Continuing the Conversation
By Jennifer Larson Ryback
Cover courtesy courtesy of NYU Press
Stories From Trailblazing Women Lawyers: Lives in the Law (NYU Press, 2018) is an important book that helps continue the conversation surrounding the standing of women in the legal profession. The genesis of the book is the national oral history project, the Women Trailblazers in the Law Project, created in 2005 by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, during which 100 remarkable senior women lawyers (referred to in the book as “trailblazers”) were interviewed to tell their personal and professional stories. Using those interviews, Jill Norgren, a professor and legal historian, pieces together a fascinating and dogged picture of the history of the trailblazers who paved the way for women like me.
Norgren takes the stories shared and weaves them into a chronology, beginning with childhood influences, revealing the challenges that trailblazers faced in law school and trying to get hired after law school, and ending with a discussion of the various career paths navigated by trailblazers, including a very interesting discussion on women in the judiciary and the role President Jimmy Carter played in changing the face of the federal judiciary. In the midst of the chronology, Norgren includes two entr’actes titled “Entr’acte: Tales from the Clothes Closet” and “Entr’acte: Home, Heart, and the Pursuit of a Career.”
Some of the stories are unfathomable to me because, thankfully, I have not encountered the same level of adversity and discrimination. For example, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s account of a dinner the dean at Harvard Law School had for the women in the first-year class during which “he brought us into his living room, and each of us sat next to a distinguished professor … and he asked [us] to tell him what we were doing in the law school occupying a seat that could be held by a man.” Or the story of a Los Angeles law firm posting a notice on the employment bulletin that “No woman need apply.”
Yet, many of the stories resonate with me because of my experience, shared by many other women lawyers, of trying to survive as a mom, wife, and lawyer (not always in that order). In particular, I loved the story of one trailblazer who was being recruited to work in an attorney general’s office and confidently said, “I need to have a salary that will allow me to have good childcare. I need to have a parking place. And I need it well understood that I’ve worked in Attorney General’s Offices before and crises don’t start at 5:00 at night.” And, I greatly value the advice from another trailblazer, who said, “I tell young women now that they shouldn’t try to do everything … All you can do is what you can do. You have to figure out what your top priorities are and maybe they’ve changed and you adjust them by the hour, by the day, by the week, by the year, but you also want to have in mind what it is you want to accomplish.”
In the end, the book left a bittersweet taste in my mouth—so proud of how far women have progressed in the practice of law and yet also aware of how much further there is to go. Regardless of your gender and personal experience, Stories From Trailblazing Women Lawyers is an entertaining journey of the history of women in the law and hopefully a catalyst for continuing the conversation surrounding the standing of women in the legal profession today.TBJ
JENNIFER LARSON RYBACK
is a partner in McGuire, Craddock & Strother in Dallas, where she has developed a broad litigation practice representing clients in contract, employment, real estate, and construction disputes. Ryback recently served as president of the Dallas Association of Young Lawyers and worked to cultivate and continue a number of projects focused on keeping women in the practice of law. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Dallas Women Lawyers Association, where she hopes to continue that important work.