male lawyer

Vintage Sexism Alert: Law firm’s 1956 internal memo on interviewing “lady lawyers”

The 1950s must have been a tricky time to be a male boss. Blatantly discriminating against women in hiring was still acceptable but rapidly becoming less so. Plus, there were more and more educated, qualified women seeking work in the male-dominated professional world, and maybe it’d be nice to hire one or two — ya know, those truly exceptional women who somehow managed to exeed the limitations of their gender.

This internal memo from 1956 shows that one law firm decided being “candid” about their preference for men would be the best way to approach any “girl applicants” seeking employment. Here’s the section, titled “Lady Lawyers,” via Above the Law Redline:

The firm desires to be candid about its preference for male applicants and yet not unnecessarily discourage the distaff side of our profession. We have hired women lawyers in the past and we currently employ one woman who is outstanding in the blue sky field. It is, however, also true that the firm does not rate a girl applicant on equal terms with the men applicants. If the paper records are the same, the man is given preference, barring some personality defect, on the grounds that being a man, he has probably had extra-curricular experience in the business world which will be of greater use to the firm than the experience open to most girls.

Where grades disqualify a lady applicant it is preferable and quickest to terminate the interview on this ground. If, however, except for her sex the applicant deserves an “8” or better, the firm’s preference for man should be candidly faced. The discussion can then be turned to whether the applicant wants to get a “general practice” job or would consider a specialty in trusts and estates, estate taxes or “blue sky”. The result of this exploration should be noted on the resume. Next, an option should be given to the lady applicant either to proceed further with the knowledge that she must overcome a preference for male associates or to withdraw and use her valuable time where such a preference may not apply.

The firm will probably not suffer from its preference for men if the desire to be candid so as to be fair to lady applicants is stressed along with the fact that the firm does not give a final “no” to lady applicants because it wants to stay flexible from year to year and review its position in the light of each outstanding lady applicant who appears. After such an applicant has seen one or two partners, the responsible associate should get them to decide what further disposition is in order.

See the memo excerpt here.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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