Monthly Archives: September 2012

Kate Sutherland

Women Lawyers in Literature (in anticipation of the 1st meeting of the Law, Feminism, [short] Fiction reading group)

Lists of top or greatest or favourite fictional lawyers seem to appear at regular intervals, for example, the ABA Journal’s 25 Greatest Fictional Lawyers Who Are Not Atticus Finch, or the Guardian’s Top 10 Lawyers in Fiction (selected by novelist Simon Lelic). Such lists generally feature few or no women lawyers, and those that make the cut tend to be drawn from films or television programs rather than books. For example, the two women included in the ABA’s list of 25 are Ally McBeal and Patty Hewes (of Damages). Where are the women lawyers of literature?

Certainly in seeking to identify the most noteworthy fictional female lawyers, one has a smaller pool from which to draw. In a 1994 article, “In Portia’s Footsteps: Women Lawyers in Literature,” Marion Dixon concluded that after Portia’s appearance in Shakespeare’s 1598 play Merchant of Venice, “there don’t appear to have been any fictional women lawyers in English literature until the 1980’s.” (And, of course, as Dixon notes, despite her name having become synonymous with women lawyers, Portia wasn’t actually a lawyer.) Surely the occasional one must have found her way into 20th century literature pre-1980, but I confess that no names spring immediately to mind. But as the number of women in the legal profession began to increase, so too did the ranks of fictional female lawyers.

The only two scholarly articles that I’ve found squarely on the topic of the representation of women lawyers in literature (as opposed to on television or in film)—the aforementioned piece by Dixon, and one by Kathryn Lee and Elizabeth Morgan titled “Legal Fictions and the Moral Imagination: Female Fictional Lawyers Encounter Professional Responsibility”—focus on crime fiction. The first examples that occurred to me also come from this genre: Alafair Burke’s series featuring Portland Deputy DA Samantha Kincaid, Linda Fairstein’s series featuring Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor Alexandra Cooper, and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s series featuring Reykjavik lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir.

Another of my favourite genres, the short story, has also proved rich territory in this connection. Thus when we decided to make women lawyers the theme of our first Law, Feminism, [short] Fiction discussion, there were many stories from which to choose. Ultimately we settled on three stories by three very different writers that offer a range of representations of women lawyers: “Weight,” by Margaret Atwood; “The Mother,” by Michele Martinez; and, “His Sister,” by Ruthann Robson.

Margaret Atwood is a towering literary figure who needs little introduction. Perhaps worth noting in this context though is the fact that her work has garnered much interest among legal scholars, in particular The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel that depicts a Christian fundamentalist society in which reproduction is entirely state-controlled, and Alias Grace, a historical novel based on an 1843 murder case. But our focus next week will be her short story “Weight,” first published in her 1991 collection Wilderness Tips, which has at its centre two women, the narrator and her friend Molly, who attended law school at a time when women students were still an embattled minority, and bonded over shared feminist values and aspirations, but whose career paths and lives have diverged dramatically by the time the story begins.

Michele Martinez, formerly a federal prosecutor, is the author of a series of legal thrillers featuring Manhattan federal prosecutor Melanie Vargas. Vargas is also the protagonist of “The Mother,” a short story published in a 2009 anthology, in which she is forced to rethink an apparent legal victory after being confronted by the mother of a young man whom she is prosecuting for murder.

Ruthann Robson is a professor at CUNY School of Law as well as a fiction writer. She is an extraordinarily prolific writer in both realms, as well as an innovative one whose work might sometimes be characterized as falling somewhere in between the two. Her short stories and novels are peopled by a number of intriguing law student, law professor, and lawyer characters. “His Sister,” from her 2000 collection The Struggle for Happiness, focuses on Jolene Fields, director of the Criminal Defense Resource Center. As a law student, Fields had loved research and hated mooting, and finds herself now “amazed at the privilege of being able to ‘do’ criminal defense work and never walk into a courtroom.” But the story ultimately reveals her rather more complicated relationship to criminal law and with the criminal defense attorneys for whom she does research.

Osgoode folk who would like to join in a discussion of these three stories next week can find details about the meeting time and place on the IFLS blog.

Whether or not you’re able to join the discussion in person, I would be most grateful for any help you can provide in the comments below in my quest to compile a more comprehensive list of women lawyers in literature. In addition to those mentioned above there is Ruth Puttermesser from Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers; Judge Josie Jo Ford from children’s classic The Westing Game; an array of compelling women law students, lawyers, and judges in Lowell B. Komie’s short stories; criminal lawyer Cass Jameson from Carolyn Wheat’s mystery series; the lawyers of all-female firm Rosato & Associates featured in Lisa Scottoline’s series of legal thrillers; and, barristers Selena Jardine and Julia Larwood from Sarah Caudwell’s series of legal whodunnits. Who else?