Colleagues and friends are remembering the late lawyer and judge Mary Ann McMorrow. She became a lawyer in an era when women were told they were taking jobs away from men, and rose to become the first woman to serve on the Illinois Supreme Court. McMorrow died over the weekend at the age of 83. Brian Mackey has more on a career path that, when it began, would have been unthinkable.
McMorrow was the only woman in the class of 1953 at the Loyola University School of Law. That distinction was to become a theme throughout her career. In the early 1960s, she became the first woman to prosecute felonies for the Cook County State’s attorney’s office. It was there she teamed up with another young lawyer destined for big things.
THOMPSON: “The climate was kind of tough for a woman lawyer back then.”
Jim Thompson is a former governor of Illinois.
THOMPSON: “She was a rare bird out there in the criminal court of Cook County. You didn’t see many women except perhaps as bailiffs or clerks or members of the jury. There were very few women lawyers among the defense bar; very few in the state’s attorney’s office. So she was a first in many ways.”
Justice Rita Garman, the second woman elected to the Illinois Supreme Court, says the climate for women in the law back then was challenging.
GARMAN: “When I would interview, they would say things to me like, ‘Well what would we do with you? Nobody wants to talk to a woman lawyer. No business person’s going to share their business issues with a woman.'”
Although McMorrow was earning the respect of her colleagues in the state’s attorney’s office, there were limits to what she could do. Garman tells a story about a time McMorrow had prepared a case that was being appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court. She worked on the briefs, but her supervisor told her:
GARMAN: “We do not allow women to argue before the Illinois Supreme Court.”
Times do change. McMorrow was elected to the Cook County trial court in 1976 and ten years later won a seat on the Appellate Court. She lost in her first campaign for the Supreme Court, but won in 1992. At least 35 other states elected a woman to their supreme courts before Illinois. Garman, the second woman elected to the Illinois Supreme Court, served with McMorrow for more than three years, and at one point, they noticed something unusual about their docket.
GARMAN: “More of the advocates that we had that week for oral argument were women lawyers than male lawyers. We kind of commented on that to each other about how times had changed.”
And the times would keep changing — today on the Illinois Supreme Court, three of the seven justices are women. Beyond the professional accolades, friends and colleagues remember McMorrow as a kind but committed advocate. Justice Anne Burke succeeded her on the Illinois Supreme Court, and says McMorrow was a mentor and dear friend.
BURKE: “Because of her personality — she was fun-loving, she was honest, moral, ethical — she garnered great respect. And she didn’t carry a chip on her shoulder at all. And she just moved forward with the greatest of ease.”
McMorrow might have made it look easy, but she worked hard for her success.
McMORROW: “Every vacation that I have had involved taking about one-third of my luggage space filled with briefs. It’s busy, I worked hard.”
This is from a 2006 interview with the Illinois Channel, shortly before McMorrow retired from the supreme court. She said hard work was important …
McMORROW: “But more importantly I think I was very blessed in being in the right place at the right time.”
Of course, being in the right place at the right time only gets you so far. Once again, former Gov. Jim Thompson.
THOMPSON: “You might get to an initial position as an assistant state’s attorney, because it was a political appointment back then. Or you might get to a first position as a circuit court judge, because it certainly was a political appointment back then — still is today. But you don’t advance. You don’t climb the ladder. You don’t become the chief justice of Illinois without extraordinary talent.”
On the occasion of her death, McMorrow is being remembered as a pioneer in the law. A woman who persevered to overcome adversity and beat the old boys club, forcefully making way for equality in her field. McMorrow did not shy away from her accomplishments, but had a somewhat more nuanced take on her career.
McMORROW: “It was fun, it was challenging. The men were very open and receptive to me. I experienced very little discrimination, very little. Much depends upon the person, I think. You can accomplish a great deal without being confrontational.”
McMorrow died over the weekend after a brief illness. She was 83.
— Brian Mackey