Women’s inexorable march toward equality in politics and government in this country has been one of small steps, and there have been many obstacles to overcome. Sometimes in looking back, it is …
Women’s inexorable march toward equality in politics and government in this country has been one of small steps, and there have been many obstacles to overcome. Sometimes in looking back, it is difficult to believe that certain milestones along the journey took so long to achieve.
For example, it wasn’t until 1937 that women were eligible to serve on juries in New York State.
In Sullivan County, no woman sat on a jury until December 2 of that year, when Freda Mueller of Livingston Manor was selected to serve in a Sullivan County Court case in Monticello.
The historic occasion of Ms. Mueller’s selection was recorded for posterity in the minutes of the court by Deputy County Clerk J. Maxwell Knapp, who was filling in that day as court clerk for his boss, County Clerk J. Bruce Lindsley.
“Knapp Records Historic incident in Minute Book” the Middletown Times Herald newspaper proclaimed in a December 3, 1937 article under the headline, “First Woman Juror in Archives of Court.”
“The seating of the first woman on a Sullivan jury yesterday provided occasion for J. Maxwell Knapp, deputy county clerk, to undertake some historical recording,” the article began.
“In the book, he set down for posterity: ‘This case is of historical interest in that it is the first action to be tried in Sullivan County in which a juror representing the fair sex was chosen to hear and determine the issue.’”
The path that led to Ms. Mueller’s historic moment was a long and circuitous one. Although women had gained the right to vote in New York State nearly two decades before, there was no clear understanding that the right to be a trial juror was included, and the movement to gain that right is sometimes looked upon today as a “second suffrage campaign.”
Interestingly, during colonial times in North America, women were occasionally called upon to make up what had been called in English common law a “jury of matrons” to offer expertise in trials involving pregnant women. However, while the U.S. territories of Wyoming and Washington had given women the right to serve on juries in the 19th Century, and Utah became the first state to do so in 1898, most states still barred women from serving on juries even after they had won the right to vote on a national level in 1920.
On May 24, 1937, New York State finally granted women the right to sit on juries, passing legislation to take effect on September 1 of that year. At the time, more than 20 states had still yet to do so.
The situation was complicated, and the transition to women serving on juries was not at first a smooth one. Since each of the 15 towns in the county were required to prepare a list of eligible jurors from town tax rolls in July—at which time women were still barred by law from consideration-- and that list was submitted to the county for use during the court term beginning in September—when women would be eligible—the question of whether women should be included on the list became a hot topic.
Fallsburg town clerk Mortimer Michaels found the new legislation so confusing he wrote a letter to the state Attorney General seeking clarification. After much discussion—sometimes heated in many of the towns-- only Rockland and Forestburgh ended up including women on their lists of potential jurors that year.
Although now merely a footnote in history, the case Ms. Mueller helped decide was a civil matter involving the Parkston Hotel in Livingston Manor, which had been sued by a Philadelphia man who claimed they owed him for hotel equipment they said they had already paid another vendor for. The man’s claim was discredited by several witnesses, and the jury found in favor of the hotel.
Nor did Ms. Mueller’s historic tenure as a juror pass without incident. For one thing, the court case had to be delayed for 20 minutes that first day because she was late to arrive at the Courthouse. It was later revealed that she had been in an automobile accident in Harris on her way to report. The car in which she was riding, which was driven by another town of Rockland woman reporting for jury duty that day, Anna Portz of Roscoe, was struck by another car on Route 17.
Interestingly, Ms. Mueller later filed suit in state Supreme Court against the driver of the other vehicle, Gideon Hornbeck of Harris, asking for $3,000 in damages in compensation for the injuries she had received. The case was settled for an undisclosed sum. In the June 13, 1938 newspaper article about the settlement, the Times Herald identified Ms. Mueller as “Sullivan’s first woman juror.”
John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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