As we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day today, and as we celebrate Women’s History Month, no one exemplifies the accomplishments of women and the Irish more than Florence K. Murray, who distinguished herself in the military, in government, and in the courtroom.
During this month, we have been highlighting women who have played significant roles in our area, from the sports field to politics, the stage and government, from the court room to the board room. They are focused, tenacious, smart, and courageous.
And, on St. Patrick’s Day we are reminded of the struggles of the Irish from when they first arrived in Rhode Island around 1820, often encountering signs, scattered throughout the state, that read “IRISH NEED NOT APPLY.”
The Irish grew in stature in Rhode Island, in all areas, including those that distinguished themselves in government, like the legendary Providence Mayor Joseph Aloysius Doorley (served from 1965 to 1975), and J. Joseph Garrahy, elected as the 69th Governor of Rhode Island, serving from 1977 to 1985.
When the Rhode Island Bar Association established the Florence K. Murray Award, they said of Murray that “by example or otherwise has influenced women to pursue legal careers, opened doors for women attorneys, or advanced opportunities for women within the legal profession…in a distinguished 56 years at the bar (she) pioneered the causes of women in the law as the first woman attorney elected to the Rhode Island Senate, the first woman Justice of the Superior Court, the first woman presiding Justice of the Superior Court, and the first woman on the Rhode Island Supreme Court.”
Florence Kerins Murray was born in Newport in 1916, and graduated from Rogers High School, Syracuse University, and Boston University Law School. She was married to Paul F. Murray, who died in 1995. Florence passed away at her home in Newport in 2004.
She was a trailblazer throughout her career, from the military to the courts.
Murray was a commissioned officer in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, becoming the youngest woman at the time to reach the rank of lieutenant colonel. She was on the staff of Colonel Oveta Hobby, director of the Women’s Army Corps. She left the military in 1947, recognized for her achievements with the Legion of Merit, the Army Commendation Medal, the Women’s Army Corps Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, and the World War I Victory Medal.
Two years after returning from the military, Murray ran for the state Senate in Rhode Island as a Democrat, becoming the first woman to serve in the Rhode Island Senate, a seat she held from 1949 to 1956., when she became – yes – the first woman in Rhode Island appointed as a Superior Court judge.
Twelve years later she was appointed Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Superior Court, and a year later the General Assembly elected her as an associate justice on the state Supreme Court. Yes, she was the first woman to become a Supreme Court justice in Rhode Island. She retired in 1996, after serving more than 40 years as a judge.
In establishing the Florence K. Murray Award, the Bar Association said the actions of candidates for the award should reflect many of Murray’s attribute: “Selfless generosity and mentorship of women attorneys; influence and encouragement of women to pursue legal careers; willingness to offer professional guidance while being a positive role model to women attorneys; support to create opportunities for women in law.”
Murray received many honors, including Boston University Law School’s Silver Shingle Award and induction into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1980. The National Association of Women Judges established the Florence K. Murray Award, “presented to a non-judge who has influenced women to pursue legal careers, opened doors for women attorneys, or advanced opportunities for women within the legal profession.”
The Newport County Courthouse was renamed the Florence K. Murray Judicial Complex in 1990…and, yes, it was the first time a courthouse in America was named in honor of a female judge.