Eleonora Burke was 18 years old when she started driving her Model A Ford into Boston to study law at Portia Law School. It was 1931, and Portia — which opened in 1908 and is now New England Law — would remain an exclusively women’s law school for another eight years. Women had earned the right to vote just 11 years earlier.
Burke, then Eleonora Fantony, had wanted to be a teacher, but her father, an Italian immigrant who ran an auto repair shop in the suburbs, was against it and urged her to go into either science or the law instead. She followed his advice, enrolled in Portia and enjoyed the mentorship of a third-year student, Anna Bowers.
“She taught me everything I could learn,” said Burke, who turned her education into a 50-year legal career. “I always had a feeling that more than half of the women were taking classes because they were working for lawyers and they just wanted to increase their knowledge, not take the bar exam. There were some women who never intended to practice.”
Upon graduating in 1935, Burke was thrilled to receive her first job offer. “When I got out of law school and went to a very prestigious law firm, they said, ‘Yes, we’ll give you a job as a receptionist,’” she recalled. “I was excited when that law firm offered me that job, but my father said, ‘No way.’”
She followed her father’s advice again and opened a general practice in Framingham, handling a lot of wills, trusts and real estate transactions. A few of the women in the class ahead of her had started their own offices, she said, “and they seemed to be pretty happy.”
Burke said she was received warmly by the town, and, after a year in private practice, she was appointed town counsel. “I enjoyed that and I was very proud of that,” she said. Burke said she was never treated differently because she was a woman. “I was determined to be successful at it. I acted like anybody else and I was never treated differently,” she said. “I had a pretty good life. It was a simple one. I never did anything spectacular.”
The one accomplishment she’s most proud of, however, did have an impact. She worked with a group of women in Newton whose special needs children weren’t being educated properly, so she lobbied to get a special needs law passed in 1975 that required cities and towns to either pay the additional costs for educating the students or pay the cost of sending them to special needs schools.
“It was painful to see those parents so upset,” she said. After helping push the legislation through, she tried about 15 cases — many of them pro bono — forcing communities to enforce the new law. “That pleased me, and I feel that’s where I did a lot of good.”
After participating as a guest of honor at New England Law’s centennial celebration events this year and last, Burke, who recently turned 96, reflected on the advances made during her lifetime. Women are still facing challenges, like achieving partner, she said, but she thinks women have done “a marvelous job” overall.
“It shows what progress women have made,” she said. “It’s unbelievable, but it took a lot of time. It wasn’t easy. But now we’ve got remarkable women on the bench and remarkable women everywhere. I had it easier than a lot of women, I think.”