March is Women’s History Month, and we’d like to take a moment to honor some trailblazing women from Washington’s legal history. Do you have a favorite figure in Washington women’s history that we missed? Please leave a comment and add to our list!
Lady Willie Forbus (1892–1993)
Born to a poor rural family in Mississippi, Lady Willie Forbus was the first woman in Seattle to work as a solo practitioner. She practiced under her own shingle for 65 years and kept her bar card active until she was 92. Forbus worked her way through the University of Mississippi as a stenographer for a local judge, which likely inspired her choice of career. Rejected from Harvard because of her gender, Forbus went to the University of Michigan Law School instead, where she was one of three women admitted in 1915. After inquiring at law firms around the country, Forbus felt that her job opportunities were most promising in Seattle, and moved to the Northwest after graduation. In 1922, Forbus argued before the state Supreme Court in the matter of a partnership estate. In 1942, Forbus was elected to the State Senate. She served a three-session term and was asked to chair the Judiciary Committee. In 1945, she was again elected to the Senate; this time, she was the only woman elected to the Senate across the state. Throughout her legislative career, Forbus maintained her law practice. Her tenacity and tireless advocacy earned her the nickname “Steel Magnolia.” Read a full profile of Forbus in the June 2015 NWLawyer.
Lillian Walker (1913–2012)
Lillian Walker was born to mixed-race parents in rural Illinois, one of 11 children. Her husband James was the grandson of slaves. Lillian dreamed of being a doctor, but was born in the wrong time and place; she worked as a nurse in Chicago for several years and loved the work. When the Walkers moved to Bremerton from Illinois in 1941, the city was on the threshold of immense growth, thanks to World War II. When thousands of newly arriving black war workers encountered racism and discrimination, Lillian Walker began staging civil rights protests and organized the Bremerton branch of the NAACP. James was the second president of the NAACP’s Bremerton branch, while Lillian went on to become state secretary of the NAACP. The Walkers were active in the push for a Fair Employment Practices Act, which was enacted by the Legislature in 1949. In the early 1950s, James was the Bremerton-area business manager for The Northwest Enterprise, a black newspaper based in Seattle; Lillian helped with the billing and distribution and worked in their offices. Lillian was also the recording secretary of the Puget Sound Civic Society, a civil rights coalition formed by the Bremerton NAACP, and a founding member of the Bremerton YWCA. In 1997, Kitsap County’s Martin Luther King Memorial Scholarship Fund Committee named James and Lillian Walker “MLK Citizens of the Century” for producing a total of 100 years of service to the community and the nation. Lillian also received the Kitsap County Bar Association’s Liberty Bell Award, presented by the state Attorney General.
Ruby Chow (1920–2008)
Born on a Seattle fishing dock, Chow was the oldest daughter of 10 children, who eventually dropped out of high school during the Depression to help support her family. In 1948, she and her husband Ping opened Ruby Chow’s Restaurant, the first Chinese restaurant in Seattle outside of Chinatown. The restaurant became popular with Seattle’s politicians, journalists, and celebrities. Chow became the first Asian-American on the King County Council in 1973 and the first woman president of the local chapter of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, an international organization that advocates for Chinese immigrants. She launched the Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team, helped raise money to create the Wing Luke Museum, and advocated for community translation programs. Chow was a Seattle leader who broke barriers for both women and Chinese-Americans. (Her daughter, Cheryl Chow, served as president of the Seattle School Board and on the Seattle City Council.) Today, there is a park in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood named in her honor.
Elizabeth “Betty” Bracelin (1945–1996)
Elizabeth Bracelin was the first female president of the Washington State Bar Association. A Seattle native, Bracelin received her law degree from the University of Washington School of Law, where she met Jan Peterson and William Creech, with whom she would form the law firm where she spent most of her career. In 1973, the new firm handled a groundbreaking sex discrimination class-action lawsuit against Safeco Insurance Co., which eventually settled for a landmark sum. Bracelin served on the WSBA Board of Governors and became its first woman president in 1988. Throughout her career, Bracelin also devoted countless hours to pro bono work. Read a full profile of Bracelin in the October 2015 NWLawyer.
Carolyn Dimmick (1929– )
Justice Carolyn R. Dimmick was the first woman to serve on the Washington Supreme Court. Justice Dimmick’s judicial career started in 1965, when she was appointed to the King County District Court. At that time, she was only the third woman in Washington to serve in the state judiciary. In 1976, Dimmick was sworn in as a King County Superior Court judge, joining 36 men and two women on the King County trial bench. In 1981, Governor Dixy Lee Ray appointed Dimmick to the Supreme Court. (It was the same year President Reagan appointed Sandra Day O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court.) In January 1985, Justice Dimmick resigned from the Washington Supreme Court, and a few months later President Reagan appointed her to the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle, where she continues to serve today. Read a full profile of Dimmick in the July/August 2015 NWLawyer.
Barbara Durham (1942–2002)
Justice Barbara Durham was the first woman to serve as chief justice of the Washington Supreme Court and the second woman to serve on the Washington Supreme Court. Justice Durham also was the first — and only — Supreme Court justice to serve at all four levels of Washington’s court system (district, superior, court of appeals, and Supreme Court). Justice Durham’s judicial career began in 1973, when she was appointed as a part-time district court judge for Mercer Island. In 1976, she was elected to the King County Superior Court, where she served as a trial judge for four years. In 1980, Justice Durham was appointed by Governor Dixy Lee Ray to be the first woman to serve on the Washington Court of Appeals, and the first woman in Washington to serve on an appellate bench. In 1985, she was appointed to the Supreme Court by Governor John Spellman to fill the seat vacated by Justice Dimmick after she resigned. Durham served as chief justice of the Washington Supreme Court from 1995 to 1998, and retired from the Court in 1999. Read a full profile of Durham in the July/August 2015 NWLawyer.