March 31, 2017 — Professor Renee Knake praised unsung heroes of the legal profession in a talk titled, "What Does it Mean to Be the First? Lessons from Women Shortlisted for the U.S. Supreme Court," last week at the Yale L. Rosenberg Memorial Lecture in Krost Hall at the University of Houston Law Center.
"What does it mean to be the first," Knake pondered. "Why does this matter? In a legal profession where women and minorities continue to be significantly underrepresented in positions of leadership and power, I believe it matters a great deal.
"Although the entering classes of law students now reflect an equal number of men and women and increasingly improve in minority representation—especially here at the University of Houston—we do not see this same diversity among senior leadership in law firms, law schools, general counsels of major corporations, or our courts."
Knake, the Law Center's Doherty Chair in Legal Ethics, said while the accomplishments of Sandra Day O'Connor are celebrated as the first woman to become a Supreme Court justice, she was far from the first woman to be considered or qualified to be on the court. She pointed to nine women who were shortlisted before O'Connor, and highlighted the careers of four of them – Florence Allen, Mildred Lillie, Soia Mentschikoff and Susie Sharp. She cited a forthcoming article she co-authored with Hannah Brenner titled, "Shortlisted," to be published in May, that highlights the struggles each woman faced as a trailblazer in a profession dominated by men.
"Firsts don't happen without those who go before us," Knake said. "Firsts get all the glory. We cracked the glass ceiling. We broke the color barrier. But here's the truth: We didn't. Firsts are beneficiaries of a legacy of cracks and breaks that let the light in—a light that "firsts" bask in.
"Those who should have been first, but were not, because the timing wasn't right, because society hadn't yet fully progressed in its understanding of equality and fairness, or because other factors got in the way, these are really the ones we should remember."
Knake mentioned how Allen, the first woman known to appear on a president's short list during Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency, was the subject of speculation about her personal life and sexual orientation. Lillie faced similar scrutiny when a 1971 article in the New York Times mentioned she had no children and 'maintained her bathing beauty figure,' even given her age. Mentschikoff faced similar media coverage when she began her career as an associate attorney. A New York Post article described her dates, clothing and social activities, but not her legal success.
"The unifying theme in these women's stories is that all were more than qualified for nomination to the Supreme Court," Knake said. "All attended top law schools and had impressive legal careers forged at a time when women were regularly excluded from law school classrooms, law practices, and the bench. When presidents passed them by, it was not because they lacked the qualifications. It was due to bias—explicit and implicit—based upon stereotypes and assumptions."
Knake's addressed was followed by a panel discussion featuring distinguished alumnae, Judge Vanessa Gilmore '81, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Kay McCall '84, president, CEO and general counsel at Noble Environmental Power, Diane Ralston '94, chief legal officer at TechnipFMC plc and Doris Rodriguez '80, a partner at Andrews Kurth Kenyon.
The lecture is named for the late Law Center Professor Yale L. Rosenberg who taught administrative law, civil procedure, federal jurisdiction, professional responsibility, and Jewish Law. He was the first Law Center professor to receive the Teaching Excellence Award from the University of Houston. He passed away in 2002.
The Yale L. Rosenberg Memorial Fund was established to recognize and foster excellence at the Law Center. The endowment is used to fund a student writing prize and bring distinguished speakers to the Law Center.