168th Commencement: Watch Live
Moving. Uplifting. Thought-provoking. Galvanizing.
Those were the words used to describe the remarks by this year's Kate Stoneman Award recipients: New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood, Patricia E. Salkin '88, and Kelley Ross Brown '91, who were honored April 30 at Albany Law School's 25th Anniversary Kate Stoneman Day for their work in seeking change and expanding opportunities for women within the legal profession. The awards were presented in honor of
Kate Stoneman, the first woman admitted to practice law in New York State and the first woman to graduate from Albany Law School.
For those in attendance, the message was clear: though opportunities for women in law are much greater today than 150, 75, 30, or even 15 years ago, there is still work to be done.
Photos: 25th Anniversary Stoneman Day
Alternating humor, wit, and sagacity, Solicitor General Underwood—the Stoneman Day keynote speaker and Miriam M. Netter '72 Stoneman Award recipient—spoke of her experiences as an up-and-coming lawyer and academic to underscore that point.
Once, she was asked her feelings about "dirty jokes" by a member of a clerkship screening committee at the U.S. Supreme Court. Then, after joining a prestigious law school where she was one of the first women on the faculty, she was charged with starting "a bathroom revolution." In reality, her intentions were far more ordinary. She planned to use the restroom—and notified her colleagues as such—because there was no suitable alternative nearby.
"I thought: my academic career is about to end before it begins, because I will forever more be known only for trying to integrate the bathrooms," Underwood said. "I retired that story for many years, while I set about building my reputation in more traditional ways. I've brought the story out of retirement lately, because—as I believe Ruth Ginsburg says in one of the RBG movies that came out this year—it turns out that every pioneering woman has a bathroom story."
Throughout her career, Underwood has been either the first woman to serve in a role or among the first few. She was the first woman to lead the U.S. Solicitor General's Office and the first woman to serve as Attorney General of the State of New York. She was the first person to bring a nursing infant to a Supreme Court argument, paving the way for other new mothers to do the same. Reflecting on an old
New Yorker cartoon in which one child laments to another that she won't have a chance to be the first woman anything, Underwood said, "Well, those little girls are grown up now, and it's still not too late to be the first woman anything—but at least we are making some progress."
And each step matters. Women's voices are necessary in leadership, in the law, and in society.
"I want to say something about why all these firsts are important," Underwood said. "Women bring to decision-making a distinctive life experience, and then they each use it differently. Part of that shared experience is specifically female, and part of it is the experience of being different, of being the only woman in a room of men, like being the only African-American in a room of white people, and of struggling to be taken seriously."
Those are the perspectives that can change how others see the world, she said.
"That's one of the most important challenges of our times: to bring into the courts and the boardrooms, the executive suites in business and in government, and the academies and all the institutions of our society all the voices—not just token representatives; to hear the voices of the people who are present and those who are not; and to build the bridges that are needed to unite rather than divide our large and diverse state and our even larger and more diverse nation."
Patricia E. Salkin began her remarks evoking the Honorable Judith Kaye, New York's first female Chief Judge, who, in her inaugural Kate Stoneman Day keynote address in 1994, spoke with dismay about how women continued to lag behind men in the legal profession.
"All of us in this room still have much to do to complete the unfinished work that Kate Stoneman and her pioneering colleagues started, and that our fabulous Judith Kaye wanted so profoundly to advance with greater strides than what she was able to witness in her lifetime," Salkin said.
Salkin has been credited for paving the way for and inspiring an entire generation of women lawyers. She is a mentor to her colleagues and a philanthropist who considers investing in students to be a higher calling, funding scholarships at both Albany Law School and Touro College. "We challenge you to do the same. We all have an obligation to support access to education for those who follow us so that they too can be the Kate Stonemans of tomorrow," she said. "We Rise Together."
Salkin—a former faculty member, associate dean, and director of the Government Law Center at her alma mater, Albany Law School—was named the first woman dean of Touro College's Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center in 2012. She has since been named provost of the college's graduate and professional divisions. Her accomplishments are numerous; her protégés incalculable.
"My own journey has been marked with triumphs along the way that I will share, but it is critical for me to point out that no person does it alone," she said. "The greatest contribution one can make as a teacher and scholar is to use our platform to make a positive difference in the lives of people—people we know and countless generations of people we will never meet. When you lift another woman up, there is no telling how high she will fly. The ROI on people—students, alumni, colleagues, family and friends—is the absolute best investment we can make in ensuring a sustainable tomorrow."
At 12 years old, Kelley Ross Brown saw her mother enroll in law school. And she wasn't thrilled, to say the least. It brought a major change in the family dynamic: as the oldest child, Brown felt responsible to pick up the slack. "In short, for a few years, I did not appreciate the life lessons and opportunities that my mother's budding law career was going to provide to me," she said.
Brown's mother graduated in 1982. Her daughter would follow suit, graduating from Albany Law School less than a decade later. Brown's mother was named partner at Harter Secrest & Emery. Her daughter would eventually become a partner at Woods Oviatt Gilman in Rochester.
Brown was the third woman in the firm's history to make partner. But two who came before her had left the partnership for family reasons.
"It troubled me that so many women left the profession, and I was thinking about the various reasons why. It occurred to me that perhaps the common thread as to why women attorneys left the profession for varied and legitimate reasons was because they did not feel supported in whatever way that was important to them," Brown said. "And how lucky was I—I had my mom, who had done what she set out to do and succeeded as attorney.
"I have my own Kate Stoneman."
Brown took it as her mission to pay it forward: to support, advocate for, counsel, and mentor the women attorneys at Woods Oviatt Gilman. She created and led the implementation of the firm's Women's Initiative Program—a sustained effort that has enhanced the culture of the firm and brought quantitative results through mentorship opportunities, policy changes, women-focused marketing, and other initiatives.
"I am pleased to report that since our work started in 2009, we now have eight women partners and twenty-six women attorneys at the firm," she said. "And I intend to see those numbers continue to increase."
For the 25th anniversary, Albany Law School held a contest—the Katheryn D. Katz Student Award—to honor the students who best described, in any medium, how Kate Stoneman has inspired them and what Stoneman would be fighting for today.
Rebecca Wager '19 won first prize for reconstructing—from newspapers and various supplies—Kate Stoneman's dress as a visual representation of the successes and barriers that women within the legal profession have experienced, and the values that would fuel Stoneman's 21st-century intersectional quest for equality. Nihla Zarook '19 won second prize for her children's book,
Kate and the Elephant, which tells the story of Stoneman's legacy in a way that is meant to inspire readers and listeners, both young and grown. The contest was funded by Kate Stoneman Honorary Committee members Elizabeth "Betsy" Katz Toohey and Amy J. Kellogg '02.
Other special touches included a 25th anniversary logo, a commemorative pin, and a group photo of past Stoneman Award recipients. The event was presented in memory of two former keynote speakers: Hon. Constance Baker Motley and Hon. Patricia McGowan Wald.
To learn more about Kate Stoneman, her legacy, and Albany Law School's annual Kate Stoneman Day, visit