March is national Women's History Month, so it's a great time to remember a remarkable woman from Bradley's history: Ellene Winn. In 1957, Ellene became the first female partner in a law firm of any size in the Southeast. She was also one of Bradley's first female attorneys, hired in 1942. A remarkable woman and attorney by all accounts, Ellene's trailblazing achievements helped open doors for other women in the legal field, at both our firm and elsewhere.
Ellene Winn was one of the key women in this country who led the way for other women in the field of law. Female lawyers were rare in the 1940s – and virtually nonexistent in the Southeast.
After earning her undergraduate and master’s degrees, Ellene planned to pursue a Ph.D. in English literature and specialize in teaching or writing with particular emphasis upon Shakespeare. But the Great Depression derailed her studies. She began working in Birmingham and decided to attend the Birmingham School of Law.
Ellene graduated from law school in 1941 – the year the United States entered World War II. With most able-bodied men off to fight, women began taking on positions in previously male-dominated professions.
Ellene breaks the gender barrier
In 1942, the firm (then called Bradley, Baldwin, All & White) hired its first two female lawyers – one of whom was Ellene Winn. Ellene was among the first female attorneys to be employed by any major law firm in any capacity in the Southeast.
The firm informed the women that the return of the male associates from the war could affect their continued employment. But it didn’t take long before the partners realized what an excellent lawyer Ellene was, and she quickly was considered one of the most intelligent and educated attorneys in the firm.
Under the tutelage of Alfred Rose (who later became a named partner), Ellene developed an expertise in the area of public finance. She was a creative lawyer who was innovative in resolving complex issues in public security cases to create new approaches to public financing. Until well in the 1960s, Bradley was the only firm in Alabama whose legal opinion would be accepted by New York firms working on bond issues or public financing matters.
In 1944, Ellene is believed to be the first woman lawyer to argue orally before the Supreme Court of Alabama. The firm made Ellene a partner in 1957 – making her the first female partner in a firm of any size in the Southeast and one of the few in the nation.
Respect and admiration came naturally
With her broad education in both literature and law, Ellene was an erudite and scholarly attorney. She was regarded nationally as an extraordinarily able practitioner, knowledgeable and careful, and a highly skilled writer.
According to her colleagues, she knew all the cases relevant to her specialty by name, citation, facts and legal principles decided. She was also careful in her research and analysis and seldom overreached. Once she reached a carefully reasoned opinion, however, she stood by it with courage and steadfastness. Clients understood that in a tough situation, Ellene would not waver.
Shortly before her death in 1986, Ellene was interviewed by a reporter from the Wall Street Journal who tried to get her to describe the kinds of sex discrimination she had experienced as a female lawyer. Ellene responded that she had never experienced any sex discrimination – that she had been treated with the greatest respect by all who came in contact with her.
One of her male colleagues added: “I have no doubt that this is true. She was a very strong person, and few persons of either sex would have dared to treat her with anything but the utmost respect – which she richly deserved.”
Her legacy continues
The Birmingham School of Law still upholds Ellene Winn as an example of its standards. In the 1950s, the school’s founder, Judge Hugh Allen Locke, supported the school’s female students in founding Alabama’s first chapter of the Phi Delta Delta legal fraternity to promote high standards of scholarship, professional ethics, proficiency and achievement among women in law schools and the legal profession. On the school’s website all these years later, it says: “Birmingham School of Law graduate Ellene Winn lived out those standards when she became the first female partner at Bradley Arant in Birmingham and the first female partner in a law firm in the Southeast.”
While making partner was undoubtedly a proud moment for Ellene, it was an even prouder moment for our firm. By breaking the gender barrier and showing that she was as qualified as any other attorney in the nation, Ellene left a rich legacy for the female attorneys who followed her, both within our firm and elsewhere.
Today, Ellene Winn’s legacy lives on. Bradley's women’s initiative to support the professional development of female attorneys, the Winn Initiative, is named in Ellene Winn’s honor.
Special thanks to Laura Schmid for researching and authoring this insight.