History of the Mid-Hudson Women's Bar Association
by Lisa E. Rubenstein and Juliana Maugeri
If you ask any female attorney who was admitted to practice in the 1970s or early 1980s, she is likely to tell you a story of disrespectful judges and male colleagues. She may tell you about the humiliating experience of being asked at a calendar call if she was really an attorney. She may even describe the uncomfortable experience of having male attorneys fill the courtroom to listen to her argue a motion. You may laugh, but female attorneys were a rarity in Dutchess, Ulster, Putnam and surrounding counties and were the object of curiosity and often, disapproval.
Statewide, there were no committees on gender bias in the courts, no recourse for sexual harassment, and few women Judges. Many female attorneys believed that local bar associations failed to address their particular problems and concerns. Therefore, these women sought the support and community of other female attorneys. As women throughout New York began, in 1980, to organize the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York, female attorneys in Dutchess and Ulster counties also found strength in numbers.
Efforts locally began with informal meetings at individual homes to compare notes, to discuss concerns and to get support from other women facing similar issues in the legal profession. One of the participants described these meetings as “consciousness-raising.” Eventually, the group coalesced into a larger, more organized force, and in 1982 the Mid-Hudson Women’s Bar Association was born as a chapter of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York. The first formal meeting and election of officers took place on July 15, 1982 at Elizabeth Shequine’s farm in Millbrook, New York. Elizabeth Shequine (now a Town Justice) was elected the first president of the Board of Directors. Forty-eight women and men counted themselves as members that first year.
The purpose of the Women’s Bar Association and, in turn, the Mid-Hudson Chapter, was to network, to organize, and to advance the status of women. The Mid-Hudson Chapter’s Board of Directors included a delegate to the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York so that a local voice could be heard at the state level. Although some Mid-Hudson members were involved only on the local level, many members became involved with the state organization, which gained significant input on legislation in Albany and has used its efforts to increase the number of women in the judiciary.
Throughout its 35-year existence, the Mid-Hudson Women’s Bar Association has continued to be a group of attorneys dedicated to networking, supporting and mentoring other women. Members were interested and concerned not only about their own professional status but also about the treatment of women in general. Our Chapter’s members supported, with financial and legal assistance, organizations such as Grace Smith House, Inc. and The Transitions Program of the Junior League, a program designed to help divorced women.
More recently, our chapter has sponsored “Attire to Aspire” Dress for Success programs to collect donated professional clothing for disadvantaged women re-entering the work force. Our chapter has also awarded scholarships to law students, donated money to women-oriented charities and co-hosted a Law Day Legal Clinic for the local community. The Chapter has also sponsored numerous continuing education programs on topics such as real estate, matrimonial law, criminal law, bankruptcy, ethics, elder law and domestic violence.
The annual Judges’ Cocktail Party was a well-attended event in the 1980s. The party was designed to provide an opportunity for members to meet Judges on an informal basis. The Judges’ Cocktail Party has now transformed into a Bench Meets Bar Dinner, a well-attended annual staple of the organization.
The Mid-Hudson Chapter of the Women’s Bar Association has also awarded, on an occasional basis, The Sojourner Truth Award, to a person who has promoted and furthered the interests of women in the legal profession or who has furthered issues of importance to all women. This award has been presented in past years to long time members Karen Peters, the first presiding female Justice in the Appellate Division, Third Department; to founding member Judith Reichler (formerly a Town Justice) for her role in drafting the Child Support Standards Act, which re-defined child support in New York State; and to founding member and first president of our chapter, Justice Elizabeth Shequine.
The Mid-Hudson Women’s Bar Association continues to have a lively agenda based on local and statewide issues of concern. As the years pass, there is frequent re-examination of the original purpose and current role of our Chapter. The Mid-Hudson Women’s Bar Association remains a place where women lawyers are welcome to meet and support each other, to discuss issues concerning all women and to use our influence to effect legislative and judicial change. While stories of disrespectful colleagues and discrimination are less frequent than 35 years ago, we believe there is still a need for our unique voice.