Under Santa Fe Skies

by Susan Tungate

National Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day


Chief Justice Pamela Minzner

Happy National Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. Time to applaud some of the women pioneers of New Mexico. These women did not traverse the plains and hurl themselves down gorges to arrive in the mountain desert. No, they climbed a different mountain. These women became lawyers at a time when the culture (ok , men) tried its best to block them at every step.

Let’s first start with the shocking statistic that it took 82 years, between 1892 and 1974, for the first 100 women to be admitted to the New Mexico bar. All of those women faced a rough road.

The  first woman to be admitted to the bar was Henrietta Pettijohn in 1892. New Mexico was still a Territory. Evidently the fine gentlemen of the bar did not believe it possible for a woman to be “well qualified for admission” since those words are crossed out on her bar certification. Sixteen years later Nellie Brewer Pierce was admitted to the bar and proceeded to form the first husband and wife law firm in the state. Katherine Burns Mabry, admitted in 1917, practiced with her husband. Then came Gladys Brice Watts in 1919.Think about this. The first four women to be admitted to the New Mexico bar practiced law prior to even gaining the right to vote. These women had chutzpah!

I have a few favorites on the first 100 list. Mary Coon Walters started off on the well worn path of studying home economics in college but the chain smoking Ms Walters veered off to be an Air Force Pilot in WWII followed by admission to the bar in 1962. Then she added three “firsts” in New Mexico:  the first female District Court Judge, the first female Chief Judge on the Court of Appeals and, in 1984, the first female Justice on the New Mexico Supreme Court. Rumor has it her colleagues did not want her to have the ultimate honor of Chief Justice.

That honor went to the much revered and beloved Pamela Minzner, pictured above, who was admitted to the state bar in 1972. She served as Chief Justice from 1999-2001.

Chief Justice Petra Jimenez Maes, our current Chief Justice, was the first Hispanic woman to become Chief Justice in 2003. She is currently serving her second term as Chief Justice. She and a classmate were also the first Hispanic women to graduate from the University of New Mexico School of Law in 1972, not so long ago.

Each of these women broke ceilings and climbed over barriers, showing us all, young and old, what is possible with focused determination, a drive for excellence and just plain perseverance despite all the ruckus. It was challenging enough when I graduated from law school in Pennsylvania in 1981. My hat is off to them.

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