CHEYENNE — Growing up in Casper during the 1970s, Denise Burke dreamed of becoming a lawyer — that is, until she received some bad news.
“I had a high school guidance counselor who told me, ‘No, that’s not a career for women,’ ” Burke said. So instead, Burke became a high school English and drama teacher.
But years later, Burke decided to go to law school after all. And today, she’s assistant dean of the University of Wyoming Law School.
Certainly, gender barriers in law have changed since Burke’s high school days — both in Wyoming and around the country. This year’s UW law school class is the first in the school’s 90-year history to have more women enrolled than men: the guys are outnumbered 44-39.
The milestone is mainly symbolic, as UW’s law school has had nearly equal numbers of men and women for many years. But it’s an indication of how far women have advanced in a traditionally male-dominated profession during the past 30 years — and a reminder of how far they’ve yet to go.
For several years, UW’s law school has consciously tried to make the gender ratios of its classes relatively equal — gender is one of 45 factors that go into the school’s admissions process.
But Burke said the number of female applicants has steadily risen over the years. While UW still receives more applications from men than women, Burke said the quality of the female applicants has been stronger — and that, for some reason, when the school sends out acceptance letters, more women than men accept.
Whatever the reason, UW’s gender ratios are consistent with nationwide trends. During the 2008-2009 school year, more than 47 percent of first-year law school students nationwide were women, according to American Bar Association statistics. By contrast, less than 27 percent of first-year law students nationwide in the 1975-1976 school year were women.
One of those students was Marilyn Kite. Last week, Kite became the first woman to be named chief justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court.
As a first-year UW law student in the early 1970s, Kite was one of only seven women in her 125-member class. When she graduated in 1974, she was the 44th woman ever to earn a UW law degree.
These days, Kite said it isn’t “necessarily significant” that the majority of first-year law students at UW are women.
“I think it’s just reflective of society in general,” she said.
But Kite said the fact that more and more women are attending law school these days will eventually lead to a greater female presence in Wyoming courtrooms, which are still largely male-dominated.
Kite is the only woman on the five-member state Supreme Court. Only two of 21 state district judges are female, as are only five of 31 state circuit court judges.
According to the Wyoming Bar Association, only 493 of the state’s 1,571 active in-state lawyers are female.
Kite said it was “just a question of time” before those numbers even out, as female law-school students graduate, enter law practices and gain enough experience to be appointed to the benches.
Stacia Berry, one of the 44 women who started UW law school this year, said she hasn’t noticed her class being different than the second- or third-year classes, which also have nearly equal ratios of women and men.
But Berry, who grew up on a ranch outside Cheyenne, said she hopes to see women make inroads into other traditionally male-dominated careers.
“Ranchers are supposed to be men, much in the way lawyers were supposed to be men,” Berry said. “So it’s just exciting to know that in agriculture, in the law, in medicine, it’s becoming a much more equal playing field, that people from both genders are welcome to show up and bring their intellect and their ability and their talent to help — hopefully — society as a whole for men and women.”
Ben Sherman, Berry’s fellow first-year student, said having a strong female presence in class also benefits the male students.
“I think that having a bunch of different people from all different backgrounds in our law school class really opens our eyes to different views and different interpretations of the law and how it affects people differently,” said Sherman, a Laramie native. “For a male, I just think I’m excited about it.”
Burke said it shouldn’t be surprising that women would seek careers in law, given the profession’s focus on traditionally feminine strengths such as problem-solving and finding a consensus.
“It is a profession for women,” she said. “Unfortunately, my guidance teacher is now deceased, but I really wanted to go back to her and say, ‘I really like you, but you were so wrong.’ ”
Contact Jeremy Pelzer at email@example.com or 307-632-1244.