How Times Have Changed: Stories of Women in Law in Sonoma County

A FEW YEARS BACK I rejoined the board of Sonoma County Women in Law and became its first-ever Historian. I decided to start interviewing female judges and lawyers so that I could write brief biographies for the SCWiL website. These women shared experiences with me that were inspiring, humorous, heartwarming, and at times infuriating. Although there was no man-bashing involved, their stories made it obvious that the legal arena was not an easy place for women in years past. With the support of their bosses, peers, loved ones and friends, these women persevered. Allow me to share some of their stories.

IN AUGUST 1973 THERE WERE EIGHT WOMEN in Empire Law School’s inaugural class. The Honorable Raima Ballinger (Ret.) was part of this group. Judge Ballinger soon realized that one of the professors was ignoring female students during class. The female students had a meeting with the dean to address their concerns. Dean Gary Antolini summoned the offending professor to the meeting to find out if what they were saying was true. The professor said, “They (women) don’t belong in the law school. Women weren’t allowed at my law school in Texas, and they shouldn’t be here.” Dean Antolini made it clear to the professor that the female students had paid their tuition and deserved to participate in classroom discussion. The professor relented. Judge Ballinger went on to get her law degree, pass the bar, and have an impressive career.

Below: First graduating class at Empire College, 1973. Judge Ballinger is in the first row, far left.

Several years later, Ms. Ballinger asked this professor to write a letter of recommendation for her judicial application. To her surprise, he agreed. Even more amazing, the professor wrote a glowing three-page letter praising Judge Ballinger’s hard work and qualifications. He described several key moments in her legal career and recalled specific events that Judge Ballinger herself had forgotten. This professor, the same person who originally did not want women in law school, had evolved into one of Judge Ballinger’s staunchest supporters. She ended our interview with two simple words, “People change.”

BEING A WOMAN PROSECUTOR IN THE 1970’s was no easy task. In 1976, the Honorable Cerena Wong (Ret.) was the second woman to be hired at the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, and one of the first women to practice law in the male-dominated How Times Have Changed: Stories of Women in Law in Sonoma County Below: First graduating class at Empire College, 1973. Judge Ballinger is in the first row, far left. criminal courthouse. The bailiffs were particularly happy when then Deputy DA Wong arrived on the scene, which they demonstrated by pinching her cheeks, hugging her, and grabbing her by the waist in open court. Judge Wong said, “You never thought of it as sexual harassment, you just put up with it.” Inevitably, the bailiffs’ touching escalated to derrierepatting (also known as misdemeanor sexual battery). This was the final straw for Judge Wong. She went to her boss, the legendary Gene Tunney, and told him that the pinching, touching, and patting were becoming a problem. Soon thereafter the offending behavior abated. “It went down about 80 percent, which was a big improvement,” said Judge Wong, who went on to become the second woman appointed to the Superior Court bench. The criminal courthouse is now close to 100 percent harassment-free, thanks in part to the Judge Wong’s efforts.

IT WAS NOT JUST THE BAILIFFS WHO NEEDED sexual- harassment training. In 1976, Peggy Schmeck went to the Sonoma County D.A.’s office looking for a job. She spoke with the Assistant District Attorney who was holding down the fort while the boss was on vacation. He bluntly told her, “I would never hire a woman. Try again when Tunney’s back.” Ms. Schmeck was rejected a couple of more times, but persevered and got hired.

A couple of years later, Ms. Schmeck was prosecuting a felony robbery/kidnap case in front of Judge Kenneth Eymann. At the start of the trial, Judge Eymann invited the two male defense lawyers into chambers to discuss the case. The judge advised Ms. Schmeck that women lawyers were not allowed in chambers; however, her male D.A. Investigator was welcome to join the party. Judge Eymann’s bailiff explained, “The judge sits in there and tells dirty jokes; he doesn’t want you to hear that.” Ms. Schmeck was not mollified by that explanation. She left court and headed to a nearby department store for some retail therapy.

SHE WAS DRESSED FOR SUCCESS the next day in court, which the judge apparently noticed. Once the jury had assembled, Judge Eymann ordered Ms. Schmeck to stand in the well and turn around in front of them. He asked/told the jury, “Doesn’t she look cute?” (During our interview, Ms. Schmeck mentioned that this “compliment” was probably that judge’s way of making up for his rude behavior the day before.) After the trial, Ms. Schmeck 170.6’d Judge Eymann for the rest of his career. More importantly, she was never ordered to twirl in front of jurors again.

DESPITE THE TEACHABLE MOMENT, Judge Eymann continued to annoy the female lawyers. Mary Jane Schneider was a brand-new attorney in the mid ‘80’s when she appeared on his Friday trial calendar. Judge Eymann called her case and said, “And what can I do for you today my little lady?” (Please note that Ms. Schneider is 5’9”, was wearing heels, and was easily taller than half the men in the courtroom). Judge Ballinger had a similar experience when she appeared before him as a prosecutor. She had a felony case on calendar, and as she stood up to speak, Judge Eymann said, “Sit down little lady.” (I should add that Judge Ballinger is 5’8” and was nine months pregnant at the time.) For the duration of the court appearance, she was not allowed to speak. At the time of their interviews, both women remembered their experiences like it had happened yesterday.

YOU CAN CATCH MORE FLIES WITH HONEY THAN WITH VINEGAR —this I learned from interviewing Marylou Hillberg. She graduated from UC Hastings in 1979 and promptly went to work at the District Attorney’s Office. Soon thereafter, Ms. Hillberg became the chair of Sonoma County Women in Law. She decided that the organization needed to “up its game” in order to compete with the men’s swanky lunches. From that point on, SCWiL transitioned from brown bag lunches in the law library to fancy meals in nice restaurants. SCWiL’s luncheon tradition continues to this day (except, of course, during a global pandemic).

Ms. Hillberg attempted to win Judge Eymann over. She realized that he never spoke to female lawyers outside the courtroom, and needed to get to know them better. Marylou and some other female lawyers invited him to lunch. Judge Eymann miraculously showed up at the restaurant, flanked by his court reporter and judicial assistant (both female, and probably there as witnesses, just in case). Ms. Hillberg observed, “That lunch changed things, it gave us a familiarity with the judge, and things got better for us [in his courtroom].”

In 1982, the SCBA sent a letter out to all attorneys instructing them to wear a coat and tie for the directory photos. Several of the women lawyers approached Ms. Hillberg and asked her to do something about this (none of them owned ties). Ms. Hillberg said, “I figured I would get better results if I handled this in a non-confrontational way.” She wrote a polite and constructive letter to the SCBA on behalf of the women lawyers, suggesting that they create a “tie bank” for the women. After Ms. Hillberg’s letter was printed in the SCBA newsletter, she appeared in front of Judge Raymond Giordano on a serious felony case. At the conclusion of the matter, Judge Giordano ordered Ms. Hillberg to approach the bench. She wondered, “Oh Lord, what did I do?” The judge handed her a brown paper bag, stating, “Open this outside.” She walked outside the courtroom and opened it, finding a very loud and colorful tie inside. Ms. Hillberg still has that tie as it is one of her most cherished mementos.

NEVER UNDERESTIMATE A WOMAN who knows what she wants. In 1982, Judge Gayle Guynup was appointed the first woman judge in Sonoma County.

At that time, it was the practice that the judges could select a sofa for their chambers. Judge Guynup, who has an excellent eye for decorating, selected an ivory linen couch. The presiding judge was certain that Judge Guynup would only be around for the remainder of her current term. He suggested that she select a brown leather couch which her inevitable (presumably male) replacement would prefer. Judge Guynup declined his suggestion and instead bought the ivory linen sofa. Almost 40 years later, the couch is still in use and she is still on the bench.

PEOPLE CHANGE, AND TIMES CHANGE. Thank you to the women who bravely changed the things that needed to be changed. Thank you to the men who helped them with kindness and support. Thank you all for sharing your stories. Keep them coming.

By Carla Rodriguez Carla Rodriguez is Sonoma County Women in Law board president, and a member of SCBA Archives Committee. She is Chief Deputy District Attorney at SoCo DA’s office.