by Gael Gisvold Mueller
My brother, Daniel, was my biggest fan. When I decided to go to law school, he was right there helping. And warning. He reminded me that the going would not be easy. He told me to open my eyes and ears and shut my mouth.
Well, two out of three ain’t bad.
In school, I had wonderful study partners. I made wonderful friends. But there was something that I couldn’t put my finger on. Something that didn’t feel right. And I figured it out when a dear friend wrote his second year brief. I don’t remember the specifics of the brief but I do remember him showing me his graded paper.
Jim had used the word “misogyny.” Several times. The case was clearly set forth from a male perspective and Jim, as he should have, addressed that issue. The grader circled the word every time it appeared. In RED. “There is no such word” were the remarks of the grader!
That was the problem that I could not put my finger on. I, and my female colleagues, were being treated differently. This was 1982. We were either called on excessively or not at all. Our comments were openly derided or flatly ignored. Going to see particular professors was done in pairs or groups. To be fair, there were only a few of those.
In 1985, having graduated and awaiting Bar Exam results, I had my first interview for a position as an associate lawyer. The first question posed to me by a man several generations older than I, was, “What is a sweet, young thing like you doing in law?” I walked out.
The second interview was with a five partner firm. They were all at the interview. They asked if I intended to get pregnant. I pointed out that the question was, in fact, illegal. I took the job because I needed a job. I had no office, I sat in the conference room. I had no cases and none of the partners provided me with any kind of work. No research, no writing, nothing. I was not allowed to sit in on client conferences. I left when the senior partner asked if I liked to play with dolls.
When I went for the interview for a job as a Deputy Public Defender in Kern County, I expected the “usual.” That interview went something like this:
Bill: Hi, I’m Bill Weddell. I sorta run this joint.
Bill: When can you start?
Me: (Bewildered) I thought I was here for an interview.
Bill: I have read your resume. I know that you were on the Mock Trial Team for awhile. I know that you aced your mock trial class. I know you graduated from McGeorge and that you passed the bar on your first attempt. I assume you are here looking for a job. So, I repeat myself. When can you start?”
I started the next week.
Doing misdemeanor work in municipal court was a great training ground. At least half of the Public Defenders were female. But rising to the next level was a problem. Few women were doing felonies. Even in that office felonies were still “Man’s Work.”
Eventually, I got to felonies. And it was there, in the Superior Court of California, in and for the County of Kern, that I ran into the true meaning of misogyny. It was not unusual for a judge to question my research, my skills, my veracity, my appearance or my mental acuity. When speaking on behalf of my client, I would be interrupted by opposing counsel (male), the judge (male), other defense counsel (male). If I spoke up I was chastised. I was called many names but the day that opposing counsel called me “a bitch” I thanked him. I advised him that that was my job. The judge told me to be “civil.”
By the time I left that job, some 14 years later, I was one of two women in that county qualified to do death penalty cases.
In private practice the issues were just the same. I just decided to not remain acquiescent. I started to interrupt the interrupters. I wore pants and flats. I was called “unprofessional” by judges who wore jeans, t-shirts and tennis shoes under their robes. I ignored them. I fought harder and louder for my clients.
But it never got any better.
Do not misunderstand me, I loved my work. I loved the fight. I loved the theater. I loved helping people that really needed my help. But as I grew older it became harder and harder to be even close to civil in a courtroom.
While I knew that it was a systemic problem, I came to the realization that the fight was going to have to be carried on by younger women. Women who had been raised to be strong and independent and didn’t have to come there from a place of acquiescence.
Then today I read this 2018 article in The Atlantic that told me that very little has changed. ()
It brought me back to what I have just described. Has the perception changed, even a little? How long will we have to stand and speak truth to power?
All I know is that Dan would have been proud of every woman that has taken up the gantlet. He would have been their champion and cheer-leader.
Thinking of him, on what would have been his 71st birthday, I remember his words, his support and his love.
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"Female Lawyers" first appeared on Gael Gisvold Mueller's blog:
Gael Gisvold Mueller was born and raised in a small town in the Central Valley of California. Because she had two older brothers she vowed, at a very early age, to never do anything that would label her as “just a girl.” She graduated from law school as a single mom when she was thirty-five. She was a criminal defense attorney for nearly 30 years. She has always been a reader and a singer. When she retired she shocked everyone by taking up weaving, photography and writing. Her current blog ‘Talkin’ to Myself’ is a chronicle of her life.