Left to right: Reena Shah, Ginger Robinson, Claire Smearman, Susan Elgin, Judge Kathleen O’Ferrall Friedman, Baltimore City Circuit Court (Ret.), and Sally B. Gold pose for a picture at WLC’s 40th Anniversary Celebration.
Forty years ago, 20 women joined together intent on educating the public on discrimination in terms of gender.
And with that meeting in 1972, the Women’s Law Center of Maryland (WLC), an organization whose original goal was to meet the legal needs of women, becoming that support needed in order to change laws and minds about how women were to be viewed, was established.
Today, the goal has broadened as WLC now champions the rights for both women and children, making the organization’s 40th anniversary celebration on November 14 one where a bystander could clearly see an evolution in purpose and action.
The anniversary theme, according to WLC Executive Director L. Tracy Brown, was “honoring our own,” an idea that speaks to what WLC is all about – uplifting, supporting, and encouraging women by righting the injustices against them. So to mark its 40 years of work, WLC honored one volunteer from each decade in its history. Sally B. Gold received an award for her work with WLC in the 1970s; Claire Smearman for the ’80s; Susan Elgin for the ’90s; and Ginger Robinson and Reena Shah for the 2000s.
Gold, an attorney like the four other honorees, noted she had always understood the importance of a bar association, but after her internship with the WLC in the early ’70s, she saw something different.
“I saw the passion that these people shared when it came to righting injustices faced by women and children,” says Gold, “and for this reason I continued to work with them.”
To Gold and others with WLC in the ’70s, it was one thing to change a law, but in order to change the minds of how people felt about women in certain professions, there would simply need to be women in the profession. WLC then worked on getting more female judges to the judicial bench at the time when there were only half-a-dozen female judges in the entire state, says Gold.
“Adding diversity to the bench was needed because it brought an awareness of difference in experience,” she says. “Judges would be limited in their thinking if there are no others present to broaden ideas.”
But even after women acquired these professional roles in the workplace, unequal treatment persisted.
Elgin, a partner at Kaufman, Ries, & Elgin P.A., noted that there had been “assumptions made that women could not do as well in professions as their male counterparts.”
Claire Smearman, today the executive director of the Judicial Institute of Maryland and a 30 year-member of WLC, had a female colleague who was once asked during a job interview if she was married and the type of birth control she was using.
“In the 1980s, statements like these were commonplace in all-male environments,” says Smearman.
Smearman initially got involved with WLC because of the advocacy work it had done in family law and domestic violence. One example, which Smearman noted when discussing WLC’s innovative nature, was a hotline for women in need of legal advice or counsel. The hotline was staffed by WLC’s volunteer attorneys and used call-forwarding, a new operation at the time, so the hotline operator could forward the call from to attorneys sitting at their desks. Volunteers field questions like “What are the grounds for child support?” and “If I leave with the kids, can I still get child support?”
In 1997, WLC expounded on the legal services originally offered through the hotline with the creation of Bruce A. Kaufman Center for Family Law. This initiative, which was named for Bruce Kaufman, who had been chair of the American Bar Association’s Family Law Section, presently operates the hotline and helps represent domestic violence victims, both citizens and foreign-born.
“In the last 40 years, the Women’s Law Center has been instrumental in family law and how it has changed,” says Elgin, who became involved with WLC through a custody case she was appealing because the judge carried a bias towards her client.
WLC has made progressive efforts in championing the rights for women and children and had made great strides in changing the laws for equality.
Yet its members know their work is not done, particularly given the newer challenges in employment law as well as reproductive rights.
“Although the Women’s Law Center has evolved, what hasn’t changed is the commitment to justice and fairness for women,” says Brown.