The Honorable Lynne A. Battaglia 

Evelyn Lombardo Cusson 

The 125th anniversary of the Maryland State Bar Association presents an opportunity to consider the experience of women lawyers within the association and the profession, and the role of gender-specific collegial organizations in the future. From a legacy of exclusion, first from admission to the Bar and then from membership in bar associations comprised of men, women lawyers eventually gained acceptance by forming their own groups and advocating for causes affecting women. Now the number of women entering law school outpaces men, and women lawyers have attained positions of distinction in government, the judiciary, and the private sector. 

This article explores the history of women lawyers in Maryland, the efforts to achieve gender equality in the legal profession, and consideration of the efforts that bar associations may make to support the advancement of women in the profession and society. 

  1. Women Excluded

Before the practice of law became a “profession,” men and women in colonial Maryland brought their own cases to court or named someone without legal training to transact their business. Margaret Brent may be the most well-known woman attorney-in-fact, deriving her ability to serve because she did not marry, a “femme sole.” Brent often appeared in court to collect her family’s debts and to transact business for herself and for her brother. When Governor Calvert died, Brent was appointed his executrix and became the “attorney” for Lord Baltimore, the absentee Proprietor of Maryland. 

In her role as “his Lordship’s attorney,” Brent learned that Governor Calvert had hired mercenaries from Virginia to quell a local rebellion. When the fighting was finished, the soldiers filed suits against Lord Baltimore for their recompense. The governor’s estate was not sufficient to pay the soldiers’ wages, so to raise money to satisfy the debts, Brent came to demand two votes in the General Assembly, one for herself as a landowner and one as Lord Baltimore’s attorney. 

The General Assembly refused, and Brent purportedly declared, “Where is justice?” which inspired the title of the seminal work chronicling the history of women lawyers in Maryland. While early women attorneys-in-fact entered the courtroom by necessity, either as unmarried women or with a power of attorney executed by their husbands, by the eighteenth century, the practice of law became professionalized to the exclusion of women. In 1715, the Maryland General Assembly enacted a statute addressing the qualifications for bar membership and making clear that only men were eligible. 

Women were not admitted to the bar in Maryland until almost two hundred years later when, in 1902, Etta Haynie Maddox became the first woman to carry the mantle. Maddox graduated from the Baltimore Law School on June 6, 1901, and petitioned the Court of Appeals for permission to take the state bar examination. The Court rejected her petition, reasoning that the right to practice law was not a “natural inherent right” belonging to every person, but instead was available only to males by statute. 

Undaunted, Maddox lobbied the Legislature for a bill that would permit women to be admitted to the Maryland Bar. She brought women lawyers from other states to bolster her cause before the General Assembly and convinced Senator Jacob Moses to introduce the bill that eventually became law on April 8, 1902. 

Maddox took the bar examination in June 1902 and passed “very creditably. Despite passing the bar, the Maryland State Bar Association did not welcome Maddox into the fold and would not allow women members for decades to come.

  1. Women Forge Alliances

Excluded from male-dominated associations, women formed their own groups dedicated to women lawyers such as the Women’s Bar Association of Maryland and its predecessor organizations. Through these gender-specific groups, women lawyers found support and developed strategies for attaining career success.

At the same time, women continued to seek admission to mainstream organizations, such as the Maryland State Bar Association and the Bar Association for Baltimore City. In 1929, four members of the Women’s Lawyers Association (the precursor to the Women’s Bar Association of Maryland) applied for membership in the Bar Association for Baltimore City. Although they had endorsements from a judge and bar members, they were denied membership. The all-male membership claimed that allowing women to join would open the group to African Americans and that if women came to the meetings, “the men would not have the same freedom to tell stories or partake in certain refreshments.”

Early women attorneys also took up causes affecting women. In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, women lawyers advocated for women’s right to participate on juries. After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Maryland continued to deny women the right to participate in the judicial system through jury service. In 1946, the Women’s Bar Association and other women’s groups formed the Maryland Committee for Women’s Jury Service to combat the notion that jury service was incompatible with “women’s role in the home.” The Committee’s empirical approach, complete with a survey showing that 85% of women actually favored jury service in Maryland, was pivotal in the success of the jury bill that passed the following year.

Women’s collegial groups also supported women candidates for prominent positions in the community. One early Portia, Helen E. Brown, applied to serve as Magistrate on the Bench of the Housing Court for Baltimore City. In advocating for Brown’s appointment, the Women’s Bar Association reminded Governor-elect Harry W. Nice to follow through on his campaign promise for “women’s equality.” Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the Women’s Bar Association backed women lawyers seeking to become the first female prosecutors and judges in Maryland. 

  1. Bar Associations Open Doors 

In 1946, after applying for membership 20 consecutive times, Rose Zetzer finally became the first woman to be admitted to the Maryland State Bar Association. Her successful application required an amendment to the association’s constitution to formally permit women to join. With Zetzer’s admission, Maryland was the last state to admit women to a state bar association. It took women until 1957 to gain membership in the Bar Association for Baltimore City. 

After women lawyers achieved admission to these once male-only groups, the goals of the Women’s Bar Association shifted. Chief among its goals was developing opportunities for women to advance to positions on the bench. As Judge Roslyn B. Bell, originally on the Montgomery County Circuit Court and then on the Court of Special Appeals, noted, “There is a very direct correlation between the jurisdictions that have active women’s bar associations and those with women in the judiciary.” The Women’s Bar created a context for the development of mentoring relationships, because “[t]he average woman lawyer does not have the connections or the role models.” 

Women of color faced even greater barriers to acceptance in the legal profession. The first African American woman admitted to the Maryland Bar was Jane Marshall Lucas in 1946. It took years for the Alliance of Black Women Attorneys to coalesce, but in 1979, the group was formed to promote the interests of women of color, and to foster the development of African American women in the legal profession. Another group established to encourage the professional development of African American women lawyers was the Black Women’s Bar Association of Suburban Maryland. That organization was subsumed in 2015 by the J. Franklyn Bourne Bar Association, which is dedicated to the advancement of African American Lawyers (both men and women) in Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties.

While the Women’s Bar Association and the Alliance of Black Women Attorneys were formed to facilitate career advancement for women attorneys, the Women’s Law Center was established to champion equality for women through litigation and other lawful means. Founded in 1971, the Women’s Law Center engaged in litigation to obtain unemployment benefits for women during pregnancy and to challenge the requirement that married women must register to vote using their “married names.” Later, the Women’s Law Center became the first group to question candidates for judicial offices on their membership in discriminatory clubs. Today, the Women’s Law Center provides free legal services to women in the areas of employment law, domestic violence, immigration, and family law, and lobbies the General Assembly involving legislation affecting women.

  1. The Rise and Decline of the Gender Equality Commission

In 1987, then Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, Robert C. Murphy, appointed the Special Joint Committee on Gender Bias in the Courts (hereinafter the Task Force) to gather information about biases against women in the judicial system. The 1989 Report concluded that gender bias was “endemic” to Maryland courts. The Task Force’s examination addressed substantive issues involving family law, court treatment of personnel, judicial selection, and women in the courtroom.

The first major problem identified by the Task Force was the treatment of victims of domestic violence, including situations where judges and court personnel discounted the special needs of battered women, such that education of the judiciary became one of its recommendations. In the area of child support, surveys undertaken by the Task Force showed that the amount of child support which the non-custodial parent was required to pay was often insufficient, disproportionately impacting the custodial parent. As such, the Task Force recommended that litigants provide judges and masters more up-to-date information about the costs of child-rearing, including childcare costs. 

The Task Force had also found that female court personnel were paid less than male employees and were not promoted as frequently as their male counterparts. The Task Force recommended “reviewing qualification requirements and salary grades for all non-judicial employees, increasing appointments of qualified women to all positions within the court system and developing a curriculum for judicial and court employees to address gender bias and sexual harassment in the workplace.” 

The Task Force noted that “gender bias existed in the judicial nominating commissions, which contributed to fewer women attaining judicial appointments.” The Committee recommended that judicial nominating commissions “eliminate questions to applicants regarding marital status and childcare” and recommended that bar associations weigh in on the judicial selection process. 

Finally, regarding the experiences of women in the courtroom, the Task Force Report found that women attorneys, parties, and witnesses were sometimes subjected to disrespectful treatment and gender-related comments by judges, masters, and court personnel. The Task Force recommended mandatory continuing education for judges, masters, and court employees to prevent such treatment and revision of all court forms to use gender neutral language.

A permanent joint bench-bar committee was created to evaluate and report on efforts to implement the recommendations of the Task Force. In 1992, the Select Committee on Gender Equality issued a report to gauge progress since the 1989 report and recognized areas of accomplishment, to include education of district court and circuit court judges on domestic violence. At the suggestion of the Select Committee, the Judicial Institute had instructors incorporate gender fairness topics into judicial education courses offered to Maryland judges and masters.

Beginning with the inaugural course in 1992, the Select Committee and the Maryland State Bar Association presented a curriculum addressing gender fairness for the mandatory professionalism course for new admittees. The Committee also advocated for changes to the personal data questionnaire completed by all judicial applicants “to include inquiries concerning a candidate’s membership in discriminatory private clubs.”

The 1992 Report recommended further study of the status of women in law schools and law firms, particularly regarding hiring, retention, termination rates, partnership track, compensation, and policies involving family leave. In 2001, the Select Committee again issued a report highlighting its gains in eliminating gender bias in the courts through judicial training, educational programs to the bar, “and other corrective measures, although since that time the Committee has been largely moribund.” 

  1. How Can Bar Associations Serve Women Attorneys Today? 

This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Rose Zetzer’s admission to the Maryland State Bar Association. Since then, several women have served as president of the association, beginning with Louise Gonzales in 1991. Certainly, gender-specific bar associations may be credited with providing mentorship for early women attorneys, fostering networking opportunities, and propelling women to judgeships. After women attorneys gained acceptance to mainstream groups, how bar associations can continue to serve women attorneys merits examination. 

The Women’s Bar Association no longer defines itself as a gender-specific collegial group, but rather “an organization of women and men committed to the full and equal participation of women in the legal profession and in a just society,” according to WBA president Eden Terenzini. Other organizations, including the Alliance of Black Women Attorneys of Maryland and the Women’s Law Center, continue to embrace their gender-specific origins. The Alliance, for instance, works for the betterment of women attorneys of color, providing opportunities for networking, mentorship of young lawyers and law students, and “professional growth in an atmosphere that is comfortable and collegial,” says Alliance president Michelle K. Wilson. 

The Women’s Law Center advocates for gender justice for women litigants, according to its Executive Director Michelle Daugherty Siri, who has stated: “The Women’s Law Center of Maryland is different from other bar associations in that while our membership is primarily comprised of women in the legal field, our mission is to leverage our strengths as attorneys to promote gender-justice for individuals trying to access the court system.  As lawyers, we are uniquely positioned to utilize our expertise and experience to better the lives of others.  By joining the WLC, you can help increase access to justice and ensure the physical safety, economic security, and bodily autonomy of all women in our State.”

As evidenced by the decline of the Gender Equality Commission, there is some complacency around issues of gender fairness which erodes the emphasis on parity. Bar associations may be equipped to advocate for gender fairness issues that have not been adequately addressed, such as pay inequity which persists not only for women attorneys but also for women across professions. The Maryland State Bar Association’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee, for example, has identified for further study and action the underrepresentation of women in law firm partnerships. Another issue highlighted by the pandemic is what may be the disproportionate impact on women attorneys for providing childcare and eldercare in their families. Women attorneys may also simply derive satisfaction from collegial connections developed through associations. 

The issues surrounding the impact of gender in our profession and our society deserve persistent and conscious exploration, in order to insure that we do not ignore any pernicious consequences of “progress.” Whether gender-specific bar associations can and are willing to serve this purpose may be the challenge.