1976, two hundred years since the pronouncement of equality and inalienable rights for all in the Declaration of Independence, and yet:

  • A Sears TV repairman felt free to demand “Honey, let me talk to your husband;”
  • A Sonoma County superior court judge admittedly found civil rights “kind of an amorphous field” and inquired in open court if it was “appropriate” for a woman lawyer to use “Esq.” on her letterhead;
  • A major bank refused a $500 business loan to a Marin County woman lawyer establishing her own practice because she was “probably just going to spend it on clothes anyway;”
  • A renowned San Francisco jurist prohibited women from wearing pantsuits in his courtroom;
  • A divorced woman couldn’t obtain a credit card or homeowner’s loan in her own name; and
  • A married woman employed full-time was denied a check-cashing card by a local grocery store because “your husband is a college student.”
This is the atmosphere in which one Marin County attorney realized that only two women served in a judicial capacity in all of Northern California - from San Francisco north. Ollie Marie Victoire sat as a Municipal Court Judge in San Francisco. In the tiny mining town of Columbia California near Yosemite National Park, a woman served as Justice of the Peace. No women lawyer organizations existed north of San Francisco, and never had. It is Lois A. Prentice, founder of the Marin County Women Lawyers, who in 1976, invited every woman attorney she could find listed in the telephone books of Marin, Napa, Sonoma, Solano, and Mendocino Counties to join her in forming an association of women attorneys.

Nineteen women attorneys responded, gathering together in Ms. Prentice’s small Sausalito law office to form the North Bay Women Lawyers’ Association. Its purpose: to improve the position of women lawyers and women litigants by electing more women to the Bench, eradicating prejudice against women lawyers and litigants in court, and achieving parity for women lawyers in large law firm hiring practices. Ninety percent of the North Bay Women Lawyers members were sole practitioners because almost no women were hired by large law firms, regardless of academic standing or professional achievements. Most women lawyers then had little recourse but to open their own law offices and build their practices from the ground up.

Among its innumerable credits, The North Bay Women Lawyers Association aided the California State Bar Association in collecting critical data and statistics on women in law practice, responded to the State Bar’s request to train local law enforcement on obtaining emergency restraining orders in domestic violence cases, and volunteered pro bono legal assistance to individuals, non-profits, and women’s organizations.

Ultimately, The North Bay Women Lawyers grew large enough to sustain individual county-based organizations. The North Bay Women Lawyers transformed into the Marin County Women Lawyers (MCWL) of today, its membership expanded to include men, and its mission statement similarly evolved to encompass today’s issues:

The specific purpose of the Organization is as follows: (1) To promote and protect the interests of women attorneys so that they may achieve full participation in the legal profession; (2) To support and expand the fundamental rights of all women, including freedom of reproductive choice, and gender equality; (3) To eliminate all forms of violence and economic oppression against women; and (4) To serve as a conduit for the dissemination and exchange of information and ideas among women attorneys.

MCWL actively supports judicial appointees, judges, and elected officials who demonstrate alignment with the MCWL goals and objectives. Candidate Night socials and endorsements of judicial and elected official candidates with views reflective and supportive of its mission are integral to MCWL’s goals. Because of the politically active nature of its mission, MCWL intentionally eschews the fiscal benefits of a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status and maintains an identity separate and independent from the Marin County Bar Association. However, both organizations regularly collaborate, coordinate, and communicate cooperatively. As a California State Bar Association Mandatory Continuing Legal Education provider, MCWL co-sponsors the Annual Marin County Bar Association MCLE Fair, and provides MCLE-eligible presentations throughout the year on issues including reproductive rights, human rights, domestic violence, and elimination of bias. A comparatively small organization, MCWL maximizes its influence by active collaboration with other organizations, including the Minority Bar Coalition, other women lawyer organizations, the Marin Teen Girls Conference, and as a voting affiliate of the California Women Lawyers.

But MCWL is not all hard-driven, mirthless work! A fundamental function of its founders continues in the opportunities for camaraderie, networking, mutual support, mentorship and connection. The annual Business and Professional Women’s Dinner has brought speakers with a wide range of professional experience, including scientists from the Buck Center on Aging and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the founder of Roots of Peace, writers, volunteers working in Nepal and at Greek asylum camps, non-profit organizations, local business women, and Chief Justice Rose Bird. The Holiday Party is an eagerly anticipated annual highlight, and regular socials throughout the year bring a variety of opportunities and experiences to its membership like the pre-show gathering and group attendance at the RBG biopic, and a February Happy Hour at the Seahorse in Sausalito. Information on past and upcoming events is accessible on the MCWL website at mcwlawyers.org.

March is Women’s History Month, the perfect time to reflect on contributions of women to history, contemporary society, and into the future. MCWL has been an integral part of establishing fair and equal participation for women in our legal community and is dedicated and committed to continuing this mission. We appreciate, thank and honor the women and men who have paved the way as role models and mentors. Yes, there are more women in law school, more women elected and appointed judges, and more women in government. Laws, regulations and court rules have changed to improve equality in the courtroom for women litigants, lawyers, and judges. Women now serve on the highest court of our land. But the unremitting and escalating assault on reproductive rights and intrusion into women’s health care decisions, the continuing underrepresentation and disparity of women in key governmental and legal positions, and the epidemic revelations of gender-based assaults must stir us all, women and men, from complacency to action.

Over this next year, MCWL celebrates the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing all American women the right to vote, adopted by Congress on June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920. This year is also the anniversary of a less auspicious event in women’s history. Forty years ago, The Equal Rights Amendment failed to obtain the needed approval of three-fourths of the states by the 1979 deadline. The proposed amendment simply states: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.” True, various forms of federal and state legislation provide some protection of legal rights for women. But to date, only the right to vote is specifically guaranteed to women by the United States Constitution—gender equality is not. Clearly, we need to continue to embrace last year’s theme of Women’s History Month:

“Nevertheless, she persisted.”