Next year marks the centennial of women’s suffrage in the United States. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, providing that “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
Perhaps surprisingly to some, women were able to practice law in the United States before they were able to vote. Indeed, at the time of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) had some 170 members in 25 states — and many of NAWL’s members played leading roles in the movement for women’s suffrage.
I learned this and many other interesting historical facts about women lawyers in the United States when I had the pleasure of attending NAWL’s 2019 Annual Meeting and Awards Luncheon, which took place here in New York earlier this month. (Cadence Counsel — the in-house division of Lateral Link, where I now work — was a proud sponsor of the event, so we had a table.)
In her opening remarks, Kristin Sostowski, a partner at Gibbons and the 2019-2020 president of NAWL, discussed the role of the organization and its members in promoting women’s suffrage. In particular, she highlighted the work of Inez Milholland, a lawyer and activist who became famous for her advocacy of women’s rights.
After graduating from Vassar College in 1909, Milholland applied to the law schools of Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, but was rejected on the basis of her sex. After graduating from NYU Law in 1912, she devoted her legal career to advancing equality for women, workers, and people of color (she was a member of the NAACP as well as NAWL). She was especially known for her work on women’s suffrage, leading the giant 1913 suffrage parade in Washington — on horseback, no less — and going on a national speaking tour for the cause.
Sadly, Inez Milholland did not live to see women’s suffrage become a nationwide reality. She died in 1916, three years before ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, collapsing onstage at a suffrage event in Los Angeles. She was hospitalized for what turned out to be an untreated infection of her tonsils, passing away 10 weeks later. She was just 30 years old at the time of her death — and her martyrdom helped advance the cause of women’s suffrage, which became the law in her home state of New York the following year.
Milholland continues to inspire advocates for women’s equality, in both society at large and in the legal profession specifically. NAWL president Kristin Sostowski said that she often asks herself, “What would Inez do?” But as Sostowski reminded the NAWL luncheon attendees, even though Milholland accomplished so much in her all-too-short life, so much work remains to be done.
And NAWL and its members are doing that work. At the lunch, the organization presented the Virginia S. Mueller Award to four of the group’s most outstanding members: Susan Alker, COO and general counsel of Crescent Cove Advisors LLC; Elizabeth Banzhoff, counsel at Perkins Coie; Tamela Merriweather, senior vice president and assistant general counsel at Northern Trust Corporation; and Heather Stenmark, counsel at Allstate Insurance Company.
Of course, the fight for women’s equality in the legal profession is not just a fight waged by women. NAWL bestowed the Lead By Example Award to James Chosy, executive vice president and general counsel at U.S. Bancorp, for being a leading male attorney who supports the advancement of women within his organization. At U.S. Bancorp, the fifth-largest bank in the country, Chosy has achieved the impressive feat of building a legal department that is more than two-thirds women — and where women make up a whopping 78 percent of lawyers in senior leadership.
Inequality comes in many forms, and some have to overcome multiple forms of disadvantage in order to advance in the legal profession. Consider the story of Grace Speights, recipient of NAWL’s M. Ashley Dickerson Award, which recognizes lawyers who promote diversity.
Speights, an African-American woman, grew up in Philadelphia below the poverty line, raised by a single mother who worked in a drapery factory. Despite these challenging circumstances, Speights graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and the George Washington University Law School (Order of the Coif), clerked for a federal judge, and went on to become one of the nation’s leading employment lawyers. Today she leads the labor and employment practice of Morgan Lewis & Bockius — and does all she can, both as a lawyer with her clients and in her work outside the firm, to ensure inclusive and respectful workplaces and to advance diversity in the law.
The last two awards both went to organizations — fittingly enough, because combating inequality requires coordinated and collective action. The NAWL President’s Award, given for championing policies and programs to retain and promote women attorneys, went to USAA, the Fortune 500 company that offers diversified financial services to people and families who serve or served in the U.S. military. The Arabella Babb Mansfield Award, given for professional achievement, positive influence, and valuable contribution to women in the law and in society, went to the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, for its many decades of dedication to advancing the equality of women under the law.
All in all, NAWL’s 2019 Annual Meeting and Awards Luncheon was both educational and inspiring, a wonderful opportunity to honor leading advocates for women’s equality in the legal profession. I look forward to attending this event in the future — and to celebrating future leaders in the movement for gender equity in the law.