Issue: June, 2005
Author: Mary B. Guthrie
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From the Desk of the Executive Director
Several state bar associations have honored their pioneer women attorneys. The Wyoming State Bar has decided to follow this example by recognizing the first fifty women admitted to the bar in Wyoming. Plans include publishing a booklet and hosting a dinner. These activities will define some of the challenges faced by early women lawyers, reflect on their dreams and celebrate their accomplishments as well as those of the women attorneys who have followed them.
Such a project will be a fun, but somewhat daunting activity, because no one has written a history of Wyoming women attorneys. The first task has been to compile a list, which I was able to do after poring over some old, leather-bound books which are kept by the Clerk of the Supreme Court. These tomes contain the handwritten names of everyone who has ever been admitted to the Wyoming Bar since statehood. I felt that I was visiting with ghosts when I saw the names of many grand old lawyers about whom I had heard or known as a child.
In compiling the list, I was faced with an interesting issue, because some of the names were not gender specific. Were Billie Joe, Lynn, Lorin, Holly and Francis men or women? (At this writing, it appears that all were men). A bigger challenge that I now face is tracking down some of the women admitted in the 1920s and 1930s who didn’t stay in Wyoming.
My initial work has revealed some interesting information. While the first woman was admitted to practice in the Wyoming Supreme Court in 19141, it wasn’t until 1975 that a total of 50 women had been admitted. Until the 1970s, no more than eight women were admitted in any decade. Six women were admitted in the 1920s and 1960s, while seven were admitted in the 1930s and 1940s. The number swelled to eight during the fifties. The majority of these Portias were graduates of the University of Wyoming College of Law. One woman read the law, rather than attending a law school.
It appears that Brooke Wunnicke, who was admitted May 7, 1948, is the most senior surviving admittee. Brooke has had an amazing life. After 57 years of practice, she remains an active member of the Wyoming and Colorado bars and continues to teach, publish and is of counsel to a Denver law firm.
This activity has caused me to reflect on the challenges faced by nineteenth century women who wanted to be lawyers and the barriers that they faced. In the 1860's and 1870's, many states refused to admit women, even if they had successfully passed a bar exam.2 The rationale for refusing to let women become lawyers included concern that if they were married they could not enter into legally binding contracts and that they “should be protected from the nastiness of the world which finds its way into courts of justice.” A case in point involved Myra Bradwell, who even though she passed the Illinois Bar exam in 1869 with honors, was denied admission to the Illinois bar. Bradwell appealed her denial to the Illinois and U.S. Supreme Court, which observed that women are naturally not well equipped to practice law:
The civil law, as well as nature itself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective sphere and destinies of man and woman. Man is, or should be woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. The constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the divine ordinance, as well as in the nature of things, indicates that the domestic sphere is that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood. The harmony, not to say identity, of interest and views which belong, or should belong, to the family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband.
Bradwell v. Illinois, 83 U.S 130, 141 (1872).
Many women were denied admission to state bars until state legislatures addressed the issue. By 1914, all states admitted women to their bars.
Not surprisingly, many law schools did not admit women or only did so very reluctantly in the hope that they would not finish their legal studies or because women applied using initials, rather than their given names. Some schools justified their refusal by asserting that women were not tough enough to practice law.3 The first woman was graduated from a law school in 1870. The reluctance to admit women to some schools prevailed until the 1960s and 1970s, with the excuse being that women would never practice because they would have children and because of the “potty factor” - i.e., law schools did not have a sufficient number of restrooms for women. Some prestigious schools were late in admitting women – Duke and Columbia did so in 1927 and Harvard in 1950.
Women were always admitted to the University of Wyoming College of Law. One of the factors probably was that until 1972, all graduates of the University of Wyoming were automatically eligible to be admitted to law school.4 Hazel Bowman Kerper, who was its first woman graduate in 1928, was the sixth woman to be admitted to the Wyoming Bar.
Even though the admission policy favored University of Wyoming graduates, often there were no or only a few women law students. The low number of women who graduated from the U.W. College of Law probably explains, at least in part, why few women were admitted to the Wyoming Bar. In his article, History of the University of Wyoming College of Law: The First Seventy-Five Years,5 Justice Michael Golden described the increase in law school enrollment of women:
About ten percent of the student body in 1971 was made up of women. The Class of 1974, entering in the fall of 1971, included fourteen women, a record number for the law school. By fall of 1975, women law students numbered forty-six or twenty-eight percent of the student body. The Class of 1976 set a record when ten women graduated. Over the next twenty years the trend continued, with the 1992 enrollment showing fifty-two percent women and forty-eight percent men. The face of the faculty is decidedly more feminine as well. (at 21).
For the last several years, the number of women law students and admittees to the Wyoming Bar has exceeded the number of men. Many Wyoming lawyers have welcomed daughters and female associates into the legal profession, thereby rebutting Clarence Darrow’s gloomy comments to a group of female attorneys that: “You can’t be shining lights at the bar because you are too kind. You can never be corporation lawyers because you are not cold-blooded. You have not a high degree of intellect. You can never expect to get the fees men get.”
In 1996, a study by the ABA concluded that the “single development that has changed the face of the profession most visibly over the last several decades is the large scale entry of women into the profession.” Certainly this is the case in Wyoming.
I will keep you updated about this project, and hope that you will be able to attend our party in which we honor the first fifty Wyoming women lawyers.
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