First Female United States Attorney for the District of Montana (March 1990)
13 December 2004 — Billings Gazette — “Pioneering state lawyer Poppler Dies”
“Doris Swords Poppler, a pioneering Montana lawyer who later served as the state’s first female U.S. attorney, died early Sunday in Billings. She was 80.
Poppler, a Billings native, graduated from the University of Montana’s Law School and later helped form the state’s first all-woman law firm.
She was appointed U.S. attorney in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. Poppler was also intensely involved in local issues, serving in several capacities, including on the Billings school board in the 1970s and, more recently, on the city council. She resigned her position with the city in October because of cancer.
‘She’s one of those people you’d say was a classy lady. She always treated people with proper respect and dignity,’ said Diane Barz, a retired judge who founded a Billings law firm with Poppler in 1973. ‘She was also a wonderful friend.’
Mayor Chuck Tooley remembered Poppler’s calm, resolute demeanor that made her a leader on the council.
‘She was a very gracious lady with a strong love of family and community,’ Tooley said. ‘There was also a kind of peace about her.’ . . . .
Poppler was born and raised in Billings. During World War II she left college to enlist in the U.S. Navy’s WAVES — Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service.
The decision turned some heads but was an early indication of Poppler’s determination and willingness to serve.
‘I have always enjoyed challenge and adventure,’ she told a Gazette reporter in 1984 in her run for Montana Supreme Court. ‘It teaches you marvelous self-discipline, and that has been one of the characteristics of my life.’
After she completed her military service, Poppler enrolled in the University of Montana Law School in 1946. She was the only female in her graduating class of 1948.
‘We sat next to each other. She got me through law school and she said that I got her through law school,’ said Billings attorney Charles ‘Timer’ Moses, a classmate.
She practiced law with her father in Billings for a short time after graduating but quit after she married her husband, Louis.
Poppler took a 22-year break from practicing law to raise the couple’s six children. When Louis died in 1972, she returned to law, taking a job with the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office. That’s where she met Diane Barz.
‘We were the only female attorneys there,’ Barz said. ‘We just immediately hit it off.’
The two soon decided to start a law firm.
‘At the time, we just had decided it was time that women were accepted in the legal profession,’ Barz said. ‘I think that we never gave it one single thought that we were pioneers.’
They teamed up on cases, often working as public defenders and trying to be flexible for family time. They were proud to be able to make a contribution back to the University of Montana Law School after their second year in business. They didn’t, however, get caught up in the battle over ‘women’s lib,’ Barz said.
‘We worked very hard to make sure we weren’t carrying that chip on our shoulders,’ she said.
Poppler gained a reputation as an effective, fair and tough attorney. Moses remembered facing Poppler in court several times. The two remained friends no matter what the outcome.
‘Even when she was whipping us, she was doing it with some grace,’ he said.
Poppler also became involved in civic life. She served on the school board in Billings from 1968 to 1977 and was the board’s chair during a bitter teachers’ strike in 1975.
‘It was ugly,’ Barz said, but somehow Poppler was able to overcome those difficult times. ‘She had the ability to lead and was able to do so under some very trying circumstances.’
In 1990, President Bush appointed Poppler as U.S. attorney for the District of Montana. She was the first female to hold that position.
Poppler also served as a field representative for the National Indian Gaming Commission and as a member of the Montana Human Rights Commission, chairwoman of the Metra Board and president of the Yellowstone County Bar Association.
She began her stint on the City Council in January 2002 and was chosen as deputy mayor by her fellow council members.
Tooley and Poppler also dealt with cancer at the same time.
He recalled one conversation about Poppler’s earlier bout with breast cancer not long after her husband died.
‘She told me she realized she couldn’t die. She had to stay alive to raise her kids,’ Toley said. ‘She just had great courage.’
Earlier this year, Poppler received a lifetime achievement award from the Yellowstone Area Bar Association and a distinguished alumni award from the University of Montana Law School.
At the UM award ceremony, Tooley said he sat next to a female lawyer from Billings. The woman told Tooley that when she was a new lawyer in town, Poppler make it a point to meet her and invite her to her home for a potluck with other female lawyers.
‘The woman I talked to said I’ll never forget that,’ Tooley said.”
10 November 1924
LLoyd W. Swords and Edna Luella Mowre
one sister and one brother
University of Minnesota 1942-1944
U.S. Navy WAVES, Fall 1944-Summer 1946
Other lawyers in family:
- Grandfather, George W. Swords, University of Iowa 1895
- Father, Lloyd W. Swords, University of Montana 1923
- Spouse, Louis E. Poppler, University of Montana 1948
LL.B., University of Montana School of Law 1948
Admitted to Practice:
- Louis E. Poppler on 11 June 1949
- Widowed on 25 May 1972
6 children — Louis, Kristine, Mark, Blaine, Claire, and Arminda
12 December 2004
Job History — Legal
- Associate Attorney, Lloyd W. Swords, December 1948-June 1949
- Public Defender, Yellowstone County, 1976-March 1980
- Deputy County Attorney, Yellowstone County, September 1972-1976
- Partner, Poppler and Barz, March 1973-December 1979
- Partner, Davidson, Veeder, Baugh, Broeder, Poppler, and Michelotti, January 1980-December 1984
- Partner, Davidson and Poppler, January 1985-February 1990
- United States Attorney, District of Montana, March 1990-April 1993
- Senior Field Agent, National Indian Gaming Commission, 1993-2002
- Candidate for Montana Supreme Court Justice 1984
- Member, Billings City Council (2001-2004), voted Deputy Mayor Billings by fellow council members
Civic Honors and Activities (a sampling)
- President, Billings Junior Service League
- President, Billings Junior Achievement
- Member, Boys and Girls Club of Billings and Yellowstone County
- Chairman, Yellowstone Metra Exhibition Commission
- Chairman, Billings School Board
- Board of Trustees, School District #2
- Montana School Board Association
- Chamber of Commerce
- Women’s International Forum
- Rotary International
- Board of Trustees, Rocky Mountain College
- Montana Human Rights Commission
- Board of Directors, First Bank, Billings
Reasons for Studying Law
“When I was attending the U. of Minnesota in 1944 I was admitted to the law school for the fall term if I desired as my grades and activities were excellent and the law school attendance was very low due to World War II. I chose to enlist in the WAVES instead of returning to school in the fall. One had to reach their 20th birthday in order to enlist, so I enlisted on my twentieth birthday. While in the service, I was trained to be a Storekeeper, which involved learning to type, keep books and other duties of supply. As there were few women stationed at Key West, Florida, I got my first experience of being a woman in a male oriented world. this experience, replete with male macho resentment, armed me for becoming the only woman in the law school for two of my three years there. The self discipline I learned in the service has stayed with me throughout my career. This was one of the most positive experiences I have had and I am very proud to have served my country in a time of war.
I wanted to become a lawyer because it was a real challenge. I love to read, I find the law fascinating and I had been exposed to the law through my father and grandfather. Although I have never been a student of history, the government and the laws were of great interest to me, and the study of law allowed me to write, think, argue and grow.
Because the veterans had all returned in the Summer and Fall of 1946, spaces were at a premium for law school. The Dean was very helpful in letting me enroll as I am one of the graduates with five years of college rather than six or seven. I was not only the only woman in my class, but also the youngest as veterans with degrees and with families were there at the same time. For example, Justice Wes Castles was in my class, at least ten years older than I. I was also single and living in the annex of my sorority house, and quite involved in its activities. My first year was difficult as I had to prove to faculty and classmates that I was smart enough, tough enough, old enough and not going to waste a place in the class by getting married and not practicing law. Once the year was behind me, the classmates became fast friends who I have treasured every since and who were the most supportive of me when I returned to the practice of law upon the death of my husband, Lou, in 1972.”
On Job Satisfaction
“My second career, that of the law, has been very satisfying. My pay schedule has never been at the very top range, but my hourly rate, prior to my present appointment, grew to $125 an hour. Our practice from the beginning was strong enough to pay the bills and have a paycheck. I have never been employed by anyone except as a partner so have always had to be aware of expenses, time keeping, budgeting and personnel sensitivity. My job with the county and of course, now as U.S. Attorney, require me to follow guidelines and policy. I am, however, head of the offices in the District and again responsible for personnel, policy and budget matters.
I believe that this career has been wonderful. I approached it with massive butterflies in my stomach, wondering if I remembered anything, if I were too old when I began again (45), if being female would hinder my advancement, if I would have time for my family, if my colleagues would accept me after such a long time. All my fears were groundless. My age was an advantage because I had the opportunity to develop a community reputation which brought in clients. My family gave me an understanding of the problems faced by my clients, my gender brought me flowers after nearly every conclusion of a case, and my clients were loyal and paid their bills.
I must address the challenge of this presidential appointment. Being older and a woman did come up and stayed with me for over six months. The Senator had recommended me for the position and strongly supported me throughout the process. The inner structure, however was urging the appointment of ‘a younger man.’ This came up in a number of discussions which were always off the record. I finally confronted the rumor head on and declared that I knew of the concern and would never be male, was no longer young, but that I had the experience, reputation and qualifications, professionally, politically and personally for the job. There are eight women U.S.A.s out of 94 Districts. The President called me personally to notify me of my appointment and to tell me how pleased he was. Additional note, being in the minority, we ladies are never ‘lost in the crowd’ when we go to policy seminars at the Department, and are all on important committees for the Attorney General.”
Advice to Women Law Students Today
- “Work hard.
- Participate in school activities.
- Accept a compliment or an offensive remark appropriately.
- Don’t look for hidden insults.
- Keep your appearance professional.
- Keep your relationships cordial, but be careful of your reputation, it will follow you into practice.
- Don’t criticize other women attorneys. It’s easy to fall into that trap when the good old boys start in on someone’s reputation.
- Think of yourself always as a lawyer who is a woman rather than a woman lawyer.
- Try to develop a specialty which law firms need. General practice is hard and almost obsolete.
- Don’t be strident. Take voice lessons if necessary.
- Have fun. It’s a wonderful profession and we are good at it.”
Copyright © 2015 “Montana’s Early Women Lawyers — dedicated to the stories of the women admitted to practice in Montana between 1889 and 1950.” All rights reserved.