M. Virginia (Morrissey) McDermott
M. Virginia (Morrissey) McDermott grew up on Warner Street on the Somerville- Medford line, and later moved across town to Wolcott Park in Medford. Although her homes were less than two miles apart, she traveled a considerable distance in her life. A pioneering lawyer, businesswoman and activist for women’s equality, she was 103 when she died on October 1, 2020.
She was born on Sept. 4, 1917 in St Clement’s Parish and was a hard worker and good student from her earliest days. She excelled at school, studied ballet, took piano lessons, and was an avid reader, a habit she sustained throughout her life as her book-filled house could attest. She joined a bi-monthly book group in high school that continued meeting for more than 30 years. She also developed an interest in the Red Sox and became a lifelong fan.
She graduated second in her class from St. Clement High School, and after deciding she wanted to become a lawyer, enrolled in Portia Law School for Women (now the New England School of Law). Her list of activities took up considerable space in her yearbook and included serving as editor of the yearbook, editor of the school newspaper, secretary of the Law Club Council, member of the class executive committee, president of the Portia Players, dean of Iota Tau Tau literature honor society, supervisor of the James Beck Law Club, and co-chair of the Sophomore Hop. She joined the Newspaper Guild union while working in the advertising department of the Herald Traveler (later the Boston Herald) and became its first female secretary. She also served as treasurer and then president of the Newman Club, the Catholic campus ministry centers at secular universities. She maintained her involvement after graduation and eventually rose to become president of the national organization. Many of the people she met during her Newman Club activity in the 1930s became lifelong friends, as did their children and grandchildren. She attended their graduations and weddings, celebrated with them regularly, hired them to work in her office, and bought whatever they were selling, from Girl Scout cookies to candy bars to expensive knives.
She graduated second in her class from Portia Law in 1939 and after passing the bar—she scored high enough on the written portion that she was not required to take the oral exam—she went to work at Herrick, Smith, Donald, Farley, & Ketchum, the first woman lawyer they ever hired. She later worked with Curry, Mowles, & Murdock, an all-women law firm started by 3 Portia Law School graduates from the class of 1930. She specialized in tax and real estate law, trusts, and wills, and later opened her own firm while also running her aunt’s silver distribution business, K. A. Murphy Company, for several years. Several of her nieces and nephews, along with her Newman Club friend’s children, got their first jobs helping out in Virginia’s office.
A fierce advocate for the empowerment of women, she was very active in the Massachusetts Federation of Business and Professional Women (BPW), rising through the organization to become its president. Determined to have an even greater reach and inspire women throughout the country, she was elected nominating committee chairman for the National Federation. A regularly featured speaker at local chapter meetings and conventions, she always urged the “sisterhood” to become involved in civic, economic, and community affairs. She was deeply concerned about the low numbers of women in representative roles in the Senate and House at both the state and national levels. “If we improve the status of women, we improve the status of the nation,” she often told her audiences.
She chaired the committee that worked to establish the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women and chaired the 1965 Washington workshop of all the governors commissions on civil and political rights. A member of the American, Massachusetts and Boston Bar Associations, and the International, National and Massachusetts Associations of Women Lawyers, she was named Boston’s Woman of the Year in 1965.
In 1969 she married James McDermott, who’d been courting her for decades. They both had been caring for their elderly parents which is why they waited so long to marry. Jimmy was the sales representative for the Pepsi Cola company and knew every bar, speakeasy, and restaurant in the Boston area. He also knew all the roads in and around Boston and could work his way around traffic when he picked her up after work. (He was well thought of by the company and famously was commissioned to pick up Joan Crawford at the airport when she joined the board of directors after the death of Pepsi's president Al Steele). Jimmy was Virginia’s biggest supporter and championed her work. Together they made an indomitable pair; they travelled extensively, loved to dance, followed the Red Sox together and enjoyed socializing with their many generations of friends.
A stylish and elegant woman, always beautifully coiffed and barely 5 feet tall even in her ever-present heels, Virginia was loyal to her friends, fully committed to her clients, and a fierce defender of rights. People who didn’t know her sometimes made the mistake of underestimating her when they first met. Occasionally it was another lawyer, or a representative from one of the flatware companies, and once it was an emergency room doctor who insisted she needed to have her hair cut so he could stitch up the head wound she got after falling down her front steps when she was in her 80s. He dueled with her to no avail. She won that battle, as she did so many others.
In the early 1990s, she moved her office to Davis Square to be closer to home when Jimmy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. After he died in 1998, she set up a home office, and continued working despite slowly losing her sight to macular degeneration. She cut back her work schedule but still kept a few clients into her 90s.
She was predeceased by her parents, John Morrissey and Anastasia Murphy Morrissey,
her husband James McDermott, and her brother John Morrissey. She is survived by her nieces and nephews Fr. Chris McDermott and Susan McDermott, Kevin, Thomas, Christopher, Martin and Robert Morrissey, Joyce McKenna and Margaret Dowd.
Her Funeral Mass will be celebrated in St. Joseph Church, 118 High Street, Medford on Monday, October 5, 2020, at 12:30 PM. Relatives and friends are most welcome to attend. Visitation will be held in the Beals-Geake-Magliozzi Funeral Home, 29 Governors Avenue, Medford on Monday, prior to the mass, from 10 to Noon. Interment will be held in the Oak Grove Cemetery in Medford. Donations in Virginia's memory may be made to the Greater Medford VNA, 278 Mystic Avenue, Suite 204, Medford, MA 02155. For additional information, please visit, www.magliozzifuneralhome.com.