Approximately 300 miles separate Buffalo and the surrounding areas from Court of Appeals Hall in Albany, but jurists and legal pioneers from Western New York have nonetheless played a crucial role in our New York State legal history. From Judges on the Court of Appeals to politicians on local and national stages, Western New York has produced no shortage of legal luminaries who have helped shape our legal system. Indeed, Western New York’s proud legal heritage includes such names as John Roberts, Robert H. Jackson, Frank H. Easterbrook, Grover Cleveland, and Millard Fillmore. And the region’s impact on our own Court of Appeals is a tradition that continues to this day: Two of the six currently sitting Judges of the Court are Western New York residents who routinely traverse the length of Interstate 90 to travel to our State’s capitol when the Court is in session.
Next Thursday, Western New York’s contributions to our legal heritage will be center stage in a new program about five “first” women who all hailed from the region: the first woman admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court, the first woman admitted to practice law in New York State, the first woman to argue before the Court of Appeals, the first woman District Attorney in New York State, and the first African-American woman elected to the United States Congress. As a fitting tribute, remarks about these pioneering women will be given by some of their present-day counterparts from the region, including Hon. Eugene F. Pigott, Jr., Hon. Paula L. Feroleto, Hon. Erin M. Peradotto, Michelle Henry, Prof. Bernadette Gargano, Michael B. Powers, Esq., and Congressman Brian Higgins.
These women are:
Belva Lockwood, born in Royalton, New York, was the first woman admitted to practice in the U.S. Supreme Court and an activist on a wide range of issues, including women’s suffrage. Her first career was in teaching in Upstate New York and it was there that she met Susan B. Anthony, who helped shape her future direction. It was not until she moved to Washington, D.C. that Lockwood entered the law and it was with the help of President Grant that she received her law school diploma. Her legal career centered on activism, achieving several reforms and arguing her first Supreme Court case in 1880.
Kate Stoneman took a different approach to learning the law and passed the New York bar examination in 1886 after teaching herself law. After passing the exam her application to join the bar was denied on the grounds of her gender, a decision she successfully appealed to the state legislature which ended discrimination on the basis of race and gender in admission to the bar. After this success Stoneman continued to teach at the State University of Albany.
Helen Z.M. Rodgers took a pioneering path in Buffalo similar to Stoneman’s in Albany. Rodgers became the first women graduate of Buffalo Law School and entered private practice, where she found success as a trial lawyer and an activist, working on, among other things, the rights of women to serve on juries.
Charlotte Smallwood-Cook followed in the footsteps of these women to become the first female District Attorney in New York, serving Wyoming County from 1950-1953. Her political campaigns tackled longstanding prejudices against women holding such a position. After her time as DA, Smallwood-Cook establish a thriving small-town practice.
Shirley St. Hill Chisholm is frequently associated with Brooklyn, where she was born and began her political career, but it is less known that she continued her work and activism from Western New York (Williamsville, to be precise) after retiring from Congress. She was an active speaker during her time there, continuing to teach and lead on many of the same topics that she had advocated for during her Congressional service.
We hope you’ll join us next week as we celebrate the lives and accomplishments of these pioneering women and explore Western New York’s inimitable role in our New York State legal system. The event is free and open to the public and will be immediately followed by a free post-program reception.
Western New York Women Pioneers in the Law: A Celebration
Thursday, November 5, 2015
5:30 – 7:00 p.m.
SUNY Buffalo Law School, John Lord O’Brian Hall
University at Buffalo North Campus