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Felice Cohn

At a glance:

Born: May 14, 1878
Died: May 24, 1961
Race/nationality/ethnic background: Jewish
Primary city and county of residence and work: Carson City (Ormsby), Goldfield (Esmeralda Co.), Reno (Washoe)
Major fields of work: law, politics (political activist, federal appointee, advocate of children's and women's issues)
Other role identities: education (teacher), woman's club leader

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Biography: Cohn image

 

Felice Cohn was born May 14, 1878, in Carson City, Nevada, to Morris and Pauline Sheyer Cohn.  Her grandfather was Rabbi Sheyer in Carson City.  Morris, a merchant and land owner, established a creamery and introduced the raising of alfalfa in Ormsby County (now Carson City).  Felice grew up with one brother and three sisters and attended school  in Carson City.  She was an exceptional student, and included in her records are three teaching certificates dating from 1894 to 1903.  An amusing account describes “this slip of a girl being sent to a remote school where she was frequently picked up by her students and tossed around.”  She didn’t last long in the teaching profession.  Her parents were convinced she should be allowed to attend the university, which is what she wanted to do all along.

Felice enrolled at the University of Nevada in Reno for a year and then went to Stanford University.  She attended Stanford during the years 1895-96 and 1896-97, but did not graduate.  She studied law for several years and in 1902 she was admitted to the bar through the U.S. District Court, Ninth District, in Carson City.  She also worked as a court reporter and shared a Carson City office with Samuel Platt who was appointed U.S. Attorney for Nevada in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Felice’s first cases were focused on land issues, patenting mining claims, and other mining matters.  She practiced in both Goldfield and Carson City.  The Federal government employed Miss Cohn as assistant superintendent of public sales of land.  She traveled all over Nevada, Montana, Colorado, and other western states in the performance of these duties.  Working in this capacity, she recognized women and the work they were doing as public officials and as homesteaders.  In May, 1908, she was admitted to the District Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

An interesting description of Felice is provided in the Goldfield News of August 15, 1907.  Not only does this present a physical description of her, but also indicates something about the prevailing attitude toward women in this profession.  The article states,

“……Miss Cohn is a slender woman of average height, with dark hair and liquid
black eyes which flash with interest as she talks.  There is nothing about her appearance or manner to suggest that she is at all masculine nor does her simple
white costume have anything about it to suggest that she has ceased to be a
woman in becoming a lawyer.  Her voice is well modulated and pleasing, and
she speaks with a pleasing simplicity and directness.  She would not be noticeable
for any peculiarity that would suggest that she was other than a well reared woman of refined tastes…”

Vitally interested in the welfare of women, Felice Cohn became involved in suffrage rights for women in 1911.  She was one of the founding members of the State Equal Franchise Society and chaired the legislative committee during the 1911 legislative session, lobbying effectively during that time to see the successful passage of the resolution she had drafted:  “There shall be no denial of the elective franchise at any election on account of sex.”  People were amazed at the ease with which the resolution was passed, due in part to her efforts.  Though the resolution passed in 1911, there was still a lot of work to be done by many women before it would be passed in 1913 and placed on the Nevada ballot for final passage.  Felice Cohn and Anne Martin disagreed on how to accomplish this work, Anne being more militant than Felice.  Both were very visible in Nevada and in Washington, D.C. as the campaign heated up.  In a national magazine called Leslie’s Weekly in July 31, 1913, an article stated, “…and like the great majority of woman suffragists in this country, (Felice Cohn) does not believe in militant methods.”

It is important to note that we are not talking guns and aggression here; we are talking about pushing for a Federal amendment with parades and demonstrations, etc.  In 1916 Felice was involved in chartering a Non-Militant Equal Suffrage Society and the Nevada Voter’s Club, both with members numbering in the hundreds.

In February 1916, Felice went to Washington, D.C. to do some work related to land issues for the Department of Interior.  She stayed, however, for a March ceremony where she was admitted to practice law before the Supreme Court, the fourth woman in the nation to be given that privilege.  From March through May there were numerous newspaper accounts of her in Washington, D.C. and New York.  Various letters, invitations, newspaper clippings, etc. indicate that this woman, for all her accomplishments, also worried about what she wore, enjoyed dancing, and was impressed with meeting the President.  She was honored by a reception given by Vice-President Marshall and his wife, was the houseguest of Mr. and Mrs. Clay Tallman, the Commissioner of the General Land Office, and was honored to have a seat in the reserved section of the Congressional Gallery during her visit.

Nevada’s Senator, Kay Pittman, had introduced more than two thousand land bills in Congress during his tenure, with only fifty failing to pass, and the Pittman Land Bill became a leading issue of his campaign for re-election in 1916.  Felice Cohn agreed to speak on the measure to explain its content and effect in Yerington on November 15, 1916.  It was quite the social occasion.  Following this, she returned to Washington, D.C. to appear before the Department of the Interior on several land matters.  She was becoming well known in powerful political circles in both the East and the West.  In 1918, Cohn was appointed as hearings attorney for the U.S. Land Office, again a first for a woman.  In this capacity, she worked with several Western states in selling lands at auctions.  She had supervision of the United States land grant sales in Oregon during the opening of the Oregon and California Railroad in 1918.

In 1922, Felice opened a law office in Reno and in 1926 was appointed U.S. Referee in Bankruptcy for the District of Nevada, an unsolicited honor, where she served three terms.  During her terms she had an outstanding record of having her decisions reversed only twice.  Then she became involved in the notorious “Owl Drug Case” when the Owl Drug Story Company voluntarily declared bankruptcy.  She was not reappointed when her term expired in 1934 (she refused to testify in the Owl Bankruptcy).  Almost simultaneously with the appointment of a new Referee, Reno attorney George S. Green, Jr., Cohn received word of her appointment as National Chairman of the Committee on Ethics of the National Association of Referees in Bankruptcy.

A substantial portion of Cohn’s private law practice involved divorces, but she also worked with child labor issues, foster homes, adoption, and other legislative issues adversely affecting women and children.  She was quite outspoken nationally about the divorce laws in Nevada and staunchly supported them.  She said in a speech in New York, “Nevada has been criticized for her divorce laws, but it is due almost entirely to the need of relief by the citizens of other states that we find ourselves the ‘cure’ center of the world… They came to Nevada because the laws of their own states afforded no avenue of escape from an intolerable condition, brought about most often by incompatibility and nothing more.”  At that time, different states had different divorce laws and one could be married in one state, become divorced/single in another, and be committing bigamy in a third.  Her law offices were in the Mapes Building in Reno and her residence in Reno was at 118 West Street.

Cohn ran for public office several times.  She was a candidate on the Democratic ticket for State Assembly in 1924, for Reno City Attorney in 1927, and ran against the well-known and very popular District Judge John S. Belford in 1952, but was unsuccessful each time.

Another substantial involvement for Felice was with the American Red Cross effort during the war.  She was one of the founders of the Nevada Federation of Business and Professional Womens’ Clubs, and its first President in 1929.  She obtained a $15,000 grant from the legislature to establish a permanent home for the Nevada Historical Society.  She was active in the Nevada Federation of Women’s Clubs, National Association of Women Lawyers, the American Women’s Voluntary Services, the Reno YWCA, and the Nevada and California Bar Association.  She was also involved in the B’nai B’rith organization for many years and was certified as president of B’nai B’rith Nevada Auxiliary #9 on March 12, 1941.

Felice Cohn died in Reno on May 24, 1961.  The evidence shows that she was consistently involved in the legal profession as a persistent and quiet voice shaping and supporting issues to better the quality of life for women and children in Nevada.  She demonstrated a certainly that women have a role in whatever fields of endeavor they wish to pursue and a belief that opportunities would only grow in the future.

Biographical sketch by Jean Ford from research papers by Janet White and Janet Wright.  Revised by Kay Sanders, April 2008.

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Published Works: 

Cohn, Felice. "Women of Nevada Interested In Politics." In Benheim, Max. Women of the West. Los Angeles: Publisher's Press, 1928.

Sources of Information:

Article in Goldfield News, August 15, 1907.

Article in Leslie’s Weekly, July 31, 1913.

Felice Cohn Papers, 1884-1961, Nevada Historical Society, Reno, NV

Reinhart, Edgar, Jr., “A Nevada Woman Chooses Law As a Profession”,  Elko Independent, March 11, 1932.

Rocha, Guy and Marschall, John, “Dispelling Myths of State’s First Native Female Lawyer”, Reno Gazette Journal, p. 4B, April 6, 2008.

White, Janet, Unpublished research paper, 1995.

Wright, Janet, Unpublished research paper, 1996.

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