A History of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York
By Barbara H. Grcevic

In the late 1970s, a group of women lawyers from around New York State decided to unite with one voice to address their professional concerns and to confront gender bias. These lawyers, led by Joan Ellenbogen and the Manhattan-based New York Women’s Bar Association, reached out to three other regional women’s bar associations in an effort to gain a statewide presence. The women formalized their efforts at a convention held at Grossinger’s in Liberty, New York during the weekend of April 18, 1980. After significant discussion and compromise, they adopted the By-Laws of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York (WBASNY). Five women’s bar association chapters joined WBASNY: Capital District, Central New York, New York, Staten Island and Westchester.

The purposes of the new association were specified in its certification of incorporation filed on July 19, 1980. These resolutions were:

a)    to establish and direct policies and issue policy statements on issues of statewide, national or
international significance, especially those relating to women lawyers and women generally…;
b)    to cooperate with, aid and support organizations and causes which advance the status and
progress of women in society;
c)    to facilitate the administration of justice;
d)    to elevate the standards of integrity, honor and courtesy in the legal profession; and
e)    to cultivate the science of jurisprudence.

Joan Ellenbogen, WBASNY’s driving force, became its first President. During her two-year term, Ms. Ellenbogen solidified WBASNY’s position among other State bar associations by representing the Association at joint meetings attended by these other bar associations. She strengthened WBASNY’s internal network by continuously contacting the Association’s chapter organizations to obtain consensus on various issues affecting women generally and the Association in particular. And in 1981, Ms. Ellenbogen was appointed by the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, the Hon. Lawrence H. Cooke, to the judicial selection committee for the Court of Appeals.

WBASNY’s President Marge Karowe conducted a campaign to recruit more local women’s bar chapters into the Association. By 1985, WBASNY had grown from its original five chapters to also include the Bronx, Brooklyn, Mid-Hudson, Nassau-Suffolk, Orange-Sullivan, Queens, Rochester, Rockland, and Western New York – a total of fifteen chapters, its current number. This expansion was due to Marge Karowe’s organizational skills and efforts. The Capital District chapter now became the center for the Association’s legislative outreach. WBASNY members Marilyn Menge, Rachel Kretser (WBASNY’s chief liaison with the State legislature throughout the mid 1980’s) and Barbara Billet all had legislative-related jobs. They became WBASNY’s intermediaries, communicating with the Association’s Legislative Committee, its Board and the State Legislature.

WBASNY’s Legislative Committee brought the state Women’s Bar its greatest visibility during the early years. Through the Legislative Committee’s bill reviews, final written reports, and recommendations to the legislature, the Association has achieved significant progress for women in New York State. Over the years, WBASNY has issued numerous legislative memoranda on bills addressing the practice of law, the administration of justice and matters affecting every facet of women’s lives. These legislative memoranda were distributed to the entire legislature. A few examples illustrate the range of WBASNY’s involvement:  WBASNY endorsed an amendment to the Retirement and Social Security Law so that Tier III and IV members of the State’s public retirement system can select reduced benefits upon retirement in order to provide survivor benefits for their spouses. So as to prevent commercial surrogate parenting brokers from practicing in New York State, WBASNY successfully supported legislation that prohibited brokerage fees for surrogates and declared surrogate parenting contracts unenforceable. The effect of nullifying such contracts was to reaffirm the then current law that allowed termination of parental rights only after the birth of the child. Likewise, the Association approved of legislation to provide Medicaid funding for indigent women who seek to exercise their constitutional rights to reproductive choice. WBASNY opposed legislation which criminalizes a doctor’s performing an abortion on a minor without 48 hours advance notice to both parents in person or by registered mail, unless the minor obtains a court order allowing the abortion. In 1992, WBASNY’s then Vice President, Rachel Kretser, testified before the legislature with reference to the Association’s position on proposed legislation concerning the merit selection of judges:

Our goal must be a judiciary where the number of women and minority judges fairly reflects the number of women and minorities in the bar. More women and minority judges at all levels of our complex court system will not only contribute to the vital work of our legal system, it will also help eradicate the continuing discrimination against women and minority litigators and litigants. The way we can achieve that goal is to develop a system of judicial selection, whether appointive or elective, which is based upon merit rather than political expediency.

Legislators have called upon the state Women’s Bar’s expertise when drafting matrimonial reform laws, laws against domestic violence, bills concerning the practice of law and on numerous other legal issues. The Association has played a key role in influencing the outcome of some bills, often through comments to bill sponsors and suggestions on drafting. WBASNY took a leading role in support of legislation improving court facilities. In particular, the Association encouraged the legislature to assess the impact of this bill on Family Court and the rights of children. The state Women’s Bar urged that defendants should have the option to preclude cameras from the courtroom. WBASNY was the only group that argued that any party should be permitted to exclude cameras in domestic cases. WBASNY has repeatedly opposed death penalty bills and has consistently supported pro-choice legislation. The Association has endorsed the right of patients to make health care decisions and leave advance directives. By 1998, WBASNY’s legislative activity had expanded so much that the Association hired Barbara Shack to work part-time as its professional liaison with the State Legislature, thereby increasing WBASNY’s accessibility to bill sponsors.

An important example of an effective legislative campaign conducted by WBASNY involved the Private Clubs Anti-Discrimination Bill. Led by Norma Blumenfeld Grill, of the Nassau chapter, WBASNY mounted a campaign advocating passage of the bill. The proposed legislation prohibited discrimination against women and minorities in private clubs with one hundred or more members, that regularly serve meals and permit nonmembers to use the facilities. Before the end of the legislative session in 1994, the New York State Club Association, the chief opponent of the bill, contacted WBASNY. They believed that under the proposed law, a private club would be required to be open to the public. Although the bill did not permit public access, WBASNY quickly drafted an amendment with explicit wording which provided that a club subject to the Private Club Bill may “nevertheless apply such selective criteria as it chose in the use of its facilities, in evaluating applicants for membership and the conduct of its activities, so long as selective criteria do not constitute discriminatory practices” under this or any other provision of law. The amended language was approved and the bill passed in June 1994 – barely months after the Hon. Judith Kaye, Chief Judge of New York State’s highest court was turned away from the dining room of an all-male New York City club.

The State legislature as well as various outside task forces and commissions has also solicited WBASNY’s opinion. The Association was acknowledged in 1986 in the preface to “The Task Force Report on Women in the Courts” for distributing the Task Force’s Attorney Survey. The Task Force identified gender bias in courts around the State and made specific suggestions for its elimination. Florence Shientag, a founder of the New York (Manhattan) chapter in 1935, sat on the Task Force Commission, as did Sharon Sayers of the Rochester chapter and the Hon. Sybil Hart Kooper of the Brooklyn chapter. Lucia Whisenand of the Syracuse chapter sat as one of four expert advisers on issues relating to women in the courts. The Task Force noted that women’s lack of credibility is apparent in the way they are treated in the courthouse and in the judicial decision making process. The evidence showed that women are sometimes treated dismissively, like troublesome children, or disrespectfully, like sexual object. To this effect, WBASNY President Irene Sullivan testified:

Too many women attorneys practicing law in our state describe their contact with the court system in negative terms. The comment of one lawyer that: “[W]e are too often either treated disrespectfully or simply ignored”, was echoed by many others with whom I spoke.

The Task Force also found that:

Although women have been achieving judicial office in greater numbers, they are under-represented in New York’s highest judicial posts and are not well represented throughout the New York State judiciary. Nearly half of all women judges, who constitute 9.7% of New York’s judiciary, sit in New York City’s family, criminal, civil and housing courts. Forty-three of New York’s sixty-two counties are reported to have no women judges in their courts of record.

Testimony also revealed the tendency of some judges and attorneys to accord less credibility to the claims of women because they are women. Many women claimants in domestic violence, rape and divorce cases were subject to undue skepticism. Submission of the “Report” to Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, the Hon. Sol Wachtler, culminated an extensive 22-month investigation undertaken on behalf of and under the auspices of the Unified Court System of the State of New York. In its report, the Task Force concluded that “gender bias against women litigants, attorneys and court employees is a pervasive problem with grave consequences. Women are often denied equal justice, equal treatment, and equal opportunity.”

WBASNY’s voice is not only heard before the legislature and various commissions – the Association has also stated its position on key issues before the courts. In this regard, WBASNY has signed onto and written numerous significant amicus briefs, expressing its view on points of law affecting Association members. Among these many amicus briefs are Ezold v. Wolf, Block, Schor and Solis-Cohen, concerning a woman attorney’s denial of partnership; Elaine W. v. Joint Disease North General Hospital, Inc., on sex discrimination in reproductive health care; Thoreson v. Penthouse International Ltd., involving sexual harassment; Clark v. K-Mart Corp., on health coverage for breast cancer treatment; and Hope v. Perales, on funding medically required abortions for needy women.

The Association has actively encouraged its members to support organizations and endeavors which advance the interests of women. WBASNY is a charter member of Judges and Lawyers’ Breast Cancer Alert (JALBCA). Founded in March 1992, JALBCA is an organized effort inspired by the death of the Hon. Sybil Hart Kooper from breast cancer and dedicated to the elimination of this most common cancer among American women. In October 1992 WBASNY, as a member of JALBCA, organized the first “Courthouse Alert”.  he “Alert”, which operated out of courthouses throughout the State, involved volunteers distributing literature, scheduling mammograms and informing the public about breast cancer facilities and services. WBASNY received the 1992 National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations’ Annual Award for Public Service because of its breast cancer awareness program.

To ease the economic impact of cutbacks in legal services funding for the indigent, the majority of whom are women and children, WBASNY organized a Pro Bono Domestic Violence Project in 1996. Thirty volunteers and a group of experienced attorney mentors participated in establishing the project and providing pro bono representation to victims of domestic violence at every stage in the legal process.

To promote career advancement for its members, WBASNY’s chapter organizations have conducted many legal education seminars. WBASNY, through The Women’s Bar News, has published articles on substantive law and, at its annual convention, the Association has offered numerous substantive seminars. WBASNY also has sponsored U.S. Supreme Court bar admissions for its members.

The Association has supported outside groups who advance women’s careers. In August 1986, when the American Bar Association met in New York, the National Association of Women Judges, the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations and WBASNY gave a joint reception in recognition of women law school deans. The proceeds from the event went to benefit the Foundation for Women Judges.

In recent years, WBASNY has begun to comment on issues of national and international significance. The Association held a press conference in 1991 opposing the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas. In 1993, the International Women’s Rights Committee, co-chaired by Wendy Lazar and Deborah Volberg, was formed.   The Committee considered the rape and torture of Muslim women during the civil war in the Balkans and WBASNY sent a letter to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in support of the Bosnian women’s class action for damages against Serbian leader Radovan Karadzic. Through this committee, WBASNY also lobbied for the United States’ signing the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

WBASNY acknowledges the significant contributions of women lawyers to the profession, the Association and their community. Thus, in 1985, the annual Joan Ellenbogen Award, later renamed at Ms. Ellenbogen’s insistence as the Founders’ Award, was established.  This award honors women of outstanding achievement who made significant contributions to the profession. The Hon. Betty Weinberg Ellerin, a Past President of the National Association of Women Judges, was its first recipient. In 1989, WBASNY created an annual service award to honor a WBASNY member who made significant contributions to the Association. The award was named after Marilyn Menge, from the Albany chapter. Ms. Menge chaired the WBASNY Legislative Committee for two years and served as WBASNY’s Secretary and Vice President. During her term as Secretary, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Despite receiving frequent chemotherapy treatments, she never missed completing a set of minutes.   Ms. Menge was remarkable, not only for her tireless work, but also for her exceptional diplomacy and consensus building skills. The first recipient of the Marilyn Menge Award was Myrna Felder. In 1996 WBASNY gave its first Pro Bono Award to Hannah S. Cohn of Rochester. The Award acknowledges a WBASNY member who makes significant contributions to the provision of pro bono legal services to the community in which she practices. And in 1995, the Hon. Marie Santagata from Nassau received the Association’s first Lifetime Achievement Award.

Awards were presented at WBASNY’s Annual Convention in the late spring. WBASNY’s Conventions were usually held at a resort or a convention center in New York State.  onvention programs have always included a wide selection of continuing legal education seminars. The leading lawyers and judges in their respective fields have served as convention lecturers and many of these practitioners and scholars are women and WBASNY members. Among the numerous notable speakers who have addressed the Associations’s membership at convention luncheons and dinners are:  Dr. Phyllis Chesler, Prof. David D. Siegel, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro and U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White.

WBASNY recognizes the successes of women who have been appointed or elected to public office. On May 4, 1993 WBASNY joined Governor Mario Cuomo to celebrate the appointment of the State’s first woman Chief Judge, the Hon. Judith S. Kaye. The event was also the first WBASNY reception to recognize the many contributions by the elected women of the New York State Senate and Assembly.  A second WBASNY reception for the women in the legislature was held on June 7, 1994, also co-sponsored with the Governor, and especially honored the Hon. Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick who was newly appointed to the Court of Appeals, and the Hon. Karen Peters, who was newly appointed as the first woman judge to the Appellate Division, Third Department. Similarly, at WBASNY’s nomination, Judge Betty Weinberg Ellerin received the American Bar Association’s 1993 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award, a service award named in honor of the first American woman lawyer.   Judge Ellerin, a WBASNY founder, has worked relentlessly for the equality of women in the profession and has actively assisted many women in their quest to attain judicial office. WBASNY also nominated the Hon. Sondra Miller for the New York State Bar Association’s Ruth G. Schapiro Memorial Award, which she received in 1996.

Today, ten years after the publication of “The Task Force Report on Women in the Courts”, women have advanced to the highest echelons of the profession. The Hon. Sandra Day O’Connor and the Hon. Ruth Bader Ginsburg sit on the United States Supreme Court.  Hon. Judith Kaye, Chief Judge, and Hon. Carmen Ciparick are on the New York State Court of Appeals. Women have served as Presidents of the New York State Bar Association and American Bar Association. Women comprise almost half of the nation’s law school classes and a quarter of the profession. Yet law school faculty, judges, partners and general counsels remain overwhelmingly male.   While this situation does not determine the future, it influences it in advance.

Hence, at the close of the 20th century, WBASNY continues to expand its efforts to advance the skills and status of women lawyers and to further the rights of all women. In the face of continued resistance, success comes to the persevering. For it is through the collective efforts of the members of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York that laws guaranteeing equal opportunity and equal treatment of women will be enacted and manifestations of gender bias will be eradicated. As Simone de Beauvoir noted,”…in mass action women can have power. The more women become conscious of the need for mass action, the more progress will be achieved.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Barbara H. Grcevic has been an active WBASNY committee member since 1986 and a WBASNY Board Member since 1989. A Past President of the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association, she has also written “A History of the Brooklyn Women’s Bar” and is listed as a writer-contributor in the Encyclopedia of New York City. Ms. Grcevic is Principal Court Attorney to the Hon. Robert S. Kreindler in Supreme Court, Kings County.

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