(Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of stories the Appeal will be publishing in honor of Women’s History Month.)
Displayed in Kathleen O’Connor’s judge’s chambers is a photo called “gentlemen of the jury.” The photo, which depicts 12 male jurors, was gifted to O’Connor by her mentor when she graduated from law school and serves as a reminder to Yuba County’s first female judge of the significance of women serving in court.
“At one point in time women didn’t have the right to vote or sit on juries,” O’Connor said. “And to think of the changes that have come since then.”
Over her four decades of legal practice, O’Connor has seen many of those changes first-hand, from needing her husband to co-sign on her malpractice insurance to becoming Yuba County’s first female judge.
Growing up in Wheatland, O’Connor’s father was a realtor with a passion for law, encouraging the same love of the legal system in his daughter. O’Connor said her father would take her to court and the two would analyze the attorney’s arguments and presentations. When her father died unexpectedly at age 55, she continued their mutual dream to attend law school.
After obtaining her associate’s degree in political science from Yuba College, she continued her education at Stanford University where she received a Bachelor of Arts in history. While attending UC Davis for law school, she noticed there were only 10 women in her first-year class of 180 students and only three women by her third year.
“While I was taken aback by the lack of females, I simplistically thought that it was just because most women did not want to practice law, O’Connor said. “It had not dawned on me that any female would expect to be limited in her career advancement in that profession.”
Upon returning to Yuba County after law school, O’Connor encountered limitations in practicing law because of her gender. She said she wasn’t hired by any of the local firms and forced to open her own practice, but only with a contingency.
“My husband at the time, who was also an attorney practicing at a separate law firm, had to agree to review my case management practices--even though he had only been in practice a few years longer than I and wasn’t involved with my law practice,” O’Connor said.
For the next 18 years, O’Connor worked with family and contract law cases, working to develop a strong ethical code and strong work ethic. Both are virtues she nurtured from her mentor Frances Newell Carr, a third district court of appeals judge O’Connor interned for during law school.
She recalled a time when she was researching a case for Carr at the law library and Carr came to personally tell O’Connor that the case had settled. This lesson in how to treat employees and those around one has always remained with O’Connor.
“To me, that is how a boss should act,” O’Connor said. “That they should be respectful of the time of an individual who is supporting staff to you, and never forget where you started from.”
Carr gave O’Connor the photo which now hangs in O’Connor’s judge’s chambers. The same chambers which had a restroom specifically outfitted for a man. O’Connor said when she toured her private restroom attached to her chambers for the first time, she saw the physical representation of the glass ceiling she had just broken through.
“When I stepped into that bathroom, the toilet that had only been used by male judges since the courthouse was built, did not have a lid and was fashioned to serve as a latrine,” O’Connor said. “That bathroom toilet was probably the most revealing reminder of how my life had changed as I realized my dream.”
Since her first time in the chamber, O’Connor has employed the qualities of ethics, empathy and patience while on the bench.
Her advice to young people interested in the legal profession is to learn as much as possible about the different facets of law, and take the opportunity to observe court proceedings as well as intern in law offices and courts if possible.
“My treasured quote is ‘With risk may come failure, but success cannot come without it,’” O’Connor said. “I honor during Women’s History month, the countless women and men who risked much and hammered away at the glass ceiling, and I congratulate you who are ready to pick up the hammer so other women and minorities may successfully break through.”