Boys will be boys, especially boys with time on their hands.
So it was that a dozen or so male board members of the State Bar of Texas found themselves sitting around a conference table in Austin last November, killing time while awaiting the arrival in town of enough of their colleagues to establish a quorum. The start of their meeting had been delayed due to bad weather that had forced the cancellation of flights around the state.
In an apparent effort to bring a touch of levity to the wait, one unidentified board member distributed copies of a cartoon in which a husband tells his wife they can conclude a discussion about his insensitivity by either making love or having him take a gun and "paint the wall with your spoiled-little-white-bitch brains."
Heh... heh... heh... heh...
The episode has outraged women lawyers across the state and, combined with the board's rejection of legislative proposals by the State Bar's Women in Law Section, is fueling a move to create a statewide association of female barristers outside the purview of the State Bar, the quasi-governmental agency that regulates the state's 54,000 lawyers (about 13,000 of them women).
The exercise in bad taste likely would have remained the directors' private joke if not for Robert Elder Jr., a reporter for the legal trade publication Texas Lawyer. Elder was on hand to cover the meeting when the cartoon was circulated. He says a female board staffer was ordered to make copies of the cartoon for distribution at the conference table.
Rice University Owls Football vs. Prairie View A&M University Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 22, 2:30pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. UCF Knights Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 29, 11:00am
Rice University Owls Football vs. Florida Atlantic University Owls Football
TicketsSat., Nov. 5, 2:30pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Tulane University Football
TicketsSat., Nov. 12, 11:00am
"I was right there when one of the directors told [her] to go copy it," says Elder. "She was right in front of me. I'm all for humor, but this was ridiculous."
(It's worth noting that courts have ruled that the posting of sexually embarrassing cartoons is illegal sexual harassment.)
Texas Lawyer ran a short item on the cartoon and another "alleged bit of levity" prior to the meeting, with Elder writing that the cartoon was "met with approving chuckles" by a half-dozen board members. Elder says that after the story appeared a State Bar official informed Texas Lawyer that he would no longer be allowed to cover its meetings. He later met with the Bar's executive director to discuss the episode.
"He said, 'What should board members do if they wanted to look at something like this, go into the bathroom?'" Elder says. "And my answer was, 'Yes.'"
Nothing much came of Elder's article until Dec-ember, when the reporter, while working on a another story, mentioned the episode to Houston lawyer Beatrice Mladenka-Fowler, who chairs the Women in Law Section. She was so upset by the cartoon that she fired off letters to the State Bar's board, justices on the Texas Supreme Court and leading women lawyers across the state, demanding censure of the directors involved.
Mladenka-Fowler says board president Jim Branton of San Antonio responded by taking her aside at an executive committee meeting of the board last month and downplaying the incident. Branton, she says, failed to get the picture -- a picture that has become plenty clear to others in the wake of the O.J. case and other highly publicized episodes of spouse abuse.
"That's what upset me the most," she says. "And that was pretty much what my letters said. Every day I read the paper and some man has brutally murdered, slashed, shot or dumped in the ditch his wife or girlfriend. Or ex-wife or ex-girlfriend. And this isn't funny. This is just sick."
Disgust over the incident has extended beyond legal circles. Mitzi Vorachek of the Houston Area Women's Center says she fielded several calls from lawyers who were angered by the cartoon and the setting of its distribution.
"I'm heartsick about it," says Vorachek, who wrote her own angry letter to the board but hasn't gotten a response. "These [board members] are supposed to be leaders of this state. There's nothing funny about this."
Branton acknowledges the cartoon was in bad taste and says the State Bar is "embarrassed" by the incident. However, Elder's version of the story to the contrary, Branton maintains that no staffer was involved in the copying of the cartoon, nor was there a move to have Elder barred from covering board meetings. And Branton insists he has no authority to take action on something that happened before a board meeting.
"How can I be responsible for what somebody does on their own time?" he says.
Mladenka-Fowler says he should be.
"They are board members, and they were waiting for a board meeting, and they were in the State Bar building, and apparently used a staffer to make copies."
The cartoon controversy came on the heels of the board's refusal to include three bills backed by the Women in Law Section in the State Bar's package of proposals for the Legislature. And, according to Mladenka-Fowler, the Women in Law Section was instructed by the board not to endorse the bills on its own. One of the measures would establish a method for the civil commitment of violent sexual predators, another would create a form of ex-spousal maintenance or alimony in Texas and a third would outlaw discrimination against women who wish to join private clubs, those still mostly male preserves where much legal business is transacted.
Although the proposals were initially rejected by the board, Branton says the directors have since reconsidered and could include the items in the Bar's legislative package if its Women in Law Section and its Family Law Section -- which Branton says have the same interests -- can forge a compromise on the measures. But Branton indicates his patience with the Women in Law Section is running thin.
"If I sound like I'm annoyed," he steams, "it's only because I am."
Too bad, says Mladenka-Fowler.
"Why should we have to defer to the Family Law Section for any piece of legislation when we're just as organized a section and as legitimate a section as they are?" she says.
While Mladenka-Fowler says it would be foolish to push for disbanding the Women in Law Section, since it provides legitimacy and resources for women attorneys, she is fully supportive of efforts to recruit members for a new statewide organization, Texas Women Lawyers, which was formed late last year.
"The Women in Law Section doesn't have the kind of power we need for a statewide organization," say Mladenka-Fowler. "So we formed our own."
Lynne Clark, a Houston attorney who's the treasurer of Texas Women Lawyers, says the notion of forming a new organization for women attorneys had been percolating for several years, primarily because of the Bar's indifference to the concerns of its women members. As an example, she cites problems with a "gender bias" task force, whose creation was mandated by the Texas Supreme Court -- which oversees the Bar -- in 1991. The task force was to study whether there is gender bias in Texas courts. But neither the Supreme Court nor the State Bar provided any method of funding the study.
"That was considered a slap in the face," says Clark.
The task force did manage to complete the study after raising money and obtaining a matching grant from the Texas Bar Foundation, an organization that funds legal education projects. Despite the State Bar's refusal to supply funds, it was "very generous" in providing in-kind support for research and printing, says Houston lawyer Iris Robinson, a task force member.
Meanwhile, there are signs that the State Bar -- which counts only six women among its 54 directors -- is beginning to take the concerns of its women members seriously. At their last meeting, Branton arranged for board members to undergo a round of gender sensitivity training conducted by Austin lawyer Kathryn Tullos.
Tullos says the first half of her session focused on the results of the gender bias study the State Bar wouldn't fund. She devoted much of the second half to explaining to grown men with post-graduate degrees why the cartoon wasn't funny.
The board members, Tullos says, seemed receptive to her presentation.
But when it was over they had no questions.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.