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From Barred to Bar: The Unsinkable Rise of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association

Updated: Jan 9, 2021

It’s December in Denver, and the halls of the Crawford Hill Mansion are dressed in their finest to welcome members of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association (CWBA) to the organization’s annual holiday party, at which the recipient of the Mary Lathrop Trailblazer Award is traditionally revealed. The Award, initiated in 1991, recognizes exemplary women lawyers doing particular justice to their foremother, Mary Lathrop, whose milestones in the legal profession include: being the first woman to open a law office in Colorado (1897); the first woman to argue before the Colorado Supreme Court (1898); the first woman to join the Colorado and Denver Bar Associations (1913); the first woman to be admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court (1917); and one of the first two women to join the American Bar Association (1918). Among the “notorious” women to have received the award is U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the CWBA’s 1,000th member. The location of the announcement is remarkably fitting, for a decade after Lathrop hung out her shingle in Denver’s Equitable Building, the Crawford Hill Mansion stood as the Mile High City’s social capitol, famed for initially excluding Margaret “Molly” Tobin Brown, the celebrated feminist of RMS Titanic renown. While Brown, who likely encountered Lathrop, never pursued a legal career (even after helping establish a national juvenile court system), it is certain that she would have approved of the presence of hundreds of CWBA members assembled in the mansion from which she had once been barred, similarly unsinkable in their commitment to advancing the status of women in society in a manner that had nothing to do with the objectification of the female sex.

August 1994 photo of CWBA members and Colorado female judges with Judge Stephanie Kulp Seymour, United States Circuit (then Chief) Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Seated, left to right: The Hon. Patricia Clark, The Hon. Stephanie Seymour, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, The Hon. Danielle Tacha, and The Hon. Zita Weinshienk.

Standing, left to right: The Hon. Lynne Hufnagel, Janet Seybert, The Hon. Janice Davidson, The Hon. Ruthanne Polidori, The Hon. Roxanne Bailin, The Hon. Marguerite Langstaff, Susan Sanders, The Hon. Claire Fisch Mootz, The Hon. Mary Mullarkey, The Hon. Cheryl Post, The Hon. Nancy Hopf, The Hon. Nancy Connick, and The Hon. Linda Palmieri.

The CWBA Marks 40 Years

Forty years after filing its Articles of Incorporation with the Colorado Secretary of State on June 1, 1979, marking its official formation as a nonprofit, the CWBA continues to be the largest diversity bar association in Colorado, with nearly 1,300 active members, most of whom are in the Denver metro area.

In the five years leading up to this anniversary, the CWBA engaged more than 2,000 women attorneys in its critical program of work. The CWBA’s mission remains unaltered since the organization’s inception in 1978: “to advance women in the legal profession and the interests of women generally.” In the words of 2012–13 President Patricia Jarzobski, who sparked a 150% increase in membership over a half decade and modernized communication methods, “The CWBA is a powerhouse bar association that has launched countless women into leadership positions.” In 2016, she became the fifth woman in 119 years to be president of the Colorado Bar Association. Even if times have changed since the days when Past President (Judge) Theresa Spahn organized potlucks to stir up momentum for the CWBA, finding the fortitude to do what it takes to get the job done is something for which members have always had an insatiable appetite. When the CWBA sponsored an “ASK” breakfast in 2005 to raise money for its impactful lobbyists, $8,000 materialized in the first hour, proving that the sky is the limit to what the organization can accomplish through fruitful collaboration. Likewise, the CWBA recognizes that it must embrace change in order to effect it: In 1997, the CWBA was one of two women’s bar associations to have a homepage on the World Wide Web; in 2006, Vanessa Walton became the first woman of color to be president of the CWBA; and in 2018, the organization embarked on a strategic plan prioritizing, among other objectives, increasing the diversity and retention rate of its membership by 2020.

The need for a women’s bar association in Colorado has not diminished, as women’s issues remain a battleground to be conquered. The CWBA offers women attorneys an inter generational forum for championing the elimination of affinity bias, discrimination, intimidation, and other roadblocks to achieving their goals. Since 2012, the organization has also focused on facilitating meaningful networking and mentoring sessions for young women lawyers. A 1998 careers and compensation study found that the average net income for full-time female attorneys in Colorado was 59% of that of their male counterparts. Twenty years later, McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2018 indicated that though companies profess to be committed to gender diversity, desired outcomes are lagging. More disturbingly yet, in 2019, the World Bank reported that only six countries currently give women and men equal rights—and the United States is not one of them. Addressing the UN Commission on the Status of Women, which Titanic survivor and barrister Elsie Bowerman helped form, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a pushback against the recent “pushback” on women’s rights. As the #MeToo, Time’s Up, and HeForShe movements shake up patriarchal power structures, the possibility of a society where women can “have it all” (or all that they want)—and get paid the same, too—presents the CWBA with an opportunity to shape the course of the future for women in the legal profession and beyond. Fueled by this boundless energy, the organization was the driving force behind the introduction of the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act in the Colorado General Assembly on January 18, 2019.

Today, the CWBA has eight chapters outside of the Denver metro area and offers a spectrum of committees dedicated to supporting women in the law and the welfare of all women: The Convention Committee plans the Annual Convention; the Judicial Committee assists qualified women in applying for judicial positions and openings on judicial nominating commissions and also provides extensive feedback to the governor on judicial nominees; the Legal Services Committee simplifies participation in public service; the Membership Committee stimulates greater engagement in the CWBA within the legal community and hosts social events; the Professional Advancement Committee works to advance women in the legal profession and presents the annual Mary Lathrop Trailblazer Award; the Programs Committee develops informative programs and CLE workshops, including the annual Tea and CLE, Moms Luncheon, and educational trips to Cuba; the Public Policy Committee coordinates with the CWBA’s paid lobbyists to support and oppose proposed legislation; the Publications Committee enlightens members about activities and projects through the organization’s website, quarterly newsletter (The Advocate), The 1891 blog, and social media; and the History Committee works to preserve the CWBA’s past and present for future generations. The CWBA recognizes that to promote a more just society, a woman’s place should be everywhere, from the legislature to the bench. Colorado is a role model in this respect, as women now make up 45% of the Colorado General Assembly—the highest proportion of any legislature in the nation—and represent 37% of the state’s judges. While these benchmarks indicate how far women in the state have come, gender parity remains a call to action rather than an actuality.

Agents of Change

The rise of the CWBA is inextricable from Colorado’s history of pioneering women in the law. According to most sources, the first woman licensed to practice law in the Centennial State was Mary S. Thomas, who, in 1891, successfully petitioned the State of Colorado for the right to practice law, making Colorado the 25th state to enable women to take up the profession. Though American women would have to wait until 1920 to vote in federal elections, in 1893, Colorado became the first in the nation to use a state referendum to pass women’s suffrage into law. Prior to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, Colorado had opened a number of other doors to women. In 1894, Clara Cressingham, Carrie Holly, and Frances Klock were elected to the Colorado House of Representatives, becoming the first women to be elected to any legislature in U.S. history.

Published portrayals of early women lawyers reveal how Coloradans of the era perceived women who exercised the brilliance of their minds to uphold the rule of law. On April 20, 1897, the Denver Daily News formulated an impression of Ms. Liebhardt, the first female attorney in Arapahoe County criminal court, giving equal weight to her physical appearance and her polished performance: “Woman as a criminal lawyer; attractive feature added to the commonplace surroundings of the West side court; Made a good address; Just like a man lawyer.” The following year, an article in The Denver Times focused its headlines on Mary Lathrop’s intellectual abilities: “New woman in court; Lady lawyer appears in an important litigation before [the] Court of Appeals.” The article concluded that the “businesslike manner in which she performed the work showed that . . . she knew just what she wanted and how to get it.” A medallion on Denver’s 17th Street—the “Wall Street of the Rockies”—preserves her unflinching maxim for future generations: “I’m either a lawyer or I am not. Don’t drag being a woman into it.” Had Lathrop not moved to Denver in 1887 to recover from an illness contracted during her journalistic career, she would never have made history in the same way for Colorado’s women attorneys.

In the 20th century, women lawyers continued to defy the limitations imposed on their private and professional lives. The commitments of motherhood and “lawyerhood” were not entirely incompatible. In 1911—the year that witnessed the first International Women’s Day—Lydia B. Tague, a widow raising five children, was appointed as the first female judge in Colorado and possibly the nation. Nonetheless, gender-based discrimination endured. When Norma Comstock became the first female president of the Denver Bar Association in 1965, she was prohibited from attending the annual membership picnic because it was a “stag party.” Three years later, after applying to the FBI and receiving multiple rejections, Sandra Rothenberg was informed that “our Special Agent position must be limited to males.” Undaunted, the future president of the CWBA showcased her stamina as the lead plaintiff in a historic class action lawsuit alleging sexual discrimination by the FBI. Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which established the illegality of discrimination on the basis of sex, the status of women in the legal and political spheres remained so lackluster that Pat Schroeder—the first woman to represent Colorado in Congress—had to share a single chair with the first black member of the House Armed Services Committee. The infamous “bathroom excuse” fortified skyscrapers’ glass ceilings as firms resorted to citing the nonexistence of a ladies’ room to veil their resolve not to hire women lawyers. Yet Colorado women persisted and prevailed: In 1974, Aurel M. Kelly became the first woman appointed to the Colorado Court of Appeals; in 1977, Christine Arguello (now a federal judge) became the first Latina admitted to Harvard Law School; and in 1979, Jean Dubofsky became the first woman appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court.

A Bar Is Born

Despite the many strides that Colorado women lawyers made from 1891, when they secured the right to practice law, to 1979, the year when the Susan B. Anthony dollar entered into circulation, perhaps their greatest achievement lies in the formation of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association. On January 19, 1978, Natalie Ellwood and 18 other women lawyers, similarly fed up with the status quo, convened in her law office’s basement to discuss the need for an independent power base in Colorado that promoted women in the law and the judiciary. As there was no debate as to whether such an organization should exist, the meeting concluded with Jo Ann Weinstein, who had been appointed temporary treasurer, collecting $10 from 17 attendees, amounting to $170 in dues. To put it more poetically, these women were, in their own way, fulfilling the call to action that Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of feminism, had issued in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792): “I do not wish [women] to have power over men, but over themselves.”

The first 17 CWBA Presidents gather at the 1995 Past Presidents Dinner (seated in order of the year they served, starting with bottom front row, left to right).

First row: Natalie S. Ellwood, 1978 – 1979; Sandra I. Rothenberg, 1979 – 1980; Connie L. Peterson, 1980 – 1981; Lynne M. Hufnagel, 1981 – 1982; Diane (Myndie) Brown, 1982 – 1983; Suzanne Saunders, 1983 - 1984

Second row: Leslie M. Lawson, 1984 – 1985; Elizabeth (Beth) H. McCann, 1985 – 1986; Helen C. Shreves, 1986 – 1987; Wendy W. Davis, 1987 – 1988; Barbara Salomon, 1988 – 1989; Jo Ann Weinstein, 1989 – 1990; Gina B. Weitzenkorn, 1990 – 1991; Marla J. Williams, 1991 -1992

Third row: Pamela A. Gagel, 1992 – 1993; Mary M. Phillips, 1993 – 1994; Diana M. Poole, 1994 – 1995

At the next meeting on March 2, 1978, the discussion returned to the pressing question: What were they to call the organization? The Bylaws and Constitution Committee had already thrown out, among other suggestions, “Amici Curiae” and “Colorado Women’s Law Caucus.” While some were concerned that the phrase “women’s bar association” would anger male attorneys, others concluded that “those who wish to view it benevolently will see it that way regardless of the name.” The case of Colorado Women’s Bar Association v. Some Other Name ended with a vote of 25–13 in favor of the use of Colorado Women’s Bar Association. Temporary officers were elected to serve for an initial period of three months, at which point a convention was to be held outside of Denver at a date, time, place, and expense that would be left to the recommendations of the Convention Committee.

On July 22 and 23, 1978, approximately one-eighth of the female attorneys licensed to practice in Colorado ascended to Keystone to form their own bar association. The first Annual Convention of the CWBA attracted 105 attorneys and 15 law students. Acting President Natalie Ellwood called the meeting to order, paving the way for numerous motions to be made. Following a cookout lunch, Barbara Allen Babcock gave the keynote address. The event culminated in the unanimous election of the CWBA’s first official cohort of officers: Natalie Ellwood (president); Frances Koncilja (vice president); Sandra Rothenberg (secretary); Jo Ann Weinstein (treasurer); and Kathy Bonham (parliamentarian). The Annual Convention continues to represent a calendar highlight, with the 2018 edition at The Sebastian – Vail attracting record numbers and nationally renowned speakers, including Paulette Brown, the first woman of color to be president of the American Bar Association.

Perhaps the most poignant summation of the impetus for a women’s bar association in Colorado appears in Natalie Ellwood’s article in the November 1978 edition of The Advocate:

At the age of thirty, after five years of practicing law, I suddenly realized that I had had an unrealistic dream about practicing law and being a woman. By the age of 34, I was made abruptly aware by an overbearing Denver District Court Judge . . . that the dream was totally unrealistic; and never existed at all. The dream: that since I was a young woman who managed to thread my way through the rigors and boredom of law school, that not only would I be accepted by the lawyer fraternity upon receiving my license, but that I would most certainly pave the way for acceptance in that same community for all women who desired to practice law. Wrong! . . . I saw that when a female attorney entered the courtroom she was scrutinized by the male attorney with an eye I have never seen cast upon another male both in terms of ability and physical looks. Finally, I realized that women are definitely treated differently than men in my conservative profession, run and promoted for centuries by males. I also discovered that . . . I yearned for support and companionship from women who shared common goals and ideas with me.

Whereas Ellwood reflected on the past, other early contributors looked to the future with newfound hope. One article recorded 33 women from both major political parties as seeking office; another inclusion articulated the governor’s “desperate need” for the resumes of women attorneys interested in serving on judicial selection committees. A third contribution discussed the minimum continuing legal education requirements for all Colorado attorneys and the CWBA’s resolve to provide accredited programs that shared the expertise of notable women professionals.

By May 1979, Treasurer Jo Ann Weinstein had reported that the organization’s budget was 180 members strong, and Judicial Committee Chair Beth McCann was fortifying women lawyers with her slogan, “You don’t have to be a Superman to be a Judge!” The Public Policy Committee, chaired by Janice Buchanan, was also translating talk into sustained action and had approved a lobbying effort in support of the continuation of Colorado’s Commission for Women. Thirteen years later, in 1992, the CWBA opposed Colorado’s Amendment 2, which would have prevented any city, town, or county in the state from taking any legislative, executive, or judicial action to recognize homosexuals or bisexuals as a protected class. Though Coloradans narrowly voted in favor of its passage, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled it as unconstitutional in Romer v. Evans. Fittingly, it was CWBA member Jean Dubofsky—Colorado’s first female Colorado Supreme Court justice—who, after returning to private practice, was the lead attorney on the case.

From Funds to New Foundations

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor visits Denver in 1988. She is pictured with 1987-1988 CWBA President Wendy Davis (center) and Judi Wagner (right), founder of the Women’s Bank of Denver.

Wagner hired the first woman President and CEO of a bank in Colorado. Following this lead, other banks promoted women to management positions, where historically 80% of bank employees were women and less than 3% were in management. (Woman on far left unidentified – we think it might be the Justice’s daughter).

The CWBA’s philanthropic reach continues to achieve altitude and influence. In 1988, the CWBA established a nonprofit 501(c)(3) charitable fund, now known as the CWBA Foundation. Its mission and purpose are to implement the charitable and educational work of the CWBA. The Foundation’s annual “Raising the Bar” dinner, introduced in 2006, honors women lawyers who have made a difference in the community and “raised the bar” for all women.

Justice Mary Mullarkey, who starred in the CWBA’s 2004 Raising the Bar film, is one Mary Lathrop Trailblazer Award recipient who “raised the bar” in a way that laid the architectural foundations for a new skyline of justice in the state. As the first female and longest-serving Colorado Supreme Court chief justice to date, she has recognized that “the CWBA makes Colorado a better place for women to practice law.” Throughout Colorado’s phases of growth, there was one fixture that troubled her: the overcrowded and outdated justice center. After becoming chief justice in 1998, she found a way to achieve bipartisan support and ultimately secure the funds to pay for the state-of-the-art Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center through court filing fees and federal stimulus money. While a Colorado woman has yet to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told a captivated CWBA audience in 1982 that “[i]f you’d like to come sit with me, I’ll save you a seat.” More than a decade after her departure, the dream lives on.

The Next Chapter

The CWBA’s 40th anniversary as a nonprofit, which coincides with 150 years of women lawyers in the United States, is critical to commemorate, for it presents a time capsule of trials, triumphs, and still more trials for the more than 10,000 active women attorneys in Colorado. As CWBA Foremother Beth McCann—now Denver’s first female district attorney—reflects, “We managed to make it through our growing pains to become a vibrant and important resource for women in the legal world.” With the organization’s enduring relevance and through the support of its amazingly dedicated members, board, and executive director, Kim Sporrer, the CWBA’s next chapter promises to be as novel as was its first.

This article is indebted to the CWBA’s historical records and those Colorado women lawyers who graciously provided their perspectives on the organization’s past, present, and future.


Jessica A. Volz, Ph.D. is a non-attorney member of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association, as well as a widely published author and former editor of the Colorado and Denver Bar Associations’ legal publications, Colorado Lawyer and The Docket. She can be reached at

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