ways to get known”

Miller: There were two men’s clubs in town where all the business happened. They didn’t allow women members and you had to go into a private dining room. That was the time. Every Friday they went over and had fish—the senior partner was Catholic. Everybody went over except me. I was discouraged by that, but I decided I would make my own group to have lunch with. So I started networking with other professionals on Fridays. It really paid off.

Rosenbaum: I was trying a case, in probably 1980 or 1979, involving a closely held company. It was an intra-family dispute, and it was a long trial. I was representing several of the officers and directors, and someone else from another firm was representing the company, and someone else was representing a couple of the other directors. During the course of the six-week trial, the judge suggested that this dispute would never be over, no matter how he resolved this—this was between family members, and we all ought to, during our lunch hour, see if this case could be settled. One of the lawyers quickly arranged for the defense lawyers to meet at the Arlington Club. But I couldn’t go to the Arlington Club; they didn’t allow women. And I didn’t go to that meeting—which, by the way, did not settle the case. We tried the case and ultimately won. But it was outrageous.

Snyder: I guess because I was in the DA’s office, and then in private practice on my own—not working for Intel or Nike or for clients who expected to be taken to the University Club—it did not have an impact on my practice. Besides, there are other ways to get known. I worked on state bar committees, served on organizational boards, all sorts of things that give you exposure. You don’t have to belong to a private club and take someone out for a $300 dinner in order to be known in your profession.

Cowgill: We were on the tail end of that. Our firm made some major stand where we wouldn’t have our firm lunch at a place where the women weren’t able to go through the front door.

 

THE MATERNITY LEAVE: “Six weeks”

Snyder: It did not occur to us to stop practicing when we had our families. Just didn’t occur to us. That was not an option because we had worked so hard to get where we were.

Hoffman: I had just given birth to my second child and I got a call from a partner at a big law firm that I didn’t know and he had a corporate client that needed representation. I was still nursing then. I had a 2-year-old and a newborn. I explained I was on maternity leave and couldn’t do it. He said, “What if I made everything work for you so you didn’t have to give up access to your child and your newborn, would you take the job on?” It was in a lumber town in Oregon and he had a trailer rented for me and my nanny, and my children were in the trailer and they were parked out in front. He just made it so my children came with me and explained that to the client. It was wonderful.

Miller: I had two children when I was at that firm in Portland at the end of the ’80s. The partnership agreement was amended before I became a partner to specify that, for maternity leave, you could have a leave of six weeks. And if you didn’t come back after six weeks, full time, then you’d lose your partnership. So that’s what I did. It was an unfair policy. Most firms give you three months. But I remember the partners said they did that because their friends had experiences where they gave paid leave to the attorney, and after three months, the attorney said, “You know what, I can’t do this, I’m going to be a stay-at-home mom”—and the firms felt they were losing out financially. That was just the mindset at the time. I just took it.

Rosenbaum: The firm just asked me, “Write a policy.” I had only been there for a year, so I felt I really shouldn’t take much time. I would do it differently today. I took six weeks off and then went back to work full time.

Frantz: When I was pregnant with our first child, we had four other women here [at the firm] who were also pregnant—and that was virtually all the women, except for the two more senior women. One of the partners remarked to me, after we’d all given birth, that the firm hadn’t been sure they were going to survive. But they took things in stride. Actually the firm has been quite well-recognized in the last few years for being a great place for women to work.

 

THE CHANGE: “Women in leadership roles”

Rosenbaum: When I came to the firm, there was only a woman, who was much older, in trusts and estates, and only one other woman in litigation. That can be lonely. By the mid-’80s, our firm had many women lawyers and partners, which creates a significantly more supportive environment.

Miller: I see lots of women in leadership roles on bar committees and related organizations. The firms are more accommodating to having a flexible schedule so you can take off early to go to a [child’s] ballgame or something.

Hoffman: Well, never again are you going to be questioned about naked ladies jumping out of cakes! And the state court bench has many women lawyers—now judges. There still needs to be more in federal court.

Snyder: I’m in a case right now where there are four attorneys—they’re all female. There’s a female federal judge. It’s like, what a change.

Helmer: A couple of years ago we had a partnership meeting and we voted on a group of people for new partners. I was going down the elevator with a group of my partners, all of whom happened to be male. One of them said, “You know something? That new partner class, which was seven or eight people, was all women.” The other partner said, “Really? Are you sure?” So they quit noticing.

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