Judge to Female Lawyers: Love Your Cleavage, But “Tone It Down” to Avoid Looking Like a “Slut”

What Women Really Think
March 27 2014 4:49 PM

Judge to Female Lawyers: Love Your Cleavage, But “Tone It Down” to Avoid Looking Like a “Slut”

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Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Last week, I wrote about the confusing, conflicting standards that dictate how female lawyers ought to dress in court. Are pantsuits acceptable, or should women stick to skirts? How about dresses? With or without a jacket? Should that jacket’s cut be boxy or more feminine? And is pink ever OK? The answer depends on the personal tastes of the judge, the stature of the court, and the region of the country it’s in—and those gradations add up to an unclear and unfair expectation for women in the courtroom.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

Now, federal Judge Richard Kopf of Nebraska, author of the blog Hercules and the Umpire, has chimed in to set the record straight. Kopf, who describes himself as a lifelong “dirty old man,” prefers for comely young female attorneys to wear short skirts and low-cut tops in his courtroom. He prefers his comely young daughters (“and other young women that I care deeply about”) to do nothing of the sort. He does not address the issue of how female attorneys ought to proceed if they are not the type of female attorneys that Richard Kopf finds sexually attractive.

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Kopf tells two stories to illustrate how his creepy gaze vacillates from protective to lecherous depending on the woman he’s looking at. First, for the daughters (and other valuable women) in the audience:

More than a decade ago, I freaked out when tall, statuesque, and beautiful daughter Lisa showed up at her older sister’s (Marne’s) wedding in a Catholic church … in a low-cut dress. Poor Joan, at my insistence, and at the last moment, rummaged around in the church’s “lost and found” to locate a demure white sweater for Lisa to wear over her very revealing frock. I was spitting nails. Marne was in tears. The groom had no idea what the fuck had just happened. Lisa shot me daggers throughout the ceremony.

And now, for the professionals:

Around these parts there is a wonderfully talented and very pretty female lawyer who is in her late twenties. She is brilliant, she writes well, she speaks eloquently, she is zealous but not overly so, she is always prepared, she treats others, including her opponents, with civility and respect, she wears very short skirts and shows lots of her ample chest. I especially appreciate the last two attributes.

Kopf distills his years of experience into three rules for women in the legal profession: First, “You can’t win. Men are both pigs and prudes. Get over it.” Second, “It is not about you. That goes double when you are appearing in front of a jury.” And finally, “Think about the female law clerks. If they are likely to label you, like Jane Curtin, an ignorant slut behind your back, tone it down.”

When some readers accused Kopf of objectifying his colleagues, he defended himself by saying that he cares “passionately that federal trial judges be seen as individuals with all the strengths and weakness (baggage) that everyone else carries around.” He added: “In the rough and tumble world of a federal trial practice, it is sometimes necessary to see and react to that world as it is rather than as we wish it would be.”

While I appreciate Kopf's desire to be seen as the special snowflake that he surely is, the fact remains that Richard Kopf is a federal judge. He isn’t just reacting to the world; he’s molding it. That means that he’s responsible for making sure that his personal weaknesses don’t interfere with his judgment and that he refrain from making statements that would reasonably make one type of attorney feel uncomfortable approaching his bench. Women actually can “win” as attorneys if men learn to view them outside of this pig-or-prude dichotomy. And while we’re invoking the great Jane Curtin, let’s be clear that it wasn’t other women who were using her gender to cut her down. On their Saturday Night Live Weekend Update segments, Dan Aykroyd would regularly address Curtin as “Jane, you ignorant slut.” Curtin’s reply was: “Dan, you pompous ass.” Her retort holds up.

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

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