Eleanor M. Carey doesn’t dwell much on the difficulties of breaking into the legal profession as a female in the 1970s. But those close to her have heard stories.
“She told me about when she was applying for jobs at D.C. firms right after law school,” former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs said. “And the question she got was ‘Can you type?’”
Few women did more to dispel those stereotypes in Maryland than Carey, who served as the state’s first female deputy attorney general under Sachs from 1979 to 1987. Though she came up short in her bid to become the state’s first female attorney general in 1986, she said her first experience as a political candidate proved invaluable to her present role as a businesswoman, consultant and community activist.
“It’s just an experience that expands your horizon, your knowledge and your understanding enormously,” Carey said. “I’m grateful for it, really.”
The opportunities Carey has gotten since then are enough to make a laundry list feel inadequate. She was senior counselor to then-Gov. Parris N. Glendenning from 1996 to 1998. She was president of the Governor’s Workforce Investment Board from 1998 to 2003. She was part of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s transition team when the mayor first took office.
Now, in addition to serving on three boards dedicated to the city’s economy, homeless population and judicial system, she also works for Synergies Consulting Group — a five-woman team of experts in Columbia advising local businesses, nonprofits and government agencies.
She traces a lot of her high-profile involvement to the connections she made in that first of two campaigns for attorney general.
When Sachs decided to run for governor, opening up the position, she said it felt natural to campaign to be his successor, even though the state had never had a female attorney general.
“I’m Irish, so I guess I have a genetic disposition in that direction,” she said. “My father was a politician and I remember going around at about the age of 5 and getting names on petitions.”
Sachs said it seemed natural to him too. Carey had run his campaigning for attorney general and had already broken ground in his administration as a hands-on deputy attorney general.
He said she was instrumental in realizing his goal of making the Office of the Attorney General one of the area’s best and most diverse law firms.
“She was the single most important figure, I guess after me, in hiring,” Sachs said. “There was no person we hired who she had not interviewed and recommended. … In so many ways I think Ellie Carey and her presence there was a draw. It was a symbol of the openness of the office.”
Carey had a proven track record, but her opponent in the attorney general’s race was well-funded, politically connected then-Lt. Gov. J. Joseph Curran Jr.
She also had to fight the conception that a job with “General” in the name should belong to a man.
“It was unusual and you have to sort of persuade people that you fit the part,” Carey said.
Curran would go on to win and become the longest-serving attorney general in the state’s history. But Sachs said that had more to do with the Curran’s political force than with Carey’s gender.
Curran said he knew he faced a challenge in Carey.
“Her strength was that she was part of the Sachs administration,” said Curran, who now works for the Injured Workers Insurance Fund. “[She was] a very high-profile person and they were very highly regarded.”
Curran said he, Carey and Tim Baker ran a tight but clean race that focused on issues, not on gender, and that he was honored to win.
“It was a very close race actually — went right down to the end,” Curran said. “She was a very good candidate and certainly knew the inner workings of the attorney general’s office and was well aware of the strengths of the office.”
While Maryland still has not had a female attorney general, Carey’s presence in the office does seem to have blazed some trails.
Under Douglas F. Gansler, the current OAG is loaded with women in high places, including Chief Deputy Attorney General Katherine Winfree.
And, while women in law may still face barriers, it’s doubtful many are quizzed on their typing skills now when they come in for an interview.
“It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible, and a lot of people are now doing it,” Carey said. “I’d like to think that those of us who did it in the ’70s were opening doors.”