Craft: Research

Women Lawyers in the 1940s

In my current novel, Comfortable in Alone, my main character is a female attorney in World War II, Iowa. I thought I’d share a little bit of my research concerning women’s struggles in the legal profession.

Law School:

The 19th Amendment didn’t alter men’s minds. Out of the 127 law schools in the U.S., twenty-seven of them barred women (including Columbia & Harvard). Many women couldn’t afford the tuition of bigger name universities and turned to part-time schools.

Part-time law schools were small. They had inadequate libraries, and half the teachers only taught full-time. They used the Black Method (lecture) instead of the Socratic Method (question & answer) for teaching to save time and money. Many instructors avoided discussing violence on or toward women. Usually the women in the class were asked to leave or instructed to read the material on their own. When it came time to pass the bar in 1931, two-thirds failed. If a woman did pass the bar, she would have to struggle in the real world.

The Real World:

In 1909 there were only 205 women lawyers in the United States. By 1920 there were more than 1,171 working as practicing attorneys in the less than desirable fields (anti-trust, divorce, probate and taxes). Very few women were practicing alone. Usually they worked with family members.If she did join a law firm, her name was usually at the bottom of the letterhead or not put on it at all. Many women found that if they displayed skills as a stenographer, they weren’t allowed to do anything else. For women who made the difficult decision to venture into the courtroom, she was up to another set of challenges.

Once in the courtroom, women found themselves at the mercy of judges. Some resented women, others enjoyed the oddity. Depending on the state, judges made all attorney appointments in criminal trials. If a woman was on good terms with a judge, she got more appointments. But it was usually the opposing council that caused the most problems. The vast majority of men saw women attorneys as incompetent or beneath them. This often worked in the woman’s favor. Many arrogant men came ill prepared and lost their cases for underestimating their opponent. World War II brought a new opportunity. With all the men overseas, legal jobs within the government opened up with better advancement and better pay. But many women stayed put. They didn’t want to lose the clients they worked so hard to win over.


Chester, Ronald.Unequal Access: Women Lawyers in a Changing America. South Hadley, Massachusetts: Bergin & Garvey Publishers, Inc., 1985.

Ritchey, Charles J. Drake University Through Seventy-Five Years, 1881-1956. Des Moines, Iowa: Drake University, 1956.

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