The Case of Rose Bird: Gender, Politics, and the California Courts

The Case of Rose Bird: Gender, Politics, and the California Courts

by Kathleen A. Cairns
The Case of Rose Bird: Gender, Politics, and the California Courts

The Case of Rose Bird: Gender, Politics, and the California Courts

by Kathleen A. Cairns


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Rose Elizabeth Bird was forty years old when in 1977 Governor Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown chose her to become California’s first female supreme court chief justice. Appointed to a court with a stellar reputation for being the nation’s most progressive, Bird became a lightning rod for the opposition due to her liberalism, inexperience, and gender. Over the next decade, her name became a rallying cry as critics mounted a relentless effort to get her off the court. Bird survived three unsuccessful recall efforts, but her opponents eventually succeeded in bringing about her defeat in 1986, making her the first chief justice to be removed from the California Supreme Court.
The Case of Rose Bird provides a fascinating look at this important and complex woman and the political and cultural climate of California in the 1970s and 1980s. Seeking to uncover the identities and motivations of Bird’s vehement critics, Kathleen A. Cairns traces Bird’s meteoric rise and cataclysmic fall. Cairns considers the instrumental role that then-current gender dynamics played in Bird’s downfall, most visible in the tensions between second-wave feminism and the many Americans who felt that a “radical” feminist agenda might topple long-standing institutions and threaten “traditional” values.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803295421
Publisher: UNP - Bison Books
Publication date: 11/01/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 344
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Kathleen A. Cairns is a lecturer of history and women’s studies at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo. She is the author of several books, including Proof of Guilt: Barbara Graham and the Politics of Executing Women in America (Nebraska, 2013). 

Read an Excerpt

The Case of Rose Bird

Gender, Politics, and the California Courts

By Kathleen A. Cairns


Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9542-1


The First Woman

In September 1999 Rose Elizabeth Bird telephoned a female reporter to arrange a lunch date. She dressed carefully in a blue blouse and black slacks, but the clothes hung on her thin frame and she could barely eat. She was dying of breast cancer and had only a few more weeks to live. The phone call had been unexpected. Bird was notoriously risk averse when it came to the media. As her life slipped away, however, she wanted to revisit the past and set the record straight before it was too late. It had been too late for a long time — for two decades, in fact.

She was almost sixty-three, and hers had been a remarkable life. From an impoverished girlhood in Arizona and New York, she had risen to heights no woman in California had then achieved. It had all unraveled. In 1986 she became the first chief justice removed from office by California voters. Even in her final months, she seemed not to entirely understand how it had all gone wrong.

But the beginning of her journey held clues to the end. Bird always claimed to have learned her life's most valuable lessons at her mother Anne's knee. Chief among them: that women had to take care of themselves; that education, hard work, and perseverance were keys to a life free of physically taxing, low-paid labor; and that a career aimed at helping others less fortunate would bring psychic satisfaction along with remuneration. "She probably more than anyone else influenced me in understanding that you had to rely on yourself — that you couldn't rely on a husband to financially see you through life," Bird once said.

But her father also played a profound role in the person Bird became: obsessively self-reliant, deeply untrusting of others, and possessing a nearly pathological need for control. She was also extraordinarily cautious, and she prized loyalty above all other traits, remnants of an early childhood with a parent who seems always to have had one foot out the door. Harry Dalton Bird left his family when Rose was small. As a teenager, she apparently revealed to a friend that he had been an alcoholic. As an adult, she never spoke publicly about Harry. She pointedly omitted references to him in all of her "Who's Who" entries. If asked by journalists, she offered a terse response: "My mother married a much older man, and as a result my father died when we were very young."

Harry Bird was born in New Jersey in 1873 to parents who had emigrated to the United States from England just two years earlier. His first marriage took place in 1894 in Manhattan, and according to U.S. census records his first child was born less than six months later. Harry and his first wife, Charlotte, eventually had five children.

In April 1918 Harry signed up for military service, though at forty-four he was too old to fight in World War I. The enlistment form described him as tall and slender, with blue eyes and light hair, and it listed his occupation as salesman for a New York City company that made sandpaper. He also worked for at least one company that made glue.

Although Charlotte maintained that her marriage lasted into the 1930s, by the end of the previous decade Harry had left his family and was living in a rented apartment in lower Manhattan with a new wife, Anne Walsh Bird. When Harry and Anne's first child, Jack, was born in August 1930, they had moved to Nevada; by the following year they had relocated to Tucson, Arizona. Three more children would be born there: an infant daughter who died in late 1931; a son, Philip, born in June 1935; and a second daughter, Rose Elizabeth, born in November 1936, four decades after her oldest half sibling.

Anne was more than thirty years younger than her husband, though census records suggest that he may have misled her about the age difference. Anne was twenty-five and Harry claimed to be forty-two at the time of the marriage, though he was really fifty-seven, about the age of Anne's own parents, James and Hannah Walsh. Her reasons for marrying Harry are unknown, but Anne grew up in a farming area in central New York that provided limited employment and marriage opportunities for young women. She surely did not marry for money, however; the Birds struggled financially throughout their marriage, which ended about the time the United States entered World War II.

By the time of his youngest daughter's birth in the depths of the Great Depression, Harry was no longer a salesman. Instead, the family eked out a living on a chicken farm they owned in a rural and run-down section of Tucson. At some point in late 1941 or 1942, Harry left Anne and their children. Sources later suggested that he died soon afterward, but he lived another decade, dying in Tempe, Arizona — about one hundred miles from Tucson — on May 21, 1953.

Rose Bird was clearly sensitive about her family background. Once, when a journalist suggested her father had abandoned his family, she snapped, "My parents separated." In any case, Anne Bird never remarried, and Harry Bird seems to have been deleted from the family narrative soon after his departure. At the time of Harry's death Rose was nearing the end of her junior year in high school and no longer lived in Arizona.

In some ways the timing of his departure was fortuitous. World War II had opened up the job market for women, particularly in the defense industry, and Anne found work at Tucson's Davis Monthan Air Force Base, installing Plexiglas windows on T-47 transport planes. With their mother at work all day, the three children were responsible for keeping the house in order: cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry. "It was hard," Rose Bird once noted in an interview. "I tell myself I was 80 when I was 5." She offered no specifics to explain this bleak depiction of her childhood, but a story told by her mother provided a glimpse at how it must have seemed to a young girl left to fend for herself.

In one of the rare interviews she gave, Anne Bird recalled her children's youth as generally happy, one in which they amused themselves playing ball and climbing trees. The neighborhood held few other children and no girls Rose's age, so she had only her brothers as playmates. Jack was almost six years older and Philip less than two years older. They generally tolerated their younger sister, at least according to their mother. But the boys often enjoyed visiting the military base, where they fraternized with mechanics or with "an occasional tolerant pilot." Rose was not welcome to join them.

One day Anne returned home just as her sons were headed to the base. When they saw Rose running to catch up, they turned and started throwing stones at the dirt in front of her to keep her from coming closer. "I can remember her standing there crying. But you know when I was working there was a limit to how much I could discipline the boys. I wanted them to take care of Rose and I didn't want them to get angry at her so that when I wasn't there she'd suffer for it. And I think by and large they were pretty fair to her."

Anne Bird remained at Davis Monthan until soldiers began returning from the war, and she eventually was let go. Advertisements, magazines, films, and the new medium of television depicted white women of the late 1940s and 1950s, with few exceptions, as happy housewives eager to replace their rivet guns with roasting pans and to exchange their work clothing for shirtwaist dresses and aprons. This lifestyle may have been claustrophobic for some ambitious women, but for Anne Bird — and millions of others — it was unattainable, a fact that her daughter implicitly understood, even as a young girl.

Anne needed full-time work, but postwar opportunities were scarce to nonexistent for women, at least in fields that paid wages sufficient to support families. To make ends meet she took in laundry and cleaned houses. In 1950, having exhausted her options and her limited resources, Anne decided to leave the southern Arizona desert for the rolling hills and farms of her childhood home in New York. The job search there proved as fruitless as it had in Tucson, and after a few months, Anne moved with her daughter to Sea Cliff, New York, situated on a scenic spit of land on the north shore of Long Island, twenty-five miles from New York City. Rose was fourteen at the time, and she must have experienced extreme culture shock.

Tucson sprawls across more than two hundred square miles of rugged desert terrain sixty miles north of the Mexican border. It is surrounded by mountains and held a population of nearly fifty thousand in the late 1940s. It also was a diverse place, counting Anglos, Latinos, Native Americans, and a few African Americans among its residents; the neighborhood where the Birds lived was mostly Latino. The Papago Reservation reflects the city's Native American roots while the Mission San Xavier de Bac, built in the late 1600s and situated nine miles south of Tucson, recalls the city's origins as a Spanish settlement. The OK Corral, about an hour's drive east of Tucson, reminds visitors of the city's connection to the wild and untamed West of lore. Later in her life, Rose Bird recalled attending segregated schools and having a Native American woman as a babysitter.

Sea Cliff is an incorporated village inside the boundaries of the larger town of Oyster Bay. It got its start in the mid-1800s as a campground for Methodist revival meetings and later became a resort town attracting tourists who sought the Victorian and gingerbread flavor of old-time Americana. Today it is still the kind of place that visitors refer to as "quaint." Its small downtown seems designed for walking rather than driving. A few residents refer to Sea Cliff, perhaps with a touch of irony, as "Mayberry" — the bucolic, fictional town from the Andy Griffith television show. In fact, tourists eating lunch at the deli across the street from the town library are treated to black-and-white reruns of the Andy Griffith Show, complete with its distinctive whistled theme song and laugh track.

As its name implies, Sea Cliff sits high above a bay, which can be accessed by driving down a winding road or climbing down wooden stairs. Today, as in the 1950s, the town's population of nearly five thousand is virtually all white and middle to upper-middle class, with a smattering of wealthier and poorer residents. The former live in large homes with expansive gardens, and the latter reside in a small number of rental apartments. Sea Cliff might have been more monochromatic than Tucson, but in the 1950s, it seems to have been more inclusive in some ways. Two of Bird's classmates — both girls — were African American, and both were prominently featured in the high-school yearbook.

Rose and Anne Bird lived in one of the rental housing units. A long-ago acquaintance remembered Anne as "nice" and the Birds as "rather poor." Rose was viewed as friendly, though intellectual rather than emotional; for example, she was not particularly interested in gossiping or hearing about other people's problems. She was, however, empathetic when it came to ethnic or religious minorities. A photo in her high-school annual depicts Bird with an arm around Valerie Gordon, an African American classmate. And she had Jewish friends, though at least one family member apparently was antisemitic. On a train trip to visit relatives in upstate New York, Bird suggested that a traveling companion not divulge her Jewish background.

Bird herself undoubtedly felt like an outsider. Anne's status as a single parent in an era that extolled nuclear families automatically placed her — and her daughter — into a separate category from more "traditional" women. It is impossible to know how, or if, Anne explained her marital status to others. In a list of parent sponsors of the 1954 high-school yearbook, Anne referred to herself as Mrs. A. W. Bird. The use of her own initials might suggest she revealed her status as a divorcée but also that she fudged her status, since she used only initials, rather than her full name.

And Anne was a working mother at a time when most mothers stayed home. Her job at a plastics factory was physically draining and the hours long, but at least it enabled her to provide her daughter with a modicum of financial security. It was in Sea Cliff that Rose Bird began to reveal a set of values that would come to shape her life and worldview: an intense dedication to hard work, a fierce independence, and a highly developed sense of outrage at what she perceived as injustice.

Photos of Bird during her high-school years depict a tall, slender, and very attractive girl who wore her long blonde hair in a braid wrapped around her head or pulled high into a chignon, a popular style in the 1950s. Her eyes held the camera in a steady gaze. "She must have had lots of beaux," a reporter once suggested to Anne Bird, who replied, "Not as many as you would expect. I think basically she was rather shy." Her list of activities belies that assessment, however.

Rose entered Sea Cliff High School in her sophomore year and almost immediately signed on to the campus yearbook and newspaper. She also joined the Pioneers Club, the glee club, and the Alpha Math Club. She acted in school plays. In fact, she had the lead role in the senior play, Mother Was a Freshman. She played sports, including tennis, volleyball, softball, and basketball. Her involvement in so many activities seems to contradict her later depiction of herself as a plodder and a grind, a girl who stayed home "to do the shopping on the weekend and bake bread for the following week."

A life filled with constant activity did not signify parties, dances, and sleepovers, however. Former classmates recall Bird generally as "a loner." In group photographs, she often held herself somewhat apart from her classmates. And comments beside her senior photo reflect her classmates' view of her as serious and somewhat aloof. Other girls were "fun-loving," "always on the go," "vivacious," and a "small-sized package of pep and energy," but Rose held "ardent discussions with [English teacher] Mr. Palmer" and "munched on her favorite blackstrap molasses and yogurt." Despite her attractiveness, stellar grades, and accomplishments, she was not voted best looking, most athletic, or even most likely to succeed. And she did not win prizes in either English or history, her favorite subjects.

She was not reticent about revealing her political leanings, even at such a young age. The yearbook also characterized her as "our energetic political fiend" and "a definite opponent of certain politicos." Offering a hint of what her partisans would later depict as courageous and her detractors would refer to as excessively ideological, she sailed against the prevailing winds.

In fall 1952, at the age of fifteen, she went door-to-door campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. Sea Cliff "must have been about 99 percent Republican and I was about the only one in my school who supported him," she recalled later. This might have been a bit of an exaggeration. Current residents refer to Sea Cliff as historically more liberal than its neighbors, and one former resident recalled that the town also attracted a few "bohemians," such as artists and those with somewhat unconventional lifestyles.

Bird's straitened economic circumstances made it necessary for her to work during the summers, and here, too, she showed remarkable assertiveness for one so young. One of her first jobs as a teenager was at a company that made metal plates for Addressograph machines. The work space was small and stifling; she later characterized it as "kind of a sweat shop." The workforce was made up entirely of women, who stamped out the plates for low pay and with few breaks. Rose soon discovered, according to her mother, "that if all of them stopped their machines and then started them up at the same moment, they could usually manage to blow a fuse, thus allowing them a comfortable ten- or fifteen-minute respite while repairs were made."

After graduating with honors from Sea Cliff High School in 1954, Bird won a full tuition scholarship to Long Island University (LIU). She lived at home and commuted more than fifty miles round-trip each day, biking to the nearest train station and then riding the train to Brooklyn and back. Anne Bird once tried to explain to a journalist how her daughter had come to be so ambitious: "Even as a youngster in high school she realized that if you don't have a good education, you were at the mercy of the economic system. Of course, you are anyway, but maybe less so."

She began as an English major hoping eventually to work in journalism and follow in the footsteps of her heroes, newspaper reporter Elmer Davis, who had headed the Office of War Information during World War II, and radio and television journalist Edward R. Murrow. Her interest in both men reflected her determination to make a difference. They were "crusading" reporters who used their respective platforms to oppose Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy's red-baiting; Davis also had opposed Japanese American internment during World War II. "When my classmates would have crushes on movie stars, I would have them on news commentators," Bird remarked.


Excerpted from The Case of Rose Bird by Kathleen A. Cairns. Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. The First Woman,
2. A Woman in Charge,
3. The Most Innovative Judiciary,
4. Becoming Chief Justice,
5. Hail to the Chief,
6. Disorder in the Court,
7. The Politics of Death,
8. Big Business v. Rose Bird,
9. The People v. Rose Bird,
10. High Courts and Political Footballs,
11. Paying for Justice,

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