The leadership of the American Bar Association is fighting an attempt by women lawyers, who are beginning to push their way into the male-dominated profession, to get conventions of the organized bar to boycott states that have not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment.
Even though resolutions from groups affiliated with the ABA, such as the National Association of Women Lawyers, generally automatically go before the policymaking ABA House of Delegates, the ABA's Board of Governors wants to bottle up a resolution that would forbid any ABA meetings in states that have not ratified the ERA.
"My present inclination is not to permit the matter to be presented," House of Delegates Chairman Stanley M. Brown said in a letter asking the women lawyers to justify their resolution before the rules committee today.
He said he wants them to submit a brief telling whether this type of boycott "is lawful, liability-free or in any way expedient in advancing any proper concerns of the association."
Boycott resolutions, have been passed over the last year and a half by more than 170 organizations, but ABA President William B. Spann Jr. said the board of governors decided "any participation on our part would be a violation of antitrust laws."
"They are completely wrong. It is not a violation of antitrust laws," replied Mary Alice Duffy, a Philadelphia trial attorney who heads the National Association of Women Lawyers.
While this debate has expanded to other national organizations ever since it appeared the ERA was in danger of failing to win ratification from three-fourths of the states (it still needs three state to become a part of the Constitution), the arguments during the ABA's centennial meeting her symbolize the strains that the growing number of women lawyers are putting on the organized bar.
Until recently, few women practiced law: it was only 25 years ago, for example, that Harvard Law School first admitted women. Now, however, the situation is changing as women make up more than one-third of the members of law school classes around the country and are beginning to make their presence felt the previously all male, clubby atmosphere of major New York and Washington law firms.
Still, few women have achieved positions of prominence with the profession. There are for intance, only five women members in the ABA House of Delegates and only one woman has ever won election as a ditrict representative. The rest were elected to the House by speical sections within the ABA. Only 12 women have ever served as federal judges.
Duffy estimated that 10 percent of the nation's 450,000 lawyers are women, and both she and Spann agreed that few women belong to the ABA.
Nonetheless, she said, women should make up 10 percent of the ABA delegates. Duffy added that it is "typical of the ABA" not to consider women's rights important.
ABA officials, on the other hand, point to two resolutions passed by the House of Delegates supporting the ERA as evidence that the organization favors women's rights. But, said Spann, the ABA does not want to get dragged into a lawsuit by supporting a boycott move.
Moreover, he said, the resolution would severely cut the number of cities that have large enough convention facilities to handle an ABA annual meeting, which this year is drawing 35,000 people to New York City.
There are only eight cities that can handle a large meeting and four of them - Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans and Atlanta - are in states that have not ratified the ERA.
ABA officials said one part of the resolution would make it impossible for officers of the association to travel to the ABA headquarters in Chicago since it would bar paying expenses for meetings in states that have not ratified the ERA.
ABA support of the boycott resolution would lend weight to the ERA forces since the ABA would become the largest, most establishment group to refuse to hold meetings in states that have not ratified the amendment. Most of the other organizations supporting a boycott have been smaller, more liberal groups or traditional supporters of liberal causes such as the United Auto Workers union.