The year was 1947. Reno’s population was a mere 25,000, yet it boasted a total of 175 attorneys, many serving the wealthy eastern divorce trade. In this era of dude-ranch divorcees, only two other women besides Charlotte Hunter were practicing lawyers, Felice Cohen and Margaret Bailey. Little did the young Massachusetts woman know that, while she concentrated on earning a living, she was also paving a path that women by the hundreds and thousands would follow in the future.
Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, Charlotte grew up with one brother and one sister in a Jewish family. She credits her father for her advanced education, for he wanted assurance that all of his children would be able to earn their own way in the world. It never occurred to the intelligent girl to do otherwise. Having graduated early from Classical High School in Springfield, she entered Northeastern University’s law school at the age of sixteen and finished when she was still too young to take the bar exams. She worked for the legal department of the Federal Land Bank while the Great Depression spread across the country in the 1930s. She also volunteered at the Legal Aid Society. After being admitted to the bar in Massachusetts in 1935, she joined one of Boston’s top law firms—Tyler, Eames, Wright & Reynolds—but after experiencing the broken promises that were all too familiar to professional women at that time, she headed West to find more opportunities. She stopped briefly in Reno to visit her father, then continued her travels and fell in love with Yosemite National Park, staying to work in the gift shop before returning to Reno and starting her practice.
In her oral history, Charlotte tells the behind-the-scenes stories of the famous “Petticoat Trial”—so named because it was the first time in Reno’s history that two women attorneys were pitted against each other in a courtroom. It was also Charlotte’s first experience with a jury trial. She comments on cases that were heard in the Nevada Supreme Court and set legal precedents still in use today. Motivated by fairness, she always served as the plaintiff’s attorney and worked hard to present a strong case for each client. Charlotte also remembered the discrimination she experienced for being a female attorney and Jewish, discriminatory acts that took her by surprise but never daunted her determination or her independence.
One highlight of her career came in 1949 when she represented Reno at the International Federation of Women Lawyers meeting, held in Rome, Italy. She served as secretary to the group that had representatives from forty-one countries. While in Europe, she took the opportunity to visit her brother Sam in Florence.
Charlotte left Reno for fifteen years with her husband Jacques Arley to live in Portland but returned following his early death in 1971. Once again, she was a woman on her own in a predominantly male profession, but this time the women’s liberation movement had changed the legal scene. More and more young women were passing the bar and practicing law without experiencing the notoriety of novelty that met Reno’s first two women lawyers as they faced off during the Petticoat Trial. Throughout, Charlotte’s oral history is sprinkled with names recognizable as the who’s who of Reno’s legal society from post-World War II to the current day.
Oral history interviews were conducted with Charlotte Hunter Arley during the summer of 2000 as part of the Nevada Legal Oral History Project, a cooperative project among the Nevada Judicial Historical Society, the Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society, and the University of Nevada Oral History Program (UNOHP). Funding was provided by a grant from the Dangberg Foundation to the Nevada Judicial Historical Society. The UNOHP donated generous amounts of time in transcription and production services. The Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society provided professional expertise and administered the grant.
Charlotte and I met at her Reno home where, at the age of eighty-eight, she was still dispensing legal advice to those in need. We were often interrupted by telephone calls and visits from neighbors and members of her synagogue, all friends who enjoy her lively conversations and companionship. The interviews seldom followed exact chronological order, but rather we explored subjects as they came to memory. Charlotte quickly became a favorite at UNOHP, as one by one, each person helped with transcription and production of her oral history. This transcript has been lightly edited for readability, but the natural episodic structure follows the interview tapes. Amusement or laughter is represented with [laughter] at the end of the sentence; and ellipses are used, not to indicate that material has been deleted, but to indicate that a statement has been interrupted or is incomplete . . . or there is a pause for dramatic effect. For readers who are interested in examining the unaltered records, copies of the tape-recorded interviews are in the archives at the Nevada Supreme Court Library at Carson City, Nevada; the Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society, at Pasadena, California; and the UNOHP in Reno. As with all oral history projects, Charlotte has recorded her remembered past, and memory is never flawless. Readers should exercise the same caution used when consulting government records, newspaper accounts, diaries, and other primary sources of historical information.
Perhaps the most revealing comment Charlotte made when reflecting on her career came after pausing with surprise at a question. “If I had known I would be a role model . . . but I was just earning a living.”
Interviewee: Charlotte Hunter Arley
Interviewer: Victoria Ford
UNOHP Catalog #188
This introduction is reprinted with permission from the University of Nevada Oral History Archive, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Nevada, Reno. The full oral history transcript was created for the Nevada Legal Oral History Project. Click here for the full oral history transcript.
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