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I recently received an e-mail from Barbara Babcock, my civil procedure professor at Stanford Law School — suggesting that a fascinating new genre of nonfiction books had finally begun to emerge: the memoir of the successful woman lawyer. Recent months have seen the publication of several biographies and autobiographies by some of the first women at America’s finest law schools — women who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s and went on to achieve extraordinary things in the legal and professional world. I am thinking, specifically, of the new book by Sandra Day O’Connor (Stanford, ’52), “The Majesty of the Law,” with its focus on women in the legal profession and women in power; a new biography of Eleanor Holmes Norton (Yale, ’64), “Fire in My Soul”; and the memoir of Judith Richards Hope (Harvard, ’64), “Pinstripes & Pearls,” about the women of her Harvard Law School class. The books deal not only with these remarkable women but with a raft of other feminist trailblazers, including: former Colorado U.S. representative Pat Schroeder (Harvard ’64), North Carolina senator Elizabeth Dole (Harvard, ’65), former Attorney General Janet Reno (Harvard, ’63), Judge Judith Rogers of the D.C. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (Harvard ’64), Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman (Yale, ’64), and Babcock (Yale, ’64), my former professor. At first blush, the authors and subjects of these books have little in common, excepting their chromosomes and their extraordinary achievements. They are black and white, Democrat and Republican, ardently feminist and reluctantly so. These are the women who crashed through glass ceilings in boardrooms, courtrooms, classrooms and Congress in the ’60s and ’70s. In fact, when you first consider the names and resumes of these women and their classmates, the only conclusion you can draw is that virtually every woman who attended law school at that time was so exceptional that she would have succeeded no matter what she did, whether she’d gone into the legal profession or the circus. Each of these books reminds us of the central truth that the elite law schools of 40 years ago, and the clerkships and law firm jobs that followed them (if one was lucky), were so unwelcoming to women that one simply had to be driven, fearless and coated in Teflon just to survive. Hope describes harrowing interviews with the dean of Harvard Law in which every woman in the class was called on to answer the question: “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?” And Babcock and O’Connor each describe being refused clerkships — despite stellar grades — by judges whose best excuses included the likes of “I like to tell dirty jokes” and “I take off my coat in chambers.” The big picture that emerges from the wide range of characters in these books is that there was no single way for a woman to survive or triumph in law school or the law in the 1960s, any more than there is now. Norton, for instance, endured being one of two black women in her law school class by simply forgetting slights and excelling intellectually. She forged a micro-community for herself by creating civil rights institutions in New Haven and spending summers working on civil rights cases in the South. She is candid in admitting that her interest then lay not in reforming law school, where the racism and sexism were just too entrenched at that time: “I knew I couldn’t change Yale like those who followed me in the seventies, a much larger group that came into white universities and tried to make a revolution. No, I wanted to change something bigger than Yale: the world!” Hope, on the other hand, eventually found herself the first woman on Harvard’s governing board — she calls it “The Corporation” — and recognized quickly that she was at the vanguard of the first “old girls’ network.” O’Connor — adamant that women should achieve greatness through determination and equality — goes out of her way to explain why she has such disdain for the second wave, or “difference” feminists, who followed these pioneers: “It is unsettling, at times, to hear some modern feminists couch their agenda in terms of protection and recognition of their uniquely female perspectives. When gender distinctiveness becomes a mantra, I worry that, in our voyage from the eighteenth century to the present, we have not really traveled very far at all.” O’Connor, like Hope and Norton, is less interested in detailing the ways in which women changed law schools or the law with “different” voices than she is in celebrating the achievements of women in the law. And, like Norton, O’Connor just isn’t all that interested in changing legal education or legal structures to accommodate the different natures and temperaments of women. She is more interested in women using the law to change the world. One striking similarity in all three books is the candor with which these women describe their experiments in balancing high-powered legal careers with motherhood. While O’Connor attributes her success as a parent and a public figure to the fact that she did not “seek public office until my children were in school and at an age when they did not need a parent at home all day,” Hope’s version is far darker, and her daughter’s (solicited) view of a high-powered mom who is never at home is not flattering, as she reflects upon her mother’s experience while watching her peers: “When my friends were admitted to law school, all I could think of was the horrible dungeon of a life that lay before them.” Norton’s account of her attempts to balance her job as the chair of New York City’s Commission on Human Rights with arranging child care for her two children (one of whom had Down’s syndrome) is nothing short of heartbreaking. This is the tension at the core of these memoirs: between a celebration of this generation whose members believed they could have it all, and the backlash not only felt by their children, but reverberating among the young women of my own law school class — women who drop off the partner track at stunning rates, women who feel that corporate law firms and high-powered careers are not only bad for women, but bad for humans in general. In fact, many of the innovations in modern law schools — innovations initiated in some cases by these same first “old girls” that include clinical programs and women’s studies — have opened paths for female law students to achieve the kinds of professional and domestic balance that these pioneers ultimately may not have achieved, for all their professional successes. But whether they have also created, as O’Connor worries, a sort of second-class legal track for women remains to be seen. So which is it? Did this group of powerful women change law school and the law? Or were they just a statistical blip, a clutch of exceptional women who tried to change the world by storming a bastion of white male power but at too great a personal cost? While women now compose almost 50 percent of the nation’s law students, we still make up — as O’Connor points out –only 12 percent of its members of Congress and 22 percent of its Supreme Court justices. And while women make up 30 percent of the nation’s lawyers, we still account for only 15 percent of federal judges and partners in law firms and 10 percent of law school deans. We’re probably still a generation away from knowing whether the law represents the best path to power for young women or a bargain we’re still unwilling to strike. Dahlia Lithwick is a senior editor and Supreme Court correspondent for Slate. She is co-author of a humor book, Me v. Everybody, from Workman Publishing.

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