Women behaving badly?

By James Dimos

Elizabeth (Bessie) Jane Eaglesfield was one of the first female graduates from the University of Michigan School of Law and was Indiana’s first woman lawyer. Ms. Eaglesfield was admitted to the bar in 1875 under a Vigo Circuit Court order that established she was “of good moral character, a voter, and a resident of the state.” The Court’s Order is interesting in that Ms. Eaglesfield was not permitted to vote until 1920. Antoinette Dakin Leach was the first woman to challenge a bar admission denial based on gender. After an appeal before the Indiana Supreme Court, she was admitted to the bar in 1893. Apparently, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was correct – well-behaved women seldom make history.

The advancement of women in Indiana’s legal community moved at a glacial pace from those initial steps. In fact, it took more than a century from Bessie Eaglesfield’s admission to the bar for V. Sue Shields to become the first woman on the Indiana Court of Appeals in 1978. Linda Chezem was the first female circuit court judge with her election in 1982 to the Lawrence Circuit Court of Indiana. And it wasn’t until 1995 that the Hon. Myra Selby was the first female and first African American to serve on the Indiana Supreme Court.

Things didn’t move much faster at the federal level. In 1977, Virginia Dill McCarty became the first woman U.S. attorney in Indiana. Judge Shields blazed a second trail by becoming the first woman appointed as a federal magistrate judge in Indiana in 1994. Judge Sarah Evans Barker was the first woman federal judge in Indiana upon her confirmation in 1984, while it wasn’t until 2010 that Judge Tanya Walton Pratt became the first African American woman to serve on the federal bench in Indiana. (Read more about female “firsts” in Indiana’s legal community at www.in.gov/judiciary/citc/museum/female-firsts.)

In candor, progress was slow at the ISBA as well. It wasn’t until 1909, 16 years after her admission to the bar that Antoinette Dakin Leach was allowed to join the ISBA. On the other hand, the ISBA was one of the first bar associations in the nation to allow women to join. In fact, women were not allowed to join the ABA until 1918. Jeanne Miller, New Haven, became the first woman chair of the State Bar’s House of Delegates in 1985 and its first woman president in 1988. Judge Vi Taliaferro served as the first African American woman chair of the ISBA House in 1989. Since that time, the ISBA has had another woman president (Kristin Fruehwald in 2001-02), and another is on the way (Carol Adinamis in 2015-16). We have also had five additional women serve as chair of the House of Delegates (Kristin Fruehwald, Hon. Judith Proffitt, Carol Adinamis, Marianne Mitten Owen and the current chair, Jessie Cook), and another is on the way as well (Andi Metzel). More importantly, the ISBA’s Women in Law Committee is dedicated to promoting the advancement of women in the legal profession, law school, and society at large by providing educational programs to build successful practices, networking opportunities, a forum for discussion and understanding of legal issues affecting women, and opportunities for community service.

While it is easy to bemoan the pace that opportunities became available to women in our profession, I would consider this history a testament to the George Bernard Shaw quote: “You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’” These women asked, why not? Why not a woman, and why not me? And our profession has been better for it.

At the same time, we can no longer afford to allow opportunities to present themselves to women lawyers at a snail’s pace. More women are entering the profession, and we need to be ready to support them. Approximately 30 percent of the lawyers practicing in Indiana are women. Recent law school classes have more than 45 percent of their members as women. As the number of women increases in the profession, we need to ask why law firms do not have flexible-hour policies. Or why women lawyers are paid 16 percent less than their male colleagues. And we need to address these concerns soon.

The trailblazers have done their work, and barricades have fallen, but there are still worlds left to conquer. And it needn’t be ill-behaved women to foster progress alone but rather all of us.

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