Adam’s Rib as an Historical Document: The Plight of Women Lawyers in the 1940s

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Category: Feminism, Popular Culture & Law, Public
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In a recent post, Professor Lisa Mazzie offered her observations on the 1949 film classic, Adam’s Rib, which stars Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as husband-and-wife attorneys who end up on opposite sides of the same murder case. Like Professor Mazzie, I have long been fascinated with the movie, especially as an historical document.

Trying to figure out what it is that Adam’s Rib has to say about women and the legal profession in the 1940’s turns out to be a bit perplexing. Does it endorse the idea that women make just as good attorneys as men, or is it merely just a celebration of the uniqueness of Hepburn’s character?

Although you would not necessarily discern this from the movie itself, Adam’s Rib was filmed at a time in which the role of women in the legal profession was apparently changing in significant ways.

In an era when very few women went to law school and even fewer practiced law, the 1940’s were, thanks to World War II, a decade of expanded opportunities for women in the legal profession. Unfortunately, this expansion turned out to be quite temporary.

In 1940, there were only 4,447 female attorneys in the United States, at least as identified by the United States Census. As such, these “Portias” accounted for only 2.4% of all lawyers. By 1950, the number of women lawyers had risen by almost 50%, to a total of 6,348, which amounted to 3.5% of lawyers generally.

The number of female law students showed a similar increase during the decade. In 1940, there were just 690 female students at American Bar Association accredited law schools; in 1950, the total had nearly doubled to 1,364. Of course, the number of women lawyers remained quite small, but for a few years during the middle of the decade, woman seemed poised to play a far more significant role in the profession than they had in the prewar world.

The massive military call up of American males after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, created an immediate void in American law schools. As enrollments declined precipitously, a number of ambitious women were able to take advantage of the sudden need for students. By 1942, the percentage of law students who were female had jumped from 4.35% of all law students just two years earlier to 11.7%. By 1943, the percentage had increased to 21.9%.

While it is true that much of the percentage increase was the result of the departure of male students which made for a much smaller denominator, the number of female students at ABA-accredited law schools exceeded 1,000 for the first time in 1943. By 1947, the number of was over 1400.

The War also created new opportunities in the workplace, especially in corporate law firms in major cities which faced a serious shortage of lawyers. Many Wall Street firms began employing women attorneys for the first time after a year of scrambling to find adequate substitutes for male lawyers drafted into service.

For example, the New York firm of Cahill Gordon hired its first female associate in 1943, and Shearman & Sterling followed suit in 1944. Meanwhile, the previously all-male bastion of Sullivan & Cromwell employed nine female associates between 1942 and the end of the War. The official historian of Simpson, Thatcher and Bartlett spoke for a number of Wall Street law firms when he later reported that Simpson, Thatcher had suffered fewer disruptions during World War II than during the much-shorter World War I because “there were women lawyers who could be recruited to do some of the work formerly handled by male associates who had joined the armed forces.”

While no other woman was so “honored” during the decade, in 1944, the Wall Street firm of Spence, Hotchkiss, Parker & Duryee even promoted Russian-born female associate Soia Mentschikoff to partner, making her the first female partner in a Wall Street firm. (Mentschikoff was later the first woman faculty member at the law schools of both Harvard and the University of Chicago.)

In Boston, the silk stocking firm of Ropes & Gray responded to the lawyer shortage by promoting two female secretaries in its probate department, both of whom were law school graduates, to the status of associate attorney. Undoubtedly, women lawyers made inroads as well in prosecutor’s offices, small firms, and as solo practitioners. Encountering a female attorney was a much more likely event in 1944 and 1945, than ever before in United States history.

As it turned out, the “triumph” of women lawyers was short-lived. Returning lawyer-G.I.’s were given their old jobs back after 1945, and by 1947, law schools were again turning out droves of male attorneys, many of whom had funded law school under the GI Bill. In response, women lawyers were often demoted, or frequently let go altogether.

By 1949, when Adam’s Rib debuted, lawyers like Katharine Hepburn’s character Amanda Bonner were already disappearing from the scene. Moreover, while the end of the war did not bring about an immediate decline in the number of female law students, which reached 1405 in 1947, by the next year their number did begin to shrink. Although the total number of female law students rebounded slightly in the early 1950’s, it would decline again and would remain between 1100 and 1500 students in any given year until it finally exceeded the latter figure in 1962. The percentage of female law students would not exceed the 1943 figure of 21.9% until 1975.

It is hard to know to know to what extent the creative parties behind Adam’s Rib were aware of the developments just described. The two screenwriters, the husband and wife team of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon (she Harold and Maude fame three decades later), had no apparent connection to the legal profession, although as New Yorkers with business connections, they were probably aware of the increased presence of female lawyers during the 1940’s.

Director George Cukor, on the other hand, had a number of connections to the legal profession. His father, Victor Cukor, was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who had studied law at night after arriving in the United States and was an assistant district attorney in Manhattan when George (b. 1899) was young. George Cukor himself originally intended to pursue a career in law when he enrolled in City College of New York in 1917, but after a short stint in the Army during World War I, he left college and spent the rest of his career in the theater and movies. Cukor’s knowledge of the legal profession probably had more to do with the credibility of the movie’s courtroom scenes than it did to any statement that the film might be making about the role of women lawyers.

Whatever the intentions of its creators, Adam’s Rib is clearly the signature “women lawyers” film of the 1940’s. It was not, however, the only Hollywood film of that decade to have a female lawyer as a central character. In fact, there were 14 such films, although the other 13 are all but forgotten, even though several starred well-known actresses like Eve Arden (She Couldn’t Say No, 1941); Ann Baxter (The Walls of Jericho, 1948); Rosalind Russell (Design for Scandal, 1941, and Tell It to the Judge, 1949); Myrna Loy (The Bachelor and the Bobby-soxer, 1947); and Paulette Goddard (Suddenly, It’s Spring, 1947).

In most of these films, the female lawyer characters are attractive, smart, but somewhat emotional. An interesting exception is the Roger Rogers western, Eyes of Texas (1948), where 60-year old character actress Nana Bryant plays a tough, no-nonsense western female lawyer named Hattie E. Waters, Attorney, whose primary objective is to hornswoggle her own client out of his beloved ranch, which he is using as a home for boys who lost their fathers in World War II. (This portrayal was obviously not an endorsement of the idea women lawyers.)

Although Amanda Bonner may have bested her husband Adam in Adam’s Rib, her triumph was short-lived, as it would be another three decades before female attorneys assumed the numerically significant role that they play today.

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2 Responses to “Adam’s Rib as an Historical Document: The Plight of Women Lawyers in the 1940s”

  1. Melissa Greipp Says:

    Thanks, Prof. Hylton and Prof. Mazzie, for your posts on this topic. Katharine Hepburn was a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, a women’s college near Philadelphia. Here is a blog that provides some perspectives on the influence of Bryn Mawr on Hepburn, as well as her feminist approach to her career in film and the types of characters she portrayed.

  2. David Papke Says:

    Female lawyers in Hollywood films of the 1940s might indirectly reflect the opportunities created for women when male lawyers were called up for World War II. More surprising, meanwhile, were the female lawyers in Hollywood films of the 1930s’s.

    These films include “Scarlet Pages” (1930), “Drifting Souls” (1932), “Ann Carver’s Profession” (1933), “The Defense Rests” (1934), “Career Woman” (1936), “The Law in Her Hands” (1936), and “Portia on Trial” (1937).

    “Ann Carver’s Profession” included a theme that would resurface in modern films with female lawyers. Ann Carver, played by the actress Fay Wray of “King Kong” fame, is married to an architect who is resentful that Carver’s income is larger than his own, but he surely should be thankful he married a lawyer because Carver successfully defends him when he is prosecuted for murder. She then decides to give up her career as a lawyer in order elimnate the conflict between being a good wife and a good lawyer.

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