Monday, November 19, 2012

Waterbury's First Female Attorney

Attorney Susan Cecelia O'Neill (1871-1934) was a pioneer of women's history in Connecticut, but you've probably never heard of her. Little has been written. She was the second woman admitted to the Connecticut Bar; the first woman to become an attorney in Connecticut was Mary Hall of Hartford, who was admitted to the bar in 1882. Hall rarely, if ever, appeared in court, out of concern that her gender would be a distraction to the court cases.

Susan O'Neill was admitted to the Connecticut Bar on June 19, 1898. She had graduated with distinction from NYU's law school the year before, only seven years after NYU began allowing women to attend their law school. Unlike Mary Hall, O'Neill regularly argued cases in court, not only in Waterbury, but also in Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford. She was the first woman in Connecticut to practice law in the courtrooms. Considering that Mary Hall didn't practice in the courts because it was too outrageous for a woman to do so, Susan O'Neill's career is that much more admirable.

In 1901, she became the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court of Connecticut. On April 24, 1904, she was admitted to and practiced before the Supreme Court of the United States (Belva A. Lockwood was the first woman to do so, in 1893).

Susan C. O'Neill
From the Hartford Courant, May 21, 1922

O'Neill's family was a mixture of Irish and Yankee. Her paternal grandmother was descended from the Puritans, while her paternal grandfather was an Irish immigrant who arrived in this country in 1833. Her maternal grandparents were both Irish immigrants. The O'Neill family moved to Waterbury in 1848.

Her father, John O'Neill, was also an attorney. He served in the state legislature in 1889, introducing new legislation establishing taxes on inheritances, investments, and on telegraph and express companies; the new taxes were intended to bring balance to the state tax system, which had been wreaking havoc on city and town property assessments. He was also Dean of the Waterbury Bar, and served on the board of the Bronson Library.

The O'Neill family lived at 131 Cook Street. For many decades, the O'Neill law firm (O'Neill, O'Neill & O'Neill) was located at 77 Bank Street. Susan practiced there with her father and two brothers. In 1920, O'Neill moved her practice to 53 Leavenworth Street; in 1922, she moved to 193 Grand Street.

O'Neill moved out of the family home after World War I, living at 315 Willow Street for close to a decade. She eventually moved in with her widowed mother in Woodbury.

77 Bank Street in 2012 (built after O'Neill practiced at the location)
This is sometimes referred to as the Russell Building, since the owners who had it built were the Russell law firm.
This building was constructed in 1930, long after O'Neill had moved to a new office location.
I haven't been able to find a good photograph of the building that was here before, but I suspect
it probably looked a lot like the one to the left of the current Russell Building.

Being a female attorney during the early years of the 20th century made O'Neill something of an oddity. The American public was fascinated by the concept of a female professional. The Indiana Weekly magazine wrote the following review of her abilities in 1901:

"The young Connecticut woman attorney has a charming personality, and a clear and full voice. At a recent appearance before the highest court of the Nutmeg State she spoke for fifteen minutes without notes, showing evident mastery of the technical details of her case. She made an excellent impression."

The New Jersey Law Journal, in 1907, wrote that she was "the most remarkable woman lawyer in New England, as well as one of the youngest." The Journal noted that her father was one of the two leading lawyers of Connecticut, and then gushed "Miss O'Neill is a young woman just entering the thirties, tall and possessed of a faultless figure, a face full of girlish sweetness and has a charming personality."

O'Neill was particularly interested in how the legal system handled juveniles. She was among a growing number of people who believed that youthful offenders should be treated differently than adults. O'Neill presented a substitute bill to the state legislature in 1913 proposing that the state should be divided into five juvenile court districts, one for each congressional district. The bill specified that the assistant to the judge for each district must be a woman. At the presentation of her bill to the state legislature, O'Neill emphasized the importance of crime prevention, noting that the existing system did not address this, since they became involved only after a crime was committed. Her proposed bill required that juvenile offenders be jailed in a dedicated detention house, instead of placing them in prisons with adult offenders. Her bill also proposed giving the court jurisdiction over offenders under the age of 16 (unless the crime was “an infamous one”), and jurisdiction over cases involving misdemeanors, guardianship of orphans, and cases of non-support of children. O’Neill’s proposed bill included an appropriation of $25,000 to establish the new system. (I have not yet found out what happened to her proposal; there were other options presented at the same time.)

A few of O'Neill's cases made the newspapers. In 1901, O’Neill represented Margaret Heffernan of Bristol, who sought to regain custody of her young daughter from her husband, who had taken her away to his parents’ home in Harwinton. The description in the newspaper clearly indicates that Margaret Heffernan had been suffering from severe post-partum depression (shortly after giving birth, she declared that she hated her newborn daughter and spent months subtly abusing her), but back then the problem was not understood. The Hartford Courant (September 24, 1901) described it as a “strange condition.” The judge in the case declared that the laws of the land established the father as legal guardian (men having far more rights than women in 1901). Fortunately, the father decided to take the toddler back home, hoping that his wife would “treat it more kindly” than before. Although the case had a happy ending, it is sad to see how poorly understand post-partum depression was. When asked to comment on the case, the judge said that Margaret Heffernan must hate her husband, because why else would she have abused their child?

O'Neill also represented Mary Wright Smith of Westport, who became somewhat notorious after her attorneys were forced to sue her for payment. O'Neill wound up representing herself and another female attorney, Isabella M. Pettus of New York. The case was settled with O'Neill and Pettus taking possession of a farm in Easton owned by Smith (who subsequently swore off lawyers and began studying law for herself.)

O’Neill made state headlines for her defense of the “Flapper” in 1922 (written up in the Hartford Courant, May 21, 1922). In her argument before the Connecticut Supreme Court, she defended short skirts, noting that they allow “much freer action getting about, especially going up stairs, climbing aboard trolley cars or into autos.” She further state that short skirts “are far more sanitary than the skirts of several years ago, which swept the sidewalks and collected the germs of the careless spitters and brought diseases into homes."

Depiction of a Flapper in The Outlook magazine, June 7, 1922
Although modest by our standards, this was a radical, rebellious look in the '20s.

O’Neill also defended the choice of fabric material and color, perhaps to rebut concerns that flapper dresses were too distracting. O’Neill declared that “It is not surprising that the average girl looks chic and winsome” in the “lively” hues of their dresses.

The short haircut of the flapper was also being defended. O’Neill called the bobbed haircut “another sign of progress,” simplifying the chore involved with taking care of long hair. O’Neill also approved of knickers (or knickerbockers), commenting that the pants “are becoming quite common in the larger centers of population” and were likely to start appearing more frequently for golfing and hiking. She was also amenable to a small amount of makeup, “rouge and powder,” for girls with poor complexions.

The one trend O’Neill spoke out against was smoking: “In my opinion a girl loses charm when she smokes.”

The Courant article ended with an inspiring quote from O’Neill:
“Now that equal franchise has been granted to women I look to see a greater number of young women selecting the legal profession. Women as a rule make keen, alert counselors and are sharp in the trial of cases. The practice of law should appeal to women. It is a most honorable profession and it would please me to see women more largely represented.” 

At the time, O’Neill was one of about four women practicing law in Connecticut.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Thanksgiving at PAL

I had a great turkey lunch at Waterbury PAL this afternoon. They served up about 100 turkeys (deep fried in peanut oil), mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, corn, cranberry sauce, salad, and pie to everyone who stopped by. It was a good excuse to get my dad out of the house to do something a little different from his normal schedule.

There was a DJ playing classics from the '80s, giving the little kids something to dance to.

The kids liked the giant turkey too!

For more photos of PAL's Thanksgiving event, check out their Facebook page.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Pet Vaccination Clinic

Can't afford to take your cat or dog to the vet for vaccinations? Here's a much more affordable alternative for rabies shots and DHPP. 

Take your cat or dog (in a carrier or on a leash!) to PAL this Saturday afternoon and keep them safe from rabies and parvovirus.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Women's Suffrage

It's been 92 years since women were finally given the right to vote in this country. This is one of those history trivia bits that has astounded me ever since I was a kid. There are women alive today who were born at a time when it was illegal for them to vote, simply because they weren't men.

Women and men started advocating for women's suffrage (the right to vote) before the Civil War. Many abolitionists were also suffragists, the sort of people who have more recently been derided as "bleeding-heart liberals," the sort of people who advocate strongly for human rights and civil rights. Abolishing slavery was, not surprisingly, seen as a higher priority than women's suffrage. After the Civil War, the suffrage movement, and the women's rights movement (dress reform, allowing women to wear trousers, was among the items women had to fight for), began to pick up steam.

History tends to gloss over certain types of details. For example, after the Civil War, giving black men the right to vote in every state was controversial. In October 1865, Connecticut men voted against removing the word "white" from the U.S. Constitution. The Columbian Register, a New Haven newspaper, declared it a "glorious triumph," establishing that ours is "a white man's government" that "should be administered by white men." The paper praised voters for crossing partisan lines "to do a patriotic act."

In 1869, a Chicago advocate for universal suffrage was quoted in the Columbian Register as saying that "Western women comprehend that humanity is one--that the colored man cannot be elevated without at the same time uplifting the colored woman--and they see very clearly that through the gap in the fence made by the colored man as he passes over into citizenship, all American women will pass to the same destination."

An early suffragist in Waterbury was a Mrs. Armes, who attended Women's Suffrage meetings during the 1870s. I have not yet found more information about her.

In Connecticut, women were given the right to vote in school-related elections in 1889 (their ballots were cast separately from those cast by men). In 1895, Waterbury's State Representative Warren L. Hall put forth a bill claiming that "the better class of women" wanted the right revoked because "the undesirable class of women" had voted during the last election. Hall argued that women should not be "forced" to vote. Others, including the editor of the Waterbury Republican newspaper, argued that the extremely low turnout of women voters at school elections was proof that there was no point in giving women the right to vote.

Surprisingly, not all women wanted the right to vote. There were many women who identified themselves as "against women suffrage" only a few years before they were given the right to vote. Among them was Waterbury's Mary Williams Phipps, a graduate of Mt. Holyoke College. Phipps was active in women's organizations, including the Waterbury Women's Club, and in the Congregational Church ministries.

In contrast, Helen L. Welton was a strong advocate of women's suffrage. Welton was a business woman at a time when such a thing was rare. Her husband had become an invalid, so she took over, joining her father-in-law's real estate business. She was instrumental in developing Waterville. Her support of women's suffrage was based, at least in part, in her belief in "no taxation without representation." Her short biography in Volume 2 of Pape's History of Waterbury described her as "retaining the truly womanly traits of character" while still being highly competent in the business world. Back in 1916, those two things were considered to be mutually exclusive.

The Connecticut Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, founded in 1911, considered the right to vote "a menace to womanhood." The Association claimed to have some 60,000 members in 1914, which included members from Waterbury. The Waterbury branch was formed in 1913 and met at Rose Hill on Prospect Street, home of Mrs. Irving Chase. The first officers of the branch were Margaret Granniss, Mrs. George Goss, and Mrs. Chauncy P. Goss.

Suffragists were willing to go to prison. Many women were arrested and jailed for as long as six months in different parts of the country.

Kate Heffelfinger, an art student and suffragist from Pennsylvania,
being released from Occoquan Prison in Virginia, circa 1917.
Heffelfinger was sentenced to six months in jail for picketing for the right to vote.
She was one of 33 suffragist women brutally beaten by prison guards at Occoquan.
Photo from the Records of the National Woman's Party, Library of Congress, American Memory website.

Connecticut women were as active in the struggle for the right to vote as anyone.

Picketers at the National Republican Convention in Chicago, June 1920.
L-R Abby Scott Baker, Florence Taylor Marsh, Sue White, Elsie Hill, and Betty Gram.
Photo from the Records of the National Woman's Party, Library of Congress, American Memory website.

On October 9, 1920, the first woman to become registered to vote in Waterbury was Mrs. Adelaide Boyd of Arch Street. Roughly 15,000 Waterbury women registered right away.

Getting the vote wasn't the end of the story. In 1927, Waterbury's Mrs. Harry S. Coe (who had served in the General Assembly in 1925) and the Connecticut League of Women Voters petitioned for women's right to serve on juries. The Connecticut Attorney General had previously ruled that women could not serve as jurors, even though they did have the right to vote.

In 1934, Connecticut's Governor Wilbur Cross unveiled a plaque honoring 31 Connecticut women pioneers in the struggle for women's suffrage. Among the women honored were Waterbury's Harriet Fowler Maltby and Elsie Rowland Chase, sister-in-law of anti-suffragist Mrs. Irving Chase.