The Battle Of The Petticoats: Washoe's First Trial Argued By Two Female Lawyers

Mar 16, 2018

Today, women work at all levels of the legal profession, but that wasn’t the case just a few generations ago. Historian Alicia Barber tells the story of one of Nevada’s pioneering legal figures in this episode of Time & Place.

It wasn’t even legal for a woman to practice law in Nevada until 1893. By 1941, only 24 women had been admitted to the Nevada Bar. When Charlotte Hunter Arley joined their ranks in 1947, she was one of only three female attorneys practicing in Reno. Still, interviewed in 2000, she insisted that she wasn’t treated any differently by her male colleagues.

"It was mostly because we were a small group. You couldn’t ignore the rest of us. Nobody was pushing me out of the way; nobody was doing an awful lot to help me, but, you know, I was one of them," Arley remembered.

She even learned to navigate her way through the profession’s notorious three-martini lunches.

"I wasn’t a drinker, and if we would meet to have a discussion, I’d drink sherry. I’ll never drink sherry again in my life."

In 1952, Arley was hired to represent a man who had been pushed off a bar stool late one night. Representing the defendant was attorney Nada Novokovich, making it the first trial in Washoe County history to be argued by two opposing female lawyers. Their male colleagues immediately dubbed it the “Battle of the Petticoats,” and some of them seemed a bit more focused on the appearance of the two women than on their arguments, as Arley found out from the woman in charge of the law library.

"I came in about something and she said to me, 'Oh, one of the men just came in and said what lovely hands you have.'"

Charlotte Hunter Arley at a recognition celebration held for her in 1989.
Credit University of Nevada Oral History Program archive, Special Collections Department, University of Nevada Reno Libraries

Arley won the case in a matter of days. A few years later she moved out of town and stopped practicing law for about 15 years. When she returned to her Reno practice in the early seventies, so many more women had joined the profession that it took her by surprise.

"I remember coming into the law library, and I saw a woman there, and my reaction is, 'What is she doing here?' You have to remember, I really was on my own," she said.

Arley went on to a long and successful career, working well into her eighties. Today, women comprise about one third of the Nevada Bar and no one’s talking about petticoats anymore.

Historian Alicia Barber is the editor of the website and smart phone app Reno Historical. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries. Charlotte Hunter Arley’s oral history was conducted by the University of Nevada Oral History Program.