Reno honors Florida’s first women lawyers

first_imgReno honors Florida’s first women lawyers Jun 15, 2000 Jan Pudlow Senior Editor Top Stories U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno came home to celebrate Florida’s First 150 Women Lawyers, and the honorees included, from the left, Ethel Dorothea Clarson Watson (1942), Reno, Arthenia Joyner (first five African American women lawyers, 1969), C. Bette Wimbish (1968), Lois Ellen Thacker Graessle (1941) and, seated, Grace Williams Burwell (1935)With roses, tributes, hugs and laughter, it was a glamorous night to honor Florida’s First 150 Women Lawyers, pioneers who had the courage to break down barriers so their sisters could follow.When Janet Reno looked across the ballroom of the Sheraton Bal Harbour Resort on May 25, filled with nearly 900 celebrants, it was a special homecoming for America’s first woman Attorney General who grew up in Miami.“I am so glad to be home with all the people of the community I love, people who have touched my life in so many ways, with loving kindness, with joy, with support, and sometimes with anger and rejection,” said Reno, the gala’s keynote speaker.It was a fleeting, oblique reference to Reno’s controversial first visit to Miami after ordering federal agents to seize Elian Gonzalez from Little Havana.Inside the ballroom, the warm celebratory welcome of Florida’s favorite daughter diminished the discord of some members of the Cuban American Bar Association who boycotted the event and about 450 Cuban American protesters who jeered their disapproval of Reno with posters and banners on a nearby street corner. Another 150 or so counter-demonstrators held signs and shouted, “We love Janet!”The hotel was abuzz with bomb-sniffing dogs and FBI agents, while helicopters hovering over the lush ocean-side resort trailed banners that read: “Freedom and Justice for Elian” and “Justice for Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Haitians.”But the real purpose of the evening was to pay homage to Florida’s First 150 Women Lawyers — from Louise Rebecca Pinnell in 1898 to Mary Irene Schulman and Ila Adele Rountree Pridgen in 1943 — who were determined to join an all-male profession, welcome or not.“Tonight, I have come home especially to honor 150 wonderful people, women who have touched my life in the most very special way possible. You blazed the trail for me. You set an example,” Reno said.Then Reno looked out at the crowd to blow a kiss to 91-year-old Dixie Herlong Chastain, who was admitted to practice law under the diploma privilege in 1930 and became Dade County’s second woman judge in juvenile court in 1965, at a time when women constituted only two percent of The Florida Bar.“Dixie Herlong Chastain, when I was seven years old, you sat under my rose apple tree on North Kendall Drive, when it ended at 112th Avenue, and made me able to say to my mother, `Yes, I can become a lawyer because Dixie Chastain is a lawyer,’” Reno recalled with a grin.“Of course, my mother said she’d rather my sister and I had been disco dancers, but I think she came to like it, don’t you Judge Chastain?“The first case I ever prosecuted was in Judge Chastain’s court, and she looked at me like, `Hmmm.’“And Judge Mattie Belle Davis showed me how to do it right.“And Reba Daner was so wonderful and would come up and touch me on the elbow and say, `You are doing good and your mother would be proud of you.’“Arthenia Joyner (one of the first five black women lawyers also honored at the gala) was my ally when I went to the plate one day and questioned the adversity of a certain counsel. And so many people in this room have lifted me up and carried me along, and you are so wonderful.“Because of you, women have and will serve as presidents of the Bar, as attorneys general, as presidents of the ABA, and I am looking forward to one day when a woman will serve as the President of the United States.”The gala to honor Florida’s first women lawyers had been a dream of Bar President Edith Osman since August 1998, when she attended an American Bar Association meeting and learned that Wisconsin and Utah had done similar projects.Osman said she was thrilled to bring the two sponsoring groups together — Florida Association for Women Lawyers and The Florida Bar — to accomplish the gala during the Bar’s 50th Anniversary.“I must confess, I thought the project would be simple. I thought we’d open a book and find the first 150 women lawyers, get their biographies and call a caterer. My mistake,” Osman said with a laugh.When it was through, it would take countless hours from chief researcher, Tallahassee attorney Wendy Loquasto, and her committee of 85 volunteers to comb through archives, university records, Supreme Court minutes and old newspapers, and conduct interviews.“Here tonight, we have carved out a place in history for 150 women who had the courage, the self-confidence, the perseverance, to walk where women had not walked before,” Osman said. “Every woman we found was a treasure, a heroine who had lived, and some died, without the recognition and respect that they so deserve.“Just imagine, many of these women entered law school before women even had the right to vote. Some were blackballed from study groups, lunches, even graduations. Others got degrees, but couldn’t get jobs. But being an outsider in a male profession didn’t stop in 1943, when the last of our first 150 graduated. Women, women in this room, women at this podium, continued to have similar experiences. After all, even in 1975, there were only 684 women lawyers in the entire state — 3.3 percent. In fact, most of our firsts have occurred only in the last two decades.”And many of those “firsts” were sitting at the head table: Rosemary Barkett, first woman Florida Supreme Court justice and now judge of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals; joined by Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince, Florida’s next two women justices; Martha Barnett, president-elect of the ABA and the first woman lawyer hired by Holland & Knight.“Tonight, a lot of the things you’ve heard have been focusing on the first women, the first 150 women, the first woman lawyer, the first woman Supreme Court justice, the first woman Attorney General, the first woman chair. And it goes on. Or the second woman. And it’s fun to think that and celebrate that and honor that,” Barnett said.“But you know, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I get introduced that way a lot. And the truth is, I’m tired of being an adjective. I’m tired of being the first woman. I used to think I wanted to be a noun. But now I’ve decided I want to be a lawyer. And I’m a verb. I’m a verb, not with a question mark, but with an exclamation point. That is the way I feel women lawyers in America feel — that it is time to stop thinking in the next generation about first and second. It is not an issue. And being a lawyer, as we have always known, is an action verb and not an adjective.”As president of the ABA, Barnett said she will be calling a women’s summit in 2001, called “What a Difference a Difference Makes.”“And I’m dedicating that to the women who were pioneers. Just their being there made a difference, not only in my life, but in the life of the law and the life of the country. And I hope we can continue the proud legacy the women honored here tonight have started.”Daisy Richards Bisz, admitted to the Bar in 1937, enjoyed being among the honorees at the gala, surrounded by family and friends at a table bearing a centerpiece of multicolored roses and tall candles, topped with her portrait from years ago.“It’s a wonderful occasion where lawyers can be together. But I’m a great believer in no male and female. We’re simply lawyers. I’ve always been a lawyer and a lady, but not a lady lawyer.”Evett Simmons, president-elect of the National Bar Association, paid tribute to Florida’s first five black women lawyers: Bernice Gaines Dorn (1958); Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry and Ruby Burrows McZier (1965); C. Bette Wimbish (1968); and Arthenia Joyner (1969).And unlike the Florida’s First 150 Women Lawyers, many of whom are deceased, Simmons said with a smile: “We don’t have that problem. As African-American women lawyers, we have 80 percent of our people living and most of them are in this room!”Though their numbers are small, Simmons said, “our strength and intelligence expand beyond.. . . We’re here for the struggle. We’re here to share in the victory! We’re here to stay!”Judge Barkett, who laughed at the memory of her first day of work at the Florida Supreme Court, remembers her work area had two restrooms: one labeled “Justices” and the other labeled “Women.”Those days are long gone. Justices Pariente and Quince honored the living 13 First Women Lawyers by briefly describing their careers. Three arrived in wheelchairs and one with the aid of a walker, but the pioneering women rose to their feet for a standing ovation.“It’s like the Academy Awards!,” Justice Quince said. “We’re surrounded by those who have achieved distinction in their field.” And Justice Pariente said learning about the struggles and triumphs of the First 150 Women, chronicled in a book each gala guest received, was like “discovering relatives that I never knew, and I was really happy about it. For me, it’s like understanding my roots, meeting women tonight I’ve never met before and knowing they were the pioneers is a totally thrilling, exciting, exhilarating experience.”A videotaped interview with many of the first women lawyers was a striking feature of the gala event.In introducing Reno, her friend and fellow Miamian, Judge Barkett said: “It’s enormous fun to publicly recognize and acknowledge those who have been the `firstest whatevers’ — the first woman state attorney of Dade County, the first woman Attorney General, the first women Supreme Court justices. But we’re not really pioneers. Without the courage and determination and gumption of the women that we honor tonight — the technical firsts — our careers as firsts would be, at the very least, very much delayed.“But I’m not necessarily convinced that would apply to Janet Reno,” Barkett said.“I am much persuaded that the daughter of Henry and Jane Reno would have fit in perfectly with the biographies of the 150 women we honor tonight. Though it was 1960, I can well imagine that if it had been 1860 that Janet Reno would have just as quietly and patiently and with relentless determination have done whatever was necessary to enter Harvard and become a lawyer. Well, maybe not Harvard. But my nephew says Yale would surely have relented and let her in.. . .“Janet Reno has continued the tradition set by the early pioneering women lawyers in Florida. Although she has on occasion been disagreed with, her integrity has never been questioned. Although her positions have been assailed on occasion, her critics in the same breath acknowledge that she always does what she believes to be right. Although she is by nature shy and introverted, she doesn’t shy away from her public duty or responsibilities.”Barkett introduced Reno by quoting a teenager who was once on drugs but was inspired to succeed by Reno: “Janet Reno has proved to me and to all the teenage women in the country that I can do anything and being a woman won’t hold me down. She has proved once again that women got it going on.”With a warm grin, Judge Barkett said: “I can’t improve on that introduction. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome home, Janet Reno, the Attorney General of the United States.”When the cheers and applause finally subsided, Reno said: “It’s good to be home.”And when her speech ended, Reno said: “Let us remember these remarkable ladies that have led the way. Let us just think for a moment about what they have done for us and let us salute them. Judge Chastain, when I’m your age, I’m going to be sitting right there, and I’m going to watch all these wonderful young women having succeeded in making this a safer, better, greater nation.. . . Let us go forward to lead this land we love. In honor of these wonderful women, let us protect it, defend it, make it freer, safer and more wonderful for those who come after us.”last_img

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