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August 04, 2023 Feature

Book Review: Her Honor

By Robert H. Edmunds Jr.

Opening statement: The book under review, Her Honor, is published by the American Bar Association (ABA). I am the chair of the Judicial Division’s Book Editorial Board. However, I had no contact with this book or Ms. Rikleen, its editor, at any time or in any way until I received a printed copy and began reading. I believe this review is untainted by my work with the ABA but feel that readers should know of this connection. And now, on with the show. …

In her latest book, Her Honor, editor Lauren Stiller Rikleen presents 25 brief biographies and autobiographies of pathfinding women judges. Bookended by portraits of U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the rest of the justices and judges presented have presided at every level of state and federal court, trial and appellate. Although the chapters are not in precise chronological order, the judges depicted in the opening chapters of the book are no longer with us and are discussed by colleagues, friends, and clerks who knew them and worked with them. However, most of the chapters are written by judges telling their own stories.

And fascinating stories they are. All of the featured judges are recipients of the ABA’s Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award, and each appears to have earned it the hard way. The different and distinctive voices in this book have much to say. It would be a disservice to this book to attempt in this review to synopsize each one of what are already thumbnail presentations. Each stands out in its own way. Each is unique.

Even so, readers will find that several consistent themes emerge from the experiences of these judges:

  1. Courage: Many of the now deceased women judges depicted in the early chapters, born in the 1920s or thereabouts, did not directly go to law school from college. For most of them, law school followed marriage and children. At that time, women law students were both a rarity and a novelty, so for these women, a decision to attend law school was a fraught choice that only grudgingly led to success and career satisfaction.
  2. Indefatigability: A great many of the judges in the book raised their children while studying or practicing law. Their ability to deal with the difficulties of juggling those dual responsibilities, especially for those who came along in a day when raising children and establishing a career were widely seen as incompatible pursuits for a woman, followed by success both as a mother and a lawyer, tells us much about their sturdiness and resilience.
  3. Fortitude: All of the women judges depicted faced difficult times both in becoming lawyers and in practice. For the earliest pioneers, overt hostility from law professors and fellow law students was a frequent experience. As more women entered the field, those depicted later in the book faced similar barriers, including unequal pay, sarcasm, and skepticism from crusty old judges, and colleagues and courtroom opponents who saw them as lesser beings best treated either with coddling or condescension. These women responded in many different ways, some with humor, some with confrontation, some with competence, but all with determination to stand their ground.
  4. Imagination: Almost all found that they had to prove themselves in some way, especially the earlier judges who began their careers when female attorneys were rare. Unlike their male law school classmates, women lawyers were not presumed to be fully competent upon graduation. Each found that further tests awaited, sometimes even years down the road, and almost invariably any time she changed jobs. Yet all were optimists, showing the strength to withstand disappointment and the vision to see the possibilities that a law career offers.
  5. Collegiality: Many of these women judges were buoyed not only by supportive spouses but also by their relationships with sympathetic attorneys (male and female) when they were in practice and with understanding judges (ditto) when they took the bench. Others found comfort and strength in bar organizations and religion. A number of the contributors applauded the National Association of Women Judges as both a refuge and an incubator of judicial talent. In addition, many found that, due in no small part to their work, ours became an increasingly receptive profession less inclined to view a woman lawyer as a curiosity.
  6. Equanimity: Every judge in this book went through difficult and lonely times. Every contributor took courage from those women who went before, who were willing to lend a hand or give useful advice, and who demonstrated that law could be a rewarding career. The friendships, mentors, and mentees that each developed often meant the difference between continuing and thriving in the profession and leaving the practice for good.
  7. Perseverance: All these women faced frustration at times, were confronted with obstacles both natural and man-made, and were treated as inferiors both by those who should have known better and by those who just assumed that a woman in court must be a clerk or stenographer. Some of these slings and arrows were launched intentionally, others unconsciously, but all hurt. All these women stood strong, refusing to give way when things got rough.

I could go on, but I hope that it is apparent that this book manages to present 25 fascinating individuals who, at the same time, have much in common. I have had the privilege and pleasure of getting to know and working with some of the younger judges (I’m 74, so “younger” covers a lot of territory) portrayed in this book. Based on what I’ve seen and read, I wish I’d had a chance to know them all.

In addition to the individuals we meet here, we are also given a valuable snapshot of our profession. In this book, through the experiences of these outstanding women, all of us can see how the practice of law once was, how much has been done in the last century to make it better for all, and what may yet be done.

Rikleen’s book can be read for the pleasure of meeting remarkable women, for one’s own edification, or for both. If Matthew Arnold was correct in defining art as that which entertains and instructs, then this book is a work of art. Thanks to its short-chapter structure, it can be read whole or in bite-size chunks. No matter how you take it on, this book is worth your time. 

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

Robert H. Edmunds Jr.

Fox Rothschild LLP

Robert H. Edmunds Jr. is a 1971 graduate of Vassar College and was elected to two terms as a justice on the Supreme Court of North Carolina, serving for many years with now retired North Carolina Chief Justice Sarah Parker, who has many stories of her own.