From Coverture to Supreme Court Justice: Women Lawyers and Judges in Oregon History

By Dilg, Janice | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

From Coverture to Supreme Court Justice: Women Lawyers and Judges in Oregon History


Dilg, Janice, Oregon Historical Quarterly


These are really great women and they're doing great things for women in law. -- Agnes Petersen (1)

WOMEN WHO ADVOCATED for the right to vote understood that enfranchisement was only one step in full citizenship. With the vote, women could pursue a range of economic, civil, and social rights by holding elective office, serving on juries, changing laws, making laws, and enforcing laws. The U.S. District Court of Oregon Historical Society Oral History Collection reveals much about the women who changed both the legal profession and the laws of Oregon. Oral histories of women in this collection span from the latter decades of the nineteenth century into the first decade of the twenty-first. During that time, women moved from not having the right to vote or serve on a jury to having law degrees and working in every aspect of the legal profession to serving at every level of the judiciary in our state and nation.

The U.S. District Court of Oregon is the trial court of the federal court system. Each state in the country has at least one district court, and Oregon's District Court began with statehood in 1859. Matthew Deady was appointed the sole U.S. District Judge for Oregon, and he remained the only Oregon District judge for approximately the next three decades. Today, the U.S. District Court of Oregon consists of twenty-five Article III, Magistrate, and Bankruptcy Court judges based in Eugene, Medford, Pendleton, and Portland and is currently led by Chief Judge Ann Aiken, who became Chief in 2009. Members of the U.S. District Court of Oregon formed a historical society in 1983 with the mission "to collect, study, preserve, analyze, and disseminate information concerning the history, development, character, operations, and accomplishments of the United States District Court for the District of Oregon." (2)

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Since 1988, the U.S. District Court of Oregon Historical Society (USDCHS) and the Oregon Historical Society have partnered to collect more than 150 oral histories of judges, lawyers, and individuals who are vital to the functioning of the District Court, including: Clerk of Court, law librarian, U.S. Attorney, and the first male African American U.S. Marshal. (3) Due to the longevity of the project, the USDCHS Oral History Collection brings considerable breadth and depth to the history of Oregon's federal judiciary and of the legal profession in the state. Changes over time in the state's three law schools, in the practice of law, and in how the federal court operates are well documented. The collection also covers landmark decisions by Oregon District Court judges that affect national as well as regional issues, such as: Judges Robert Belloni and James Redden's rulings in United States v. Oregon (1969) about Native fishing rights and salmon recovery; Judge Garr King's rulings on the federal government's use of warrantless wiretaps and a defendant's access to evidence in Al Haramain Islamic Foundation v. US Department of the Treasury (2011); and Magistrate Judge John Jelderks's decisions on the disposition of ancient human remains found along the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington, in Bonnichsen v. United States (2004). King and Jelderks also have been leaders in accepting oral history as valid evidence in court.

The twenty-six interviews with women lawyers and judges contained in the collection provide a look at the personal and professional obstacles they overcame in gaining access to education, employment, and career advancement in the practice of law. At this point, the oral history collection largely captures the experiences of many of the "firsts" in Oregon women's legal history--pioneering women who broke down gender barriers at law schools, private law firms and government agencies, and at all levels of the bench and bar and other legal professional organizations.

That "first generation" of women lawyers is defined here as spanning from 1920 to 1970, when narrators were often the only woman, or one of two or three, in their law school class and the first or second to be hired into a private law firm or by a city, county, state, or federal judicial agency. …

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From Coverture to Supreme Court Justice: Women Lawyers and Judges in Oregon History
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