A lot has changed since Virginia McDermott started law school.
A lot has changed since Virginia McDermott started law school. The country made it through the Great Depression, television entered the home and man set foot on the moon.
While McDermott graduated from law school in 1939, she continues to practice today at the age of 90, despite being legally blind.
McDermott specializes in tax law, including trusts, wills and real estate law. Her blindness came on suddenly eight years ago when she was struck with a degenerative eye disease, but it doesn’t stop her from working in her Medford home with a part-time paralegal and a secretary she’s hired.
Although she’s has cut back her work schedule in recent years, she still maintains a half-dozen clients.“I have more than enough work to keep me busy,” she said.
McDermott’s career began at a time when few women jostled their way into the male-dominated work world. She became one of those few, working at several Boston law firms, holding office in professional clubs and starting her own office — all the while pioneering for women’s equality.
“It was very necessary then to push for women’s equality laws,” said McDermott. “I can be pushy if I want something, but that was not the way to get laws made. I used honey instead of vinegar.”
McDermott was born on Sept. 4, 1917 to John Joseph Morrissey of South Boston, and Anastasia Houghton Murphy Morrissey of Winchester. The family lived in Medford, and as a plucky teenager in the early 1930s at St. Clement High School, McDermott questioned why girls were not allowed to take algebra.
She and a classmate approached the head nun about taking the math class.
“We said that if we couldn’t beat all the boys in three months, we’d quit,” said McDermott. “We knew we’d get the highest marks in the class.”
McDermott did just that, and graduated from St. Clement second in her class. She then expressed the desire to attend law school to her parents.
“My father stared out the window for 10 minutes,” said McDermott. “Then he said, ‘Well, if you want to, I think you have the brains. Go do it.’”
Portia Law School (now the New England School of Law) was the only law school exclusively for women at the time. McDermott enrolled, and rose in the student rankings, again graduating second in her class. She was editor of the school newspaper and the legacy book and president of the Newman Club. She also took classes part time at Boston University.
During law school she worked in the legal advertising department of what was then the Herald Traveler. She asked about joining the Newspaper Guild union, and quickly became its first female secretary.
“That started her career helping women climb the ladder of equality,” said McDermott’s secretary, Mary Mitchell, 50, of Arlington. “She did a lot for you and I.”
McDermott took the bar exam in June 1939, and did so well on the written portion that she did not have to take the oral. She was hired at one of Boston’s top law firms, Herrick, Smith, Donald, Farley, & Ketchum where she worked for many years.
Though her ambition and hard work led to professional success, it took a toll on McDermott’s health. She was hospitalized for several months, likely from working too hard.
“The doctor asked me who in my family pushes me so hard,” she said. “I said, ‘I push myself.’”
McDermott said she was motivated to succeed because she wanted to be as smart as her brother, John Joseph Morrissey Jr. McDermott suspects her brother, two years her junior and an intelligence officer in the Army during World War II and the Korean War, had a photographic memory.
“He didn’t have to crack a book,” said McDermott. “I studied like hell.”
Next she joined Curry, Mowles, & Murdock, a trio of female lawyers and simultaneously ran her aunt’s silver distribution business for two years.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, McDermott was elected president of the Massachusetts branch of the Business and Professional Women’s Club. She was a national representative and spent countless hours lobbying for women’s equality at the Massachusetts State House and in Washington D.C.
“Through all these jobs, she worked on every committee she could for equal rights for women,” said Mitchell. “I stand in awe from the first day I met her.”
In 1969, at age 50, she married Jim McDermott. The pair had known each other since she was 17, and were weekly Saturday-night dance partners as adults.
“I was never married before that,” McDermott said. “I was just too busy doing everything else to think about it.”
When her husband developed Alzheimer’s disease in the early ‘90s, McDermott moved to an office in Davis Square to be closer to home to take care of him. Jim McDermott died in 2000, and McDermott began to work from home not long after.
In October, McDermott celebrated her 90th birthday with her niece and nephew, godchildren and friends. She looks back fondly on her career that has spanned seven decades.
“I’ve really enjoyed myself,” she said. “I’m grateful to the good Lord for the journey I’ve had.”