Mary Ross, Early Leader of Female New York Lawyers, Dies at 102

Mary R. Cowell Ross, a former president of the New York Women’s Bar Association who got her break in law because of the shortage of men in the civilian workforce during World War II, has died. She was 102.

She died on Feb. 2 at her apartment at the Pierre Hotel in New York City, according to a death notice published today in the New York Times. She lived on the 24th floor overlooking Central Park at 61st Street and Fifth Avenue, according to a 2003 profile in the Omaha World-Herald.

On her way to becoming the 14th president of the New York Women’s Bar Association, from 1955 to 1957, Ross led its committee for equal opportunities. In a speech wrapping up her two-year term, she reported that women being turned away from law firms remained a “common occurrence” and that female lawyers were paid less than men and had slim chances of becoming partner, according to a New York Times article.

She told the World-Herald newspaper that she couldn’t recall any personal sting of sexism.

“I don’t remember feeling terribly bad about being a woman,” she said, according to the Omaha, Nebraska-based newspaper. “I was not oriented to be a secretary or anything. I was very happy to let the world go by as long as I could find my niche.”

An Oklahoma native who also lived in Nebraska, Ross donated $3.5 million to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for creation of a movie theater that now carries her name.

Minister’s Daughter

She was twice married. Her second husband, John O. Ross, was founder of the J.O. Ross Engineering Corp. of New York and, following a merger, had been chairman of Midland-Ross Corp. He died in 1966.

Ross was born Mary Riepma in 1910 in Oklahoma City, according to the death notice. Her father, Sears Riepma, was a Protestant minister whose work brought the family to communities including Olathe, Kansas, and then to Lincoln, Nebraska, according to the World-Herald.

Ross began her college studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and graduated from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1932. She worked as a department store buyer in Lincoln, then as a legal secretary in Springfield, Missouri, before enrolling in what today is the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. She earned her law degree in 1938.

She worked in Washington for the federal government during World War II, chiefly in the branch of the Justice Department that disposed of enemy-owned property in the U.S.

Private Practice

She moved to New York in 1946 to work for a predecessor of law firm Rogers & Wells, which in 2000 became part of London-based Clifford Chance LLP. Her specialty was wills, trusts and estates. She left Rogers & Wells in 1961 to go into private practice.

“Mary was instrumental in the expansion of our organization and was a much-loved contributing member for more than 40 years,” Elizabeth Bryson, a past president and current board member at the bar association, said today in an interview.

She recalled Ross and another early president of the association, Florence Shientag, who died in 2009 at 101, as “glamorous” figures who made newspaper society pages yet reached out to help “women who got the opportunity to go to law school but did not come from money.”

A brother and three sisters predeceased her.