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Government & Politics

Women Trailblazers in the Law Reflect

When Judge Brett Kavanaugh spoke recently in the packed East Room of the White House after the announcement of his nomination to the Supreme Court, he said that although President Trump introduced him as “Judge Kavanaugh” to him that title will always belong to his mom. Kavanaugh called his mother Martha a “trailblazer.” She went to law school when he was 10, became one of the few women prosecutors in Montgomery County in the 1970s and then went on to serve as a judge on the Montgomery County District Court and then the Circuit Court. She retired in 2001. It is hard to believe the change in the environment for female lawyers today compared to 40 and 50 years ago, but Kavanaugh’s tribute to his mother is a reminder that times have changed for women litigators. This theme was explored recently by two retired judges, Irma Raker of the Court of Appeals, Maryland’s highest court, and Ann Harrington of the Circuit Court, a trial court of general jurisdiction, when they addressed a meeting of the Senior Law Society of the Bar Association of Montgomery County. Retired Judge Irma Raker Their intent was to explore what it was like for women entering the practice of law “back in the day,” in the 1970s and even before that. Harrington warned that anyone who came to the event thinking they were going to hear some #MeToo and Times Up ribald and scandalous stories would be disappointed. Rather, she and Raker expressed gratitude for the opportunities awarded them because “we were hired by male employers who were very progressive and who were willing to hire women in jobs that were previously all male and then promote women within their organizations based on merit.” Harrington referred specifically to Judge Andrew Sonner, who was Montgomery County state’s attorney from 1971 to 1996 and then served on Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals, the state’s second highest court, and Judge John F. McAuliffe, who served on the Montgomery County Circuit Court before his appointment to the Court of Appeals in 1985. Both men are now retired. Raker spoke of her desire to become a lawyer like her father and to attend New York University Law School, where she was the only woman enrolled in the class of 1959. But her plans changed. She married Sam Raker and postponed going to law school. Ten years later, she started law school at American University Washington College of Law in the District after moving to Maryland and becoming a mother to three children. “At the time, no one told me that I should think about marrying Sam, follow him to D.C. and enroll in a law school there,” she reflected. In 1973, Sonner, then state’s attorney, hired Raker as his first female prosecutor. Raker said Sonner had his consciousness level raised, believing that it was time to let go of the myth that criminal law is just for the guys. During that time the assistant state’s attorneys, the public defender and the sheriff were all men. Those jobs were considered training grounds for a career as a trial lawyer. After Raker broke the ice, more female hires quickly followed including Judy Catterton, Ann Harrington and Martha Kavanaugh. Retired Judge Ann Harrington When Harrington graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1974, she accepted a position as a law clerk to Montgomery Circuit Judge John McAuliffe. Although she wasn’t the first female clerk it was still unusual to see women who weren’t secretaries working in the judge’s office. Harrington told a story of being so grateful for the opportunity to be a law clerk that she happily assumed the role of coffee girl for the men in the office and also was charged with copying the judge’s jury instructions every day. It wasn’t until a male clerk joined the team and he refused to get coffee and copy the jury instructions that she felt she learned a valuable lesson: “Women should speak up for what they want, speak up for what they deserve and think they should have.” She added, “At the time it never would have occurred to me to say, ‘Well, I don’t think that’s what a law clerk should do.’” When reflecting what it meant to be the only woman in the prosecutor’s job, Raker remembered that “we wanted to be one of the boys. We weren’t acting any differently with our male co-workers.” “Basically it was a time when women were challenging the existing definitions of gender roles,” she said. Recognizing that there were barriers Raker said each of the women dealt with those barriers in different ways. She organized a group beach house with six prosecutors to foster camaraderie. “One thing most of us didn’t do was sue,” she said. Finally, she noted that as an assistant state’s attorney women had the power — as women in politics also have the power — to make an impact. “I think that made it a little easier because we had that power to gain acceptance as long as we did what we needed to do, which was a good job,” Raker said. Harrington and Raker expressed gratitude for the way they were treated by most of the members of the bar. Occasionally they would encounter a policeman or other courtroom participant who would ask, “Where’s the state’s attorney?” and Raker would answer, “I’m him!” Sometimes the discrimination wasn’t immediately apparent, and Raker found that to be the case when she applied for a job in the District but wasn’t hired. Twenty-five years later she encountered one of the lawyers who remembered meeting her and who confessed that she was turned down because it was felt she couldn’t feed her three children breakfast, see them off to school and be downtown in the office by 9 a.m. She feels that if the lawyers had posed that question to her at the time, she certainly could have dealt with it. This photo shows the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office in 1982. Judge Martha Kavanaugh, at far left in the front row, was one of a few women prosecutors in the county at that time. Others in the front row are Lauren Alexander, Peggy Grow and Janet Webb. In the back row are Carol Stratton, left, and Ann Magruder.  Although these two women are looked upon as trailblazers by those who followed in the prosecutor’s office and later as judges, they say they are deeply grateful to the women who preceded them. Vivian Simpson, one person mentioned, graduated from George Washington Law School in 1928, becoming the first female attorney in Montgomery County. Her career included being the first female attorney appointed to the board of commissioners, the first female member of the board of the state Workmen’s Compensation Commission, the first female Maryland secretary of state, the first female president of the Montgomery County Bar Association and the first female vice president of the Maryland Bar Association. “Her accomplishments made it so much easier for us to come in and be welcomed and contribute,” Harrington said. Other women trailblazers included Betty Tennery who practiced domestic law in Rockville for 30 years in the 1960s and ’70s and Judge Kathryn Shook DuFour who served as the first woman on the county’s Circuit Court. Sometimes the barriers to women’s participation were just long-held customs, such as not allowing women to participate in the county’s biannual golf outing, which had been going on for 100 years. After some initial resistance from male golfers, lawyer Ron Willis insisted that women be allowed to play, and Harrington and others have been participating in recent years. Female litigators in Montgomery County were helped along with women in other previously male-dominated professions by the women’s movement that took place in the 1970s. When Harrington attended law school at the University of Maryland during in 1972 to 1974 there were 10 women students in a class of 200. Now more than 50 percent enrolled in the law school there are female. Raker noted that changes came about due to litigation in the courts with advocates like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg advocating for changing discriminating laws. “Even if we weren’t deeply involved in the women’s movement we were the beneficiaries of that activity,” Raker said. As a result, Raker said she was often asked to serve on boards and task forces as an assistant state’s attorney because it was thought to be a good idea to have at least one woman on them. “That allowed a platform for me to be involved and have some visibility,” she said. The changed mindset that included allowing women to finally wear slacks to work helped propel women forward in many professions previously almost closed to them, including the law.


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Women Trailblazers in the Law Reflect