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First Woman President of the Cincinnati Bar Association

Mar 5, 2020

In honor of Women's History Month, we are reflecting on the achievements of our female members. This President's letter from the Cincinnati Bar Association's first female president, Bea V. Larsen, was originally published in May, 1986

An Opening Statement
By Bea V. Larsen, President
Cincinnati Bar Association


“Are you the first woman President of the Bar?”

That is the question put to me at least daily these past few months, by lawyer and non-lawyer.

“I am.”

“How wonderful. You must be very proud.” “It is.” And, “I am.”

“How have things changed since the early days?”

A woman of my age then wonders just how “early” the questioner imagines I can detail.

In fact, I can only look back about twenty years to my entry into law school in 1965. I was 36 years old and the mother of three young children when I enrolled in Chase Law School, located then on the third floor of the Central Parkway Y.M.C.A. I had, the year before, begun and ended my very brief career at the University of Cincinnati College of Law when a newly hired dean ended the policy which allowed part-time study. Responsibilities at home made full-time day school seem impossible.

So, have things changed since the 1960s?

It was a time when the “women’s movement” was reawakening. Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” was published in 1963. Had I read it? Of course.

My personal turning point was the day I tentatively told my husband I was thinking about attending law school. Had his response been negative or even cool, considering how I then perceived my role as wife and mother, the dream might well have been discarded. His enthusiasm was a catapult and the planning began.

The L.S.A.T. There were less than a handful of women in a sea of men. My first-year law school class had two women of 114 entrants.

One professor told me I had no business being there, that I was taking up the place of a man. (Sixteen years later he had the decency and character to approach me and apologize. Not surprisingly, I remembered well his discouraging remark, but that he should have remembered still causes wonder.)

Professor Tomlin conducted the entrance interview at Chase with warmth and without mention of my unusual status. I was sure that all must be wondering about the potential neglect of my young brood.

Classmates were initially reserved, but soon friendly. Chase night school students were a broad mix of ages and backgrounds, many dissatisfied with earlier career choices, or lack of choice. Jack Sherman and Nick Perrino and I became a trio in study and laughter. Nick always easing the tension of the unknown with his wit. Jack was obviously undaunted by his own minority status. The housewife, the schoolteacher and the P&G clerk. We learned the law.

Carl Meier, Carl Rubin, Arnold Morelli, Bernie Gilday, Jack Grosse, Bob Beirne, Jack Wirthlin, Max Dieffenbach are those of my professors who most quickly spring to mind. Never any questions raised by them of my presence in that then male world.

Then on to the “real world”, the job market in 1969.

Disappointment is often born of unrealistic expectations. I protected myself by having none. No applications were made to major or not-so-major law firms where no women attorneys were then visible. Jack and I opened a small shared office (one desk to be used alternately by each) and we each sought full-time employment. Nick went to City Hall, Jack to the City Prosecutor’s Office. The Legal Aid Society was my starting place.

Agency practice was more open to women then and probably remains so now. I represented Legal Aid Society clients in civil matter but was limited to the office. We provided a charity, quite unlike the entitlement to equal justice the Society promotes today. Wanting Courtroom experience, I sought criminal defense appointments from Common Please judges who seemed to welcome my interest and treated me with respect. The jail raised no barriers.

Then in 1972, the Argersinger decision widened opportunities for full-time criminal defense trial practice. Indigents accused of misdemeanors were now entitled to government-funded counsel. First as a staff trial attorney and later, until 1979, as Director of the Public Defender Division of the Legal Aid Society, this was my exciting arena. Here I gathered a staff of exceptional young attorneys, men and women, who were dedicated to common goals of professional excellence and compassion. The bond between us remains strong today.

My staff was urged to become involved in Bar Association work. I first served on the Executive Committee in 1979. I believe Debby Gaines was the first woman member of the Committee some years earlier.

In 1979 there were no women on the bench in Hamilton County. I embarked on a short-lived, but exciting political career in a judicial race. Then it was on to private practice and back to the civil arena. Jack and Nick made it to the bench! Four women now also serve.

Have things changed since the early days? Of course they have.

Today, 17 percent of our Bar members are women. Law schools will soon be graduating women and men in equal numbers. Realistic expectations for employment are ever changing and expanding. The new frontier is fostering both career and young family, a challenge for attorneys, women and men alike. And here I am, the first woman Bar President.

It might be easy to accept adulation and believe one did it on one’s own. I have always known that not to be the case.

First there was a husband who considered my professional development as important as his own. He returned from a full day’s teaching and research responsibility three evenings each week to care for home and family while I went off to school, took over completely during the pressure of exam week, and fully supported me and my effort for four demanding years.

There were role models. Some of global significance. Some close by.

Cynthia Blank, a friend and neighbor and the only woman attorney I knew in my law school days, offered words of encouragement and living proof of the possibility of great success.

Sandy Beckwith was the only other visible woman doing both criminal and civil trial work the year I began to practice, a wonderful role model many years my junior.

But most of the women and men who made my choices possible will go unnamed here and as individuals are in the main unknown to me, those who were breaking down barriers long before my own awakening of what was possible. They swam in a far more hostile sea than I. None of us makes it on our own, though there are proud moments such as this when we may forget and accept the wonder and the praise as if we had.

 


Bea V. Larsen received her Bachelor of Arts from Antioch College in 1951. She soon married, and with her husband, Len, raised three children while attending Northern Kentucky University's Chase Law School, which enabled her to take night classes and still be home for her family. She graduated at the age of 40 in 1969, one of only two women in her class. For seven years, she served as director of the Public Defender office before opening a solo private practice in 1980. Larsen served as Cincinnati Bar Association president from 1986-1987, the first woman president in the association's then-114-year history. She has received numerous awards, including several prestigious from the CBA:the John P. Kiley Professionalism Award in 2007, the Themis Award in 2014 and the Mediator of the Year Award in 2020. In 2019, Larsen published "The Third Person in the Room," a collection of essays reflecting on her observations as a mediator of over 25 years. Larsen remains an active member in the CBA.

 

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