Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life of Gladys Towles Root

When the Law Was a Man's World

Root de toot.
Root de toot.
Heres to Gladys Towles Root.
Her dresses are purple, her hats wide
Shell get you one instead of five.

Gladys Towles Root wore dresses so tight she had to take mincing steps when she walked. She loved to drape herself in furs and cover herself with sequins. Her hats were famously gigantic and so was her jewelry. Under those hats, her hair was often colored a gaudy hue to match her outfits, with Mercurochrome and Easter egg dye. A cloud of perfume always drifted in her wake.

But this flamboyant and exotic woman was not a debutante or courtesan. She was one of the most famous female criminal defense lawyers of the 20th century. Root, who practiced law from 1929 to 1982, averaged 75 courtroom appearances a month throughout her 52-year career and she maintained this rate even throughout two pregnancies. At one point her office was handling 1,600 cases a year; more criminal cases than any other private American law firm.

She, improbably, made a living and a name for herself defending men from all manner of sex crimes, from child molestation to rape. This most womanly of women was not above attacking the credibility of any woman on the stand, including in one instance, an angelic-looking six-year-old girl.

Clarence Darrow (CORBIS)
Clarence Darrow
Up until the 20th century, the law was solely a mans world. By 1917, women were prohibited from practicing law in only four American states. But it still wasnt easy for female lawyers. Many of the most prominent men in law took a dim view of womens attempts to enter the profession. Clarence Darrow, a man famous for his progressive and liberal sentiments, said in a speech to a group of female attorneys: You cant be shining lights at the bar because you are too kind. You can never be corporation lawyers because you are not cold-blooded. You have not a high degree of intellect. You can never expect to get the fees men get.

Women attorneys were few and far between. They were discriminated against as a matter of course. Most firms did not want them, believing they would not fit into the old boys club atmosphere that prevailed. They were barred from the most prestigious, Ivy League law schools. Indeed, Harvard would not admit women until 1950.

It was into this extremely male dominated legal world that Gladys Towles Root hung out her shingle in 1929. Few accused wanted a soft, emotional woman defending them. There was also a group of accused that few lawyers wished to defend: sex crime defendants. Thus, however contradictory it may seem, women lawyers and men accused of crimes committed almost exclusively against females made for a good fit.

There were other reasons that female lawyers were paradoxically compatible with sex crime defendants. For one thing, seeing a man with his female attorney tended to suggest that at least this woman did not view him as someone to fear. Furthermore, a woman lawyer could get away with making sexist arguments that, decades before sexism entered the vocabulary, might have offended if they came from a mans mouth. Gladys Towles Root was to use both of these factors to both her own and her clients advantages.

Gladys Towles Root (L.A. Public Library)
Gladys Towles Root
(L.A. Public Library)
Roots biographer, Cy Rice, has suggested in Defender of the Damned that Root adopted her flamboyant manner of dress in order to escape the morbidity of her sex crime cases. It is also possible that, as a woman in a mans job, she felt a strong psychological need, perhaps amounting to a compulsion, to emphasize her femininity. Furthermore, judging by some of the attitudes she expressed, she may have identified with past centuries, when the line between ladies and loose women was bright and clearly drawn, and so enjoyed clothing herself in a manner often suggestive of historical costume dramas.


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