Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Barbara Babcock on Her Clara Foltz Book Tour

Barbara Babcock (Stanford--Law, Emerita) has written an essay for blog readers about how she  constructed a book tour to promote  Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz (Stanford, 2011). For more information on Babcock's book about the first woman admitted to the California bar, see the Women's Legal History website
and the articles cited here. Babcock's post, entitled the "The Year of Saying “Yes,” follows.
courtesy Stanford Law School

For the last year I have been on a self-designed tour-tear all over the country selling Woman Lawyer: the Trials of Clara Foltz.

It is the story of a brilliant and courageous woman who invented the public defender, raised five children on her own, tried cases when juries were all-male and was a well-paid political orator before females could vote. This is only a sampling of her achievements, but even a compendious list would not convey the actual reach of her ambition. Foltz wanted to be a famous lawyer and law reformer, an influential thinker, a rousing movement leader, and a glamorous and socially prominent lady—while also being a good mother and striking it rich. In short, she wanted more than any nineteenth century woman could achieve.

After my year on the road, I realize that Clara Foltz was not the only one who wanted too much. I dreamed of a cross-over book—serious scholarly work accessible to everyone who reads, and I thought the combination of a compelling story and my contacts from years of teaching and practicing and joining and speaking could get her the kind of attention I sought. Not only sales, but reviews in national media, interviews on NPR, prizes and awards, negotiating the film rights and consulting on the casting were all in the cards I imagined.

None of these things has happened (yet). But I have made over 50 appearances from January 2011 when I first held the slightly hefty but still beautiful hardback book to this moment at the end of December. I have said yes to everyone who asked me to come and talk about Clara and sell books. After years of trying to learn to say no, or at least to weigh the costs and benefits, I’ve found it strangely liberating to say yes—yes to the Rotarians, the women lawyers, the history buffs, the civic associations, the public defenders and other government agencies, the law firms, schools, and faculties.

I have been to these cities and towns, many of them more than once: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Morgan Hill, Half-Moon Bay, Monterey, Oakland, Berkeley, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Washington D.C., Durham, New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Seattle and Portland. And I’ve done many local gigs in Palo Alto and at various Stanford campus groups. Some events I’ve set up myself—especially of Stanford alums with the help of the law school staff. I tried the book stores of record in several places. But they mostly rejected Clara (and me I think) as an “unknown regional figure.” Through the interventions of influential former students and friends, thank you Cheryl Mills and Michelle Mercer, I did have readings at Politics and Prose in DC and at Mrs. Dalloway’s in Berkeley. Reiters bookstore in D.C. came and sold books at an event at the Williams and Connelly law firm, and held a second reading in their locale.

I have been working on this book for longer than I care to say, though it’s not like I procrastinated or proceeded at a leisurely pace. In addition to publishing articles about Clara Foltz and starting a website on women’s legal history, I taught some great classes, wrote many letters of recommendation, counseled dozens, even hundreds, of students and worked on sex discrimination and civil procedure texts. Yet as the years slipped by, I was haunted by the shade of Mr. Casaubon from Middlemarch and his Key to All Mythologies. I came to understand why many savvy scholars are especially leery of biographies, which have peculiar time-suck issues. For instance, a long-lived public figure like Foltz knew many other memorable people who must be examined and explained, to say nothing of the numerous causes she espoused and movements she led.

Moreover her story was complicated by the absence of her collected papers-- the case files, scrapbooks, personal letters, appointment books, pictures and souvenirs—were all lost. This is a great misfortune to a biographer and at the outset, advisors recommended finding another subject—there are plenty of pioneer women lawyers whose papers are intact, they suggested. Ah yes, that is true, I thought – but none of the others invented the public defender. Clara Foltz came up with the idea that the government was responsible for the just presentation of both sides of a criminal case and launched the movement for public defense with a major speech at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Seventy years later, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Foltz that lawyers for the accused were necessary in criminal cases. Gideon versus Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).

The year Gideon came down, I graduated from law school and went on to become the first Director of the Public Defender Service, the D.C. agency founded to implement its mandate. The time at PDS was the most salient period of my career and it thrilled me when, years later, I learned about Clara Foltz. In a rush of inspiration and dedication I decided to try to establish her place in the legal pantheon as the founder of the public defender. At first I thought I might find her papers with my lawyer investigator skills, but when I saw that they were irretrievably lost, I realized the magnitude of the task and that no one else was likely to take it up. I renewed my resolve to do a full-scale biography and tried to press ahead with it.

When President Clinton was looking to appoint the first woman Attorney General, my name was floated over one weekend’s news cycle. Jon Carroll, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote the following squib, which made me laugh though I also felt a little foolish.

I think it's a swell idea for a woman to be the next attorney general: I am puzzled by the number of women who, sharing my opinion, nevertheless turn down the job.

Perhaps the most bewildering is Stanford Professor Barbara Allen
Babcock, who said she would reject any offer because she was
"committed to finishing a biography of Clara Shortridge Foltz."

What? Is this the New Commitment we hear so much about? Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for Clara Shortridge Foltz?

Nothing I’ve said so far is meant to imply that I have made great sacrifices for Foltz; writing narrative and researching history has suited me—especially because the kind of intense doctrinal scholarship I also like to do went out of style for awhile. I’ve also gained from the intimate relationship of biographer and subject. It’s rare to know another person like I know Clara Foltz ( certainly better than she knew herself ). Most important, and what I’m sure she would like the best about our collaboration, is that as a feminist, a trial lawyer, a public defender, and a professor, I am in a good position to assess and explain her achievement.

My first month of speaking and signing and selling books brought back memories of Louis Nizer coming to Yale when I was a law student. He gave a talk on his best-selling book, “My Life in Court” (1962) and outside the auditorium was a pile of the volumes for sale, which he would personally inscribe. I thought that was the tackiest thing I had ever seen.

But I don’t think that now….and in fact after giving a rousing speech about Clara Foltz, it is pleasant to sign books for people who want to read it, and who tell me they’re buying it for their feminist mothers, their history-loving dads and their public defender daughters. My favorite customers are the women lawyers and the public defenders. They often say “thank you, thank you for writing this”. And I respond: “I did it for you.”