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Miers Started Out in Sexist Times

October 15, 2005|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — When an association of female law students at Southern Methodist University filed a discrimination suit against this city's largest law firms in 1975, they approached one of the law school's more successful women graduates for help.

The lawyer, who was fast making a name for herself in local legal circles, had been rejected by some of the big firms, even though her credentials surpassed those of some male applicants. The plaintiffs figured her testimony would be invaluable in proving that the defendants were biased against women.

Politely but firmly, Harriet E. Miers said no.

"I was disappointed. To have somebody at another firm who was hired doing associate work and doing it competently ... that would have been a very important witness for us," said Neil Cogan, the association's lawyer and then-SMU professor who approached Miers about getting involved. "She didn't disclose why. She just said that it was not something she wanted to do."

The association settled its lawsuit against most of the defendants after a protracted legal battle, and won some concessions from the firms. They agreed to new rules governing the hiring of women, and to stop holding partner meetings at male-only clubs. One of the law students is now a federal judge.

Miers became a groundbreaking corporate lawyer in Dallas, bar association leader, White House counsel and now President Bush's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Her refusal to get involved in the discrimination suit squared with the Miers ethic: working the system, keeping her head down, working mule-like hours, and avoiding too many confrontations with her male superiors. It is an ethic that seems to have defined her more-than-30-year career, including her long association as a personal lawyer and advisor to Bush.

In a place like Texas in the 1970s, it might have been the smarter path to success for a young female lawyer.

The men at the University of Texas law school would hold beauty contests, posting photos of good-looking female classmates on a school bulletin board and conducting a vote for the winner. Female students were not allowed into the legal honor society. In job interviews, when they managed to get them, young female lawyers were grilled about whether they practiced birth control. One newly minted lawyer recalled a Texas judge threatening her with jail for posing as a lawyer until she produced her bar membership card.

In rare cases where women could get jobs at law firms, the range of acceptable personality traits was narrower than for male lawyers. Women were expected to be smart -- but also deferential and polite.

Miers "was not on the stump waving the flag. That would not have gone well with the law firm," said Louise Raggio, a 1952 graduate of the SMU law school who has been a mentor to many female students, including Miers. "She did it by being hardworking, not shrill or argumentative."

Miers helped establish a lecture series to honor Raggio at SMU, which has gained attention because the roster of speakers over the years has included the likes of feminist icon Gloria Steinem. But Raggio says Miers was not involved in selecting the speakers and doubts she considers Steinem a role model.

"I have never thought of her as kicking in the door," said Hal Monk, a Fort Worth lawyer and private investigator who has known Miers since high school. "She gently shoves the door open, and then everybody inside seems glad that she came."

But not everybody in the nation's capital seems glad about her latest career turn. Miers is getting an unwelcome reception as a Supreme Court nominee, and some say it's sexism, Washington-style.

She has come under attack primarily from conservatives because she has never been a judge, has little experience with constitutional issues, and did not attend a first-tier law school. She has even been derided for her behind-the-scenes, unassertive personal style.

Defenders say she has become the victim of sex discrimination all over again -- denied credit for her achievements and belittled for a career that does not differ all that much from those of several previous Supreme Court justices.

That has spawned an odd alliance of liberal Democrats and people in the White House, including First Lady Laura Bush, who suggest that a male nominee would be treated differently. The longest-serving woman in the Senate, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), said Miers had become the victim of a double standard.

"I find it incredibly sexist," she said.

Women from the era in which Miers first made her mark say people have forgotten what they endured and the price they paid, including humiliation and hard choices about having children and families. Miers, for one, never married.

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