Catherine England, who overcame obstacles in Long Island's male-dominated legal establishment more than 60 years ago and went on to become the first woman to serve as a Suffolk County Supreme Court justice, has died. She was 97.
England died Thursday at her home in Cold Spring Harbor after a brief illness, her family said.
Raised in Manhattan and Queens, England graduated from Fordham Law School at age 22 in 1938. She finished in the top 5 percent of her class of 100 students and served on the school's law review board. But no law firm would hire her, her family said.
"Because she was so bright, she really felt she had to do something special in her life," said her daughter Donna England of Cold Spring Harbor, who serves as second vice president of the Suffolk County Bar Association. "And she did."
There were many obstacles to overcome first. The Nassau County Bar Association denied her admittance in the late 1940s because its charter flatly prohibited female members.
Instead, she joined the Nassau County Women's Bar Association, which met in members' homes.
After law school, Catherine England's mother bought her a dress for an interview at the prestigious White & Case law firm in Manhattan. When England got off the elevator and told a female receptionist she was there to apply for a job as a lawyer, the receptionist said: "I'm telling you now that we've never had a woman attorney and never will have," England told Newsday in 2001.
England landed a job practicing law with the federal government, which at the time was a refuge for female and minority lawyers. She tried conscientious objector cases, her family said.
She started her own law firm in Hicksville in the 1940s, and would later practice with two of her children: Donna England and Louis C. England, past president of the Suffolk county Bar Association.
After earning a reputation as a brilliant, tough-as-nails lawyer and overseeing Suffolk's Family Court, England was appointed to the county Supreme Court in 1982.
Breaking more barriers, she became the county's first female president of the bar association in 1983.
She is predeceased by her husband, Chauncey L. England, who died in 2005. In addition to her daughter and son, survivors include another daughter, Karen Cooper, of Cold Spring Harbor; a sister, Marie Reed, of Washington D.C.; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be offered at 9:45 a.m. Tuesday at Church of St. Patrick, 400 W. Main St., Huntington, followed by burial at the church cemetery.