Women Lawyers Association celebrates 100 years in style


By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Last Friday hundreds of women and their supporters came together to celebrate 100 years of advocating for women to gain their rightful place in the legal profession.

The event was held at Detroit’s Colony Club, which in the past had served as a meeting place for the burgeoning Woman Lawyers Association of Michigan (WLAM).

Calling themselves “five ardent Portias,” a group of women started a primarily social network to “advance the interest of women members of the legal profession and to promote a fraternal spirit among lawyers” in March of 1919.

The organization soon undertook programming to that end, and in 1983 started a foundation that oversees a scholarship program to help women attend law school. To date, the WLAM Foundation has given out over a half million dollars.

The current structure, with a central office supporting strong regional chapters, dates from 1975.

It is hard to imagine the difficulties that the five founders of WLAM must have faced. In 1919, females did not even have the right to vote, and when the pioneering law students who managed to pass the bar exam sought employment they were overlooked for jobs, or subject to having their

husbands asked for permission to employ them.

In fact, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the subject of the book written by the evening’s keynote speaker, reportedly told the dean of Harvard Law School – when he asked how she could justify taking the place of a man in her class – that she just wanted to be a better wife to her husband.

Co-author Iris Carmon (with Shana Krizhnik) talked about Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, emphasizing how strong physically and mentally the Supreme Court Justice remains. Carmon’s slide show detailed how the nickname, taken from the rapper Notorious BIG, came to be justified over her 25 years on the highest court and showed a variety of the iconic items inspired by the justice.

Carmon said that after the still-intimidating Justice Ginsburg had read the galleys of her book, she pulled the young author aside after a chance meeting at an event. Carmon was relieved when the justice whispered, “They’re going too far. Tell people not to get tattoos of my face.”

Carmon’s talk followed the presentation of three awards: The Jean L. King Award to the popular former State Bar President, Julie Fershtman; the Mary S. Coleman award to the Hon. Denise Langford Morris; and the new Geraldine Bledsoe Ford Award to the Hon. Theresa Doss, the first African-American woman judge, who is also a past president of WLAM.

There were a good number of judges present, along with three Michigan Supreme Court justices:  Brian Zahra, Kurtis Wilder and Elizabeth (Beth) Clement. Former Justice Marilyn Kelly, also a past WLAM president, was in attendance, drawing a large cheer from the crowd.

Clement, the newest justice, swore in the large group of incoming WLAM officers and directors-at-large.

Western Region attorneys Amanda Narvaes and Kelly Brushaber were inducted as at-large directors. Narvaes, a former Western Region president, is also currently the Western Region regional representative.

Brushaber, Legal Division Corporate Counsel at Alticor Inc., will also be honored as the Western Region Outstanding Member when the Western Region holds its annual meeting May 9. That event will continue the centennial celebration of the state organization.

West Michigan was well-represented. 63rd District Court Judge Sara Smolenski gave the final rousing message in a trailer previewing a video created for the 100th anniversary, also drawing a roar of crowd approval. Grand Valley State University researcher Ruth Stevens, who has spent a lot of her career profiling early women lawyers, was unavailable for the photos at right.

Meg Hackett of the Thrun Law Firm’s Grand Rapids office brought along her 90-year-old grandmother, Barbara Hackett, who became a member of the Michigan Bar in 1951 and eventually served as a judge in the Federal court for the Eastern District of Michigan for 14 years.

And when Elizabeth Bransdorfer of Mika Meyers attended the slightly earlier reception for past presidents, she spoke extemporaneously of being proud of an amicus brief WLAM submitted during her presidency in  Ireland v. Smith, a custody case which continues to be cited.

Most of all, though, the accomplished group of women socialized and enjoyed themselves.

WLAM intends to host centennial events throughout the next year.