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Remembering a Pioneering Attorney

Rising Through the Ranks of the Legal Profession

A longtime reader from Albany wants to share memories of her mother, Carolyn Barteau Dissoway, a groundbreaking Long Island attorney.

Recently, Carolyn Liz Dissoway came across a June 29, 1915 story about her mother, one that appeared in The New York Evening Sun, a long-lost afternoon New York City newspaper.

The daughter of a prominent Methodist preacher, a man admired for his memorable sermons, Ms. Dissoway worked as a stenographer and a bookkeeper before becoming an attorney.

When asked by the inquiring reporter why she chose that profession, then-Ms. Barteau said she was “fond of study.”

Editors at The Sun, displaying a literacy that was once common on newspaper staffs, hailed Ms. Barteau as a “modern Portia” in reference to the famous character in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, a young woman who disguises herself as an attorney in order to save the life of the brother of Bassanio, her fiancé. Portia was known not just for her wit, but also for her abilities of persuasion through rhetorical argument. In fact, The New England School of Law was originally named as the Portia Law School when it was founded in 1908 as a female-only law school. That institution may have also inspired The Sun’s headline writer.

The paper profiled the young attorney while she was conducting an auction in Massapequa, one concerning a foreclosure proceeding.

“This was an unusual scene for any part of the world,” the article, written by one Jean Hamilton, observed. “It is typical of scenes to which we are destined to become accustomed, like many others which at first touched the sense of strangeness. More and more are women lawyers becoming acknowledged by the courts for their efficiency in performing duties such as referees, receiverships, guardianships, etc.”

In her interview, Ms. Barteau correctly claimed that the time would come when the state would provide for public defenders as well as public prosecutors.

At the time, Ms. Barteau, as the article noted, was “said to be the only woman to prosecute a criminal case in the State of New York and the only woman on the staff of a District Attorney.”

Her daughter grew up in Port Washington and claimed her mother wore green because it complemented her red hair. Indeed, the article, written in the florid writing style of the day, describes the young Ms. Barteau thusly: “Slender and young, tailored in dark green cloth, she stood there before the gathering crowd of village folk, the sun touching rifts of her gorgeous mass of red hair, putting glints of burnished gold into it.”

Later on, Ms. Barteau married and had two children. “[My mother] was a lot better at her career than at being [a] mother, but she knew that not enjoying motherhood was inappropriate behavior [and so] she pretended to love it.” Ms. Dissoway recalls.

Mostly, Ms. Dissoway fondly recalls her mother’s lifelong love of learning. While in Port Washington, Carolyn worked as an insurance agent to supplement her income as an attorney. She also became well-known in the area for her public talks on a variety of subjects.