NALS meeting reviews how women are doing in the law

by Cynthia Price

Legal News

In terms of the history of women in the legal profession, "back in the day" refers to just a few short decades ago.

When Kristine Botsford Mullendore spoke on that history recently to NALS, the association for legal professionals, it was clear that even those born in the decades of great change in that history do not know a great deal about it.

On a blowy and blustery day, dozens of legal assistants in the West Michigan Chapter of NALS showed up to hear Mullendore, a professor in the School of Criminal Justice/Legal Studies at Grand Valley State University.

Mullendore, who teaches in the School of Criminal Justice/Legal Studies Program at Grand Valley State University, was happy to remind the women present about the bad old days for women who wanted a career in the law.

She asked audience members why they thought women were historically barred from membership in the bar. A few people knew one of the correct answers: women were not considered to have "fit character" for the profession, based on three characteristics.

The first, which people guessed, was that they were considered to be too emotional. The others were that it was not considered appropriate for women to hear about the seamier side of life, and that what was construed to be the innate female character of purity and delicacy did not render them suitable.

However, the more salient reason was that married women were not considered to be the legal equivalents of the male.

They could not sign contracts and were considered to be under the jurisdiction of their husbands or fathers - in some sense, as Mullendore pointed out, similar to the status most people now accord children.

Some women challenged this. In 1873, in Bradwell v. Illinois, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Illinois Bar's right to refuse women to the practice of law, and other states were doing the same.

Mullendore said that the first woman admitted to the bar in Grand Rapids was only five years later, when Elizabeth Eaglesfield became a lawyer in 1878, as other states still failed to allow it. However, in 1884, the Pennsylvania Court admitted a woman. Still, such admissions were few and far between.

Then something happened.

In the 1960s, "social upheaval" contributed to the notion that equality should be extended to all, culminating with the Women's Movement in the late 1960s.

At the same time, the increase in births that accompanied relative prosperity after World War II resulted in the phenomenon of "Baby Boomers." Female boomers were unlikely to put up with being considered second class citizens.

Mullendore said she often asks her students at the beginning of classes how many of them would call themselves feminists, and few raise their hands.

She said she suspects that many more would claim that title at the end of class, after hearing how important that movement was to social change that gave women the freedom to pursue their dreams, whether that includes a career in the law or not.

In the legal field, the statistics are impressive. The percentage of women lawyers moved from 1 percent in 1910 to 23 percent in 1970 to 29 percent in 2002. Women were estimated in 2008 to compose 49 percent of law school students nationally.

Mullendore also revealed the less rosy side of that success. Females 15 years out of law school make an average of $132,000 versus men at $229,500.

But most women lawyers in national surveys say that money means less to them than other factors such as positive impact on society, and Mullendore reported that women attorneys have much higher career satisfaction.

Mullendore, a lawyer herself, is a former assistant Kent County prosecutor.

Published: Thu, Dec 31, 2009

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