Robert H Jackson Center Hosts Ladies Of Legend
Trini Ross, Elizabeth Wolford and Judith Claire didn’t originally want to go into law for their careers.
But the trio featured in a panel discussion Wednesday at the Robert H. Jackson Center eventually found their respective ways into groundbreaking legal careers. Elizabeth Wolford became the first female Chief Judge of the Western District of NY; Trini Ross is the first black female to serve as US Attorney for the Western District of NY and Judith Claire was the first female Chautauqua County Family Court judge. Maryann Saccomando Freedman, the first female president of the NYS Bar Association, was originally supposed to be on the panel, but was unable to make it to the event. Her spot was covered by Claire.
Kristin Lee Yaw, president of the Jamestown Bar Association, moderated the discussion, first asking the women if law was the first career choice they had wanted.
Wolford originally wanted to go into journalism and be a newspaper reporter. Her father being an attorney, influenced her to get a law degree, and her eventual decision to go into law.
Ross wanted to be an engineer, coming from a family of engineers. She thought about being a professor, or going into criminal justice, before talking to a friend and going to law school at the University of Buffalo.
Claire originally wanted to go into social work.
“After I graduated from college I had a job as a social worker,” Claire said. “It was the first time I met any lawyers, I didn’t know any lawyers growing up. I very quickly discovered that social workers had their hands tied in what they could accomplish and that it always seemed that if you wanted to get something done we turned to the lawyers.”
When applying to graduate school, Claire applied for both social work and law school, deciding to go to whichever she heard from first, which happened to be law.
Some of the biggest hurdles for the women were a lack of respect, dealing with bullies, and learning to not react emotionally.
“I found it was much more effective if I took a breath and contemplated how I was going to respond,” Wolford said. “I think it was in part realizing, and it may not be politically correct to say this, but the reality is that women have to think about how they react differently than men sometimes.”
Other hurdles included the ability to get their first jobs.
The women also discussed influential people in their lives, and moments when they had to reach beyond their comfort zones. For Ross, this included becoming a US attorney in the first place, which she was inspired to do because of her family.
“Everything I have done, I’ve done because of my family,” Ross said. “I want them to know there is no limit to what you can do, regardless of what society says or pressures or anything you can achieve if you put your heart and soul into it.”
During the time of the death of George Floyd, Ross said her third son told her she should be an attorney.
“He said after George Floyd was murdered, that if I had been the person in Minneapolis that wouldn’t have happened, because I prosecuted color of law cases,” Ross said.
Ross said her son remembered her talking about bad policemen and the prosecutions she had done to make sure it would not escalate to situations such as that, saying that children listen and watch when adults do not necessarily know they are.
“So when he told me I should be a United States Attorney because I would not have let that happen, because I would’ve prosecuted Derek Chauvin before it got to the point where he would’ve murdered Mr. Floyd, who was I to say no?” Ross said.
The final question for the panelists was how often they felt their gender with them in the room. The three answered similarly, in that it was there at first and is often always there in some way, but they got past most of the comments. In some ways they said it was also an advantage and allowed them to relate to different parties easier than they might have as men.
Norman Carlson, collections manager for the Fenton History Center, discussed Kate Stoneman’s high-achieving family. Stoneman was a Busti native and the first female attorney in New York state. Her grandmother was among the first land owners in Lakewood, during a time when married women could not own land and it was normally under her husband’s name. Stoneman’s mother attended a school house in Bemus Point in the 1800s. This was one of the first school houses in the county and was during a time when education was a very low priority for women. Her niece was the first woman to graduate with a PHD from Cornell University and her brother was a general in the Civil War, and later became governor of California. Her father built a sawmill and a unique boat to travel across Chautauqua Lake in 1849 before there was steam power on the lake.
Stoneman herself was discussed by historian Michelle Henry. Stoneman was born in 1841 and died in 1925. During her life, besides being a lawyer she became known for her role in the women’s suffrage movement and her suffrage activities. She left Busti to attend the University of Albany and graduated in 1866. She first had a career in education, and only read law books during her down time. In 1883 Stoneman filed her certificate as a law student, and took and passed the bar exam in 1885. The court declined her admission to the bar, basing the decision on the lack of precedence for a woman to practice law, and at the time it was required that every applicant needed to be a male citizen of the state. She was allowed to practice law on May 22, 1886 at 45 years old.
In 1994 Albany Law School — which Stoneman was the first woman graduate from at age 57 — celebrated the first Kate Stoneman day. In 2009 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Following this, Lee Yaw acknowledged other women members of the Jamestown Bar who have done legendary things in the field of law, some of whom were in the audience. This included Josephine Spoto, Mary Schober, Cynthia Peterson, Betsy Steger, Claire, Maureen Skerda and Grace Hanlan.