It was a routine Monday in Washington on May 7. But at the Wilson Center, a buzz was building in a conference room on the sixth floor. A gathering of female lawyers unlike any other was forming as Jill Norgren, author of “Stories From Trailblazing Women Lawyers: Lives in the Law,” prepared to present her new book drawing on interviews gathered as part of an American Bar Association project.
Women Trailblazers in the Law, launched in 2005 by the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession and sponsored by the ABA’s Senior Lawyers Division, is a project that features stories from leading female lawyers who broke through barriers in the legal industry. The project was organized by retired Arnold & Porter partner Brooksley Born and project director Linda Ferren. Per Norgren’s book, which features stories curated from 100 interviews—”the oldest interviewee was born in 1916, the youngest in 1951, with the majority born in the 1930s and 1940s.”
As interviewees like Judge Bernice B. Donald of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and Sheila Hollis, a partner at Duane Morris and chair of the firm’s D.C. office looked on, Norgren, in her presentation, raised questions about the costs to American society stemming from women historically lacking access to opportunities in the law. “What would our Constitution look like if women had been lawyers at the beginning of the republic?” Norgren said. “What would civil law look like?”
Norgren recounted policy changes from the mid-1940s to 1970s that opened the doors for more women to practice law. The civil rights and women’s rights movements, she said, for instance benefited women of all races by providing leadership training. And birth control gave career women the chance to plan their families. The female lawyers interviewed also shared in common that they were encouraged early on by examples of “smart, brave women,” Norgren said. For instance, many were Nancy Drew readers as children.
Later, as aspiring lawyers, they learned to roll with the punches in dealing with slights like being excluded from law school study groups or battling social questions that could have dissuaded them—questions like, “Who will marry an overachiever?” Norgren said.
Born said she looked at the project with a sense of pride. “It’s very rewarding to [see] that so much of this important history has been memorialized.” She continued, “Women in the project played important roles in opening the profession to women and more broadly changing the society through participation in the women’s rights movement.”
Here’s a look back at the day in photos.