Writing Women Back Into History – By: Robert Orion Martin
Right now, I am doing something that the subject of this paper refuses to do. Typing. Roxanne Conlin is an Iowa woman who has achieved national recognition for her work fighting prejudice and discrimination. Maybe less intentionally, she has also had a tremendous impact on my life.
When Roxanne Conlin completed law school in 1966, she was one of only 1500 female law students nationwide, and one of three women in her graduating class. Women were not yet being taken seriously as attorneys. Roxanne knew the fate of many female attorneys was assignment to work as legal secretaries. Determined to suffer no such fate, Roxanne said, “I knew they couldn’t do that to me if I couldn’t type.” Despite her lack of typing abilities, she was mistaken for a secretary. At her first court appearance, the judge refused to let her represent her client. Roxanne recalls, “He was absolutely convinced I could not be a lawyer and I was in fact a secretary. For the first several years that I practiced law, I carried my admission certificate to the Iowa Bar with me at all times.”
Weathering these early setbacks, Roxanne carved a path of shocking accomplishments through the legal profession for other young women to follow. She was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa during the Carter administration, elected the first female president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, selected one of only two women members to Inner Circle of Advocates, and awarded more than 15 verdicts of $1 million or more in discrimination cases.
Roxanne, however, is “most proud that [her] children turned out to be very nice people.” Roxanne has been married 37 years, and has four children, and four grandchildren whom she adores. Roxanne’s domestic life mirrored her professional life. “I have never cleaned, cooked, washed or ironed and I do not know how to operate my dishwasher.” She refused tasks assumed to be women’s work so that she could focus on what she knew was more important, like being present for her children.
My life intersected Roxanne’s when she hired my mother as a law clerk. I often accompanied my mother to Roxanne’s office. I was ten years old at the time. I remember the small forests of paper traveling in and out of her office as she prepared for major trials. Roxanne’s infinite affection for children extended beyond her immediate family. No matter how busy she was, when I arrived, she would stop what she was doing to greet me.
What I did not understand then and appreciate now is what she was accomplishing. The nights I fell asleep on the floor in Roxanne’s office, my mother and many others were helping her prepare for enormous trials. One such trial resulted in an award of eighty million dollars, one of the largest jury verdicts in a discrimination case in U.S. history.
When I asked Roxanne why she chose to fight for others’ rights instead of going into more profitable field of law, she responded, “I became a lawyer and endured the difficulties of law school and the practice only because I wanted to fight for the rights of individual human beings.” And when I asked Roxanne what advice she would offer young women about their careers, she said, “Accept no limits.”
I think Roxanne’s advice is appropriate for all young people. Roxanne Conlin should be written into history because she is proof that nothing can stop us for she broke each barrier that stood before her and every accomplishment has been in the noble pursuit of equality for all.
Roxanne Conlin and Associates P.C. website
and an interview with Roxanne Barton Conlin (1/8/02)