The Life and Legacy of Norma Karaian First U.S.-born female attorney of Armenian descent
March is Women’s History Month and, in the midst of widening recognitions of and appreciations for female leaders and laywomen alike who have strived and sacrificed for equality, we highlight the achievements of one of our own.
Norma M. Karaian (née Yaghnor Maksoodian), who lived to 100 years old, has the singular distinction of having been the first native-born female attorney of Armenian descent in the United States. Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1904, her birth name, “Yaghnor,” was transposed to “Norma,” with this Americanized version both retaining the original Armenian suffix “nor” and contemporizing her new name to tap into the great popularity of silent film star and cultural idol, Norma Talmadge.
Armenian Bar Association Chairwoman Lucy Varpetian commented, “We fondly remember Norma Karaian because she was an inspirational female pioneer in the field of law and because
the Armenian Bar had the privilege in 1994 of awarding her with an Honorary Membership.”
Continuing, Varpetian reflected, “We also remember Norma Karaian for another reason. We remember her because she exemplifies the enduring heroism of the Armenian woman who, in response to life’s gravest challenges and with hardly a nod of recognition, resurrected family and kept faith after Genocide, after displacement from and dispossession of our homeland, after devastating earthquake, after mass emigrations, and now, too, after this most horrible aggression of Azerbaijan against the Armenians of Artsakh.”
Like so many children of the first-generation of Armenians in America, and indeed of other immigrant communities in a new land, the necessity to work began early in life for Karaian. It was at the tender age of 8 that she learned to operate the cash register at her father’s store. The youngest of five children, she had plans to become a teacher, but instead decided to become a lawyer. In 1925, at 20 years old, she graduated from Boston University School of Law as one of 12 women graduates among 200 men. Karaian’s precociousness didn’t come without its cost as she had to wait a year to take the Massachusetts bar exam which required applicants to be the minimum age of 21.
When she set out on her legal career, Karaian initially aimed to become a litigator, but women were not encouraged, and in fact sometimes ridiculed, to be trial attorneys at that time. Instead, she focused on real estate matters. In 1937, she married Leo J. Karaian, an organic chemist, and in 1941 left practice to raise her children. Sadly, in 1951, her husband passed away, leaving her with three young children. She returned to work at first for the law firm of Hoag & Sullivan, then the law firm of Rackemann Sawyer & Brewster, but always put her children first. In 1972, she moved to Gaston & Snow, where she was considered the “Dean of Real Estate Law” and was honored with a plaque at the entrance of the real estate law department. She remained at Gaston & Snow until that firm closed in 1991. She was 88 when she stopped working.
George Dallas, who worked with Karaian at Gaston & Snow, said he remembers her telling stories about how her mother and brother escaped from their village during the Genocide, and how she always took an interest in teaching the young lawyers who cycled through the office. Norma’s mother dressed her two sons as girls to escape the genocide taking place in her village and fled to her aunt’s home in Mezireh (near Kharpert/Harput). The wealthy villagers of Mezireh were able to bribe the Turkish authorities from attacking the Armenians.
“I think the wealth of her life experience and her gumption are just wonderful examples, because I’m sure when she started out practices and the discrimination against women lawyers and women in the workplace was formidable and she rose above all that, found her niche and practiced law,” Dallas said.
Karaian was active in the legal community and chaired the Massachusetts Association of Women Lawyers in 1954. She was the recipient of several awards and honors in her lifetime, including recognition from the Boston Bar Association and the Massachusetts Bar Association and a 1993-94 Leading Women’s Award from the Patriots Trails Council of the Girls Scouts. She was appointed to the Governor’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Board where she served until her death.