Pioneer women lawyers: oral history of a trend that began in the 1920s

Unequal Access: Women Lawyers in a Changing America, by Ronald Chester. South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin & Garvey Publishers Inc. 135 pp. $24.95 Most of us would consider the rise of women in the American legal profession to be a recent phenomenon. Statistics would bear that out: their number more than quadrupled during the 1970s, to 62,000 (12 percent of the profession) in 1980. But in his book, Ronald Chester tells the story of a smaller yet significant wave of women who went to law school and struggled to enter legal practice in the 1920s and '30s.

It's the story of those few women who took advantage of a changing society to enter a closed and elite profession -- even if crossing the initial threshold often promised little more than glorified secretarial work. Yet unbeknown to most of them, they were blazing a trail that decades later would become an access road whose remaining barriers continue to crumble.

Actually, to a large degree the women tell their own story. Conscious of what he terms the ``danger'' of a masculine interpretation of their tale, Professor Chester has adopted the method of oral history, allowing 15 women from three cities -- Boston, Washington, and Chicago -- to speak for themselves.

Primarily from the lower and working classes, the women recount how a desire to ``branch out'' from traditional feminine pursuits led them to law school. Often they enrolled in young and struggling night schools -- one of which was reserved for women, all of which were vilified by the more prestigious university schools -- and gave up social lives for an education they considered a key to the door of professional fulfullment.

Chester, professor at Boston's New England School of Law, bases his commentary -- contained primarily in chapter introductions and a conclusion -- on interviews with more than 50 women who became lawyers before World War II, as well as on considerable research in professional access for minorities. His interest in the history of his school, established in 1908 as the only law school for women, was the catalyst for this book.

The advantage of an oral history is that, when the subject is articulate and spirited, as many of these women are, the book is informative and entertaining. We learn from a former District of Columbia judge, a Harry S. Truman appointee, how ``networking'' -- women lawyers helping each other -- boosted her career. But we feel we start to know her when, while explaining the average woman's need for good legal advice, she insists on calling one well-known American woman ``Phyllis Shoofly.''

Less eloquent, less colorful subjects stand out uncomfortably, however. Frequent use of ellipses and unedifying three- or four-word quotes in some segments leave the reader to deduce that some of the women, although perhaps important trailblazers, did not give very interesting interviews. Such cases are the exception.

Chester weaves a number of themes through his book: first, that economic uncertainties could force a repeat in the 1980s of conditions in the 1930s, when many women lawyers lost their toeholds in the profession. This seems rather implausible. That women have a secure place in the legal profession is hardly open to debate. Even women lawyers and observers of the legal profession say the feminine foot is too firmly planted to be displaced.

On the other hand, Chester makes a good case for continued ``networking'' among women lawyers. Breaking into partnerships and gaining positions of influence in law will take more than increased ranks, he argues. Staff writer Howard LaFranchi covers education issues.

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