Vivian V. Simpson

Vivian V. Simpson, 1949.  Simpson had a professional photographer photograph her shortly after she became Secretary of State.  Courtesy of Christine V. Simpson, Peerless Collection.

Vivian V. Simpson, 1949. Simpson had a professional photographer photograph her shortly after she became Secretary of State. Courtesy of Christine V. Simpson, Peerless Collection.

By Mary A. van Balgooy
Fall 2013

Vivian V. Simpson, one of the original tenants of the Suburban Trust building at 255 North Washington Street, is an exceptional woman whose story illustrates how one woman fought for equality and overcame gender barriers in the male-dominated world of law and politics in Maryland.  Simpson’s many accomplishments include first woman lawyer in Montgomery County, first female attorney for the Board of County Commissioners in Montgomery County (now County Council), first woman president of the Bar Association of Montgomery County and first female Secretary of the State of Maryland.

Simpson was born in 1903 to Laura and Joseph Simpson.  Her father, a merchant, moved the family from Virginia to Takoma Park where Vivian grew up.  In 1921, Simpson enrolled in the University of Maryland where women were still a relatively new part of the campus.  It was only five years after the first woman had been admitted and by 1922 only ninety-three women attended the University.  Simpson excelled in college but she challenged rules for women that did not apply to men such curfews and requesting permission to leave campus.  When she openly complained, the University of Maryland labeled her a troublemaker and refused to readmit her the following year.  Simpson took the university to court and won her case but it was overturned on appeal.  In the interim, she transferred to George Washington University, graduated from its School of Law with high honors, and received the Order of the Coif, an honor for academic achievement.

Vivian Simpson opened her first law office in 1928 in Rockville’s Town Hall on Montgomery Avenue. Completed in 1882, the two-story Town Hall included a four hundred-seat auditorium on the second floor, a stage, balcony, and dressing rooms, a ticket office on the lower level and seven leased offices. In 1935, the building was razed to make room for a new office and apartment building.  Peerless Collection.

Vivian Simpson opened her first law office in 1928 in Rockville’s Town Hall on Montgomery Avenue. Completed in 1882, the two-story Town Hall included an auditorium and a stage, a ticket office and seven leased offices. In 1935, the building was razed to make room for a new office and apartment building. Peerless Collection.

Admitted to the Maryland Bar on April 3, 1928, Simpson opened a law practice that same month in the Town Hall in Rockville (now demolished) to be close to the courts.[1]  Opening a solo law practice is challenging, but in 1928, it was extraordinary for a young woman.  Female lawyers accounted for less than two percent of the field in the nation.  Indeed, she was the first woman lawyer in Montgomery County.  This achievement would be the beginning of many firsts for Simpson as she cleared the path for other women to succeed in the legal and political fields.  Simpson went on to become the first female attorney for the Board of County Commissioners in Montgomery County in 1938, first woman to serve on the Maryland Industrial Accident Commission from 1940-1947, and first female president of the Bar Association of Montgomery County in 1949 at a time when women held a mere five of eighty-two memberships.

Vivian V. Simpson, Maryland's first woman Secretary of State, shown with Governor William Preston Lane, Jr., in his office at the State House, Annapolis.  The package of letters he is handing her contain messages to the speakers at the opening of the state legislature.  January 10, 1950.  Peerless Collection.

Vivian V. Simpson, Maryland’s first woman Secretary of State, shown with Governor William Preston Lane, Jr., in his office at the State House, Annapolis. The package of letters he is handing her contain messages to the speakers at the opening of the state legislature. January 10, 1950. Peerless Collection.

In 1949, Simpson was appointed by the governor of Maryland as the first female Secretary of State of Maryland.  When Maryland Governor William Preston Lane, Jr. appointed Simpson as the fifty-third Secretary of State, the Montgomery County Courts declared a one-day holiday for Simpson’s swearing-in ceremonies by assigning no cases for that day.  Moreover, it would be over thirty years before Maryland would have a second woman Secretary and Maryland has only four female Secretaries thus far out of seventy.

Vivian Simpson’s second office was in the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department on Perry Street.  Constructed in 1925, the Fire Department outgrew the two-story facility by the 1960s.  When the fire department moved to a new building on Hungerford Drive in 1966, Simpson moved to the newly built and imposing Suburban Trust building.  Eventually, the fire station was razed during urban renewal. Peerless Collection.

Vivian Simpson’s second office was in the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department on Perry Street. Constructed in 1925, the Fire Department outgrew the two-story facility by the 1960s. When the fire department moved to a new building on Hungerford Drive in 1966, Simpson moved to the newly built and imposing Suburban Trust building. Eventually, the fire station was razed during urban renewal. Peerless Collection.

When Vivian and her younger brother Joseph Simpson Jr., who was also a lawyer, were displaced from their office on Perry Street (now demolished) in the 1960s, Vivian was at the height of her career.[2]  “Simpson and Simpson” moved their law firm to the top floor of the newly built Suburban Trust building and hired architect John H. Sullivan, Jr. to design their corner office suite.  For Vivian and her brother, “It was a big deal to move into the Suburban Trust building.  The building was modern, fancy, and bigger than their previous office above the fire station.  It meant they were moving up. . . . They were proud to be in the building.”[3]   The Simpsons’ choice to relocate in the Suburban Trust building clearly demonstrated Vivian’s status as a successful lawyer and member of the community.

Even after Joseph Simpson died in 1976, Vivian continued to practice law in the Suburban Trust building until her retirement in 1980.  The countless awards and honors she received throughout her career and posthumously include Vice-Chair of the Commission to Study Workman’s Compensation Laws of Maryland (1948); George Washington School of Law Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award (1950); Vice-President of the Maryland State Bar Association (1958-59); member of the Judicial Appointments Committee (1975-1977); member of the American Bar Association and the American Judicature Society; and George Washington Law Association Professional Achievement Award (1979).  She was also named posthumously one of twenty “Lawyers of the Century” by the Montgomery County Bar Association (1999) and inducted into Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame (2004).  Her former law partner and successor, John Noble occupied the office suite leaving Vivian’s office intact in honor of her memory until he moved out in May 2006.

When Simpson and Simpson had to move their law firm in the 1960s, they selected the newest modern building in Rockville, the Suburban Trust building.  Clearly, the move to this building and the top floor demonstrated Vivian’s status as a successful lawyer and member of the community.  Peerless Collection.

When Simpson and Simpson had to move their law firm in the 1960s, they selected the newest modern building in Rockville, the Suburban Trust building. Clearly, the move to this building and the top floor demonstrated Vivian’s status as a successful lawyer and member of the community. Peerless Collection.

Vivian V. Simpson’s influential career spanned much of the twentieth century.  Her story overcoming gender barriers in law and politics is all the more important when women’s history is significantly underrepresented not only in American history books but also historic places.  Fewer than five percent of all National Historic Landmarks in this country are dedicated to women.  Recognizing that the National Historic Landmarks Program needs to be more inclusive, the National Park Service developed and implemented the Women’s History Heritage Initiative in May 2011 to ensure women’s stories are told.  Documentation, preservation, and protection of the Suburban Trust building is an excellent example of women’s history because of its association with Simpson and her unique place in the history of Rockville, Montgomery County, and the State of Maryland.  This is where she had her law practice for over a decade and was highly regarded and admired by judges, lawyers, court personnel, clients, and the community at large.  Vivian V. Simpson needs to be honored and what better place than where she worked—the Suburban Trust building.

 


[1] Simpson was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar without examination following admittance to the Maryland Bar because of her high scholarship.
[2] Joseph B. Simpson joined his sister in 1934 and the law firm of Simpson and Simpson was born.
[3] Phone interview with Christine Simpson, daughter of Joseph B. Simpson, Jr. and niece of Vivian V. Simpson, May 2, 2013.