July 09, 2016

What Would Margaret Brent Think?

By Michele Coleman Mayes

The summer issue of Perspectives coincides with the Commission on Women in the Profession’s annual Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Awards Luncheon. Established in 1991, this prestigious award is named after the first woman lawyer in America and recognizes and celebrates the accomplishments of women lawyers who have excelled in their field and have paved the way to success for other women lawyers.

In honor of the Brent Award luncheon, it is illuminating to ask, what would Margaret Brent think of the status of women lawyers today?

She would be struck by the fact that the number of women lawyers increased more than tenfold from three percent in 1951 to 36 percent in 2016. Within the ABA, next year will be the third consecutive year where the ABA president is a woman, including the first African American female president this year. The 2016–2017 bar year will see a historic all-female slate of ABA officers—including two newly elected African Americans and one newly elected Native American. During Ms. Brent’s time (1600s), it would have been highly unusual for members of either demographic group to hold a leadership position. Indeed, any African American woman she met was likely a slave.

Women now represent 37.5 percent of U.S. Supreme Court justices, 35.3 percent of U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges, and 33 percent of U.S. federal district court judges. Twenty-four percent of Fortune 500 general counsel are women, and 19 percent of Fortune 501–1,000 general counsel are women. As of January 2016, women comprise 31.1 percent of law school deans. And, of course, the first chair of the Commission was none other than the presumptive Democratic Party nominee for president, Hillary Clinton—another historic milestone. (This is a mere 44 years after Rep. Shirley Chisholm, another New Yorker, became the first woman ever to have her name placed in nomination for president at the Democratic National Convention, and, by the way, she was a black woman.) I must pause here to savor this moment.

Although Margaret Brent might not have called her moxie grit, we now know it is likely what separated her from her peers. She would no doubt cheer unapologetically that the successful women who have followed in her path continue to exhibit unabashed grit. (The Commission will soon publish a book about the research on grit accompanied by the stories of women lawyers who have it in abundance.)

No question, women lawyers have come a long way since the creation of the Commission in 1987, much less since Margaret Brent’s time, and overall she would be favorably impressed with such progress. Nevertheless, much work remains to be done, as many numbers have flatlined or barely moved over the years. Never one to rest on its laurels, the Commission approaches its 30th year as it always has: dedicated to working tirelessly to achieve true gender equity for women lawyers through cutting-edge resources, programs, and publications and leading the way to serve as a catalyst for change in the legal profession. We know, as the deeds of Margaret Brent evidence, that silence is dangerous and unacceptable. Onward we march, and for those gritty courageous women and men who are out front, we’ll always have your backs.