Around 1900, there were approximately 1,000 female lawyers across the country. Women couldn’t serve on juries, vote, or even own property in many cases. Things weren’t much better by the mid-19th century when a Florida Bar invitation to a 1963 meeting in Jacksonville pointed out to the presumably all male audience that “your wife will be delighted to come along to do her Christmas shopping in Jacksonville’s fine stores.”
Here are some Jacksonville women who challenged the status quo in the legal profession, ultimately helping shape the profession we know today.
Grace Mann Bell, born in 1880, was the daughter of prominent 19th century Florida politician, Austin Mann, and sister to May Mann Jennings, wife of Florida Governor William Sherman Jennings, and a political activist in her own right. Prior to her marriage in 1910, Grace served as her brother-in-law’s stenographer and was praised for her knowledge of the law. Around the turn of the 20th century, Grace sought admission to the Florida Bar, but due to the unwillingness of the all-male organization to accept women to their ranks, she was not admitted. Her daughter said it was something that disappointed her for years. She lived in Springfield and Atlantic Beach, passed away in 1962, and is buried in Jacksonville Beach.
While Grace’s attempt to join the Florida Bar was unsuccessful, Louise Rebecca Pinnell was successfully admitted to the Bar in 1898, and is considered Florida’s first female lawyer. Pinnell started practicing law in Bronson, in Levy County, but moved to Jacksonville to work with well-known attorney Major Alexander St. Clair-Abrams. Being the height of the booming railroad industry, St. Clair-Abrams and Pinnell’s specialty was railroad litigation. Ms. Pinnell ultimately worked for the Florida East Coast Railway as in-house counsel for many years before returning to private practice before retirement. Ms. Pinnell was an active member of many civic and legal organizations in Jacksonville, and lived in Mandarin. She passed away in 1966 at age 89 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery. She was a practicing lawyer for sixty years.
The first African-American woman admitted to the Florida Bar graduated from LaVilla’s old Stanton High School in 1951. (Kyriaki Karalis)
Blanche Armwood was the first African-American woman in Florida to attend law school at Howard University, but unfortunately passed away before she could be admitted to the Florida Bar. Until Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) began their law program in 1951, no other Florida law school would accept African-American women. Bernice Gaines Dorn is the first African-American woman admitted to the Florida Bar in 1958. She was born in Tallahassee, but moved to Jacksonville at age seven, and graduated from Stanton High School in 1951. She attended FAMU for both her undergraduate degree and law school. After graduation, she briefly practiced in Jacksonville before returning to Tallahassee and then moving north. After retirement, Ms. Dorn and her husband settled in Satellite Beach, where she lives today. Ms. Dorn’s daughter is also an attorney.
Things have changed since the days of Grace Bell, Louise Pinnell, and Bernice Dorn. In 2016, for the first time, women were the majority of students entering law school at just over 50%. Today, the Florida Bar has 87,893 members eligible to practice, and of these, 38% are women (33,766). That statistic tracks nationally: about 36% of attorneys nationwide are female, roughly 35% of judgeships across federal, state, and local jurisdictions are held by women, and women comprise 35% of American Bar Association members as of 2016. However, female attorneys are still paid at a lesser rate than their male counterparts, and still report discrimination in the profession. African-American female attorneys continue to face racial and gender disparities. A 2017 study shows that the percentage of law offices with no female partners or no female minority partners slightly increased over 2016, and partners remain overwhelmingly white and male.
These early Jacksonville female legal pioneers serve as a reminder that progress can continue to be made.
Article by Adrienne Burke. Adrienne is the associate director for the Nassau County Planning and Economic Opportunity Department, an attorney, and trustee for the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation.