In August 1893, 30 female lawyers - out of 200-plus in the United States - met in Chicago. An event last month celebrated these legal pioneers and their legacy.
It was a warm Chicago summer in 1893, but despite the heat and the disastrous stock market crash, half the U.S. population - 26 million people - came to the "White City" for the World's Fair. The first Ferris Wheel was the icon of the exposition celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in America, but the fair also served as the occasion of the first nationwide meeting of women lawyers.
The women lawyers' meeting at the Columbian Exposition in August of that year was sponsored by the Queen Isabella Association, a Chicago professional organization of women. The Queen Isabella Association fought for a place to meet, not only with the fair's all-male planning committee, but also with the socially accepted Board of Lady Managers, who did not want to foster the cause of professional women's activities. The Queen Isabella Association had to secure grounds from a private landowner two blocks from the fairgrounds. One of the conference goals was to provide a forum to promote camaraderie among women lawyers.
According to the 1890 census, there were 208 women lawyers in the United States (compared to 90,000 male lawyers), but without Facebook or LinkedIn, finding each and contacting them was not an easy task. Finally, the Isabellas came up with 30 women lawyers to attend the meeting, which a Chicago paper dubbed the 30 Female Blackstones.
For three days in August 1893, these prominent women lawyers spoke on a variety of legal topics, including women attaining political equality, as well as their experiences challenging laws that excluded or limited the rights of women working as lawyers in the profession. They ranged from Arabella Mansfield, the first woman admitted to practice in any state, to Belva Lockwood, the first woman admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court, to Charlotte Holt, who had joined the Illinois bar within the year. Myra Bradwell, the noted Illinois female lawyer, was too ill to attend, but her address was presented by a colleague. A roomful of women attorneys was, to many, as astounding a sight as the Ferris Wheel.
Fast-forward 120 years. It's August of 2013 and a roomful of women attorneys high atop the city of Chicago discussed women attaining "political" equality within their firms and also their experiences as practicing lawyers in the profession.
Although also billed as 30 Female Blackstones, there were more than 150 women in air-conditioning with a view of the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier. One goal for both the 1893 and 2013 meetings remained the same - providing a forum to promote camaraderie among women lawyers. But we also gathered to commemorate the courageous women lawyers who paved the way for us, those women lawyers and judges who continue to do so today, and those that will one day look back and celebrate the women of 2013.
As you have often heard me say, it should come as no surprise that, as still only the fourth woman ISBA president in 137 years, I care deeply about women and diversity within our organization. So when I attended a National Association of Women Lawyers luncheon in Los Angeles, I paid keen attention to the speaker discussing her new book.
Professor Emerita Barbara Babcock was the first female professor at Stanford Law. Upon her retirement, she researched and wrote a book about Clara Foltz, the first woman lawyer admitted to practice in California in 1878. During her luncheon remarks, Prof. Babcock noted that Ms. Foltz had traveled from San Francisco to Chicago in August 1893 to attend the first national meeting of women lawyers in the United States, which the local paper headlined 30 Female Blackstones gather in Chicago. I was hooked.
Back in Chicago, I called Julie Bauer, my partner at Winston & Strawn. Julie would be the 2013 president of the 7th Circuit Bar Association and we decided to co-sponsor a 120th commemoration of that 1893 Chicago meeting. Our planning team of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, past WBAI President Deane Brown, U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Kendall, Julie, and I brainstormed over several meetings, made calls to friends, did research, reached out to experts and formed a host committee of prominent women lawyers, which resulted in two informative panels and a reception on August 22.
The first panel explored the tribulations and triumphs of women lawyers over the last two centuries. The second panel focused on the current state of women lawyers, our work and life issues, and the many initiatives that women are taking to help our sister lawyers succeed and to help legally disadvantaged women throughout the world.
We also celebrated personal milestones that are symbolic for all our success - in 2013, Justice Rita Garman will become the second female Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, Judge Diane Wood will become the first female Chief of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Laurel Bellows finished a stellar year as ABA president, and the list goes on. And while we are thrilled at the progress we have made, we know there is still much to do.
In my next President's Page, I will explore some of the benchmarks we, as women, have yet to realize. And I will outline some of the steps we can take to get there and how the ISBA is working to insure those 30 Female Blackstones of 1893 didn't travel to Chicago in vain.