Book Review: Pearls among 'Pinstripes'

By JESSIE THORPE, United Press International  |  March 14, 2003 at 7:38 PM
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Dressed for success in the power suit of dominant males yet adding her mother's necklace for luck, Judith Richards Hope stormed barricades of gender prejudice in the practice of law and broke trails for generations of women who followed.

Her career seems to be one of steadily climbing a ladder of rungs marked "First" -- first woman to sit on certain corporate boards, first woman named to Harvard's governing board, first female associate director of the White House Domestic Council. This is a very impressive lady.

"Lady" is an important word in her vocabulary. In "Pinstripes & Pearls," as she chronicles her class of Harvard Law School '64, in which Hope is one of 15 women in a field of 513 graduates, she makes the case that ladylike behavior and dress were the preferred norm.

These bright, ambitious women wore skirts and heels to lectures and accepted inferior status in substandard housing and campus restroom facilities. The women formed important connections to sustain one another and took pride in not complaining. Determined to have it all -- distinguished careers and fulfilling marriages -- rather than trying to change the status quo, they took it in stride, becoming what Hope labels the "suck it up" generation. They never showed pain at insults or admitted to fatigue or, most important, quit.

Harvard Law School. The words alone are intimidating, connoting academic excellence achieved through brutal schedules and fierce competition. Legions of graduates testify to its life-defining experience leading to prosperous, distinguished careers ... if it doesn't kill you.

Stories of first-year Harvard Law intensity have been told previously and thoroughly by Scott Turow in "One L" and John J. Osborn Jr. in "The Paper Chase." What Hope adds to the mix is the sharp observance of humiliation and exhilaration from her woman's point of view and that of her classmates.

"The sound I remember most from classes is laughter," she says in retrospect.

Hope calls the class "legendary," which does not appear to be a stretch. Among others it produced Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, Judge Judith Rogers of the U.S. Court of Appeals and many professors, partners of law firms and high government officials.

Janet Reno, future attorney general, graduated just one year ahead and Elizabeth Dole, now senator from North Carolina, one year behind. The male members are equally imposing, including Stephen G. Breyer, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

One does not quarrel with the fact this talented bunch of women worked hard and earned their success.

Hope recounts fascinating details of the difficulties many faced, even after receiving their degrees. The big law firms simply did not hire women, no matter what their grades and credentials were. The thinking was a married woman was sure to have a baby or did not really need a job because she had a husband to support her. If single, she surely would marry soon and have a baby. Such attitudes and practices were hard to crack. For most of the women, it was a matter of finding a side entrance or a slightly opened window to slide through.

In writing this history, Hope gives us facts about the slow acceptance of women into the upper reaches of academe along with the pitiful statistics of how few women actually practiced law well into the 20th century.

Unfortunately, her attempts to describe the popular culture of the times -- TV shows, activities, political movements -- are not well done and come across as stilted. Perhaps she was too busy studying to get into all that stuff. The most glaring omission is her failure to document what it was like to experience the day of John Kennedy's assassination on the Harvard campus -- his alma mater. Surely that was a devastating and altering event, and what a missed opportunity to provide an eyewitness account.

Much of Hope's book is written in the form of lengthy yearbook-type entries about her classmates and how they are doing. Only occasionally does she drift into the area of braggy alumni newsletter updates. I really enjoyed the portraits -- snapshots, really -- of these bright and breezy girls forging into life and jobs and relationships without always knowing how it would all turn out. Her generation did not expect guarantees.

As I read along, I found myself casting the movie: Pat Schroeder, a pilot in her teens, earning her way through college and driving to Harvard in a turquoise Continental bought with her own money, suggests a young Katharine Hepburn.

Ann Dudley, with her mini-skirts, flashy figure and sassy intellect, seems perfect for Reese Witherspoon. And for Judith Hope herself, who else but Joanne Woodward with her calm and correct exterior but projecting plenty of firepower underneath?

Entertaining thoughts, all, and although I found the book informative and fun to read -- despite my wanting to wince at the affronts the women suffered -- why, at the end, did I feel, a bit ... cheated?

I think it's because of the odd narrative technique Hope employs, the frequent use of the collective "we," as in, "We were out of the ordinary," or, "Most of us were first-born or only children," or "in our mind's eyes."

It becomes disconcerting to read "we thought" and "we liked to flirt," as though the women were one giant moving body and mind instead of interesting and distinct individuals. Hope seems to have chosen this style as a sort of protective cover because although she reveals delicious details about her classmates in the biographical sketches -- including sexual intimacies -- she is reticent about her own emotions.

Too often, Hope distances herself from the reader just when I wished she would zero in on her personal life and choices. Her marriage to the son of entertainer Bob Hope seems to flit across a few pages and be gone while her interview and tutelage with super lawyer Edward Bennett Williams is meaty and deep.

He told her something quite memorable before hiring her at age 24: "A woman has the edge. Your job is to figure out how to use it." I assume she did just that.

Hope would not have achieved her status without smarts, drive and, frankly, guts. Perhaps her gutsiest choice in composing the book was to include written report cards from her children. Her son Zachary is fairly admiring and kind, but daughter Miranda obviously has "issues." What mother would not cringe hearing herself described as too invincible, too pushy, too isolated, too sedentary, too tired?

"A woman I have never seen truly laugh or truly cry," Miranda also discloses. "A woman without needs. A tank." This is all said with love, of course, and I admire Judith Hope most for allowing that image of her to seep in after the litany of constant triumphs.

It's probably not fair to compare "Pinstripes & Pearls" to Katherine Graham's "Personal History," the extraordinarily honest, elegant, woman-in-a-man's-profession book published a few years back. But this one, even with its awkward style, delivers a punch in describing what seems like ancient history on the timeline of women's progress toward equality with men.

So, are we there yet?

("Pinstripes & Pearls: The Women of the Harvard Law Class of '64 Who Forged an Old-Girl Network and Paved the Way for Future Generations" by Judith Richards Hope, Simon & Schuster Inc., 271 pages, $26)

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