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MAY 2016 - Hufstedler
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A Trailblazer's Mark on Women in the Law

by Victoria M. McLaughlin

“Security is not the meaning of my life. Great opportunities are worth the risks.” –Shirley Hufstedler

Perhaps best known as the first United States Secretary of Education, WLALA Past-President (1957-1958) Shirley Hufstedler passed away on March 30, 2016, leaving behind her husband, her son, three grandchildren, and a legacy worth remembering.

Born Shirley Ann Mound on August 24, 1925, in Denver, Colorado, Shirley moved frequently as a child, finding comfort in the public libraries in each town where she lived. In 1945, at only 19 years old, she earned a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of New Mexico.

Despite noting that “[g]oing to law school was not really on the menu of hopes for many young women at that time,” Shirley knew she wanted to be a lawyer during her undergraduate years. With her goal in mind, following graduation Shirley worked for a year to save enough money to pay for law school. She went on to earn a Bachelor of Law in 1949 from Stanford Law School, where she finished tenth in her class, one of only two women.

Shirley entered private practice in Los Angeles in 1950, but not without challenge. As one of the few women lawyers at the time, Shirley found that not only would no law firm hire a woman, but no firm would even invite her for an interview. Two years later, when Sandra Day O'Connor graduated from Stanford with about the same academic credentials that Shirley had, Shirley recalled that no one would hire Sandra either, so they made their own paths—“[s]he developed her own practice, and I developed mine.”

Shirley continued in private practice through 1960. She then served as a Special Legal Consultant to the Attorney General of California, Stanley Mosk, in the complex Colorado River litigation before the United States Supreme Court from 1960 to 1961. In 1961, Governor Pat Brown appointed Shirley as a Judge of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, and she was elected to the same position in 1962. In 1966, Shirley was appointed Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal.

In September 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Shirley as a Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. She was only the second woman named to the federal appellate bench. In a 2007 interview for the California Appellate Court Legacy Project, Shirley recalled her appointment to the Ninth Circuit as follows:  

“To begin with, the then–Chief Judge, who was Dick Chambers, was horrified to find that there was going to be a female on the bench. He had no idea what in the world he was going to do with such a strange creature. … I have seen a more nervous man perhaps at his own wedding, but not much. He was very upset. He had no idea what he was going to do with such a strange critter. He announced my appointment to the Ninth Circuit conference by saying he was going to have to build a bathroom for a female, which is about the extent of his consideration of it all. … But he finally got used to the idea, and we became good friends...”

Shirley served on the Ninth Circuit for 11 years, until President Jimmy Carter tapped her to be the first United States Secretary of Education. On October 17, 1979, Carter signed the law creating the Cabinet-level Department of Education, and Congress established the Department of Education on May 4, 1980, in the Department of Education Organization Act.

Shirley was the pick for the position. In an open letter to her successor, Shirley recalled: “I reached the White House expecting to be interviewed as one of several possibilities on a short list, only to discover I was the list. I felt like a girl who had been invited to meet her fiancé’s family only to find herself walking down the aisle.”

“If you play it safe in life, you've decided that you don't want to grow anymore.” –Shirley Hufstedler

Shirley relinquished her lifetime tenure as a federal judge and accepted the appointment. From 1980 to 1981, she oversaw the development of the 17,000-employee agency, which combined more than 150 programs that had been under five other departments.

Describing her time as the secretary of education in an open letter to her successor, Shirley wrote: “Building a new Cabinet-level department taught me more than I learned in all my years on the bench, and I learned something every day of those 18 years… I am sure you will find, as I have, that a great many people are willing to fight over children, but precious few are willing to fight for them. Your job, shorn of the paper and the bureaucracy, is to fight forcefully and joyfully for those kids. It is not always an easy or a popular fight; but even the smallest victories can touch the lives and brighten the futures of hundreds of thousands of children. With each such victory you will feel, as I do today, happy to have passed this way.”

Shirley was believed to be a possible nominee should a seat open on the Supreme Court during Carter's presidency, which would have made her the first female justice on the highest court in the United States. However, Carter never had the opportunity to fill a seat, and in 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O’Connor.

Reagan's defeat of President Carter in the 1980 election limited Shirley's tenure at the Department of Education to 14 months. In 1980, facing threats that Reagan would dismantle the Department of Education, Shirley told the Associated Press: “It would make about as much sense to abandon the federal responsibility for education in today's world as it would to dismantle the Pentagon and rely for the common defense on the flintlocks that the Constitution guarantees our right to bear.” The Department of Education has in fact survived.

On January 20, 1981, Shirley returned to private life, teaching, and the practice of law. She taught at Stanford Law School, St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, and University of California, Irvine, among many other schools. She practiced law as a partner in the firm Hufstedler & Kaus, now merged into Morrison & Foerster, where she continued to practice as senior counsel.

A WLALA member until her passing at age 90, Shirley blazed a trail for women in the law and in this country—in the face of real challenges along the way. Her accomplishments serve as an example of what is possible in a life lived with grit. As women continue to forge new paths today, in the face of our own sets of challenges, we have the benefit of looking to Shirley's life for inspiration and resolve.

“If you haven't failed, you haven't tried very hard.” –Shirley Hufstedler


Victoria M. McLaughlin is an attorney at Law Offices of William E. Crockett. She co-chairs the Young Lawyers Section of WLALA and sits on the Executive Committee of the LACBA Barristers.