President's Message Nov/Dec 2018



Hey, Little Girl
Carolyn R. Barone, Esq.

President, Rhode Island Bar Association

“Only days ago, I came upon the results of the American Bar Association’s recent survey on the status of women in the law. As I read the results, my initial resistance to having this message focus on issues that may not appeal to all members of the Bar collapsed like a circus tent after the final act.”   
   
Each year, Roger Williams University School of Law presents an event entitled “Women in Robes,” whereat law school students meet and network with members of the Rhode Island Judiciary and celebrate the role of women in the legal community.  In the spring of this year,  Superior Court Associate Justice Netti Vogel and Michael J. Yelnosky, Dean and Professor of Law at Roger Williams University School of Law, planted the seed for a collaboration between the Law School and the Bar Association to honor the earliest women who were admitted to the Rhode Island Bar, and those who followed their path, so their experiences as trailblazers would be memorialized and shared with others. The Bar Association jumped on this invitation.

 All this inspiration results in the Bar Association presenting a series of interviews of RI women lawyers entitled, “Women Lawyers: Past, Present and Future.”  The first interview is presented in the November/December 2018 issue and begins with the professional experiences of Justice Vogel.  The Bar Journal editors hope to publish an interview in every other issue going forward.   Thanks to Justice Vogel and Dean Yelnosky for shining a spotlight on a host of path finders and pioneers of the Rhode Island legal landscape. 

I have a confession to make. Initially, I was not a cheerleader for this project.  How will these interviews resonate among the male members of the bar, regardless of their age and length of years of practice?  By calling attention to this project, am I defeating my goal of reaching out to all members of the bar and not just a select group or an elite few?  Am I going to turn off the majority of male lawyers reading this message because its focus is on women trailblazers and pioneers?  Understand, not wanting to “turn off” my male colleagues results from spending my formative years in the 1950s.  Men were the doctors.  Men were the lawyers.  Women were housewives.  Women were mothers. When I was a freshman in high school, the number one song on the charts was “Wives and Lovers,” and I loved this song.  (Heck, I can still sing it, by heart, today. Never do, however.)
Hey! Little girl
Comb your hair, fix your makeup
Soon he will open the door
Don't think because there's a ring on your finger
You needn't try anymore …

Day after day
There are girls at the office
And men will always be men    …. 1
Three years later, I read the Feminine Mystique, 2and a year after that, I symbolically burned my bra.  That was more than fifty years ago and I never looked back.  My gender made me a minority among men majoring in business administration in my undergraduate years. I survived. I continued to be a minority in face of the majority of my male classmates throughout law school. I survived that, too.  The number of women graduating from law schools in the 1980s was ever-increasing.  With every passing year of law practice, I had more and more women colleagues with whom to form professional relationships. It’s good.  It’s all good, right?  WRONG!  

What is happening at this very moment is quite depressing for women in the legal profession. Only days ago, I came upon the results of the American Bar Association’s recent survey on the status of women in the law. As I read the results, my initial resistance to having this message focus on issues that may not appeal to all members of the Bar collapsed like a circus tent after the final act. To every attorney who is reading this message, especially those whose daughters or grand-daughters or sisters are attorneys or who aspire to go to be attorneys, don’t leave this page.    

On September 6, 2018, the ABA announced its findings of a survey on gender and racial bias in the legal profession.  With respect to gender (white women and women of color) and race (both men and women of color), bias was described as “endemic.” 3  A number of findings from this survey were reported on the Forbes website, on October 1, 2018, under the headline, “Female Lawyers Face Widespread Gender Bias According to New Study.”  The following are a handful of highlights from the survey: 
 “Female Lawyers More Likely To Be Interrupted...”
 ”Female Lawyers Paid Less Than Equally Qualified Colleagues...”
 “Female Lawyers Penalized For Motherhood...”
 “Female Lawyers Mistaken For Janitors, Administrators Or Court Personnel...”
 “Female Lawyers Penalized For Assertive Behavior Required By The Job...”
 “Female Lawyers Relegated To Do Office Housework....”  4
These findings become more disturbing when we compare them to women in the workforce during the 1960s. During that decade, women entered the paid workforce in numbers higher than ever before. At the same time, what they experienced were “...huge gender disparities in pay and advancement and sexual harassment...” in their workplace.5

Sound familiar? Is this the landscape on which we envision our daughters, sisters, nay, all women lawyers to practice? To law partners and senior associates, how would your firm rate if your female attorneys were asked the same questions as the recent ABA survey posed?

I invite your attention to the May/June 2018 edition of the RI Bar Journal. That edition published a chronological list of known women attorneys to have been admitted to practice law in the state of Rhode Island, beginning with Ada Sawyer in 1920, and ending with the names of 36 women being admitted to practice in 1979. For the first forty years following Attorney Sawyer’s admission to practice, women becoming lawyers were few and far between. The year of 1965 appears to be the “wake up” year for women in the law. That year ushered in an unbroken cycle that continues to this day. From 1965 going forward and continuing to the present time, women have been admitted to the Rhode Island Bar every year. Although the middle to late 1970s saw yearly up-ticks in the number of female attorneys, it was not until the middle to late 1970s that ranks of women lawyers swelled in comparison to all prior decades. The key words in the last sentence are, “in comparison.” Presently, women comprise only 35 percent of the total number of attorneys authorized to practice law in Rhode Island.6

Out of curiosity, I “googled” a few names from the earliest of years set forth on the chronological list of RI women lawyers. I had two “hits.” Attorney Helen I. Benning (admitted 1922) was Rhode Island’s representative to the National Association of Women Lawyers, headquartered in Georgia. According to Lawyers.com, Norma M. Trifari (admitted in 1942) has been licensed to practice law for over 78 years. Attorney Trifari has no client or peer reviews. A listing of Rhode Island Bar Association presidents begins with the year of 1981. Eighty-three years after the first president, Francis Cowell, served, the first woman president, Beverly Glen Long, served during the 1981-1982 term. Over the last thirty-seven years, only 8 women have served as president.

For the attorneys who have graciously agreed to be a part of this collection of interviews, I look forward to reading your stories. Some may include remembrances of the people who pushed you and guided you while fulfilling your dream. Some stories may tell us how you overcame the negativity of those who voiced strong opposition to your choice of becoming an attorney. I know that all of the interviews to be presented during the coming year will resonate with all women lawyers. I hope that my colleagues who are fathers and brothers will share these interviews with their daughters and sisters, regardless of whatever paths they may choose to follow. For the trailblazers and pioneers who have passed on, I am forever grateful for the guts and grit it took for you to clear a path for me.

_____________________________________________________________________

Music by Burt Bacharach, lyrics by Hal David.  Published, 1963,    
2  A book authored by Betty Friedan, published, 1963, W.W. Norton
3  See: https://www,anericanbar.org/news/abanews/aba-news-archives/2018/09new-study-finds-gender-and-racial-bias-endemic-in-legal-profession//
4  See: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kimelsesser/2018/10/01;female-lawyers-face-wudespread-gender-bias-according-to-new-study/#93ac18e4b55e
The 1960s: A Decade of Change for Women | Civic |
US News https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/.../the-1960s-a-decade-of-change-for-women.
6  This percentage is on par with the national rate of 35%, based on statistics from the ABA Commission on Women, “A Current Glance at Women in the Law 2018 (updated March 2018).