On Women’s Equality Day, we honor the memory of Grace Day of St. Joseph, Missouri, who blazed a trail for female lawyers in the state of Missouri. Day, who died in August 2016, served as international president of B’nai B’rith Women, JWI’s predecessor, from 1980 to 1982. In the late 1940s, she was the only woman in her class at University of South Dakota Law School and for more than 30 years was the only woman lawyer in St. Joseph. We ran this profile of Day in the spring of 2015, following her retirement at age 86, after practicing law for 64 years.
by Sue Tomchin
When 19-year-old Grace Steinberg Day walked into class at the University of South Dakota law school, the reaction was generally one of amazement, if not open hostility.
It was the late 1940s and she was the only woman in the law school. “At the beginning it was pretty tough,” she says in a phone interview from her home in St. Joseph, Missouri, a city of 80,000 located 50 miles from Kansas City. “They tormented me to get me to quit, but I wasn’t going to quit. I decided I wasn’t going to let it bother me,” she says with Midwestern candor. “It was a different era then. In the East women were probably more common in professional schools, but in the Midwest it was a rarity.”
Day, who retired October 31 at age 86 after being in practice for 64 years, has been a trailblazer throughout her career, refusing to let gender prejudice derail her as she forged a path as a fearless litigator. A member of JWI and its predecessor, B’nai B’rith Women (BBW), since 1950, she rose through leadership ranks to serve as its international president from 1980-82, while still maintaining her busy law practice.
"The men in my law school classes were all older and a lot more mature and worldly than me, since many returned to school after serving in World War II,” she says. “They would try to tell me the dirtiest jokes and stories in order to embarrass me. One guy who always seemed to have a two- or three-day growth of beard would come up to me and give me a whisker rub. I hated it.”
When a class on domestic relations was scheduled to discuss rape, her fellow students took bets that she would be too squeamish to attend. She disappointed them by calmly showing up for class.
Most of the professors didn’t want women in their classes, either, she says. “One especially, made no bones about it,” she says, but by her senior year, when she had a class with him, he gave her an “A.” “I felt as though I had conquered the world,” she says.
Day grew up in the small town of Onawa, Iowa, 40 miles from Sioux City. Hers was the only Jewish family in town. Her father had emigrated from Poland before World War I through the port of Galveston, and sent for her mother four years later. Starting as a shoe repairman, her father then went into the retail shoe business. The family, which included Day, and two older siblings, a sister and a brother, went into Sioux City for synagogue.
Like many Jewish parents of the immigrant generation, her parents valued education. Day earned a scholarship to the University of South Dakota and thrived in her classes, majoring in speech and communications and excelling at debating. After finishing in three years, she decided to go on to law school.
Facing down prejudice in law school steeled Day for what she encountered in the job world. Upon graduation, she moved to St. Joseph, the hometown of husband-to- be Milton Day, whom she had met in college, and began looking for a job. Most local law firms wouldn’t even consider her. At one interview she was even told: “Our clients would never hear of a woman being part of our firm.”
When she finally did get a job, for $50 a month, she soon learned that she would be expected to handle primarily secretarial tasks. In 2005, when Day met with then Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in her chambers, she learned that the Arizona-born judge had had a similar experience in her early career. “No one wanted to hire her as a lawyer either—and she worked as a secretary!”
Day realized that if she was ever going to practice, she had to go out on her own. Though she was newly married, and finances were tight, she went out one day on her lunch hour, found an office and signed a lease. “I had no clients and didn’t know many people so I offered to become a court-appointed attorney for indigent clients,” Day says. There were no public defenders in those years so she was called on often and gained substantial experience in trial work. Though initially “dumbfounded” to see a woman attorney in the courtroom, the judges and other attorneys were always respectful, she says.
Up until the 1980s, in some courts, all women were expected to wear dresses and a sign to that effect was posted. Day recalls a judge instructing a female witness to keep her coat on and roll up her pants legs so they wouldn’t be visible when she was on the stand.
Day decided to specialize in family law, because she liked working with people. And her early clients were all women. “Women were treated so poorly under the law at that time, I felt I could help them,” she says. “In those days, Women had limited rights when it came to court procedures in divorce cases,” she says. “Since most women didn’t work, they were completely dependent on their husbands for what they had. The house, bank account and car were generally in the man’s name. Women would often walk out of court with nothing. If property was held jointly, women had to file a petition to receive their share.” At the time, the preference was to give the mothers custody of small children and child support. The latter however, was “pretty meager,” says Day, “because people weren’t making that much then.”
Word about Day’s tenacious representation of her clients got around, until, finally, after many years, a man sought her out to represent him in a divorce case. “He told me that he came to me because he didn’t want his wife to come to me first,” she says. Ultimately, Day began to represent as many men as women and went on to become, wrote Alyson Raletz in Missouri Lawyers Weekly, one of the most “sought-after domestic lawyers in northwest Missouri,….handling thousands of divorce, custody and paternity matters.”
In her early years in practice, there was only one other woman in the legal field in the city. “She was a magistrate judge. We became friends and she helped me a great deal,” Day says. Other women didn’t start coming along until the late 1970s and the numbers grew in subsequent decades. “I tried to help them and would send them cases when they were starting out,” she says.
As her practice grew, so did the esteem in which Day was held by her fellow attorneys. In 1973, she became the first female president of the St. Joseph Bar Association. In 2011, she was honored as Woman of the Year by Missouri Lawyers Weekly, and appeared on the cover of the magazine in one of her signature hot pink suits. In 2010, she was honored by the YWCA with a Lifetime Achievement Award for “Women in the Workplace.” Over 1,000 people attended the luncheon at which she was honored.
Day practiced on her own for 46 years, working full-time while raising her son, Douglas and daughter, Allison. “I did have excellent help, a woman who worked for me for 35 years, and my husband helped,” she says, but “I made formula and washed diapers,” just like any other mom. Some women friends resented “that I worked when I had small children,” she recalls. “But my children weren’t affected by the fact that I worked and really gave us no trouble,” she says.
Never afraid to stand up for either her clients or herself, after giving birth to her first child, Day became the first attorney to apply for disability benefits. The Missouri Bar subsequently rewrote its policy to specify coverage for childbirth.
Both of her children are now attorneys. “When my daughter was in law school, women comprised half her class,” she says, acknowledging how much things have changed and the strides women have made.
At age 69, Day decided to join a large local firm, which later merged with the national firm Polsinelli. At the time, she had intended to retire in a couple of years and wanted to make sure that her files would be retained; then she stayed another 18 years. She and her husband, Milton, a respected educator, had been married for over six decades when he died last fall.
Day says that her involvement in B’nai B’rith Women gave her opportunities to develop leadership skills, broaden her knowledge, and work on issues she cared about, first locally and later at the regional and national levels. Her professionalism and poise served her well as she mingled with dignitaries such as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Senator Ted Kennedy and renowned opera singer Beverly Sills, whom BBW honored. “I even sat next to First Lady Nancy Reagan at one convention while President Reagan was speaking,” Day recalls.
But more than the dignitaries she encountered, she remembers the women with whom she worked on the BBW board. She recalls how they spoke out passionately for such issues as discrimination against women, reproductive rights, Israel’s status in the U.N., and freedom for Soviet Jews. “They were strong and fearless,” she says.
A compliment, indeed, from a woman for whom gutsiness has been a way of life.