Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 10, 2023

Sweet story: Area’s 1st female lawyer

Attorney Helen Sweet was the first female to join the Chattanooga Bar Association. She became a member after graduating from the Chattanooga College of Law in 1934 at the age of 20. - Photograph provided

History does not always preserve itself in banner headlines, photographs of singular moments in time, or thick tomes packed with exhausting research. Sometimes, history can be subtle and easy to miss.

Such could be the case with a picture that’s only slightly larger than a postage stamp in the board room of the Chattanooga Bar Association.

Hanging on one wall is a framed composite of the head shots of the entire bench and bar of 1935-1936. The collection contains 149 photographs and six in memoriam portraits.

Near the center of row eight is a photograph that’s as unremarkable as any of them. The attorney it depicts is wearing black and sporting a short but neatly combed coiffure – like many of the others. If someone were skimming the rows, they could easily pass by the photo without noticing anything extraordinary.

But if this person stopped and read the name beneath the photo, they would see that the photograph is indeed quite extraordinary. For the subject is not just one of 149 attorneys and judges but Hazel E. Sweet, said to be the first woman to practice law in Chattanooga.

There was likely no headline in the local newspaper the day Sweet graduated from the Chattanooga College of Law in 1934 – a time when women in the U.S. were only beginning to regularly serve on juries – at the age of 20. But she made local history all the same, says her grandson, Charles Schaeffer, a retired teacher.

“Grandmother was a trailblazer,” he says. “She didn’t want to stay home and raise a family, she wanted to practice law.”

Sweet was not the only Tennessee woman who joined the ranks of the legal profession in 1934, nor was a woman becoming an attorney entirely unheard of at that time – even though “the fairer sex,” as a 1936 article in the Chattanooga Sunday Times titled “Women Conquer Business Worlds” put it, was still massively underrepresented.

According to a 2001 booklet from the Lawyers’ Association for Women, the first female attorney in Tennessee was Lutie Lytle, a Black woman who was admitted to the criminal court in Memphis in 1897.

The same publication lists several female law school graduates from Chattanooga before 1934. But Sweet’s picture in the 1935-1936 composite of the bar is the first appearance of a woman in the CBA, which gives Schaeffer solid ground for his claim that she was the first female to practice in the city.

In a 1984 Chattanooga Times article that also identifies Sweet as Chattanooga’s first practicing female attorney, she says she didn’t aspire to the things that occupied most women in those days, such as keeping house and raising children. So, when an uncle, Gus Wood, Jr., offered to pay her tuition to law school, she accepted.

Schaeffer suggests his grandmother’s intelligence was a factor in her pursuing the law as opposed to a customary domestic role. “She was very bright and had a great sense of humor,” he says. “Her personality carried the day.”

At the time, students were not required to earn an undergraduate degree before attending law school, so Sweet enrolled in the local college of law after graduating second in her class at Chattanooga High School, Schaeffer says.

While in law school, she worked as a stenographer for a firm during the day and attended classes at night. Three years later, she graduated and accepted a job at the firm where her future husband, Harry J. Schaeffer, was practicing.

Sweet’s work consisted primarily of wills and estates and real estate law, her grandson says. She also served as the Chattanooga contact for the Federal Land Bank in Louisville, a role that made her responsible for drawing up abstracts of titles for local farmers.

Schaeffer notes that his grandmother entered the practice of law during the Great Depression, when trial work was rare and clients were often unable to pay for legal services. Although his grandmother made a pittance, Schaeffer continues, she never turned away anyone who lacked money.

“One day, a lady from Sale Creek who owned a farm brought her a pound cake as payment,” he recalls.

Although women at the time were making inroads in the legal profession, most lawyers and judges were still men. Along these lines, the Chattanooga Times piece observes that the only woman in most courtrooms was the circuit court clerk.

One might assume Sweet was therefore subjected to a cacophony of male chauvinism, or in the least lacked the respect of her male peers, as she entered practice, but Schaeffer says his grandmother told him that was not the case.

“She made clear everyone was nice to her. There was no, ‘Oh, there’s a woman here,’” Schaeffer says. “The judges were gracious and everyone treated her with respect.”

One story Schaeffer delights in telling implies that his grandmother was no shrinking violent when she did find herself in a courtroom.

“She and grandaddy were in the federal courtroom, where he was arguing a motion,” he begins. “The judge became irritated with my grandfather and said, ‘Mr. Schaeffer, if it wasn’t for your ignorance, I’d hold you in contempt of court.’ And my grandfather jumped to his feet and exclaimed, ‘Your honor, I waive my ignorance,’ and began to reiterate his point.

“My grandmother knew the judge had a bad temper, so she grabbed hold of granddad’s coattails and tried to pull him down into his seat.”

Despite her pioneering nature, Sweet acquiesced to staying at home to raise children when she married Harry Schaeffer in 1938.

Three children followed in lockstep succession over the next three years. Overwhelmed, Schaeffer says, and perhaps struggling against her natural inclinations, Sweet suffered what her doctors at the time diagnosed to be a nervous breakdown.

Schaeffer speculates her illness was something far more debilitating.

“I believe she’d be diagnosed as bipolar today,” he says. “There were no antidepressants back then, so they gave her a strong tranquilizer whenever she had one of her mood swings.”

Schaeffer says his grandmother also received shock treatments.

Despite what Schaeffer calls “the bit of tragedy” in his grandmother’s life, he says she never complained. Instead, he remembers her being a loving grandmother who cared deeply for her family and never wavered from it.

“She enriched our childhoods in many ways because she wasn’t working,” Schaeffer says. “One of my earliest memories is of her reading ‘The Little Engine That Could’ to me. And she took my brother and I to the symphony and taught us to cook.”

Sweet returned to the practice of law in the 1950s after her children were older but never practiced full-time again. Still, the law remained a part of her life, with the Lawyers’ Association for Women booklet noting that she handled her last case – a probate matter – at the age of 79.

Sweet was also active in the community as an early organizer of the Chattanooga League of Women Voters.

Life wound down slowly for Sweet. Schaeffer describes his grandfather’s death in 1963 as a “terrible blow” to her, and says she told him she chose to remain unmarried because no one would be able to replace him.

Sweet lived her final years in a local nursing home and then died in 2007 at the age of 93. The headline of her obituary read, “First Female Lawyer Admitted To Bar In Chattanooga.”

Schaeffer says his grandmother never crowed about being first. But she made history, he says – history that is preserved in not only her tiny photo at the bar association and the newspaper clippings Schaeffer saved but also in the lives of the female attorneys who are walking the trail she helped to blaze.

One of the current vanguards for women in the legal profession is Marcy Eason, an attorney with Miller & Martin in Chattanooga. In addition to serving as president of the Tennessee Bar Association from 2007-2008, she’s a recipient of the CBA’s Ralph H. Kelly Humanitarian Award and the Southeastern Tennessee Legal Association for Women’s 2017 Lioness of the Bar.

Eason met Sweet briefly at a CBA luncheon at The Read House and says she was “beautiful and quietly graceful.” She was also a marvel to the attorneys who knew her history, she adds.

“Imagine how many barriers she overcame to represent clients, both those who could pay and those who could not. For her, and for many of her generation, the law was a profession with obligations to represent those who needed legal help regardless [of their ability to pay for it].

“I have so many questions I would’ve asked her if we’d had the time. How was she able to practice during difficult economic times as Chattanooga grew and shrank? What was practicing during a male-dominated time like? How did she manage to represent her last client when she was 80?”

Attorney Flossie Weill – whose father provided the inspiration for the CBA’s Harry Weill Zealous Practice of Law Award – says her father’s law partners opposed him as he tried convinced them to bring her on as an associate.

“They wondered how a female lawyer could possibly get along with the secretaries and worried that clients would never hire a female attorney,” Weill remembers. “Fortunately, those excuses vanished with time and it was a welcome challenge to be among those female attorneys who began to practice law here in the 1970s.

“What a privilege it has been from day one to jump into the fray and attempt to make a positive difference for those who need legal representation. The variety, intrigue, detective work and mental gymnastics make practicing law a very satisfying career.”

Women have emphatically made great progress as attorneys and judges since people like Sweet first joined the profession. According to the American Bar Association, 38% of all lawyers are now women and women significantly outnumber men in U.S. law schools – to the tune of 12,800 more female students in 2021.

But the trail Sweet and others blazed is not yet complete, says Janie Varnell, a young criminal defense lawyer with Davis & Hoss in Chattanooga.

“The progression of women in the law since 1934 has been nothing short of monumental. Women attorneys are becoming a regular and consistent addition to the bar rather than an exception.

“If you were to look at the membership of our local bar association and compare it with the number of women members 30 years ago, I’d bet those numbers have tripled. More women are running for office or are seeking appointments to the judiciary than ever before and more women are assuming leadership roles in their firms.

“But we still have a long way to go. My colleagues and I are still mistaken for paralegals, court reporters and secretaries. When people see only the last name of a judge, more often than not, they assume that judge is male.

“While we as women in the law know what we can accomplish, it’s time for the rest of the world to catch up. The recognition and appreciation of the power, charisma and strength women bring to the profession is long overdue, but we’re making strides one hearing, trial and brief at a time.”

As Varnell and other female attorneys press forward, they can draw motivation and encouragement from Sweet, who in the Chattanooga Times piece said she refused to hide her light under a bushel.

“My grandmother was an inspiration then and she’s an inspiration now,” Schaeffer says. “Her light will never fade.”