March 29, 2021

WAVe Presents: A Conversation with "the Watergate Girl," Jill Wine-Banks

3 min

Referred to as "the mini-skirted" lawyer, admonished by a patronizing judge while cross-examining her witness, ("Now ladies, we have enough problems in the courtroom without two women arguing"), and told she was "too cute" to be the general counsel, Jill Wine-Banks had a lot to contend with as a working woman in the 1970s.

In her recent conversation with Venable partner Courtney Sullivan about her new book, The Watergate Girl, Jill spoke about her experiences as the only woman lawyer on the legal team that prosecuted the highest-ranking White House officials involved in the Watergate scandal and shared some inside scoops. Among the most riveting was her account of her cross-examination of Rose Mary Woods, who served as Richard Nixon's secretary from his early days in Congress through the end of his political career.

While on the witness stand, Ms. Woods surprised the court when she declared that she was responsible for erasing the 18.5 minutes of missing content on one of the subpoenaed White House tapes. The secretary contended that when her office phone rang, she kept her foot on the pedal of the recording device – otherwise the machine would have stopped – and stretched across her desk to answer it. But instead of pressing the stop pedal, she pressed record.

As she also recounts in her book, Jill suspected something was amiss, however, and asked the secretary to demonstrate what became known as "the Mary Rose Stretch" back in her office. By establishing that it would have been impossible to hold this stretch position for 18.5 minutes, the secretary's demonstration proved that she could not have been responsible for the missing content on the tape. Furthermore, it enhanced the likelihood that someone higher up in the Nixon administration was involved in a cover-up.

Jill pointed out that this pivotal moment in her career might never have occurred had she not insisted on conducting the cross-examination – all of which up to that point had been handled by her male counterpart. "You had to speak up to get what you deserved," she said, adding that at the time there was no Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), virtually no workplace protections, and everyday discrimination was commonplace. "In job interviews you had to sometimes answer questions about how many children you were planning to have or what kind of birth control you were using," she said. "No one would ask those kinds of questions now, but back then it was normal."

The far-reaching discussion also touched on the gender equity measures Jill pursued while serving as general counsel of the U.S. Army – which included integrating women in the regular army – as well as her thoughts on the recent Senate impeachment trial and the logistics of indicting a former president. "No one is above the law," she said. "But because it would be harder to convince a jury to convict a former president, you don't want to go to trial unless you're pretty sure you're going to win."

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