The Life of Gladys Towles Root
When the Law Was a Man's World
Root de toot.
Gladys Towles Root wore dresses so tight she had to take mincing steps when she walked. She loved to drape herself in furs and cover herself with sequins. Her hats were famously gigantic and so was her jewelry. Under those hats, her hair was often colored a gaudy hue to match her outfits, with Mercurochrome and Easter egg dye. A cloud of perfume always drifted in her wake.
But this flamboyant and exotic woman was not a debutante or courtesan. She was one of the most famous female criminal defense lawyers of the 20th century. Root, who practiced law from 1929 to 1982, averaged 75 courtroom appearances a month throughout her 52-year career and she maintained this rate even throughout two pregnancies. At one point her office was handling 1,600 cases a year; more criminal cases than any other private American law firm.
She, improbably, made a living and a name for herself defending men from all manner of sex crimes, from child molestation to rape. This most womanly of women was not above attacking the credibility of any woman on the stand, including in one instance, an angelic-looking six-year-old girl.
Women attorneys were few and far between. They were discriminated against as a matter of course. Most firms did not want them, believing they would not fit into the old boys club atmosphere that prevailed. They were barred from the most prestigious, Ivy League law schools. Indeed, Harvard would not admit women until 1950.
It was into this extremely male dominated legal world that Gladys Towles Root hung out her shingle in 1929. Few accused wanted a soft, emotional woman defending them. There was also a group of accused that few lawyers wished to defend: sex crime defendants. Thus, however contradictory it may seem, women lawyers and men accused of crimes committed almost exclusively against females made for a good fit.
There were other reasons that female lawyers were paradoxically compatible with sex crime defendants. For one thing, seeing a man with his female attorney tended to suggest that at least this woman did not view him as someone to fear. Furthermore, a woman lawyer could get away with making sexist arguments that, decades before sexism entered the vocabulary, might have offended if they came from a mans mouth. Gladys Towles Root was to use both of these factors to both her own and her clients advantages.