As a lawyer, when one judge repeatedly referred to her as “madam” rather than “counsel,” Joan Dempsey Klein told the judge: “Your honor, I am not a madam. I would appreciate your referring to me as counsel just as you do my co-counsel.”
The obituaries of remarkable women are frequently overlooked. The news cycle in 2020, dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, left little room for journalists to adequately cover the stories of important women who shaped this nation.
One of these women is Joan Dempsey Klein, a California appellate court judge who passed away on Christmas Eve without any mention in prominent media. (Klein’s hometown press finally acknowledged her death on January 3, 2021, though news of the loss had been public since at least December 29.)
An extraordinary champion of women’s rights during a time when she did not herself enjoy equality, Judge Klein was often the first woman to achieve various professional accomplishments. Among the most prominent, though not widely known, is her appearance on President Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court shortlist when he aimed to fulfill his campaign pledge to name the first female justice.
Although Sandra Day O’Connor would claim that mantel, the fact that Klein made in onto the shortlist at all is a feat worth celebrating. As we reveal in our new book, Shortlisted: Women in the Shadows of the Supreme Court, Klein was in good company, joining eight other women (dating as far back in time as the 1930’s) who were similarly considered, though not ultimately selected, for a seat on the nation’s highest Court.
Whatever emotions Klein must have felt, being so close, but not selected as the nominee herself, she set aside her disappointment and spoke in support of O’Connor at the Senate confirmation hearings. Klein not only heralded O’Connor’s qualifications, but also helped the largely white, male audience better understand the challenges women face in professional life. In her words:
“By virtue of the fact that so many of us have been the ‘first woman judge’ or the ‘only woman judge’ in any number of situations, we are keenly aware of the spotlight focused on our every act and the scrutiny to which we are continually subjected. Such attention will be greatly magnified in the case of the first woman Justice on the Supreme Court.”
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The incredible legal career that Klein ultimately achieved was likely not what her family envisioned for their daughter when she was born in 1924. Her parents suggested she seek a career in teaching. Instead, she enrolled in UCLA Law School, graduating in 1955. She was one of eight women in a class of nearly 200 and had not a single female professor. Klein knew she was an outsider in a school full of men. She reflected:
“Many of them expressed openly to me that they felt I had no business being there because I was only going to get married, have kids, stay home and waste a seat for some guy who could have had a career. They made generally negative comments, that were pretty much sexist and reflected a very biased attitude.”
Klein’s judicial career began in 1963 when California Governor Pat Brown appointed her to the Los Angeles Municipal Court. She would later be elected to the Los Angeles Superior Court and she served there until Governor Jerry Brown appointed her to the California Court of Appeals in 1978. Brown made her the court’s presiding justice; she was the first woman to occupy that role, serving in that capacity until her January 2015 retirement.
In her early days as a lawyer, Klein worked as a state deputy attorney general in California, rising in the profession despite having to endure persistent sexism. As she recalled in her oral history, “overt discrimination that included crude remarks as well as getting chased around the mulberry bush.”
She was frequently critiqued based on her appearance and outwardly rejected expectations about how women should dress, casting such ideas off as ridiculous. In one news story published in 1977, Klein was interviewed about her thoughts on high heels, a fashion statement she eschewed. She exclaimed, “They’re ridiculous. I absolutely will not wear them. I think they are not only unhealthy, but it’s demeaning for a designer to suggest that women, to be stylish, should wear such a shoe.”
In the courtroom, one judge repeatedly referred to her as “madam” rather than “counsel” as he did for her male counterpart. Klein confronted the judge: “Your honor, I am not a madam. I would appreciate your referring to me as counsel just as you do my co-counsel.”
After being denied a promotion “because I was a woman,” she said she “made a commitment to myself that I would devote a certain portion of my every day to try and to eliminate discrimination against women.”
Klein made good on this promise, and consistently found ways to give back to the legal profession and provide mentorship to other women lawyers. One of the most significant ways she accomplished this was through the creation of professional organizations for women lawyers and judges. She urged women who have become judges to take an even more active role in the bar, “so that our male peers can be aware of us as judges who do not have two heads but who do have brains, education, ability, egos—yes, ego—and ambition.”
Klein was a co-founder and first president of the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ), Her work to create NAWJ in 1979 was inspired largely by a desire to address the pervasive sexism and discrimination faced by women throughout the legal profession. In an interview she specifically referred to the “sophomoric sex bias they face daily, the men who call them ‘honey’ or ‘dear’ instead of ‘judge,’ the patronizing and harassment that are only too familiar to all working women.” Klein also focused her efforts on creating networks for women closer to home, serving as the founding president of California Women Lawyers.
In 1981, Judge Klein optimistically opined that the “the law will probably be the first fully integrated profession.” It is sobering to consider not only that her prediction was wrong, but that her motivation underlying the creation of organizations to address sex discrimination is still as relevant today as it was decades ago.
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