Big Dreams and Open Doors: The Importance of Women’s History Month
Women’s History Month is a chance to reflect on the accomplishments of women in the legal profession and their import on our journey today. As I settle into my journey at JAMS as the first Black woman to join the JAMS Washington, D.C. Resolution Center panel, I often think of Charlotte E. Ray.
Charlotte E. Ray graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1872. She was the first woman admitted to the District of Columbia Bar and the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States. As if this was not enough, Charlotte was the first Black woman to be admitted to any state bar in America. As one can imagine, she was way ahead of her time. On her admission to Howard, she used her initials rather than her first name, presumably so that people would not focus on her gender. Once she became a lawyer, it was difficult for her to get clients and sustain a legal practice, as many people did not trust a Black woman to represent them. In the book Rebels in Law: Voices in History of Black Women Lawyers, the late Howard Law Professor J. Clay Smith Jr. detailed Charlotte’s story.
Ultimately, Charlotte’s exceptional abilities did result in her representing individuals, even if only for a short time. She later moved to New York, married, and became a teacher and suffragist. The lesson of her life is that it doesn’t matter if the world is ready for you because the limited visions of others do not determine your path. Their bias is not the source of your dreams.
As a mediator and arbitrator, I have found that people trust women and women of color to help them resolve their disputes. As more women choose mediation and arbitration careers, more people will adjust to the notion that women can review, evaluate, and discern solutions to their disputes. At JAMS, more than 30 percent of the panelists are women, and this number continues to grow every day. Further, more than 40 percent of the senior leaders are women. Therefore, it is clear that women are an integral part of the future of alternative dispute resolution.
Charlotte E. Ray opened a door that few knew existed. Though her foray into the profession leaves us with more questions than answers, her courage and tenacity represent a lasting history lesson not just for women but for everyone. It leaves me with a sense that no matter the challenges I may face, her legacy requires me to focus on excellence and a lasting legacy of dreaming very big dreams, even if no one can see them but me.
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