|Court salutes first women practitioners |
By Jan Pudlow
Each woman honored at the Florida Supreme Court's ceremonial session on June 14 had her own story to tell about finding courage to overcome obstacles.
For Ruby Burrows McZier, one of Florida's first five African-American women lawyers recognized on this special day, it was being a high-school history teacher in Lake Wales and the sting of indignity that her black students could only use the school library after 6 p.m. and only by entering through the back door.
"I was incensed that we were not given our equal rights," McZier said. "I vowed to open doors in my lifetime."
But after getting her law degree from Howard University and passing the Florida bar exam in 1965, McZier felt the blows of the double-whammy of sexism and racism that closed doors.
"When I was looking for a job in Daytona Beach, I was told the most I could be was a social worker, and I was encouraged to go back to Washington," she recalled.
Turning obstacles into a challenge to find what she calls "the will to achieve," she became staff attorney on migrant family issues for Sen. Edward Kennedy, thanks to help from one of her law professors, Patricia Roberts Harris, who would become the first black woman to hold a Cabinet position in the federal government. Today, McZier is general counsel of National Business Services Enterprises, a diversified corporation in Washington, D.C.
For Eleventh Circuit Judge Maria Korvick, her story of courage began as a Cuban teenager who left her parents behind to escape communism. She arrived in Miami with no money, but armed with wise words from her father she would never see again: "Work hard, study and everything is possible."
And he was right, Judge Korvick said with a smile.
But it wasn't always easy. When she graduated from the University of Miami law school in 1973, with a class made up of only three percent women, she was "full of excitement and idealism." But she soon found out that the "big law firms downtown" were not hiring women lawyers.
Her big break came when the late Dade County State Attorney Richard Gerstein agreed to hire her as a prosecutor.
"This was music to my ears. Some defense lawyers were not used to women prosecutors. Some were verbally abusive and others were patronizing. And to my advantage, they regularly underestimated the persuasive power of a female adversary," Korvick said.
When a county judgeship became open, she knew it wasn't her time for the bench when "a venerable old gentleman" on the judicial nominating commission asked: "Do you think you can handle the duties of a judge with all of your responsibilities as a wife and mother?"
But her time would come, eventually.
Addressing the courtroom packed with celebrants who came to honor Florida's First 150 Women Lawyers and first five black women lawyers, Korvick beamed: "If my father could see me here today, he would be very proud of this American judge who has achieved her dream."
The ceremony was the second event to honor Florida's pioneering women lawyers, following the May 25 gala in Bal Halbour featuring Attorney General Janet Reno.
It was all a dream come true for Bar President Edith Osman, who launched the massive project, in conjunction with the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, to find, document, and honor Florida's pioneering women lawyers.
"Here today, with this project, we have carved out a place in history for 150 women who had the courage, the self-confidence, and perseverance to walk where women had not walked before," Osman said.
Looking out at the honorees and their families, Osman thanked them for paving the way for women lawyers who followed, helping careers even more than professors, mentors or law professors.
"I probably wouldn't even be a member of The Florida Bar or its president, nor would we have Martha Barnett as incoming president of the ABA, or Judge [Rosemary] Barkett, Justices [Barbara] Pariente and [Peggy] Quince serve on this bench, if it were not for your efforts."
As Chief Justice Major B. Harding noted, on this day to honor diversity in the legal profession, to see how much has been accomplished over the years, "I need only point to the justices on my left and right."
This, he said with pride, "is the most diverse bench Florida has ever known. And today, we're breathing new life in history long forgotten."
To make sure that Florida's pioneering women will not be forgotten, Osman and Jeanmarie Whalen, president of FAWL, presented a plaque engraved with the names of Florida's First Women Lawyers to hang in the Supreme Court.
History will be remembered, thanks in large part to Tallahassee attorney Wendy Loquasto and her team of 85 volunteers who chronicled the stories of Florida's First 150 Women Lawyers in a book.
Their stories are told in the context of a dramatically different era. When the first 19 women were admitted to practice law before 1920, Loquasto pointed out, "they could not vote to change the laws they were sworn to uphold as attorneys."
Women admitted to practice law before 1925 were prohibited from attending a public school in Florida.
"And all of the First 150 were admitted at a time when they were not legally guaranteed the right to own property in their names, and all of them would have made closing arguments to juries composed solely of men. Their dream was of equal rights," Loquasto said.
"Many words could be used in fashioning a proper tribute to these courageous women, but there are too few words to properly express the admiration, respect, honor and love that these fine women so richly deserve," Loquasto said. "So rather than focusing on words, I want to focus on actions, because the greatest tribute we could pay to these women is recognition that Florida was a very different place when they came on the legal scene and that Florida is a better place today because of their actions."
Among those whose courageous actions helped changed society was:
"In this day, when half the students entering law school are women, and women lawyers can be judges, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, managing partners in law firms, solo practitioners, law professors, bar association presidents, and, yes, even U. S. Supreme Court justices, it is easy to forget or take for granted the efforts of these trailblazing women," Loquasto said.
One eye-catching guest paying homage to the honorees was Hall of Fame baseball legend Ted Williams.
"I'm delighted to be here because it's a distinguished get-together," Williams said after the ceremony.
"I'm with one of my dearest friends in life, Daisy Bisz," Williams said as he and Daisy held hands, each sitting in a wheelchair, and the baseball great joshed he could teach her to fish but not hit a baseball.
"I know all about her. She's been a great friend of mine for 50 years. Oh, boy, she was a honey, a terrific gal!"
Another terrific gal was Lois Ellen Thacker Graessle, who came to the podium to remember her days at the University of Florida College of Law. She graduated in 1941 as the only female in her class, "with a diploma in one hand and a diamond ring on the other."
Her husband, whom she met in law school, Albert Graessle Jr., would find work as a lawyer in Jacksonville for $75 a month.
"But I couldn't get a job except as a secretary, and I had been a secretary since I was 15 years old," Graessle said, of her days learning typing and shorthand working in her father's law office.
"I interviewed at a status law firm and one of the questions was: `If you had a pleading, would you dictate it or type it yourself?' I tried to answer the question like I thought a man would answer it: `Dictate it.'
"And the word came back: `Sorry, we don't think any woman would want to take dictation from another woman,'" Graessle recalled.
"I hate that slogan: `What do women want?' We just wanted fairness," Graessle said.
And to rousing applause, she said: "We're not really women lawyers. We're lawyers who happen to be women."
Arthenia Joyner happens to have been the first African-American female lawyer in Tampa in 1969, and has been in private practice for 30 years, longer than any other African-American woman in Florida.
Arrested as a sophomore at Florida A&M University during the civil rights movement, and again in 1985 at the "Free South Africa" demonstrations, Joyner has been a strong, steady voice in the struggle for equality.
"Arriving at this place has not always been easy," Joyner said. "However, no matter what obstacles were placed in my way, I never wavered from the belief of the need for aggressive advocacy and public education to rid the nation of all remnants of discrimination. I never wavered from the belief that