Who was Maryland’s First Female Appellate Attorney?

By Diane E. Feuerherd

In 2006 and upon the realization that “the State’s history of female lawyers was lost” on members of the Bar and the general public,[1] Judge Lynne A. Battaglia founded The Finding Justice Project, which resulted in extensive historical research and the publication of Finding Justice: A History of Women Lawyers in Maryland Since 1642 (“Finding Justice”).[2]

In the spirit of Finding Justice, I ask – Who was Maryland’s first female appellate attorney?[3]

In the 1920s, The Baltimore Sun credited at least 3 different attorneys as the first woman to argue before the State’s highest court. Each is introduced below:

Grace R. Gerber of Hagerstown was the 8th woman admitted to the Maryland Bar, in 1920.[4] She ran a solo practice from her hometown and ran for the House of Delegates in 1921.[5] On April 5, 1922, she and co-counsel Daniel W. Doub, appeared before the Court of Appeals on behalf of the appellant / wife, in Martin v. Martin, 141 Md. 182 (1922), seeking reversal of the Circuit Court for Washington County’s dismissal of her bill of complaint for divorce.  The case was listed in the “Court Calendar” section of The Baltimore Sun, but there is no further reporting on the oral argument;[6] therefore, it is not known whether Gerber or Doub took the lead in arguing on behalf of Mrs. Martin. Two months later, the Court affirmed, reasoning that Mrs. Martin did not have standing to seek a divorce because she was “not guiltless,” referring to her refusal to have sex with her husband, who in turn abused her and forced himself upon her:  

The testimony in this case shows that shortly after the parties returned to Hagerstown in 1915 the wife, without just cause, refused to submit to marital intercourse with her husband, and that such intercourse took place only when the husband used force to accomplish it, and that a fight always followed a visit of the husband to the wife’s bedroom.

* * *

While the defendant’s conduct, as disclosed by the record, in this case, is most reprehensible and subject to censure, it is clear, on the other hand, that the plaintiff herself is not guiltless, and can have but little standing or consideration in a court of equity.

For the reasons stated, we concur in the conclusion reached by the court below, that the plaintiff (the wife) is not entitled to the relief sought by her bill, and the court was entirely right in dismissing her bill. This conclusion was, in our opinion, in accordance with the evidence and the principles of law announced by the courts as controlling in similar cases.[7]

Unsettling, the Court’s reasoning illustrates the limitations and challenges imposed on women in this era and thereby the likely frustrations of their counsel. After Martin, Gerber continued her appellate work, including divorces,[8] premises liability,[9] real estate foreclosure,[10] and trademark infringement.[11]

Next, Elizabeth F. Vilkomerson was a New York-licensed attorney, who came from New York City to argue one case in the Court of Appeals, on November 21, 1923. The Baltimore Sun reported, “For the second time in the history of the Maryland Court of Appeals a woman lawyer appeared yesterday to argue a case,” and noted Grace Gerber as “[t]he first woman lawyer to appear before the court.”[12]Vilkomerson’s case was Brafman v. Brafman, 144 Md. 413 (1924), an appeal from the Orphan’s Court of Baltimore City that involved whether the decedent, who died intestate, was domiciled in New Jersey or Maryland at the time of his death. On behalf of the appellant / widow, Vilkomerson argued that the decedent resided in New Jersey, where the intestacy law was more favorable and allowed the surviving spouse to receive the full estate.[13]

The Baltimore Sun reported on Vilkomerson’s youthful appearance, physique and clothing, and well as opposing counsel’s failed attempt to rile her:

Called Her “Young Lady.”

She is of slight build, with dark brown hair and gray eyes, which peer keenly from behind gold-rimmed eyeglasses. Apparently she is about 28 years old. She wore a suit of dark blue cloth, covered almost completely by a long velvet cloak with squirrel fur collar and cuffs.

Mr. Wyman failed to irritate her when he referred to her, not as “my learned sister,” but as “the young lady.” But she called Mr. Wyman “my learned brother.”[14]

The Brafman Court ruled against Vilkomerson’s client and affirmed, reasoning that the evidence presented to the Orphan’s Court was insufficient to demonstrate that the decedent had abandoned his Baltimore residence.[15]

Helen E. Sherry of Baltimore was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1923.[16] Sherry practiced law with her husband and later on her own.[17] On November 14, 1928, she argued before the Court of Appeals in Elliott Bldg. & Loan Ass’n of Baltimore City v. Karopchinsky, 156 Md. 302, 144 A. 254 (1929), involving a mortgage declared void for fraud. Sherry filed the action in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City on behalf of the borrowers, the Karopchinskys, and after securing the trial court’s ruling to annul the mortgage, she defended the judgment on appeal.[18] The Court affirmed.

The Evening Sun declared Sherry the “First Maryland Portia to Argue before Body,”[19] and The Baltimore Sun similarly reported that Sherry was the second woman, and first woman from Maryland, to argue before the Court, after New York’s Vilkomerson.[20] Neither article mentioned Gerber. After the Karopchinsky case, Sherry’s notoriety as the first Maryland woman to argue before the Court continued,[21] as did her appellate work, to include personal injury,[22] divorces and family law,[23] and criminal defense.[24]

It may be that referring to each of these women as a “first” is fair, as Grace Gerber was the first to be named counsel of record, but then New York’s Elizabeth F. Vilkomerson and Maryland’s own Helen Sherry were reported as the first women to argue in open court before the Court of Appeals. What is certain is that one blog post cannot provide a full chronology or an in-depth look at the experience of early women attorneys appearing before Maryland’s appellate courts. Nor can one post sufficiently cover the efforts and obstacles to opening the practice of appellate law to all. But it can serve as a reminder that the past can provide lessons and recurring themes to contribute to the larger discussion of improving the profession going forward.

[1] The Hon. Lynne A. Battaglia, “Where Is Justice?” An Exploration of Beginnings, 42 U. Balt. L.F. 1 (2011).

[2] Finding Justice: A History of Women Lawyers in Maryland since 1642 (Hon. Lynne A. Battaglia ed., 2015) (hereinafter, “Finding Justice”).  In the interests of full disclosure, the author (Diane Feuerherd) assisted in the research and development of Finding Justice and previously clerked for Judge Battaglia, from 2011 to 2013.

[3] With a focus on history, this post will refer to the State’s highest court by its former name, the Court of Appeals of Maryland.  To locate the first women who appeared as counsel before the Court, the Maryland Reports (the opinions of the Court of Appeals), which have traditionally included the names of counsel as part of each case’s opinion, were searched via Westlaw. The names of each early women admittee to the Bar (from a list in Finding Justice) were the search terms. The resulting cases were then cross-checked in historical newspapers, including The Baltimore Sun, to confirm that each woman named as counsel of record in the Court’s opinion was also reported by the press in real time as a “first.”

[4] Finding Justice, at 173.  

[5] Jane C. Murphy, “The Role of Political and Social Movements on Women’s Entry into the Legal Profession in Maryland, 1902-1920,” in Finding Justice, at 89, citing “Women Candidate Skeptical of Reform Urge in Politics,” The Baltimore Sun (Aug. 8, 1921).

[6] “Court Calendar,” The Baltimore Sun (April 5, 1922), at 19.

[7] Martin v. Martin, 141 Md. 182, 118 A. 410, 411 (1922).

[8] Wise v. Wise, 159 Md. 596 (1930); Walking v. Walking, 162 Md. 188 (1932); Hamren v. Hamren, 180 Md. 692 (1942); Sollenberger v. Sollenberger, 164 Md. 697 (1933);

[9] Everly v. Baker, 168 Md. 599 (1935).

[10] Mashkes v. Solid Bldg. & Loan Ass’n, 167 Md. 270 (1934).

[11] Hecht Co. v. Rosenberg, 165 Md. 116 (1933).

[12] “N.Y. Woman Argues in Appeals Court,” The Baltimore Sun (Nov. 21, 1923), at 4.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Brafman v. Brafman, 144 Md. 413, 125 A. 161, 162 (1924).

[16] Finding Justice, at 173. In 1923, Helen E. Sherry was one of six women admitted to the Bar that year, marking the first time that more than one woman was admitted in a single year. Id.

[17] Hon. Lynne A. Battaglia, “Women Lawyers in Community, 1920-1940,” in Finding Justice, at 94.

[18] “Is First State Woman Lawyer to Argue In Court of Appeals,” The Baltimore Sun (Nov. 15, 1928), at 30.

[19] Woman Lawyer Wins Appeals Court Case, The Evening Sun (Jan. 18, 1929), at 52.

[20] “Is First State Woman Lawyer to Argue In Court of Appeals,” supra note 18.

[21] Finding Justice, at 95; see also “Baltimore Woman Attorney Helping to Defend Niemoth,” The Baltimore Sun (June 19, 1930), at 26.

[22] Schapiro v. Meyers, 160 Md. 208, 153 A. 27, 27 (1931).

[23] Schneider v. Batey, 161 Md. 547, 157 A. 739, 740 (1932); Harp v. Harp, 198 Md. 485, 84 A.2d 895 (1951).

[24] Niemoth v. State, 160 Md. 544, 154 A. 66 (1931).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: