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Bar celebrates women lawyers who blazed trail

Florida's first 150 female attorneys and first five black female attorneys are recognized.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 15, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- It was the late 1960s when C. Bette Wimbish won her first case as Pinellas County's first black woman lawyer, representing a young black man mistreated in a local medical institution.

Afterward, the male judge complained to Wimbish's colleagues that she was "too emotional."

Hah.

"I won that case. And I won it with that emotion. And with the law," Wimbish recalled Wednesday at a first-of-its-kind ceremony at the Florida Supreme Court.

The ceremony, presided over by the seven justices, honored Florida's first 150 female lawyers and the state's first five black female lawyers.

Seven of the 17 living honorees, most of them in wheelchairs, attended the event, which was sponsored by the Florida Bar and the Florida Association for Women Lawyers.

It was a day to celebrate trailblazing women, to create an official record of their achievements and to remember that more is left to be done.

"The day that there will be a real celebration is when it's not an issue that something was accomplished by a woman, when the only issue is that it was done," said Martha Barnett, president-elect of the American Bar Association, who grew up in Dade City.

Today, 21 percent -- or almost 14,000 -- of the 66,000 lawyers in the Florida Bar are women. Barnett is about to assume the helm of the national Bar and another woman, Edith Osman, currently heads the state Bar.

But it wasn't always this way.

The first 19 female lawyers, who became attorneys between 1898 and 1919, weren't allowed to vote. All of the first 150 became lawyers before state law allowed them to own property in their own names. The first black female lawyer, Bernice Gaines Dorn of Satellite Beach, wasn't admitted to the Florida Bar until 1958.

Wimbish followed 10 years later, after earning her law degree from Florida A&M University. Busy with three children, she wasn't burning for a law career. But she did want equal rights for women and blacks -- including her daughter and two sons.

"It wasn't so much for myself. It was to open doors. I was content to rock babies," said Wimbish, 76.

Later, she was deputy secretary of commerce under former Gov. Reubin Askew and a St. Petersburg City Council member and vice mayor.

The two ceremonies honoring Florida's first female lawyers -- the first event was held May 25 in Miami -- serve as important reminders, Wimbish said.

"I think it should be an inspiration to our young people so they can see that women lawyers didn't just blossom. They had to fight their way here."

Family, friends and colleagues who filled the Supreme Court chambers Wednesday heard from Chief Justice Major B. Harding and former Chief Justice Rosemary Barkett, now a federal appeals court judge. Arthenia Joyner, Hillsborough County's first black female lawyer, also spoke.

Barkett teared up as she lauded the courage of the women who came before her.

"They have taught us to look around and to make life better."

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