Friday, May 22, 2020

Stella Akin (1897-1972)

[My annual exam in American Legal History also includes a biographical essay.  Last year’s was on the father-daughter duo Gaius and Jane Bolin; otherwise, I just have my students consider a single person (as here and here).  With the help of Hannah Kim-Miller, Special Collections Librarian at the Georgetown University Law Library, I did pretty well on this year’s subject--an unsung member of "Portia's Deal"--but, as you’ll see, holes remain that require presently inaccessible sources to fill.  DRE]

Stella Akin (1897-1972) was the first of four daughters born to a businessman and his wife (both white) in Savannah, Georgia, a coastal city located across the Savannah River from South Carolina.  She attended public schools and attended a local business college for a year to learn stenography.  In 1914, at age 17, Akin took a job in the law office of D.H. Clark, whom she recalled as “a nice old codger.”  When Clark learned she intended to prepare for the bar by reading law in his office after hours, he voiced his disapproval “with amazing strength and frequency.” In time, however, he came around.  First, he told her she was reading the wrong books and pointed out the right ones.  Next, he started quizzing her on her reading.  At last, he mapped out a complete course of study for her. 

The law was far from an obvious career choice for a female Georgia teenager in 1914.  In 1911, Atlanta newspapers that local courts had refused the admission of a female graduate of the local law school.  In the same year, an attempt to overturn the ban in the state legislature failed.  When, in 1912, the Georgia State Bar Association put the issue on the agenda for its annual meeting, the result was a vote in the negative.  One lawyer opined:
We must rally, men of the Bar of Georgia.  In this State at least, we have kept our profession as a refuge....  In it, we daily strive in forensic combat to settle causes by reason and precedent.  Shall it come to pass that they shall be won by curves and complexions, and lost by our lack of pulchritude?  Jury trials now have their grave faults, yet [they] cannot approach in fundamental catastrophe the grievous hour when languorous eye and scarlet lip shall deprive of liberty and property, or open-work stockings interpret the Constitution.
Not until August 1916, well after Akin commenced her studies, was a bill allowing women to be lawyers enacted.  Georgia women would not get the vote until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.  They would not serve as jurors until 1954.  Still, in December 1917, the day before her twentieth birthday, Akin was admitted to the Georgia bar, the first woman to do so in Savannah.

Akin continued in Clark’s office for two years before opening an office of her own.  She was said to have tried a case two weeks after her admission to the bar.  Her cases included divorce proceedings and the defense of African Americans and whites for crimes ranging from theft to murder.  She also organized the Georgia Equal Suffrage Association and, in 1919, Georgia’s chapter of the Federation of Business and Professional Women.  (She would become a vice president of the national FBPW.)  In 1922, as a representative of the Georgia FBPW, she spoke in favor of a maximum hours law for female industrial workers.  She was an organizer and the first secretary of the Georgia League of Woman Voters.

In May 1923, Akin became the first female member of the Georgia State Bar Association to deliver an address at its annual meeting.  “After practicing law for five and a half years,” she remarked at the outset, “I have been accustomed to hearing clients say almost anything, but I am always glad to hear them say that I am just like a man lawyer.”  She also related what she and her male audience evidently thought was a comical story about the misapprehension of one of her African American clients and included another demeaning joke in the talk itself.  She finally reached her topic-”Women’s Participation in Public Life”-with a quotation from a famous suffragette: “If men know all there is to know about some things, and women know all there is to know about other things, then men and women together know everything there is to know.”  Akin added that women had joined public life “as a unit with men in common citizenship” and that together they would make “this great government of ours a masterpiece.”  Woman’s contribution to that project was pacifism and a harmonious approach to social life.  “War is a crime,” she declared, “and the women of the world intend to see it banished.”  Americans could not “stand alone; we must share in the sorrows of the world.”  Later, writing in the journal of the National Association of Woman Lawyers, she urged female lawyers to take the lead in promoting “the “humanitarian ideals of government, of peaceful adjustments between classes and between nations,” just as “the men of the profession took the lead in the early days of the republic.”

In September 1922, she became an associate in Savannah’s Hitch, Denmark & Lovett, a “well-known firm of corporation lawyers,” consisting of three partners and four associates.  She joined a national bar association for commercial lawyers and developed a substantial practice in insurance, shipping, and other business matters.  Starting in 1928, however, she no longer appeared in the firm’s entry in legal directories.  She continued practicing law in Savannah, however, including the defense of judgments in worker’s compensation cases appealed into state court.

Perhaps she wanted to spend more time on another activity than her position at the firm would allow.  Akin once said, “My only hobby is politics, which I have practiced since I was a little girl in Savannah.”  In her address to the Georgia State Bar Association in 1923, she scolded her audience of male lawyers, for making only sham nominations of female candidates whom they never intended to support.  “That is not real American sportsmanship,” she charged.  “If you depend on the women to elect you to office today-and every candidate knows he must have the woman’s support to win-then you must be big enough to elect her when she runs for office.”

In the Thirties, a publication of the Democratic party claimed that Akin had “plunged headlong into every Democratic presidential campaign since 1924.”  In the 1928 presidential election, for example, she urged Georgia Democrats to vote for Al Smith, even though he was a Catholic, because the Republican Herbert Hoover had, as Secretary of Commerce, ended segregation in the US Census office.  In 1931 she campaigned for Richard Russell, Jr., for governor.  After Russell prevailed, he had Akin named secretary of the state Democratic party.   “An enthusiastic supporter” of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Akin campaigned for the New York governor and sometime resident of Warm Springs, Georgia, in the state’s presidential primary in 1932.  She was a floor leader for Roosevelt forces in the Democratic national convention in Chicago that summer, where she worked closely with Molly Dewson, FDR’s principal organizer of the woman’s vote and later head of the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee, with Russell, who chaired the Georgia delegation, and with FDR’s campaign manager James Farley. 

After Roosevelt won the nomination and then the election and Russell won election to the U.S. Senate, the Atlanta Constitution reported that Akin was slated for “an important position in the Department of Justice.”  This turned out to be that of Attorney in the Claims Division.  A reporter who turned up at her swearing in noted that she wore a jade green hat to set off her “curly red hair,” held a matching green purse, wore “a smart, black and white figured crepe dress,” and spoke “in a low voice, softly southern in its accent.”  A photograph of the occasion pictured her between Attorney General Homer Cummings and James Farley, now Postmaster General and FDR’s chief patronage manager.  “No doubt,” the reporter wrote, Farley “remembered the way Miss Akin tramped up and down Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia during the last campaign and the long hot days and nights at the Chicago convention when Miss Akin worked around the clock.”  Throughout the Thirties, Akin spoke under the auspices of the Democratic National Committee.  She even barnstormed for Roosevelt by plane with a female pilot in the 1936 election.

Akin never married.  “While the other girls in Savannah were entertaining beaux on star-lit verandas,” a profile stated, “Stella was buried deep in law books every night.”  In Savannah, she lived with her mother; in Washington she shared an apartment near Dupont Circle with a sister.  As a lawyer in the Claims Division, she defended the government in suits brought by military officers and enlisted men before the Court of Claims, a five-person, Article I, “legislative court,” created in the nineteenth century to handle private bills seeking compensation that were overwhelming Congress.  It sat without juries and with a procedure modeled on equity rather than common-law courts.  Although she served into the 1940s and claimed not to have experience prejudice in her government career, she was never promoted to Assistant Attorney General for the Claims Division or appointed to the Court of Claims.  In 1934, she did say that women lawyers needed “unfailing industry, perseverance and courage, including the courage of losing a battle gracefully and of waiting months and perhaps years for clients.”

Just when and why Akin returned to Savannah and her activities after she did are unclear, but in 1957 she was appointed to fill an unexpired portion of a term as chief judge of the city’s municipal court.  Asked her opinion of women lawyers, she complained that some evidently could not “forget that they are women and their careers suffer.”  She added, “All we ask … is an equal partnership, based on ability.”  She was reelected twice, but in 1967 a grand jury indicted her for failing to perform her duties, after illness kept her from the bench for much of the year.  She was not tried and retired at the end of her term in 1968.

Sources: Virginia Lee Warren, Pioneering is the Specialty of Stella Akin, Washington Post, Oct. 29, 1934, 10; “Women Told of Work in U.S. Offices,” Washington Post, Mar 3, 1938;Virginia Rishel, “Twentieth Century Minervas,” Democratic Digest 15 (January 1938), 22-24; Stella Akin, “Not Guilty Your Honor,” National Business Woman 6 (January 1923): 9; Stella Akin, “Women in the Legal Profession,” Women Lawyers’ Journal 21 (November 1934): 27-28; Rebecca Davis, “Overcoming the ‘Defect of Sex’: Georgia Women’s Fight for Access to Jury Service,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 91 (Spring 2007): 49-69; History of Georgia (1926), 3: 118-121 (Scroll down for Akin's picture).