March is International Women’s Month, and today, March 8, is International Women’s Day. Throughout this month, and particularly today, we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political contributions of women around the world. As a predominantly Black bar association, we naturally focus on the amazing contributions of Black women lawyers, as well as Black women who are legal scholars and activists. It is only befitting that our theme for this month is “Recognizing the Excellence of Black Women In the Law.”
Specific to the WBA, Black women have been key to the organization’s development from its earliest years. Attorneys Ollie May Cooper and Isadora Augusta Jackson Letcher were both early and active members of the WBA, and both served as officers of the organization. Cooper and Letcher eventually started the first black woman owned law partnership in the United States, located here in the District of Columbia. They also nurtured and inspired a new generation of women lawyers in the WBA, one of whom is Wilhelmina Jackson Rolark, who, throughout the 1960s, served as the WBA’s Corresponding Secretary.
In 1973, Ruth Hankins Nesbitt, who had been a loyal WBA member for many years, became the first woman elected as WBA President. She served ably and led the way for other women to not only lead the WBA, but also ascend to the bench, head governmental posts, and attain lucrative positions in the private sector. Since Ruth Hankins Nesbit’s groundbreaking presidency, there have been eight more women elected as WBA presidents, including me.
The first woman to receive the WBA’s highest honor—the Charles Hamilton Houston Medallion of Merit—was The Honorable Margaret Austin Haywood in 1980. Other women recipients of this prestigious award are The Honorable Ruth Hankins Nesbitt, The Honorable Juanita Kidd Stout, The Honorable Julia Cooper Mack, Elaine Ruth Jones, Mabel D. Haden, The Honorable Annice Wagner, The Honorable Norma Holloway Johnson, The Honorable Wilhelmina J. Rolark, The Honorable Constance Baker Motley, Dr. Dorothy I. Height, The Honorable Inez Smith Reid, Marian Wright Edelman, Allie B. Latimer, The Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Barbara Arnwine, the Honorable Loretta E. Lynch, Diane Nash, Grace E. Speights, and The Honorable Anna Blackbure-Rigsby.
It is with great excitement that I officially announce that this year, the WBA will add two more phenomenal Black women to the prominent list of Charles Hamilton Houston Medallion of Merit recipients. The first is the amazing Paulette Brown, Esquire, a past National Bar Association President and the first Black Woman elected as President of the American Bar Association. Brown, a former partner at the global law firm Locke Lord, has been a true champion for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal profession. She effectively used her national platform as ABA President to give voice to the many issues that Black women lawyers confront in workplace, particularly in big law firms. As a Black woman who has spent my entire legal career working in big law, this aspect of Ms. Brown’s work has been a true inspiration for me and so many others.
This year’s second honoree is the brilliant Genna Rae McNeil, PhD, Professor Emerita of History at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and a scholar of African-American and U.S. Constitutional history, with a particular interest in the history of Black attorneys. Dr. McNeil is widely known for her award-winning publication, Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights, which is recognized as Houston’s definitive biography. She also served as historian of record for two amicus curiae briefs submitted to the Supreme Court of the United States in the landmark case, Regents of the Univ. of California v. Allan Bakke, which upheld affirmative action by allowing race to be one of several factors used in college admissions policies. Dr. McNeil is a longtime friend of the WBA, and truly deserving of this honor. I hope you will all make plans to join us on the evening of Saturday, May 7, for the WBA’s Annual Law Day Dinner at the stunning Conrad Hotel, as we recognize the excellence of our two illustrious Black women honorees.
Another Black woman jurist who takes center stage this month is The Honorable Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States. The WBA will be submitting strong statements of support for Judge Jackson’s nomination and will be closely watching the confirmation process as it begins later this month. We wish Judge Jackson all the best as she begins this historic journey in pursuit of her rightful place on the highest court in the land.
Speaking of which, I was recently delighted to submit completed applications for ten WBA members seeking admission to the Bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. Many thanks to each of the WBA members who applied for the WBA’s group admission, as well as those who served as sponsors. I would like to extend a special thank you to The Honorable Christopher Costa, a member of the WBA’s Judicial Council Division, who not only served as a sponsor, but will serve as the movant for our group’s admission in open court on May 16. It is an exciting time to be a member of the WBA!
Consistent with this month’s theme, the WBA will host two events this month focused on the excellence of Black women in the law. The first will be a webinar this Thursday, March 10 at 6:00 p.m. where we will explore the topic, “Black Women: The Backbone of American Democracy.” Black women have long been at the forefront of political change in America, working for the collective good to advance the civil rights and liberties promised to all American citizens under the U.S. Constitution. Dorothy Height, Fannie Lou Hamer, Stacey Abrams, and many other Black women have organized and mobilized in their communities in ways that have garnered significant results politically. It was the Black women in battleground states whose organizing, campaigning, and showing up at the polls had the greatest influence on the outcome of the last presidential election. But despite being the backbone of American democracy, Black women have often been the most politically neglected demographic in the U.S., including by the leaders they have helped get elected. I hope you will join the WBA for a discussion on the political legacy of Black women in America featuring a powerhouse panel of Black women leaders and influencers in public policy.
We’ll also be co-hosting a virtual “High Tea with the Chief Judge” this Saturday, March 12 at 3:00 p.m., together with the Greater Washington Area Chapter, Women Lawyers Division, National Bar Association (GWAC). Our special guest will be Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, who will discuss her career path and time on the bench, her responsibilities as Chief Judge, best practices when appearing in Superior Court, and her plans for the future of the Court. Don’t forget to order your High Tea To Go package from the renown Willard Hotel by tomorrow, Wednesday, March 9. Then get camera ready with your best tea party attire as we enjoy a beautiful harp playlist together with classic tea sandwiches, decadent pastries, freshly baked scones, and of course a lovely spot of tea—all from the comfort home. Please make plans to join us Saturday for this very special event! A few tea package sponsorships are available for WBA Law Student Members who are interested in participating—just send an email to email@example.com to express your interest.
You can find complete details on how to be a part of these amazing events in the latest edition of The WBA Brief e-newsletter. And be sure to look out for more information on the WBA’s Women’s History Month programming in the weeks to come.
Onward and upward!
Kendra Perkins Norwood
Washington Bar Association
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