About Ruth O'Brien (Reardon)
Ruth Reardon O'Brien is a prominent American lawyer who became a ground-breaking figure in the legal world when she became one of the first female partners of a major law firm. She was selected for inclusion in Stanford University's Women's Legal History Biographical Project and has been written about at length by many scholars and students. She is also known for being the mother of entertainer Conan O'Brien.
Early Life & Education
Ruth was born in 1931 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father, James Reardon, was a laborer with an 8th-grade education and without any real advantages in life, but Ruth says he taught her that "nothing is ever so bad that you can't find a way to laugh at it." She cites him as the person who taught her to always pursue what you want in life without worrying what others think about it. Her mother, Ruth Powers Reardon, was a teacher who instilled a love for education in her children and who also trained her daughter to always maintain "proper decorum." Ruth's two older brothers, Edward and James Reardon, both went on to become lawyers as well.
After graduating from high school in 1949, she continued her education at Vassar College, at that point still a women's college, in Poughkeepsie, Dutchess County, New York. She chose Vassar because her mother told her that's where "the finest young women in the country" were supposed to go. She considers her acceptance a notable accomplishment because she was from an underprivileged Irish Catholic family, something that still earned prejudice in America, and her high school guidance counselor had told her only Catholic colleges would accept her. Ruth's father told her that was advice from "a very ignorant woman" and that Ruth should aspire to go wherever she wanted. Vassar -- a very upper-class college -- offered her a full scholarship.
College and Law School
Enterting in 1949, Ruth quickly established herself as an outstanding student and organizer on campus. She served as president of the Newman Club, a national organization for Catholic students, and welcomed speakers from the Catholic worker movement to campus, including Father Fitzsimmons ("Father Fitz") and Dorothy Day. Dorothy Day actually offered Ruth a job at her settlement house, but Ruth declined, promising to one day work for legal aid.
At Vassar, she was inspired by her professors C. Gordon Post and Helen Lockwood. Her interest in law was spurred largely by a study she conducted on the lack of legal services for the low-income families of Dutchess County. She wrote about their experiences in her senior thesis in the Political Science department, a thesis that was published by the New York State Bar Association and resulted in her doing a speaking tour around the country on her findings. Her study directly resulted in the introduction of legal aid to Dutchess County.
After graduating from Vassar in 1953, she continued on to Yale Law School, where she was one of only four women in her class. She had been accepted to Harvard Law School as well, but her visit to campus was a poor one due to treatment from the administrators, who had just begun admitting women and treated her dismissively. She instead chose Yale, which had been admitting women to its law school since 1918.
Ruth remembers her time at Yale fondly, saying she never encountered any misogyny there because "women...weren't unseen animals." She graduated in 1956, having served as vice president of the student government.
After graduation, she clerked for Chief Justice Raymond Wilkins of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Wilkins, who was also serving as president of the Harvard Alumni Association, asked Ruth why he should hire a woman who had turned down Harvard for Yale. Ruth replied that she wanted the job more than any Harvard man and would certainly work harder than they would. Wilkins admired her charm and commitment and hired her for the job.
Although she had an exceptional educational background, was well-respected by peers, and was personally advocated for by the Chief Justice, Ruth had difficulty with job interviews since the established law firms in Boston were still not hiring women. Firms told her they didn't want to waste a job on her when it could go to a man who needed to support a family. One interviewer asked how she would find a boyfriend as a lawyer, and another committee told her she couldn't eat with the male lawyers (since it would look bad) or the female staff (since they were beneath lawyers), resulting in her asking if she'd ever be allowed to eat.
She continued to pursue her dream, however, and finally secured a job doing generalist work at Ropes & Gray, a prominent firm with offices in both Boston and New York. She began her career there in 1957, though not without challenges. Once, while attending a meeting in New York hosted by the firm Dewey Ballantine, she was forced to eat in the hallway since women were not permitted in the firm's dining room.
Marriage & Children
In 1958, Ruth married Tom O'Brien, a doctor of immunology and veteran who had also grown up in Worcester. They had met first in 1950 and exchanged letters over those eight years since they were rarely in the same place. After marrying, the couple moved to Texas, meaning she left her position at Ropes & Gray behind. They only remained in Texas for a year, however, and she returned to Ropes & Gray in 1959.
In 1960, her first child (Neil) was born, once again resulting in her leaving the practice due to family obligations. Over the next several years, her family expanded to six children. They are:
- Neil, b. 1960
- Luke, b. 1962
- Conan, b. 1963
- Kate, b. 1964
- Jane, b. 1967
- Justin, b. 1973
Her years at home were very busy ones aside from family obligations. She served on many local committees, led PTA groups, and raised funds and interviewed applicants for Vassar. She also says that she spent these years "stirring up lots of trouble."
Ruth did not return to her profession until 1971, but she remained well-regarded and connected within the legal field. She also continued to dedicate herself to legal and social justice causes, including helping establish the Peace Corps in 1961 and 1962 by speaking at colleges all around the area to recruit members.
Return to Law
In 1971, Ruth ran into the hiring partner of Ropes & Gray. He pleaded with her to return, but Ruth gave him a list of requirements -- she had to keep her family as her first priority, she would never be asked to travel or work weekends, she would have one morning off each week to work at her children's nursery school, and she had to be home every night by 6:30 so she could spend time with her children. On October 5, 1971, she returned to work, this time in the real estate department of Ropes & Gray since that allowed her the most flexibility with her schedule.
Ruth cites this period of transition as the most challenging part of her life. She had been away from active practice long enough that she had forgotten many of the finer points related to legal practice. She considered taking classes at Harvard Law School, which she had turned down years before, to help brush up. She found herself having to look up case law and new terminology and relying on another female attorney for tutoring. (Out of 125 attorneys, only 10 were women.) With five children by this point, she also struggled to keep up with her home life, eventually hiring a housekeeper to help manage things. She had another child in December 1972 and was very sick throughout the pregnancy, but she could not take time off since she was needed at the office.
Ruth continued to manage her household, with much help from her husband and her older children. She gave all of her children a collection of dimes and a written copy of her work phone number so they could reach her whenever they wanted to, and she instructed her secretary to interrupt her if her children called, no matter what she was doing. Her assistant, Mary Varricchio, became invaluable to the O'Brien household by assisting with household matters.
The couple originally lost much money paying for household assistants, but Tom was insistent that they do whatever it took to give Ruth the career she wanted. They also received assistance from Tom's parents as necessary. Ruth has said:
"Hillary Clinton says it takes a village, but when I think of all those people who are responsible for my [success], I realize that for me, it has taken a whole state approximately the size of New York."
By 1977, her skills as an attorney had earned her enough acclaim that Ropes & Gray was getting pressure from her clients to hire her full-time. Within a year, she was made partner, only the second female and first Yale Law School graduate in all of Ropes & Gray. Ruth says the promotion shocked her since her mother had so instilled concepts of "politeness" and "good taste" in her that she had never violated social standards for women by asking about partnership chances.
Unfortunately, she hurt her back shortly after becoming partner. From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, she had eight operations, often found herself wearing a full-body cast, and missed months of work over time. Her secretary would frequently have to bring her work to her home or the hospital so she could keep up with cases. Still, she was able to handle her physical challenges, pressure from clients, and her many responsibilities so well that her reputation was never diminished. After retiring, Ruth said:
"Nobody ever suffered because I had a family. I delivered whatever was required."
In December 1996, at the age of 65, Ruth announced her intention to retire. She left Ropes & Gray and began working part-time for Greater Boston Legal Services, returning to her college commitment to help those most in need of help but without the finances to pay for it. She has worked especially closely with the Sherrill House, a church-sponsored nursing home. She also remains involved with affirmative action cases through Ropes & Gray and advocates for the rights of women, people of color, and people with disabilities. Elder law and housing law also remain great interests.
Ruth Reardon O'Brien's Timeline
December 16, 1931
Worcester, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA
Poughkeepsie, New York, United States
New Haven, Connecticut, United States
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Worcester, MA, USA
March 24, 1962
Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States
April 18, 1963
Brookline, Norfolk, Massachusetts, USA
Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States