Sisters In Law

Release Date: October 1, 1999 This content is archived.


Over the past century, more than 3,000 women have become "sisters in law," thanks to the education they have received at the UB Law School. These remarkable women have contributed to the betterment of not only the law-school community, but also the nation's legal profession. The following are profiles of just a few of the many exceptional women to graduate from UB Law.

Helen Z.M. Rodgers, Class of 1899

Helen Rodgers came from a prominent New York City family and attended some of the best private schools in the country. A woman of many dreams, she resisted the pressures of the world around her in order to hold onto those dreams -- and surpass them.

"I can change my dreams, but I can't stop dreaming," she noted in her diary in 1899.

She entered the University of Buffalo in 1897 as one of the first two women ever to attend its law school. Not only did she graduate two years later, she won the Clinton Scholarship for the highest standing in her class. These accomplishments, however, were just the beginning of her long train of success.

Rodgers began her married life and her study for a career simultaneously; married at 20, she entered UB Law soon after. "Fortunately," she said, "I have no housekeeping habits to overcome. I do not believe that a woman can take care of her house herself and work seriously at her profession. Therefore, I always hire experts to manage my home for me, and then apply myself to be an expert in law." She also was able to raise a daughter and balance "domesticity" with her profession. "It is quite possible to do so, if one works diligently," she said.

As a result of being one of the first women to succeed in a predominantly male profession and world, Rodgers felt compelled to help other women not only to dream, but to live out their dreams as well. In 1907, New York State Gov. Charles E. Hughes appointed Rodgers to the Board of Managers of the Western House of Refuge for Women, in Albion. A year later, she became president of the Women Workers' Suffrage League. For years, she tried to educate women on the benefits of suffrage, and in 1917 became chairman of the Educational Committee of the Erie County Suffrage Association of the Commonwealth Club, before whom she argued that women should not be intimidated by their husbands in their voting, a problem many foresaw.

"As for husbands influencing their wives, I have a husband and I also have convictions," she said. "I'll leave the answer to you."

Rodgers twice sought elected office, first in 1934 when she ran for councilman-at-large to the state Senate, and again in 1938 when she ran for representative-at-large to Congress. While both bids for public office were unsuccessful, she gathered important support in both campaigns.

Thomas E. Dewey, who was running for governor, warmly supported her congressional candidacy, noting, "She has courage and years of service in social welfare and civic work behind her. She will be a real representative-at-large of whom the state will be proud."

In 1938, she was appointed chair of the Committee on Suffrage and Qualifications for Office, and she later credited World War II with being responsible for the changes to women's lives: "They couldn't very well say that women's place was in the home at the same time they were urging us to work in munitions plants," she said.

Rodgers also pushed for a women's right to sit on juries, arguing that "it would be a good thing -- if only to protect the men. You know, if a young, pretty and flirtatious woman is concerned in a suit, the men often decide the case with little regard to justice."

Rodgers' professional accomplishments received much notice. John Lord O'Brian, former U.S. attorney for the Buffalo district, once told Dewey that he would rather try a case against almost any other lawyer in Buffalo than against Rodgers, because she had beaten him before more juries than any lawyer in the city.

Cecilia Bertha Wiener, Class of 1899

As a prim little girl tutored by an English governess, Cecil B. Wiener probably never dreamed that one day she would hold the highest position ever to be given to a woman in Erie County -- judge of the Children's Court.

Wiener, the sheltered daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Magnus Wiener, members of aristocratic German-Jewish families, had an ambition far, far removed from a judgeship. "It was to marry and rear a family," she said. "I used to think how glad I was to be a woman. I would marry and not have to get up early in the morning."

As she grew older, her ambitions changed. Wiener's father wanted her to be an astronomer. She wanted to be a doctor. But her mother thought "a dissecting room was no place for a well-brought-up girl." Law seemed to be less offensive, so Wiener entered the University of Buffalo Law School in 1897 and graduated in 1899.

"Miss Wiener hopes to fill a long-felt want by supplying a guide, philosopher and friend to those timid and retiring souls who shrink from telling their troubles to men" was the notation that appeared in 1899 in her yearbook, "The Iris."

Years later, while reminiscing about the days when she first graduated from law school, Wiener described the problems she encountered. "Men look askance at a woman lawyer then," she remembered wryly. "They didn't even want them as clerks in law offices."

Things had not changed much by 1931, when Wiener decided to run for judicial office. Women were not seen as men's equals in law and politics, but Wiener saw her attempt to be a judge as something that would lay the foundation for the ambitions of future women.

"If I can stand as well as the rest of the ticket, the next time a woman wants to run for a public office in Erie County, her way may be a little easier," she said. But while Wiener believed that there should be no prejudice against women holding office, she did not think that women should be given extra privileges, either. "There's no reason to think a woman will make a better judge of the Children's Court just because she is a woman."

As for suffrage: "I did not expect that once women were given the privilege of voting, they were going to clean up politics. I wanted to vote because I am entitled, as an American citizen, to vote."

Nevertheless, Wiener always had a special faith in women's ability. As a young student at the University of Buffalo Law School, she rooted for women's causes. She worked with fervor for suffrage. "As long as women aren't idiots or imbeciles, why shouldn't they vote and take part in their governments?" she asked. At the same time, her views on the "modern girl" remained conservative: "I think the modern girl is all right. Her danger lies in her inclination to express herself, rather than acknowledging duty and obligation. If she is going to express herself, she must be sure first that she has something to express."

In a 1903 article about "The Woman Doctor, The Woman Teacher and The Woman Lawyer," Wiener -- the lawyer -- stated: "One can be a schoolteacher, a clerk, a physician, an architect or something else, but to me, the law affords the greatest fascination. I think there is a great opportunity for a bright, independent woman in becoming a lawyer. One requires mental ability, but perseverance and constant study are certain to bring reward," Wiener wrote.

"The branch of the work that one takes up is a matter of future consideration. (Helen) Rodgers, who graduated in the same class with me, may become a trial lawyer. But there are other things. One may do appellate work, surrogate work, office work or other things, which certainly a woman can do as well as a man. Then one could also argue cases. For this, I believe, a woman is particularly fitted."

A year later, she was asked whether her clients were men or women -- "chiefly men," she replied -- and whether she encountered any problems in her profession on account of her sex.

"None to speak of," she responded. "Of course, a woman lawyer is something of a novelty in this city as yet, but there is no prejudice against the idea. I think that businessmen are as ready to employ a good woman stenographer. What they want is success, and the element of sex does not enter into it."

The element of success came to Wiener in 1932, when she was elected Erie County's first woman judge, much to her surprise. Doubting her chances for success, on the night of the election

she designed a centerpiece for a dinner party of a diminutive grave covered with myrtle. On a footstone was a verse: "Here lies the hopes of Cecil Wiener; she'd a made a good judge if she coulda been 'er."

As a judge, Wiener's bench was described as acquiring "a feminine touch....There is a potted plant at her side, before her an artistic statuette of Justice." Her chambers immediately became a source of refuge, with the framed motto above her bench: "The child a-hungered shall be fed, The sick child nursed and comforted, The backward child with patience led, The erring shall be claimed from sin, The lonely child, bereft of kin, Unloved shall be taken in."

She was seen as a kind judge, "an old woman with a seamed face -- a face that had seen life and loved it, found it good." She often was described as a woman who spoke tersely and briskly, and moved and thought quickly. She gave the impression of being a difficult taskmaster, but her office associates wept the morning after the election because they would miss her quick laughter and her ready sympathy and efficiency.

She always maintained that, despite her success at election, "I'm not a politician. I'm too shy to be one. Really, I'm a very shy person. That's why I am so difficult to interview." Wiener did not like to be interviewed. "It sounds so silly when you see it in print," she said.

Though she saw the ills of society through her work in social service, she was not bitter. She complained, however, that the tough part was that "the results are so intangible. I have said that if I ever left this work, I wanted to get a job where you could see the results of your work. I wanted to wash dishes. Or maybe paste labels on bottles. When you paste a thousand labels on a thousand bottles, you can see them. There they are -- a thousand labels on a thousand bottles, and you did it!"

Toward the end of her life, when she was selected to receive a Woman of the Year award from the Inter-Club Council of Western New York, she was described as an "84-year-old suffragette, social reformer and first woman judge of Erie County Children's Court," chosen for the award because of her "championship" of women's rights over a period of several years and for "pioneering with distinction" in the fields of law and social work, "thereby bringing opportunities for all women." The committee called Wiener "a truly great, generous woman, without bias or prejudice" who spent the greater part of her life in service to her fellow man.

Madge T. Taggart (Doyle), Class of 1920

Madge T. Taggart knew from childhood that she wanted to become not only a lawyer, but a judge. "Someday I'm going to be a judge," she told classmates at Holy Angels Academy in 1908.

Taggart looked at the world as a place full of opportunity, and nothing held her back, not even the fact that she was a woman and law was a man's field.

After graduating from law school in 1920, Taggart put her ambitious energy and fiery personality to good use in paving the way for women lawyers and judges.

At a counselors' meeting in 1936 about discrimination against women, she vented her indignation. "We're going to get women jurors this year or else," she told club members. "Why are men against having women on juries? Why are they against anything that involves the advancement of women? They resent our increasing knowledge of the power of our vote. Women jurors are just the entering wedge into the courtrooms. Once we get them, there will be more women judges on the bench, too."

In 1952, she realized her goal of getting "more women judges on the bench," as well as her own personal dream, when she became Buffalo City Court's first woman judge.

A year later, Taggart was nominated Women of the Year by the Buffalo Real Estate Board. That same year, she also was chosen by her fellow citizens as someone "who did the most for Buffalo in '53. Miss Taggart conducted herself with dignity and showed the qualities of mind that come from a sound understanding of the law and possession of good judgment."

A no-nonsense jurist on the issue of guns, she warned in 1965 that any child appearing before her for possession of any type of gun will be "sent away, whether it is his first time in court or not."

After seeing a cartoon about reckless women drivers in The Buffalo Evening News in 1962, she placed the cartoon on her bench and kept track of the number of men and women drivers appearing before her. After a two-month stint in Buffalo Traffic Court, she said her confidence that women drivers were just as competent as men drivers was renewed.

Marie Teresa Scalzo, Class of 1924

A 1924 graduate of the University of Buffalo Law School, Marie Teresa Scalzo was appointed a deputy attorney general in the State of New York's Fraud Prevention Bureau. Not yet 26 years old at the time of her appointment, she was the first woman ever assigned to the bureau and one of the youngest women in the state to be appointed to such an important legal position.

She began her career at the same time that bucket shops, tipster sheets and telephone rackets flourished as the nation was seized by the mania to get rich quick in the stock market. As a member of the anti-fraud bureau, it was Scalzo's job to prosecute these men. She soon compiled an enviable record of bringing to judgment some of the most clever, sharp "slicksters" of New York City.

"You'd be surprised at the way honest people part with their hard-earned money for these fraudulent stock deals," she said of her work. "It seems almost unbelievable what these stock salesmen will tell their victims."

Her effectiveness was, in part, due to her demeanor. A pretty, slight woman, large-eyed and wistful, she retained the mildly surprised air of a little girl who sees wickedness for the first time and can't quite believe it. The men who ran the stock-market schemes never suspected that this shy young woman was vested with the authority to prosecute them.

And prosecute them, she did. Her "painstaking persistence" enabled her to unravel the intricate schemes the fraudulent stock salesmen concocted to swindle their victims.

"It's fascinating tracking them down," she said. "There are so many ways. For instance, there is the ordinary newspaper advertisement, which may look innocent enough to an unsuspecting, inexperienced man who wants to get rich quick."

Although the world of securities and fraud was perceived as strictly male territory, Scalzo was drawn to it because of its effects -- direct or indirect -- on women. The Fraud Prevention Bureau fascinated the young lawyer, in part because of the number of women victimized by the white-collar bandits.

Hon. Winifred C. Stanley, Class of 1933

Winifred C. Stanley's interest in public affairs began during her years as an honor student at the University of Buffalo Law School and continued after graduation, when she became the first woman in New York State to be named an Erie County district attorney, a career that soon would be followed, thanks to her hard work and intelligence, by one in politics.

A Republican, Stanley was elected to Congress in 1942 as Buffalo's representative-at-large, one of only seven women of the 433 members. Only 32 years old at the time, she was immediately well-liked by her peers. According to an article in the Buffalo Courier Express newspaper, she was rated "the most popular, the best-liked and the best-dressed member of the Congress. Her legal training is valued, other members say, because the war has demonstrated that the American patent system needs a general overhauling and only a lawyer is able to cope with some of the proposed legislation about patents. Legal questions are referred to her, too, by the civil service committee."

During her term, Stanley worked to promote jury service for women, a measure that later was enacted into law. Newspaper articles describing her service in the Capitol focused as much on her beauty as her abilities, often calling her a "beautiful, slender young woman with prematurely gray hair." Descriptions such as "a porcelain complexion," "round, china-blue eyes" and "cover girl" appeared frequently in pieces about her.

When Stanley took possession of her office in the House Office Building, she boldly shattered a tradition dating from the founding of the republic by tossing out several ornate brass cuspidors, which had been regarded as standard equipment in every congressman's office. Other women congressional members respected the tradition and let the cuspidors remain as memorials to their male predecessors, but Stanley ordered them out immediately.

Throughout her political life, Stanley remained highly regarded. "She typifies at the best the woman in politics," gushed The Buffalo Evening News, "highly intelligent, liberal-minded and a strong sense of responsibility."

In the face of such high praise, Stanley was modest. "I want to retain the humility of realizing that I can't know all the answers," she said just prior to her election. "I'll consider the problems as I would a law case, figuring out the facts as best I can and then acting to the best of my ability."

In addition to her law degree, she received a bachelor's degree in English from UB in 1930.

Carol McCormick Crosswell Smith, Class of 1945

Following her graduation from the University of Buffalo Law School, Carol Crosswell, the daughter of a socially prominent Buffalo family, pursued a career in public international law -- and espionage -- by becoming the first female lawyer on the United Nations legal staff.

She later served as director of psychological warfare for the Central Intelligence Agency. She also was U.S. delegate to the Committee on Human Rights session in Chile and was a member of a U.S. Senate advisory committee.

Crosswell's biography is filled with interesting tales, such as the time she successfully sued the Shah of Iran's sister on behalf of a social club for failing to honor an agreement to deliver several thousand dollars worth of caviar to the establishment. In gratitude, the club provided her with a free pound of Beluga caviar every month for the rest of her life. While dating Jack Martin, the late owner of Heublein, Crosswell suggested that he market Smirnoff vodka by using the now-famous slogan, "It leaves you breathless." He did, and its success won Crosswell a lifetime supply of liquor.

Crosswell taught at several universities throughout her career. She also wrote five books on immigration and international tax law.

In addition to UB, she was a graduate of Buffalo Seminary and Radcliffe College. The mother of two daughters, she also completed post-doctoral work at Columbia and Harvard universities.

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