Justice Matters: Rural women lawyers serve as pioneers for others

18 March 2014

Justice Matters: Rural women lawyers serve as pioneers for others

Photo of Chief Justice Mary R. RussellThe following reflections of Missouri Chief Justice Mary R. Russell make up her most recent Justice Matters column.

In honor of women’s history month – and as the first female partner at a northeast Missouri law firm – I pay tribute to the more recent history of female attorneys practicing in rural Missouri courtrooms. Although common today, this was not always the case in outstate Missouri. In fact, it was rare until the mid-1970s, when the male law firms started to “take a chance” and hire women lawyers.

During the 1970s, women constituted about 10 percent of law school graduating classes. These pioneer women were used to hearing such comments as “You’re just going to get married and not practice law, so why are you worrying about your classes?” And, “Why are you here? You’re taking the place of a man who has to take care of his family.”  

While many women found employment in urban areas, the rural areas were tougher to crack. As women entered the courtroom, certain gender traditions held fast. In addition to putting up with demeaning labels such as “lawyerette,” they also had to work twice as hard to earn the respect of their male counterparts, to convince clients they could be “tough” in the courtroom and to be taken seriously by the male judges before whom they appeared.

When in court, all of these women dressed professionally. The fashion of the time was a skirt suit. By the time I began practicing law in the mid-1980s, women wore a little “tielet” at the neckline with an oxford shirt. Even as professional pantsuits came into vogue, some courts refused to recognize the new fashion. In a rule both trivial and symbolic, many rural Missouri courts still required women lawyers, litigants and jurors to wear skirts well into the late 1980s and even 1990s.

One southern Missouri county courthouse even had a sign on the wall that read, “Notice! No women are permitted to be a witness unless they are dressed in a dress. No slacks are permitted. By Order of the Circuit Court. Notice! All women who testify in court or serve on jury must wear a dress. No slacks.”

One encounter with this rule proved humorous. After being denied the opportunity to represent a client in the courtroom because she was wearing a pantsuit – despite pointing out the sign applied to witnesses and jurors but not specifically to lawyers – one female attorney grabbed the sign off the wall as she left the courthouse and has kept that piece of history to this day!

There are many more tales about how the first female lawyers entered a male-dominated profession.[fn1] But the ability of these women quickly shined and overshadowed any concerns about their gender or the fashion they wore.

We are grateful for these pioneers who proved women could be outstanding lawyers. They plowed the field for generations of women to come. Today, not only are the rural courtrooms populated by many female lawyers, but other women can be found there, too … not necessarily wearing skirts, but instead black robes!

[fn1] For more of these stories, see “Skirts in the Courtroom: Missouri’s First Rural Women Lawyers,” by the Honorable Mary R. Russell, published in the September-October 2013 edition of the Journal of the Missouri Bar and available online.