Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Pickaway County Bar Association Women in Law Banquet
May 18, 2017

Thank you Jesse (Atkins) and good evening. It is truly an honor to join the bar associations of Pickaway and Ross counties in paying tribute to our three honorees.

Your presence tonight is a clear testament that Barbara Lucks, Melody Steely, and Deborah Douglas Barrington are indeed worthy of being honored as women in law.

For more than 40 years, each has offered her assistance to members of the community in order to more effectively resolve legal issues.

Certainly, many of you have experienced their professionalism first-hand and have heard many wonderful stories about the way they have gone about the business of practicing law.

Today, with the Ohio Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court each having three women, it is easy to forget that not too long ago the concept of women playing a predominant role in our legal system was practically unheard of.

The 1970s was a breakout decade for women making progress in the profession, and each of our honorees were admitted to the bar during the latter part of that decade.

Women pointing the way – and often making a path where none existed –  is part of a long tradition that goes back to the dawn of civilization and endures today.

If we look to the ancient Greeks, the Goddess Athena is revered as the authority of the law, justice, and order in the courts and the assembly of the people.

It is curious that in those times and for thousands of years the administration of law and justice was the dominion of men, but historical texts reflect the influence of women on men’s decisions and the high esteem Athena held as the enduring symbol of justice for all.

The ancient Egyptians also held a female goddess in high regard. as Maat was the personification of truth, justice, and the cosmic order. The daughter of the sun god Re, she was associated with Thoth, god of wisdom.

Maat is depicted with an ostrich feather. She presided over the ceremony of judgment of the dead which was believed to focus upon the weighing of the heart of the deceased on a scale balanced by Maat using her ostrich feather. Those whose hearts were as light as the feather entered the afterlife. Those whose hearts were weighed down by their bad action and disregard of the laws were rejected only to meet their final death.

Maat being daughter of the sun god Re also charted his course as he traveled across the sky each day. Literally making sure that the sun rose and set.

Fast forward to the 16th Century England and we see the reverence for women and the ability to master law in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” where the audience is introduced to the heroine Portia with an emphasis on her beauty and charm.

We learn of her exceptional wit and intellect as she dons the disguise of a young man in order to appear in court to save the life of Antonio, the dear friend of her husband, Bassanio.

Antonio owes the money changer Shylock a pound of flesh for his debt. The court scene provides the dramatic moments where the characters wrestle with the balance of justice, punishment, and mercy.

It is Portia’s discovery and expression of an exact point of law that saves Antonio’s life… Brilliant!

These fictional women have provided inspiration to real-life trailblazers in the history of the law.

In fact, the first exclusively female law school – appropriately named the Portia Law School – opened in 1908 in the United States. .

Later renamed the New England School of Law, it opened its doors to both men and women in the 1930s, and still turns out excellent graduates today.

The late 19th century was not a time of robust numbers of women lawyers, however, some prevailed. This did little to open the floodgates to a rush of women entering the practice as many cultural barriers stood in the way.

Doris Sasser, one of the founders of the Professional Women’s Caucus that was part of the 1970s women’s liberation movement had this to say about the life of women in the law:

“The first woman was admitted to a state bar in the United States in 1869. But the ‘progress’ of women in the law since then has been little short of dismal.”

Two Ohio woman stand out in that 100-year period of little progress.

Genevieve Rose Cline from Warren obtained her law degree in 1921, and became the first woman to serve as an appraiser of merchandise for the U.S. Customs Service and in 1928 became the first female judge on the U.S. Customs Court.

Cline’s feat was surpassed by another Ohio woman, Florence Ellinwood Allen.

Allen was the first woman assistant county prosecutor in the United States working in the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office. And immediately after women were given the right to vote in elections Allen was the first woman elected to a judicial post in 1920 when she became a common pleas judge in Cuyahoga County.

In 1922, Allen set another first with her election to the Ohio Supreme Court, the first woman elected to the highest court in any state.

In 1934, Allen set her last notable “first “when President Roosevelt appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, making her the first woman on the federal appellate bench.

Here again is a moment that one would think would open the doors to more women forging into prominent legal roles. But not so.

If young women in the 1950s and 60s could not look to the bench for role models of inspiration perhaps they could look to the legal profession.

But there, too, the field had little progress. One has to look a bit past the headlines to find pioneers like Constance Baker Motley.

We hear little of Mrs. Motley, a lawyer who worked for Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP.

In fact, she wrote the original complaint in Brown v. Board of Education.

She is the first African-American woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

She was the lead attorney in Meredith v. Fair where she successfully won James Meredith’s right to be the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi.

In 1966, President Johnson appointed her to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, making her the first African-American woman federal judge.

Judge Motley said she “rejected the notion that my race or sex would bar my success in life,” and carried on regardless of a lack of women colleagues.

She predicted better times in the future when she said: “Something which we think is impossible now is not impossible in another decade.”

That next decade was the 1970s and women like Doris Sasser were warning the legal establishment that it could not remain oblivious to the growing demands for women’s liberation, in and out, of the profession.

In 1970, Sasser said: “The years immediately ahead will tell whether this century will see full equality for women.”

Sasser’s expression for hope for the future of women in the law was delivered in an article of the Duke University School of Law and she noted that at the time the U.S. Supreme Court had yet to extend the doctrine of constitutional equality to women by holding women to be “persons” entitled to the equal protection of the Fourteenth Amendment.

That was about to change with the help of Rutgers University Law School Professor Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Women law students at the Rutgers School of Law – Newark founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, the first legal periodical in the United States to focus exclusively on the field of women’s rights law.

The students thought it would be warmly embraced by the university administration, but found the contrary. It was a tough sell and they needed a faculty advisor in order to survive.

Professor Bader Ginsburg agreed to take on that role and helped shape the publication into a noted reference for chronicling cases impacting women’s rights and the achievements of women in the law.

Bader Ginsberg was also asked by the American Civil Liberties Union to write its brief for the U.S. Supreme Court’s Reed v. Reed case in the early ‘70s.

The case centered on an Idaho law that made men the preferred administrator of estates, so it opened the door to the question of equal rights for women.

As Sasser had hoped, the Reed v. Reed decision marked the first time in history that the Court applied the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to gender to strike down the Idaho law.

In 1974, two women from the New England Law School, that Portia School of Law, penned an article about the blatantly unfair arrangements of American law schools that hampered women, especially those with children from getting a law degree.

At that time, less than 30 law schools in the nation had part-time programs and only one, Northwestern, had a part-time day program so women could attend law school during the day yet still accommodate evening family responsibilities.

Right around that time, each of our honorees were enrolled at Capital’s law school with each obtaining their juris doctor from Capital.

Without a doubt, each honoree is a shining example of those who fought against stereotypes and the odds to enter a male-dominated world and succeed. Each has been a mentor and an inspiration to many lawyers, of both genders. I can’t wait to learn more about these remarkable women later this evening.

Thank you for your time and for your recognition of tonight’s honorees. God Bless.