The Pioneer

Virginia Dill McCarty has blazed trails for Indiana women all her life

Published in 2006 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine

By Sally Falk Nancrede on February 14, 2006


When Plainfield native Virginia Dill McCarty was a freshman in high school in 1940, one of her classmates told her, “You like to argue so much, you ought to be a lawyer.”

“It was like a lightbulb going off over my head,” remembers McCarty, who then vowed to make it happen.

That was more than a half-century ago, and back then, women just didn’t go to law school. But McCarty did. And in 1950 she graduated first in her class from Indiana University School of Law–Indianapolis, cum laude, where she was elected to serve as Indianapolis editor of the Indiana Law Journal.

Women didn’t work at law firms back then, either. Again, McCarty broke the mold — eventually.

But it was not an easy road and not a fast track. Long before women’s liberation became mainstream, she pried open doors for today’s female law school graduates. “The law firms might as well have had signs out saying ‘No women allowed,’” recalls McCarty.

Her first job out of law school was with the H.P. Wasson and Co. Department Store, located at that time on the northwest corner of Meridian and Washington streets. Her job: regulating wages and prices. It was during the Korean War, she explains, and the economy was in flux.

McCarty next went to work in the Federal Office of Price Stabilization. When that office closed, she moved on to a stint at a title company. “After that I retired with my first child,” says the mother of two grown children and two grandchildren whose husband died in 1973. “That’s what women did those days.”

But McCarty wasn’t settled down for long before the political arena called to her. “I have been active in politics since age 40 — 1965,” she says, sitting in her office at Landman & Beatty Lawyers with its expansive view of downtown Indianapolis. She quickly rose through the ranks of the local Democratic Party, and people in high places took notice — President Jimmy Carter appointed her the first woman to serve a full term as United States attorney in 1977.

McCarty’s legacy, though, may be the number of Indiana women serving in public office and leadership positions today. To that end, she co-founded the Indiana Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. “The purpose was to get women elected and appointed to office — and it did,” says McCarty.

One of those women was Susan Williams, a mother and restorationist who got involved in community affairs and who was elected to the Indianapolis-Marion County City-County Council. Later she became executive director of the Indiana State Building Commission and headed up the building of the new Indiana State Museum. Williams credits McCarty as a huge influence and once called her “the mother of us all.”

Other strong women in high places who thank McCarty and the caucus include Judge Paula E. Lopossa, Center Township (Indianapolis) Small Claims Court; Judge Patricia A. Riley, Indiana Court of Appeals, Fourth District; and Ann DeLaney, executive director of the Julian Center and the first female nominee for lieutenant governor.

McCarty — who herself made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1984 — is still in the fray. She works four days a week at Landman & Beatty, most recently focusing on commercial real estate and defending discrimination cases. And she definitely sat up when Harriet Miers was nominated for United States Supreme Court.

Miers faced the wrath of conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly and her pro-family Eagle Forum movement — the same names who fought McCarty and the Equal Rights Amendment more than 30 years ago.

Although she stood behind it, McCarty says she wasn’t sure if the amendment would have much effect. “My personal opinion was it was innocuous,” she says. “We already had it. All it would do was give us equal rights as far as the government was concerned but it wouldn’t affect private employment at all, I thought. But it became the battleground for the feminists versus the anti-feminists.”

Despite the failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, McCarty is still heartened by the extent to which equal rights have been realized in the workplace. “We’ve implemented it far more than I thought we would in this time span,” she says. “We see women everywhere. There were just a handful of women lawyers in 1950. And now half the law school enrollment is women. We just added two women to our law firm and we had three, so we now outnumber the men.”

Being a working mother, she says, “often was precarious. It was hard. That’s a problem that’s never quite been worked out, but I think women are doing better now.” At the same time, she warns families, “if the children aren’t raised well by those professionals, we’re in trouble. It’s important to the businesses and the country to raise those children well.”

McCarty’s decades in her profession have left her brimming with advice. To young lawyers, she says to maintain civility. “That’s what lawyers really are for. They’re to stand between the opposing parties that are very passionate and could come to blows. The lawyers’ job is to represent each side competently without resorting to violence. Sometimes civility gets lost.”

Her advice to women takes a page from her own “women need not apply” experience.

“Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it because you’re a woman. Don’t let anyone convince you,” she says. “And don’t forget that what women won is new and fragile.”

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