Patricia Wald, 90, first woman to serve as chief judge on federal appeals court
Patricia M. Wald, the first woman to serve as chief judge of the federal appeals court in Washington and later wrote seminal rulings while serving in The Hague on the international court for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, died Saturday at her home in Washington. She was 90.
Her daughter, Johanna Wald, confirmed her death and said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Wald was a pioneer for women in law, rising from a working- class Irish family to enter the legal profession at a time when women were a rare presence. She eventually became the first woman to serve on — and preside over — the U. S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, widely regarded as the second most influential court in the country. Her career spanned a generational change that propelled women into visible and prominent roles, including on the Supreme Court, a job for which she was once in consideration.
Her path to becoming an important progressive voice in American jurisprudence showed the obstacles women faced in the mid- 20th century. She graduated from Yale Law School in 1951; when she began, three years earlier, Harvard Law School did not even entertain applications from women. She became a law clerk for Jerome Frank, a prominent appeals court judge in New York, and worked briefly for some of Washington’s most prominent lawyers before leaving the workplace for 10 years to be at home with her family. She raised five children with her husband, Robert Wald, a Yale Law School classmate who established a thriving Washington law practice. He died in 2010.
She described her choice without complaint or regret. “I didn’t feel any terrible sense of isolation or loss,” she said of leaving the workplace. “I just assumed I would go back.”
In a 2006 interview, she described the question of whether motherhood is a real or fulfilling job as a false debate. “In my view, how you pursue your life as a parent and careerist is a question of individual personality,” she said.
“I did not want to go back to work until my kids were in regular school,” she said, though she added that “I respect other women’s choices to go back earlier.”
She first became pregnant in the early 1950s while working at Arnold & Porter, then a small firm formed by a few of Washington’s top lawyers. She hid her condition for a time because she feared that it would reinforce a negative view of hiring women. “I was afraid they might say, ‘ You take your first woman associate and in three months, she’s pregnant,’ ” she said.