Jewish Journal

Precedent Setting

Judge Pauline Nightingale: An inspirational pioneer for gender equality in the workforce

by Adam Wills

Posted on Nov. 18, 1999 at 7:00 pm

Judge Pauline Nightingale, 90, says her mother taught her never to question the teacher's authority. But when she entered the workforce after graduating from law school, she had no choice: authorities tried to keep her from practicing law because she was a woman. Not only did she learn to question authority, but she fought back and won.

Born Pauline Friedman to an Orthodox mother and a secular father, she grew up in Depression-era Boyle Heights. At 12 years old, she started working alongside the all-male crew in her father's auto parts store.

Inspired by news articles about legal cases that her father discussed with her during work, she enrolled in evening classes at Los Angeles College of Law after graduating from UCLA in 1928. Nightingale -- the only woman in her class -- graduated valedictorian and summa cum laude, and passed the bar exam her first time in 1932.

Anti-Semitism was rampant in the larger legal firms, so she entered a practice with two Jewish men. A few years later, the firm was still struggling and she decided to look for a job in another field.

She took a non-legal interviewer position with the California Department of Employment. "Men [normally] interviewed men and women interviewed women," she says. "But at that time the war was on and there was a shortage of men. So, I became the first woman to interview men."

When she heard that there was an opening for a labor commissioner, a job in which she would enforce the working regulations for woman and minors, she realized it was a "golden opportunity" to work as an attorney. But the position was only open to men. "I protested the restriction," she says.

After she passed the exams, she was told that she would have to work "irregular hours" from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. -- a last-ditch effort to dissuade her from taking the job. Instead, she accepted the position and worked those hours for a full year.

When she was finally transferred to the day shift, she hoped that she would finally be able to use her legal knowledge. Instead, she was assigned to check businesses to make sure that the urinals in the men's toilets were adequate. She had never so much as seen a urinal before, but did the job for six months.

Her next job finally put her legal skills to use. She spent 20 years working as counsel for State Labor Commissioner Sigmund Arywitz recovering wages and vacation pay, and enforcing lien laws.

Then in 1963, Nightingale applied for a worker's compensation judgeship, along with five other women. "They still didn't want women," Nightingale says. "All of the women passed the written exam, but we were disqualified during the oral exam." Three of the women reapplied, and despite some difficulty all passed. Nightingale went on to serve as a judge for 10 years.

After stepping down from the bench in 1973, she became active in ORT, Technion and Hadassah. She belongs to three congregations: Knesset Israel, Temple Shalom, and Temple Emanuel (she is especially fond of Rabbi Laura Geller.)

Nightingale was recently presented with the Outstanding Older Worker in California award and a Lifetime Achievement Award by then-Gov. Pete Wilson. "I was impressed that I received the awards, considering the fact that I'm a woman."

Despite these and other accolades, she isn't resting on her laurels. Nightingale spends less time in the courtroom these days and more writing letters to the California Supreme Court. "I still haven't achieved what I want to achieve. I have cases I filed back from 1986 that I'm still fighting."

Nightingale is happy to have seen the number of women studying law increase from almost nothing to 50 percent in her lifetime.

"I still think this is a man's world, but women have made tremendous progress," Nightingale says.

Alexis Sherman contributed to this article .

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