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Women in The Florida Bar

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When Winifred Wentworth graduated from law school in 1951, the door to interviews at Florida’s law firms slammed shut. One law firm partner told her bluntly: “We see no value in hiring a woman.” Finally, the state Attorney General’s office offered her a job, but only if she’d agree to do the typing for a half dozen male coworkers too.

“I told them I’d rather clean houses,” Wentworth recalls. “I wouldn’t mind doing typing, but I didn’t want to do it for the whole damn crew!”

Sixteen years later, even after Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when Jeanne Crenshaw graduated from the University of Florida law school in 1967, law firms still tacked announcements of interview times on the bulletin board that included the loud-and-clear message: “No women.” Rather than battling the good ol’ boy system, she and her husband hung out their shingle with a third partner instead.

And when Harvard Law School graduate Janet Reno tried to get a job at one of Miami’s biggest law firms in 1963, she was turned down because she was a woman. Fourteen years later, that same firm would see fit to make her a partner.

Wentworth, now retired, served as judge of the First District Court of Appeal from 1979 to 1991.

Crenshaw has been an Alachua County judge since 1977.

And Reno, after being Dade County’s top prosecutor for 15 years, has been the top lawyer in the country since 1993, when President Bill Clinton named her the first woman Attorney General.

This trio represents how far female attorneys have come in the past 50 years in Florida, a state that now proudly claims two women justices on the Supreme Court, Justice Barbara Pariente and Justice Peggy Quince; the second woman president of The Florida Bar, Edith Osman, following Patricia Seitz in 1993; president-elect of the American Bar Association, Martha Barnett; and Evett Simmons, president-elect of the National Bar Association.

As The Florida Bar celebrates its 50th anniversary, it is fitting to recognize that Florida’s women lawyers have come a long way, especially in the past two decades.

But Rosemary Barkett, who became Florida’s first female Supreme Court justice in 1985 and is now a judge of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, reminds us that the struggle for equality is not yet over.

“I am certainly happy with the progress that has been made. And it’s really a thrill to see two women on the Florida Supreme Court. But I do believe that we do not yet have the kind of equality that demonstrates that women and minorities are considered totally equal in terms of opportunities and consideration for positions of power,” Judge Barkett said.

What will it take to change that?

“Continual, unflagging efforts and education so that people recognize that meritocracy is a good and healthy thing,” answers Judge Barkett, adding that women and minorities must have opportunities for the necessary training and education to be able to compete in a society that looks first at abilities, not gender or race.

When Louise Rebecca Pinnell courageously pushed to become Florida’s first woman lawyer more than a century ago, this daughter of a judge had to wait five months while the Florida Supreme Court wrestled with the bizarre notion of approving a woman lawyer in 1898. At the turn of the century, there were only 1,000 women lawyers nationwide. Early in the 20th century, women could not serve as jurors, vote, or own property. Now, women make up half of students entering law school and 27.4 percent (16,588) of the Bar’s 60,335 members in good standing.

“These numbers could not have been accomplished without the trailblazing women who came before us,” said Wendy Loquasto, who is writing a book about Florida’s first 150 women lawyers, as part of a joint project by the Florida Association for Women Lawyers and The Florida Bar to celebrate the state’s pioneering women lawyers and the 50th anniversary of the Bar, at a gala ceremony to be held at the Sheraton Bal Harbour Resort in Miami on May 25 ( see March 1 News ).

“It is important to recognize these women, because they risked public disapproval so their daughters might reap the benefits arising from their personal sacrifices,” Loquasto said. “Their challenge to us, as women lawyers today, is to continue their struggle to end gender bias in the legal profession and to shatter Bar statistics which show that women are under-represented as managing partners and tenured professors and over-represented in low-paying jobs.”

As a recent study sponsored by the American Bar Foundation confirmed: Women remain under-represented in private practice, over-represented in the public sector, and under-represented as partners in law firms.

Significant Progress

When Seitz, now a judge of the Southern District of Florida, became the Bar’s first woman president in 1993, that was the one thing she did not like talking about.

“I look forward to the day when that won’t be the question, and I hope others can look beyond form to substance,” she said at the time.

Has that day come?

“While the day has not yet arrived, we are making significant progress,” Judge Seitz said, taking a break from presiding over a federal trial, seven years after her Bar presidency.

“The most encouraging signs to me include the fact that I see more than just one woman on the United States Supreme Court, the Florida Supreme Court, in cases appearing before me, among the house counsel. One of the best indicators of our progress is the fact that we have our second president of The Florida Bar who also happens to be a woman, and in the recent presidential campaign, Marsha Rydberg was a candidate. I was particularly pleased that Edith Osman could be elected by acclamation and not have to run a contested race.”

That Osman was elected president of the Bar without opposition was another important first for Florida’s women lawyers.

“In the time I was contemplating running for president, people were telling me: ‘Strap on your boots. You’ll never run unopposed,’ ” Osman recalls.

To her relief as a sole practitioner and testament to her strong support in the Bar, that wasn’t necessary.

“I worked hard, I played hard and I did it with the guys,” Osman said of building relationships and respect in the mainstream Bar, after serving as president of the Dade County and statewide FAWL. And when she sat on the Board of Governors as FAWL president, she said, the men learned: “I wasn’t a one-issue president just talking about women’s rights. I frequently spoke from the FAWL perspective, but I found a way of recruiting my audience, not alienating them.

“A strong motivating factor for running, aside from personal gratification, was that I thought we needed to have another woman president of The Florida Bar. It had been six years between Pat and me.”

She didn’t want a woman president to be seen as tokenism or an aberration, but part of the fabric of the Bar.

“Women needed to be considered capable of running, winning, and doing a good job,” Osman said. And she hopes there will be plenty of women presidents to follow in the future.

Judge Seitz shares this story about Bar members’ attitudes toward the first woman president.

“My husband, Alan Greer, recounts this anecdote regarding several board members’ expectations as to whether a woman could deliver the disciplinary reprimands that the Bar president is required to do. Alan says that after my first board session delivering reprimands, three different board members came up to him and in their amazement remarked, ‘She was a combination of Ray Ferrero and Rut Liles,’ (two Florida Bar presidents and former U.S. Marines, distinguished, among many other things, by their 6-foot-plus stature and commanding presence). The third male board member said, ‘She scared me more than my third-grade teacher.’

“And Alan’s response was: ‘You know her dad is a retired three-star general.’ ”

Diversity in the Profession

Shortly after being sworn in last year as president-elect of the ABA, Barnett said she is considering a conference on the advancement of women in the profession. Not only is diversity the right thing to do, she said, it is the smart thing to do in improving the quality of legal services.

“I believe there is an ongoing need to work on diversity in the profession,” Barnett said. “When you put a woman at the table, or an African-American, or a Hispanic, the conversation changes. You are seeing a problem through different eyes. And when you take that perspective and integrate it into your practice, it rachets you up and raises the bar in terms of the quality of service you’re able to provide.”

Many years after Barnett was hired as the first woman at Holland & Knight in 1973—fresh out of college and pregnant—she took a peek in her personnel file. She found that a senior member of the firm had written on the back of an evaluation form: “Well, if we have to hire a woman, I guess she’s as good as any.”

Now, she’s in a position to help bring more women into the circle of power.

Osman shares this observation from the ABA meeting in February: Barnett had invited a select group of attorneys to her suite to share ideas on the future of the profession.

“I looked around the room and out of 33 people, 17 were women and 16 were men,” Osman recounts. “The more women in leadership, the more things will change. Martha put her money where her mouth is.”

The next morning brought this stark contrast: At the Florida caucus of the ABA, Osman found herself the only woman in the room.

“I looked around and said to Chesterfield Smith: ‘What’s going on? Where are the women?’ ”

175 Lady Lawyers

A glimpse of how far women have come in the legal profession is revealed in an announcement in the October 1963 Florida Bar Journal inviting lawyers, with the clear presumption they would all be men, to attend the midyear meeting. “Your wife will be delighted to come along to do her Christmas shopping in Jacksonville’s fine stores,” proclaims the invitation, graced by a pony-tailed woman clasping her hands in joy.

The truth is, there really weren’t many women lawyers in Florida at that time. In 1966, noted The Florida Bar, “there are 175 lady lawyers,” and 101 of them lived along the Gold Coast between West Palm Beach and Miami, and 75 were in Dade County alone.

In a 1973 letter responding to questions from the California Legislature, FAWL President Claire Cates wrote: “I notice that the majority of women that I deal with are either in firms in which their spouses are employed, or are practicing with other women.. . . As a practical matter, I do not believe that women are obtaining the same opportunities as men to practice; there is still a great deal of prejudice in the employment areas. It is still extremely difficult for a woman attorney to obtain a job; however, it seems as though when she is in the practice she does not experience much greater difficulties than a man would.”

1975, there were 684 women out of a total of 20,247 lawyers in Florida (3.3 percent).

Five years later, in 1980, that number would more than triple to 2,117 women out of 28,730 lawyers (7.3 percent).

In 1976, The Florida Bar Journal sent questionnaires to all women members of the Bar for an article titled, “Women Lawyers—Equal in the Law?” Of 620 women members, 224 responded. Of those responding, 53 percent felt discrimination while in law school; 67 percent felt discriminated against while seeking employment; and 61 percent felt discrimination in their day-to-day law practice.

As one woman lawyer said in the survey: “In almost every interview I have had, I have been asked if I can type, and/or if I am practicing law to fill a time gap until I can find a husband.”

Another said: “Many law firms state that they already ‘have a woman in their firm,’ so they don’t need another.”

Even as late as 1983, when Osman graduated from law school at the University of Miami, she encountered discrimination. She had two children, ages 6 and 9, and a husband who was a medical intern.

When interviewing for jobs, more than once, senior partners in law firms asked: “Why would you want to be a lawyer when your husband is going to be a doctor? Who’s going to take care of your children?”

And in 1987, when she wore a fur coat at an ABA meeting in Philadelphia, a lawyer remarked: “Good thing you have a doctor for a husband.” And Osman thought in dismay to herself: If they think you need a man to buy you a fur coat, how are they going to think of you as an equal?

Attitudes in the mid-1980s had not progressed much since 1949, when Lynne Douglas Hixon Holley graduated from law school at UF. Hixon Holley, the only woman listed when the Bar printed its congratulatory tribute to 50-year members last year, began her love of the law as a young girl who, after a hot day in school, would cool off in the balcony of the Alachua County Courthouse and watch her uncles argue cases.

She shall never forget arguing her own first case in St. Petersburg, when the circuit judge summoned her to his chambers.

“I just want to ask you a question: Why do you think you are different from other women?” he asked her.

Hixon Holley, who went on to be the first female lawyer in Florida to exercise countywide jurisdiction as a judge in Collier County, recalls answering: “Sir, I never thought of myself as different from other women. Seems to me a very natural thing to be a lawyer. I grew up around lawyers. You know, you don’t have to have a lot of physical strength to be a lawyer. Women are known to have a lot of stamina. To me, there’s a lot of nurturing required in the field of law. You’re taking care of people’s problems and solving disputes. Every mother can tell you, you need to be a strong mediator. It’s just strange to me that people think of the law as a man’s field.”

With that, Hixon Holley said, the inquiring judge quickly switched the subject to fishing in Naples.

Florida Association
of Women Lawyers

Even though their numbers were few, 27 of Florida’s 75 women lawyers organized into FAWL in 1951 (at that time called Florida Association of Women Lawyers).

Ninety-year-old Mattie Belle Davis, who served as president of FAWL in 1957-58, started out as a secretary in a law firm in 1926, and studied law under Troy Davis, her mentor who became her husband. She passed the bar exam in 1936, making her one of Florida’s first 150 women lawyers, and went on to be appointed Dade County traffic court judge in 1959.

She has seen a lot of changes in her time as a woman lawyer, back when waiters refused to serve her when the mostly male Dade County Bar Association met.

“We’ve been a part of The Florida Bar, and FAWL has enhanced the visibility of women lawyers,” Davis said, noting that in 1980 FAWL organized local chapters to be part of the state organization, and there are currently 18 chapters.

“They’ve learned to work together as members of this organization, and, as such, we’ve had support from The Florida Bar. Women have been given opportunities to serve on the committees, and we have our second woman president of The Florida Bar.”

The first FAWL president to pull up a chair at the Board of Governors meetings was Debra Weiss Goodstone of Miami, who served in 1981-82.

She laughs now about her gradual progress to be accepted as a woman lawyer in a man’s world, symbolized by where she literally sat at Board of Governors meetings. First, her chair was against the wall well away from the table, then a few feet from the table, then a few inches from the table, to finally actually sitting at the table, then sitting at the table with her own materials to read.

“I started attending the meetings as if I were a member of the Board of Governors,” Weiss Goodstone recalls.

“I think they were all thinking, ‘Who is this feminist woman activist and what is she doing here?’ And then, one day, I got a phone call from a prominent woman lawyer with (1982 Bar president) Jim Rinaman on the phone, and I think he wasn’t sure if we’d come in and burn our bras and bang down the door!”

She is quick to add that she and Rinaman “have come full circle” and are friends who respect each other as colleagues.

“As I became very active with the Board of Governors, Jim began to accept me. I’m a good drinker, had a good time, and they saw I wasn’t going to burn down their institution or my bra.”

With that growing acceptance of women in the law came more willingness to appoint women to chair Bar committees, Weiss Goodstone said.

And FAWL, she said, was transformed from its early beginnings as “four women standing around a bowl of potato chips” to a force to be reckoned with.

But the struggle is not yet over, she agrees.

“We’ve come a long way, baby, but not far enough. I could listen to one of my male partners proudly cancel a deposition because he had to take a son to the doctor. People would turn and say, ‘Wow! What a good father!’ But for a woman to say it, they’re not a good mother, they’re a bad lawyer.”

Dade County Circuit Judge Sandy Karlan, who served as president of the Dade chapter of FAWL in 1984-85 and went on to serve on the Board of Governors from 1988-92, gives FAWL a lot of credit for improving women’s status in the legal profession.

“FAWL has been extremely significant in promoting change and raising awareness (about gender equality),” Karlan said. “But I don’t think it’s all fixed. There are still areas with discrepancies in salaries for women. And women lawyers are not represented in significant percentages in some communities.”

But just being part of women’s groups isn’t enough, Osman adds.

“I have given many speeches where I said, ‘You can’t be a member of FAWL and think you are doing your part for women. You have to be a part of the mainstream Bar. You need to show you’re a player and you can perform there. You have to lead by example.’ Why is it important for women that I’m president of The Florida Bar? It shows that it is accessible.”

And yet, when Osman looks around the table at the Board of Governors meetings, she can’t help but feel disappointed at what she sees: five women, no women in this freshman class or the next freshman class. And when Carol Brewer leaves the board, it will be down to four women.

What will it take to change that lopsided picture?

“It will take women becoming more active,” Osman says. “I think there’s been a fallout in younger groups. I think they do need to be mentored and encouraged. We have to keep working on it. We have to do some outreach. Men and women have to identify women and minorities with talent and take them under their wing. Groom them. And if they have the desire, encourage them to run for things.”

Unequal Treatment

Talk to a woman lawyer who has been around a couple of decades, and most have stories to tell of being treated unequally in a man’s profession.

When Judge Crenshaw was in law school at UF the late 1960s, she was “shuffled” by male students’ feet on the floor when she went into the library, as were the women who came before her for decades.

“There was an attitude by some people that women shouldn’t be there,” Crenshaw said.

“I had one professor in a seminar who told me I shouldn’t be taking a seat away from a man who had a family to raise. I was in a state of shock. I waited to see if I would get the grade I had earned, and I did.”

And in the early 1970s, Crenshaw will never forget the time the late Clara Gehan, considered the “First Lady of the Law” in Gainesville, raised a ruckus when the local bar association went on its annual dinner to Cedar Key and made it clear the women members were not invited. But the women paid their dues too, Gehan insisted. Finally, the male members of the Alachua County Bar Association begrudgingly caved in with a compromise: The women lawyers—there were only five of them—could have their own annual bar dinner.

So, as Crenshaw gleefully recounts, they chose the most expensive steakhouse in town, and from appetizers to desserts, “ordered everything we possibly thought we might want to taste, including a couple of bottles of the finest wine.”

The check was expensive—more for five women than all of the men’s dinner total tab.

“That ended ‘We can’t go to Cedar Key,’ ” Crenshaw says with a laugh.

Hitting the men in the wallet made all the difference, and the women were invited to join the men in Cedar Key from that point on.

Crenshaw, too, believes changing attitudes about women in the law is an ongoing process that still isn’t complete.

“I think in terms of the system, we have achieved everything that we could have wanted to achieve. I don’t think that being a woman is a disadvantage anymore. But I think we still have attitudes from some individuals we need to change. Unfortunately, sometimes it comes from members of the Bar.”

On continuing efforts to include women in positions of power in the legal field, Judge Seitz spells out three ingredients for positive change:

“First, there need to be leaders and those in positions of power who are inclusive, who reach out and select and promote women into positions of power, and not just out of mere tokenism, but because of what those individuals can add to the success of the group,” Judge Seitz says.

The second ingredient, she continues, is “women who have ‘succeeded’ and who actively mentor younger women with the goal of ensuring that those who follow them are even more successful than they.”

The third ingredient is “young women who are proactive in seeking mentors and taking risks, willing to take themselves out of their ‘comfort zone’ and taking the initiative to prepare themselves by acquiring the necessary experience and qualifications to assume new responsibilities and perform them well.

“If the efforts I have seen by all three of these ingredients continue,” Judge Seitz said, “we will achieve our goal of evaluating individuals on their ‘substance and not form.’ ”

Jan Pudlow is an associate editor with The Florida Bar News.