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Panel Discusses Gender, Courts

Experts Detail Historical Bias and Ongoing Problems

By Alexandra E. Tibbetts

Gender bias continues to permeate the nation's judicial system, handicapping female attorneys and often working against victims of domestic violence, a panel of attorneys and academics said at the Law School last night.

Virginia Drachman, a professor of history at Tufts University, led off the discussion with a brief history of discrimination in the courtroom during the 19th and early 20th century.

As Drachman recounted stories of blatant discrimination against women--such as one judge's rule that banned any woman from the court who was not wearing a hat and white gloves--many audience members laughed out loud.

And when Drachman described a 1920 report that predicted equality in the law profession by 1950, the other panelists chuckled in their seats.

But as the subsequent speakers gave instances of ongoing bias, the laughter ceased.

During the past two to three years, discrimination task forces were formed in 30 states to study their court systems, said Ruth Abrams '53, a justice in the Mass. Supreme Judicial Court.

"By June 1989, nine states had published their task force reports...Every report in every state reported huge gender bias," said Abrams, who co-chairs the Court's gender bias study committee.

Gender bias in the courts was defined to "include decisions made and actions taken because of preconceived notions" rather than on relevant information, said Abrams. The degree to which "stereotypes affect courtroom practice" is dangerous, she said.

Abrams said she hopes gender bias in the courtroom will eventually become a form of official misconduct.

Nancy Gertner, a partner in a private Boston law firm, said that the gender bias report's findings confirmed what she had known from personal experience in the state's court system.

In the courtroom, even "slight innuendos made me feel illegitimate--like I didn't belong there," said Gertner.

Gertner asked that the audience "not allow stereotypes to remain unchallenged and therefore unchanged."

Sara Buel, a third year law student who founded the Battered Women's Advocacy Project, said that the systemic bias in the courts hurt more than just female attorneys.

Buel, whose innovative project trains law students and undergraduates to be advocates for battered women in the courts, said that 95 percent of the inmates at Framing-ham State Prison are battered women.

She said half of the prisoners are in jail there for writing bad checks, many of which were used to pay for food or shelter.

While many women have to take sometimesdesperate action to escape their batterers. Buelsaid, only 3 percent of physically abusivehusbands are arrested.

"Domestic violence is serious violent crime,and until we treat it as such, we will continue tosee the staggering numbers of battered womenseeking remedies in our courts and beingmurdered," said Buel.

Buel asked, "Why do we as a society toleratethe incredible levels of violence against womenand children?" She cited emergency room statisticswhich show that domestic violence is the numberone cause of injury to women.

Family violence is as prevalent in middle-andupper-class families as it is in poor ones. Buelsaid.

The panel was co-sponsored by the SchlesingerLibrary and the Law School Library

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