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Home / Expert Opinion / GRAWA President’s Message: A bit of GRAWA ‘herstory’ for Women’s History Month

GRAWA President’s Message: A bit of GRAWA ‘herstory’ for Women’s History Month


Katie Courtney

March is Women’s History Month. An entire month commemorating and encouraging the study, observance  and celebration of the vital role of women in American history. Last year, GRAWA celebrated her 35th anniversary. As part of the celebration, a gala was held and we celebrated our own history. I wanted to share the “herstory” that I had included in the gala program (although updated for events in the last year). I thank Elaine Z. Cole for her work gathering information for the 20th anniversary. For some, these are memories; for others, I hope it encourages you to find out more about what we do and join us as we continue to make herstory.

Over 35 years ago, when Marilyn Hoffman, Sherri Wood and then-Family Court Judge Donald Corbett, Jr. began discussing the need for women lawyers to form an association for the advancement of women in the profession, there were about 150 women admitted to practice in the Rochester area. Fifty of them responded to an invitation to gather for the first time in October 1981. Twenty more who could not attend responded to a survey of their interests and concerns — it was obvious that the Founding Mothers had hit a nerve.

Soon thereafter, a steering committee gave shape to the fledgling organization. They picked a name that clearly reflected their desire to include lawyers from all over the area. Hence, the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys. Great thought went into using the word “for,” not “of,” in order to include men.

GRAWA’s first luncheon meeting in January 1982 featured Justice Dolores Denman, a supporter and great role model to women lawyers. GRAWA’s earliest recorded minutes are from a steering committee meeting in June of that year; Elaine Cole, Bonnie Hood, Marilyn Hoffman, Sue Jacobson, Beth Wilkens, Karolyne Armer, Nancy Peck, Sally Smith, Mary McDonald, Irene Dymkar and Sherri Wood attended.

They planned the first Judicial Candidates Luncheon for October. Never short on humor, GRAWA chose quiche, since real men don’t eat it! You could cut the quiche with a fork, but the tension required a knife. Sure enough, the last candidate to speak said what everyone had been expecting. “This is the prettiest group I’ve addressed.” The groans were audible.

GRAWA became official in 1983, thanks to Catherine Foerster’s by-laws. Our first president was Trudy Nowak.

GRAWA soon faced two potentially divisive issues: whether to start evaluating judicial candidates and whether to join the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York (WBASNY). The debate whether to affiliate was heated. Would we lose our autonomy? Would it be so expensive that it would sap our vitality? The consensus was to join, but not until we were assured that we did not have to relinquish or distinctive guttural “GRAWA” for “the Rochester chapter.” Since we joined in 1983, many of our members have served as officers and committee chairs. Last year, in May 2018, we saw the first GRAWA member installed as president of WBASNY when Greta Kolcon was sworn in.

The judicial evaluation issue was contentious too. Why should we evaluate men if our mission was to advance the status of women? Many feared that our litigators would suffer backlash from judges who did not get a favorable rating. In a gutsy move for the organization, GRAWA voted to undertake the arduous task. The first evaluation committee was constituted in 1985. Many male candidates, who initially feared that we would be biased against them, have praised the thoroughness and fairness of the evaluation procedure. However, politics is politics. In recent years, despite some candidates choosing not to participate and other bar organizations getting out of the rating game, GRAWA has stood firm and continued with the evaluations. The Judicial Evaluation Committee and task force is now working to improve the process.

From the beginning, GRAWA had an aggressive agenda. A newsletter, Honora, began under our second president, Karen Morris, in 1984. (Named after Rochester’s first female Corporation Counsel, Honor Miller). The organization began presenting informal “brown bag” lunch seminars, where the speakers were often GRAWA members. Special interest committees formed, such as the Trusts and Estates group, and the Careers and Child Care committee. We adopted several organizations serving women and children. We participated in the Court of Appeals Task Force on Gender Bias in the Courts.

By July 1985, the organizations’ membership had almost doubled (to 90) and by mid-1988 over half of the women attorneys in Rochester had joined. Our membership has since gone above 300 multiple times.

In 1988, the “Moms” committee undertook a survey of area employers on their maternity and adoption leave policies, as well as on flexible employment. Also that year, GRAWA awarded a $500 grant to produce a video take on gender bias. Scenarios were based on actual incidents that had been reported to the New York State Task Force on Women in the Courts. Local notables, including Judge Robert H. Wagner, Marilyn Hoffman and Carolyn Nussbaum, portrayed the characters.

In 1989, a seminar called “Approaching the Bench,” led by judge and political party chairs, was the first of several programs encouraging our members to run for judicial office.

In 1995, Sharon Stiller led our celebration of the 75th anniversary of women’s suffrage. A county-wide committee commissioned a playwright to dramatize Susan B. Antony’s arrest and conviction for voting. Proving Susan B’s refrain that “Failure is Impossible,” Sharon rescued the project from near-failure many times. In the end, the play was performed in the very courthouse in Canandaigua where Susan B’s trial was held.

In 1997, we hosted the most ambitious WBASNY annual convention ever. In keeping with Rochester’s high-tech reputation, our theme was “Lawyers in Cyberspace.” We provide hands-on technology training for every interested attendee. Trainers even explained how email “might” be useful in practice!

Having become a certified CLE provider in 1999, GRAWA now offers credit programs to all attorneys, where we showcase the talent of our members.

In 2003, we welcomed Sanchez & Associates into the fold, at first to help with managing our database. That relationship bloomed, and in August 2006 they took on the role of program administration, helping as membership and activities flourished.

In memory of a beloved past GRAWA president, Hanna S. Cohn, Hanna’s Circle was formed in 2013. A loyal GRAWA friend, supporter and mentor to many, Hanna inspired members to establish this legacy in her memory. Over 30 members have joined out of commitment to GRAWA and the legacy of family, camaraderie and women in the profession by making a leadership contribution to help the newest members and those whose financial circumstances to not allow them to participate fully.

As if that weren’t enough, we raise money for and provide speakers to women’s and children’s organizations. We have responded to member requests for various committees as interests waxed and waned. We have had book clubs, dinner clubs and substantive committees; within the last five years we added the Newly Admitted Women Attorneys (NAWA) committee. We review legislation and advocate for changes in law and policy as part of legislative committee and WBASNY lobbyist.

In 2017, past president Jill Paperno’s actions led to the formation of the Social and Racial Justice Committee, which developed into a coalition between the other local bar associations. We write articles for bar publications and the local media. We mentor new lawyers and fete judicial candidates. We raise money and awareness for women’s health. We serve on WBASNY committees and as its officers. We never run out of new things to do.

As Judge Corbett said at our 1987 installation: “You need never apologize for the existence of GRAWA. An inherent part of your quest for self-determination and dignity is the right to self-associate in the furtherance of your common objectives, needs and aspirations. This is your right — it cannot be denied.”

Katie Courtney is an attorney advisor in the Social Security Administration’s Rochester Office of Hearings Operations. She is the 36th president of the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys.