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An oral history of the first wave of women attorneys

The 1970s were the tipping point. According to the American Bar Association, women made up just 3.4% of J.D.s in 1960, and while by 1970 that number had more than doubled, to 8.6%, it was still just a sliver. Over the next 10 years it exploded. By 1980, 34.2% of the attorneys in the country were women.

The six San Diego attorneys interviewed here experienced that revolution firsthand. When Candace Carroll graduated from Duke University Law School in 1974, about 25 women were in her class; the year before, there were 10; in 1972, just seven or eight. “It was changing every year,” she says. Not everyone was on board with the changing dynamic. Some law firms wouldn’t hire women, or had barely disguised quotas; some female grads had trouble even landing interviews. Cynthia Chihak, who graduated from Pepperdine in 1977, recalls male judges assuming she was always wrong and her male colleagues right: “‘Oh, that young woman doesn’t know what she’s talking about,’ they’d say.”

But she persisted. “If it turns out ‘that young woman’ is right eight out of 10 times,” she says, “the presumption goes away. All you have to do is be right.”

Here are their stories.

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