Brereton Sturtevant Interview Transcript

Q:    We are here in Alexandria, Virginia, on January 10, 2004, talking with Bret Sturtevant. First, Bret, I'd like to ask you about your first name. Everybody calls you Bret. You're real first name is Brereton. Is that a family name that has some significance?

A:   Yes, it is. It was my mother's maiden name, and she and her sisters were a family of seven girls and no men, so the family name at least locally in Washington was going to die out with them. So I think every one of them who had a child along the way named the child, male or female, the first name of Brereton. There are only two of us first cousins left now of that generation, and he is a man with the first name of Brereton and I have always been a woman with the first name of Brereton. The family did not approve of my acquiring a nickname.

Q:   I can understand. You are one of those rarities, a native Washingtonian.

A:   Fourth generation.

Q:   Has your family lived in Washington a long time. So that answers that question. You went to college at Wellesley. Is that a family institution as well?

A:   No. No, my father who was a very eminent lawyer in Washington and a very awful businessman who died bankrupt in 1934 in the worst part of the Depression. The National Savings and Trust Bank which was eminent at the time and turned out to be very incompetent foreclosed on the house and sold everything in it. Thanks to Mrs. Holton, who was the owner and head of the Holton Arms private school, thanks to her I was able to finish at her expense at Holton Arms the last four years. I graduated n the spring of 1938. I never knew it for years, but she called my mother a few weeks after my father died and said, "Mrs. Sturtevant, I do not wish to pry, but I am hearing all over Washington that Mr. Sturtevant has died bankrupt and I want you to know that Brereton is to continue in this school until she graduates. Most people still don't know that about Mrs. Holton, but over the years I have discovered that half of the student body in those days was there at the courtesy of Mrs. Holton's own pocketbook. So she was a really tremendous woman.

She also paid out of her own pocket the application fees to the colleges she decreed that I apply to, which were the usual, as I remember, seven sisters, probably only five or six of them. I wanted to go to Wellesley but I did not dare tell her that. I did whatever she told me about applying, but I really always wanted to go to Wellesley mostly because I heard that it had Crew. I loved anything to do -- I had grown up in the summers before Dad died bankrupt I had grown up on the coast of Maine and I loved anything to do with rowing, sailing, swimming, fishing. Luckily, I got to go to Wellesley.

Q:    Wonderful. I had not known there was an actual Holton connected with Holton Arms. You told me something.

A:   Mrs. Jessie Moon Holton. We had our centennial two years ago.

Q:   And I see you have remained active in Wellesley organizations. Tell us about that.

A:   Activity has varied over the years. Right out of college, of course, my class graduated in early June after December 7, Pearl Harbor, and we all went in totally different directions, some into the military service, several of them German majors and interesting, I thought, math majors went into cryptology. The math majors who wanted to went into breaking the Japanese code and the German majors, of course, were assigned to help break the German code. But I was not in anything like that. I was a chemistry major, and the big chemical companies came, after Pearl Harbor, recruiting all the chemistry majors for the first time in history. They had never had women chemists before, and the grabbed us in Wilmington, Delaware. There were four companies, DuPont, Hercules, Atlas. There was a fourth one I never can remember now. They all came interviewing the women chemists, and I went with DuPont.

When I wanted to go into military service, they wouldn't let me because I was in strategic research or some stupid name. So I stayed at DuPont. We all had only Bachelors degrees. When the war was ending, DuPont never said, as some other companies that I know of said, "The men are coming back so you're out of a job." DuPont said, "The PhDs are coming back. Go and get an advanced degree," which you could do at the University of Delaware because DuPont highly sponsored the University of Delaware's chemistry department, "but if you're only a Bachelor, you're going to be out of a job."

I decided that I wanted law instead of any more chemistry, and the bosses in my research department said, "Fine. Of course, we'll be grooming you-- if we help you with tuition, we'll be grooming you not for us but for the legal department because you will be able to go in the legal department." So they gave me the same big raise they gave anyone who was going on to get an advanced degree in chemistry, and it was four years law school five nights a week. It was not really much worse than the three years that the day law school took. The place that had night law school and it was a very good law school was Temple University in Philadelphia. So for four years I commuted five nights a week doing most of the studying on the train going to and from. When I finished, I applied for a transfer to the legal department. The legal department told my research bosses, "Oh, we don't take women."

Q:    Really? After they had paid for all that education.

A:    Yes. Oh, and my department bosses were a whole lot well, they were angry, and I think rightly. They moved heaven and earth but the head of the legal department said, "Oh, we'll take you alright to stay in the library and do legal research for the other lawyers, but we don't think that the head of a manufacturing department of DuPont will ever obey a woman lawyer's opinion that tells him he cannot do something, so we don't think that a woman can really be a lawyer in a corporate setup such as we have." Which became later one of my favorite stories to some of my clients like Charles Pfizer Company, Esso, two or three others over the years.

I wound up in a wonderful partnership with a gentleman -­ first I went in, of course. He hired me and he had left DuPont in a huff himself, fed up with their legal department and opened his own patent practice in Wilmington, and he made me a partner before I thought I was ready to be. So it was the best thing, as most of those things turn out to be, that could have happened to me. But I am very fond of DuPont now. I have a lot of friends in it.

Q:   Well, I can imagine. That was really an unusual piece of luck, although the legal profession's shortsightedness was not -­

A:   Well, that was typical at that time.

Q:   I know it was. Every other lawyer I've interviewed has told similar --

A:    It wasn't only law. It was -­

Q:    Everything.

A:    Also at the same time, although later Esso became for some things a client of mine, Esso had offered me a job the spring after Pearl Harbor and said up front then and there, "Of course, you will be out of a job after the men come back." Whether research chemistry or whether law, none of that -- but I think what happened in our case graduating anywhere from college between 1941, let's say, and 1946, we could stay and many of us did stay in the Rosie the Riveter situation, and we were never questioned later. But a lot of my younger women friends who came along beginning about 1946 onward for a number of years really had a backlash against them. I found that out over the years. They really did, but we never did.

Q:    We were interrupted with a phone call, but now I want to continue with asking about the law firm. I believe the name of that firm was Connolly, Akin and Blythe, is that correct, that we were talking about when we began.

A:   No, Connolly, Bove and Lodge.

Q:    Connolly, Bove and Lodge, alright. Was that when you began work in the patent area?

A:    Yes, and I wasn't sure I was going to like it even though it was my father's field. He was basically a patent litigation lawyer. My first reaction which I think was typical of a 20 year old, which I was when I graduated from college, "I don't want to do what my father did." But I gravitated to patent litigation and so that became my specialty, especially with the science undergraduate background and the fact that I always loved litigation. I loved trial work, always did.

Q:    I read that you were the fourth generation of patent lawyers. Is that correct?

A:     No, no, fourth generation of the family in Washington.

Q:    Oh, I see.

A:  My father was a patent lawyer and my mother's father. My maternal grandfather was a patent lawyer. Beyond that, behind that, I don't know.

Q:    Then you became Examiner in Chief of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Washington in 1971, a period we are studying. How did that come about?

A:   All the patent lawyers that I knew were complaining for years and increasingly all the time complaining about the Patent of Appeals and Interferences which, in spite of its title, the appellate group from the Patent Office. In other words, the examiners in the Patent Office would decide say not to grant a patent on a certain topic, or if two applications were interfering with each other, they would decide between them which was the first in the particular field, and then they would issue a decision accordingly. If the applicant for a patent did not agree with it --

Q:   We paused briefly to turn off the clock. We were talking about the procedures at the U.S. Patent and Trademarks Office, how that appointment came about.

A:   Anyway the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences was the first appellate institution if the patent applicant did not get a patent from the Patent Office. There were 15 members of the Patent Board, all men, always had been men. All the men came from the Patent Office to the Board. It was the last green pasture before retirement for top officials in the Patent Office. They rubber stamped and had been doing that. In the opinion of those of us who were in patent practice, they had been rubber stamping the Patent Office decisions for years, and so patent lawyers were increasingly complaining.

In the spring of 1971, a third cousin twice removed, distant relative anyway of mine was Commissioner of Patents. He was a patent lawyer, but he had agreed to be Commissioner of Patents which was the top executive position over the Patent Office. He called me in Wilmington and said, "What about putting your money where your mouth is?" Because it was, of course, a much lower amount I would get in the government, even at that level, than I was making in trial work. But I was also single, had decided years before not to marry, and I was giving back in taxes -- I forget now the figures -- but I was giving back a whole lot more in taxes than I thought I should, and I thought why don't I just do that and go in the government and do what my friend and relative has said "put my money where my mouth is." The lower salary won't mean that much to me. I won't have that much in taxes, and my senior partner, the man had originally hired me said, "You really can't do anything but what the President asks you to do. If he decides to ask you after this relative of yours puts your name in his memo, you've got to go. You can always come back here whenever you want to." So I agreed, and I was duly invited and came. For years I kept saying whenever I got annoyed with the White House, I kept saying, "My firm wants me back anyway so go ahead. Tell the President to fire me." But it never happened and there were actually, as I remember, four of us who came for the first time in the poor old Patent Office history, came into government into that particular job. The other three were men, and I was the only woman at that point. I think that protected me. I did not have any problem with the officials in the Patent Office who were furious at these people coming from outside. They never said a word about the only woman. They zeroed in on the poor men that also came from the bar with me.

Q:    Tell us what the responsibilities of the Examiner-in-Chief are.

A:   First of all, now, the position is different. For some years now it has been I forget the different magic terms they use in government, but when I went on the Board, it was a Presidential Appointment with Senate confirmation. Over the years, it changed finally until nowadays it's not a PAS, as we used to call it.

It's something that involves merit. So it's not a step thing necessarily. It involves the fact that the person has the merit to do it. I don't know just how it works, and I don't really care to know. I was glad not to be involved with that. It changed probably about the time I retired, which was officially early January 1988. Unofficially, I had gone on vacation the middle of December 1987 and never came back.

Q:    So the Examiner-in-Chief would really responsible for determining the merit of a patent application if it had been disputed.

A:   On appeal.

Q:   On appeal, okay.

A:   It was all appeal, yes. There was no trial. Anything like that was done in the Patent Office, and the 15 of us sat generally in panels of three and decided somebody's appeal, usually what the call ex parte. There's not with the interferences. Both sides would be present. The person who was held to be the inventor by the Patent Office would, of course, be represented, and the person who was appealing because he did not get the patent. But generally speaking, the appeals were ex parte, just the lawyer for the applicant who was denied a patent.

Q:    You were appointed in 1971, and we are studying particularly the period of 1971-1974, the period when Barbara Franklin was in the White House. You were appointed before she came, I guess, to the White House.

A:  I don't know exactly when she came. As I mentioned, a cousin of mine proposed me for the job in his memo to the President when the President Nixon had demanded the appointment of more women to high positions.

Q:   That would have been after she came then. I think that happened after she came.

A:   But she came for that purpose as I understand it, and I am not sure how much earlier she came because I think it was Vera Hirschberg who in some meeting of journalists with President Nixon said, "You think you've appointed --"

Q:    Vera Glaser I think was the journalist who asked that question.

A:   It could be. I knew the Vera, but I didn't remember for sure.

Q:    Because that's been very well documented, and then he said he would look into it and then the Task Force on Women's Rights and Responsibilities was named and their recommendation the appointment of a person at the White House to do that.

A:    Whenever that was, my introduction to Barbara, and I've laughed with her about it a number of times, I was still in my law firm office in Wilmington. I didn't even know that I had been nominated. I knew that the then young Senator Bill Roth from Delaware said that he was going to take care of my affirmative vote. I had talked to him. I had known him for several years anyway, but I didn't know there had been any announcement.

I always answered my own phone. I didn't let my secretary do it unless I were really away. So I picked up the phone when it rang one day and this voice said, "I am Barbara Franklin in the White House," and as I teased her about, what she really said was "I am Barbara Franklin in the White House in charge of getting women for high positions in government. Who are you?" Because she knew just then that this strange woman had been appointed by Nixon. So we have laughed about it since.

Q:    She thought she was talking to your secretary, I guess.

A:    No, that was the first she knew of my existence.

Q:    Okay.

A:   I guess somebody in the White House had not given her the memo or something. I don't know.

Q:   She was plagued with lots of --

A:    First things that happened to her. I know. I know. Yes. But we've enjoyed each other for years.

Q:    You then became Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown. Did you enjoy that experience?

A:   Yes, I did. I did. I was just out of private law practice, and I loved learning what I was doing as an Appellate Judge, but after about four or five years, frankly, it was deadly dull. I loved the rough and tumble trial work and having only a lawyer arguing before us and reading only briefs and never seeing witnesses I thought was deadly dull. But I stuck with it and I really enjoyed a lot of it because I learned to be what I had not been before as a lawyer. I learned to be judicial and balanced and not take sides. Of course, the name of the game for a tr l lawyer is you are an advocate, a strong advocate for one particular side. So it was a challenge for a while. But I never went back to the old practice or any practice. But also what I was doing was pretty well forty hours a week. It was nothing like trial work when you would work 20 hours a day, especially in patent litigation, for weeks at a time when you were in trial.

Q:    You were also active in Executive Women in Government. That group was very important in building relationships among the women in the Nixon Administration.

A:   Yes, and that was Barbara Franklin who did the most marvelous job with that. That is when I really --

Q:   So tell me more about Barbara Franklin and Executive Women in Government.

A:   She arranged along the way and, of course, if you haven't interviewed her already, you'll sure know more about it from her. She started us meeting regularly when we came in government. She started us meeting regularly I think in the same room that she arranged for us for the meeting we had last spring.

Q:    The Indian Treaty Room?

A:   The Indian Treaty Room. Anyway we met at various locations in the White House, or in those good old days with traffic not a problem, we could drive our cars in through the gates and park within the White House grounds. That would be unbelievable today. A lot of things she did, and we always had a great time with her. She had speakers very often for us, and if we said we wanted information, for instance, about the next campaign for Nixon's reelection, she would arrange the proper speakers. She was absolutely great. Of course, we always had snacks and very often we wound up after the meetings either a couple of blocks over in the

Q:   The Cosmos Club, by any chance? No? A:   No, no, no. No, not then, no.

The first speech I gave when I got to Washington actually was in the Cosmos Club, which tickled me because my dad had been a member but not at that location. The Cosmos Club when I moved back had moved out of the old building next to what had been the CCPA Court and had moved up on Massachusetts Avenue. The first speech I gave there had nothing to do with patent law. What I was asked to talk about after the publicity was what it felt like to be the first woman in a man's job. That was a joint meeting of MIT and Wellesley.

Q:    What did you say?

A:    I don't remember what I said. I have no recollection what I said. But it was the only thing I was asked to speak about for I would say two or three years before somebody finally asked me to talk about patent law.

Q:    I want to ask you how you think that period affected the future for women in government and in business and the professions, the period of 1971-1974 and the advancement of women in government.

A:   I think it made a lot of difference. Actually as I remember, and I don't know where I got this figure, but I remember distinctly in that period learning that thanks to Nixon's pounding the table with memos, there were about 185 top women in many different fields who came into government at policy making level, which was revolutionary. After that period, and I missed Watergate entirely because the American Bar Association was meeting in Hawaii and I went as I always did to the American Bar Association meeting and coupled it with a couple of weeks of touring in the Hawaiian Islands after the meeting and didn't look at anything in those days until I came back. So, of course, I was there when Nixon was resigning and so forth. I missed most of that. Nothing ever happened as far as my job was concerned. One of my friends in personnel in the White House in those days said somewhere along the way, probably in Carter's Administration or somewhere in a Democrat's administration after Ford, I remarked and it was surprising to me that even though my job was a presidential appointment and at the pleasure of the President that nobody had ever asked me to resign. My friend in personnel in the White House, who was Helen Burroughs, said, "Now, Bret, don't think that means that the Republican and Democrat parties are so enlightened about judicial positions. What it really means that nobody in the White House, regardless of party, knows what in the world a patent lawyer does." Which is probably right.

Q:   What are your favorite memories of that period, the 1971 - 1974 period? What do you look back on with the greatest fondness?

A:   The meetings arranged by Barbara in the White House itself and the get togethers we had either after those meetings at dinner or at other times at lunch or dinner.

Q:   The Hay Adams Hotel, would that have been where you went?

A:   Once in a while. Also, we went, thanks to some of you -- the Kauffmans, Larry and Judy Kauffman come to mind. They were members, of course, of the

Q:   Metropolitan Club?

A:    No, news.

Q:    Oh, National Press Club.

A:   National Press Club. And very often we would go to the National Press Club, thanks to either Larry who was very fond of what had happened to us women. He was always rooting for us. Or Judy, who was a member of at that point somewhere along the way I think was a member of Executive Women in Government. So we would often go there for drinks and dinner. Sometimes to the Washington Hotel. In those days, we didn't go to the Willard Hotel, which went back to and I knew when I was a child the Willard Hotel. It was open but it was in great disrepair. So it was great when years later it was redone and is as gorgeous as I think it is now. So that's what we did.

We would also get together privately.  The favorite thing I loved to do in those days was entertain at Sunday brunch. I did that frequently usually with the same menu. Having spent most of my life up to that point in Wilmington, Delaware, I always featured the huge mushrooms of a suburb of Wilmington, which is Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Most people who don't know geography don't know that it's a suburb of Wilmington, Delaware, but it's the mushroom capital of the world. I used to always serve mushrooms stuffed with sausage and whatever else for those brunches. Virginia Knauer was always entertaining at suppers. The Kauffmans would entertain. I remember going to them one time for Thanksgiving dinner instead of my own place. So we just got so we a lot of us got friendly with a lot of us.

Q:  A great spirit of camaraderie as far as I can tell among all those women. There seems to have been very little jockeying to be regarded as first among them.

A:    No, no. I've forgotten now. I should know who our first when we organized Executive Women in Government --

Q:    Jeanne Holm was the first president, I think.

A:   Yes, I think she was. We all agreed except I think it was -­ who was the second? Was the second Ethel Walsh?

Q:    It may have been.

A:   Whichever it was, whoever was the first one did it because she and all the rest of us had actually agreed that the one who did it the second year should have been the president and wouldn't take it that year. So we had all agreed on somebody else, including the one who took it for that year, and that was Jeanne Holm. And then I think it was the second year that we persuaded the one who was really instrumental in forming us as well as Barbara Franklin should have been the president. That was Ethel Bent Walsh who finally became president.

Q:   That concludes my list of prepared questions. What have we not talked about that you would like to add? I can turn off the machine for a moment and let you think.

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