by Rob Crain
On August 25, Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes will visit the Belo Mansion for a fireside chat at a luncheon commemorating Women’s Equality Day. The event is hosted by the Dallas Bar Association and Dallas Women Lawyers Association—(Big thanks to David McAtee at AT&T; Crain Lewis Brogdon, LLP; Estes Thorne & Carr; and Gardere Wynne Sewell, LLP for sponsoring the event. And also to Dena DeNooyer Stroh and Dawn Estes for organizing.) The occasion will also highlight the work of a committee led by Ms. Stroh, SMU Dedman School of Law Professor Joanna Grossman, Justice Liz Lang-Miers, Erica Bramer, Luis Zambrano, and Christy Jump. The committee is studying programs across the country that help women overcome challenges in the legal profession. Tables and tickets are available at dallasbar.org.
The struggle for equal rights in the legal profession mirrors a lot of battles women have fought in our country’s history. Women had to fight for their right to practice in courts going back to our country’s colonial days. Margaret Brent, an English immigrant to the Colony of Maryland, is credited as the first woman to appear before an English North American court of common law. A historical figure, Ms. Brent was the first female landowner in the Colony of Maryland and was the executrix to the Estate of Leonard Calvert, the former Governor of the Maryland Colony. Ms. Brent was also appointed attorney-in-fact to manage the land holdings in Maryland of Lord Baltimore, who remained in England. Ms. Brent is thought to have appeared in courts more than 100 times involving these various holdings—her advocacy was known for being smart and energetic.
In Colonial times, governance included local and/or state Assemblies. Votes in the Assemblies were limited to landowners. On January 21, 1648, Ms. Brent asked for two votes in the Maryland General Assembly, one as landowner and one as Lord Baltimore's attorney. In her request to the Assembly, Ms. Brent said, “I’ve come to seek a voice in this assembly. And yet because I am a woman, forsooth I must stand idly by and not even have a voice in the framing of your laws.” The Governor refused her request. Ms. Brent protested the proceedings of the Assembly, but continued her advocacy as Lord Baltimore’s attorney. Among many other honors and recognitions, the Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award was established by the American Bar Association (ABA) to recognize women lawyers who have “achieved professional excellence” and who have paved the way to success for other women lawyers. Past recipients include Louise B. Raggio of Dallas.
Following Ms. Brent, there is relatively little history of women advocating in courts until the mid-1800s, though a notable exception includes Pennsylvania frontierswoman Susana Wright who became a prothonotary (principal clerk of a court) in 1745. Following this ascension, she became a legal counselor to her mostly illiterate neighbors for wills, deeds, indentures and other contracts. She also served as an arbitrator in property disputes.
Another notable exception is Lucy Terry Prince. Ms. Prince was born in Africa but stolen and placed into slavery in Rhode Island as an infant. Around the age of 26, she married a freed slave who purchased her freedom. Ms. Prince composed a ballad, “Bars Fight,” which is credited as the oldest known work of literature by an African American. She also presented argument in a land dispute on behalf of her and her husband in front of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase on circuit in Vermont. Though Ms. Prince had a lawyer, she chose to argue the case herself. She won, and Justice Chase stated her argument was better than any he had heard from any Vermont lawyer. She is thought to be the first African American woman to argue before a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
There remains debate as to whether Rebecca Brent was the first female lawyer in the United States, or whether it was Arabella Mansfield, who was admitted to the bar of Iowa in 1869. Some distinguish Ms. Brent as having acted as a party in her capacity as landowner, executrix, and attorney-in-fact rather than as a lawyer. Ms. Mansfield took the Iowa bar exam despite state law restricting the exam to males over the age of 21. She earned high scores and challenged Iowa's restrictive law. She won. In 1869, Iowa became the first state in the Union to admit women to the practice of law. The National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) named its most prestigious award after Ms. Mansfield.
Charlotte E. Ray was the first African American woman lawyer. She applied for admission to the District of Columbia Bar in 1872 under the name C. E. Ray. She was admitted without controversy as the admissions committee thought she was a man.
Women, however, continued to be denied admission to state bar associations. In 1872, Myra Bradwell was denied admission to the state bar by the Illinois Supreme Court. She appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost. The Court ruled that the Immunities and Privileges Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply to the right to practice a profession. This set a precedent of noninterference by the federal government in state employment matters for decades. Though the majority opinion did not concern Ms. Bradwell’s sex as a basis of their opinion, three justices found it important. In a concurring opinion, Justice Joseph P. Bradley infamously opined, “the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life...[t]he domestic sphere...properly belongs to [women]...The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.” The lone dissent came from Chief Justice Chase who was too infirm to write an opinion.
Slowly, women were granted admission to law schools and bar associations while breaking through barriers at law schools and the courts. In 1897, Lutie A. Lytle becomes the first woman law professor in the nation. She is African American. In 1919, Barbara Armstrong becomes the first woman appointed to a tenure track position at an accredited law school—the University of California at Berkeley. In 1928 Genevieve Rose Cline becomes the first woman federal judge after appointment to the U.S. Customs Court. In 1934, Florence Ellinwood Allen becomes the first woman appointed to a federal appellate bench—Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1949 Burnita Shelton Matthews becomes the first woman appointed to a federal district court bench. Of course, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, appointed just 36 years ago.
Today, women lawyers continue to break through barriers in a male dominated profession. Though women have been graduating from law schools in nearly equal numbers as men for more than two decades, women represent just 36 percent of the legal profession. According to multiple studies, women remain disproportionately behind in pay, partner status, firm leadership, retention in the profession and many other categories.
Throughout the country there are numerous initiatives aimed at tackling these obstacles including those authored by the American Bar Association, the National Association of Women Lawyers, and the Center for Women in Law at The University of Texas School of Law (Hook’em!). Many law firms and corporations engage gender diversity initiatives. Corporations like AT&T, Toyota, and Walmart condition retention of outside law firms to measurable commitments to diversity, including gender diversity. If a firm is not mindful of diversity, these companies will not be mindful of hiring that firm. And many corporations are following their lead.
Great strides have been made and should not be overlooked in the conversation, but ongoing mindfulness and action toward diversity, including gender diversity, is a commitment we should all make for our clients, our firms, our profession, our community, and our children. My four-year-old son goes to Pre-K with great women teachers and a lot of smart female students that he counts as his close friends. He was recently looking at a coffee-table book of all the U.S. Presidents and noted there were no women. He then said, “that is silly.” There is much silliness in our profession’s history toward gender diversity. There are also great examples of women and men changing history. We are fortunate to have law firms, corporations, and strong women leading us in a new direction. It is incumbent on the rest of us to make this direction our future history.