From a small-town Tooele girl to a big-city lawyer in New York, Ardeth Houde has spent the past 62 years blazing a trail for women and female lawyers, advocating for children, and voicing the importance of education for all.
Ardeth Houde’s life began in Tooele where she grew up as the only child of a railroad conductor father and a traditional stay-at-home mother. She attended Tooele High School where she received the White Buffalo Award, and “chummed around with the children of the smelter executives.”
As she observed the lives and experiences of her friends and their parents, she recognized that a college education was important to her, so she followed her friends to the University of Utah, after her high school graduation in 1951.
Her parents were supportive of her choice, but her mother felt like “four years of college is enough for anyone.” Ardeth actually attended college for six years, but was able to appease her mother by enrolling in the dual law program that was offered at the University of Utah at that time, allowing her to work as an undergraduate and graduate student concurrently.
Ardeth was a true trailblazer during her law school days. She was the only woman in her law school class, which created some difficulty for her.
“It was a lonely experience because it wasn’t really right that I study with the men, so I had no one that I could discuss the law with,” she said.
She said that she was uncomfortable commenting in class. However, she considered her male classmates friendly and accepting.
“Most of the male students were older, returned missionaries or WWII vets, so they were more mature than younger students might have been,” Ardeth said.
Overall, Ardeth was happy with her law school experience and graduated from the University of Utah in 1957 with both her B.A. and J.D. in law, a new husband, and a strong commitment to the legal system, education, and forging new paths for women. After law school, Ardeth and her husband, Robert Houde, moved to Rochester, N.Y.
Ardeth said, “Moving from Tooele to New York was very eye-opening.”
It was also impossible for her to find a job as a female attorney. Even though she was the first woman to ever pass the New York State Bar in the Rochester area, no law firms would hire her. She remembered going to every law firm in the Power’s Building in Rochester looking for a job, only to be turned down repeatedly. Instead, she spent the next several years working as a secretary or social worker.
In 1961, Ardeth and her husband moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., where Bob pursued his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. While they were there, two important things happened. First, Ardeth and Bob became parents to both a son and daughter. Second, Betty Friedan’s book “The Feminine Mystique” was published in 1963. This book led to a cultural shift in thinking about women’s roles, and as a result, when Ardeth and Bob moved back to Rochester in 1967, she was finally able to find a job as an attorney.
For the next nine years, Ardeth worked in a private practice, performing legal work that included drafting wills, legal research, and incorporating companies. But her career really took off when she was hired by the Legal Aid Society in 1976 as an attorney in the Law Guardian department, which was established in response to growing concern over the way children were treated in the legal system. In the Law Guardian Department, Ardeth worked as an Attorney for Children until 1991, when she began practicing as the sole appellate attorney in the family courts, and was once again the only woman. She was also appointed to the Attorneys for Children Panel, and even though she officially retired in 2009, she continues to serve on the panel, taking on two to three cases per year.
After almost 40 years of representing children in the legal system, Ardeth’s dedication to children and the law has only become stronger. She works with children who have been abused, neglected, or witnessed domestic abuse in their home. She also works with children who are criminals, in foster care or guardianship programs, have been deemed as PINS (persons in need of supervision), or children whose parent’s rights have been terminated due to severe neglect or for other reasons. She has seen a lot of heartbreaking situations, and has worked hard to get children placed into good environments where they can thrive. Ardeth acknowledged that a career like this can take an emotional toll.
She said, “I sometimes think I can’t possibly see one more neglect case worse than what I’ve seen before, but I always do.”
However, the emotional burden has been alleviated over the years as social workers began to deal more directly with the children, and Ardeth’s direct involvement with children became more limited as she worked as an appellate attorney. It wasn’t always like that, though. She used to work directly with her children clients, and remembered a young girl who threw a phone at her because Ardeth told her that she was going to have to remove her from her abusive home environment.
“She was more upset about leaving her home than she was about being raped by her father again that night,” Ardeth said.
Ardeth said her experience over the years also taught her about the importance of education. When she began working for Legal Aid in the 1970s, people were just beginning to complain about the difficulties children were facing in American society and how that related to their education. However, Ardeth believed that society-at-large was unaware of just how bad things were until the “No Child Left Behind Act” was introduced.
She said, “For the first time, society became aware that many children were not even attending school.”
Based on her experience, Ardeth said she feels that socio-economic problems and lack of education have led to many of the problems that children face in society. She pointed out that many of the children she has worked with have no support at home, miss school, are frequently moving, and are the victims of domestic and sexual abuse. These children are also dealing with an increase in violence and decrease in responsibility among the male population. Despite these obstacles, Ardeth said she strongly believes that “it is so important to get kids in school no matter what their background.”
One solution to the education problem that Ardeth suggested is to place children in dorms at schools in order to pull them away from difficult home environments and allow them to get the education they so desperately need. She acknowledges, though, that this is unlikely to ever happen. However, she also suggested that members of society can help by increasing their awareness of the difficult situation that many children experience, and participating in volunteer organizations that benefit children. She said that these situations are getting much more prolific than when she started working for Legal Aid. Ardeth said that in the state of New York, the judges in family courts are so overloaded that the state has now appointed Attorney Magistrates to assist judges in reviewing children’s cases.
Ardeth’s strong feelings about education from children comes from her family’s schooling depth. Between all of them, her four-member family holds 10 college degrees, including degrees from prestigious schools like Wellesley, CalTech, Duke, and MIT. Her husband Bob was formerly a college professor and director of research for General Dynamics, working in the fields of engineering, math, artificial intelligence, and speech recognition. Ardeth’s son John, is currently a professor of neuroscience at UCSF. Her daughter, Stephanie, owns an Interface Computer Design company and was formerly a Senior Interaction Designer at Apple. Ardeth and Bob also have three granddaughters.
Despite all of her experience, education, and success, Ardeth remains firmly tied to her Tooele roots. She is actively involved with the Tooele High Class of 1951, working to help build the alumni scholarship fund at THS, and still owns and maintains her parents’ home in Tooele. She and her husband spend several weeks in the home each fall, making repairs and enjoying the fall weather in Utah.
As for retirement, Ardeth said, “I felt lost when I left the office in 2009,” so she continues to take cases each year, and will as long as possible. During her most recent visit to Tooele, she was on-call, waiting for the police to arrest her current client before their next upcoming court date. The client, a 17 year-old single mother of a 2 year old, is typical of Ardeth’s current cliental. Luckily, her client has a not-so-typical attorney on her side. She has an attorney who has never been afraid to blaze a trail for woman and continues to work as an advocate for both children and education. She has a lawyer with almost 50 years of legal experience. She has a lawyer who was born and raised in Tooele, educated at the University of Utah, and one who loves children. She has Ardeth Houde.