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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Women in My Law School Classroom

Law Student Doug
When I was in law school, women were rarities. They were clearly second-class citizens, treated very differently from the men (who were the "real" students). Professor Charles Alan Wright, who later represented President Nixon before the Supreme Court during the Watergate scandal, had an announced policy of not calling on female students ("I never ask a woman a question when I don't know what she'll answer," he explained to the chuckles of everyone, women included). Female students in law school, if interviewed about what it was like to be there, said things like "I know I'm taking a man's place, and so I have to be sure I'm deserving." There was the annual "Portia" award given to the female law student thought to be most beautiful; in 1967 now Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was the winner, a fact I rather doubt is mentioned on her resume. There was nothing strange about this and no one questioned it. It was simply a different era—witness that married women in Texas could not legally enter into contracts until 1960. 

Sen. Hutchison Then and Now

I started teaching law at the Indiana Indianapolis Law School in January 1970, just as the woman's movement was gaining steam. The photo (click to enlarge) is of the faculty that year, taken during construction of the new law school building (I am the young man, age 26, in the back row, third from the right). In those early days there were few women in law school. In a class of, say, 100 students, five would be women. When the grades came out, all five would be amongst the top ten, which meant that women were self-selecting so that only superwomen went to law school. (Marilyn Quayle, wife of the future Vice President, was one of these, and in fact she met and married Dan in 1972 when they were both still in school.) But things changed dramatically within five years. As I looked around my classroom, it was clear that every year women were a larger and more vocal presence. Plus they were not necessarily superwomen any more. I remember being both shocked and, on some level, pleased when I first gave a bad grade to a female student. I was shocked because that had never happened before, and, while I'm never happy to see a student do badly, "pleased" came from seeing that the women were truly equal to the men even at the lower end of the class.

The same thing was happening to law school faculties. When I graduated from the University of Texas in 1968 there were 55 faculty members, only two of whom were women (and one of those was primarily a librarian). In the faculty picture above, note how few women there were on the Indiana Indianapolis faculty in 1970. But by the summer of 2010, the law school faculty at The Ohio State University had 58 members, 23 of them women.

There were rude awakenings for males in law school as the women's movement progressed. Certain words were suddenly forbidden: "girl" (used in connection with a female over 12 years of age), "reasonable man test," or anything indicating that women were different or lesser than men ("the weaker sex," for example). Once I was giving a bar review lecture in Boston when one of the students came up at the break. She said to me, "Look, Professor, I think you're a pretty good teacher, but my stomach turns over every time I hear you say 'businessman,' and I stop listening." Lesson learned. Forever after her comment (and right up until this very moment), I have never said "businessman" again, substituting "those in business" in its stead. Why kowtow like this and abandon a descriptive word for the three-word substitute? The answer is obvious: it avoids offending a portion of those I'm talking to, and it makes sure no one listening is distracted by irrelevancies.

In the 1970s a male law professor quickly learned these lessons. If he were, say, to accidentally refer to the "reasonable man test" instead of the now-acceptable "reasonable person test," the women in the classroom would rise as one, promptly exiting the class and dividing into two groups: one cadre heading for the Dean's Office, and the other busily forming the "Effigy Committee."

The male law students obeyed these rules too, and while there were some major battles about this at every level of society during that decade, the woman's movement prevailed to the betterment of us all. Women are now treated just like the men in law schools, and no one any longer finds that odd or objectionable.

Teaching in California in 1983
Sexist language was verboten by 1980, but then something strange happened. It was called the Reagan era. In 1983 when I was a Visiting Professor at the University of California Hastings Law School, one of my Contracts students fainted in class from some minor illness. She phoned me the next day to report she was fine, but I was startled when she began our conversation by saying, "I'm the girl who fainted in class yesterday." GIRL!!! Suddenly the forbidden word had resurfaced! I couldn't (and still can't) bring myself to say it when referring to a grown woman, but it was newly current again (and still is). Other things changed too: women in the classrooms rarely admitted to the label "feminist," which had been a badge of pride a decade before. It now had a certain antique shame attached to it.

According to recent statistics, women make up more than 50% of entering law school classes across the country (and I think I read that this is also true at the undergraduate level). I question whether they give a thought to how much they owe to those who came before them. Just as the courageous women who fought for suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th century are largely unrecognized today, the feminists who changed our world so dramatically in the 1960s and 70s no longer get their due. But if these movement hadn't succeeded, Hilary Clinton not only couldn't have run for President, she couldn't have voted at all—and law schools would still have an annual "Portia Contest" where "girls" would be valued by how beautiful they are and not by whether they understand legal principles.
Related Posts:
“How I Became a Law Professor,” January 27, 2010
“The Socratic Dialogue in Law School,” January 31, 2010
“Clickers,” March 17, 2010
“The Summer Bar Review Tours,” June 15, 2010
“The Sexy Promissory Note,” August 17, 2010
"Mortgage Foreclosures: The Disaster of Unintended Consequences," October 27, 2010
" Update: Mortgage Foreclosure and Missing Notes," November 16, 2010
"I Threaten To Sure Apple Over an iPad Cover," April 8, 2011
"The Payment-In-Full Check: A Powerful Legal Maneuver," April 11, 2011
"Adventures in the Law School Classroom," September 10, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

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