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Pioneering Women in Nevada Law: Nevada Female Firsts

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Pioneering Women in Nevada Law
BY DR. JOANNE GOODWIN & KATHLEEN J. ENGLAND, ESQ. WITH RESEARCH BY GUY ROCHA
A Major wave of women joined the legal profession in Nevada in the late 1970s and 1980s due to societal changes, the most significant of which was the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of that act prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of sex (among other characteristics.) A later amendment, Title IX in 1972, prohibited sex discrimination in education. Unquestionably, these laws opened up employment and educational opportunities for women. Nevada’s experience reflected the larger American experience, although at a much slower pace.
In this overview essay for March, which is Women’s History Month, we reflect on how public policy and law has changed not only what an individual woman can do and be, but also how women in the legal profession have worked with supporters to change public policy in the past 40 years. In her 1994 Nevada Lawyer feature article, Chris Cendagorta focused on how female lawyers found support for their careers, combined work and family and stepped up to the responsibility of being “the first.” [“Women in the Law,” Nevada Lawyer 2:7 (July 1994): 14.] We also seek to put the Nevada experience in the context of the national experience, and to illuminate that context and struggle, with the interviews and stories about individual female lawyers elsewhere in this issue.
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Just Getting Admitted Was Not Easy
“The act of joining the bar was, in itself, a forceful political statement about the rightful place of women,” observed Barbara Babcock, in writing about the first generation of women to join the bar in the U. S. at the end of the 19th century. She was the first woman appointed to the Stanford Law School faculty and a historian of women in the legal profession. [Barbara Babcock, “Introduction: A Real Revolution,” University of Kansas Law Review, Volume 49, No. 4, (May 2001): 726]. Advocates for women’s rights had been working for a quarter century when Myra Bradwell’s case to practice law in Illinois was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. [Bradwell v Illinois (1873)]. Despite having passed the bar exam, Bradwell was denied admission. The Supreme Court’s opinion reflected the contemporary view that law was a profession unbecoming of a woman and that a state had the right to set criteria for the practice of professions, including the exclusion of women. Twenty years after Myra Bradwell lost her case, Laura M. Tilden convinced the 1893 Nevada Legislature to pass a law allowing women to practice law. She is recognized as the first woman in Nevada to pass the bar exam. [Guy Rocha, “Stepping Up To the Bar: Female Attorneys in Nevada,” Nevada State Archives, Historical Myth a Month, Myth # 72 accessed at http://dmla.clan. lib.nv.us/docs/nsla/archives/myth/ myth72.htm]. Nevada’s first generation of female legal pioneers entered the legal field during an era of expanding opportunities for some. The suffrage movement had regained momentum and the public debated women’s
ability to practice full rights of citizenship; that is, to vote, hold offices beyond the school board, serve on juries, make contracts and work in a profession for which they were qualified. The battle for women’s rights often paralleled and became intertwined with the struggle for civil rights, including persons of color. Nevada legislative records reflect those comparisons and that the most eloquent proponents of civil rights offered compelling arguments that these were struggles for human rights and decency for all persons, regardless of race or gender.
NEVADA FEMALE LAWYER
FIRSTS
The following list offers a partial chronological record of when female attorneys first held prominent legal positions in Nevada. The contributions of these women cannot be overstated. FIRST NEVADA WOMAN TO PASS THE BAR EXAM: Laura M. Tilden (1893) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER KNOWN TO PRACTICE LAW IN NEVADA: Georgia J. Johnson (1898) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER OFFICIALLY SIGNED IN AND ADMITTED TO PRACTICE IN FEDERAL DISTRICT COURT: Georgia J. Johnson (1898) FIRST NEVADA-BORN WOMAN ADMITTED TO NV BAR: Felice Cohn (1902) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER TO SERVE IN A FEDERAL JUDICIAL CAPACITY (U.S. Commissioner): Anna M. Warren (1912) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER TO SERVE AS DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Edna Covert Plummer, Eureka County (1918) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER ELECTED TO THE NEVADA LEGISLATURE: Ruth Averill (1920) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER TO SERVE AS SUPREME COURT LAW CLERK: Rose Bird (1965)
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The Nevada Experience on Women’s Suffrage
One great example of that first generation was Bird M. Wilson, admitted to the Nevada bar on June 28, 1906. Having practiced law in California, she came to Nevada for the opportunities available in mining camps, moving first to Manhattan and later to Goldfield. Wilson combined her interest in the law with her promotion of women’s rights in the pamphlet Women under Nevada Laws (1913). In that compilation of legal inequities between men and women, Wilson noted the injustices would “never be remedied until the women themselves have power to make laws.” The Nevada Legislature first considered granting women suffrage in 1869, but failed to approve it in the 1871 session. However, the Nevada constitution was amended in 1889 to allow women to be elected to positions of school trustee and superintendent. After a long and vigorous campaign, final approval for women’s suffrage in Nevada
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(and the right to hold all public office) came in 1914, six years before the (federal) Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote in 1920.
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FIRSTS
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FIRST FEMALE LAWYER ELECTED JUSTICE OF THE PEACE Hon. Miriam Shearing, Las Vegas Township (1976) FIRST FEMALE TO SERVE AS BAR COUNSEL: Eleissa Lavelle (1979) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER ELECTED TO STATE BAR BOARD OF GOVERNORS: Janet L. Chubb (1979) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER TO SERVE ON THE FEDERAL BENCH AS MAGISTRATE: Hon. Phyllis Halsey Atkins, U.S. Magistrate Judge, District of Nevada (1980) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER ELECTED TO MUNICIPAL COURT: Robin Wright, Reno (1981) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER TO SERVE AS PRESIDENT OF HISPANIC BAR: Eva Garcia Mendoza (1982) FIRST FEMALE ATTORNEYS ELECTED DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Eileen Barnett, Lincoln County (1983), Virginia R. Shane, Humboldt County (1982) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER ELECTED TO STATE DISTRICT COURT BENCH: Hon. Miriam Shearing, 8th Judicial District (1982)
The Nevada Experience on Civil Rights
The second era of expanded opportunities for women came during the 1960s and 1970s as a result of the federal Civil Rights Act (1964), particularly Titles VII and IX (1972) forbidding discrimination by race and sex in employment and education, respectively. Many of the women in the list of Women Lawyer Firsts in this issue entered school and passed the bar as the legal profession opened up during the era that followed. Very little progress was made legislatively in Nevada in civil rights until Grant Sawyer was elected governor in 1958. A year after the federal Civil Rights Act was enacted nationally, the Nevada Legislature passed its own version (in 1965) but it did not include a prohibition against sex discrimination. The Commission on the Status of Women, created in 1965, worked with Governor Grant Sawyer to make the category of sex included as a prohibited basis of discrimination, and pressed for ending the practice of advertising jobs by sex. Finally, sex discrimination was outlawed by an amendment to NRS 613.330 in the 1967 Legislative
session, through a bill sponsored by Republican legislator Mary Frazzini. As greater numbers of women entered the workforce, more cases arose to enforce anti-discrimination laws, including efforts by the Nevada Equal Rights Commission and the far more active U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. [http://oralhistory. unr.edu/Legislat.html; Interim
Report on the Nevada Status of Women Commission,
pp. 7-8.] [NRS 613.330] In December, 1973, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the State of Nevada because Nevada was the only remaining state or territory that had not taken steps to repeal, modify or correct existing “protective labor laws” based on gender, deemed to be unconstitutional and in direct conflict with federal Civil Rights Act and Equal Pay Act. The Nevada Legislature finally corrected the situation by passing appropriate legislation in the 1975 session, especially when threatened with a federal injunction. Attorney and legislator Mel Close was the chief sponsor of the bill to do so.
Progress Nationally and At Home
By the early 1980s, Nevada voters had rejected the Equal Rights Amendment (1978) and the U.S. Supreme Court held that it was not sex discrimination when General Electric provided maternity health insurance coverage for the wives of male
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employees but not to its own female employees. Yet, equity measures advanced in other areas. The Rape Shield Law passed in the 1975 Nevada Legislature due to the heroic efforts of Florence McClure, the founder of Las Vegas’s Rape Crisis Center, and others, including female attorneys. The U.S. Congress overturned the General Electric case by passing the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, an amendment to Title VII, in 1978. For Nevada, in 1981, a coalition of legislators and community supporters passed a bill that appropriated a percentage of the marriage license fee to sustain anti-violence agencies across the state. Governor Richard Bryan (elected in 1982) appointed an unprecedented number of women to positions of power and to boards and commissions. But perhaps the watershed event of the 1980s for women lawyers was when Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981. In Nevada, that judicial pioneer was Miriam Shearing: first female lawyer to become (by election) a Justice of the Peace (1976), a District Court Judge (1982) and a Nevada Supreme Court Justice (1992) and Chief Justice. In 1987, the Nevada Supreme Court appointed a Gender Bias Task Force of attorneys, judges and lay people, to study whether gender played an inappropriate and unfair part in the Nevada justice system. After much research, data collection and public hearings, the Gender Bias Task Force released its report. The Task Force made sweeping recommendations about needed improvements to Nevada’s divorce and child custody laws, its treatment of rape victims and the insensitive and prejudicial treatment of women lawyers, litigants and witnesses, most of which were the subject of later remedial actions. [Justice
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for Women: First Report of the Nevada Supreme Court Task Force on Gender Bias in the Courts (1989).]
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As the timeline of Women Lawyer Firsts illustrates, the female lawyers of Nevada, through education, hard work and persistence, assisted by those who believed that women’s rights were in actuality human rights, overcame many barriers and broke through a few glass ceilings. Some remain.
Conclusion
FIRST FEMALE LAWYER APPOINTED TO GAMING CONTROL BOARD: Patty Becker (1983) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER TO SERVE AS COUNTY BAR PRESIDENT: Hon. Sally Loehrer, Clark County (1985) Shirley Smith, Washoe County (1985) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER TO SERVE AS PRESIDENT OF NATIONAL BAR ASSOCIATION: Liz R. Hatcher (1985)
JOANNE L. GOODWIN is an Associate Professor of History at UNLV and Director of the Women’s Research Institute of Nevada. She is the author of multiple articles on gender and policy, Gender and the Politics of Welfare Reform (Chicago, 1997), and co-editor of the three-volume Encyclopedia of Women in American History. She co-founded the Nevada Women’s Archives at UNLV’s Lied Library and the Las Vegas Women Oral History Project. GUY LOUIS ROCHA worked for the State of Nevada for more than 32 years, 28 years as state archivist. Rocha, who grew up in Las Vegas, has co-authored two books, written many articles and columns and produced four Nevada labor history documentaries. He is also a longtime human-rights activist and is a member of the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center and PFLAG. KATHLEEN J. ENGLAND is a practicing attorney in Las Vegas, representing victims of discrimination and abuse. She was admitted to Massachusetts and Nevada bars in 1979. She most recently served as president of the State Bar of Nevada (2009-2010).
FIRST FEMALE LAWYER APPOINTED AS STATE PUBLIC DEFENDER: Terri Steik Roeser (1987) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER ELECTED AS NEVADA SECRETARY OF STATE: Frankie Sue Del Papa (1986) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER TO SERVE AS LEGISLATIVE COUNSEL: Linda Jessen (1987) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER ELECTED AS CITY ATTORNEY: Patricia A. Lynch, Reno (1987) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER TO SERVE AS U.S. BANKRUPTCY JUDGE: Hon. Linda Riegle (1988) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER TO SERVE AS CLERK, NEVADA SUPREME COURT: Janette Bloom (1988) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER TO SERVE AS FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER: Franny A. Forsman (1989)
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LAWYER FIRSTS
FIRST FEMALE LAWYER ELECTED NEVADA ATTORNEY GENERAL: Frankie Sue Del Papa (1990) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER ELECTED AS SUPREME COURT JUSTICE: Hon. Miriam Shearing (1992) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER TO SERVE AS U.S. ATTORNEY: Kathryn E. Landreth (1993) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER TO SERVE AS PRESIDENT OF STATE BAR: Margo Piscevich (1994) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER SELECTED AS CHIEF JUSTICE OF THE NEVADA SUPREME COURT: Hon. Miriam Shearing (1997) FIRST FEMALE AFRICAN-AMERICAN LAWYER TO SERVE AS JUDGE IN U.S. DISTRICT COURT: Hon. Johnnie Rawlinson (1998) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER ELECTED TO CONGRESS FROM NEVADA: Rep. Shelley Berkley (1998) FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN FEMALE LAW PROFESSOR IN NEVADA: Kay Kindred (1999) FIRST NEVADA FEMALE LAWYER TO SERVE ON (U.S.) COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT: Hon. Johnnie Rawlinson (2000) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER TO SERVE AS MAJORITY LEADER, NEVADA ASSEMBLY: Barbara Buckley (2001) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER TO SERVE AS SPEAKER OF NEVADA ASSEMBLY: Barbara Buckley (2007) FIRST FEMALE LAWYER TO SERVE AS PRESIDENT OF ASIAN BAR ASSOCIATION: Joice Bass (2008)
NOTE: This list represents an ongoing work. We apologize to any individuals not included.
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