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Walking With Destiny: Women Lawyers in Philadelphia

by Audrey C. Talley

Winter 2002, Vol. 64, No. 4

The first 115 years of women lawyers in Philadelphia is upon us.The entrance of women into the legal profession was one of the most important developments in the history of the Philadelphia bar. Local strides have ranged from slow, measured steps by a few, to the veritable army of women lawyers marching among the ranks of the legal profession today. The assimilation of women into the legal profession has been marked by successful struggles against societal and legal obstacles to women practicing law.

Although there is no one story to tell of the woman lawyer in Philadelphia, the many different stories are like the paintings of one artist, with a common aesthetic concept and composition. You see the common themes in each, beyond the predominant differences. The earliest years in the late nineteenth century chronicle numerous tales of novel beginnings and the opposition to those beginnings. The ability to attend law school and gain admittance to the bar was, by and large, a product of protracted litigation throughout the United States, including Pennsylvania. The resistance was supported by expressed beliefs such as women were "too kind," "not cold-blooded," "not possessed of a high grade of intellect," "lacked the physical strength to handle heavy case loads," and "attractive women would unfairly sway juries." Even the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of Illinois to deny Myra Bradwell's admittance to the bar in 1873 in Bradwell v. Illinois. The concurring opinion cited "the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex" as the rationale for denying women the right to practice law. Reactions by the women seeking admission to the bar resulted in demonstrable common themes in their careers of persistence and seizing opportunity, in addition to patience and impatience, each appropriate at its own time.

Nationally, Margaret Brent is recognized as the first woman lawyer in this country. She arrived in the colonies in 1638 and practiced law in Maryland. In 1869, Belle Babb Mansfield passed the Iowa state bar and became the first woman in the United States formally admitted to a state bar. And in 1884, Belva Lockwood became the first woman admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Prior to the presence of women lawyers in Philadelphia, The Legal Intelligencer published an article with intended humor concerning the notion of women as lawyers. The August 10, 1855, article cited the kinds of rules the courts would have to develop in response to women in court. Included among them were: "No lady lawyer is ever to kiss the Judge for an arrest of judgment; No cradles allowed in Court; and the penalty for infraction of the rules is . . . obliging her to attend to her household duties."

Groundbreakers: The First Generation
Locally, Caroline "Carrie" Burnham Kilgore fought for eight years for the ability to formally study law. The journey from commencement of her legal studies to becoming a licensed attorney spanned sixteen years. Carrie Kilgore began life as the daughter of a wealthy woolens manufacturer. Unfortunately, she was orphaned at age 12, and her guardian stopped her education and put her to work in the family factory and kitchen. At age 15, she was a teacher in Vermont; at 18, a teacher in Wisconsin. With her salary from teaching and domestic work, she was able to continue her education. After teaching in Wisconsin, Kilgore moved to New York to study medicine. She moved to Philadelphia the year following receipt of her medical degree.

Prior to attending law school, Kilgore began the informal study of law in 1865. She later registered formally as the law student of Damon Kilgore in 1870, before their marriage. She was denied admission to the University of Pennsylvania in 1871 and was denied permission to be given the bar examination in 1873 and 1874. Kilgore's struggle to attend law school ended successfully with legislation in Pennsylvania enabling women to be admitted to law schools in the state. In 1883, she became the first woman graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the first woman admitted to practice law in Philadelphia. In 1886, she became the first woman admitted to practice law in Pennsylvania. Perhaps a trailblazer by nature, she had previously become the first female doctor in New York when she received her medical degree in 1864. In ruling that Kilgore was entitled to be admitted to practice law, Justice P. Thayer of the Common Pleas Court of Philadelphia stated, "if there is any longer any such thing as . . . the sphere of woman, it is . . . a sphere with an infinite and indeterminable radius . . . Everywhere now she is permitted by the common consent of mankind to select and pursue her own vocation . . . the revolution is over. It was so gradual that perhaps you did not observe it."

Kilgore had a distinguished career. She was appointed the first woman master in chancery in Pennsylvania. In 1890, she became the fourth woman lawyer admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. Kilgore was well known as a suffragist who unsuccessfully initiated legal proceedings to gain the right to vote. She unsuccessfully attempted to become the first female Juvenile Court judge in Philadelphia in 1901.

As of 1900, there were about 1,000 women lawyers in the United States. Turn-of-the-century reports of additional women lawyers practicing in Philadelphia include Margaret Center Klingelsmith, also a Penn Law grad and the librarian of the Biddle Law Library of the University of Pennsylvania. Frances Keay Ballard attended Penn Law after her unsuccessful attempts at Harvard Law School. She applied to Harvard in 1899 and endured an extensive and unsuccessful challenge to the school's admissions policies, which were not changed to admit women until 1950. She maintained a private practice in Philadelphia in 1902, served as head attorney for the Legal Aid Society and taught college classes in law.

Historical literature notes few women lawyers who practiced in Philadelphia before 1900. Among them were Kilgore, Klingelsmith, Diana Hirschler and Isabel Darlington. The 1900 Philadelphia Business Directory listed only three women lawyers: Diana Hirschler, Caroline Kilgore and Ruby R. Vale. In 1915, A. Florence Yerger of Philadelphia was reported to have been practicing law for eight years. The 1920 Philadelphia law directory listed four women lawyers: Cecelia P. Bass, Helena Haines, Margaret P. Klingelsmith and Caroline K. Kenworthy. Kenworthy was noted in 1938 to have the only all-female law office, with three associates practicing with her. She initially practiced with her father and later practiced with her sister, Joan Kenworthy Vieser. Darlington achieved distinction many years later when, at the age of 75 in 1941, she was elected president of the Chester County Bar Association, thereby becoming the first female president of a bar association in Pennsylvania.

In 1927, Sadie T.M. Alexander became the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and to be admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar. It would not be until 1949 when the second African-American woman, Doris Mae Harris, would graduate from the University of Pennsylvania. Alexander remained the only minority female lawyer in Philadelphia for about two decades. She noted that when she was appointed an assistant city solicitor in 1927, it was considered such an unusual event that it was front-page news. Alexander told the story of a male attorney opposing her in a hearing for a preliminary injunction who followed her into the hall after his motion was denied and cursed her. She responded, "I should give you my skirt and you give me your pants." Later, she expressed the hope that "we have the same staying power as our male legal counterparts and that pants or skirts are both irrelevant." She maintained a private practice primarily in family law and estates initially in the law firm of her husband, Raymond Pace Alexander, and later at the firm of Atkinson, Myers, Archie and Wallace.

From the turn of the century to the early 1930s, although women lawyers were limited in number, their accomplishments were notable. Isabel Drummond was the first female assistant city solicitor before 1930. Close in time, Tillie Thompson Heilbron was the first female assistant district attorney. And in 1939, Ida Oranovich Creskoff was the first female law clerk to a judge in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. In addition, Dr. M. Louise Rutherford of Philadelphia was the first female deputy attorney general in the Commonwealth, appointed in 1939.

Evolution in Areas of Practice
In 1939, Martindale-Hubbell listed seventy-eight percent of all women lawyers as solo practitioners or without a firm association, and only twenty-two percent as partners in a firm or associated with another attorney. In the first four decades of the twentieth century, few women lawyers practiced in Philadelphia. Reportedly, in 1928 there were twenty women lawyers, in 1932 there were twenty-six, in 1940 there were thirty-five and in 1942 there were forty women lawyers in Philadelphia. Of the forty, ninety-five percent of them were solo practitioners. In 1944, women constituted one percent of all lawyers in Philadelphia. In 1938, the longest practicing woman lawyer identified in Philadelphia was Helena S. Haines, admitted to practice in 1904.

Prevalent attitudes affected employment opportunities. Many of the earliest women lawyers practiced with husbands, fathers or other relatives, or were solo practitioners. The opportunities with other employers were often limited to clerical or legal research work for an attorney. Even U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a 1952 honors graduate of Stanford Law School, acknowledged that the only job offered to her by any California law firm was as a stenographer. Although it was common for many of the earliest women lawyers to be politically active in the suffrage movement, to have as clients women and the poor, and to handle any cases referred to them, there were nineteenth-century women lawyers such as Carrie Kilgore who distinguished themselves as successful trial lawyers.

In connection with a 1997 Philadelphia Bar Association reception honoring Philadelphia's first generation of women lawyers, many women responded to a questionnaire asking them to describe their early experiences. Their responses reflected the obstacles and attitudes of the times. Fanny C. Goldstein, class of 1932, noting the novelty of women lawyers, reported: "A newspaper article said that I was the first mother to pass the bar in Pennsylvania." Providing a common description of the law school experience, Lena Orlow Ginsburg, class of 1931, stated: "Of the eight [women in her class], three were graduated. The women in the classes tried to be as inconspicuous as possible." The search for employment and the circumstances of employment resonated with common experiences. As Florence Schwartz Davidow, class of 1937, described: "After I was admitted to the bar, I sent out more than 100 letters setting forth my qualifications, but I was interviewed by only the few firms that had received letters signed by me with an initialed first name. However, I did not succeed at the interviews. I was told that I would marry, have children and that their firm's investment in me would be lost." Helen L. Glick, class of 1936, responded: "The women I know who practiced law were either married to lawyers with whom they practiced, or were originally hired for their typing skills." Grace Kennedy, class of 1940, recalled her experiences at a Wall Street law firm: "All the lawyers had their names on the doors, but my door did not include my name. I was never allowed to sign any memos or letters that were sent to clients. I was told that the clients would not like it if they knew a woman was doing their work."

Entrance into federal, state and local government positions, beginning primarily in the 1940s, offered women the first significant alternative to the solo or family-member practice. A national survey of women lawyers in public office in 1957 reported seven women attorneys in significant public service positions in Philadelphia. They were: Hazel H. Brown, judge, Municipal Court; Mary Alice Duffy, member of the State Legislature; Lois Forer, Lorraine Bieno, Julia Doyle and Wanda P. Chocallo, deputy attorneys general of the Commonwealth; and Mabel Turner, assistant U.S. attorney. Philadelphia attorney Mathilda H. Remmert was appointed the secretary of the State Board of Law Examiners in 1951. The appointment made her the first woman responsible for administration of the state bar examination. When Helen Chait was appointed to the third-highest position in the city's Law Department-chief counselor-in 1957, it was front-page news. At the time, Chait was one of two women attorneys in the Law Department and the first to be elevated to such a high position.

Entrance Into The Judiciary
Reportedly as of 1900, there were only five women who had served in any judicial or quasi-judicial capacity in the United States. By 1930, the number was fifteen. In 1948, the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor reported that there were fifty-one women judges in this country. The 1950s saw women lawyers in the city make strides as they ascended to the bench. Hazel Hemphill Brown was appointed a Municipal Court judge in 1952, thereby becoming the first woman judge in Philadelphia. Prior to her appointment, Brown had spent twenty years practicing in the Municipal Court as a district attorney, assigned to the Domestic Relations Division. She maintained a civil practice, except when she became the first woman to receive appointments as defense counsel in murder cases. Hannah Elizabeth Byrd became the third female magistrate and first African-American female magistrate in the summer of 1951.

After a career in private practice with Mabel Turner and in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, Juanita Kidd Stout was first appointed and then elected a Municipal Court judge in 1959, making her the first African-American woman elected to a court of record. Judge Stout was the second woman appointed a judge of the Municipal Court. She continued to make history, similarly, when she became a judge of the Court of Common Pleas in 1969 and was appointed to an interim term on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1988.

Modern Times
The 1960s saw advancement of women lawyers in several areas. At two of our area law schools, the first female professors joined the faculty: Martha Field in 1969 at Penn and Jane Laura Hammond in 1965 at Villanova. Advancements in the local judiciary occurred in 1969 as Judge Hazel H. Brown and Judge Juanita Kidd Stout became the first female judges of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.

In 1960, two sisters, Sara Duffy and Mary Alice Duffy, founded one of the few all-female law firms in the city. The sisters were reportedly among the first women in the city to try major civil and criminal cases. The partnership lasted until the death of Sara Duffy in 1992. Of Philadelphia lawyers in Martindale-Hubbell in 1976, five percent were women; in 1986, seventeen percent were women.

Other noteworthy accomplishments of the period included, in 1977, Norma L. Shapiro becoming the first woman chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association's Board of Governors. In September 1978 she became the first woman judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. August 1979 would see another first, with Dolores K. Sloviter becoming the first woman judge on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

The influx of women lawyers into the largest law firms in the city in the 1970s followed a national trend. Subsequent to the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited job discrimination because of sex, well-publicized litigation against Wall Street and other large prestigious firms concerning recruitment and hiring practices influenced both law school recruitment policies for on-campus recruiters and employer hiring policies.

When Deborah R. Willig became the sixty-fifth Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association in 1992, she made history as the Association's first woman Chancellor. Willig, a labor lawyer, battled in two close races for Vice Chancellor, finding victory the second time. In 1993, the Association initiated the Sandra Day O'Connor Award to honor annually an outstanding female Philadelphia lawyer. Justice O'Connor gave the keynote speech and presented the award to its first recipient, Judge Norma L. Shapiro. In her remarks, Justice O'Connor acknowledged that there was still more for women lawyers to accomplish and urged her audience "to provide guidance and encouragement to all those who are striving both professionally and personally, to all those who 'refuse to be defined by others' meager expectations.'"

As the 1990s wound down, the state of the profession for women lawyers in Philadelphia differed dramatically from that at the turn of the century. It changed from a few women practicing with limited opportunities to many women practicing in virtually every substantive area and every aspect of the profession. Changes were marked by achievement in the highest ranks. The 2000 membership survey by the Philadelphia Bar Association revealed nearly thirty-four percent of the lawyers practicing in Philadelphia were women, compared to nearly thirty percent in 1995, and about twenty-five percent in 1990. Of the Philadelphia lawyers practicing in 2000 age 35 and under, forty-five percent were women. Of the 36-to-50-year age group, twenty-six percent were women, and of the group age 51 and older, nineteen percent were women.

A recent survey by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the professional advancement of women, indicated that in 2000, almost fifty percent of the students enrolling in top-tier law firms were women; nearly sixteen percent of law firm partners nationwide were women; and nearly fourteen percent of Fortune 500 company general counsels were women. Locally, among the city's largest law firms, the number of female equity partners in 2000 ranged from seven to twenty-seven percent, with the total number of female attorneys ranging from twenty-two to thirty-seven percent. Among members of the firms' executive committees, women members ranged from zero to forty percent. The era of "firsts" among women has rapidly wound down in recent decades. A significant indicator of progress is that what was once a rarity is occurring with some frequency. The statistics cited above still reflect significant gaps that remain to be closed. In essence, as the century turns again, in spite of the progress made by women lawyers, "we've got miles to go before we're done."