Our founding president, Theresa Doland Cornelius

In anticipation of our 100th anniversary, we celebrate our founding president, Theresa Doland Cornelius. #WLAM100 Ms. Doland Cornelius graduated from Detroit College of Law in 1915.

As a new attorney that year, she was given the opportunity to represent a “penniless” man accused of stealing 70 cans of snuff. She was described as the first “feminine lawyer” to appear in a criminal case in the federal district court in Detroit. The headlines read “Woman Lawyer Opposes a 250-Pound Assistant District Attorney.” The article continued to focus on the size of the attorneys, noting “Miss Dolan [sic] is rather diminutive, and has a gentle voice, but she proved her capability during the trial.”

In 1919, Ms. Doland Cornelius was among the five self-proclaimed “ardent portias” who met in Detroit and organized the Women Lawyers’ Association of Michigan. Ms. Doland Cornelius served as the first president of our organization.

Also in 1919, Ms. Doland Cornelius won a case before the War Labor Board against men who objected to working with women as conductors of Detroit street cars. The news reported that “the fighting girl lawyer.. scored point after point over her opponent.” During arguments, Ms. Doland said: “No reason for depriving these women of their jobs has been advanced in the testimony other than the fact that they are women. This should not be a question of sex, but of ability. No one questions their ability. Personally I’m tired of this question and wish it could be settled here once and for all.”

The men argued that women should not be allowed to work under such deplorable conditions as working until one and two o’clock in the morning, and that such jobs posed a danger to their morality, health and vigor. The men asked if they were to ousted from their jobs by women. Doland responded by pointing out that men are continually taking women’s jobs away from them by taking “her washing and dignif[ying] the work by calling it a laundry” and taking “her knitting in places they call mills.” She also pointed out that the majority of the women she represented were mothers who had no men to contribute to the support of their children. She concluded by asking the board to refrain from limiting the lines of employment in which women may engage.